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Theory in Distress? On Being ‘Critical’ with Everything

In: Method & Theory in the Study of Religion
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  • 1 Department of Religious Studies, University of Vienna
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Abstract

‘Religion’ is often, if not always, deemed a rather problematic category by critical theorists, who urge scholars to be more attentive to the genealogy and history of the category. As part of the review symposium of Theory in a Time of Excess (2016), this review essay argues that ‘theory’ itself could be deemed problematic if we wish to be consistent in adopting such a critical stance, which can lead to several dead-ends when excluding other theoretical options and possibilities.

Abstract

‘Religion’ is often, if not always, deemed a rather problematic category by critical theorists, who urge scholars to be more attentive to the genealogy and history of the category. As part of the review symposium of Theory in a Time of Excess (2016), this review essay argues that ‘theory’ itself could be deemed problematic if we wish to be consistent in adopting such a critical stance, which can lead to several dead-ends when excluding other theoretical options and possibilities.

Ever since its inception, the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) has prided itself on focusing in a non-confessional, scientific, and theoretically and methodologically pluralistic approach to the phenomenon of ‘religion.’ Its alter ego within the North American context, the American Academy of Religion (AAR), more often than not—at least as the main themes of the latest AAR annual meetings clearly indicate—keep subscribing to a sui generis understanding of religion, linking it to a broader humanism reminiscent of the crypto-theological phenomenology of previous decades. Having now entered its fortieth year, NAASR has been functioning as a distinctive scholarly collective voice, promoting a rather different approach to the academic study of religion. In many respects, the volume at hand constitutes this ‘new turn’ that NAASR is taking, a turn that has obvious merits but, also, as I will argue, some pitfalls.

The volume opens with Aaron Hughes’ introduction (1-10), who apart from being the editor of this volume is also the co-editor of NAASR’s academic periodical Method & Theory in the Study of Religion and was Vice-President of the association at the time of writing. Hughes sets the scene to the reader by concisely and clearly explaining the impetus behind this volume; in a few words: nowadays, almost everyone working in the field claims to be doing theory, whereas what one virtually encounters is but a field that is not “critical, self-reflexive, interested in the genealogy of the terms, and engaged in the analysis of social actors and social facts” (1). Moreover, Hughes rightly points out that theorists are often accused of not being able to read the material under examination in their original language (i.e., source problem) and of not knowing particular traditions (i.e., specialization problem) (3). For Hughes, theory means ‘critical theory,’ that is, “engaged in the systematic rethinking (i.e., theorization) of an object of study—in our case ‘religion’—as opposed to its further reification” (2). Hughes’ call for such a critical approach as the appropriate way to do theory is, more or less, espoused by the vast majority (but not all) of the contributors in this volume.

After a reprint of Martin Luther and Donald Wiebe’s piece on the twenty years of the establishment of NAASR (both being, with E. Thomas Lawson, the founders of the association) (13-18), the volume continues with a very interesting and highly profitable set of papers and responses: four main topics (by scholars working in history of religions, literary theory, cognitive science, and philosophy), each receiving a number of responses followed by the replies of the main authors.

I find all papers very interesting and thought-provoking. Many authors endorse the ‘critical theorizing’ promoted here and seem to be supporting the postmodernist view that is apparently the most cherished one as it becomes obvious in Hughes’ introduction and Russell McCutcheon’s afterword (191-202); however, I remain skeptical of such a one-sided approach. Both Hughes and McCutcheon argue, inter alia, about the need for scholars of religion to be interested in the genealogy of their terms (1) and to historicize the category religion (195)—both ‘deriderata’ of such ‘critical theorizing’ and lying at the very crux of theorizing about religion. Being myself a student of dead religions (particularly, of Greek and Roman antiquity), I am intrigued by such an exercise, although I do have my reservations. For example, the two major recent publications on this (see Nongbri 2013; Barton & Boyarin 2016) have received a lot of praise by scholars sharing the importance of such an exercise. Although I have my objections (see Roubekas 2017), I would like in the remaining of this review to apply this exercise to the very term highlighted in the title of this volume: ‘theory.’ This choice is twofold: First, I do think that theorists need and ought to be able to read their sources in their original language given that many of our categories are hardly modern—otherwise, mastering our categories seems to be a futile endeavor (if at all possible); second, it appears that most authors in the volume take theory to be different things. The latter, in my reading at least, differs little from the problem of defining or utilizing the category ‘religion’—an admittedly recognizable constant obstacle and focus of most theoretical attempts stemming from postmodernist camps. In this sense, I wish to succinctly turn my attention to a genealogy of ‘theory,’ in order to indicate that if we wish to be methodologically coherent, then hardly any category, noun, term, etc. that we utilize in the field is appropriate, innocent, or legitimate: not even ‘theory’ itself, which is so precious to, well … theorists.

In his brilliant study on the Greek terms theōriā and theōrōs—the terms from which we get the term ‘theory’—Ian Rutherford lists a series of meanings accompanying the terms within different ancient sources: observe/observer/observation; sightseer/sightseeing; travel on a voyage of exploration (a rather rare usage); a type of magistrate understood as an ‘overseer’ (primarily in Arcadia but also on the island of Thasos). As Rutherford argues, the common modern meaning of the term ‘theory’ derives from another attested meaning of theōriā, that of “ ‘philosophical contemplation’, an activity explicitly contrasted with action or practical reasoning” (Rutherford 2013: 6). However, since we are interested in the different meanings of our terms and how they are being used nowadays—thus, paying attention to ‘dangerous’ anachronisms and genealogies—Rutherford indicates that there exists yet another meaning of the term. He offers an extremely interesting citation from the ancient lexicographer Harpocration, who in his now fragmented Lexicon of the Ten Orators offers the following definition of the term theōrika:

The word theōroi [θεωροὶ] means not just spectators [θεαταὶ], but those sent to the gods [εἰς θεοὺς], and they generally apply this term to those who guard divine things [τὰ θεῖα φυλάτοντας] or care for them; for hōre [ὢρην] means ‘care’: ‘For there is little care for quarrels and assemblies’’ (Hesiod, Opera et Dies 30) (Rutherford 2013: 145 n. 15).

Utilized as such, the term is etymologically linked to the word θεὸς (theos, i.e. god) and thus the term theōriā constitutes a primarily religious term—at least if we go with a stipulative definition of religion as belief in gods. If we also recall that those delegations were sent by other cities to observe, participate, and honor the various religious rituals and festivals at a specific location, then one begins to have a broader picture of how the theōroi were conceived in antiquity. If, however, one is sceptical about Harpocration’s usage of the term—considering that he compiled his Lexicon in c. the second century CE—then a quick look at the usage of the term in classical antiquity indicates an essentially similar meaning in that period as well.

In an inscription from second century BCE Athens, the Athenians praised the Milesians who visited the city on a theōriā, because the leader of the embassy (archetheoros, i.e. chief-theōrōs) and his fellow theōroi showed εὐσέβεια [eusebeia], ἀρετή [virtue], and φιλοτιµία [dutifulness] towards the gods, the Demos of the city of Athens, and their own fatherland. Similarly, in an inscription from c. third century BCE, the Athenians praised the ambassadors sent from Priene (located in Ionia in modern day Turkey), because “they wished to increase the honors (τιµάς) being performed for the gods by the (Athenian) Demos” (both examples are drawn from Mikalson 2016: 25).

As one might be able to guess, what I want to argue here is that our modern term ‘theory’ does not really function as a better signifier to be used than the readily contested ‘religion.’ For example, as Brad Stoddard argues in the volume, “the word ‘religion’ is an empty or floating signifier, and … people use the word ‘religion’ as a generic term when they actually mean something much more specific” (118, citing Nongbri). When put in this manner, I have a difficulty coping with the call for taking ‘critical theory’ as the only appropriate way to do theory (as Hughes, Merinda Simmons, and many more in this volume argue). Because if this is the correct and only way to do theory, and in light of our cherished genealogies, then the term ‘theory’ itself is not such an ideal term to accompany the adjective ‘critical.’ Because from what derives from Harpocration and the aforementioned inscriptions, to do theory (or to be a theorist) is primarily to give the proper respect to gods. Should then one go on and argue that theorists working in religious studies are or ought to be religious themselves?

Although I would be interested to see what the very fact of sending ambassadors to another city in order to observe festivals dedicated to supernatural entities and actively participate to those festivities constitutes to many of the contributors to this volume—because, to me, having gods and festivals dedicated to those gods constitutes religion no matter what the counter-argument might be—I am also perplexed by the, more or less, hostile treatment of the cognitive science of religion (CSR) within this volume. Claire White’s paper (95-114), which is an excellent introduction to this subfield, only receives two responses. Brad Stoddard’s response (115-120) focuses on what it means for CSR that the Templeton Foundation has funded some but not many (as White correctly points out in her reply) projects related to CSR. Although I realize that Stoddard’s concern lies at the possibility that CSR aims at justifying and scientifically establishing religion as a human universal (not culturally, but cognitively, i.e. biologically)—although I do not see what is the ‘danger’ with such an assertion, if not accompanied by a call to believe in non-empirical entities or argue about their actual existence—White’s focus on the minimally counter-intuitive agents as central to all so-called religions is practically a definition of religion. And although Matt Sheedy, in his response (121-128), argues that we should not focus on “what religions are, but what they do and are made to do” (123), I get the feeling—if I read them correctly—that critical theory means doing our best to argue that we do not want definitions of religion in order to be able to argue that ‘religion’ is an empty signifier. I prefer, on the other hand, to be able to define what is it that we are talking about, rather than simply deconstructing my object in order to eventually cripple it. And since the ‘it’ in my previous phrase will automatically raise the question “What is ‘it’ in this respect?,” I am prepared to side with a clear stipulative definition of our data and categories (see, for example, Jensen 2014: 7-9)—something that I did not find in any of the papers in the volume at hand. On the contrary, most authors embrace the critical stance promoted without being willing to offer an alternative to the problem of definition.

This, I think, is even more apparent in Merinda Simmons’ paper and the response by Thomas J. Whitley (74-79). In a rather interesting way, Whitley asks “What happens when we move beyond Foucault?” (77)—and Bourdieu, I should add, since his name appears far more often in the volume than that of Foucault. This is a very significant question posed by Whitley, which, in my reading, goes beyond Simmons’ paper and is addressed to the wider ‘critical theory-only’ approach to religion. Unfortunately, Simmons does not reply to his question. But I have a feeling that Whitley’s question is perhaps central (dare I say, critical?) to the overall argumentation and goal of this volume. The history of our field has clearly shown us that the German historical school gave its place to the phenomenologists, who in turn lost to the historico-comparativists and the advocates of the social scientific methods, who apparently seem to struggle against the postmodernists, who will most likely be replaced by … In other words, the ‘critical theory-only” dictum can hardly be pluralistic enough in my view in order to be able to account for such a multi-faceted, multi-layered, and historically rather complicated phenomenon as is ‘religion.’ Jason Blum’s (21-31) and Matthew Bagger’s (139-149) papers, on the other hand, point out exactly this, and they are quite severely criticized by their respective respondents. However, I side far more with Blum—and a tad less with Bagger—in their approaches to what it means to do theory, and I find their papers, along with White’s, extremely productive and representative of the richness of our field—rather than as indications of ‘bad theory’ or otherwise.

Allow me to return to my short history of the term ‘theory.’ If one takes Michael Altman’s response to Blum (32-36), when he argues that “[t]heory is how we decide what our object of study is … [that is, theory being the force that] guides the decision to pay attention to that person slitting he throat of a goat in one part of the world and not to my neighbor skinning a deer in Tuscaloosa, Alabama” (33), then an anticipated question arises: what makes slitting the throat of a goat important and skinning the deer mundane? Whether we like it or not, it is the perceived presence of something more than simply the person, the knife, and the animal according to the person who slits the throat of the goat. That ‘presence’ in the understanding of the slayer (and his audience, if any) is a supernatural, superhuman, or minimally counter-intuitive agent that assigns some meaning to the person performing the action and the people observing it (the theōroi). It is not ‘we,’ the scholars, that deem such actions ‘religious.’ They are ‘religious’ or ‘special’ (to recall Ann Taves’ term; Taves 2009) to the people performing them—and this is where Blum and I seem to be in agreement, although I agree with the problematic usage of ‘consciousness’ as his respondents rightly point out. The issue, however, is not whether the slitting of a goat’s throat really involves God(s) but whether the act is believed to do so. It surely does, and that is the difference between a religious and a nonreligious act.

In conclusion, I cannot single-handedly erase the meaning of an action to certain people in order to be ‘critical.’ Perhaps our category (‘religion’) is problematic, given its different and often contradicting utilizations, but this does not mean that we need to go as far as to argue that “[t]theorists of religion must let go of positivism and realism and they must embrace their construction of their own object of study” (Altman: 34). Because in the same manner, theorists of religion need to let go of their alleged ability to critically account about the world and embrace the idea that ‘theory,’ as my very brief genealogy of the term indicates and if we are consistent with and dedicated to our goals, is nothing but a religious exercise—at least according to the very people who created the term we chose to adopt. And if this sounds absurd—which, admittedly, it does!—then, I reckon, we should be more elastic and inclusive in our approaches and with our categories, at least if we wish to be able to communicate in a language that most people can follow.

References

  • Barton, Carlin A. & Daniel Boyarin (2016). Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities. New York: Fordham University Press.

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  • Jensen, Jeppe Sinding (2014). What is Religion? London and New York: Routledge.

  • Mikalson, Jon D. (2016). New Aspects of Religion in Ancient Athens: Honors, Authorities, Esthetics, and Society. Leiden and Boston, MA: Brill.

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  • Nongbri, Brent (2013). Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press.

  • Roubekas, Nickolas P. (2017). Review of Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyarin: Imagine No Religion. How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities. Critical Research on Religion 5 (2), pp. 217-221.

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  • Rutherford, Ian (2013). State Pilgrims and Sacred Observers in Ancient Greece: A Study of  Theōriā and Theōroi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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  • Taves, Ann (2009). Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

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