More than Belief: An Interview with Manuel A. Vásquez (Part 1)

Manuel A. Vásquez is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida and author and editor of several books, including the award-winning The Brazilian Popular Church and the Crisis of Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 1998), Globalizing the Sacred (with Marie F. Marquardt; Rutgers University Press, 2003), and Living “Illegal”: The Human Face of Unauthorized Immigration (with Philip J. Williams and Timothy J. Steigenga; forthcoming with New Press). I recently interviewed Professor Vásquez about his new book, More than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2010).

More than Belief is very much a “theory” book, as it provides a comprehensive introduction to modern and postmodern theories (feminist, anthropological, sociological, philosophical, psychological, neuroscientific, etc.) relevant to the study of that thing we call “religion.” Along the way Vásquez criticizes each theory considered, selects the best elements of each that he finds worth saving, and synthesizes the useful remainders into his own general theory of religion. What was astonishing to me about the book was the scope: Vásquez moves from the mind/body problem in Plato and Descartes to the rejection of dualism by Spinoza and Nietzsche, to the origins of phenomenology in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, to social constructionism in Foucault and Butler, to Deleuze and Haraway, to cognitive science of religion, and so forth (this list includes highlights from only the first half of the book—I wasn’t joking when I said “comprehensive”!). Vásquez ends up arriving at a naturalist but non-reductive materialist theory that emphasizes embodiment, practice, and global social networks.

I asked Professor Vásquez about what prompted the book, how he teaches this material, pressed some critical questions about it, and got some great answers. I hope readers will enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

Craig Martin: You hint in the book that this started out as one project but became something else along the way; the end product is apparently intended in part as an introductory theory text for graduate students. Can you say more about the origins and transformation of this project?

Manuel Vásquez: Yes, I first envisioned a book that would be a complement to Daniel Pals’ very useful Eight Theories of Religion, mapping out in broad strokes the contemporary terrain in method and theory. I wanted to provide graduate students an accessible and comprehensive overview of post-modernism, post-structuralism, post-colonial, globalization, and feminist theories, and recent trends in cultural studies, as well as an assessment of the impact the new approaches have had in the field of religion. For example, the book would deal with debates about the origin, development, and present status of the category of religion, the spatial turn, the renewed emphasis on the body and performance, emerging trends in the study of religion and computer- mediated communications, etc. As I began to write the book, I realized that it would be impossible to cover all these topics adequately without a sustained exploration of the epistemological and methodological shifts that ushered in these various approaches. I felt that it would be a disservice to my students not to discuss the “founding fathers,” or classics such as Gerardus van der Leeuw, Rudolph Otto, or Mircea Eliade, for then students would not get a sense of the continuities, ruptures, tensions, contingencies, and contestations that have marked the study of religion. And once I started writing about van der Leeuw, Otto, and Eliade, I felt the need to locate them in their proper historical and intellectual contexts, meaning that I would have to go back to Heidegger, Husserl, Hegel, and even Kant to reconstruct the genealogy of phenomenology and how the early religion scholars borrowed from these philosophers in problematic ways. The more I sought to embed contemporary discussions in the history of the production of knowledge, the more it became apparent that either I had to write a multi-volume work or that I had to restrict my field of inquiry to a couple of salient topics.

Thus, I ended up with the focus on embodiment, practice, and emplacement/mobility. These saliences were fore-grounded by my work on Latin American and Latino/a religions, and more generally on the interplay between religion, globalization, and transnational immigration. By focusing on these saliences, I lost some the panoramic view but gained the ability to show how durable aporias in Western thinking have shaped the traditional ways in which we look at religion—through all sorts of intractable dualism, such as spirit-matter, mind-body, transcendence-immanence, culture-nature, holism-individualism, etc. I could also show how many contemporary theories struggle with and seek to overcome these aporias. And that is when the project became more than a careful reconstruction of the history of regimes of knowledge about religion, to draw from Foucault. I also proposed a new non-reductive materialist framework to study religion.

CM: Have you used the manuscript or the published book in your courses yet? How has it gone? What are the students most receptive to? Least receptive?

MV: As I hint at in the introduction, many of the questions that inspired the book came from a graduate seminar on material religion. As I wrote various chapters, I used them as supplementary reading for Method and Theory II. Since this kind of intervention is power-laden (students are a bit reticent to criticize their teacher for obvious reasons), it is hard to have a full sense of the book’s classroom reception. However, students seem to be most receptive to my attempt to synthesize various research programmes in the study of religion, showing the intellectual and historical interconnections in an accessible manner. Some students, who are not particularly fond of theory, have told me that when reading the book they feel a bit like Alice falling down a rabbit hole. I take that as a compliment.

CM: What struck me as most amazing about this book is its scope—this book covers an amazing amount of territory! What accounts for your exposure to such a broad swath of theory? Did you read much of it in grad school? Did you come into theory after grad school? Why are you so attracted to theory?

MV: In many ways, the origins of this book go back to my years in high school in El Salvador under the Jesuits. Responding to the Second Vatican Council’s call to be attentive to “the signs of the times,” they had introduced critical theory, particularly a Marxism along the lines of early Marx, Antonio Gramsci, and the Frankfurt School, to try to make sense of the role of the church in a society that was characterized by deep social inequality, political repression, and grassroots resistance. As young Salvadorans influenced by liberation theology, we felt that we were making history, that our theorizing was transgressive, a way to imagine a new, more egalitarian society.

Today, I am far more skeptical that theory can solve all social problems. Although some of my Jesuit teachers were killed by the military during the Salvadoran civil war precisely because of their ideas, I am keenly aware that there is always a painful gap between theory and practice (even when theorizing is a form of practice). Moreover, I do not see the theorist as some sort of Sartrean emancipatory hero, always choosing freedom over bad faith. As Bourdieu tells us, being an authoritative theorist requires a habitus, a habitus that is formed by one’s privileged trajectory in the fields of knowledge production. Still, I do theory as a critical engagement with particular problems or impasses. I agree with Foucault that theory should be driven by a “limit-attitude,” a situated “permanent critique of ourselves.” It should grow out of “our impatience for liberty.” As such, theory should be a passionate endeavor “oriented toward the ‘contemporary limits of the necessary,’ that is, toward what is not or is no longer indispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects.” This normative stance, which implies that theory should be useful not just in academia, but, to the extent possible, to our being-in-the-world, is a corollary of a materialist epistemology that stresses immanent becoming.

Ever since the Jesuits ignited this passion for critical thinking, I have been reading theory, even through my undergraduate years when I was a studying pre-med biology. I remember that my favorite classes were those in theology, philosophy, and social theory. In fact, that is how I ended up pursuing a PhD in religion at Temple University, where I took plenty of courses in social and anthropological theory, continental philosophy, and the philosophy of the social sciences. Applying a convenient 20/20 vision, I would claim that this book has been many years in the making, even though I worked on it for three years.

(This is part 1 of 3—look for the other two parts later this week.)

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3 Responses to More than Belief: An Interview with Manuel A. Vásquez (Part 1)

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