New Special Issue for the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture


Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture

Volume 8, Number 2 2014

Special Issue: Ecstatic Naturalism and Deep Pantheism


American Religious Empiricism and the Possibility of an Ecstatic Naturalist Process Metaphysics

Demian Wheeler

The most forceful critiques Robert Corrington mounts against Whiteheadianism target several problematic tendencies in the system of Whitehead, Hartshorne, and other leading Whiteheadian theologians rather than raze the entire legacy of process philosophy and theology. Actually, there is an alternate school of process philosophy and theology—the empiricist school—that embraces the broad contours of a processive and relational worldview while making many of the very same criticisms of Whitehead and his more rationalistic followers. But I argue an even bolder thesis: process empiricism shares enough in common with Corrington’s perspective to be ‘emancipatorily reenacted’ as an iteration of ecstatic naturalism, albeit a unique iteration. Collectively, the five American religious empiricists featured in this essay—Henry Nelson Wieman, Bernard Loomer, William Dean, Nancy Frankenberry, and Donald Crosby—open up a conceptual space within the Whiteheadian tradition for developing a kind of ecstatically inflected, ordinally chastened, and unequivocally naturalistic process metaphysics.

Naturalism and the Aesthetic Character of Religion: The Eclipse of the Absolute in the Experience of the Sacred

Martin O. Yalcin

I offer an aesthetic religious metaphysics from the perspective of naturalism as the most effective antidote to abjection within religion. I understand abjection within religious experience as the simultaneous desire to demonize nature and to idolize one’s conception of the sacred. My chief argument is that abjection occurs when the sacred is understood as being absolute. I trace the absolute character of the sacred to a metaphysics that insists on the utter incommensurability of the sacred with respect to nature. In contrast I defend a metaphysics that points to the radical indefiniteness and radical fecundity of nature as the reason why the sacred must be one of innumerable orders of nature. Once the sacred is leveled to the plane of nature, demonization and idolization are virtually foreclosed within religion because the sacred is now related and relative to other orders of nature.

Turbulent Memories: The Uneasy Artifacts of an Aesthetic Religion

Wade A. Mitchell

This article is concerned with addressing the tensions between art and religion. In arguing that this tension stems from the way memory processes work at the heart of both religion and aesthetics, I will draw Robert Corrington’s unique version of religious naturalism together with recent work done by art historian David Freedberg on the neuroscience of response to visual art. When properly framed by philosopher of religion Loyal Rue, these very different perspectives become highly complementary. By forging an interaction between them, I not only attempt to demonstrate how Corrington’s philosophical contextualization and Freedberg’s empathetic aesthetics mutually enhance one another, but I also hope to open up additional lines of inquiry about the role of memory within the problematic of art and religion, particularly for those seeking the interdisciplinary convergences between religion, aesthetics, science, and ethics.

The Man Who Walked Through Signs: Colin Fletcher, Robert S. Corrington, and the ‘Depth Dimension’ of Nature Naturing

Robert W. King

The concept of a depth dimension in nature is developed in Robert S. Corrington’s systematic extension of Peirce’s pragmatic metaphysics. To discern or experience the depth dimension of nature is to recognize the sublime power of nature naturing and of the powerful productivity of nature evidenced in its product, nature natured. The potency of nature naturing is evident, for example, in the geological formations of the Grand Canyon and in The Man Who Walked Through Time (1967), Colin Fletcher’s narration of a two-month solo trek into the depths of the Grand Canyon. In Corrington’s words, ‘A potency is an unconscious momentum within the heart of nature naturing that moves outward into the world of orders by ejecting some kind of orderly sign or system from its hidden depths’. Fletcher’s pilgrimage narrated a growing attunement to these ‘hidden depths’ and serves as an empirical, inductive account articulating the potencies of Ecstatic Naturalism.

Speculative Naturalism: A Bleak Theology In Light of the Tragic

Leon Jon Niemoczynski

Theological perspective upon the relationship between deity and creature may not be as radically open to a full range of possible value as has once been thought. If one is seeking a capacious view of deity, creatures, and nature, I contend that not only should one account for continuity, wholeness, healing, salvation, warmth, benevolence, and joy in one’s religious metaphysics, but also for discontinuity, difference, diremption, rupture, trauma, tragedy, melancholy, coldness, and the more somber tones of the divine life. My exploration of this darker side of religious naturalism, a ‘bleak theology’ or ‘speculative naturalism’, as I am calling it, begins by articulating its opposite in the axiologically positive evaluation of nature and deity found within the mainstream of American religious naturalism. I then offer some speculative theses from the bleak or speculative naturalist perspective and argue why this darker side of religious naturalism ought to be accounted for.

The articles described above are available for download here. Current and past issues of the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture are included in memberships to the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. The ISSRNC is a community of scholars engaged in critical, interdisciplinary inquiry into the relationships between human beliefs, practices and environments. Scholars interested in these relationships are cordially invited to join the society, attend its conferences, and submit work for possible publication in the journal. For more information see

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Religion Clichés: #1 and #2


by Tenzan Eaghll

In 1972 Ninian Smart published an article titled, “Comparative religion clichés: Crushing the clichés about comparative religion and then accentuating the positive value of the New Religious Education.” Smart’s goal was to debunk popular clichés in order to improve the study of religion. He argued that in order to extol the “positive qualities of the new religious education” these clichés had to be wiped out. In my next couple of blog postings I would like to both update Smart’s list of clichés and to challenge his essentialism. My updated list of clichés is not a further attempt to improve “religious education”—a phrase that is itself a cliché—but to expose the tired and fallacious phrases associated with religion.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word cliché has its origins in the 19th Century France, and refers to a “metal stereotype or electrotype block” used in printing. In its common use it means “a stereotyped expression, a hackneyed phrase or opinion,” and signifies that which is unoriginal, stereotyped, and overused. Many popular ideas about religion, in both academic and public discourse, are derived from clichés that should be avoided.

#1. Religion is the sacred

Let’s start with the easiest—a cliché that is the bane of many critical theorists—religion is the sacred. Though this cliché was popularized by scholars such as Mircea Eliade and Rudolf Otto it also has equivalents beyond the academy, such as the popular phrase, “I am spiritual but not religious.” The general assumption that underlies this expression is that behind all the historical context and particularity of the different religions lies a phenomenal encounter with a sacred presence. Introductory textbooks on the study of religion often do not help the matter and perpetuate this cliché unapologetically. For instance, in Theodore M. Ludwig’s The Sacred Paths, Understanding the Religions of the World4th ed., he defines religion as follows:

We designate this focal point of the religions as the sacred, the ground of  ultimate vitality, value, and meaning. The modes of experiencing the sacred, and the responses to this experience, are many and varied; these are the forms and expressions that make up the religious traditions of the world.

Obviously, the problem with this approach is that it describes religion according to some outside source that is believed to be non-political and non-contextual. What makes this expression so problematic is that it assumes a phenomenological space that is prior to discourse. Rather than focus on competing theories of meaning and interests at play in the classification of discourse, it assumes religion to be a signifier for a prior principle of ultimate value. Hence, instead of seeing discourse on the sacred as one among many other rhetorical devices it privileges the sacred as a source of all religious experience. By differing the meaning of religion to some unseen realm or private subjective experience this cliché renders any analysis of religion uncontextualized.

#2. Religion is Bullshit

This cliché has become a popular phrase among certain atheists and internet trolls. In the 16th century you could have been burned at the stake for uttering this phrase but today it is all the rage. Do a search on Google, there are websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts called religion is bullshit. Those who use this phrase think that they are being original and rebellious against the status quo but they are just instantiating the ideological distinction between the religious and the secular. The irony of this cliché is that, despite being “anti-religious,” it follows the same logic as cliché #1 because it assumes the atemporal status of religion. Rather than see the word “religion” as a shifting category that names so many forces at play in society it hypostatizes religion as a self-identifiable discourse that persists throughout time. For example, here is a quote from

Throughout history, religion has been responsible for a large proportion of the suffering in the world – yet religious beliefs are based on ancient myths and legends that should have been discarded centuries ago.

The purpose of this site is to point out the errors in religious texts and highlight the problems caused by religious believers in society today.

What is lost on people who use this cliché is that by classifying a certain discourse as bullshit because of some intrinsic religious content they are perpetuating the very idea that religion is distinct from the secular, and thereby negating the value of their critique. Since this expression hypostasizes the very thing it wishes to challenge it should be avoided.

As Marx argued in “On the Jewish Question,” the way to critique religion is not by granting it an atemporal signifying capacity and then banishing it as erroneous, but by exposing how the very distinction between the religious and the secular is itself an ideological construct. The critique of religion should proceed by destabilizing the idea that anything is intrinsically religious, not by creating a straw man argument. As Craig Martin writes in Capitalizing Religion, “no ideology is intrinsically religious or secular; rather, the identification of an ideology as religious or secular is asserted in order to gerrymander its scope or reach.”

Tenzan Eaghll is Ph.D candidate in the department of religious studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation analyzes Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on the Deconstruction of Christianity.

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“Your class is hard.”


by Craig Martin

Students often complain that my class is hard. My short answer is simple: “Someone has got to be your hardest professor—it might as well be me.” My longer response has more substance. “How many of you wish my class was easy?” Most of them raise their hands. “How many of you think my dean wants my classes to be easy?”

At that point I get startled looks that show they’ve never considered the question before. “At the end of the semester I report to him and not to you, and he wants my classes to be tough. I was hired to challenge you as students, and if you write on my course evaluations that the class was easy I’ll actually get in trouble with him.” At that point I usually get grudging acceptance, even if they still don’t like it.

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Hindoos, Hindu, Spelling, and Theory

by Michael J. Altman

Note: This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

What is the relationship between spelling and theory? I often tell people my research is about “Hinduism in nineteenth century America.” But it’s really not. It’s not about Hinduism at all. It can’t be because the idea of “Hinduism,” a world religion comparable to other world religions, isn’t invented until the late nineteenth century. That’s kind of the point of my research. Most other scholars writing about this period will still use the term “Hindu” to describe the people that Americans or Britons were describing during this period. But when an American missionary or Unitarian pastor refered to the people in India doing something that they recognize as religion they most often used the term “Hindoo.” Hindoo–that double O of colonialism.

So, here’s the question: Is the difference between Hindoo and Hindu just a matter of spelling? Or is there more going on here?

long-s-us-bill-of-rightsOn the one hand, you could argue that though the sources read Hindoo, it makes sense for the scholar today to write Hindu, even when talking about the 1820s. There are all sorts of terms that we alter when we bring them into the present from the past. No one puts the long S in their scholarly prose, for example. So, maybe Hindoo to Hindu is just like taking that long s out of Congress in the Bill of Rights?

But maybe it’s not. It seems to me a Hindu is actually someone quite different from a Hindoo. That is, a Hindu is someone tied up with this world religion called Hinduism. There is the Hindu American Foundation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (or World Hindu Council), and the Pew Research Center tallies up the number of “Hindus” in America. But in the early nineteenth century, a Hindoo was a product of the American and British imagination. When I discuss what Americans thought about India and the people who lived there and these things they did that Americans thought were religion, I am not talking about people in South Asia. I’m talking about representations of people in South Asia. These Hindoos are imaginary. “Hindoos” and their religion were invented by Europeans and Americans. During this period, people in India did not present themselves to an American audience. Rather, they were represented by American and European authors to an American audience and in that process they were represented as Hindoos.

Perhaps the one exception to this would be the Indian reformer Rammohun Roy who wrote in English to an American and British audience. However, Roy self-identified as a “Hindoo,” as in his work “A Defence of Hindoo Theism.” Swami-Vivekananda-Hindoo-Monk-posterEven as late as the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, Americans represented Swami Vivekananda, the South Asian who garnered an audience throughout America, as a “Hindoo Monk.” Vivekananda and Rammohun Roy served as transitional figures as Hindoos became Hindus. That is, as South Asians went from imagined representations to immigrants representing themselves in American culture. In 1893 Vivekananda was a “Hindoo monk” but by 1930 he is part of a “Hindu Movement” in Wendell Thomas’s book Hinduism Invades AmericaVivekananda goes from Hindoo to Hindu, from a South Asian represented by Americans in Chicago to the founder of a movement representing itself in America.

Here’s the shift from Hindoo to Hindu in one handy Ngram. The lines cross in the year 1884:


For most of my brief career I’ve fallen back on the term “Hindu religions” to describe whatever it was that Americans and the British were trying to describe in their writing. But I’ve decided to eject that term from my work going forward because it implies that there is something there that is essentially “Hindu” before someone labels it as such. There is no there there, however. There is only the discourse about whatever people in South Asia seem to be doing to Europeans and Americans. So, I’m going back to Hindoo, colonial Os and all, to emphasize that nothing is “Hindu” or “Hindoo” until someone categorizes it as such. And then, once categorized, my job is to unpack the conflicts, arguments, ideologies, claims, and competitions behind that categorization. But I am curious to hear from others on this question–and similar questions about, say, “evangelical” or other such categories. Is this all simply a word game?

Michael J. Altman is assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His areas of interest are colonialism, theory and method in the study of religion, media studies, and Asian religions in American culture. Trained in the field of American religious cultures, he is interested in the ways religion is constructed through difference, conflict, and contact.

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Ritual Language and Christian Ontologies


by Rebekka King

* This post originally appeared on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.


At Middle Tennessee State University, I have inherited a course on Western Religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), which is a 4000-level or senior course. While at most universities a course that purports to be an overview of the so-called ‘Abrahamic’ traditions would be listed as a first- or second-year course, this course’s listing as a senior level course means that I strive to straddle two pedagogical imperatives. First, I want to teach adequate material or data about religions, so that the students have a sense of the traditions themselves; however, because the course is a senior-level course, I also want to equip them with a theoretical apparatus with which they can think critically about religions. In addition, the reality of living in the “buckle of the bible belt” means that many of my students come to class with very clearly defined assumptions about what religion does (particularly Christianity, which is my area of specialization).

I’ve divided this course into three units: Text, Tradition, and Imagination. For this blog post, I would like to reflect on an exercise that I use to teach tradition in regards to Christianity. Along with providing an overview of Christian ritual practices, I want the students to consider language as one of the primary locations of Christian practices. Thus, I draw from my own disciplinary home, the Anthropology of Christianity, and have the students discuss Christian language ideologies and notions of sincerity and performance. More precisely, I want the students to think about larger questions concerning what we think language does—that is, its communicative capacities.  


In preparation for the assignment, we consider Joel Robbins’ article, ‘On Not Knowing Other Minds,’ which among other things helps the students to think about the ways that we understand language  and Western culture. The crux of Robbins’ piece suggests that the idea that we can or should be able tell what other people are thinking based on what they do or say is related to particular cultural practices and is not necessarily universal.

In addition, since many of my students are not familiar with liturgical traditions in Christianity, I have them attend a service (or watch one online) at a local liturgical church in order for them to begin thinking about the diverse ways that language is employed in Christian practices. I lecture briefly on the differences between language ideologies: referential language (that is the idea that words can signify objects and experiences) and constitutive language (the idea that words can make something happen, including enacting some sort of ontological change).

Class Exercise

“Hand me your pen,” I will say to an unsuspecting student in the front row.

I follow up with a question to the rest of the class: “what did I do there?” A chorus of “you took his pen” usually ensues, and with a bit of prodding we come to the conclusion that I have made that particular student “penless.” In other words, I transform the student into a “penless individual.” Somehow the words themselves made the student into a different type of person (one without a pen). This is an example of language that is constitutive: my words did more than just express my own desire for a pen, they transformed the student into a new type of being.

From there, I then proceed to declare various students united in holy matrimony. For extra bonus points, I will marry myself to a piece of technology (this year I developed an intimate relationship with an old overhead projector, which served as a continuous reference point for students when we talked throughout the term about ontological boundaries). After performing the various marriages, I have the students discuss whether or not they are actually married. It doesn’t take long for the students to uncover the reasons that they are not married or my lack of authority to actually marry them and the social space in which we are located is not one that has been entered with expectations of the performance of a marriage ceremony. Marriage it seems is more than words.

At this point, we discuss what language does for evangelical Christians. Much of the evangelical mind, relies on an understanding of language as referential (think, for example, or biblical literalism). Again, the ‘bible belt’ works to my advantage here, and I am able to draw on the knowledge from my students regarding Christian conversion language and its assumed transformative potentials.

My intention, ultimately, is to have the students see how Christian notions of language and conversion (which many of them take for granted) are intertwined as simultaneously referential and constitutive in the Christian consciousness. Why does saying/thinking that one is “born again” make someone born again for evangelicals? What do the words do and what do they signify? And what are the ontological consequences of a worldview that allows language to hold that kind of power?

In so doing, I try to draw out from the students Christian conceptions of the ways in which words serve to mediate interior experiences that are often contingent on the assumptions we make about individuals as moral agents. I use examples from contemporary Christian culture that disrupt these assumptions: Ted Haggard is a good example, although this year only a handful of my students were familiar with the Haggard case, so I will likely have to wait for another unfortunate fall from grace by an authoritative figure in the future.


As mentioned above, I have several pedagogical aims that come to the forefront in evaluating my students that reflect my desire for students to both acquire information and engage the theories we have looked at in class. Most importantly, I want them to be able to apply the theories to new data, especially data that doesn’t fit a neat definition of religion. So while I teach them to think about language in the context of a particular variety of evangelical Christianity that permeates the American South, I also want them to transpose those ideas into other, non-religious discursive spaces.

PJ Harvey’s anti-war ballad, “The Words That Maketh Murder,” (click here for lyrics) is a great way to think about what words do and how authority is invested in particular individuals and institutions. This year I used this song on a unit test to evaluate my students’ abilities to think critically and creatively. The test included the usual definition questions and short answer questions intended to determine whether students had done the readings, attended lectures and studied, but the final section of the test—featuring Harvey—was meant to take them to the next level.

(“The Words That Maketh Murder“)

I asked them a number of questions that corresponded to some of the larger themes from our class, including describing the language ideology that this song presumes. The great thing about this song is that there is no right or wrong answer. Clearly, a song that provides a narrative in which words make murder can be seen as constitutive, but if one steps back from a literal reading from the text (itself a referential act), one can begin to see that Harvey’s larger critique of British institutions (a point which is perhaps reinforced more so in the video than the lyrics) also could be seen as evoking an interpretive practice that falls within the realm of the same referential assumptions that evangelicals make about language and human subjectivities. A critique of the critique reminds us that Harvey herself is encapsulated by the very forces she subverts.

It’s also a pretty great song.

Rebekka King is an Assistant Professor of Religion in the Philosophy Department at Middle Tennessee State University. She teaches courses on Method and Theory in the Study of Religion. Her areas of specialization are North American Religions; Cultural Anthropology; Sociology of Religion; Discourse Analysis; Religion and Diversity in the Public Sphere. Her research contributes to the emerging field of the Anthropology of Christianity and challenges some of the core assumptions that scholars of religion make about Christian beliefs, practices and identity. She examines the reading practices and alternative rituals employed by liberal and progressive Christians to negotiate questions of faith and tradition in relation to biblical scholarship, scientific empiricism and progressive politics.

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Thus Spake Hercules: On Atheism and the Uses of Critical Theory



by Matt Sheedy

In a Raw Story article from this past Wednesday, entitled “Kevin Sorbo: Atheists are angry because they secretly know God exists and is judging them,” Scott Kaufman discusses a recent interview with the actor best known for his role as Hercules on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. The interview in question took place on Rick Wiles’ internet-radio show Trunews, where Sorbo repeated a line that he has been asking throughout his DVD promotional tour for the film God’s Not Dead (see my film review here)—“Why are atheists so angry at something they don’t believe in?” Sorbo’s response is described as follows:

Atheists, he claimed, secretly believe that God exists, and are upset with him because they know he is going to judge them. They are a “small group of people, and they get on Fox or CNN and they rant and they rave,” Sorbo said, “and I pretty much based my character [in God Is Not Dead] off of these guys that I see who are just angry — they’re just filled with anger and hatred.”

Sorbo continues,

“On the one hand I feel sorry for them, but then I kind of laugh at them,” Sorbo explained. “Why would anybody spend so much time ranting and raving about something they don’t believe in?”

In her brief reply on, columnist Sarah Gray quotes Sorbo from the Raw Story feature, offering only one line of commentary in response to the statement that I’ve quoted directly above, followed by a restatement of his position that is made to appear as a logical absurdity:

What is more ridiculous than Sorbo’s above question? Sorbo’s inane answer to his own question: “I know these guys must believe in something, otherwise, they wouldn’t get so angry about it, and they don’t like the fact that there is a higher power out there that is judging how they live their life.”

Atheists must secretly believe in something, therefore they’re just angry that God is judging them.

The pithy length of Gray’s reply, clocking in at 240 words, highlights the ease with which she feels that she can dismiss Sorbo’s arguments, relying mostly on his own words to point out the absurdity of this position. While she no doubt has a point that his statement is “logically” absurd, her method, commonly associated with the analytic tradition in “Anglo-American” philosophy, is to respond from the elevated plain of rational thought, where every problem, every contradiction, can be resolved by simply pointing out where logic has gone off the rails.

In one sense this type of response is intuitively appealing, especially when one is confronted with a claim that can be easily refuted by showing its obvious contradictions. What is often missed in this type of criticism is that practical or pragmatic arguments against a proposition (e.g., God exists/does not exist) often function to re-inscribe the very ideas that they seek to overturn. For example, while many who identify as atheists may argue that Sorbo’s claims regarding their own motivations are wrong, his explanation about atheists “secret beliefs” has a certain rhetorical appeal to insiders’ who share his views. Since these beliefs are “secret,” and thus unconscious, they are hard to disprove, which provides a “logical” defense mechanism that works to protect against criticism of this kind–not unlike the rhetorical appeal to “true Islam” as a response to the claim that “Muslims” are inherently violent. In both cases, the objects in question (atheists and Muslims) are represented as embodying a singular meaning that is defined in opposition to some alleged claim about who or what they are.

For many scholars of religions this type of criticism is old hat, going back at least to David Hume (1711-1776), as Samuel Preus details in his book Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud. Whereas it was necessary for early “Enlightenment” thinkers to challenge views about the natural world that seemed to contradict evidence produced through empirical methods of observation (think Galileo), and whereas similar battles are still being fought today (think climate change), popular discourses about religion and atheism (at least in the Euro-West) seem to exist within a framework that has not learned from the 150 odd-years of what we have come to call “critical theory,” a term that is often attributed to Max Horkheimer’s 1937 essay, “Traditional and Critical Theory.”

Perhaps it is the short-term “sound-bite” nature of public debate and its penchant for sensationalism (theists vs. atheists, fight!) that contributes to the perpetuation of these binary views, and the concomitant rise of social groups who identify as atheist (or humanist or secular, etc.) that have created space for these particular rhetorical fault-lines and new identity formations to emerge? In any case, the fact that some scholars of religions are beginning to see atheist groups as data, (see posts by McCloud and Ramey) should signal the limited use-value of this mode of criticism, as well as the ways in which taking it up tends to perpetuate a discourse about “religion” that mystifies its object to a narrow set of easily identifiable variables. Reductionism at its purest.

Discussing this concept in relation to the work of Marx on the question of religion, Wendy Brown points out an important distinction that he made between criticism, “mere criticism” and critique.

Mere criticism marks religion as false; critique connects religious illusions, and the need for them, to the specific reality generating and necessitating religious consciousness. (Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech, 11)

While Marx’s theory of religion has long been critiqued (and “criticized”) for its reductionism, the point that Brown wishes to highlight here is the shift from “mere criticism,” which presents the opposite side of an argument, toward a conception that relies on critical theory to describe, explain, and evaluate just what is going on in the social world. For Marx, such a critique found expression in the idea of historical materialism.

Thus Marx brings together in the notion of critique a comprehension of the Real identified as the material, a practice of objectivity identified with science, and the realization of true emancipation of religion, true secularism, in place of what he decries as “merely theological criticism.” (12)

Thinking with Marx and against him, the call for critique is a tricky one, since it means moving beyond the binary logic that we are always forced to confront in the use of every-day language and asks us to take a look at what’s going on behind it, in the margins and in the seams. Perhaps one point of entry in this debate is to recall the lines that follow from Nietzsche’s oft-quoted phrase “God is Dead.”

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Thus spake Hercules.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual, myth and social formations. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

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My Inherited Elephant


by Adam T. Miller

* This piece originally appeared on the author’s blog.

On August 13th, Matt Sheedy’s “Teaching Ethics and/in the World Religions Paradigm” (originally posted here) appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog. The piece opens with an overview of some of the struggles associated with teaching inherited introductory courses in religious studies. Although I have only been teaching for a year, his words resonated with me; edited to reflect my admittedly minimal experience (without eyesores like brackets and ellipses), they read:

Like several others, I have inherited an accelerated online course called Religion and the Human Adventure. The course was designed to provide students with an introduction to “world religions” using the comparison of case studies to illustrate themes/categories. Over the past year, several of my students have come from my university’s nursing program, which requires their graduates to take one course on religion. Most of these students enter the class expecting/hoping to learn about the beliefs and practices of other religions in order to be better nurses–a respectable goal, to be sure, but not necessarily what courses on religion are about.

For my first two terms of teaching this class, I supplemented my inherited textbook (Gary E. Kessler’s Studying Religion: An Introduction through Cases) with some extra readings focused on a tradition or theme relevant to the assigned reading from the textbook. More recently, however, I’ve opted to supplement Kessler with chapters from Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion.

Sheedy closes the second paragraph saying that he uses his inherited textbook as “not just a resource, but the primary object of study.” This is something I cannot yet say, but I’m working on it. And Martin provides a point of entry for me in “Conceiving the ‘We’ in Pluralism.”

Introductory textbooks in religious studies often promote pluralism/tolerance, the idea that “we can get along once we realize that we are, at bottom, similar in essential ways [and that] we might attenuate social conflict with a deep, empathetic understanding of others.” The textbook I use is no exception. In fact, its last chapter (titled “Religious Diversity and Truth”) comes to a close with the story of the blind people and the elephant, a narrative culled from the Buddhist tradition that I’ve seen used more than once in arguments for pluralism/tolerance.

In short form, the story tells of a scenario in which a king orders a handful of blind men to describe an elephant on the basis of limited tactile experience. Each blind man touches a different part of the elephant and, ergo, provides a different report to the king. (The man who touched the leg said “an elephant is like a pillar,” and so on. And let’s not ignore that only men were given access to the elephant.)

According to Kessler, the take home point of the story is that all religious views are partially true, but never completely so. But this leads to a paradox–for how can we know that views are partial without seeing the whole?, and if we can see the whole, have we not moved beyond partiality? Skirting around this paradox, however, Kessler says: “Perhaps we should not read too much into this parable. After all, it is only a story.”

But on the basis of this mere story, Kessler constructs what he calls the Elephant Principle. Outlining the contours of this principle, as well as the motivations underlying its construction and promotion, he writes:

Perhaps we cannot do much better than to adopt the principle that all religions have a partial grasp on truth … It seems that the only justification for adopting the notion that all religious contain some of the truth is pragmatic … If we talk to others who disagree, if we study their religious beliefs and practices, if we listen with the principle of charity to their myths and legends, we may learn something of real value that we did not know before.

Adopting [the Elephant Principle] not only promotes [interreligious] dialogue, but also a religiously tolerant society in which “the religious beliefs, or rejection of religion, of the citizen are not allowed to affect their legal right to live, marry, raise children, worship, pursue careers, own property, make contracts, participate in politics, and engage in all the other activities normally open to citizens in that society.

In the first paragraph, the plural pronoun “we” shows up frequently. But Kessler never discusses who constitutes this “we,” who constitutes the “them” in contradistinction to which the “we” comes into being, who gets to draw the line between the “we” and the “them,” whose interests are being served in constituting the “we” in this-or-that way, and whether the interests of all members of the “we” are served equally.

In the last paragraph, “citizenship” and its attendant duties/expectations are called upon as pragmatic justification for the promotion of the Elephant Principle. But Kessler never critically addresses the configuration of power that this principle upholds–he just describes it as if its political and social value were obvious.

But just as it is not my job to privilege one religion over others (or one understanding of a particular religion over others), neither is it my job “to domesticate social differences to prepare students for life in late capitalism.” On the contrary, I see it as my responsibility to expose those processes by which contingent social orders are rendered natural.

I want to do the best I can with my inherited elephant. Like Sheedy, I aim to take Kessler’s book as my primary object of study. And my first step toward accomplishing this goal will be (1) to assign Kessler’s final chapter and Martin’s post in the same week, and (2) to have my students wrestle with the critical questions Martin poses as they relate to the Elephant Principle. It’s probably not realistic to expect my students to grasp and unpack fully the import of such questions. But if it gets them thinking, I’ll mark it down as a win.

* This post has also appeared on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.

Adam Miller‘s academic interests gravitate toward Indian Mahayana Buddhist literature and history, particularly (at least at the moment) past-life stories and expand to include South Asian Buddhism more generally, early/medieval Chinese Buddhism, Swami Vivekananda, and Theory and Method in the Study of Religion. He received his training at the University of Missouri (MA 2013) and Western Illinois University (BA 2011), and will start working toward his PhD in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago this fall.

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