by Tenzan Eaghll
Did you catch the 2008 interview with J.Z. Smith that was recently making the rounds on Facebook? In it, Smith suggests that the benefit of studying dead ancient religions is that they can’t talk back to you. When you study dead religions, no one can pipe up and say, ‘hey, that is not how I practice my religion!’ As Smith states:
I specialized in religions that are dead, which has the great advantage that nobody talks back. No one says, ‘That’s not what I heard last Sunday!’ Everybody’s dead. And I like that…
Now, everyone who studies contemporary cultural movements will no doubt sympathize with this point, as having to constantly be aware of how ‘practitioners’ interpret your writing is always a concern—especially given the recent Doniger controversy—but Smith’s comment got me thinking about the deeper theoretical implications of our work. What his statement made me wonder was the following: aren’t all religions dead religions?
After all, none of us study the ‘living present’ but only its dead counterpart. As Russell McCutcheon has aptly noted in numerous Culture on the Edge posts, historical rationalization always comes after the fact. We never actually encounter things in their ‘present’ state, but only in a strange, foreign, and unknown past. Sometimes our ‘data’ is from 2000 years ago, and sometimes it is from yesterday, but it is always dead because even events from today are already yesterday. As McCutcheon writes, “After all, we’re all living in someone else’s “good old days” right now.”
A similar point is also made by Derrida in “Violence and Metaphysics,” when he argues that the question of historical origins—precisely our “jewgreek” origins—should not be understood as “a chronological, but a pre-logical progression.” That is, all decisions about history, whether ancient or modern, are decisions that are made before we turn to our ‘data.’ We don’t study the chronological progression of history, but the difference that presents itself as history. In this way, every ‘religion’ that we study is dead because by the time it comes under our gaze it belongs to a prior set of decisions, incisions, and cuts.
Or, to go even further back than Derrida, Hegel argues for this exact point in The Philosophy of Right when he famously quipped that “the owl of minerva flies at dusk.” By this, Hegel is implying that philosophy comes to understand history only after it passes away. Philosophy cannot be prescriptive because the view it offers is always one of hindsight:
One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it… When philosophy paints its gloomy picture then a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated by the gloomy picture, but only understood. Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.
The basic point: historical rationalization is always post hoc. We never encounter the living thing, but only its dead counterpart. So, whether we study the ancient civilization of Babylon or contemporary Hinduism, we all study dead religions.