I’m presently reading a book that offers a theory of religion. In the present chapter the author is using the language of “experience of finitude.” Religious practitioners, we are to understand, have such experiences. The presence of this sort of language in modern-day scholarship is not unusual; religion is often said to provide answers to questions about the “meaning of life.” “Experience of finitude” and “the meaning of life” are both part of the same family of existential terms. Here are a few thoughts or provocations.
1. I personally know of no religious practitioners who would describe themselves as having had an “experience of finitude.” That is not to say there are none out there, only that those who would use such language must be in the minority. So the term must be, for the most part, a second-order term.
2. We are obliged to point out that the phrase “experience of finitude,” if we are to use it as a second-order term, is freighted with a great deal of existentialist baggage. For me, it calls to mind Being and Time and Being and Nothingness and “existence precedes essence.” One wonders if it analytically identifies something in the world—something of interest to us as scholars—or if it merely romanticizes what it claims to identify.
3. If it does analytically pick out something in the world, is that “something” significantly of interest to us as scholars to put if front and center in a “theory of religion”? I see identity and difference, sympathy and antipathy, desires and interests, social formation and contestation, hierarchy and social roles, hegemony and domination, etc. as worth highlighting as central to those things we call “religions.” Those terms help us identify elements that will allow us to explain, for instance, why women cannot be priests in the Catholic church, why the Rig Veda says servants were made out of Purusha’s feet, or why Mahayana sects employ the term “Hinayana.” What does the term “experience of finitude” help us understand or explain?
I fear—although I cannot be certain—that the use of existentialist language in religious studies is designed to romanticize the object of study rather than tell us anything particularly insightful about it.