The Problem of the Mystic East

mystic eastAfter having read Robert Orsi’s rather odd essay on “The Problem of the Holy” (in The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, ed. by Robert Orsi), it was suggested to me that a parody might be in order. In his essay, Orsi grants that Rudolph Otto’s concept of “the holy” as something ontologically transcendent from all eternity is no longer sustainable—he thus grants that some of the historicist critiques of Otto were legitimate—but that there is nevertheless something very real about experiences of “the holy” that we as religion scholars must hold on to. I wondered what it might be like to take Orsi’s text and substitute “the mystic East” for “the holy” and see what it might look like. Most of what follows is word for word out of Orsi’s essay.

Many (not all) scholars of religion become restive sooner or later with the simple sufficiency of social or ideological explanations of “orientalism.” It is not that these scholars of religion propose foregoing social explanations. It is that they recognize that such accounts fall short of the realness of the mystic East and the rational West in people’s experience. And not just this: critical accounts that pretend to be exhaustive distort those experiences and diminish them, precisely as historical and cultural phenomena. Such explanations are empirically insufficient, in other words. These restive scholars have witnessed something in their fieldwork or historical study which they want to name as the East or the West and without which our social account is beside the point.

“The Orient” has the musty smell of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century bourgeois European ethnocentrism about it, as it was implicated in the European ideology of Western superiority that underwrote the colonial project. Yes, but—the Orient still seems to me to name both a reality and an approach to religion and culture that scholars ought to think about. For one thing, people all over the world and in different historical periods have experienced something of either the West or the East, and they know what they mean when they use the terms, even feel compelled to use them, as the only possible words for what they have experienced. The mystic East is apprehended as immediately and undeniably real by those who, for instance, practice meditation. Consequently, the concept of the East requires reconsideration, even rehabilitation.

Edward Said was of course correct to offer the critique of Orientalism in his now famous and widely read work. When I hear something called “Eastern,” I am on the lookout for domination, denial, and exploitation. Sometimes “the Orient” is a term of appropriation and domination. However, to insist that the East is not eternally persisting and homogeneous is not to have said very much about it. To explain it as a function of cultural formation (which it is) does not adequately take into account how the people having the experience of the mystic East described it or how it acted upon them. Contemporary scholars like Said want to stop with the social formation of the East, but this is really only the beginning of understanding this human experience. How is “the East” experienced as really real and what does this mean for people’s lives and for the social world?

My work with people who have experienced the mystical East has prevented me from being able simply to dismiss the term, unstable and treacherous as it is in experience and flawed and problematic as a concept. This is my deeper problem with the idea of the mystical East, the place I come to after critical analysis and deconstruction. The East describes something real in culture and history, with real, if ambivalent, effects. I do not mean something free of time and space, at least in its inception. I do however think it becomes free of time and space. It comes to have a life of its own independent of the humans out of whose imaginations, inheritances, and circumstances it emerged.

In conclusion, the mystic East is experienced as “objective.” It is known as objectively real, not as delusion or fantasy. The key category of the East is its realness. The East takes on a life and efficacy of its own, like a ghost with its own aims and intentions.

(Note that the words “believe in” [as in these people "believe in" the mystic East] have not appeared here. This is because the East is met as the really real and this renders otiose such terms that connote ignorance on the part of those who experience the East.)

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Differentiating Fields

bird flight 2

S. Brent Plate’s recent post at Religion Dispatches suggests that when it comes to religious studies, scholars are, in a sense, both insiders and outsiders at the same time. He comes to this conclusion through a comparison of the field of art to the field of religious studies. Iconoclasm in art, he suggests, is actually its own sort of iconification (my horrible word, not his). Artist Ai Weiwei, for instance, photographed himself destroying ancient Chinese artifacts. According to Plate, “iconoclasm is itself an iconic act. One image replaces another. Ai was careful to have his iconoclastic act documented, skillfully shot on camera and reproduced for many to see.” Recently another artist publicly smashed some of Ai’s art in an art gallery, where the act appeared to be partly protest and partly performance art. Iconoclasm is yet again a new iconification. Outsiders who are critical of the tradition are at the same time insiders, extending the tradition in new ways. Plate concludes that “Tradition is itself a series of creative and destructive acts, stability and instability; the icons are the tradition as much as the images of iconoclasm. Nothing stays the same.”

Plate similarly sees religion scholars who criticize religion as also being both insiders and outsiders at the same time, although he suggests that we should avoid using a hammer when a more gentle tool would do. He writes:

To teach and write about religious traditions is to enter that fray, to pull from tradition, to find one’s place within it, and to turn that in new ways, often breaking things in the process. Teachers and writers on religion can have an understated aim of performing an iconoclastic move toward the students’ own assumptions, their own ideals and images. We call it “critical thinking,” and modern universities are founded on such an ideal. But, translated across the inside-outside divide, critical thinking becomes a shaking up of faith, or worse, in the wrong hands, faith bashing.

Nietzsche gave us philosophy with a hammer—though what is more often needed in the classroom is a screwdriver.

He concludes by suggesting that in the classroom scholars of religious studies are artists negotiating the remains of the old and navigating its connection to the new—neither exactly insiders nor outsiders, but rather somewhere in between the two.

While I think Plate is absolutely correct that all cultural traditions involve ongoing creation and destruction, and that iconoclasm is iconic in its own right, he loses me when he compares the artist to the scholar. I would argue that artists smashing other artists’ work are playing in the same structural field, in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense—to smash Ai’s work is likely done with the hope of gaining some of the distinction or prestige in the art world that Ai already enjoys. By contrast, I understand religious studies and, e.g., Christian churches to occupy separate fields, with different habits, rules of competition, and forms of distinction.

As noted above, Plate writes that to “teach and write about religious traditions is to enter that fray, to pull from tradition, to find one’s place within it.” Consider this: in my course on the “Evolution of Jesus,” I often teach “The Aryan Christ: The Electrochristology of Ariosophy” by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (found in Alternative Christs, edited by Olav Hammer). According to this essay, Jörg
 Lanz invented a version of Jesus in the early twentieth century that combined a naive understanding of electricity with a racist theory of the evolution of humanity. According to Lanz, the pure Aryan race has slowly degraded over time as a result of miscegenation with beasts; consequently their electrical powers have similarly degraded. On this view Jesus—an electric being with miraculous, electrical powers—came to renew the covenant between the Israelite’s god and the pure Aryans. The chapter is fascinating because it shows how Jesus was reread in light of nascent scientific discoveries in support Aryan racism and antisemitism.

However, when I teach this chapter I am not entering Lanz’s fray or pulling from his tradition. On the contrary, my social field—the academic study of religion—doesn’t overlap with Lanz’s field at all. I am not at all interested in engaging with his Christianity, his racism, or his scientism, either to promote or to critique it.

Of course, it is clear that the conclusions I might reach in my analysis—”Lanz’s racism depends on false assumptions about racial difference” or “Lanz’s views on electricity are based on demonstrably false and outdated scientific views”—might well be at odds with Lanz’s own view. However, the purpose of these critical points is not to retard Lanz’s agenda but rather to explain to students how he manipulates the authoritative cultural tools available to him in service of his agenda.

I am rewarded in my social field not when I engage Lanz, but when I demonstrate to students how culture is continually transformed and whose interests are advanced with this or that transformation. Of course, this is exactly what Plate was doing with his analysis of Ai, but that makes him unlike rather than like Ai, whose interests likely would not have been served by drawing attention to how his own iconoclasm is iconic. As J.Z. Smith rightly notes in Relating Religion, the purpose of ornithology is not to learn how to fly but to understand birds. The difference here is between playing a sport and writing a history of the sport. From a the perspective of a historian, explaining a team’s strategy commits one neither to rooting for nor against the team.

Which game do we, as scholars, want to play in the classroom?

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Tilting at Windmills?

DQWindmillSome would have it that the work of scholars such as Don Wiebe in The Politics of Religious Studies, Tim Fitzgerald in The Ideology of Religious Studies, and Russell McCutcheon in Manufacturing Religion is both passé and off the mark. They are tilting at windmills, it seems: religious studies has long since incorporated and moved past their criticisms. It’s silly to be paranoid about crypto-theology and ontological assumptions about “the Sacred” these days.

Are we tilting at windmills? Consider the content of this co-authored piece titled “Roundtable on the Sociology of Religion: Twenty-Three Theses on the Status of Religion in American Sociology—A Mellon Working-Group Reflection,” authored by a number of big names in the field (including Christian Smith and José Casanova), and forthcoming in our discipline’s “top” journal, the Journal for the American Academy of Religion. According to the abstract,

American sociology has not taken and does not take religion as seriously as it needs to in order to do the best sociology possible. Despite religion being an important and distinctive kind of practice in human social life, both historically and in the world today, American sociologists often neglect religion or treat it reductionistically. We explore several reasons for this negligence, focusing on key historical, conceptual, methodological, and institutional factors. We then turn to offer a number of proposals to help remedy American sociology’s negligence of religion, advance the study of religion in particular, and enhance sociology’s broader disciplinary capacity to improve our understanding and explanation of human social life. Our purpose in this analysis is to stimulate critical and constructive discussion about the significance of religion in human life and scholarly research on it.

In this piece, here is what we learn:

  1. Sociology of religion has been too reductionistic.

    “Religion” is not reducible to power relations. “To the extent that the theoretical worldviews of sociologists today still revolve primarily around matters of material interests, economic forces, political interests, social dominance, relational power, and so on, religion remains largely reducible and ignorable. By theoretical presupposition, the former are taken to be ‘real’ while religion is believed to be peripheral or epiphenomenal. But, we believe, religious commitments in the end cannot be completely reduced to interests, power, and material resources, so an interest- and resource-based general sociological model cannot account for religion well.”

  2. What we call “religion” is not just another form of culture or ideology.  Too little has been “done on the theoretical front of the new cultural sociology to take on religion as a particular social object and to significantly improve our sociological understanding of it. If anything, religion became viewed as simply another ‘ideology’—ontologically and conceptually indistinct from any other belief system. Indeed, dominant sociological views of culture secularize religion, treating it as a subcomponent of culture, when, we think, a plausible historical and sociological argument can be made that culture is actually a subcomponent of religion.”
  3. By contrast, perhaps religion should be viewed as a “distinctive” object. “[M]any cultural sociologists saw little reason to theorize religion as a particular kind of social entity—even though cultural sociology should be well-equipped theoretically to study religion as a distinctive kind of social object.” We need “a theory that treats the religious dimensions of human experience as real in their own right,” and this will involve defining the distinctly “religious” part of experience as somehow connecting to the “transcendent.” (In addition, sociologists are insufficiently familiar with “the ontology of unobservable entities.”)
  4. Because so many people report experiences of the “transcendent” or “sacred,” they should be taken seriously. “[M]any people, by all their accounts, actually experience “religion” as something transcendent, sacred, and important. They experience it as making a difference in their lives. For at least those kinds of reasons, religion deserves its own field of study.” Despite the hegemony of reductionist scholars, there is a “very-real religious world that [imposes] itself upon their crumbling academic verities.”
  5. At present, cultural sociology cannot adequately make sense of the subjective experiences of religious practitioners. “[C]ultural sociology has constrained its own ability to make adequate sense of the subjective aspect of human existence, which we think is important.”
  6. Too little research is written by insiders, who have a “more personal, substantive knowledge” of their subject matter. “[T]he relative lack of personal religious commitment, identity, and knowledge among mainstream American sociologists arguably provides an obstacle to taking religion seriously in scholarship.”
  7. Consequently, we should develop “a two-way stream between religion and sociology,” as theology “might be able to offer [something to] our conversations and debates.” We must integrate “both knowledge about religion and religious knowledge into the discipline of sociology.” “[D]isciplines such as theology or traditions of spiritual disciplines may contain valuable insights for sociologists of religion.”
  8. Last, if we are going to let in implicitly normative approaches—like Marxism—then there’s no reason to exclude religious views. “[S]chools of thought in our discipline unapologetically begin with particular intellectual and moral locations, commitments, presuppositions, and interests; some even argue that these particular positions privilege their sociological understandings. Examples include feminist theory, Marxism, queer theory, some forms of critical theory, and projects of ‘real utopias.’ One might ask why or how such value-committed scholarly approaches that start with particularistic intellectual and moral presuppositions are legitimate in sociology, while religious perspectives on human person and social life are a priori excluded. The uneven privileging of certain intellectual and moral positions

    deserves ongoing questioning and consideration.”

When this sort of work appears in our “top” journals, I’m not sure we’re titling at windmills.

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New Review of A Critical Introduction

Kristian Peterson has written a very nice review of A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Peterson writes,

A Critical Introduction offers a clear, thorough, and effective introduction to critical approaches to religion as social phenomena. It brings the often-verbose theoretical lenses of sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies, and the sometimes-complicated critiques of the field of Religious Studies to a novice readership. Martin has accomplished his goal of offering useful concepts for critically thinking about religion and society. A unique and notable contribution is that he provides effective approaches from which students can ask new questions of our subject.

You can find the full review here.

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Radical Acts

burackIn Sin, Sex, and Democracy: Antigay Rhetoric and the Christian Right, Cynthia Burack writes:

I can say with complete honesty that I know of no move afoot in the LGBT rights movement to deprive nonhomosexuals of civil rights, convert heterosexuals to homosexuality, or prohibit the free exercise of religion. Of course, unlike many of my peers, I understand that these assurances are all beside the point. Homosexuals and transgender people are dangerous not because we intend or aspire to do anything to anyone but because we are more emboldened than ever to live openly and without apology, to call into question the settled beliefs of our fellow citizens, and to alter historical patterns of the distribution of rights and status. Make no mistake: these are radical acts, and it is understandable that those challenged by them are dismayed, disgusted, anxious, angry, and determined.

I think she’s right, and pretending otherwise is liable to be received as disingenuous, condescending, or downright obfuscating. It’s worth considering which strategy might be more effective in the long run: pretending not to change society while obviously and fundamentally changing it, or admitting that one is changing things and mounting a persuasive account as to why things deserve changing?

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Extra Credit

Imagine a student coming to a professor, the first week of class, and asking: “Hey professor, I really need this course to graduate, but I don’t really want to do the assignments you’ve listed on the syllabus. Can you make up a single, alternate assignment—preferably an easier one—that I can just do the last week of class and pass the course?”

Of course the answer would be no. Why should the answer be any different when the question is asked at the end of the course?

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On “Individualism”

eliasIn The Society of Individuals, Norbert Elias writes,

At present words such as “individual,” “society,” “personality,” “collective,” being ideological weapons in the power struggle of various parties and states, are so permeated with emotive content that it is difficult to extricate their factual core from the desires and fears of those involved in the struggles. Just as, earlier, magical formulae were used to heal sicknesses that could not yet be adequately diagnosed, today people often use magic doctrines as means of solving human and social problems …. And in such doctrines words like “individual” and “society” play a considerable role as symbols and passwords. (84)

I might bicker about whether or not there is a “factual core” in there—as opposed to seeing the use of such terms as constituting facts—but overall I quite like the sentiment.

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