On Neo-Perennialism

Last year I commented on Facebook that I thought there were structural similarities between classical perennialism in religious studies and the arguments in three recent monographs I had read, specifically Stephen Bush’s Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power, Jason Blum’s Zen and the Unspeakable God: Comparative Interpretations of Mystical Experience, and Kevin Schilbrack’s Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A Manifesto.

In summary, my claim was that all three worked with an implicit, universalistic schema whereby all religions throughout history are ordered according to an experience–belief–community schema: humans have exceptional experiences, form beliefs on the basis of those experiences, and then form religious communities around those experiences and beliefs. Unlike classical perennialism, all three of these authors intend to be unreservedly historicist in their approach—they all explicitly denounce classical perennialism—and yet, in my opinion, this ahistorical experience–belief–community schema haunts their work. Aaron Hughes—editor of Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (alongside Steven Ramey)—asked me to put my argument on paper, and this resulted in an essay titled “Yes, … but …”: The Neo-Perennialists.” The abstract reads:

This essay argues that despite their opposition to perennialism, a number of recent scholars inadvertently repeat some of the problematic gestures of perennialism. These scholars are attempting to push the field forward after poststructuralist critiques of religious studies, particularly regarding the varieties of essentialism that have plagued the field. However, their account of “religion” ends up looking, at least in some respects, little different from the pre-critical, essentialist, and ahistorical accounts of religion that were regnant prior to the wave of poststructuralist critiques of religious studies. To some extent we appear to be back to where we started.

Cover image for Zen and the Unspeakable God: Comparative Interpretations of Mystical Experience By Jason N. BlumMTSR sent the piece out for comment to all three of the authors I criticized. Thus a symposium or conversation of sorts began, resulting in my article, their three responses, and my rejoinder. (All five pieces are now pre-published electronically and can be found on MTSR’s website [links below].) All three authors accused me of misinterpreting them, insisting that there is no such experience–belief–community schema to be found in their work; I’ll leave it to others to decide if my claim is a total fiction or if there is indeed some truth to it.

Despite our disagreement and whatever our differences, I do believe that the exchange was useful insofar as it allowed all four of us to clarify some of the similarities and differences between our approaches; thus I’m greatly in debt to Bush, Blum, and Schilbrack for their willingness to participate in the conversation (many thanks to all three of you!). I hope others find our exchange to be of use for thinking about the nature of and appropriate limits to scholarship in our field.

 

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About Craig Martin

I am an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College.
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