Intelligibility and Normativity in the Study of Religion
I have by no means supplied a final answer to Jonestown’s awesome final solution. But this preliminary attempt has kept faith with the responsibilities attendant on being a member of the academy. It is now for others to continue the task, with Jonestown, or wherever the question of understanding human activities and expressions is raised. For if we do not persist in the quest for intelligibility, there can be no human sciences, let alone, any place for the study of religion within them.
2. Smith’s Quest for Intelligibility
(1) “Religion” is not a native category. It is not a first person term of self-characterization. It is a category imposed from the outside on some aspect of native culture. It is the other, in these instances colonialists, who are solely responsible for the content of the term. (2) Even in these early formulations, there is an implicit universality. “Religion” is thought to be a ubiquitous human phenomenon…(3) In constructing the second-order, generic category “religion,” its characteristics are those that appear natural to the other…(4) “Religion” is an anthropological not a theological category…It describes human thought and action, most frequently in terms of belief and norms of behavior.5
One might claim that Jonestown was the most important single event in the history of religion, for if we continue, as a profession, to leave it ununderstandable, then we will have surrendered our right to the academy. The daring and difficult experiment in parallel courses of religious studies begun in Holland a century ago will have concluded in failure.
Description is a double process which comprises the historical and anthropological dimensions of the work: First, the requirement that we locate a given example within the rich texture of its social, historical, and cultural environments that invest it with its local significance. The second task of description is that of reception-history, a careful account of how our second-order scholarly tradition has intersected with the exemplum. That is to say, we need to describe how the datum has become accepted as significant for the purpose of argument. Only when such a double contextualization is completed does one move on to the description of a second example undertaken in the same double fashion. With at least two exempla in view, we are prepared to undertake their comparison both in terms of aspects and relations held to be significant, and with respect to some category, question, theory, or model of interest to us. The aim of such a comparison is the redescription of the exempla (each in light of the other) and a rectification of the academic categories in relation to which they have been imagined.
The prime purpose of academic inquiry, most especially in the humanities, is to provide exempli gratia, an arsenal of classic instances which are held to be exemplary, to provide paradigmatic events and expressions as resources from which to reason, from which to extend the possibility of intelligibility to that which first appears novel. To have discussed Euripides’ Bacchae is, to some degree, already to have discussed Jonestown.13
3. Smith and Reeder, Intelligibility and Normativity
If I hear that one of my neighbors has killed another neighbor’s child, given that he is sane, my condemnation is immediate. But if I hear that some remote tribe practices child sacrifice, what then? I do not know what sacrifice means for the tribe in question. What would it mean to say that I condemned it when the “it” refers to something I know nothing about? I would be condemning murder. But murder is not child sacrifice.
Everyone terms barbarity, whatever is not of his own custom; in truth it seems that we have no view of what is true and reasonable, except the example and idea of the customs and practices of the country in which we live. We may call them barbarians, then, if we are judging by the rules of reason, but not if we are judging by comparison with ourselves, who surpass them in every sort of barbarity.
And:ABCs for Cake. The ABCs are an extinct religious community for whom cake occupied a central role in their ritual eating practices. The ABCs would begin and end each of their meals with slices of cake, honoring the cake god, Red Velvet. Owing to the amount of cake the ABCs consumed, diabetes and obesity were not only prevalent but also rampant; the number of adherents continued to dwindle, with the community eventually going extinct.
When the religionist comes across these two examples, how might he or she examine them? Following the academic programs set forward by historical and social-scientific scholars, he or she may describe the practices of cake-eating found respectively among the ABCs and the XYZs. Attending to the historical, political, and social contexts in which the ABCs and XYZs find themselves, the religionist might focus on the practices according to which meaning is created and maintained. But such descriptive methodologies, which presuppose certain things about human activity, only tell us so much.XYZs for Cake. The XYZs are an extant religious community for whom cake occupies a central role in their ritual eating practices. The XYZs begin and end a meal each of their meals during leap years with slices of cake, honoring the cake god, Red Velvet. Owing to the amount of cake XYZs consume during leap years, risk of diabetes and obesity spike; however, given that cake consumption is delimited to leap years, the number of adherents continues to remain relatively constant, with the community continuing to exist.
the site in the academy where not only do we try to understand the immense diversity of ways that human beings have in the past and continue in the present to reflect on and represent themselves to themselves and others, but also we take up, inherit, and respond to these processes of reflection and representation and the processes of self-formation and social formation that they are bound to but that they also effect and enable.(Roberts 2013, p. 91; emphasis original)
the ultimate goal of which is to work from the knowledge of the past and the insightful interpretations it produces to reflect on what it means to be human in the present and what it might mean in the future. In other words, humanistic criticism…finds its ultimate goal not in the accurate representation of the human but in the edification or education of human beings.
Conflicts of Interest
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What is problematic is not that we should study religious phenomena—religionists study religious phenomena, mathematicians study mathematical objects, ecologists study the relations among living organisms and their environment, and so on. What remains problematic, rather, is how these religious phenomena ought to be studied. That is, there is heated (and seemingly intractable) debate about what methodological commitments ought to constitute religious studies. On how one’s commitments link to the community in which one is a member, consider Paul Griffiths’s (Griffiths 1991, pp. 4–9) view regarding a “normative definition of a community.” “A normative definition of a community,” he writes, “is one that sets up norms, either of doctrine or practice, to which persons must adhere in order to be considered members of that community. Its purpose is to exclude some and include others, to set up conditions that must be met in order for membership in the community to occur and be maintained” (Griffiths 1991, pp. 4–5; cf. Korsgaard 1996, pp. 8–9, who writes that normative standards “do not merely describe a way in which we in fact regulate our conduct. They make claims on us; they command, oblige, recommend or guide. […] Concepts like knowledge, beauty, and meaning, as well as virtue and justice, all have a normative dimension, for they tell us what to think, what to like, what to do, and what to be”). Compare Griffiths’s definition to the mission statements of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), and the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR). Each scholarly organization proffers its own distinct mission statement, making normative claims on its members for what is and is not the proper scholarly posture toward the study of religious phenomena. On the proper scholarly posture, consider the normative undercurrent in Donald Wiebe’s “The Failure of Nerve in the Academic Study of Religion” (Wiebe 2012). He writes: “it seems to me that raising the question of theology’s relationship to the academic study of religion on the methodological level jeopardizes the very existence of such an academic study for it opens to debate once again who or what it is that ought to set the agenda for, and therefore control, such a study; is it the scholar-scientist or the scholar-devotee, the church or the academy, the procedure of science or the (supposed) transcendent subject-matter of that science, etc.? (Wiebe 2012, pp. 6–7; cf. Lincoln 2005, who distinguishes between the “history of religion” and “religion”).
In juxtaposing neutrality and science, on the one side, and judgment and value, on the other, Levene enters the debate in religious studies concerning descriptive and prescriptive methodologies. “[T]his debate,” Thomas A. Lewis writes, turns on the view that “whereas theologians make normative claims, religious studies scholars should refrain from doing so. Rather, scholars of religion should distinguish themselves from theologians precisely by striving for some type of distance, neutrality, or objectivity in relation to their subject matter, where this is to be understood to entail analysis regarding what is rather than claims about what ought to be” (Lewis 2015, p. 44). For Lewis, normative judgements aren’t found only among religious ethicists, philosophers of religion, and theologians; rather, normativity pervades each and every form of humanistic inquiry: “[i]t is in play any time judgments of value are made, whether implicitly or explicitly” (p. 46). See (Lewis 2015, pp. 47–53) wherein he highlights the pervasiveness of normativity in a variety of modes of humanistic inquiry. Tyler Roberts (Roberts 2013) also presses the tenability of the distinction between religious studies and theology, holding that “many of the scholars who seem most invested in demarcating clear, impermeable boundaries between religion or theology and the study of religion are descriptively reductive” (Roberts 2013, p. 62). On Roberts’s telling, scholars who espouse this distinction are variously committed to historicism (e.g., Willi Braun, Burton Mack, and Russell McCutcheon) and positivism (e.g., Donald Wiebe). Drawing from Smith’s distinction (Smith 1993) between locative and utopian methods, Robert terms the scholars committed to the distinction “locativists.” According to Roberts, these scholars are locativists in two senses: “[f]irst, they conceive of religion as a kind of social formation deeply invested in stability and congruence. As such, it is particularly resistant, even opposed, to critical thought, only working as a social formation by making the human reality of its own standpoint and mystifying its sources of authority. Second, these scholars claim academic legitimacy by drawing a sharp contrast between the inherent obscurantism of religion and the self-consciousness, playfulness, and critical awareness of scholars of religion” (Roberts 2013, pp. 37–38). Moreover, “locativists … locate themselves securely in the academy and locate the academy securely in the contemporary world by opposing their ‘thinking’ to religion” (Roberts 2013, p. 38). For Lewis, the distinction at play here is the “pervasive assumption that religion cannot be argued about—that it is, in essence, ‘reason’s other.’ In this view of religion, normative claims related to religion cannot be argued about but are fundamentally matters of ‘faith’” (Lewis 2015, p. 45). See also (Schilbrack 2014, pp. 147–48) for another characterization of the religious studies versus theology divide.
Whether description and prescription can actually be parsed is the subject of lively debate. For some scholars, descriptive endeavors are intrinsically value-laden. For example, commenting on Stanley Hauerwas’s theology, Sean Larsen brings their inseparability into sharp refine: “[w]e cannot distinguish description from evaluation as fact from value. Values cannot be accidental qualities of acts, added to the material components. It is nonsense to claim that two acts were identical except that one was good and the other was not, for a human act is never a merely physical event that can be described apart from the agent’s interpretation of the event (we would not call ‘growing hair’ a human act or hold someone accountable for it)” (Larsen 2016, p. 30; cf. Gregory 2011, chp. 4). I will nonetheless use descriptive and prescriptive as shorthand to identify scholars who belong to the various subfields that constitute religious studies.
Specifically, I will mine ideas from Reeder 1978 and 1998. In “constructively” reading his work, I mean two things. First, I will only draw upon certain elements of his arguments so far as they help me develop my own proposal. Second, I will use these elements in ways that he did not originally intend and may not presently endorse.
On the claim that religion is a second-order, non-native category, Smith writes: “while there is a staggering amount of data, of phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religious—there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy” (Smith 1982, p. xi).
Despite making this claim, Smith does later offer a substantive definition of religion. According to him, “[r]eligion is the quest, within the bounds of the human, historical condition, for the power to manipulate and negotiate one’s ‘situation’ so as to have ‘space’ in which to meaningfully dwell. It is the power to relate one’s domain to the plurality of environmental and social spheres in such a way as to guarantee the conviction that one’s existence ‘matters.’ Religion is a distinctive mode of human creativity, a creativity which both discovers limits and creates limits for humane existence. What we study when we study religion is the variety of attempts to map, construct and inhabit such positions of power through the use of myths, rituals and experiences of transformation” (Smith 1993, p. 291).
In “In Comparison a Magic Dwells” (Smith 1982), Smith identifies four forms of comparison that may be used in examining religion: the ethnographic; the encyclopedic; the morphological; and the evolutionary. For Smith, these methods aren’t equally useful. He characterizes the ethnographic method, for example, as “frequently idiosyncratic” and ultimately “uninteresting, petty, and unrevealing” (Smith 1982, p. 23).
In his “bio-bibliographical” essay “When the Chips Are Down” (Smith 2004, pp. 1–2), Smith notes his own influences, namely, natural history (specifically botany) and the study of history and philosophy. But when he describes, in “The Devil in Mr. Jones,” the natural conversation partners for the study religion, philosophy is saliently absent. Perhaps one’s influences and one’s conversation partners are separable.
In making the distinction between the theological and anthropological study of religion, Smith cites David Hume’s The Natural History of Religion (Hume  1998).
For a recent reflection on the Schempp decision and its relation to the academic study of religion, see (Imhoff 2016).
For Smith’s effort to import biological taxonomies to the study of religion, see, e.g., “Fences and Neighbors: Some Contours of Early Judaism” and “In Comparison a Magic Dwells.” For example, in “In Comparison a Magic Dwells,” he says, “[i]n both theory and practice, taxonomies are determined by monothetic procedures and presuppositions, the quest for a single item of discrimination, the sine qua non—the that without which a taxon would not be itself but some other” (Smith 1982, p. 2).
In J. M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello (Coetzee 2003), John, in conversation with his mother, Elizabeth, mirrors this sentiment: “[b]ut you surely must concede that at a certain level we speak, and therefore write, like everyone else. Otherwise we would all be speaking and writing private languages. It is not absurd—is it?—to concern oneself with what people have in common rather than what sets them apart” (Coetzee 2003, p. 8).
For further reflection on Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and White Night, see (Chidester 2003).
On religion’s incivility, Michael Walzer writes, “[f]or the modern reader, the conquest of Canaan, with all its attendant slaughter, is the most problematic moment in the history of ancient Israel” (Walzer 1992, p. 215). In a similar vein, Peter Singer says, “Genocide is not a new phenomenon. Anyone who has read the Bible knows that” (Singer 2004, p. 106). For a view about a non-Abrahamic tradition’s incivility, see (Sen 2009, pp. 208–21), who discusses the Kurukshetra War.
On 14 November 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown, following up on reports of human rights violations and mistreatment. Four days later, while waiting to board their chartered flight, Ryan and four other members of his party were shot to death by members of the Jonestown community. One hour after Ryan’s assassination, Jones initiated the previously rehearsed mass suicide of White Night (Smith 1982, p. 108).
In “A Pearl of Great Price and a Cargo of Yams: A Study in Situational Incongruity,” Smith discusses “cargo situations” and “cargo cults.” In a cargo situation, Smith writes, one finds a “discrepancy between the world of the European and the world of the native; it is a witness to the confrontation between native and European economic systems,” with the cargo situation “reflect[ing] a native strategy for dealing with an incongruous situation, a strategy that draws upon indigenous elements.” In native economic systems compared to European ones, “[f]oodstuffs and goods are stored, not as capital assets, but in order to be given away in ceremonies that restore equilibrium.” Moreover, compared to European economic views, “wealth and prestige are not measured by either resourceful thrift or conspicuous consumption, but by one’s skill in achieving reciprocity” (Smith 1982, p. 98). In a desperate cargo cult situation, “the natives have destroyed everything that they own, as if, by this dramatic gesture, to awaken the white man’s moral sense of reciprocity. ‘See, we have now given away everything. What will you give in return?’” (Smith 1982, p. 99).
To be sure, this characterization of historical methods is delimited to certain uncritical practices, which aim simply to gather data. But this characterization is not intended to be generalizable to all historians: history is a site of debate, with historians engaged in ongoing conversations about the normative implications of their own historiographical methods.
For Smith, nothing necessarily distinguishes what the religionist does in comparison to his or her natural conversation partners—i.e., historical and social-scientific scholars. So far as I can tell, Smith finds nothing problematic about this lack of distinctiveness. Other religionists, e.g., Lewis (2015), Roberts (2013), and Schilbrack (2014), offer strong proposals about what should distinguish the study of religion as undertaken by religionists versus the study of religion undertaken by other humanistic and social-scientific scholars. Later in this section, I will propose my own methodological commitments for the study of religion.
Even though he commends Montaigne, Smith remains unclear about what sorts of judgments and what kind of toleration he himself endorses. This unclarity remains despite his claim that his comparative and interpretive method requires “playing across the ‘gap’ in the service of some useful end” (Smith 1982, p. 35). Given that we live in an increasingly interconnected and pluralistic world, Brad Gregory presses on the costs of such unclarity. For Gregory, “[i]nstead of seeking to advance exclusive and divisive truth claims, it is said, we should (note the normative imperative) promote toleration and diversity. But not all diversity. Racism, sexism, and violence, for example, are bad, and so are not to be tolerated. But ‘bad’ is a moral category. So we need a criterion to distinguish good diversity and toleration from bad diversity and toleration” (Gregory 2011, p. 19). Given the ways in which morality has been relativized and subjectivized, however, Gregory believes moral claims are arbitrary. Therefore, “[d]enials of truth and of nonsubjective moral norms in the names of toleration and diversity are self-defeating and self-contradictory—unless one is prepared to go the whole way, and grant that genocide, rape, slavery, and torture are acceptable. Thankfully, only the pathological would claim as much … Yet how to ground truth claims about morality and values amid swarms of incompatible, shifting assertions about them remains a genuine and pressing problem. We must make moral arguments if the condemnation of such evils is not to be a matter of mere individual choice or lucky-for-us majoritarian preference—if we are to articulate why, for example, exploitive, abusive human relationships are always and everywhere wrong” (Gregory 2011, p. 20).
Through my constructive reading of Reeder’s views about religious ethics, I briefly will explain why this is the case.
The starting point for rendering White Night intelligible, Smith believes, lies in recognizing the humanity of its participants. But “[o]ur task is not to reach closure…for we lack the majority of the necessary data … we do not know its mythology, its ideology, its soteriology, its sociology—we do not know almost everything we would need to know in order to venture a secure argument” (Smith 1982, p. 111). Smith’s comment brings to mind two things. The first thing is empirical: it may be the case that, in time, religionists and other humanistic scholars will have the data necessary to further understand Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and White Night. The second thing is a question: even if, in the future, further data are available, would socio-historical methods render all these data intelligible? Or would precluding ethical, philosophical, and theological inquiry simultaneously preclude the ability to understand Jones’s theology, the categorical demands his theology made upon members of the Peoples Temple, and (more fully) the normative vision that led to White Night?
To my mind, there is heuristic value to this broad definition as well. When teaching an undergraduate course on methods and theories, for example, one may be confronted (and confront one’s students) with the challenge of not only defining religion but also (and concomitantly) differentiating religion from other cultural and social systems. For one strategy on differentiating between what is and is not a religion, see (Schilbrack 2014, chp. 5).
Compare Reeder’s view about the good and the real to Schilbrack’s definition of “normative realism.” On Shilbrack’s view, “religious communities make recommendations for how one should act in order to solve problems in one’s life, with the understanding that those recommendations accord with the nature of things.” He adds: “people have beliefs insofar as they take something to be true, and they take something as true as soon as they act in any purposive way” (Schilbrack 2014, p. 128).
An anonymous reviewer challenged me with an example involving cake. To clarify my own thinking, I will think through modified versions of that example.
On philosophical elucidation and evaluation, consider Lewis’s (Lewis 2015) reconceptualization of the philosophy of religion. According to Lewis, “philosophy of religion should be conceived less in terms of a fixed set of questions than in terms of philosophical modes of analysis of a range of questions and topics generated both by the study of particular religions and by the process of studying religion itself. Philosophy of religion so understood is not only attentive to a range of questions generated by diverse religious traditions but also self-conscious about the category of religion itself—including its history—and the way that this and other categories frame our questions and studies in the first place” (Lewis 2015, p. 7). On reconceptualizing the philosophy of religion, see also Schilbrack (2014), who suspects “that most social scientists recognize that their work is shaped by their agreements or disagreements with philosophical positions such as Kant’s account of the limit of knowledge, Popper’s account of explanations, Marx’s account of ideology, and innumerable other philosophical contributions to the scientific study of human life. But philosophers of religion rarely see these philosophical aspects of explanation as a topic to which they can contribute” (Schilbrack 2014, p. 201) He therefore hopes “that the future of the academic study of religions is increasingly informed by the contributions of philosophy” (Schilbrack 2014, p. 203).
Other religionists have offered different proposals. For example, while holding that normative claims are ineliminable in the study of religion, Lewis proposes that religionists shift their attention “to the justification offered for particular norms. The moves that exclude one from the discipline are appeals to an authority that is claimed not to require justification, appeals to an authority conceived as unquestionable, and appeals to private forms of justification for which, in principle, no argument can be given” (Lewis 2015, pp. 45–46). Schilbrack (2014, chp. 7) conceives religious studies as a tripartite discipline, with religionists committing to description (i.e., “describ[ing] religious beliefs, practices, experiences, and institutions accurately, which is to say, to identify them in a way that captures how they are understood by the practitioners themselves” (Schilbrack 2014, p. 180)), explanation (i.e., “offering an account that answers the questions of what causes religious communities to subscribe to their religious beliefs, what generates their experiences, why their practices are performed, and what functions institutions have” (Schilbrack 2014, p. 182)), and evaluation (i.e., “evaluat[ing] religious beliefs, experiences, practices, and institutions normatively, which is to say, to make an assessment of their value” (Schilbrack 2014, p. 185)).
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Ranganathan, B. Intelligibility and Normativity in the Study of Religion. Religions 2017, 8, 234. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel8110234
Ranganathan B. Intelligibility and Normativity in the Study of Religion. Religions. 2017; 8(11):234. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel8110234Chicago/Turabian Style
Ranganathan, Bharat. 2017. "Intelligibility and Normativity in the Study of Religion" Religions 8, no. 11: 234. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel8110234