I am a doctoral student in religious studies. There are 136 books and articles on my lists for my preliminary exams, and I have about 105 days to study. The math is not on my side. Every day this summer, I will post one or two responses to my reading. Comments, challenges, corrections, questions, and quibbles are strongly encouraged! All rights reserved.
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Charles Taylor’s tour de force of intellectual history describes, over the course of over eight hundred meticulous pages, the tectonic transformations that gave rise to our “secular age.” How did we in the west, Taylor asks, disembed from a social imaginary in which it was utterly unthinkable not to believe in God, and come to embrace a new imaginary in which the belief in God represents just one among many options? Like other scholars, Taylor insists that secularism connotes not simply the retreat of religion nor the rise of reason in modernity. Instead, he argues that secularism refers to the closing of the sense of porousness between humankind and divinity—a porousness that medievals knew so well.
Nicholas Mirzoeff is a leading figure in the interdisciplinary field of visual culture studies. He introduces the second edition of his widely-cited edited collection, The Visual Culture Reader, with the essay, “The Subject of Visual Culture,” which sketches the contours of visual culture as a field. He offers a definition up front: “Visual culture is a tactic for those who do not control such dominant means of visual production to negotiate the hypervisuality of everyday life in a digitized global culture” (4). This definition requires some unpacking.
American Sacred Space, edited by David Chidester and Edward Linenthal, is a pioneering collection of essays about an overlooked topic in American religious history. Especially helpful is the editors’ thoughtful opening essay addressing the issue of what is “sacred” and “American” about American sacred space, why it is important for the study of religion, and how they depart from earlier approaches to the subject. The heart of their argument is that spaces are made sacred through human religious practice and cultural labor. Rejecting the “mystical intuitionism” of earlier theorists like Mircea Eliade, Chidester and Linenthal assert that the sacred is not a given or substantive quality in the world before human culture comes to bear on it. “Sacred”—as an adjective, never a noun—is always situational, enacted by a particular group people in a specific historical time and place (6). In this project, they echo J.Z. Smith and certain strands of Gerardus van der Leeuw.
Catherine Albanese is a kind of activist-scholar in American religious history, known for her creative, recombinatory, and even controversial ways of re-slicing the field’s familiar archive into new categories. The most eminent of her attempts at this kind of project is her 2006 A Republic of Mind and Spirit, in which she argues for the centrality of “metaphysical religion” in American religious history. A capacious term, metaphysical religion describes an array of religious practices predicated on the symmetry and interpenetration between God and nature. Beliefs and practices such as clairvoyance, New Thought, Transcendentalism, spiritualism, mysticism, and magic fall under this label. According to Albanese, metaphysical religion may be as important, or even more important to American religious history than the evangelicalism that commands the lion’s share of historians’ attentions.
The classic secularization thesis, according to sociologist José Casanova, does not refer to one unified phenomenon but is comprised of three basic processes: (1) the functional differentiation of religion from secular spheres of society, (2) the decline of religion, and (3) the privatization of religion. Casanova argues that these three processes are not yoked together; they can operate at different levels at different times with degrees of independence from one another.
Sacred Places is an excursion into several tourist attractions of nineteenth-century America. Such sights, John Sears argues, played powerful but understudied cultural roles. In eight thick chapters, he moves through a formidable itinerary of places including Niagara Falls; Mammoth Cave; the Connecticut and Hudson Rivers; the Willey House of the White Mountains; prisons, asylums, cemeteries, and parks; Yosemite; Yellowstone; and Mauch Chunk. In his concluding chapter, he examines such twentieth-century heirs as the Kennedy Space Center, Elvis’ Graceland, and shopping malls. Sears draws from an impressive mélange of sources for his narrative, including literary essays by Hawthorne, Muir, Starr King, and Henry James, drawings and stereographs by Moran, paintings by Bierstadt, commercial advertisements, guidebooks, travel writings, gift books like Nathaniel Willis’ American Scenery, maps, and popular periodicals.
The study of emotion—dubbed “emotionology” by historian Peter Stearns—recently has experienced a renaissance in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Yet scholars of Religious Studies have been slow to embrace the trend. John Corrigan, the author of Business of the Heart: Religion and Emotion in the Nineteenth Century (2002), a microhistory about the social, religious, and economic functions of public weeping and other affective displays among male Protestants during the 1857-58 businessmen’s revival in Boston, is one of the field’s few pioneers in this area. His edited volume, Religion and Emotion, provides a much-needed introduction for those want to follow his lead. Its twelve essays exhibit wide range: they employ literary, historical, and anthropological methods, and address topics as diverse as filial piety in medieval Korean Buddhism, contemporary Bhakti emotional expression in food culture, and weeping in sixteenth-century Jewish mysticism.
The aim of Religion and Material Culture, according to its editor David Morgan, is to “materialize Religious Studies as a field of inquiry” (xiv). Despite important work in recent years, the discipline remains dominated by approaches that presume abstract “belief” to be religion’s central category, often reducing religion to “a body of assertions demanding assent” (2). Practices, sensations, emotions, spaces, and things, when they are examined, are seen as mere outward or secondary manifestations of prior, internal, and more fundamental beliefs. This belief- or language-centered approach stems from a number of factors, including the continued influence of the linguistic turn in the humanities and the social sciences, the pervasiveness of Saussearean semiotic models of culture, and the numerical supremacy of Protestants—churchgoing or cultural—in the field.
Secularists promise a civil society based on the rights of equal citizens. Individuals are entitled to freedom of conscience in religious matters and, in the United States, protection from the state for the free exercise thereof. In the past decade, however, critical theorists like Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood have gone to work on the concept “secularism,” arguing that it’s not all its cracked up to be. Secularism, they contend, is a historically specific construction that reproduces power relations, privileges western governments and western religions, and oppresses groups deemed to be beyond the boundaries of legitimate difference—racial, cultural, religious—drawn by white western secularists. Part of the trouble is secularism’s deep imbrication with liberal theory that assumes the individual to be the primary social unit and reason to be the central mode with which those individuals—as “rational agents”—encounter the world. But individuals and rational agency are not universal concepts; they are peculiar to the history of the West stemming from the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Secularism, like liberal theory, is not universal but really quite tendentious.
Martin Heidegger famously quipped, “making itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy.” I fear that my attempt at summarizing his difficult 1951 lecture “Building Dwelling Thinking,” with only the thinnest of backgrounds in philosophical phenomenology and ontology, will end up resembling an academic suicide mission. But here we go.