A guide to
Critical Terms for Religious Studies
edited by Mark C. Taylor

"This text is both indispensable and seminal. It is a precondition for any sophisticated discussion of religious studies in our time!"--Cornel West, Harvard University

"It is a sign of the maturity of a field of study when it pauses to look critically at the vocabulary it uses to talk about its subject. Critical Terms for Religious Studies examines two dozen terms that give shape to the discourse of the study of religion and locates their usages historically and in the present moment. An extraordinary contribution, it belongs within arm's reach of every serious student of religion."--Paul B. Courtright, Emory University

  Critical Terms for Religious Studies -- like our other books of critical terms -- is an essential book for students of the field. In twenty-two essays leading scholars working in a variety of traditions demonstrate through their incisive discussions that even our most basic terms for understanding religion are not neutral but carry specific historical and conceptual freight.

Each essay provides a concise history of a critical term, explores the issues raised by the term, and puts the term to use in an analysis of a religious work, practice, or event. Moving across Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Native American and Mayan religions, contributors explore terms ranging from experience, territory, and image, to God, sacrifice, and transgression.

Below you may take a look at the table of contents and read an excerpt from the introduction by Mark C. Taylor.

Table of Contents

Introduction  Mark C. Taylor
Belief  Donald S. Lopez, Jr.
Body  William R. LaFleur
Conflict  Bruce Lincoln
Culture  Tomoko Masuzawa
Experience  Robert H. Sharf
Gender  Daniel Boyarin
God  Francis Schüssler Fiorenza and Gordon D. Kaufman
Image  Margaret R. Miles
Liberation  Kenneth Surin
Modernity  Gustavo Benavides
Performance  Catherine Bell
Person  Charles E. Winquist
Rationality  Paul Stoller
Relic  Gregory Schopen
Religion, Religions, Religious  Jonathan Z. Smith
Sacrifice  Jill Robbins
Territory  Sam Gill
Time  Anthony F. Aveni
Transformation  Bruce B. Lawrence
Transgression  Michael Taussig
Value  Edith Wyschogrod
Writing  David Tracy

An excerpt from the introduction
by Mark C. Taylor

A century that began with modernism sweeping across Europe is ending with a remarkable resurgence of religious beliefs and practices throughout the world. From Protestant and Catholic churches in America to Orthodox churches in Russia, from temples in Israel and mosques in Iran to temples in India and mosques in Indonesia, religion is flourishing. As the millennium approaches, spiritual concerns pervade the personal lives of a growing number of individuals and are ever more significant in the political affairs of nations. Neither the private nor the public sphere can be understood today without an adequate appreciation for the role religious beliefs and practices play in shaping selves, societies, and cultures.

For many students of modernity and postmodernity, this widespread revival of religious activity has been unexpected and remains puzzling. In the eyes of some of its most influential prophets and analysts, the progressive advance toward modernity is supposed to be inseparable from a gradual movement away from religion. As Gustavo Benavides points out, "a condition of modernity presupposes an act of self-conscious distancing from a past or a situation regarded as naive." While modernity and modernism are not the same, they are closely related and mutually constitutive. "If we understand modernity," Benavides continues, "as involving a kind of perpetual critique, the parallels with the distancing techniques and polemical intent of aesthetic modernism become apparent; indeed, literary, and aesthetic modernism in general, can help us grasp the oppositional, distancing, and self-referential nature of modernity" (chapter 10, "Modernity"). Modernity, according to this analysis, defines itself in and through the constitution of and contrast with its own other. Throughout the course of the so-called modern era, this other has assumed a variety of guises ranging from the "primitive" and "aboriginal" to the "ancient" and "traditional." The constitutive contrast between the modern on the one hand and, on the other, the primitive, aboriginal, ancient or traditional implies a related set of oppositions, which includes, inter alia, emotion/reason, intuition/thought, superstition/science, undifferentiation/individuation, and simplicity/complexity. For many who celebrate modernity and its expression in modernism, these contrasts are not equivalent but are ordered in such a way that the latter term is privileged over the former. When understood diachronically, this hierarchical structure leads to an interpretation of history in which the movement from primitivism to modernism involves a progression from emotion to reason, undifferentiation to individuation, simplicity to complexity, and superstition to science. Following the maxim according to which ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, proponents of this evolutionary vision of history tend to associate religion with infantile and primitive behavior, which either is or should be overcome by mature individuals who live in the modern world.

The decline in religious belief and practice in many modern societies has not, however, been merely a matter of growing intellectual sophistication and psychological maturation but has also been the result of important political and economic factors. It is undeniable that the fate of religion has been decisively influenced by the rise of the secular nation-state and concurrent spread of a market economy. The modern nation-state emerged from the ashes of religious conflicts that ravaged Europe in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. As Bruce Lincoln notes in his essay on "Conflict," with Hobbes's formulation of

a social-contract theory that derived legitimacy from the people who constitute the nation, rather than from God, the early modern state was freed of its ideological dependence on the Church, and increased its power at the latter's expense, assuming an ever larger share of functions that had previously fallen under religious purview: education, moral discipline and surveillance, social relief, record keeping, guarantee of contracts, etc. Conversely, the scope and influence of religious institutions (now in the plural, instead of the singular) were greatly attenuated, as religion -- disarticulated from its symbiotic relation with the state -- was reconceived as an element of a rapidly expanding civil society, in which competing institutions and forms of discourse (arts, sciences, philosophy, secular ideologies, journalism, popular folk wisdom, etc.) also had their place. (chapter 3, "Conflict")
As recently as the 1960s, historians and social theorists insisted that modernization and secularization were inseparable. In addition to the shift of social, political, and economic power from church to state, advances in modern science and technology led to the gradual disenchantment of the world and experience in it. In the mechanistic universe defined by Descartes and described in encyclopedic detail by Enlightenment philosophers, there seemed to be little room for either divinity or things divine. With the supernatural in full retreat, God first withdrew to a deistic heaven to watch His creation from afar and then seemed to disappear from the lives of His erstwhile followers. From this point of view, as modernity waxes, religion seems to wane.

But matters are considerably more complex than this unidirectional line of historical development suggests. To identify modernization merely with the eclipse of religion is to fail to discern the religious dimensions of modernity itself. Religious devotion and belief do not simply disappear but initially are inwardized in a way that renders them as invisible as the transcendent God who is present as an abiding absence. This interiorization of religion begins with Luther's turn to the individual self and reaches closure with Kierkegaard's singular individual for whom "the paradox of faith is an interiority that is incommensurable with exteriority." Imagining an encounter with the knight of faith, Kierkegaard's pseudonymous author Johannes de Silentio marvels:

The instant I first lay eyes on him, I set him apart at once; I jump back, clap my hands, and say half aloud, "Good Lord, is this the man, is this really the one -- he looks just like a tax collector!" But this is indeed the one. I move a little closer to him, watch his slightest movement to see if it reveals a bit of heterogeneous optical telegraphy from the infinite, a glance, a facial expression, a gesture, a sadness, a smile that would betray the infinite in its heterogeneity with the finite. No! He is solid all the way through. (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling)
If, as Kierkegaard finally admits, the knight of faith is indistinguishable from the philistine, opposites collapse into each other in such a way that it becomes impossible to distinguish religious from non-religious conduct.

Such a dialectical reversal of the religious into the secular and vice versa lies at the heart of the philosophy of Kierkegaard's lifelong foe: Hegel. While Kierkegaard insists that the private interior of individual subjectivity provides refuge for religious life in a world that is increasingly secular, Hegel maintains that processes of modernization do not result in the disenchantment of the world but actually involve what is, in effect, a sacralization of nature and history and a naturalization and historicizaton of religious realities. Within Hegel's speculative philosophy, the natural world and human life are nothing less than the self-embodiment of God. According to this theological scheme, the incarnation is not a unique event limited to the lifetime of a single individual but is a universal process that reaches completion in the modern west. Hegel summarizes his conclusion in the closing lines of the Phenomenology of Spirit:

The goal, Absolute Knowledge, or Spirit that knows itself as Spirit, has for its path the recollection of the Spirits as they are in themselves and as they accomplish the organization of their return. Their preservation regarded from the side of their free existence appearing in the form of contingency is history; but regarded from their comprehended organization, it is the science of knowledge in the sphere of appearance; the two together comprehend history; they form the recollection and the Calvary of absolute Spirit, the actuality, truth, and certainty of his throne, without which he would be lifeless and alone. Only
from the chalice of this realm of spirits
foams forth for Him his own infinitude.
As Absolute Spirit is embodied in nature and history, truth is gradually revealed first in religious symbols and artistic images and then translated into philosophical concepts. Speculative philosophy brings this incarnational process to closure by comprehending the modern secular world as the realization of divine life.

While the theological and metaphysical presuppositions of Hegel's philosophical project might seem dated, the complexity of his dialectical vision enables us to discern religious dimensions of modernity that less sophisticated interpreters overlook. Even when appearing resolutely secular, twentieth-century culture is haunted by religion. From Mondrian's theosophical painting to Le Corbusier's purist architecture, from Kafka's Kabbalistic parables to Derrida's deconstructive criticism, from Joyce's eucharistic vision to Madonna's pop music and videos, and from Alexander Graham Bell's telepathic spiritualism to cyberculture's telematic mysticism, religion often is most effective where it is least obvious. When analysis is historically and critically informed, it becomes clear that the continuing significance of religion for contemporary culture extends far beyond its established institutions and manifest forms.

* * *

Though religion does not disappear even when it seems to be absent, there has nonetheless been an extraordinary revival of traditional religious belief and practice in recent years. How is this unexpected development to be interpreted? There is, of course, no simple answer to this difficult question. While the revival of religious institutions always depends upon complex local conditions with long and often tortuous histories, several general factors shed light on the growing significance of religious belief and practice.

The first noteworthy consideration is the close association between the processes of secularization and modernization on the one hand, and, on the other, westernization. The modern nation-state and market economy are, as I have noted, western inventions. The relationship between modernization and westernization has meant that for many societies, the price of modernity is the repression of local customs and traditional institutions. Political reform and economic development combine to promote the spread to western hegemony whose protean forms range from the machinations of military power to the fascination with consumer culture. When confronted by the growing power of institutions that seem alien, many individuals and groups turn to traditional forms of religion to legitimize strategies of resistance designed to secure a measure of independence and autonomy. Bruce Lincoln's keen observation once again is helpful:

In recent years, contradictions between nation and state have also manifested themselves in a particularly debilitating fashion. Where this is so, it has proven relatively easy for militant factions of the population to wage aggressive campaigns, in which they seek to redefine the principles on which nation and state are constituted, and the ways in which they relate to each other. Among the instruments they have used for mobilization, religious discourse and practice have often been among the most effective, just as their appeals to a sense of religious community have been among the most powerful bases for a novel sense of collective identity. (Chapter 3, "Conflict")

The westernization that this tactical revival of religion is fashioned to resist is inseparably bound to accelerating processes of globalization. While the growth of a global economy has been the focus of much attention lately, global culture is not a new phenomenon. From the emergence of the earliest trade routes, through the spread of imperialism and colonialism, to the appearance of postindustrial information society, globalization has been a function of advances in transportation and communications technologies. As people and information move greater distances at faster speeds, different cultures are brought into closer contact, thereby creating the possibility for both mutual understanding and violent conflict. In the late twentieth century, speed, which has become an end in itself, produces a sense of vertigo that many people find utterly disorienting. When culture is commodified and currencies telecast, the line separating cultural suprastructure from economic infrastructure becomes obscure. Global capitalism promotes global consumerism, which, in turn, fuels global capitalism to create a circle that is as vicious as it is efficient. While analysts frequently stress the importance of the globalization of capital, they usually overlook the no less significant globalization of labor. The deterritorialization of capital is inseparable from the nomadization of labor. Multinational corporations cannot operate without a multinational work force. From the managerial and technocratic elite to an uneducated and unskilled underclass, workers circulate throughout the world along networks of exchange that form material shadows of the immaterial currencies pulsating at the speed of light through fiber optic webs.

This nomadization sometimes promotes a cosmopolitanism in which the differences separating people and societies seem less important than shared outlooks and values. But deterritorialization and nomadization can also lead to a sense of alienation created by the necessity of living and laboring in a strange society and a foreign culture. For people uprooted physically, psychologically, and politically, traditional religions once again become attractive. Summarizing the complex interplay between modernization and religion in his controversial book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, Samuel Huntington argues:

Initially, Westernization and modernization are closely linked, with the non-Western society absorbing substantial elements of Western culture and making slow progress towards modernization. As the pace of modernization increases, however, the rate of Westernization declines and the indigenous culture goes through a revival. Further modernization then alters the civilization balance of power between the West and the non-Western society, bolsters the power and self-confidence of that society, and strengthens commitment to the indigenous culture.

In the early phases of change, Westernization thus promotes modernization. In the later phases, modernization promotes de-Westernization and the resurgence of indigenous culture in two ways. At the societal level, modernization enhances the economic, military and political power of the society as a whole and encourages the people of that society to have confidence in their culture and to become culturally assertive. At the individual level, modernization generates feelings of alienation and anomie as traditional bonds and social relations are broken and this leads to crises of identity to which religion provides an answer.

One does not need to share Huntington's political perspective or policy agenda to appreciate the force of his insight about the growing significance of religion in the world today.

* * *

The contemporary study of religion is, as I have noted, not only multidisciplinary but also multicultural. The growing recognition of the importance of different religious traditions not only raised difficult methodological and theoretical issues but also led to complex comparative questions. The formal discipline of the comparative study of religion began in the late nineteenth century with the work of F. Max Müller. Trained as a philologist, Müller extended comparative methods, which he had devised in his work on Indo-European languages, to the study of religion. While his claim that myths are nothing more than "a disease of language" has been widely criticized, his insistence on the centrality of language and the necessity of comparative analysis of cultural phenomena has been very influential.

The motivations for comparative analysis, however, vary widely. Though always involving an interplay between sameness and difference, the activity of comparison can have as its goal either the reduction of differences to identity or the establishment of differences that have little or nothing in common. When carried to extremes, the former approach leads to a monistic perennial philosophy in which all religions are purported to express the same truth differently and the latter procedure issues in a dualistic heresiological model in which true religion is set over against false religions. The challenge of effective comparison is to find a mean between these extremes, which allows interpreters to understand differences without erasing them.

But even when committed to staking out such a middle ground, some analysts find similarities more intriguing than differences, while others are convinced that differences are more instructive than similarities. In an effort to counter-balance what she regards as the current infatuation with difference in much critical theory, Wendy Doniger argues:

The tension between sameness and difference has become a crucial issue for the self-definition of postmodernism. Now the mere addition of accent aigu transforms the modest English word into the magic buzzword for everything that right-thinking (or, as the case may be, left-thinking) men and women care about: différence (or, even buzzier yet, différance). For postmodernism, sameness is the devil, difference the angel. . . .

[T]he academic world . . . now suffers from a post-post-colonial backlash: in this age of multinationalism, to assume that two texts from different cultures are 'the same' in any significant way is regarded as demeaning to the individualism of each, a reflection of the old racist attitude that 'all wogs look alike' -- in the dark, all cats are gray. And in the climate of anti-Orientalism, it is regarded as imperialist of a scholar to stand outside (presumably above) two different cultures and to equate them.

I am unwilling to close the comparativist shop just because it is being picketed by people with whose views I happen, by and large, to agree. I want to salvage the broad comparative agenda, even if I acquiesce, or even participate, in the savaging of certain of its elements. In particular, I want to make peace between premodern typologies and postmodern différance in comparativism, to bring into a single (if not necessarily harmonious) conversation the genuinely different approaches that several cultures have made to similar (if not the same) human problems (Doniger, "Myth and Methods in the Dark").

"To make peace between premodern typologies and postmodern différance," it is necessary to develop comparative analyses that do not presuppose universal principles or reinscribe ahistorical essences. Whether or not it is possible to realize such a comparativist program, many critics schooled in poststructuralism insist that the very effort to establish similarities where there appear to be differences is, in the final analysis, intellectually misleading and politically misguided. When reason is obsessed with unity, they argue, it tends to become as hegemonic as political and economic orders constructed to regulate whatever does not fit into or agree with governing structures. In this situation, critical theory becomes a strategy for resisting dominant power by soliciting the return of the repressed.

Though not committed to the agenda of poststructuralists, Jonathan Z. Smith shares their concern for cultural differences. In contrast to Doniger's search for the same, Smith persistently tracks differences. "It is axiomatic," he argues

that comparison is never a matter of identity. Comparison requires the acceptance of difference as the grounds of its being interesting, and a methodical manipulation of that difference to achieve some stated cognitive end. The questions of comparison are questions of judgment with respect to difference: What differences are to be maintained in the interests of comparative inquiry? What differences can be defensibly relaxed and relativized in light of tasks at hand? (Smith, To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual)
The task of the student of religion is, in the words of the French poet Francis Ponge, "to name the differential quality" of the phenomena under investigation. But, of course, the preoccupation with difference can become as problematic as the fixation on similarity and unity. Not only is difference as such incomprehensible but differences that share nothing in common can fragment selves and divide peoples. If the multiple cultures in the midst of which we live are to be understood and the conflicts they engender negotiated, it is necessary both to search for commonality in the midst of differences and to respect differences that sometimes cannot be mediated.

Though the contemporary study of religion is the product of developments dating back to the Enlightenment, its distinctive multidisciplinary orientation and multicultural focus reflect a world that is undeniably postmodern. The variety of approaches and plurality of traditions not only enrich the investigation of religion but also create considerable confusion. Critical Terms for Religious Studies is intended as a guide for people who are seeking a more adequate understanding of the history as well as the contemporary significance of religion.

Having examined the complexities entailed in the notion of religion as well as the range of methodological alternatives available for its investigation, it is important to consider what is involved in the effort to identify critical terms for religious studies. The word term derives from the Latin terminus, which means boundary or limit. The Roman deity Terminus was the god of boundaries whose statue marked limits that were not to be transgressed. Whether conceived spatially or temporally, terms function as enabling constraints that simultaneously create possibilities and circumscribe the limits of exploration. But even when lines of definition seem to be clearly drawn, terms remain irreducibly complex. As Deleuze and Guattari observe in their discussion of concepts: "There are no simple concepts. Every concept has components and is defined by them. It therefore has a combination. It is a multiplicity, although not every multiplicity is a concept" (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?). Constituted by the intricate interplay of sameness and difference, the distinctive contours of any term are a function of both its multiple components and its relation to other terms. Joining and separating terms, boundaries are necessarily permeable and thus terms are never simple. This complexity renders terms polysemous and multivocal. Consider, for example, one of the terms included in this volume: liberation. Within the context of religious studies, "liberation" is associated with salvation, redemption, and renewal. "Liberation" can be understood in terms of emancipation, purification, absolution, illumination, enlightenment, and, perhaps most important, freedom. But, of course, what one is liberated from and what one is liberated for vary considerably from time to time and place to place. Consequently, any discussion of liberation will lead to far-reaching questions of theology, anthropology, and cosmology. This range of associations points to related themes like conflict, transgression, value, personhood, ritual, and sacrifice. Rather than a limitation or shortcoming, such rich equivocity lends terms an openness and flexibility. The terms included in this volume harbor a multiplicity and complexity that extend their analytic range and enhance their interpretive potential.

If terms are to be useful for the contemporary study of religion, they must not only be strategically selected but must also be critically assessed. "Critical" means, inter alia, crucial, decisive, important, momentous, and pivotal. The following essays examine terms that are in this sense critical for the study of religion. From the perspective of modernity and postmodernity, however, the word "critical" carries further connotations. Ever since the publication of Kant's three critiques, the notion of criticism has been inseparable from the self-reflexivity of self-consciousness. Indeed, as we have already discovered, the second-order reflection inherent in self-reflexive awareness is tacit in the very term "religion." In Kant's critical philosophy, consciousness turns back on itself to examine how knowledge arises. Transcendental inquiry is the investigation of the conditions of the possibility and limitation of knowledge. Kant concludes that the mind is, in effect, hardwired: consciousness and self-consciousness presuppose forms of intuition (space and time) and twelve categories of understanding. Since these structures of cognition are not supposed to originate in experience, Kant regards them as universal. The forms of intuition and categories of understanding function as something like a grid that filters experience and organizes knowledge. In a more contemporary idiom, the mind operates according to a program that processes data. The a priori grid or program is what makes knowledge possible by defining its boundaries.

Though the dream of a universal program lives on in the conscious and unconscious codes of structuralism, many of Kant's successors agree that the mind is not a tabula rasa but disagree with his contention that mental patterns are universal and unchanging. As Hegel was quick to realize, the mind, like everything else, has a history. The particular categories through which we structure experience and organize knowledge are historically specific and culturally relative. But Hegel's critique of Kant extends beyond the historicization and relativization of the categories to a recognition of the intricate interplay of cognitive forms. While Kant simply appropriates Aristotle's categories of judgment, Hegel attempts to demonstrate the necessary relation among forms, which he insists are both epistemological and ontological. In place of Kant's universal grid, Hegel postulates a metastructure that is analogous to a living organism in which thought and being gradually evolve. Though continuously developing, this organic structure is nonetheless essentially closed. When fully comprehended in Hegelian philosophy, everything that appears to be arbitrary or aleatory assumes its proper place within an all-inclusive synchronic and diachronic structure.

Hegel's insistence that categories, which make knowledge possible, are historical and not universal represents a significant corrective to Kant's critical philosophy. But the claim that the forms of knowledge comprise an organic totality, which reaches closure in Hegel's speculative philosophy, is historically indefensible and analytically problematic. If one is not committed to the principles of philosophical idealism, it is possible to identify alternative structures of knowledge. Rather than a universal grid or seamless organism, critical reflection articulates an incomplete web of open and flexible terms. This seamy network of constraint, which is riddled with gaps that can be neither bridged nor closed, constitutes a constantly shifting cultural apriori that renders critical knowledge possible while at the same time circumscribing its unavoidable limits.

The terms selected for Critical Terms for Religious Studies constitute such an enabling network of constraint. The essays devoted to these terms provide something like a map for the exploration of the territory of religion. In choosing the terms for this volume, we have tried to create a balance between the expected and the unexpected. While the use of terms like "belief," "God," "sacrifice," "time," and "value" have long histories, terms like "culture," "gender," "image," "performance," "relic," "transgression," and "writing" have not always been central to the study of religion. The tactic of establishing an interplay between the familiar and the strange represents an effort to raise old questions in new ways and to promote a dialogue between religious studies and important work going on in other areas of the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Any such assemblage of terms is undeniably arbitrary and unavoidably incomplete. Moreover, the historical specificity and cultural relativity of cognitive structures means that terms are not universally translatable. In some traditions, even the seemingly critical terms "religion" and "God" are missing. The list of terms in this book makes no claim to be exhaustive. To the contrary, we insist that every cultural a priori that renders knowledge possible and interpretation necessary is always incomplete.

The following essays all reflect the multidisciplinary and multicultural character of contemporary religious studies. Contributors have neither presented comprehensive surveys of terms nor global overviews of traditions. Each author has first analyzed the theoretical importance of a specific term and then examined this term in a particular religious tradition. In working through this volume, readers will discover that methods, cultures, and terms cross and crisscross in constantly changing ways. As lines of affiliation and association unravel and rewind, a shared analytic vocabulary, which enables interpreters to discern commonalities without erasing differences, begins to emerge. These essays only mark a beginning, for the work of analysis is interminable. Far from a definitive work or finished book, Critical Terms for Religious Studies is an open -- even interactive -- text, which challenges the reader to take up and extend the critical study of religion.

Copyright notice:Excerpted from pages 1-6 and 13-18 of Critical Terms for Religious Studies edited by Mark C. Taylor, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 1998 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.


Critical Terms for Religious Studies
Edited by Mark C. Taylor
© 1998, 430 pages
Cloth $70.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-79156-2
Paper $20.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-79157-9

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