Religion Enters the Academy, Looks for Emergency Exit

Paul Harvey

And I don't know if I can do it,
Oh no, I've said too much, I haven't said enough.
REM, "Losing My Religion"

"Jason Kidd is . . . savant-like."
Rick Carlisle, Coach, Dallas Mavericks, on ESPN

My previously promised post reflecting further on one particular session of the 2nd Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture isn’t going to happen today (tonight) as planned. Besides, Curtis Evans’s comment on yesterday’s post concisely summarized most of what I was going to say anyway.

But briefly, the discussion at the conference about interpreting supernatural events/experiences/”abundant events”/whatever you want to call them brought my mind to one of the classics of the field, William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. And that was coincidental, because on the plane to the conference I just read a slender and very entertaining new volume by James Turner, Religion Enters the Academy: The Origins of the Scholarly Study of Religion in America. And let me say, next time you have a 2 or 3 hour plane ride to a conference, bring along this volume. It’s substantive and meaty enough to make you feel like you’ve earned a scholarly pat on the back, but it’s also funny and entertaining enough to distract you from the 3 year old in the seat behind you screaming his/her brains out and kicking the back of your chair for the entirety of the route from, oh, say, Denver to Indianapolis. Just saying.

This work is the published form of some recent lectures Turner gave at Stetson University in 2010. Unlike my experience with the Lamar lectures, which I gave in 2008 and then spent the next 2 1/2 years piddling around with, Turner was prompt in turning in his manuscript and getting it right out there for publication.

I’m going to take the lazy way out and plagiarize from the book’s website to give you a brief summary, one which captures the argument if not the dry wit and entertaining prose of the book:

Religious studies—also known as comparative religion or history of religions—emerged as a field of study in colleges and universities on both sides of the Atlantic during the late nineteenth century. In Europe, as previous historians have demonstrated, the discipline grew from long established traditions of university-based philological scholarship. But in the United States, James Turner argues, religious studies developed outside the academy.

Until about 1820, Turner contends, even learned Americans showed little interest in non-European religions—a subject that had fascinated their counterparts in Europe since the end of the seventeenth century. Growing concerns about the status of Christianity generated American interest in comparing it to other great religions, and the resulting writings eventually produced the academic discipline of religious studies in U.S. universities. Fostered especially by learned Protestant ministers, this new discipline focused on canonical texts—the “bibles”—of other great world religions. This rather narrow approach provoked the philosopher and psychologist William James to challenge academic religious studies in 1902 with his celebrated and groundbreaking Varieties of Religious Experience.

Turner concludes by writing, “Long recognized as a classic, Varieties now became something of a model. To be sure, the great majority of scholars of religion today study religions in ways far different from James, but many religious-studies experts do follow a Jamesian path to understanding religious experience.” He then goes on to cite a number of works, including Ann Taves’s Fits, Trances, and Visions, as examples of how James “stretched the map of religious studies in America" -- all the way from Boston to the experiments of the 60s to the pluralistic vocabulary of describing brilliantly "in the zone" point guards as savant-like -- an instance of neither saying too much, or not saying enough.

Then, late last week, I was talking to an academic editor for Bedford Books, and we were discussing some of the volumes in the wonderfully classroom-usable Bedford Series in History and Culture. I asked him what else was forthcoming in that series, and guess what he told me: Robert Abzug of the University of Texas is putting out a Bedford edition of a trimmed-down, annotated, sizable excerpt of Varieties of Religious Experience.

Will wonders never cease? This particular editor was a little skeptical of the project, but one of the series editors, the historian David Blight, apparently told one of the Bedford people that James's book had "changed my life,” and for that and other reasons the founder and head of Bedford Books became a major champion of the volume. So, apparently it is on the way.

True confession: I first read James in college, hated it, and gave up about halfway through. Of course, at that age my tastes in a number of things (excruciatingly rancid 3.2 beer, Herman Hesse, Quadrophenia, and those blobs of nothing that passed for "tofu" in the 1970s/early 80s) were very questionable, so it’s no wonder it took me some time and mentoring to understand James and some other classics of that sort. If the Bedford series volume succeeds, it will be the kind of introduction to the text that I didn’t have but needed. Here’s hoping.

In his discussion with Richard Bushman, which Chris Jones wrote about on our blog here, Robert Orsi discusses how we need a new language to interpret religious experience in a way that is neither overtly confessional or crudely reductionist. Bushman suggests that James provides one model, to which Orsi replies that that’s still too individualist (read: Protestant) a model, a point he elaborated on at the conference by noting how the understood subject of religious studies is the “autonomous subject.” Reading Turner’s history of the discipline, it’s easy to see how this became the case, and given the obstacles to its development (cultural, intellectual, political, etc.), it’s a wonder that “comparative religion” ever developed as a discipline in America at all. But it did, and now it's everywhere, in everyday vocabulary, hence Rick Carlisle's brilliantly offhanded description of Jason Kidd's mastery over the psychology of his team, and his mastery over the more talented Heat.

More on this as the week progresses, I hope, but as someone who has spent some time studying folks whose "abundant events" are less than politically neutral or benign, it makes me wonder how Orsi's attractive theories and wonderful discussion with Bushman affect work on religious intolerance and violence in America. Just a quick example comes to mind: sitting in the Southern Historical Collection archives in Chapel Hill years ago, I came across the letters of a white southern Spiritualist, who was writing correspondence to her deceased son in the way that nineteenth-century Spiritualists did.

The Spiritualists in Ann Braude's classic book Radical Spirits are, in a sense, easy to root for: they are women finding their voices, arguing for abolitionism and women's rights during their trances, and so forth. But this particular woman (who initially interested me because Spiritualism was almost totally a Northern thing in the antebellum era, so I was trying to figure out how it made its way South) was writing about a son who was involved in the massively repressive violence that was overturning Reconstruction in Mississippi -- specifically, her son, whom she now saw addressing her from the interplanetary realms in her own rationally inexplicable but emotionally/spiritually powerful event, was a white Redemptionist who was killed trying to deny the vote to black men in Clinton, Mississippi, in 1875, one of the "autumnal outbreaks" that President Grant famously grew weary of as the experiment of Reconstruction ran its course and the fateful federal compromise with southern white supremacy took hold.

This woman's experience clearly was real and powerful "to her," and I don't mean "to her, and she was crazy." I'm no Spiritualist, for sure, but can recognize culturally sanctioned forms of mourning as part of religious experience. But her experience was of hearing the voice of her deceased son who also happened to be a violent white supremacist.

I don't know what to make of all of it, but the fascinating discussion at the first session of the conference and continued online elsewhere just made me recall that reaction to that particular document in the archives.


Kelly Baker at: June 14, 2011 at 10:01 AM said...

Paul, it is a different thing when you study folks who cause, let's say, discomfort. Your moment in the archive is one that I have time and time again:

This woman's experience clearly was real and powerful "to her," and I don't mean "to her, and she was crazy." But her experience was of hearing the voice of her deceased son who also happened to be a violent white supremacist.

It is real, but it is also harmful, insidious, and disquieting. Orsi mentioned at the first panel that perhaps he should have done a better job writing about people he "did not want to have lunch with." Intersubjectivity becomes a very complicated affair, when working on so-called unloved groups, like for instance, Klansmen or doomsday prophets. Empathy, as I noted in a previous post and comment section, is a complicated solution to a complicated problem.

Just this morning on the phone with an archivist (who I have now known for years), I told her my Klan project is coming to a place of almost finished, which made me a bit sad. To which, she replied, "Perhaps this time, you can work on something cheerful."

Even the language we commonly use to discuss our subjects/conversants/actors fails me when I try to describe why I study what I study and why I would EVEN want to.

I'll plan on continuing this discussion as we continue to post on the RAAC conference, which is turning out to be one of the best kinds of conferences because of the discussion and thoughtfulness it generates.

Anonymous at: June 14, 2011 at 10:02 AM said...

I'm looking forward to hearing more about your reflections on spending time on studying religious persons whose "abundant events" are not politically neutral or benign. Kelly and I made some offhand comment (after Orsi's remarks) that we tend to study people with whom we would not like to have lunch or sit down for dinner. Rather than posting on this website, I should be spending more time sending off the final proposal for my second book project, in order to get a formal contract. But I've been delayed precisely because I'm not quite in the mood to address some of the difficult topics in the manuscript. So instead, I've been reading early novels of Saul Bellow, watching old episodes of Boston Legal, revisiting Chicago's historic sites, and doing quite a bit of procrastinating on gathering up material that is essential to my second book project. So glad that I can hang out here for a while. At least that way I feel that I not wasting time and participating in a vibrant and interesting conversation.

Curtis J. Evans

Kelly Baker at: June 14, 2011 at 10:23 AM said...

Curtis, while you are procrastinating (I seem to be doing that today too), RiAH would love your reflections on the non-benign 'abundant events.' As you well know, I have a lot to say about this, but your commentary would be lovely.

There is, of course, no pressure. Please know that I, too, get trapped by some of the particular difficulties of working on (white) supremacists. Please keep participating in our discussions because your insights are fabulous.

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