By Michael J. Altman
Robert: I feel that an earlier generation of scholars of religion was willing to consider these questions. The answers may not always have been satisfying–but I think of William James here, or even the early theorists of crowd behavior. There were scholars interested in talking about how we think about these sorts of human events, but I don’t see it anymore.
Richard: James is the perfect example of it–
Robert: But in the end he’s too individualistic for me!
Richard: Very Protestant, maybe?
Robert: Yes. [Laughs]
Maybe it's just me, but it feels like it's a strange time in the field of religious studies. I've been hiding in my dissertation cave for the past few months so maybe that's part of it. Yet, every time I poke my head out I keep noticing things. Little things. Reports of unease in the rooms of that conference in Indianapolis here, a dialogue about "presence" and "abundant events" that seems to run out of vocabulary before it can get off the ground there. To me, these moments signal the slow death of liberal Protestant religious studies and the grasping about for whatever will come next.
mentioned James Turner's Religion Enters the Academy but I want to come at the book from a different angle. Paul is right, William James is the hero of the book in the final chapter. But the first two chapters narrate the rise of the comparative and academic study of religion in America among liberal (mostly Unitarian) Protestants. In the first chapter, Turner brings Hannah Adams and Joseph Priestly to the fore as the early comparativists before 1820. Chapter two follows the growth of Unitarian and Transcendentalist interest in world religion from 1820 to 1875. This includes Thomas Wentworth Higginson's The Sympathy of Religions (1871), Lydia Marie Child's Progress of Religious Ideas through Successive Ages (1855), and James Freeman Clarke's Ten Great Religions (1871). Meanwhile, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton offered comparative religion as part of their ministerial training in the latter quarter of the century. The University of Chicago opened its doors in 1892 and quickly added a department of comparative religion. Then, a year later and in the same town, the World Parliament of Religions attempted to unite "all religion against all irreligion" with the help of many liberal Protestants. The long and the short of it--the history of religious studies is the history of liberal Protestantism.
It's not that early scholars of comparative religion happened to be liberal Protestants. Rather, Turner shows that comparative religion, and later religious studies, was a particularly liberal Protestant project. As he puts it, "Comparative religion during its first academic decades in the United States was thus a historically minded, text-based study, oriented toward articulated religious or ethical propositions. And the discipline's driving motive, stated or unstated, was t understand how non-European religions stacked up against Christianity" (65-66). It was a project by Protestants, for Protestants, using Protestant categories.
But Robert Orsi's laugh takes all the wind out of Jamesian sails. Even William James is too Protestant--too individual. Religion for James was "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine." I imagine Cotton Mather in his private solitude meditating on the grace of God not a procession in Italian Harlem.
As I read work on Asian religions, mostly Hinduism, the argument against the term religion--and by extension religious studies--seems rather easy. It's a Western term that doesn't fit well with the realities of Indian culture. Fine. We can have the debate if you want. But what if it isn't an East / West problem? What if the unease of religious historians not knowing their Bible or not wanting to admit to it, the back and forth of Bushman and Orsi trying to find a way to account for "abundant events," and the liberal Protestant history of religious studies are all linked? What if religious studies doesn't fit well with the realities of American culture? Maybe the unease in Indy and the search for adequate language to describe religious experience are really the unease of our liberal Protestant history and the search for a way out of it.
The field has been trying to shed its history for a long time now. As a religious studies major in college I took the "Theory of Religion" course. We read Durkheim, Freud,Weber and other European thinkers important to the field. Other than James we didn't read any Americans until we go to the late twentieth century--Eliade, J.Z. Smith, Russell McCutcheon. We ignored the American history of the field and its liberal Protestant baggage--poor James Freeman Clark.
William James won. But is that enough?