World Religions, American Religions, the Object of Study, and an Ode to Bruce Lincoln

Charles McCrary

This year I have been teaching “world religions” for the first time. I knew I would be required to do it at some point, and I dreaded it. My position was familiar and unoriginal: Religion doesn’t exist; it has no essence. The word wouldn’t even make sense to any of our non-Western and/or pre-modern subjects. It is a recent invention, a product of what has been largely an imperialist, colonialist, racist project. Less insidious but also dissuasive, many world religions textbooks are $120 assemblages of Wikipedia articles couched in thinly veiled liberal Protestant theology. The discourse of “world religions” is something we can and should study—and, as Mike Graziano recently pointed out, we can study it in the context of American history. But it’s not something we engage in.

Nevertheless, we have classes called “world religions.” Some institutions still call theirs something like “religion in the human experience.” So, how can we teach these classes in ideologically and methodologically responsible ways? Should we teach only a history of World Religions discourse itself—a meta-history? This is a viable option. Equipped with histories like Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions and David Chidester’s Empire of Religion, intellectual frameworks from Wendy Brown and Russell McCutcheon, and maybe a few methodological tools from Foucault or Marx, students can use their textbook as a primary source, historicizing it and interrogating its normative assumptions. This would make for a good class. But I fear I have neither the patience nor the aptitude to accept total failure that this task would require. (Also, I know that “millennials” are supposedly marked by their ironic self-awareness, but that mood is characteristically absent from large portions of the demographic. My students resoundingly hate anything “meta.”) So what else can we do?

Last semester I sat in on a seminar co-taught by Nicole Kelley and Matt Day designed to answer this very question. Is there any responsible and defensible way to talk about “religion” that identifies it, even if hesitantly and provisionally, as a thing in the world? If anyone can do it—and help us do it—it’s Bruce Lincoln. I read Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society in my first few weeks of grad school, and it remains one of the most influential books for my work. What I failed until recently to understand, though, was that Lincoln provides us with a framework for using “religious” as an analytic term (an undertaking of which I was once pretty churlishly dismissive.) This semester my world religions class began with a close reading of Lincoln’s “Theses on Method,” and we cribbed from it—supplemented by selections from Discourse and Authority—our definition of religion: “that discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal.” Here we also find a definition of our job: “History, in the sharpest possible contrast, is that discourse which speaks of things temporal and terrestrial in a human and fallible voice, while staking its claim to authority on rigorous critical practice.” Their first assignment was to rewrite this thesis in their own words. The course has thus transpired, like many of Lincoln’s books, as a serious of historical studies of people utilizing religious discourse, with close attention to what is at stake in their use of that discourse.

Aside: This past weekend, we had the pleasure of welcoming Bruce Lincoln to Florida State as the keynote speaker for our annual Graduate Student Symposium, directed by fellow RiAH blogger Andy McKee. Because I was nervous and have nothing interesting to say, I didn’t meet Dr. Lincoln, but I’ll remember his visit for a long time. His keynote address, “A Seventeenth-Century Werewolf and the Drama of Religious Resistance,” was an excellent example of the way a close textual reading in context can produce detailed micro-studies that demonstrate broader societal trends. He illustrated how “religious resistance” is a particular strategy of the dominated wherein they use the authoritative logic and vocabulary of the dominators, but modify its orientation or moral implications. (For another example, see Lincoln's "How to Read a Religious Text.") I could say more about this, but I understand it was recorded and should be available soon. You should watch/listen to it. At a roundtable discussion also featuring Matt Day and our own intrepid blogmeister Cara Burnidge, Lincoln spoke with an openness and even vulnerability that I have never seen from someone of his stature. It was an amazing display of conceptual precision, methodological integrity, and yet generosity. I’ll stop the ode here, since reverence “is a religious, not a scholarly virtue.”

What does this have to do with religion in American history? The problem of world religions extends to “American religions” as well, as Mike Altman argued on this blog last year. While I’m sympathetic to Mike’s point of view (and I did try to offer a solution based on the constitution of publics, but I suppose I ended up taking step one, as outlined here), perhaps Lincoln can help us salvage the project of talking about American religions, not just American “religions.” Of course, we all should be very aware of how the term itself is manufactured, employed, and policed, but if we use Lincoln’s framework, perhaps we can identify discourse and discursive communities that we would deem “religious” in defensible scholarly acts of classification. Surely, ideological persuasion by appeals to transcendent authority has been a common feature of American history. And certainly we can historicize these moves by identifying the various sorts of capital at stake. I think this could be a satisfying theoretical delineation of our field—our “object of study,” religion in American history.

If we were to justify our data selection in this way, what would this field look like? Which stories and frameworks would be elevated? Which would drop from view? What would stay the same?


Charlie McCrary at: February 24, 2015 at 12:44 AM said...

Regarding the last two paragraphs: I know this post is about the category “religion” and not “America,” which poses similar problems. Forestalling the discussion of “America(n)” indicates the incompleteness of the sense in which I asked the final paragraph’s questions, but I don’t think it undermines my points. Of course we should try to find defensible ways to use this label too. On that front, this post is likely less helpful.

Brett Hendrickson at: February 24, 2015 at 7:36 AM said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking post. Two personal caveats: 1. I have not read hardly any Bruce Lincoln. 2. I teach a lot of "world religions" and recently had the opportunity to do a revision of a world religions textbook, an experience that left me with ongoing troubles with the whole project of teaching world religions and a recognition that these textbooks really need to be "taught" to be effective.

I have one practical and one theoretical question for you, Charlie.

Practical: After introducing your students to Lincoln's ideas about the study of religion, have you been using a world religions textbook? If so, how are they responding to it? If not, what are you doing instead? I'm always looking for new ideas!

Theoretical: I quickly read through Lincoln's "Theses on Method" that you linked to and noticed that one could read Lincoln's thoughts in such a way to conclude that "religion" as a constructed discursive category is not inherently problematic as long as it is understood as such. And moreover, it is the scholar's prerogative to employ these kinds of categories as we see fit in our studies of other people. Therefore, the angst we might feel about using the category of "religion" is a symptom of "the guilty conscience of western imperialism" (see #6 of the Theses) and a lack of will on our part to ask the questions we want to ask in the way we want to ask them to find out the stuff we want to find out. As I said, I haven't read much Lincoln--am I getting this wrong?

Tom Van Dyke at: February 25, 2015 at 1:04 AM said...

My position was familiar and unoriginal: Religion doesn’t exist; it has no essence. The word wouldn’t even make sense to any of our non-Western and/or pre-modern subjects. It is a recent invention, a product of what has been largely an imperialist, colonialist, racist project. Less insidious but also dissuasive, many world religions textbooks are $120 assemblages of Wikipedia articles couched in thinly veiled liberal Protestant theology. The discourse of “world religions” is something we can and should study—and, as Mike Graziano recently pointed out, we can study it in the context of American history. But it’s not something we engage in.


If you are to engage the question, the actual theology is key.

One size does not fit all.

Charlie McCrary at: February 25, 2015 at 12:45 PM said...

Thanks, Tom.

Brett: Thanks for the questions.
1. I'm not using a textbook this semester. The main practical reason for this is that I'm not dividing the course by "traditions" or "religions" (e.g., a unit on Buddhism) and instead organizing it around concepts, some of them borrowed from Lincoln, like status quo, revolution, resistance, prophecy, and empire. So I'm assigning a variety of primary and secondary readings (and films), just posted to BlackBoard. It's a little loose this time around; I'll tighten it up better in future classes.

2. Yeah, I think that's right. Lincoln is much more willing to use "religion" as something more than simply, to quote J.Z. Smith, "the creation of the scholar" than Smith or McCutcheon are. The comment in thesis 6 is more about people who are hesitant to point out the "bad" things in religions not their own. I think of Christian scholars who are careful to talk about how terrorists don't represent true Islam, but wouldn't say the same about the less sunny aspects of Christian history. I'm not sure that Lincoln addresses your point directly (maybe I'm forgetting about something, though.) But I also can see how this would apply to Westerners using the label on others, often the colonized, since to do world religions is to take part in a legacy of imperialism and colonialism. I think there are better historical reasons for this hesitance, though.

Brett Hendrickson at: February 25, 2015 at 1:59 PM said...

Thanks for the response, Charlie. Your course sounds great, and I hope you have a good time with it this semester and that it helps you think about some of the ideas you have so helpfully brought up in this post. I'd love to see a post in the future about any further ideas that come up for you concerning this post and the "American religion" more specifically.

In my dept. we all have to teach this course (World Religions) occasionally, and it is constant source of angst for all of us, for lots of different reasons. I think the main concern is that we will mis-represent some "tradition" about which we know very little, but the theoretical concerns about the construction and deployment of categories like "religion" are also perennial bugaboos. But it'd be a hard course to get rid of since it gets enrolled so healthily over and over again.

Michael J. Altman at: February 26, 2015 at 11:09 AM said...

Interesting post, Charlie. I wish I had been down in Tallahassee for the conference.

You outlined my questions about this in your final paragraph. But I'll add one more. Why do we need to salvage American religions? There's no field of "American races" or "American classes?" We approach those objects as constructed categories that have real affects in culture and history without trying to get around their constructed nature.

Also, what separates Lincoln's definition of religion from, say, an evangelical minister who derides heartless church-going as "mere religion" versus "a relationship with Jesus." Why should we choose Lincoln's over his? Or over Durkheim's or Eliade's?

Charlie McCrary at: February 26, 2015 at 4:30 PM said...

Brett: Thanks. This is certainly a concern for us as well. FSU has 13-15 sections of world religions every semester, with anywhere from 48-140 students in each class. They're all taught by grad students. So, without them (the classes and the students), no one gets paid. Part of my organization is defensive, then. Today, for instance, I gave a lecture on Hebrew prophecy (for a unit on prophecy), which I feel much more comfortable doing than representing "the Jewish tradition."

Mike: I agree with you on this, and I've never represented or thought of myself as a scholar of American religions. (See my post from last year on the "fabric of American religious history," esp. the last two paragraphs.) But I think we should salvage American religious history because it already exists in various communities--and, most important to me, in job calls. Many hiring committees, I suspect, are not on board with the idea that religion is a constructed category. I assume this is changing, but, you know, then I go to AAR. I doubt that most departments would be thrilled to hear, "I just study American culture, sometimes the groups labeled 'religious,' and often the historically contingent deployments of the label 'religion' as politically interested moves." I hope I'm wrong. But, assuming I'm not...

So, how do we deal with this? We have to salvage the "object of study" somehow. I have at least two ideas:

1. As I argued in my comment on your previous piece, it might be good enough to identify ourselves as members of a public constituted by a shared discourse. In this sense, we're all historiographers as well as historians. So, to study American religions, then, is to talk about the things that are talked about in our group (which has lots of subgroups.) There are obvious problems with this approach, but I think it can work somewhat well.

2. Posit some provisional definition of "religion." In the past I never would have done this, but it's worth considering how we'd do it if need be. This is why Lincoln is the best here. His definition ("that discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal") works well enough because it is historically oriented, non-essentialist, and not simply tailored to fit what already is included in the category. In other words, it might have utility for historians, since we can identify this discursive style and use it as a framework with which we can better understand social dynamics, power relations, etc.

Thomas S. Bremer at: March 4, 2015 at 9:13 PM said...

Thank you, Charlie, for this provocative post—it raises questions that constantly befuddle thoughtful scholars of “American religions” (or American religious history, or religions in America, or religions of the Americas, or whatever we call it). The problem as I see it is not necessarily in our scholarly work, in the essays and monographs we produce, but in how we engage others, especially our students, with categories of analysis familiar to them but problematic to us.

This was the problem I faced when I sat down seven years ago to attempt a new approach to writing a textbook of American religious history (Formed from this Soil: An Introduction to the Diverse History of Religion in America, published in December and available from Wiley-Blackwell), and it is why it took me so long to complete it. My solution is to encourage students to interrogate their categories of both “religion” and “America” by problematizing these terms in the introductory chapter of the book. Then I introduce in every subsequent chapter new conceptual frameworks for interpreting the historical narratives; these interpretive concepts offer students critical tools for assessing any master narrative they may be tempted to identify in the threads of American religious history that the textbook recounts.

In my experience teaching this textbook (in classes using pre-publication drafts of the book) students gained more in how to critically engage texts and other materials than in any definitive conclusions about “religion,” “America,” or the religious character of the nation. In other words, the learning outcomes I aim for are not knowledge of American religious history as such, but competence with critical tools for interpreting materials often associated with the categories of religion and America.

This may be a subtle distinction of emphasis, but it has been immensely helpful in framing my teaching efforts. In the end, I think the most we can offer to the uninitiated are an awareness of the problematic nature of the categories and tools for them to develop their own critical assessment of historical and contemporary instances of “religion.”

Charlie McCrary at: March 9, 2015 at 11:34 AM said...

Thomas, thank you for the response. And sorry for my delay in responding; I was at a conference this weekend.

Your textbook sounds great. I haven't used a textbook for the American religions class before (one time we used Sehat's Myth book as a sort of textbook), but I'd like to try it. Next time I teach it, I'll check yours out. I think anything premised on the "coverage" model is going to have some methodological problems, and I, like you, am more interested in teaching strategies for critical interpretation. But, of course, while they're learning these tools, we still cover plenty of information too. It depends, too, on what the argument and/or theme of the course is. In different semesters I've focused on different things, including religious freedom, secularism, capitalism, and empire. Another way to do it, rather than developing a particular narrative, would be to establish a set of methods or questions and then apply them to examples from a diverse range of people, ideas, and institutions. It sounds like your textbook is geared toward the latter framework, which is one I'm using in world religions but haven't tried yet in the American class. Is that right?

Thomas S. Bremer at: March 9, 2015 at 8:16 PM said...

Yes, Charlie, the textbook has worked well in my classes in exploring particular methods and themes in American religious history. Ostensibly the book focuses on the theme of diversity (of religious orientations, but also of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, etc.). In my teaching I have a tendency to emphasize the dynamics of encounter, conflict, and interaction, which I think will be evident in the various chapters. In writing it, however, I was attentive to the various approaches and themes that different instructors would bring to the material and tried to make it a flexible, teachable text.

I encourage you to take a look at it. I think you can read the preface on Amazon, and Wiley has generous exam copy policies; you should be able to get a digital copy right away with no hassle.

newer post older post