Why I Teach Religious (Not Environmental Or Naval Or Actuarial) History
Waylaid for a later moment is my planned report on LDS film shorts, Sundance festival fun wear, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ living genius. Obama’s latest push toward hope and Gordon Hinckley’s sad demise lead one to the bigger questions, questions asked by this latest meme. The very frame of the question tempts long rambles into anecdote and personal reference. After all, exceptionalist narratives aren’t just needed by nations. Academic disciplines, too, rely on an exclusivity of import. Most military historians believe military history means most, most economic historians imagine theirs is the insight that matters. Everyone who writes or thinks about something (thinking about something perhaps more than healthy, more than makes any logical sense at all) must eventually create a tale that elects their humble isolation to global consequence.
Religion makes easy such subject sainthood. I used to say that I became a historian of religions (rather than a history of legislation, battleground, or plumbing principles) because it was the only subject that actively hated its observer (I’ll leave the question of the observers’ taste for the subject to other commentators). Although it would be delusion to presume that presidents savor their biographies or that unions love their labor histories, in an analytic loathe-off religions would win as those objects most inherently irritated by the sheer observation. The act of making history (placing in some sort of chronologic process the layers of human activity) is a heresy, making archival plot of divine dreams. We historicize against their immanent imminence, ritual presence, iconographic earnestness, and faith in the propositional constancy (it is as it shall be as it was) that our subjects assert. We offend them even as we footnote, even as we fly.
Which makes it seem all the more important to do it, and do it well. What other field of inquiry fights harder within stormy currents of counter-narrative and co-narrative, with scriptures, canons, and sacred histories outpacing our every interpretive hiccup. What we do is so obviously invasive as to be perverse, telling people time and again how the magic of the sacred was man-made, and how the miracle of divine encounter might be mere meteorology. These nitty gritty hermeneutics (as Anthony Pinn has termed them) are not so antithetical to religious experience. But they are (we must accede) a wicked posture from which to begin. The act of connecting the categories (“religious” and “history”) is just profane enough to keep us all (even as we do sin the subjects) fighting for our dignity, fighting for our professional practice, fighting for our analytic lives.