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.


Anonymous said…
I think Anthropology would win the loathe-off.

So much religious history (especially American!) is done in the service of particular religious orientations that it's sometimes embarrassing to be a part of the field.
Anonymous said…
In all seriousness, I don't think I've ever felt embarrassed to be part of a field that boasts scholars like those who write for this blog (and so many other wonderful people, minds, and writers). There is definitely a contingent of folks who study religion who hate the religious, while there are certainly those who write from a belief that they are part of a faith community in dialogue with other 'faith' communities. Cheers to K Lofton for bringing it up for conversation.
Anonymous said…
I think it is unncessary for us as historians to demonstrate that "the magic of the sacred was man-made," at least not in a way that offends. Perhaps anthropologists and sociologists fulfill that role, but I think as historians we also have an opportunity to try to present the beliefs that people held, the ways that they practiced their faith, etc. Surely we place those in cultural context, but that's not necessarily in contradiction with the sacred.

I think much of the offense simply comes from explaining the all-too-human failings of the saints, which inevitably offends those who admire them.

A good example is Richard Bushman's biography of Joseph Smith, which offended some Saints by discussing Joseph's involvement in magic and the drinking problem of his father but tried nevertheless to explain how Joseph Smith's followings understood his prophetic calling.
Anonymous said…
". . . in contradiction with the sacred"?!!

John, do you mean the sacred that is used by humans to convince people to cut off body parts of their children, particularly their sexual organs?

Or do you mean the sacred that is used by humans to tell others that they deserve less rights due to their having fallen from grace, or simply by their sex or sexual orientation?

Why should we care, as scholars of American religious history, if our work offends those benefiting from religious ideology.

If you think that as an historian you are able to present others' beliefs without espousing your own, then American religious history could take a few cues from dialogic Anthropology. It's a peculiar approach to understanding the world when the scholar knows that Others have beliefs that motivate them and shape their labor in every way, but that scholarly work itself can be free of such subjectivity.
Anonymous said…
Thanks so much for this post.

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