October 28, 2013

Odd to Each Other

Cross-posted at The Immanent Frame.—ed.

It is a distinct honor when someone as lettered as Leon Wieseltier takes one on in public, as he does in “Dumbing Religion Down in the New York Times,” published October 24 in The New Republic. He does seem to have written this essay in one of his grumpier moods. He accused me of proselytizing for religion (or, to capture the tenor of the critique, of turning The New York Times into a Pentecostal tent revival, as one of my own readers, Jon Bialecki, pointed out). That’s not my understanding of the intent of my columns or of my work. I see myself as pointing out that an activity which makes many readers of The New York Times spit nails—or at least shake their heads in bafflement—has something to recommend it. I mostly ignore the politics because, while there is much to say about the political swing of many evangelicals, sharp writers like those who appear in The New Republic and The New York Times already say it well. But there is nothing inherently right-wing about evangelical religion and there are a lot of left-wing evangelicals to prove it. My goal, instead, is to follow the lead of one of the great founders of anthropology, Emile Durkheim, who said that we could not understand religion if we began with the premise that religion was founded on a lie. He did not mean that God was real (he was a devout atheist). He meant that if we wanted to understand why religion is so palpably important to so many people, we need not to begin with the assumption that they are idiots.


May 6, 2013

Dwelling Amid Absence

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity, Robert Orsi’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

It was William James who described “religion” as that which enables us to gesture towards what we cannot articulate or describe fully, but in which we place diffuse hopes for being delivered from our confinements, which we invoke with the mere act of speaking. The problems of our subject, and the ambivalent institutionalization of our discipline, appeared regularly for me as I relished Robert Orsi’s writings on prayer, presence, and intersubjectivity (and the writings of other contributors to this project). Thinking through the resonance of sacred presence, and the near impossibility (even audacity) of writing about the religious experience of another person, it strikes me that one of the most valuable things about engaging these topics is how fundamentally they confront us with what we do in the study of religion. That is to say, the intellectual and authorial difficulties they pose demand so obviously a renewed freshness and frankness in our engagements that we might even think of them as the scholarly equivalent of the really real.

As a challenge for our descriptions and for the possibility of our understandings, prayer reveals things to and about us. It shows that the conversation about religious experience cannot turn on the question of either normativity or distance, either summary judgment or free-floating relativism. Unless we maintain a quasi-theological commitment to scholarship as a kind of sorting through or evaluation of epistemological claims (and who would pursue the study of religion for such blunt and unpoetic reasons?), reckoning with religious presence and intersubjectivity (in prayer and elsewhere) demands other things of us. I have been thinking about these issues over the last several years as I write about religion and sonic creation, and in so doing I have thought continually about the relational modes that Orsi’s writings bring up so suggestively. The reason I meditate on authorial position at the outset is because one of these modes is an academic one. That is, when writing about particular kinds of religiosity, we are bidden to cultivate a kind of aesthetics of empathy, receptivity, and imaginative openness. This does not entail that we adopt the simplistic sympathy of the chronicler but urges us to consider empathy in the sense that we are co-experiencers, that we share a condition that drives our inquiry as well as those we study. In other words, to write about religion is possibly to experience something that religious people themselves experience: the absence of language and the attempt to restore it.