April 23, 2016

Modern & Lofton Illumine “Religion”

Modern: “I think . . . one of the underlying directives of Class 200 is to get that kind of conversation going, just that very notion of is there a relationship between description and explanation and what is it . . . The idea, I think underlying Class 200, is this notion that the way in which you write informs your argument, right, and so the very categories and the kinds of criteria you use to find religion, locate religion, describe religion is going to figure in to what kind of case you’re making about religion. And so I think it’s just that kind of move that doesn’t seem too revolutionary at all but seems to me not foregrounded enough in terms of when I look out on the field of Religious Studies on the past fifty years. It’s not like it’s absent, but I would like to promote it.”

Lofton: “How can the study of religion persist in the wake of postcolonial critiques? What is the right to absorb yourself in material?”

That’s how the conversation about the relationship between the description of religion and its explanation starts between professors Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern and University of Chicago graduate student Adam Miller. Frequent collaborators, Lofton and Modern curated frequencies and now edit the University of Chicago Press’ series Class 200. If you missed frequencies, go have a look. If you followed frequencies, the motivations behind and goals before Class 200 come as no surprise.

Wherever they go, Lofton and Modern host uncommonly compelling conversations about the kinds of ideas that arise as scholars engage in public research while leading private lives. More than one entry at frequencies starts with a reference to the writer’s youth: S. Brent Plate recalls summer camp the year Star Wars came out; Josef Sorett mentions the church of his upbringing; and Gary Laderman writes about the first time he dropped acid. Other authors frame their writing with more recent memories: a seminar conversation, a research trip, a good read. None quite fits the framing we have come to expect from academic writing. It’s refreshing, entertaining, and instructive. (These people have lives!) Scholars are not conceiving of projects and writing papers in isolation from their friends, families, or personal histories, a point Lofton makes in discussing the significance of her work.

When Lofton and Modern talk about Class 200, which is really what this whole conversation is about, they describe a grown-up version of frequencies. There they planted seeds, and, if we (and they) are lucky, Class 200 will bear the fruits of like-minded plants. (The series’ first book, Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention by David Marno, an assistant professor of English at UC Berkeley, will appear in December of this year.)

Class 200 is about revivifying a mode of research that requires time—time to maintain languages and time in the archives—in the midst of a systems (both Universities and academic publishers) that value speedy work and low-cost production. Modern and Lofton call for proposals from researchers whose work demonstrates depth with attention to the craft of writing: “How can we get our responsible swagger back as thinkers?” Lofton asks, “We tend to think that can happen partially by highlighting the ways in which prose is a huge site of hermeneutics.” These two speak with the energy they seek in Class 200 books. They stress importance of archives, “absorptive” work, “subtle” thought, “reflexive moves,” knowing the origins of one’s project, and knowing the reasons why one does what one does. They are looking for manuscripts that walk a line between encyclopedic knowledge and riveting writing, self-understanding and self-absorption, humility and swagger. (Aren’t we all?)

So what does that entail? Something wholly new, completely cutting-edge? Not in their estimation. As Modern explains, Class 200 will collect the work of reflective scholars (though not overly-confessional ones, as Lofton notes) whose projects have grown out of their fields’ wrestling with postcolonial theory and reckoning with historiographies. Yes, they’re looking for writers with methodological and disciplinary dexterity.

“So what?”

Over the course of their conversation, they develop—rather organically—an example of the relationship between religion’s description and its explanation: Clifford Geertz’s 1966 definition of religions and Talal Asad’s critical response to it. The example begins with Lofton, who points out that while many scholars recognize the shortcomings of Geertz’s work, we can’t stop reading it. Admittedly, it’s great fun to teach in undergrad courses. Why’s that?

Geertz’s is a reductionist definition that does not reduce religion to something over(t)ly simple. On first read, its parts are complicated, and so students have to wrestle with more than a single idea, such as individual’s solitariness or state of ultimate concern. Geertz implicates people in (the creation and maintenance of) religion to a greater degree than does Spiro’s “postulations,” for instance. For some students, this makes his definition difficult to accept. It is, in the end, good material for conversation. Asad found it so, too. (And others have since.[1])

Years after Geertz published his definition, Asad pointed to the anthropologist’s failure to relate culture, which for Geertz “enables people to communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes towards life,” with “‘life’ itself” or “the material conditions and activities for maintaining (or changing) life.”[2] Modern asks how our current moment—one in which “we feel this impingement of whatever you want to call it, neo-liberalism or crass capitalistic ethos”—compares to the 1990’s, a decade when concerns about theory materialized in the study of religions, concerns like those Asad raised in his 1983 response to Geertz. One conclusion—Modern’s—is that impingement causes scholars to realize that “religion is constitutive of modernity, on some level . . . combined with a way in which you can revisit these massive archives, these scholarly corners that seem well-trod . . . and to see them in a new light.” It’s this new light Lofton and Modern hope to encounter in the pages of Class 200. I do, too.


Asad, Talal. “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz.” 1983, 237.


[1] See, for example, Schilbrack, Kevin. “Religion, Models of, and Reality: Are We Through with Geertz?.” Journal of The American Academy of Religion. 73, no. 2 (June 2005): 429-452; or Strenski, Ivan. “Talal Asad’s ‘Religion’ Trouble and a Way Out.” Method & Theory in The Study of Religion. 22, no. 2/3 (October 2010): 136-155.

[2] Asad, Talal. “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz.” Man. 18, no. 2. (June 1983): 238-239.


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