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.

Dressing in Skins of Gods: New Approaches to Aztec Religion

Molly Bassett is an enthusiastic advocate for studying Mesoamerican religion, a welcome new direction in Religious Studies. She credits the critical mentorship of David Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of Latin America Studies at the Harvard Divinity School. Although she does not mention this, his influence makes her an intellectual “granddaughter” of Mircea Eliade, who was Carrasco’s principal advisor at the University of Chicago and to whom Carrasco has paid special homage in Waiting for the Dawn: Mircea Eliade in Perspective (Carrasco and Law 2009). Mostly due to a dearth of qualified teachers, interpretation of Mesoamerican religions has been undertaken by individuals with little or no formal training in religious studies. As a result, many have made their way into this field via an autodidactic approach. On the upside, Bassett emphasizes how Mesoamerican studies push scholars to be interdisciplinary. Her work on the rich Florentine Codex, the Codex Mexicanus, and other 16th century sources builds on prior work by art historians such as Diana Magaloni (a student of Mary Miller at Yale) as well as linguists, ethnohistorians, paleographers, and archaeologists.

Bassett rightly notes the preconceptions and prejudices that students typically bring to studies of the Aztecs, among them notions of human sacrifice (which, given divine reciprocity, might be better understood as “human gifting”), cannibalism (or anthropophagy, both actual and metaphorical), and other forms of ambiguous violence. These have been the subject of a brilliant essay, “Ethics and Ethnocentricity in Interpretation and Critique: Challenges to the Anthropology of Corporeality and Death,” by archaeologist Arthur Demarest (Vanderbilt) in The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians (Chacon & Dye 2008). He outlines radically different conceptions of blood and bodies among Spanish and Aztecs, noting, for example, that Spanish horror at Aztec rituals was shaped by specific Christian beliefs about the sanctity of the blood and body of Christ, human mortality and corporality, ethnocentric perceptions that condition Western consciousness even today. For the Aztecs, flaying humans and wearing their skin inside-out (as was done with the Culhua princess) represented a profoundly different conception of personhood and corporality. Just as a hardcore vegetarian, vegan, or animal rights activist might recoil at a supermarket meat counter or a leather goods shop, Spanish reactions to Aztec practices were conditioned by distinctly non-universal values and beliefs. As Demarest writes, “Neither ethnocentric revulsion nor ethnocentric purification can substitute for elucidating, as best we can, the nature and meaning of the beliefs and practices of other societies.”

From another perspective, recent scholarship on Mesoamerican religions has been influenced by Mircea Eliade in a persistent fashion that has yet to be critically addressed. For example, discussions of Olmec and Maya religious art and iconography refer routinely to concepts of an axis mundi, a tripartite cosmology, “shamanism,” and archetypes of the World Tree and Cosmic Mountain that come directly from Eliade’s work. However, these often lack direct citations, much less critical analyses based on the history and context of Eliade’s ideas (an example of this would be the 1993 book Maya Cosmos, by Friedel, Schele, and Parker, but a pervasive use of these concepts persists to the present). These and related concepts are often taken for granted by art historians, but their tacit acceptance merits a closer analysis by scholars in Religious Studies, who may be prepared to evaluate the influence of Eliade on fields of study other than their own and to offer alternative models. One recent work relevant to Bassett’s research as well as interdisciplinary methodology is Wearing Culture: Dress and Regalia in Early Mesoamerican and Central America (Orr and Looper 2014), which considers cultures much earlier than the Aztecs, ones contemporary with early Judaism and Christianity, but lacks a Religious Studies approach.

Mesoamericanists and other specialists in pre-Hispanic cultures of Latin America often question Kirchhoff’s original 1943 model of “Mesoamerica” and its utility for understanding broader interaction in the southern U.S., Caribbean basin, southern Central America, and northern South America. Interestingly, in the same article, Kirchhoff also proposed the notion of a “Chibchan” area to the south, one that has now become even more relevant given recent announcements of the “discovery” of a “lost city” or “vanished civilization” in non-Mesoamerican eastern Honduras. Yes, Mesoamerican religion is a fascinating and stimulating area for more Religious Studies scholarship, but I’m sure Bassett would enthusiastically agree that this extends to approaches to religion throughout the Americas. She says, “Puritans pale by comparison to Aztecs,” but they also pale in comparison to Mayas, Chibchas, Taínos, Moches, Tiwanakus, Incas, and many, many others. It would be nice to think that her work is just the beginning of a Renaissance of sorts in the study of indigenous American religions and their deep and complex intersections with Christian, New Age, and other contemporary practices. For example, the rich variety of New Religious Movements (NRMs) in Latin America and the U.S. that assert neo-Aztec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican identities call for evaluation on their own terms.

Xipe Totec (“Our Lord the Flayed One”) wears the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim. “Wearing people’s skins” is powerful imagery, tied to how we understand them by putting “skins” (such as “religion”) on them.

Bassett’s emphasis on questions and methodological toolkits is especially valuable. These should include theoretical toolkits specific to Religious Studies. Mesoamerican religion is fertile ground for a host of new approaches that go well beyond traditional (Eliadean) comparative studies. Public fascination with “ancient” civilizations of Mexico (including ones such as the Aztecs that are no more ancient than Leonardo da Vinci) derive from Romantic notions that can be traced to myths of Lost Tribes and lost continents, recurrent tropes in traditions from Mormons to New Age traditions that have sought to both “other” and to mistakenly identify Native peoples. A detailed knowledge of the history of Mesoamerican studies, both scholarly and vernacular, as well as contemporary scholarship by archaeologists, art historians, and ethnohistorians is essential for approaching these. Bassett refers to how Aztecs may have sought to dress Cortes in order to treat him as a “god”. We must consider the adornments with which we dress pre-Hispanic indigenous religion in special skins in order to make it comprehensible to us. Of course, this includes even the manufactured skin of “religion” itself.