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What is Right With Pagan Studies?

Ethan Doyle White’s interview with the RSP is a fascinating follow-on to Teemu Taira’s. While Taira seeks a new paradigm of religious studies that does not require definition of “religion,” White has repeatedly expressed frustration with the inability of Pagan studies to define “Paganism,” writing that the “problem with Pagan Studies hinges on its inability to coherently explain precisely what ‘contemporary Paganism’ is. The field of Pagan Studies has gone on for two decades, all the while managing to circumnavigate this contentious issue, but I do not believe that it can do so indefinitely, considering the great importance this question has for the very existence of the field” (2012). How is it that the future of religious studies hinges on ceasing to define “religion,” while the future of Pagan studies hangs on starting to define “Paganism?”

It is tempting to say that this curious contradiction has arisen because Pagan studies is disproportionately staffed by practicing Pagans (Davidsen, 194–5) who would benefit tremendously from a definition, since constructing the object of their study—which causes so much anxiety in religious studies—is precisely their objective. This is the concern that prompted Markus Altena Davidsen (2012) to call for stricter efforts to corral Pagan studies back into methodological line with religious studies.

I applauded White’s response to Davidsen for taking what he describes in the interview as a “balanced, mixed view,” recognizing the validity of dual insider/outsider status in anthropological methodology and noting that “there are independent [openly Pagan] scholars … who have written excellent, balanced historical and biographical accounts… To derogatorily label them ‘religionists’ and accuse them of being too favorable to Paganism, as the Davidsen approach would lead us to do, would be doing scholarship a real disservice” (2012). I think White is absolutely right, but stops too short, for when he writes that he “cannot accept … the accusation that those who adhere to a particular religious belief are intrinsically unable to analyse that belief critically,” (ibid.) he, in a certain measure, reinforces Davidsen’s basic claim that the only valid approach to the study of a religion is a detached critical naturalism. In short, his response to Davidsen is to affirm that religious practitioners can be objective, too.

It is this notion of detached, naturalistic criticism that needs to be criticized, however. I would pay good money to see Davidsen walk into a women’s studies department and declare that its work can only be carried out by men, because women bring too many “insider concerns and perspectives,” or inform a queer studies faculty that queer instructors should be replaced by straight ones, because it is academically unseemly to have them “actively promoting the sexual orientations in question.” I would pay an equal sum, however, to see White defend the same departments on the grounds that they can certainly set aside their identities and, as it were, pretend to be straight cis people long enough to do “balanced” scholarship.

If this strikes us as a ridiculous example, that is because no other field in the humanities is held to the same requirements of detached objectivity demanded in religious studies. No one raises an eyebrow when an accomplished painter teaches art history, or even when a former head of state assumes a post in political science. Far from a compromise of objectivity, this is seen as a valuable leveraging of applied expertise. For all our talk of religion being a human endeavor, we are unaccountably unaccustomed to thinking of it as one; we treat it as an abstract phenomenon that can be subjected to a passably “objective” study, like thermodynamics or photosynthesis. Human endeavors, however, are humanistic—to be elaborated as practices rather than dissected as occurrences. The attempt to engage religious studies as a science ends Davidsen up in the absurd position of objecting to appointing recognized experts as teachers—as though being a successful novelist might compromise one’s integrity as an English professor (although we might be equally leery of letting them drone on about their own work).

Recognizing this absurdity, White refuses to see the “religionists” drummed out, but remains sympathetic to Davidsen’s broader concerns about Pagan worldview creeping into academic description. I find this concern misplaced, however, because the purity of observation and description to which an “insider” account is contrasted has only ever been a faux objectivity. Colonialist scholars took as their standard what most educated Europeans believed, and then proceeded to judge “primitive religions” against Christianity. Can we honestly claim to be different when Davidsen, in the very opening of his critique (p. 183) asks “how we might do better in promoting a naturalist and theoretically oriented approach to studying religion?” Once again, our field is simply using the majority belief of educated Europeans, which is now naturalism, as the obvious yardstick of human judgement. If anyone doubts this, let him once watch the faces of a conference audience when a presenter says that his work in religion builds on Gramsci, and then when another says that her work builds on Guénon.

Pagans often, as White notes in the interview, claim continuities with ancient peoples and kinship with indigenous ones. Perhaps the most credible of these claims is to a worldview that rejects the separation of the sacred and the secular. To insist upon that separation by disallowing methodologies and epistemologies rooted in religious belief, either in the very strong terms of Davidsen or in the much softer terms of White, is, in practice, a colonialist imposition, which, when carried out in a key space of Paganism’s own self-definition (as Pagan studies has de facto become), amounts to an erasure of identity. When White says that we “need to stop accepting Pagan ideas of what Paganism actually is, because they are often idealized and not always analytically useful to those of us who are scholars,” I cannot help but hear an echo of the old assertions that we need to stop accepting, say, Indian ideas of what Indian religion is, because we have the true model of religiosity. For all our pretensions otherwise, we still have an orthodoxy made up of educated European beliefs that invalidates its opponents by depriving them of the terms to name themselves or to articulate their own experience.

Maybe Pagan Studies isn’t infiltrated by religionists, like Davidsen alleges, or overburdened with theological elements that need to be “shaken off,” as White suggests, but instead maybe our whole academic enterprise in the study of religion is, as Russell McCutcheon recently suggested, too big a tent, as the domination of our schools of theology by the Abrahamic religions forces a growing non-Abrahamic theological scholarship to seek refuge in secular departments not designed to accommodate it. The peculiarities of Pagan studies, then, might call our attention to the need of a department to house the emerging discipline of trans-religious theology—a department that could perform the functions of a school of theology ecumenically, providing discursive space for a passionate elaboration of religion as a human endeavor, instead of trying to dispassionately dissect it as a social phenomenon. There the “religionists” would be kept at a distance that Davidsen may find acceptable, their work clearly demarcated from that of the naturalistic, social scientific scholarship that he believes to be the only path forward. White, however, would still be able to find just down the hall those “religionist” scholars whose contributions he values for bringing into the academy the experiences of those who have lived what he aims to study (this is the “deep pluralism” called for by Ezzy [2015]). Pagan scholars, for their part, would have discursive space to continue their work of self-representation and theological exploration, which Panin (2015) suggests might be an unavoidable development out of Pagan studies anyway and, in the same stroke, we would open our theological discussion not just to Pagans, but also to Hindus, Buddhists, and many others who have been marginalized in the Abrahamic spaces in which theology has been academically acceptable hitherto, enriching religious studies by deepening and broadening its most important academic partner in dialogue.

Maybe Pagan studies isn’t broken. Maybe it’s a manifesto.

References

Davidsen, Markus Altena. “What is Wrong with Pagan Studies?” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 24 (2012): 183–99.

Ezzy, Douglas. “Pagan Studies: In Defense of Pluralism,” Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 16.2 (2015): 135–49.

Panin, Stanislav. “Discussions on Pagan Theology in the Academia and in the Pagan Community,” Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 6.3 (2015).

White, Ethan Doyle. “In Defence of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen’s Critique,” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 14.1 (2012): 5–21.

 

 

Of Demon Kings and Protestant Yakṣas

Let me begin by saying that this is not a critique, but an effort to contribute to a conversation about issues that have affected me personally as a scholar. In particular, I want to suggest a few approaches that might be straws for the fire in the evolving discourse regarding “Protestant Buddhism” and the general influence of colonialism on Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

My most personal experience in regard to the issues raised by the Religious Studies Project interview with Stephen Berkwitz came while doing research on warfare with Pāli scholars. Again and again, as I directed their attention to jātakas in which the Buddha was a warrior, they would tell me that no such jātaka could exist. Their impression of Buddhist pacifism was so strong that, even though their knowledge of Pāli literature was vastly superior to my own, it had created a blind spot for aspects of their own tradition. It is my impression, [one that might be fruitfully disputed], that that blind spot is a result of the war-weary West’s idealization of Buddhists as the perfect pacifist other. This idealization offered colonized peoples a new and highly attractive moral superiority, which they brilliantly wielded as an act of cultural self-defense. But the power of this naïve Euro-American projection also deprived Sri Lankan’s of the valuable cultural resources that it eclipsed. That blind spot does not obscure the “dark side of Buddhism,” as one recent scholar called the ethics of violence that seem to emerge when we look at Buddhist narrative literature, but rather obscures a richly nuanced and flexible ethic that might have provided rich resources for Sri Lanka’s civil war and postwar reconciliation. There could not be more at stake for the nation that gave the world the suicide-bomber. A similar kind of effect can be seen among young Tibetan refugees, many of whom reject Buddhism, generally blaming its pacifism, a pacifism that never existed, for the loss of their country. The disappointment of Western pacifists here is not unlike the reaction of early Orientalists who, disappointed by the ritualism and deity-worship they found in living Buddhist cultures, described a degenerate Buddhism.[1]

One of the uncomfortable aspects of these kinds of critiques, including my own, is that once again Western scholars seem to claim the high ground and reveal Sri Lankans as passive victims of false consciousness. However, we should remember that cultural heroes like Dharmapala and Walpola Rahula [whose What the Buddha Taught is still found in undergraduate syllabi and dharma-center curricula] knew our languages, culture, values, scriptures and scholarship, including everything ever written about Buddhism in the West, far better than we knew theirs. They exerted great influence on the presentation of their tradition and, along with Neo-Vedānta, powerfully influenced American and European thought. This was not a passive or even merely reactive endeavor. In my experience, Sri Lanka is extraordinary among post-colonial nations for the cosmopolitanism, power and sophistication of its intellectuals. Dharmapala was perfectly poised to open up a can of whoop-ass on naïve Americans at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Buddha taught evolution! Any image of colonials passively subjected to Western influence should be balanced by the embarrassing naiveté and false consciousness this whole discourse reveals among the colonizers and the powerful role seized by Sri Lankans in the representation of their own world.[2]

The whole issue of “Protestant Buddhism” needs to be considered from multiple dimensions that can get mixed up. Any reformulation of Buddhism tuned to Western sensibilities would by implication be tuned to Protestant and scientific biases. Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught is a brilliant adaptation to these biases. The reformulation of Buddhism that was tuned to Western needs, biases, and weaknesses, was also tuned to the needs of Westernized Sri Lankan intellectuals and helped draw them back to Buddhism. So, one dimension of the construction of “Protestant Buddhism” is the Protestantized, pacifist, and scientific image of Buddhism integral to dialogue with the West, including the indigenous Westernized intellectuals who were situated in between worlds. This construction was enhanced by the fact that Sri Lankan intellectuals, who were attracted to this image for many of the same reasons, presented themselves as representative of the tradition as such. These figures may have had more influence on the Western perception of Buddhism than they did on their own country’s.

Buddhists at a stūpa in Kandy worshipping the Hindu deity Kartikeya (photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Sometimes it seems that we mix up our own romantic Protestantized image of Buddhism with what we are pointing toward in Sri Lankan culture. There are useful and intelligent reasons to use the descriptor “Protestant” in describing modern changes in Theravāda Buddhism, but any observer expecting to find Rahula’s Buddhism in Sri Lanka is much more likely to be shocked by how un-Protestant, even un-Theravādin, Buddhism in Sri Lanka really is. It is hard to fit Avalokiteśvara, an obsession with yakṣas, the integral worship of “Hindu” deities, and so on into an image of the bare white New England church. On the other hand, the Theravāda Buddhism that became the stock in trade of every Introduction to Buddhism class strikes me as very Protestant indeed. I look forward to reading Stephen Berkwitz’s new book about the poet Alagiyavanna, who eventually converted to Catholicism and sounds like an early example of a Sri Lankan scholar caught between worlds.

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

One of the most salient things about Sri Lanka is that the dominant majority feels like a threatened minority. Perhaps this is a more recent phenomenon, but it reminds me of how important India has been in shaping Sinhala identity. Traveling in Sri Lanka, I was struck by the presence of Vibhīṣana, the brother of the demon King Rāvana, at Buddhist sacred sites. In the Rāmāyaṇa, Vibhīṣana is portrayed as the good Rākṣasa that advises his brother to surrender Sri Lanka to the ideal Hindu King, Rāma. Although the Rāmāyaṇa did not have great currency among Sinhalese Buddhists, Vibhīṣana was deliberately utilized by Buddhist Kings as a model for their submission to the imperial power of South India whose Kings modeled themselves on Rāma.[3] This response demonstrates a self-conscious and sophisticated approach to manipulating and utilizing the ideals of the outsider as a practical technique for moderating their negative impact. The story of Sri Lanka’s contention with destructive invasive violence and outside imperialist ambitions long precedes Western colonialism. So, I close by wondering whether it might be useful to consider whether the earlier relationship with the once expansive power of South India has anything to tell us, even by way of contrast, about the evolution of Sri Lanka’s adaptation to colonialist forces.

[1] For a more extended rant on these issues see Stephen Jenkins. “A Review Essay on The Range of the Bodhisattva, A Mahāyāna Sūtra,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2014.

[2] For a longer discussion see Stephen Jenkins, “Black Ships, Blavatsky, and the Pizza Effect: Critical Self Consciousness as a Thematic Foundation,” in Teaching Buddhism in the West: From the Wheel to the Web, Curzon Press, ed., Victor Hori, 2002.

[3] I recently discovered the work of Jonathan Walters on Vibhīṣana and he was kind enough to forward a copy of this fascinating article. Walters, Jonathan S. 1990-1994. “Vibhisana and Vijayanagar: An Essay on Religion and Geopolitics in Medieval Sri Lanka.” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 17 and 18, nos. 1 and 2 (Special Jubilee Issue): 129-142.

“I Made It All Up and It Came True Anyway”

From Hell, Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell, 1994. Click to embiggen.

The story goes that somewhere on the West Coast of Africa, sometime in the 17th Century, some Portuguese colonials came upon natives worshiping idols made of wood and clay. “Have you made these yourself?” the Portuguese mockingly asked. The Africans answered in the affirmative. “Are they true Divinities?” Again, affirmative. “They cannot be both!” the Portuguese exclaimed, but the Africans simply didn’t see the distinction. The Portuguese laughed at their ignorant beliefs, and went back to their ships, their crucifixes and their saints (Latour 2010, 2-3).

I met Bruno Latour in the lobby of a swanky hotel in Edinburgh’s West End, where the receptionist was quick to ask if he could help mainly because I was clearly an outsider. Nor is continental philosophy or the anthropology of science an area of expertise for me. But I’d been exploring. In a week I’d read three of his books, including the proof of his then-forthcoming Rejoicing: On Religious Speech, which seemed a departure from his works on the philosophy of science, and Latour had provided me with the full text of his lecture series. I later discovered that mine was the only interview he’d undertaken while in the city.

I was extremely curious how an anthropologist of science comes to be giving the Gifford Lectures. Established in 1888 to ‘promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term”, previous presenters have included such luminaries as William James, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and E. B. Tylor. A year on, I still don’t understand Latour’s argument about Gaia. But a few things from my readings have resonated with things I’d been thinking about in the meantime.

The Dark Continent

RS has been slow to pick up on the work of European sociologists; although Foucault and Bourdieu are becoming familiar names, Hervieu-Leger, Beyart and Latour himself are little known in Anglophone academia, with their books appearing in English sometimes twenty years after their native publication. (That I cannot read them in their original language is partly my own failing and partly the fault of a post-imperial education system which saw European languages as less important than English—see how easily I wield post-structuralist critique?) And this affected Latour too; while Rejoicing seems like an unexpected direction after We Have Never Been Modern and Factish Gods, in the original French, Rejoicing came first, lending the later works a somewhat different reading. In fact, Latour, who identifies as a Catholic, began his academic career in Biblical Studies, which lends the destabilisation of the apparent certainties of modernity in his later writings a different perspective.

Rejoicing is an unusual book for Latour, personal, confessional, almost sermon-like. Ostensibly, it concerns not “religion”, nor “religions” but the adverb “religiously”; what does it mean to talk religiously? Is it still even possible?

Latour interview, Part 1:

Latour’s answer is yes, but not in the way one might expect. Rejoicing is at the same time a fierce attack on religions;

We have to go through this fundamental disappointment: religion leads nowhere. It is the absolute opposite of social or sociologizing explanations that think they’ve explained the need for religion as a bid to fill a world that’s too empty or, conversely, according to the chosen metaphor, as a means of carving out a bit of transcendence in a world that’s too full (2013, 33).

Latour argues that religion is not, never was, about the far-away things; rather, that is properly the domain of science. Religion should be about the near things, the everyday. I don’t know if I agree, but this simple shift of emphasis seemed to me a radical departure from how debates about the role of religion in modernity are typically framed. Rather, Latour suggests, religion is a way of speaking; a kind of language, if you will, about the everyday certainties of existence;

For instance, the word ‘God’, which once served as the premise of all arguing, could have been translated, when ways of life changed, as ‘indisputable framework of ordinary existence’ so that we could continue to really see that what was thereby designated was merely the preliminary and prelude to a conversion of meaning (2013, 8).

However, our invented scholarly creation—the category “religion”—comes back to bite us, and becomes real as agents begin to take sides in the argument;

But instead of this direct, painless, progressive translation, they started clinging for dear life to the term ‘God’ and pitting it against ‘non-God’, without seeing that they were dealing with two forms about as different as God, Deus and Theos for translating the same everyday reality. Thinking they were protecting their heritage, they squandered it (2013, 8).

Factish Gods

In Factish Gods, Latour argues that most critical writings on culture take one of two positions; “the fact position and the fairy position” (2010, 237). The fact position argues that categories of belief are merely empty terms onto which power is projected; alternatively, the “fairy position” has it that there are in fact forces which dominate and motivate individuals, albeit without their conscious acquiescence. To take just one of these categories, RS is largely split between those who see religion as a sui generis category, a thing in itself which exerts power over individuals, and those who see it as a socially constructed but powerful category (and I include myself in the latter camp).

…while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion—there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy (Smith 1982, xi)

Latour, however, is attempting to construct a third way. I asked him about this quote from J. Z. Smith; he replied that he was correct, religion is a constructed category, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t also real. So Latour takes the constructionist agenda of the post-structuralists a step further. Our categories are indeed invented, but not “merely” so, for they are also real. They become real through our wielding of them.

I have to be able to talk about religious elaboration without threatening voices, coming from inside as much as outside, immediately asking me to choose: ‘Is it real or is it made up?’ I have to be able to answer once more: ‘Both’ (2013, 144).

Just like the founders of Discordianism found. A few years after inventing their parody religion, Greg Hill stated that “if you do this type of thing well enough, it starts to work… If you take a goddess of confusion seriously, it will send you through as profound and valid a metaphysical trip as taking a god like Yahweh seriously” (Adler 1986, 335). As Kerry Thornley, ever playful, put it, “if I had realised that all of this was going to come true, I would have chosen Venus” (Adler 1986, 336).

So Latour argues that we have the categories wrong. Rather than seeking to “extend Science over religion’s territory through an offensive apologetics, or to protect religion’s territory from Science through a defensive apologetics” (2013, 24), Latour challenges the basis of these demarcations. There is no boundary between “manufactured” and “real”, between “knowledge” and “belief”. Latour’s work argues that we all, ostensibly religious or not, have an epistemology based on invented certainties. We have never been Modern. None of us hold beliefs that are any more naive than anyone else’s. There are other ways to think about religion, beyond the simple dichotomies which populate the field and that many of us are so tired of.

Latour interview, Part 2:

The future of the discipline, in short, whether RS can demonstrate its utility to the broader academy, may depend on us getting over such false dichotomies—religious/secular, faith/knowledge, object/subject, fact/fetish, invented/real. We need to stop talking about how some people believe, and instead analyse our multiple, competing, situational, invented epistemologies.

Actually, I’m not sure this is what Latour means at all. I just made it up.

It’s turned quite cold, hasn’t it? Shall we be heading back?

References

Adler, M. (1986). Drawing down the moon: Witches, Druids, goddess-worshippers, and other pagans in America today. Boston: Beacon Press.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2010). On the modern cult of the factish gods. Durham: Duke University Press.

Latour, B. (2013). Rejoicing: Or the torments of religious speech. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Moore, A., & Campbell, E. (1994). From hell. Northampton: Mad Love Pub. in association with Kitchen Sink Press.

Smith, J. Z. (1982). Imagining religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Religion and Globalization

Over the past few weeks we have been looking at ‘religion’ in a ‘global context’ – from Mark Juergensmeyer’s sociotheological approach to ‘cosmic war’, to Douglas Pratt’s discussion of the ‘persistence and problem’ of ‘religion’, and Ryan Cragun’s introduction and overview to Mormon demographics across the globe. The final interview in this series was recorded in Ottawa in November 2012, and features Chris speaking with Peter Beyer, Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa, who – as Chris has proudly stated ad nauseum – literally wrote the book on Religions in Global Society.

What do we mean by globalization? What does this concept have to say to the study of religion? How have religions been agents in the globalization process? What theoretical and methodological issues arise when trying to answer such questions? All of these questions and more are tackled in an interview which touches on post-colonialism, secularization theory, theodicy, Rational Choice Theory, and something called Post-Westphalianism. We hope you enjoy it!

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter. And if you want to support the RSP, you can click through to Amazon.co.uk through our affiliates link, and we will earn referral fees from any transactions during your visit.

In the earlier parts of his career, Peter Beyer focused his research primarily on sociological theory of religion and on themes in Canadian religious history, doing his doctoral dissertation on the Louis Riel and postdoctoral studies on 19th and 20th century French Canadian Roman Catholicism. Since the mid-1980s, however, his main interests have centred on the sociological understanding of the relations between religion and globalization and on religion in contemporary Canada. His current research focuses on religious diversity and multiculturalism in Canada, especially as concerns recent immigrants and the second generation of these immigrants. He is the author of Religion and Globalization, Religions in Global Society, and co-editor (with Lori Beaman) of Religion, Globalization, and Culture (International Studies in Religion and Society Series).

Podcasts

What is Right With Pagan Studies?

Ethan Doyle White’s interview with the RSP is a fascinating follow-on to Teemu Taira’s. While Taira seeks a new paradigm of religious studies that does not require definition of “religion,” White has repeatedly expressed frustration with the inability of Pagan studies to define “Paganism,” writing that the “problem with Pagan Studies hinges on its inability to coherently explain precisely what ‘contemporary Paganism’ is. The field of Pagan Studies has gone on for two decades, all the while managing to circumnavigate this contentious issue, but I do not believe that it can do so indefinitely, considering the great importance this question has for the very existence of the field” (2012). How is it that the future of religious studies hinges on ceasing to define “religion,” while the future of Pagan studies hangs on starting to define “Paganism?”

It is tempting to say that this curious contradiction has arisen because Pagan studies is disproportionately staffed by practicing Pagans (Davidsen, 194–5) who would benefit tremendously from a definition, since constructing the object of their study—which causes so much anxiety in religious studies—is precisely their objective. This is the concern that prompted Markus Altena Davidsen (2012) to call for stricter efforts to corral Pagan studies back into methodological line with religious studies.

I applauded White’s response to Davidsen for taking what he describes in the interview as a “balanced, mixed view,” recognizing the validity of dual insider/outsider status in anthropological methodology and noting that “there are independent [openly Pagan] scholars … who have written excellent, balanced historical and biographical accounts… To derogatorily label them ‘religionists’ and accuse them of being too favorable to Paganism, as the Davidsen approach would lead us to do, would be doing scholarship a real disservice” (2012). I think White is absolutely right, but stops too short, for when he writes that he “cannot accept … the accusation that those who adhere to a particular religious belief are intrinsically unable to analyse that belief critically,” (ibid.) he, in a certain measure, reinforces Davidsen’s basic claim that the only valid approach to the study of a religion is a detached critical naturalism. In short, his response to Davidsen is to affirm that religious practitioners can be objective, too.

It is this notion of detached, naturalistic criticism that needs to be criticized, however. I would pay good money to see Davidsen walk into a women’s studies department and declare that its work can only be carried out by men, because women bring too many “insider concerns and perspectives,” or inform a queer studies faculty that queer instructors should be replaced by straight ones, because it is academically unseemly to have them “actively promoting the sexual orientations in question.” I would pay an equal sum, however, to see White defend the same departments on the grounds that they can certainly set aside their identities and, as it were, pretend to be straight cis people long enough to do “balanced” scholarship.

If this strikes us as a ridiculous example, that is because no other field in the humanities is held to the same requirements of detached objectivity demanded in religious studies. No one raises an eyebrow when an accomplished painter teaches art history, or even when a former head of state assumes a post in political science. Far from a compromise of objectivity, this is seen as a valuable leveraging of applied expertise. For all our talk of religion being a human endeavor, we are unaccountably unaccustomed to thinking of it as one; we treat it as an abstract phenomenon that can be subjected to a passably “objective” study, like thermodynamics or photosynthesis. Human endeavors, however, are humanistic—to be elaborated as practices rather than dissected as occurrences. The attempt to engage religious studies as a science ends Davidsen up in the absurd position of objecting to appointing recognized experts as teachers—as though being a successful novelist might compromise one’s integrity as an English professor (although we might be equally leery of letting them drone on about their own work).

Recognizing this absurdity, White refuses to see the “religionists” drummed out, but remains sympathetic to Davidsen’s broader concerns about Pagan worldview creeping into academic description. I find this concern misplaced, however, because the purity of observation and description to which an “insider” account is contrasted has only ever been a faux objectivity. Colonialist scholars took as their standard what most educated Europeans believed, and then proceeded to judge “primitive religions” against Christianity. Can we honestly claim to be different when Davidsen, in the very opening of his critique (p. 183) asks “how we might do better in promoting a naturalist and theoretically oriented approach to studying religion?” Once again, our field is simply using the majority belief of educated Europeans, which is now naturalism, as the obvious yardstick of human judgement. If anyone doubts this, let him once watch the faces of a conference audience when a presenter says that his work in religion builds on Gramsci, and then when another says that her work builds on Guénon.

Pagans often, as White notes in the interview, claim continuities with ancient peoples and kinship with indigenous ones. Perhaps the most credible of these claims is to a worldview that rejects the separation of the sacred and the secular. To insist upon that separation by disallowing methodologies and epistemologies rooted in religious belief, either in the very strong terms of Davidsen or in the much softer terms of White, is, in practice, a colonialist imposition, which, when carried out in a key space of Paganism’s own self-definition (as Pagan studies has de facto become), amounts to an erasure of identity. When White says that we “need to stop accepting Pagan ideas of what Paganism actually is, because they are often idealized and not always analytically useful to those of us who are scholars,” I cannot help but hear an echo of the old assertions that we need to stop accepting, say, Indian ideas of what Indian religion is, because we have the true model of religiosity. For all our pretensions otherwise, we still have an orthodoxy made up of educated European beliefs that invalidates its opponents by depriving them of the terms to name themselves or to articulate their own experience.

Maybe Pagan Studies isn’t infiltrated by religionists, like Davidsen alleges, or overburdened with theological elements that need to be “shaken off,” as White suggests, but instead maybe our whole academic enterprise in the study of religion is, as Russell McCutcheon recently suggested, too big a tent, as the domination of our schools of theology by the Abrahamic religions forces a growing non-Abrahamic theological scholarship to seek refuge in secular departments not designed to accommodate it. The peculiarities of Pagan studies, then, might call our attention to the need of a department to house the emerging discipline of trans-religious theology—a department that could perform the functions of a school of theology ecumenically, providing discursive space for a passionate elaboration of religion as a human endeavor, instead of trying to dispassionately dissect it as a social phenomenon. There the “religionists” would be kept at a distance that Davidsen may find acceptable, their work clearly demarcated from that of the naturalistic, social scientific scholarship that he believes to be the only path forward. White, however, would still be able to find just down the hall those “religionist” scholars whose contributions he values for bringing into the academy the experiences of those who have lived what he aims to study (this is the “deep pluralism” called for by Ezzy [2015]). Pagan scholars, for their part, would have discursive space to continue their work of self-representation and theological exploration, which Panin (2015) suggests might be an unavoidable development out of Pagan studies anyway and, in the same stroke, we would open our theological discussion not just to Pagans, but also to Hindus, Buddhists, and many others who have been marginalized in the Abrahamic spaces in which theology has been academically acceptable hitherto, enriching religious studies by deepening and broadening its most important academic partner in dialogue.

Maybe Pagan studies isn’t broken. Maybe it’s a manifesto.

References

Davidsen, Markus Altena. “What is Wrong with Pagan Studies?” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 24 (2012): 183–99.

Ezzy, Douglas. “Pagan Studies: In Defense of Pluralism,” Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 16.2 (2015): 135–49.

Panin, Stanislav. “Discussions on Pagan Theology in the Academia and in the Pagan Community,” Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 6.3 (2015).

White, Ethan Doyle. “In Defence of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen’s Critique,” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 14.1 (2012): 5–21.

 

 

Of Demon Kings and Protestant Yakṣas

Let me begin by saying that this is not a critique, but an effort to contribute to a conversation about issues that have affected me personally as a scholar. In particular, I want to suggest a few approaches that might be straws for the fire in the evolving discourse regarding “Protestant Buddhism” and the general influence of colonialism on Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

My most personal experience in regard to the issues raised by the Religious Studies Project interview with Stephen Berkwitz came while doing research on warfare with Pāli scholars. Again and again, as I directed their attention to jātakas in which the Buddha was a warrior, they would tell me that no such jātaka could exist. Their impression of Buddhist pacifism was so strong that, even though their knowledge of Pāli literature was vastly superior to my own, it had created a blind spot for aspects of their own tradition. It is my impression, [one that might be fruitfully disputed], that that blind spot is a result of the war-weary West’s idealization of Buddhists as the perfect pacifist other. This idealization offered colonized peoples a new and highly attractive moral superiority, which they brilliantly wielded as an act of cultural self-defense. But the power of this naïve Euro-American projection also deprived Sri Lankan’s of the valuable cultural resources that it eclipsed. That blind spot does not obscure the “dark side of Buddhism,” as one recent scholar called the ethics of violence that seem to emerge when we look at Buddhist narrative literature, but rather obscures a richly nuanced and flexible ethic that might have provided rich resources for Sri Lanka’s civil war and postwar reconciliation. There could not be more at stake for the nation that gave the world the suicide-bomber. A similar kind of effect can be seen among young Tibetan refugees, many of whom reject Buddhism, generally blaming its pacifism, a pacifism that never existed, for the loss of their country. The disappointment of Western pacifists here is not unlike the reaction of early Orientalists who, disappointed by the ritualism and deity-worship they found in living Buddhist cultures, described a degenerate Buddhism.[1]

One of the uncomfortable aspects of these kinds of critiques, including my own, is that once again Western scholars seem to claim the high ground and reveal Sri Lankans as passive victims of false consciousness. However, we should remember that cultural heroes like Dharmapala and Walpola Rahula [whose What the Buddha Taught is still found in undergraduate syllabi and dharma-center curricula] knew our languages, culture, values, scriptures and scholarship, including everything ever written about Buddhism in the West, far better than we knew theirs. They exerted great influence on the presentation of their tradition and, along with Neo-Vedānta, powerfully influenced American and European thought. This was not a passive or even merely reactive endeavor. In my experience, Sri Lanka is extraordinary among post-colonial nations for the cosmopolitanism, power and sophistication of its intellectuals. Dharmapala was perfectly poised to open up a can of whoop-ass on naïve Americans at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Buddha taught evolution! Any image of colonials passively subjected to Western influence should be balanced by the embarrassing naiveté and false consciousness this whole discourse reveals among the colonizers and the powerful role seized by Sri Lankans in the representation of their own world.[2]

The whole issue of “Protestant Buddhism” needs to be considered from multiple dimensions that can get mixed up. Any reformulation of Buddhism tuned to Western sensibilities would by implication be tuned to Protestant and scientific biases. Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught is a brilliant adaptation to these biases. The reformulation of Buddhism that was tuned to Western needs, biases, and weaknesses, was also tuned to the needs of Westernized Sri Lankan intellectuals and helped draw them back to Buddhism. So, one dimension of the construction of “Protestant Buddhism” is the Protestantized, pacifist, and scientific image of Buddhism integral to dialogue with the West, including the indigenous Westernized intellectuals who were situated in between worlds. This construction was enhanced by the fact that Sri Lankan intellectuals, who were attracted to this image for many of the same reasons, presented themselves as representative of the tradition as such. These figures may have had more influence on the Western perception of Buddhism than they did on their own country’s.

Buddhists at a stūpa in Kandy worshipping the Hindu deity Kartikeya (photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Sometimes it seems that we mix up our own romantic Protestantized image of Buddhism with what we are pointing toward in Sri Lankan culture. There are useful and intelligent reasons to use the descriptor “Protestant” in describing modern changes in Theravāda Buddhism, but any observer expecting to find Rahula’s Buddhism in Sri Lanka is much more likely to be shocked by how un-Protestant, even un-Theravādin, Buddhism in Sri Lanka really is. It is hard to fit Avalokiteśvara, an obsession with yakṣas, the integral worship of “Hindu” deities, and so on into an image of the bare white New England church. On the other hand, the Theravāda Buddhism that became the stock in trade of every Introduction to Buddhism class strikes me as very Protestant indeed. I look forward to reading Stephen Berkwitz’s new book about the poet Alagiyavanna, who eventually converted to Catholicism and sounds like an early example of a Sri Lankan scholar caught between worlds.

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

One of the most salient things about Sri Lanka is that the dominant majority feels like a threatened minority. Perhaps this is a more recent phenomenon, but it reminds me of how important India has been in shaping Sinhala identity. Traveling in Sri Lanka, I was struck by the presence of Vibhīṣana, the brother of the demon King Rāvana, at Buddhist sacred sites. In the Rāmāyaṇa, Vibhīṣana is portrayed as the good Rākṣasa that advises his brother to surrender Sri Lanka to the ideal Hindu King, Rāma. Although the Rāmāyaṇa did not have great currency among Sinhalese Buddhists, Vibhīṣana was deliberately utilized by Buddhist Kings as a model for their submission to the imperial power of South India whose Kings modeled themselves on Rāma.[3] This response demonstrates a self-conscious and sophisticated approach to manipulating and utilizing the ideals of the outsider as a practical technique for moderating their negative impact. The story of Sri Lanka’s contention with destructive invasive violence and outside imperialist ambitions long precedes Western colonialism. So, I close by wondering whether it might be useful to consider whether the earlier relationship with the once expansive power of South India has anything to tell us, even by way of contrast, about the evolution of Sri Lanka’s adaptation to colonialist forces.

[1] For a more extended rant on these issues see Stephen Jenkins. “A Review Essay on The Range of the Bodhisattva, A Mahāyāna Sūtra,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2014.

[2] For a longer discussion see Stephen Jenkins, “Black Ships, Blavatsky, and the Pizza Effect: Critical Self Consciousness as a Thematic Foundation,” in Teaching Buddhism in the West: From the Wheel to the Web, Curzon Press, ed., Victor Hori, 2002.

[3] I recently discovered the work of Jonathan Walters on Vibhīṣana and he was kind enough to forward a copy of this fascinating article. Walters, Jonathan S. 1990-1994. “Vibhisana and Vijayanagar: An Essay on Religion and Geopolitics in Medieval Sri Lanka.” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 17 and 18, nos. 1 and 2 (Special Jubilee Issue): 129-142.

“I Made It All Up and It Came True Anyway”

From Hell, Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell, 1994. Click to embiggen.

The story goes that somewhere on the West Coast of Africa, sometime in the 17th Century, some Portuguese colonials came upon natives worshiping idols made of wood and clay. “Have you made these yourself?” the Portuguese mockingly asked. The Africans answered in the affirmative. “Are they true Divinities?” Again, affirmative. “They cannot be both!” the Portuguese exclaimed, but the Africans simply didn’t see the distinction. The Portuguese laughed at their ignorant beliefs, and went back to their ships, their crucifixes and their saints (Latour 2010, 2-3).

I met Bruno Latour in the lobby of a swanky hotel in Edinburgh’s West End, where the receptionist was quick to ask if he could help mainly because I was clearly an outsider. Nor is continental philosophy or the anthropology of science an area of expertise for me. But I’d been exploring. In a week I’d read three of his books, including the proof of his then-forthcoming Rejoicing: On Religious Speech, which seemed a departure from his works on the philosophy of science, and Latour had provided me with the full text of his lecture series. I later discovered that mine was the only interview he’d undertaken while in the city.

I was extremely curious how an anthropologist of science comes to be giving the Gifford Lectures. Established in 1888 to ‘promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term”, previous presenters have included such luminaries as William James, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and E. B. Tylor. A year on, I still don’t understand Latour’s argument about Gaia. But a few things from my readings have resonated with things I’d been thinking about in the meantime.

The Dark Continent

RS has been slow to pick up on the work of European sociologists; although Foucault and Bourdieu are becoming familiar names, Hervieu-Leger, Beyart and Latour himself are little known in Anglophone academia, with their books appearing in English sometimes twenty years after their native publication. (That I cannot read them in their original language is partly my own failing and partly the fault of a post-imperial education system which saw European languages as less important than English—see how easily I wield post-structuralist critique?) And this affected Latour too; while Rejoicing seems like an unexpected direction after We Have Never Been Modern and Factish Gods, in the original French, Rejoicing came first, lending the later works a somewhat different reading. In fact, Latour, who identifies as a Catholic, began his academic career in Biblical Studies, which lends the destabilisation of the apparent certainties of modernity in his later writings a different perspective.

Rejoicing is an unusual book for Latour, personal, confessional, almost sermon-like. Ostensibly, it concerns not “religion”, nor “religions” but the adverb “religiously”; what does it mean to talk religiously? Is it still even possible?

Latour interview, Part 1:

Latour’s answer is yes, but not in the way one might expect. Rejoicing is at the same time a fierce attack on religions;

We have to go through this fundamental disappointment: religion leads nowhere. It is the absolute opposite of social or sociologizing explanations that think they’ve explained the need for religion as a bid to fill a world that’s too empty or, conversely, according to the chosen metaphor, as a means of carving out a bit of transcendence in a world that’s too full (2013, 33).

Latour argues that religion is not, never was, about the far-away things; rather, that is properly the domain of science. Religion should be about the near things, the everyday. I don’t know if I agree, but this simple shift of emphasis seemed to me a radical departure from how debates about the role of religion in modernity are typically framed. Rather, Latour suggests, religion is a way of speaking; a kind of language, if you will, about the everyday certainties of existence;

For instance, the word ‘God’, which once served as the premise of all arguing, could have been translated, when ways of life changed, as ‘indisputable framework of ordinary existence’ so that we could continue to really see that what was thereby designated was merely the preliminary and prelude to a conversion of meaning (2013, 8).

However, our invented scholarly creation—the category “religion”—comes back to bite us, and becomes real as agents begin to take sides in the argument;

But instead of this direct, painless, progressive translation, they started clinging for dear life to the term ‘God’ and pitting it against ‘non-God’, without seeing that they were dealing with two forms about as different as God, Deus and Theos for translating the same everyday reality. Thinking they were protecting their heritage, they squandered it (2013, 8).

Factish Gods

In Factish Gods, Latour argues that most critical writings on culture take one of two positions; “the fact position and the fairy position” (2010, 237). The fact position argues that categories of belief are merely empty terms onto which power is projected; alternatively, the “fairy position” has it that there are in fact forces which dominate and motivate individuals, albeit without their conscious acquiescence. To take just one of these categories, RS is largely split between those who see religion as a sui generis category, a thing in itself which exerts power over individuals, and those who see it as a socially constructed but powerful category (and I include myself in the latter camp).

…while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion—there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy (Smith 1982, xi)

Latour, however, is attempting to construct a third way. I asked him about this quote from J. Z. Smith; he replied that he was correct, religion is a constructed category, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t also real. So Latour takes the constructionist agenda of the post-structuralists a step further. Our categories are indeed invented, but not “merely” so, for they are also real. They become real through our wielding of them.

I have to be able to talk about religious elaboration without threatening voices, coming from inside as much as outside, immediately asking me to choose: ‘Is it real or is it made up?’ I have to be able to answer once more: ‘Both’ (2013, 144).

Just like the founders of Discordianism found. A few years after inventing their parody religion, Greg Hill stated that “if you do this type of thing well enough, it starts to work… If you take a goddess of confusion seriously, it will send you through as profound and valid a metaphysical trip as taking a god like Yahweh seriously” (Adler 1986, 335). As Kerry Thornley, ever playful, put it, “if I had realised that all of this was going to come true, I would have chosen Venus” (Adler 1986, 336).

So Latour argues that we have the categories wrong. Rather than seeking to “extend Science over religion’s territory through an offensive apologetics, or to protect religion’s territory from Science through a defensive apologetics” (2013, 24), Latour challenges the basis of these demarcations. There is no boundary between “manufactured” and “real”, between “knowledge” and “belief”. Latour’s work argues that we all, ostensibly religious or not, have an epistemology based on invented certainties. We have never been Modern. None of us hold beliefs that are any more naive than anyone else’s. There are other ways to think about religion, beyond the simple dichotomies which populate the field and that many of us are so tired of.

Latour interview, Part 2:

The future of the discipline, in short, whether RS can demonstrate its utility to the broader academy, may depend on us getting over such false dichotomies—religious/secular, faith/knowledge, object/subject, fact/fetish, invented/real. We need to stop talking about how some people believe, and instead analyse our multiple, competing, situational, invented epistemologies.

Actually, I’m not sure this is what Latour means at all. I just made it up.

It’s turned quite cold, hasn’t it? Shall we be heading back?

References

Adler, M. (1986). Drawing down the moon: Witches, Druids, goddess-worshippers, and other pagans in America today. Boston: Beacon Press.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2010). On the modern cult of the factish gods. Durham: Duke University Press.

Latour, B. (2013). Rejoicing: Or the torments of religious speech. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Moore, A., & Campbell, E. (1994). From hell. Northampton: Mad Love Pub. in association with Kitchen Sink Press.

Smith, J. Z. (1982). Imagining religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Religion and Globalization

Over the past few weeks we have been looking at ‘religion’ in a ‘global context’ – from Mark Juergensmeyer’s sociotheological approach to ‘cosmic war’, to Douglas Pratt’s discussion of the ‘persistence and problem’ of ‘religion’, and Ryan Cragun’s introduction and overview to Mormon demographics across the globe. The final interview in this series was recorded in Ottawa in November 2012, and features Chris speaking with Peter Beyer, Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa, who – as Chris has proudly stated ad nauseum – literally wrote the book on Religions in Global Society.

What do we mean by globalization? What does this concept have to say to the study of religion? How have religions been agents in the globalization process? What theoretical and methodological issues arise when trying to answer such questions? All of these questions and more are tackled in an interview which touches on post-colonialism, secularization theory, theodicy, Rational Choice Theory, and something called Post-Westphalianism. We hope you enjoy it!

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter. And if you want to support the RSP, you can click through to Amazon.co.uk through our affiliates link, and we will earn referral fees from any transactions during your visit.

In the earlier parts of his career, Peter Beyer focused his research primarily on sociological theory of religion and on themes in Canadian religious history, doing his doctoral dissertation on the Louis Riel and postdoctoral studies on 19th and 20th century French Canadian Roman Catholicism. Since the mid-1980s, however, his main interests have centred on the sociological understanding of the relations between religion and globalization and on religion in contemporary Canada. His current research focuses on religious diversity and multiculturalism in Canada, especially as concerns recent immigrants and the second generation of these immigrants. He is the author of Religion and Globalization, Religions in Global Society, and co-editor (with Lori Beaman) of Religion, Globalization, and Culture (International Studies in Religion and Society Series).