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What we can learn from our Founding Fathers

Rudolf Otto’s stern founding father “look”.

In this discussion, Professor Schmidt discusses her keynote lecture at the Open University’s “Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives: Publics and Performances”. We turn back to discuss some of the “founding fathers” of the discipline of Religious Studies: Rudolf Otto, R.R. Marrett, and Andrew Lang. These three founding fathers all proposed a non-rational understanding of religion which is relevant today to our considerations of religion in terms of vernacular or “lived” religion.

In this week’s podcast we don’t actually have a podcast. Instead, we’ve branched out again and decided to finish this “semester” of the RSP with a video interview with the president elect of the BASR Bettina Schmidt.

In this discussion, Professor Schmidt discusses her keynote lecture at the Open University’s “Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives: Publics and Performances”. We turn back to discuss some of the “founding fathers” of the discipline of Religious Studies: Rudolf Otto, R.R. Marrett, and Andrew Lang. These three founding fathers all proposed a non-rational understanding of religion which is relevant today to our considerations of religion in terms of vernacular or “lived” religion.

Professor Schmidt explains how this emphasis on the “non-rational”, on the way that religion is danced out rather than thought out, is of relevance to the consideration of her own research field on Trance and Spirit Possession in South America. By looking at scholars who have been shelved in contemporary scholarships we can work towards making what seems visceral or extra-ordinary appear to be as mundane as it is for the people involved.

Apologies in advance for any dips in quality. Bear with as we are now pretty happy with the medium and will improve upon this in future episodes!

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

What Can We Learn from Our Founding Fathers?

Podcast with Bettina Schmidt (18 June 2018).

Interviewed by Jonathan Tuckett.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Schmidt – What Can We Learn from Our Founding Fathers 1.1

Jonathan Tuckett (JT): Hello. And welcome to an entirely new format of interview with the Religious Studies Project! You may now recognise my face as somebody even more familiar – I’m the Features Editor, Jonathan Tuckett. And we are, once again, testing out the video format. So this time we actually have Bettina Schmidt with us, who is now President Elect of the BASR, and also Senior Lecturer . . ?

Bettina Schmidt (BS): Professor.

JT: Professor – apologies – Professor at Trinity St David’s, in Wales. So, we are currently at the OU Conference on Religion and Its Publics. And we’re here today to talk a little bit about Bettina’s keynote speech, in which she was talking about some of the older figures in Religious Studies; figures that . . . one of whom, I personally feel should be buried, and never remembered! But I’m sure Bettina is going to give us a valid reason why we should be reading some of these people, even today, in the modern research university. So – just a quick summary of the keynote speech?

BS: Well, Jonathan, to give a quick summary is always difficult for a long speech – but I will do my best. So, in my keynote lecture yesterday, I wanted to highlight that we can learn something from historical figures in our field. In particular, from three of what I call “founding fathers” of the wider field of the Study of Religions. I quite consciously didn’t select old female scholars, which is a bit of a problem, because we also had a few “founding mothers”. But I highlight the work of three figures who are often described – and were even described in the beginning – in quite negative terms. For instance, one of the figures which probably you think we should bury is Rudolph Otto, who was the professor for Systematic Theology at my old alma mater, the University of Marburg. And for the 400-year anniversary of the university, in 1925, he was able to found a new museum – the first museum which has artefacts – which is called, still today, Religionskundliche Sammlung. In this museum – which he founded outside any faculty, but as a university collection – he gave home to a rich (collection of) religious artefacts from all over the world, in relationship to religion. However, some of the other theologians during his time, and their students, quite dismissively called it (audio unclear) – which is a very negative term in German. The other figure was Andrew Lang, who described himself as an outcast of Academia. He had held, for a couple of years, a Fellowship at Merton College in Oxford. He decided to be through with Merton, because he wanted to get married. And, in that time, a Fellow was not allowed to get married. And the third person I highlighted was Marett, the successor of Edward Tylor, at Oxford, as Reader in Social Anthropology. But he himself, and others, described him as an anomaly. Although he had a university position, in the wider recognition – nowadays – of the beginning of an interest in religion from an academic point of view, he is often just a footnote. The Oxford University still has the Marett Lectures, but people are no longer interested in his work – apart from looking at his early work on mana and other things. And I think we can still learn from these figures – of course, with reservations. They were children of their time and they were firmly linked to a certain belief system at the time: evolutionism, Social Darwinism, and so on. But, nonetheless, they all three had something which really made them special, from my own view.

JT: Sure. So the obvious question then is, in a certain respect: you’ve mentioned Rudolph Otto – who comes from a very theological background – and you mentioned Lang and Marett who both come from EB Tylor’s background. So it’s two very different backgrounds here. So what is it that unites the three of them together, as a kind of collective, for you that allows you to talk of them a single group, as it were, in this context?

BS: Yes. This is an interesting field. Why did I choose to include Otto in this mix, with two Classicists? When you look at their engagement with other religion, I find that they’re highly appreciative of the emotional draw to religion, the creative one, the imaginative one. So, for them, a huge element which interests them, in religion, was imagination. Otto, it was also a personal connection to the sacred, this idea of the holy. He, as a child of his time – in particular as a Lutheran professor of theology – he of course saw Christianity as very important for his own person. But he appreciated, also, that this concept of religion – like Schleiermacher before him – was present in all regions. And he travelled around. He did not do proper fieldwork overseas, but he travelled around. Already, as a student, he visited Great Britain and attended high church services. And then he went to Greece, and got acquainted with the Greek Orthodox. And then he went to Egypt and encountered Coptic Christians, but then, also, the different forms of Islam. And this led him, then, to further encounters with Islam in Northern Africa. Then, in particular, his journeys to Asia inspired him. That there are so many different forms of religious practice, but they all had in common this fascinating, this mysterium tremendum et fascinans: this concept of awe in the presence of the deity – the idea of God, or something else. And this is what still attracts people to Otto. Lang, on the other side, always argued against Tylor. Although he is always put in connection with Tylor, he was never a student of Tylor. And he disagreed with Tylor’s quite intellectualist approach to religion, that religion is belief in spirits. And he really argued more on an emotional, on a “felt” position. And this was even stronger in Marett who, although he was a successor of Tylor, criticised Tylor’s approach and definition of religion and argued that religion is something “danced”. I have a quote, if I may. It is in the time of Marett, so it was in the beginning of the 20th century. So he used the term “savage religion”, which we don’t use today – fortunately!

JT: (Laughs).

BS: But he wrote: “Savage religion is something not so much thought out, as danced out” And this is something which I also feel is present when I do my fieldwork. One of my fields is spirit possession and trance. And so I’ve attended rituals in various different countries. And there, people don’t discuss what religion is but they feel it in their body. And this is what I think is a common aspect in all three of them.

JT: Interesting. Because when you say imagination, an almost “go to” kind of understanding of imagination would be Tylor and the idea of the savage philosopher who is sitting in his cage, and is imagining all these things to explain the world around him. But the way you’re describing it, imagination seems to serve a very different kind of function within the thinking of Otto and Lang and Marett. So in the way that you’re now talking about dance, how does this idea of imagination and dance, for instance, connect together in this kind of thinking?

BS: Well, I think we have a different understanding of imagination. For me, imagination is really the creative aspect, the wonderful performance, the feeling . . . . The imagination leads an artist to paint. And so this is, for me, imagination. While Tylor’s minimal definition of religion is not . . . .You are right: he’d argue that people sat somewhere, and imagined, and invented it. But he really thought that this is a logical answer to the question, “How did religion get started?” That it’s really just a way to explain things. All three never went in this direction. It was never about, in the work that they wrote, religious justification, or something to explain (religion). It’s something to be felt – the emotional aspect – and then to imagine what it meant, like how the deity, the sacred, might be, might enact and might feel. And so it’s not something intellectually thought of, but emotionally responded to.

JT: OK, yes. So we have Tylor’s rationalistic kind-of response. I’m curious. I’m going to use the phrase anti-rationalist to now describe these three. Would you say that’s a fair way of describing their approach?

BS: Otto himself used an English translation of the term, “non-rational”. And I think this is also true – although they didn’t use the term non-rational – but it’s also in-between-the-lines in Lang and Marett’s work. It’s not a rationalistic, intellectualist definition of the beginning of religion, but an emotional, felt one. And therefore, yes, the focus is on the non-rational.

JT: I’m feeling a couple of questions coming on. And I know the RSP audience is probably thinking, “Oh No! It’s Jonathan. He’s going to ask her all about phenomenology!” So I’ll hold back on those questions for now. But on a more practical level – you’re now talking about dancing. What kind of methodological challenges does that kind-of throw up if we’re focussing on the non-rational side of religions? If we can no longer read a book and read a statement and understand what is going on there, what kind of challenges do you then face for studying and understanding religion?

BS: I’m going to start answering your question by saying: I’m not saying it’s either/ or. But my argument is that by acknowledging the non-rational as part of the study of religion, we ought to allow religious, spiritual experience and even non-religious experience to be studied within the Study of Religion. This does not mean that everything has to be, then, non-rational or experience. Of course the Study of Religion includes a wider range of aspects. But at the moment, or from the beginning, the Study of Religion focussed on the controversy with Theology, and the aim to be acknowledged as science – with academic value. And therefore people shied away from acknowledging that we are also studying counter-culture, that we are studying New Age, that we are also studying something like Spirit possession. And my argument is, by showing that at the beginning of the discipline, at the beginning of the 20th century, or the end of the 19th century, this was already covered by some scholars who were very important in creating the field of the Study of Religion, we can then have a trajectory that shows that this was a more-or-less open or visible part of our discipline from the beginning. And which . . . . My argument is that it might help us to acknowledge that today, when we study religions, we are studying all different kinds of religious practices and beliefs. We are not just looking at the dominant tradition. But we are looking at what people do, the lived experience, the lived practice, the vernacular traditions. And when we start focussing on this aspect we can study everything. We can still read books. We can still do the normal participant observation and interviews. It’s just that we don’t acknowledge the non-rational in our field.

JT: Interesting. So building on that . . . because now that you’ve tied it into the idea of lived religion and vernacular religion, as kind-of like the vogue trends of how to study religion these days, and tying it particularly to Otto. And – you can then probably correct me – on Lang and Marett if they do something similar. But when you talk about Otto’s’ mysterium tremendum et fascinans, it’s a very – to use one of the words from one of the earlier panels – it’s a visceral experience, in the language of Otto. It’s a very dramatic experience, in the same way that you’ve described trances and spirit possessions which are dramatic events and dramatic experiences. But how does this kind of approach, then, apply to the more humdrum, kind-of mundane understanding of lived religion and vernacular religion?

BS: Otto used these Latin terms because he thought there is no equivalent, no way to express what he felt, in ordinary languages. This is why he went back to Latin. We also have to understand that at that time, Latin was seen as the language of the Church. And therefore I think we should not over-emphasise that he used Latin phrases. But you are, of course, right with my spirit possession and trance studies. In particular, my field area is Latin America. And I mainly focus on the African diaspora. And these are very powerful performances. But from the beginning I also included, for instance, Spiritism. Spiritism is not very dramatic. It is more of less sitting around a table until the medium say that the medium sees something or hears something. So it is not very dramatic. And this is also part of my own fieldwork. And we also need to acknowledge the lived experience. It’s sometimes praying in your world, in your own place, or being alone on a beach. And this is also a religious or spiritual experience, and also part of what we should study. And so, it’s not just the dramatic performances, but also performances which perhaps have elements which are just inside of ourselves. I want to argue that we should not just focus on aspects and practices which happen in religious buildings – like a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque – but we also need to include what happens in the street, what happens when somebody is alone. This also is part of vernacular religious practice.

JT: It’s interesting, because you’re talking about the importance of Lang, and Otto, and of Marett. And that’s very much in the way of: it’s important for “us”, as scholars and academics. But one of the themes of the conference has been the public face of the university. And, particularly, the reason I asked about trance – and particularly in terms of the visceral experience – is, when it comes to things like spirit possession, that kind of thing will capture the public eye because it is kind-of a dramatic thing. And, in your own presentation, one of the photographs had a woman who was moving around with a blade, and so it’s very eye-catching. But now, as you say, we need to focus on the person who’s praying in their living room, or in a quiet corner somewhere. So how, on a slightly more practical level, do we present that kind of study of religion to the public in a way that is as captivating as some of the more visceral imagery that can sometimes be associated with religion?

BS: Before I answer your question about how we can speak about it, just another comment. Otto and Lang are both quite popular outside university. Otto’s Idea of the Holy is translated in over 20 languages, and some of them non-European. And people are still reading it. And Lang was very dominant in the (audio unclear) Society, and is still very important in the material. So both had quite an impact on the public, and still have. We have kicked them out of our history, but the public is still enchanted by them! And so, I think we ought to catch up with what the wider public reads of publications in our field. But, back to your question. This is always a problem. A while ago I wrote about animal sacrifice for a publication on sacrifice. And one of the questions was whether I had an illustration for the publication. And I said, “No.” Because I didn’t want the public to get the wrong impression. I wanted my article to explain the normality of the practice, and not the exoticism. So I don’t have illustrations, and I don’t give out illustrations, and I don’t show illustrations of sacrifice in any presentations, because it would give the wrong impression of the practice. Spirit possession is different, because sometimes, in publications, I include some images – or in presentations like the lecture, yesterday. I find them wonderful. I find these photos that I’ve chosen, a wonderful expression of creativity. The costumes are exotic, wonderful, and colourful. Of course in the photo we cannot hear, but the music is wonderful, the whole performance is just wonderful. It could be on stage. It could be in the theatre. It could be in an art gallery. And you can see, in some museums, costumes presented to a museum because they are so creative and wonderful to look at. And so I’ve chosen them, also, as a way for the wider audience to realise spirit possession is not something negative. It’s not about being possessed by the devil. It can also be a very positive experience. And this is what I want to convey with the photos I’ve chosen.

JT: So, in a way, what we’re doing is . . . we’re kind-of taking the things that are visceral to the public, and showing that they’re not actually visceral – they’re more mundane things. And then, that will hopefully generate (interest) in other things that they already recognise as mundane, as well.

BS: Also, it’s in order to counter-balance a stereotype image that they have, often, when they hear the term spirt possession.

JT: Thank you very much, Bettina Schmidt, for being my test subject with the video format. I hope you enjoyed the experience!

BS: Well, I hope it’s come over quite well!

JT: I hope so, too! All that it remains for me to say is: “thanks for watching” – this time – not just “thanks for listening”. So, thank you for watching!

Citation Info: Schmidt, Bettina and Jonathan Tuckett. 2018. “What Can We Learn from Our Founding Fathers?” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 18 June 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 11 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/what-can-we-learn-from-our-founding-fathers/

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 10 January 2017

Dear subscriber,

Please note this week’s special opportunity from the RSP itself! Want to become part of our vital team? Scroll all the way down to “Jobs” (but do stop by the other opportunities on the way… :)).

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Conference: Creatures of the Night: Mythologies of the Otherworld and Its Denizens

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BDSM as Religious Practice

RqdefaultIn this interview Alison Robertson gives an insight to her doctoral research on BDSM (Bondage, Dominance, and Submission) as religious practice. Throughout her research, Robertson has examined the relationship between BDSM and religiosity, drawing interesting questions on the nature of religion as a category, the role of self-inflicted/positive pain in religious practice.

IMG_20160418_154835This interview considers the methods of approaching a study of BDSM, the dreaded ethical clearance, and interview participants’ responses to the categorization of their experience as ‘religious’. Robertson’s research poses important questions for the wider academy, including what other ‘extreme’ practices could be deemed religious, and the difficulty in identifying differences between ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’ experiences.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, whips, handcuffs and more.

The Truthiness of Consciousness as the Sacred

Here Be Monsters

DWM01

Seven or so minutes into David Robertson’s interview with Rice University’s Jeffrey Kripal, Kripal cuts to the heart of an issue that plagues contemporary religious studies scholars: Do we have the tools and will to seriously examine experiences of the fantastic in the present age?

In my response today, I hope to achieve two things. First, I want to discuss Kripal’s presentation of the field’s latent crisis of emic/etic perspective regarding religious experiences. His explorations of the fantastic should be exciting to many listeners. Go right ahead and take a look at Mutants and Mystics (2011) or Authors of the Impossible (2010). They are worth your time, and I believe it is possible that in the interview he undersold the significance of attempts toward understanding the resurgence of supernaturalism in our present era.

Second, I think it is necessary to challenge the way Kripal avoided the field’s problem with sui generis approaches to religious and paranormal experiences. Elevating consciousness as a replacement for older comparative, phenomenological categories such as the holy, sacred, or numinous does not escape the established critiques from folks like Russell McCutcheon or Tim Fitzgerald. It only defers judgment until some future moment when science can better explain consciousness or paranormal experiences in material ways. Or, worse still, it takes the gambit that scholars can never truly understand our world through observation. Many beginners in religious studies are advised to consider naturalism as the cornerstone of our field. If we supplant it by admitting that consciousness is sui generis and unknowable, as Kripal appears inclined to do, then are we not trying yet again to move religious studies out of the humanities or human sciences and back into the realm of theology? (Or simply rehashing the arguments over comparativism between Paden and Wiebe from the late 1990s?) Though our field may not fully embrace the scientific method as its methodology of choice, its premises of knowledge acquired through empirical observation and verification remain the philosophical bulwark for our work.

In sum, Kripal’s approach identifies new territory for scholarly exploration of paranormal experiences, but it also limits those explorations by failing to heed the lessons learned in previous expeditions. Ironically, the monsters were marked on the map; we should have believed the stories.

The Lasso of Truth

wonder woman with lasso

Supernatural. Paranormal. Fantastic. What are the boundaries for discussing these phenomenon? Do we take a skeptic’s approach and deconstruct an informant’s experience with the lenses of scientific reductionism? Shall we build a social world that frames phenomenal experiences to explain them away as historical products of pre-scientific thinking and superstition? Are we bound to believe the stories in full or analyze them as if they were so?

I see one version of our field’s history as haunted by these questions. It is a procession of ghosts fighting over the issue of the experience of the religious–the sacred legacy stretching from James and Durkheim through Otto to Eliade and J. Z. Smith. Modernity’s crisis of truth, the onset of relativism and deconstructionism, has meant that religious studies has been continually frustrated over the issue of authenticity in its sources and subjects. How can we know that ancient religious agents really believed the bear would lie down and offer itself to the hunters as a sacrifice (my favorite example from J. Z. Smith’s Imagining Religion)? Perhaps this is the thorn in our side from our Protestant legacy. We are left to forever doubt our own interpretative models and be stuck between the absolutism of the insider’s emotion and the skepticism of the outsider’s inability to be or think like the insider.

Kripal’s presentation of the key issue in the study of the fantastic goes like this: If something fantastic happened in the past, then we are better able to feel sympathy for that experience because it is historical. If we cast it aside or call it superstition, then we do so without harming a living informant. It is a difficult part of our work when we must listen to an informant tell an extraordinary tale and then reserve judgment on whether we think the story is true. It is not just that telling someone face-to-face that you do not believe their story is difficult. In practice, this breaks the boundaries for gathering observations. We can then be won or lost as listeners who also believe or understand. Historians are blessed with a distance that fosters objectivity rooted in naturalism and skepticism. Within the field, supernatural explanations do indeed seem to fall beyond the pale as truths. The “ontological shock” of the past is not accessible in the present.

When studying living agents, however, Kripal argues that our field has been largely “unwilling to take the fantastic seriously in the present.” This lack of seriousness can be a micro-aggression of disbelief or scoffing at an exaggerated tale. Or it can be the scientific dismissal of an experience by explanations rejected by the observer themselves. But it was real to me, they might say. Are we to reply “I do not believe you”? The question of the authenticity and reality of these experiences are the heart of the issue for those who experience the supernatural or paranormal. Thus, Kripal says he does not “understand how as scholars we can just bracket [the question of ontological truth]. I understand why we can’t answer that question, but I don’t agree that we should just push that question off to the side.”

Indeed, for most of the last century ethnography demanded that observers bracket their own worldviews. Were you pursuing your interpretations (the etic) or the interpretations of your subjects (the emic)? Even modern concessions to the role of observers in influencing the things they document, as in the work of Karen McCarthy Brown, do so in ways that highlight the distance between the ethnographer’s world and the world of her subjects.

Kripal says that to deal with the paranormal, observers cannot be phenomenologists secluded from the truth claims of their subjects. Truth–that of the informant and the observer–is collapsed into a shared faculty of experience called consciousness. “These most extreme and fantastic religious experiences,” he says, “might well be our best clues as to what the nature of consciousness really is, below or above our social egos and these sort of superficial forms of awareness that you or I are in at the moment.” Kripal need not believe the particular details of alien abduction or out-of-body teleportation because the mode of experiencing these events is real–it is our consciousness and that makes it “the ground of all religious experience.” It is “the new sacred.”

There are plenty of ways to discuss this remarkable exchange, but Kripal falls back on the narrative that led our field to criticize Eliade or Otto’s claims that the sacred was sui generis. Consciousness, he says, is sui generis.

Part of the effect of this radical move is that Kripal is binding his informants with, to borrow a popular culture reference, a lasso of truth. He compels them, wills them to be truthful because the ground of the experience cannot lie to them. After all, it was their experience. If I am following correctly, our informants merit our trust not on the details of their experience, but rather on the mode of experiencing. Those experiences then fall either on the side of the ego and the everyday or the side of the extraordinary where consciousness is universal, groundless or “empty.”

Shall we put aside the issue that we have not explained how to differentiate between types of experiences apart from the informant or the observer’s explanations? Or how groundless experiences in our consciousness are anything other than wordplay for the sacred? How have we improved our lot by this shift to the term consciousness? Have we not just substituted ego and emptiness for homo faber and homo religiosus?

Like Kripal, I think it is unlikely that most (or perhaps any) informants are describing an experience from our world when they narrate an alien abduction. So I fail to see how we can do significantly more than say they have told him a story they believe is true. As observers receiving such a story, I find it our duty to walk the line that holds us from letting the veracity of a claim dictate our field’s observational models or orientations. A single informant’s truth is anecdote, not evidence. Nor does a body of similar anecdotes become truth through the weight of repetition. If corroborating evidence fails to appear, it does not rob an anecdote of meaning or significance. For we do not set our business upon the truth-claim, but rather on the value of the story. Though Kripal acknowledges his informants’ desire to place ontologies at the center of their experiences, this should not compel us to then reassert the grounds of our field’s ontologies. Should we not feel uneasy when told that it is appropriate to do so? Have we really escaped the trouble of sui generis critiques by replacing the sacred with an something that Kripal says cannot be measured or known “in principle because it is not an object”? Though we need not be utter materialists or empiricists to do our work, are we not placing our interpretations at risk when we place them on immeasurable and unknowable foundations?

 

 

Truthiness

Capture

Fox Mulder and his iconic “I want to believe” poster from The X-Files

Let me try another tack to conclude my thoughts on the issue of truth and its relationship to scholarly discussions of the paranormal and supernatural. In the pilot episode of his television show The Colbert Report in 2005, Stephen Colbert introduced western audiences to truthiness. “We’re divided between those that think with their heads and those that know with their hearts,” Colbert said. “The truthiness is that anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.” Truthiness is the simulacrum of the truth we wish existed “in our gut.” Or, as he said in an interview for The Onion, “Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.”

So how should we then perceive experiences of the paranormal? Is it the truth of the sacred in the gut of religious studies? Or is it a semblance of truth that feels better than the materialistic, reductionist alternative? Are these our only options?

In Authors of the Impossible, Kripal attempted to show how both religious and scientific registers came to be seen as failing to explain paranormal experiences for a wide range of pseudo-religious personalities. For folks like Charles Fort, for instance, science had all the answers. Later, science became a target of great skepticism, a “trickster” that appeared to offer answers but could not actually explain much that mattered. In Kripal’s hands, this argument takes a new shape: if science cannot address consciousness and it is universal, then perhaps it is that substance or ground upon which the sacred can also be found. It seems to have a sense of truth to it. It feels like it could make the fantastic possible. But how are we to be sure?

Pivoting in the last few minutes, Kripal argues that the thing that we need to truly understand paranormal experiences is symbolic imagination. In our efforts to embrace difference and “demonize” sameness, we seem to have lost the ability to appreciate radical experiences. We are too interested in reducing the world to scientific claims and are insulated from the opportunities of experiences that break the mold. This is the mystical invitation–the root of much inspiration for authors of science fiction and comic books in Mutants and Mystics–that reveals the paradigm shift Kripal asks for: to have the field deal with the paranormal. Can we treat the fantastic seriously on these terms? Let us know how you feel in the comments.

Human Consciousness & Religious Reality

It was real to me. There I was, curled into a corner, comforter wrapped around my shaking limbs and sweating torso, twisted in terror in the sinister hours of the morning. The salt of my tears were laced with the visceral reality of a specter, a monster, or some strange creature slowly scratching its course along the hallway outside my bedroom. I never saw the demon. I eventually fell asleep in exhaustion, still crimped into the corner of my room. The memory of those tormenting moments is still forbidding and physical for me, etched forever into my consciousness. Was it ontologically real? That is beyond the purview of my recollection. Was it real in my mind? Damn straight.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal, the RSP talked with the man who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University about his recent works Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011) and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010).

In these works, Kripal shared how participation in what we call “the sacred” is a critical element that undergirds religious understanding and activity. From his perspective, human consciousness qualifies, as well as anything else, as “the sacred” itself, and must therefore be addressed and wrestled with by any self-respecting student of religion.

Particularly, Kripal argued that generally marginalized authors who have attempted to theorize the paranormal be treated as central to the religious project, even though their work deals with marvels deemed outside both mainstream scientific and/or religious parameters. These authors, Kripal contested, are “authors of the impossible,” but that does not make them charlatans or crackpots. Although Kripal does not come to conclusions about the ontological reality of these phenomena, and maintains a scholarly agnosticism, he does insist that the paranormal must be understood on its own terms (Authors of the Impossible, 158). Though these marvels may not be appreciated as “real,” they cannot be simply explained away or dismissed with snark or sarcasm either (all too often the case among “respectable scholars”).

Kripal fleshes this out in Mutants and Mystics, which acts as a case-study of sorts, applying the aforementioned theory to the symbiosis between paranormal believers and the production of superhero pop culture. As Kripal pointed out, many of the most popular science fiction and superhero creators were metaphysicists and New Age apostles. They imbued their fantasy narratives with spiritual themes that revealed that the sacred resides in each one of us and we, ourselves, are the superheroes, the true miracles of the divine world. Yes, indeed, behind the veil of science in the sci-fi genre, there is a touch of the ethereal, he asserted. This perspective lends itself to a “new anthropology” where, in the words of Kripal, “the Human [is] Two (and One),” which, “is the neuroanatomical, cognitive, and spiritual bedrock of the paranormal and its fantastic both-and, physical-mythical, masterful-mental, real-unreal expressions in popular culture.” (Mutants and Mystics, 333)

All-in-all, Kripal’s outlook stands as a corrective to purely anthropological, political, or economic analyses of religion as social construct. Counteracting strictly Durkheimian models, Kripal re-centers “the sacred” — posited as “consciousness” — as not only important to understanding religion, but as its critical point of departure. Essentially, Kripal calls out the religious studies world for not having a sufficient appreciation of the power of imagination and invites scholars and the interested public into a new comparativism that moves away from strict materialism.

As an ethnographer of religion, I appreciate this remedial position. I first encountered Kripal’s work as a journalist covering religion in Houston, the home of Rice University. This led to multiple conversations between the two of us about religion, the study thereof, and academia in general. While we come from two different perspectives and ask critically different questions as we approach the same topic, I value Kripal’s emphasis on the conscious as the seat of “the sacred.” While he readily admits that he is not concerned with the sociological questions of religion, and instead recasts some of the Otto and Eliade perspectives on “the numinous,” his viewpoint impacts me as an ethnographer.

I am often frustrated by the lack of empathy from the perspective of sociologists and ethnographers who study religion (and, for that matter, historians, political scientists, economists, and armchair scholars), but do not take the reality of religious experiences seriously. There are certainly exceptions to this rule (Daniel Levine’s Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism immediately comes to mind), but in general the great swathe of scholars dealing with religion too easily dismiss the complexity of human consciousness, the power of the psycho-social, and the reality of the sacred.

As Kripal intimated in the interview, the applications of his perspective reach beyond New Religious Movements or paranormal phenomena and include historical analyses and contemporary studies of local and global religioscapes. Immediately, I can think of ethnographers working on the use of amulets and talismans in West Africa, the role of dreams in conversion to Christianity and/or Islam, or Pentecostal healing practices in Latin America.

While these cases may be summarily theorized by many as elements of social control, political context, or economic realities there is ample need to appreciate these occurrences as they occur — as real to those experiencing them. Although researchers should not treat them as ontological fact, they can at the very least be approached as “real” in respect to the human conscious.

And yet, the problem occurs when these experiences contradict each other. Take, for example, dreams that lead to conversion (or occur during the process thereof). While not the majority, I discovered in my own research that some Latina/o Muslims convert because of mystical dream experiences. One “revert” related the content of a dream wherein, “Allah spoke to me and told me I have to change.” Another related that she “had the same dream three times” in which she was in Mecca, wearing a hijab, and felt close to her other Muslim sisters there. Soon after she converted to Islam. Interestingly enough, these experiences mirror reports of many missionaries and Christian converts in the Middle East who also claim that dreams are playing a significant role in Muslims converting to Christianity. Furthermore, there is evidence that dreams have frequently played a role in conversions throughout history, including the mass conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the 7th-century. What does the reality of these experiences mean when they seem to lead in different convictional directions?

Further, while Kripal’s points about consciousness and the sacred prove a potent corrective, they cannot stand on their own in the study of religion. Even if Kripal himself is not concerned with religion as a social construct, we cannot neglect the social realities of religion. In fact, rather than treating the human as two (and one), perhaps we should theorize the human as three (and one). First, as a “conscious subject” (which Kripal makes us critically aware of); second, as an “embodied physicality”; and third, as a “socially constructed being” shaped by their social context and a conscience collective (to invoke Durkheim).

Regardless of these critiques and ruminations on my part, Kripal’s theory deserves attention and examination on the part of religious studies scholars. There certainly is no easy answer in dealing with such complex discussions such as human consciousness and religious reality, but that is no reason why we should not pursue it from multiple perspectives and ends, which Kripal worthily invites us to do.

Experiences Deemed Religious from Micro and Qualitative to Macro and Quantitative

Overview

This joint Religious Studies Project/SSSR session was a symposium that included four presentations, all focused on some variation on the topic of “religious experiences,” a category better described as experiences deemed religious (EDRs; Taves, 2009). Beyond that idea in the symposium summary, the only similarity among the presentations was that that they were almost purely descriptive. There was little if any theoretical synthesis, either psychologically or sociologically, to help the audience gain a conceptual understanding of the processes mediating these or other EDRs.

The combined result of the four presentations is certainly positive for purposes of illustrating ways that qualitative or quantitative research on EDRs can be executed. Three of the four presentations also gave the viewer-listener a relatively vivid picture of the questions posed, the participants involved, and what was actually learned from the studies. This is, of course, all good. The downside, however, which is not at all unusual for symposia of this sort, was that the methods and findings were presented and the presentation then stopped, usually for reasons of time.

As an observer-listener I was left with an illuminating picture of what the researchers were trying to get at and what they found. However, my mind strained at the theoretical emptiness left in their wake – my intellectual need to dig deeper and understand why the findings were what they were. That, of course, is the much more difficult task.

Presentations Snapshot

A brief summary of the presentations looks like this:

(1) In Study 1, seven people were interviewed who are active in Christian snake-handling sects in the rural Southern U.S. states. Their beliefs and practices are derived from a literal application of the “five signs” said to follow believers as listed in the last chapter of the Gospel of Mark. The two life-threatening signs are handling poisonous snakes and drinking deadly poison; Each participant had done both. The interviews focused on the phenomenology of drinking strychnine. In order to confirm its toxicity, an independent lab examined a sample of the liquid used; it was confirmed lethal. Reported effects included a powerful sense of awe, “victory,” a “rush” or mental “high,” and sensations such as peace, joy, satisfaction, and spiritual perfection.

(2) In Study 2, several modern Christian churches were observed, and their clergy interviewed, about the role of popular secular and religious music in worship services. The interviews showed that, for these ministers and worshipers, secular music is thought to be “more real” in helping people confront their own shortcomings. It is included such services in order to facilitate an internal sense of honesty, while comfort and hope are subsequently provided by religious music and other non-musical aspects of the service.

(3) Study 3 focused on natural disaster relief and symptoms of PTSD, as approached by clergy and others in Japan, the U.S., and the Philippines. Clergy of various religions, including Christians and Buddhists, completed questionnaires that asked, for instance, how they perceived disasters, whether they had an obligation to help victims or pray with victims, whether they thought disasters were God’s will, if they see signs of PTSD or lesser symptoms in those they help. The results generally affirmed the clergy’s motivation to help, which seem to help decrease the suffering of the victims.

(4) In Study 4, although research was referred to, the main argument was that researchers should get away from doing research only within their narrow disciplinary boundaries. It was proposed that we should instead aim to “highlight the lines of continuity” between disciplines through research that, for example, combines social and natural scientific methods, using methods that exploit the potentials for cooperative effort between fields.

Qualitative and Quantitative Methods

To be fair, the four presentations were so varied that I would not expect to be able to view them, with much accuracy, through only one theoretical or methodological lens. Study 1 was a content analysis of seven interviews aimed at creating a clear, accurate picture of the mental experiences of people that had drunk a poison. With the research goal thus defined and the available N so small, an in-depth interview method is the way to go. Qualitative methodologies of this sort yield a vividness and completeness in the data that physiological recordings cannot produce.

Does this mean that qualitative research is better than quantitative research? No. Nor does it mean it is worse. It means that for a research question posed as this one was, a qualitative method is better equipped to answer it with data of the form most meaningful to the question. Qualitative methods, such as the use of questionnaires in Study 3, are desirable when the research intent is to go deeply into single cases and yield the most complete graphic possible of what is being examined, whether the case is an individual human, as occurs in psychological research, or an individual village, as in anthropological research. Such methods yield a form of data that are sometimes referred to as “deeper” and “richer.” That is their gift and their strength. Vivid pictures of the phenomenology of EDRs can be painted with such methods.

With the strength of a research method, however, there is a corresponding weakness. And these weaknesses turn out to be overcome by the strengths of other, “opposite” kinds of methods. In the case of the small-N phenomenological interview methods used in Study 1, weaknesses include difficulties in going beyond describing the subjects’ experiences to test theoretical predictions about what might happen mentally when someone drinks poison (or does anything else), why the experience might be interpreted in one way or another by the individual, ways people might respond when the experience is discrepant from that which was anticipated, and so forth. Answers to questions phrased in these ways are more amenable to quantitative approaches that allow for testing hypotheses derived from theories about the processes operating inside human minds, such as, the processes that mediate interpretations and responses to unusual mental events, and the consideration their social and physical contexts. Nonetheless, the theoretical gains of using quantitative methods not infrequently come with a loss of the benefits of qualitative methods.

Multilevel Interdisciplinary Paradigm

What is the solution? The main argument of Study 4 was that for comprehensive knowledge to emerge, we must do more research that combines approaches from different disciplines. I have written extensively about this approach, which I call the multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm (MIP; Paloutzian & Park, 2013; Park & Paloutzian, 2013). It involves researchers from different disciplines not just telling others about their research, but engaging in genuine collaborative work around common questions that cannot be answered by one discipline alone. I think future research within the MIP will demonstrate its capability to accomplish the goals of both qualitative and quantitative research, both within disciplines and across their borders.

References

Paloutzian, R. F., & Park, C. L. (2013). Recent progress and core issues in the science of the psychology of religion and spirituality. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. (pp. 3-22). New York: Guilford.

Park, C. L., & Paloutzian, R. F. (2013). Directions for the future of the psychology of religion and spirituality: Research advances in methodology and meaning systems. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. (pp. 651-665). New York: Guilford.

Taves, A. (2009). Religious experience reconsidered: A building block approach to the study of religion and other special things. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining (Video)

In the academic study of ‘religion’, an organization that is at the forefront of encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue is the Grace Davie and Jay Demerath – were recorded at the SSSR Annual Meeting back in 2011. While SSSR was originally dominated by the field of sociology, there has been a recent shift in attendees toward other disciplines such as psychology, education, religious studies, nursing and others that share an interest in understanding ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ from their respective perspectives. The diversity of presenters is only matched by the diversity of paper topics presented. While SSSR is typically hosted in an US city, SSSR has gained popularity as an international conference as well with the 2014 Annual Meeting hosting the largest number of international scholars to date.

Considering these observations, the RSP collaborated with SSSR at the 2014 Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana to offer an interdisciplinary panel on the study of religion. Each of the papers presented are not only from different fields in the study of religion but also methodologically or theoretically apply an interdisciplinary approach. The authors represent the best in their fields. Some are established scholars with a body of work while others are up-and-coming talent. We hope you enjoy the RSP sponsored panel on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion. See below for the abstracts of the papers presented.

Many thanks to Chris SIlver, Tommy Coleman, and all at the SSSR for making this recording possible. This panel recording is somewhat different from our usual weekly podcast – if you enjoyed this, why not check out the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes? And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, knitting needles, Alien Ant Farms, and more.

The Religious Studies Project Panel on Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJp5DiV3WKc&feature=youtu.be]

Convener: Christopher Silver

W. Paul Williamson,  Poison-Drinking in Obedience to the Faith: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience

Christian serpent handlers of American Appalachia are most noted for handling venomous snakes in obedience to one of five perceived mandates of Christ in Mark 16:17-18: Casting out devils, speaking new tongues, taking up serpents, drinking poison, and laying on hands for healing. Over the past two decades, I have studied several phenomena among this compelling group including their sermons, their music, the anointing, near-death serpent bites, community support (Williamson & Hood, in press), and of course serpent handling (see Hood & Williamson, 2008, for summaries of the above uncited studies). The sign of drinking poison, however, has been largely ignored. To address this neglect, I conducted phenomenological interviews with nine serpent handlers who have practiced poison-drinking. Based on a hermeneutic analysis of these interviews, this paper presents a pattern of themes that describe the structure of meaning in the experience of drinking poison in obedience to the faith.

April Stace Vega, “That’s a Really Real Feeling”: Popular Music and the Sacralization of the Self in Evangelical Worship

“Should Churches Play ‘Highway to Hell’ in order to Reach Unbelievers?” This question is posed on a website catering to evangelical pastors with a link to a video. In the video, several prominent pastors discuss the use of the song (by rock band AC/DC) at a recent Easter morning service. It considered a controversial music choice due to the lyrics of the song and the persona that the band projects, but is also considered a useful tool for evangelism. This project is an ethnographic study on the use of music with no overtly religious lyrics in what sociologist Donald Miller terms “new paradigm” churches in the Washington, D.C. area. I view the use of popular-secular music through the lens of the subjectivization thesis of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. In this paper, I focus on one particular meaning ascribed to popular-secular music in these churches: the ability of the music to express “real feeling” in a way traditional sacred music does not.

Tatsushi Hirono, Corroborative Efforts between Social Workers and Religious Leaders in Natural Disaster Relief: A Comparative Analysis among the USA, Philippines and Japan

The United States of America, the Philippines, and Japan, have suffered multiple natural disasters: Typhoon in Philippines (2013), Hurricanes Sandy (2012) and Katrina (2005) in the USA, and the 8.9 Magnitude earthquake (2011) in Japan. Immediately after these natural disasters, victims needed shelter, water, food, and blankets. However, a few weeks after, they needed mental health support. The investigator hypothesizes that religion would reduce the natural disaster victims’ PTSD symptoms and increase their “hope.” He sent 1,500 mailing surveys to Christian and Buddhist clergy in the New Orleans, New York, Manila, Tacloban, Tokyo, and Fukushima areas. He found that cultural differences between Christian and Buddhist religious communities: (a) More Christian clergy thought natural disaster relief efforts are their obligation. (b) Christian clergy focus more on “comfort”, “reducing pain,” and “hope,” while Buddhist clergy focus more on “listening” and “praying” when they talk with family members who lost their loved ones.

Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter, Against Silver Bullet Explanations for Religion: Toward Interdisciplinary Conversations that Allow for Both Consilience and Divergence

Single explanations of religion from within one particular discipline are partial explanations and do not suffice by themselves. As an enterprise, the scientific study of religion will do well to continue to foster conversations across disciplinary boundaries in an overall team effort, moving, on the one hand, toward increased consilience, or a ‘unity of knowledge’ (E.O. Wilson 1998), while also allowing, on the other hand, plenty of freedom for divergence. This presentation briefly highlights key contributions from disciplines such as biology (e.g., Ridley 2004; Feierman 2009), evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides, Tooby 1992; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2004), evolutionary-oriented sociology (e.g., D.S. Wilson 2002; Diamond 2012), and semiotic-oriented communication studies (e.g., Baudrillard 1988; Raschke 2012; Bennett-Carpenter 2014) as touch-points for conversation that move toward consilience, while at the same time remaining open to divergence.

Other reasons to unpack ‘religious experience’

…scholars should be more conscious of the ways in which some experiences are being distinguished (often implicitly), by either the person having the experience, the community in which the experience is happening, or the scholar studying it. Attention should be paid to the ways in which an experience is being marked as the sort of experience that is interesting.

Other reasons to unpack ‘religions experience’

by Daniel Silliman, Heidelberg University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 13 March 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ann Taves on Religious Experience (11 March 2013).

Charles Fox Parham’s historical significance is due to one fact: he was the first to outline and define early Pentecostal theology of glossolali, the experience that Pentecostals call “speaking in tongues.” He himself wasn’t the first to have the ecstatic experience of “spirit baptism,” and utter unknown words in an unknown language, but rather, as the religious leader at the Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas in 1901 he was the one who theologized the experience of others (Goff 164). He said that the tongues were tongues. He said the experience was the spiritual gift of a new language, the evidence of sanctification, and the tool that God would use to spread the gospel at the end of time. In Ann Taves’ terminology, he was the one who deemed the experience of tongues a religious experience. Parham referred to himself as the movement’s “projector.” In light of Taves’ work, he might more precisely be called the “ascriber,” as he is the one who set this particular experience apart as special, founding this specific religious tradition with his ascriptions.

Lesser known, but perhaps also significant, is another aspect of Parham’s work as founder and leader of the nascent Pentecostal movement. He spent much of his time, from 1901 on, aggressively contesting the validity of Pentecostals’ ecstatic experiences.

After he started the movement, Parham was among its fiercest critics. According to historian Grant Wacker, he dismissed Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, one of the most successful moments of early Pentecostalism,  as “holy-rolling-dancing-jumping, shaking, jabbering, chattering, wind-sucking and giving vent to meaningless sounds and noises” (232). Many ecstatic experiences that others deemed the work of the Holy Ghost were, for Parham, “disorders” (Wacker 107). He dedicated himself, time and again, to brusque denunciations of experiences he considered to be lewd or racially inferior, manifestations of “the flesh” or “spook spirits” in “wild, weird prayer services” (Wacker 53, 125; Goff 130, 132).

These efforts to police the boundaries of Pentecostal experience have not gone unnoticed in Pentecostal historiography. Yet, they haven’t been foregrounded, either. They have been considered as secondary or even tertiary in the beginnings of this movement, construed normally as curious but not critically important power struggles. Taves’ work suggests it might be fruitful for historians to re-focus on these disputes.

Conversely, thinking about how Taves’ work could profitably re-direct religious historians in a case such as this might also serve to demonstrate the broader potential of Taves’ proposals. It can seem like Taves is interested only in very limited questions, that she is restricting herself to theoretical or definitional issues. A lot of what she does, for instance in Religious Experience Reconsidered, is very abstract, and focused on seemingly obtuse issues such as whether or not it’s helpful to use second-order terms such as “religion,” “sacred,” “mystical” and “magic” (Taves 161). The project of unpacking “religious experience,” turns out, though, to be useful for more than just clarifying what is meant by “religious experience.”

For Taves, an intra-tradition dispute over the authenticity and legitimacy of experiences, such as happens with Parham and Pentecostalism, serves much the same purpose as flags at an archeological site: This is where the digging should start. As she tells David Wilson, late in her interview with the Religious Studies Project, “it’s that kind of process that I just kind of have gotten entranced with.” For Pentecostals, this process of separating true and false manifestations of the Holy Spirit is called “discernment.” For scholars, Taves argues, attending to such practices and processes can allow for the differentiation of the many interacting forces at work in experiences that are understood as religious. “We can see,” she says,

how different individuals or groups or traditions characterize the experience in question, so we can look at how they set the boundaries of what counts as religious experience, but we can also watch how these experiences come into being. How they’re shaped. How they develop. How they morph.

That is to say, examinations of the processes by which experiences are marked out as especially needing ascriptive explanation, how they are deemed religious, and the ways in which subsequent contestations over that then play out, might clarify what it is that’s being studied when one studies “religious experience.” But then, further, it might also uncover a host of worthwhile questions that enable new examinations not just of experience as such, but of whole histories and traditions.

From a certain perspective, Taves’ work is perhaps best understood as an attempt to mediate in a theoretical dispute between constructivists and neo-perennialists over what “religious experiences” actually are, or if there are any, and the best way to understand what is “religious” about experiences deemed religious (Taves 91). In her intervention into this dispute, Taves endeavors to destabilize the object of study in places where it has become too stable, so that it is, as she tells Wilson, “this totally clear mystical or spiritual experience [that has] surfaced totally without any attributional processes at all,” and to stabilize the object of study in other places, where it has seemingly dissolved into discourse, so that it seems that “there was no experience there that could be accessed in any sort of way.” The idea is that approaching those experiences that are taken as religious experiences as being either simply, irreducibly religious, i.e., sui generis, or, alternatively, as merely social constructions, as if the experience were invented out of the thin air of discourse, is insufficient. In both cases, too many of the details “on the ground” are obscured or lost by the scholarly approach.

The answer Taves develops to that problem, that theoretical impasse, begins with an apparently sideways inquiry into why any given experience seems interesting in the first place. Taves proposes, first, that scholars should be more conscious of the ways in which some experiences are being distinguished (often implicitly), by either the person having the experience, the community in which the experience is happening, or the scholar studying it. Attention should be paid to the ways in which an experience is being marked as the sort of experience that is interesting. That is to say, attention should be paid to the ways in which certain experiences seem or come to seem special or singular (Taves 162). This can be done by asking a series of inter-related questions of the “specialness” or “singularity” of a given experience:

It is special in what way?

It is special to whom?

It is special to what end?

Such a line of inquiry is proposed as a way to overcome a deadlocked dispute between two schools of thought. The result, however, need not be merely the settling of an academic quarrel: that series of questions can also open up new ways to understand the shape of movements such as Pentecostalism. By focusing first on the question of the importance of an experience, by being interested in the interestingness with which an experience seems to be endowed, it’s possible to come up with all sorts of new questions. As Taves writes in Religious Experience Reconsidered,

we could ask, for example, if there are traditions that consider visualization practices efficacious relative to a goal they deem religious. If so, do the practices always work? If not, how do practitioners deal with or account for that? [….] We could also examine the relationship between experiences that individuals consider religious and traditions that rely on composite ascriptions to make authoritative judgements about experience at the group level. What happens if someone seemingly has a spontaneous experience, which they consider significant, within a tradition or cultural context that places little value on such experiences? Will it still seem important? If it does, what claims will the individual make about the experience in light of what is or is not expected by the group? How will the group respond? Alternatively, what happens if the tradition or culture does value such experiences? Will they develop, shape, and/or constrain it? And what happens if outsiders or internal critics attribute experiences to different causes than insiders do?

One example of the potential for such a project is T.M. Luhrmann’s new book, When God Talks Back, a psychological-anthropological investigation into the prayer practices of Charismatic Christians in The Vineyard church. As Luhrmann explains her project, she “use[d] the ethnographic method to identify a process that seems to be psychological [….] identifying the consequences of those practices that seem to have something to do with the way brains and bodies are built” (377). Lurhmann unpacks the experience that people in these churches are having of God, looking at the contexts in which those experiences happen, the processes by which they happen, the ways in which specialness is ascribed the experience and the ways that that is negotiated. In the story Luhrmann tells, Charismatics begin by learning how to be conscious of and attentive to mental processes that others do not note as important or interesting or special. They become aware of something non-ordinary, which had previously seemed so ordinary as not be notable. They adopt a new “theory of mind,” and “learn to experience some of their thoughts as not being thoughts from them, but thoughts from God that they hear inside their mind,” as Luhrmann told Terry Gross late last year .

One of the things that’s so compelling about Luhrmann’s work is that it gets at the question of why someone would want to embrace this faith and be a part of these religious communities. There’s lots and lots of work on the ontological commitments of such religious groups, not to mention their political commitments and position in contemporary American culture wars. Much has been done on the content of their belief, but Luhrmann’s work examines instead the questions of the practice and experience of that belief. She isn’t writing about religious experience as such, with the aim of understanding specifically this idea or this category of experience, but by focusing first on the question of the experienced specialness of an experience, she provide a quite compelling account of this contemporary spirituality, of how and why it has the shape it has.

Looking at the way such things were negotiated historically in early intra-Pentecostal disputes over experiences could, I think, lead to a valuable alternative account of how Pentecostalism developed in the way it did. This would mean looking at the acriptive work that was done in the founding moment in 1901, when Agnes Ozman spoke in tongues and was understood, by herself and those around her, to be doing something important and special (Goff 67-69), but it would also mean foregrounding other moments that have been given less attention. A moment such as the one in 1910, for example, where Ozman began to dance ecstatically and danced up the aisle of a church and to the pulpit (Wacker 106), a controversial place for her to be dancing, could be profitably examined using Taves’ ideas about “religious experience.” In that controversy, Ozman offered answers to the questions about how the experience was special, and to whom, and to what end. Her answers were quite different from those that Parham and other religious authorities offered. There were conflicting strategies of discernment. If one follows Taves’, though, in the apparently tangential project of unpacking the various ideas about “religious experience,” and the processes by which such experiences are deemed important, and the ways in which conflicts about their legitimacy play out, the whole history of this tradition starts to open up in new ways.

This is perhaps an unorthodox way to argued for the value of Taves’ theoretical work on the question of experience. When asked what the goal of her work was in 2010, Taves’ told The Immanent Frame that she wanted to “open up pathways that will make it easier to engage the scientific literature on the study of the mind without simplifying the conceptual framework in ways that would frustrate scholars of religion” . Her engagements with these theoretical issues and definitional issues have significant potential for a broad applicability, though, as they give scholars a number of seemingly sideways approaches that turn out to be quite powerful.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Daniel Silliman teaches American religion and culture at Heidelberg University’s Center for American Studies. His research is focused on 20th century American evangelical engagements with culture, contemporary cultural practices of belief, and religious book history. He is currently working on his doctoral dissertation on representations of belief in evangelical Christian fiction. He has an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Tübingen and a B.A. in Philosophy from Hillsdale College. He blogs on American religion at www.danielsilliman.blogspot.com

References:

  • Goff, James R., Jr. Fields White Unto Harvest: Charels F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 1988.
  • Luhrmann, T.M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Knopf, 2012.
  • Taves, Ann. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton: Princeton, 2009.
  • Wacker, Grant. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge: Harvard, 2003.

Podcasts

What we can learn from our Founding Fathers

Rudolf Otto’s stern founding father “look”.

In this discussion, Professor Schmidt discusses her keynote lecture at the Open University’s “Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives: Publics and Performances”. We turn back to discuss some of the “founding fathers” of the discipline of Religious Studies: Rudolf Otto, R.R. Marrett, and Andrew Lang. These three founding fathers all proposed a non-rational understanding of religion which is relevant today to our considerations of religion in terms of vernacular or “lived” religion.

In this week’s podcast we don’t actually have a podcast. Instead, we’ve branched out again and decided to finish this “semester” of the RSP with a video interview with the president elect of the BASR Bettina Schmidt.

In this discussion, Professor Schmidt discusses her keynote lecture at the Open University’s “Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives: Publics and Performances”. We turn back to discuss some of the “founding fathers” of the discipline of Religious Studies: Rudolf Otto, R.R. Marrett, and Andrew Lang. These three founding fathers all proposed a non-rational understanding of religion which is relevant today to our considerations of religion in terms of vernacular or “lived” religion.

Professor Schmidt explains how this emphasis on the “non-rational”, on the way that religion is danced out rather than thought out, is of relevance to the consideration of her own research field on Trance and Spirit Possession in South America. By looking at scholars who have been shelved in contemporary scholarships we can work towards making what seems visceral or extra-ordinary appear to be as mundane as it is for the people involved.

Apologies in advance for any dips in quality. Bear with as we are now pretty happy with the medium and will improve upon this in future episodes!

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Maoam Stripes, golf balls, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

What Can We Learn from Our Founding Fathers?

Podcast with Bettina Schmidt (18 June 2018).

Interviewed by Jonathan Tuckett.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Schmidt – What Can We Learn from Our Founding Fathers 1.1

Jonathan Tuckett (JT): Hello. And welcome to an entirely new format of interview with the Religious Studies Project! You may now recognise my face as somebody even more familiar – I’m the Features Editor, Jonathan Tuckett. And we are, once again, testing out the video format. So this time we actually have Bettina Schmidt with us, who is now President Elect of the BASR, and also Senior Lecturer . . ?

Bettina Schmidt (BS): Professor.

JT: Professor – apologies – Professor at Trinity St David’s, in Wales. So, we are currently at the OU Conference on Religion and Its Publics. And we’re here today to talk a little bit about Bettina’s keynote speech, in which she was talking about some of the older figures in Religious Studies; figures that . . . one of whom, I personally feel should be buried, and never remembered! But I’m sure Bettina is going to give us a valid reason why we should be reading some of these people, even today, in the modern research university. So – just a quick summary of the keynote speech?

BS: Well, Jonathan, to give a quick summary is always difficult for a long speech – but I will do my best. So, in my keynote lecture yesterday, I wanted to highlight that we can learn something from historical figures in our field. In particular, from three of what I call “founding fathers” of the wider field of the Study of Religions. I quite consciously didn’t select old female scholars, which is a bit of a problem, because we also had a few “founding mothers”. But I highlight the work of three figures who are often described – and were even described in the beginning – in quite negative terms. For instance, one of the figures which probably you think we should bury is Rudolph Otto, who was the professor for Systematic Theology at my old alma mater, the University of Marburg. And for the 400-year anniversary of the university, in 1925, he was able to found a new museum – the first museum which has artefacts – which is called, still today, Religionskundliche Sammlung. In this museum – which he founded outside any faculty, but as a university collection – he gave home to a rich (collection of) religious artefacts from all over the world, in relationship to religion. However, some of the other theologians during his time, and their students, quite dismissively called it (audio unclear) – which is a very negative term in German. The other figure was Andrew Lang, who described himself as an outcast of Academia. He had held, for a couple of years, a Fellowship at Merton College in Oxford. He decided to be through with Merton, because he wanted to get married. And, in that time, a Fellow was not allowed to get married. And the third person I highlighted was Marett, the successor of Edward Tylor, at Oxford, as Reader in Social Anthropology. But he himself, and others, described him as an anomaly. Although he had a university position, in the wider recognition – nowadays – of the beginning of an interest in religion from an academic point of view, he is often just a footnote. The Oxford University still has the Marett Lectures, but people are no longer interested in his work – apart from looking at his early work on mana and other things. And I think we can still learn from these figures – of course, with reservations. They were children of their time and they were firmly linked to a certain belief system at the time: evolutionism, Social Darwinism, and so on. But, nonetheless, they all three had something which really made them special, from my own view.

JT: Sure. So the obvious question then is, in a certain respect: you’ve mentioned Rudolph Otto – who comes from a very theological background – and you mentioned Lang and Marett who both come from EB Tylor’s background. So it’s two very different backgrounds here. So what is it that unites the three of them together, as a kind of collective, for you that allows you to talk of them a single group, as it were, in this context?

BS: Yes. This is an interesting field. Why did I choose to include Otto in this mix, with two Classicists? When you look at their engagement with other religion, I find that they’re highly appreciative of the emotional draw to religion, the creative one, the imaginative one. So, for them, a huge element which interests them, in religion, was imagination. Otto, it was also a personal connection to the sacred, this idea of the holy. He, as a child of his time – in particular as a Lutheran professor of theology – he of course saw Christianity as very important for his own person. But he appreciated, also, that this concept of religion – like Schleiermacher before him – was present in all regions. And he travelled around. He did not do proper fieldwork overseas, but he travelled around. Already, as a student, he visited Great Britain and attended high church services. And then he went to Greece, and got acquainted with the Greek Orthodox. And then he went to Egypt and encountered Coptic Christians, but then, also, the different forms of Islam. And this led him, then, to further encounters with Islam in Northern Africa. Then, in particular, his journeys to Asia inspired him. That there are so many different forms of religious practice, but they all had in common this fascinating, this mysterium tremendum et fascinans: this concept of awe in the presence of the deity – the idea of God, or something else. And this is what still attracts people to Otto. Lang, on the other side, always argued against Tylor. Although he is always put in connection with Tylor, he was never a student of Tylor. And he disagreed with Tylor’s quite intellectualist approach to religion, that religion is belief in spirits. And he really argued more on an emotional, on a “felt” position. And this was even stronger in Marett who, although he was a successor of Tylor, criticised Tylor’s approach and definition of religion and argued that religion is something “danced”. I have a quote, if I may. It is in the time of Marett, so it was in the beginning of the 20th century. So he used the term “savage religion”, which we don’t use today – fortunately!

JT: (Laughs).

BS: But he wrote: “Savage religion is something not so much thought out, as danced out” And this is something which I also feel is present when I do my fieldwork. One of my fields is spirit possession and trance. And so I’ve attended rituals in various different countries. And there, people don’t discuss what religion is but they feel it in their body. And this is what I think is a common aspect in all three of them.

JT: Interesting. Because when you say imagination, an almost “go to” kind of understanding of imagination would be Tylor and the idea of the savage philosopher who is sitting in his cage, and is imagining all these things to explain the world around him. But the way you’re describing it, imagination seems to serve a very different kind of function within the thinking of Otto and Lang and Marett. So in the way that you’re now talking about dance, how does this idea of imagination and dance, for instance, connect together in this kind of thinking?

BS: Well, I think we have a different understanding of imagination. For me, imagination is really the creative aspect, the wonderful performance, the feeling . . . . The imagination leads an artist to paint. And so this is, for me, imagination. While Tylor’s minimal definition of religion is not . . . .You are right: he’d argue that people sat somewhere, and imagined, and invented it. But he really thought that this is a logical answer to the question, “How did religion get started?” That it’s really just a way to explain things. All three never went in this direction. It was never about, in the work that they wrote, religious justification, or something to explain (religion). It’s something to be felt – the emotional aspect – and then to imagine what it meant, like how the deity, the sacred, might be, might enact and might feel. And so it’s not something intellectually thought of, but emotionally responded to.

JT: OK, yes. So we have Tylor’s rationalistic kind-of response. I’m curious. I’m going to use the phrase anti-rationalist to now describe these three. Would you say that’s a fair way of describing their approach?

BS: Otto himself used an English translation of the term, “non-rational”. And I think this is also true – although they didn’t use the term non-rational – but it’s also in-between-the-lines in Lang and Marett’s work. It’s not a rationalistic, intellectualist definition of the beginning of religion, but an emotional, felt one. And therefore, yes, the focus is on the non-rational.

JT: I’m feeling a couple of questions coming on. And I know the RSP audience is probably thinking, “Oh No! It’s Jonathan. He’s going to ask her all about phenomenology!” So I’ll hold back on those questions for now. But on a more practical level – you’re now talking about dancing. What kind of methodological challenges does that kind-of throw up if we’re focussing on the non-rational side of religions? If we can no longer read a book and read a statement and understand what is going on there, what kind of challenges do you then face for studying and understanding religion?

BS: I’m going to start answering your question by saying: I’m not saying it’s either/ or. But my argument is that by acknowledging the non-rational as part of the study of religion, we ought to allow religious, spiritual experience and even non-religious experience to be studied within the Study of Religion. This does not mean that everything has to be, then, non-rational or experience. Of course the Study of Religion includes a wider range of aspects. But at the moment, or from the beginning, the Study of Religion focussed on the controversy with Theology, and the aim to be acknowledged as science – with academic value. And therefore people shied away from acknowledging that we are also studying counter-culture, that we are studying New Age, that we are also studying something like Spirit possession. And my argument is, by showing that at the beginning of the discipline, at the beginning of the 20th century, or the end of the 19th century, this was already covered by some scholars who were very important in creating the field of the Study of Religion, we can then have a trajectory that shows that this was a more-or-less open or visible part of our discipline from the beginning. And which . . . . My argument is that it might help us to acknowledge that today, when we study religions, we are studying all different kinds of religious practices and beliefs. We are not just looking at the dominant tradition. But we are looking at what people do, the lived experience, the lived practice, the vernacular traditions. And when we start focussing on this aspect we can study everything. We can still read books. We can still do the normal participant observation and interviews. It’s just that we don’t acknowledge the non-rational in our field.

JT: Interesting. So building on that . . . because now that you’ve tied it into the idea of lived religion and vernacular religion, as kind-of like the vogue trends of how to study religion these days, and tying it particularly to Otto. And – you can then probably correct me – on Lang and Marett if they do something similar. But when you talk about Otto’s’ mysterium tremendum et fascinans, it’s a very – to use one of the words from one of the earlier panels – it’s a visceral experience, in the language of Otto. It’s a very dramatic experience, in the same way that you’ve described trances and spirit possessions which are dramatic events and dramatic experiences. But how does this kind of approach, then, apply to the more humdrum, kind-of mundane understanding of lived religion and vernacular religion?

BS: Otto used these Latin terms because he thought there is no equivalent, no way to express what he felt, in ordinary languages. This is why he went back to Latin. We also have to understand that at that time, Latin was seen as the language of the Church. And therefore I think we should not over-emphasise that he used Latin phrases. But you are, of course, right with my spirit possession and trance studies. In particular, my field area is Latin America. And I mainly focus on the African diaspora. And these are very powerful performances. But from the beginning I also included, for instance, Spiritism. Spiritism is not very dramatic. It is more of less sitting around a table until the medium say that the medium sees something or hears something. So it is not very dramatic. And this is also part of my own fieldwork. And we also need to acknowledge the lived experience. It’s sometimes praying in your world, in your own place, or being alone on a beach. And this is also a religious or spiritual experience, and also part of what we should study. And so, it’s not just the dramatic performances, but also performances which perhaps have elements which are just inside of ourselves. I want to argue that we should not just focus on aspects and practices which happen in religious buildings – like a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque – but we also need to include what happens in the street, what happens when somebody is alone. This also is part of vernacular religious practice.

JT: It’s interesting, because you’re talking about the importance of Lang, and Otto, and of Marett. And that’s very much in the way of: it’s important for “us”, as scholars and academics. But one of the themes of the conference has been the public face of the university. And, particularly, the reason I asked about trance – and particularly in terms of the visceral experience – is, when it comes to things like spirit possession, that kind of thing will capture the public eye because it is kind-of a dramatic thing. And, in your own presentation, one of the photographs had a woman who was moving around with a blade, and so it’s very eye-catching. But now, as you say, we need to focus on the person who’s praying in their living room, or in a quiet corner somewhere. So how, on a slightly more practical level, do we present that kind of study of religion to the public in a way that is as captivating as some of the more visceral imagery that can sometimes be associated with religion?

BS: Before I answer your question about how we can speak about it, just another comment. Otto and Lang are both quite popular outside university. Otto’s Idea of the Holy is translated in over 20 languages, and some of them non-European. And people are still reading it. And Lang was very dominant in the (audio unclear) Society, and is still very important in the material. So both had quite an impact on the public, and still have. We have kicked them out of our history, but the public is still enchanted by them! And so, I think we ought to catch up with what the wider public reads of publications in our field. But, back to your question. This is always a problem. A while ago I wrote about animal sacrifice for a publication on sacrifice. And one of the questions was whether I had an illustration for the publication. And I said, “No.” Because I didn’t want the public to get the wrong impression. I wanted my article to explain the normality of the practice, and not the exoticism. So I don’t have illustrations, and I don’t give out illustrations, and I don’t show illustrations of sacrifice in any presentations, because it would give the wrong impression of the practice. Spirit possession is different, because sometimes, in publications, I include some images – or in presentations like the lecture, yesterday. I find them wonderful. I find these photos that I’ve chosen, a wonderful expression of creativity. The costumes are exotic, wonderful, and colourful. Of course in the photo we cannot hear, but the music is wonderful, the whole performance is just wonderful. It could be on stage. It could be in the theatre. It could be in an art gallery. And you can see, in some museums, costumes presented to a museum because they are so creative and wonderful to look at. And so I’ve chosen them, also, as a way for the wider audience to realise spirit possession is not something negative. It’s not about being possessed by the devil. It can also be a very positive experience. And this is what I want to convey with the photos I’ve chosen.

JT: So, in a way, what we’re doing is . . . we’re kind-of taking the things that are visceral to the public, and showing that they’re not actually visceral – they’re more mundane things. And then, that will hopefully generate (interest) in other things that they already recognise as mundane, as well.

BS: Also, it’s in order to counter-balance a stereotype image that they have, often, when they hear the term spirt possession.

JT: Thank you very much, Bettina Schmidt, for being my test subject with the video format. I hope you enjoyed the experience!

BS: Well, I hope it’s come over quite well!

JT: I hope so, too! All that it remains for me to say is: “thanks for watching” – this time – not just “thanks for listening”. So, thank you for watching!

Citation Info: Schmidt, Bettina and Jonathan Tuckett. 2018. “What Can We Learn from Our Founding Fathers?” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 18 June 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 11 June 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/what-can-we-learn-from-our-founding-fathers/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 10 January 2017

Dear subscriber,

Please note this week’s special opportunity from the RSP itself! Want to become part of our vital team? Scroll all the way down to “Jobs” (but do stop by the other opportunities on the way… :)).

Do you have a call for papers, an event announcement, a job vacancy, grant or award you would like others to distribute?

How about having your notification posted with the Religious Studies Project’s weekly Opportunities Digest? It’s easy, just send them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com, which is now back in order!

Don’t worry if you keep sending to oppsdigest@gmail.com; e-mails will be forwarded to the proper address.

Thank you!

You can find previous Opportunities Digests here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/categ…/opportunities/

Calls for papers

Conference: Creatures of the Night: Mythologies of the Otherworld and Its Denizens

June 8–10, 2017

University of Edinburgh, UK

Deadline: March 15, 2017

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Conference: The Beasts of the Forest: Denizens of the Dark Woods

July, 2017 (date TBA)

St Mary’s University, UK

Deadline: April 14, 2017

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Conference: The Talking Sky: Myths and Meaning in Celestial Spheres

July 1–2, 2017

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Conference: The Place of Religion in Film

March 30–April 1, 2017

Syracuse University, USA

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Conference: Egyptian and Eastern Cults in the Roman Empire

June 15–18, 2017

Szombathely/Savaria, Hungary

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Conference panel: SISR/ISSR: Global Pentecostal Charismatic Christianities

July 4–7, 2017

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Conference panel: ESA: Sociology of Religion: Religion and (Un)Making Europe: Capitalism, Solidarities, Subjectivities

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Journal: Open Theology

Special issue: Phenomenology of Religious Experience

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Workshop: Ritual ‘Litter’ Redressed

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BDSM as Religious Practice

RqdefaultIn this interview Alison Robertson gives an insight to her doctoral research on BDSM (Bondage, Dominance, and Submission) as religious practice. Throughout her research, Robertson has examined the relationship between BDSM and religiosity, drawing interesting questions on the nature of religion as a category, the role of self-inflicted/positive pain in religious practice.

IMG_20160418_154835This interview considers the methods of approaching a study of BDSM, the dreaded ethical clearance, and interview participants’ responses to the categorization of their experience as ‘religious’. Robertson’s research poses important questions for the wider academy, including what other ‘extreme’ practices could be deemed religious, and the difficulty in identifying differences between ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’ experiences.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, whips, handcuffs and more.

The Truthiness of Consciousness as the Sacred

Here Be Monsters

DWM01

Seven or so minutes into David Robertson’s interview with Rice University’s Jeffrey Kripal, Kripal cuts to the heart of an issue that plagues contemporary religious studies scholars: Do we have the tools and will to seriously examine experiences of the fantastic in the present age?

In my response today, I hope to achieve two things. First, I want to discuss Kripal’s presentation of the field’s latent crisis of emic/etic perspective regarding religious experiences. His explorations of the fantastic should be exciting to many listeners. Go right ahead and take a look at Mutants and Mystics (2011) or Authors of the Impossible (2010). They are worth your time, and I believe it is possible that in the interview he undersold the significance of attempts toward understanding the resurgence of supernaturalism in our present era.

Second, I think it is necessary to challenge the way Kripal avoided the field’s problem with sui generis approaches to religious and paranormal experiences. Elevating consciousness as a replacement for older comparative, phenomenological categories such as the holy, sacred, or numinous does not escape the established critiques from folks like Russell McCutcheon or Tim Fitzgerald. It only defers judgment until some future moment when science can better explain consciousness or paranormal experiences in material ways. Or, worse still, it takes the gambit that scholars can never truly understand our world through observation. Many beginners in religious studies are advised to consider naturalism as the cornerstone of our field. If we supplant it by admitting that consciousness is sui generis and unknowable, as Kripal appears inclined to do, then are we not trying yet again to move religious studies out of the humanities or human sciences and back into the realm of theology? (Or simply rehashing the arguments over comparativism between Paden and Wiebe from the late 1990s?) Though our field may not fully embrace the scientific method as its methodology of choice, its premises of knowledge acquired through empirical observation and verification remain the philosophical bulwark for our work.

In sum, Kripal’s approach identifies new territory for scholarly exploration of paranormal experiences, but it also limits those explorations by failing to heed the lessons learned in previous expeditions. Ironically, the monsters were marked on the map; we should have believed the stories.

The Lasso of Truth

wonder woman with lasso

Supernatural. Paranormal. Fantastic. What are the boundaries for discussing these phenomenon? Do we take a skeptic’s approach and deconstruct an informant’s experience with the lenses of scientific reductionism? Shall we build a social world that frames phenomenal experiences to explain them away as historical products of pre-scientific thinking and superstition? Are we bound to believe the stories in full or analyze them as if they were so?

I see one version of our field’s history as haunted by these questions. It is a procession of ghosts fighting over the issue of the experience of the religious–the sacred legacy stretching from James and Durkheim through Otto to Eliade and J. Z. Smith. Modernity’s crisis of truth, the onset of relativism and deconstructionism, has meant that religious studies has been continually frustrated over the issue of authenticity in its sources and subjects. How can we know that ancient religious agents really believed the bear would lie down and offer itself to the hunters as a sacrifice (my favorite example from J. Z. Smith’s Imagining Religion)? Perhaps this is the thorn in our side from our Protestant legacy. We are left to forever doubt our own interpretative models and be stuck between the absolutism of the insider’s emotion and the skepticism of the outsider’s inability to be or think like the insider.

Kripal’s presentation of the key issue in the study of the fantastic goes like this: If something fantastic happened in the past, then we are better able to feel sympathy for that experience because it is historical. If we cast it aside or call it superstition, then we do so without harming a living informant. It is a difficult part of our work when we must listen to an informant tell an extraordinary tale and then reserve judgment on whether we think the story is true. It is not just that telling someone face-to-face that you do not believe their story is difficult. In practice, this breaks the boundaries for gathering observations. We can then be won or lost as listeners who also believe or understand. Historians are blessed with a distance that fosters objectivity rooted in naturalism and skepticism. Within the field, supernatural explanations do indeed seem to fall beyond the pale as truths. The “ontological shock” of the past is not accessible in the present.

When studying living agents, however, Kripal argues that our field has been largely “unwilling to take the fantastic seriously in the present.” This lack of seriousness can be a micro-aggression of disbelief or scoffing at an exaggerated tale. Or it can be the scientific dismissal of an experience by explanations rejected by the observer themselves. But it was real to me, they might say. Are we to reply “I do not believe you”? The question of the authenticity and reality of these experiences are the heart of the issue for those who experience the supernatural or paranormal. Thus, Kripal says he does not “understand how as scholars we can just bracket [the question of ontological truth]. I understand why we can’t answer that question, but I don’t agree that we should just push that question off to the side.”

Indeed, for most of the last century ethnography demanded that observers bracket their own worldviews. Were you pursuing your interpretations (the etic) or the interpretations of your subjects (the emic)? Even modern concessions to the role of observers in influencing the things they document, as in the work of Karen McCarthy Brown, do so in ways that highlight the distance between the ethnographer’s world and the world of her subjects.

Kripal says that to deal with the paranormal, observers cannot be phenomenologists secluded from the truth claims of their subjects. Truth–that of the informant and the observer–is collapsed into a shared faculty of experience called consciousness. “These most extreme and fantastic religious experiences,” he says, “might well be our best clues as to what the nature of consciousness really is, below or above our social egos and these sort of superficial forms of awareness that you or I are in at the moment.” Kripal need not believe the particular details of alien abduction or out-of-body teleportation because the mode of experiencing these events is real–it is our consciousness and that makes it “the ground of all religious experience.” It is “the new sacred.”

There are plenty of ways to discuss this remarkable exchange, but Kripal falls back on the narrative that led our field to criticize Eliade or Otto’s claims that the sacred was sui generis. Consciousness, he says, is sui generis.

Part of the effect of this radical move is that Kripal is binding his informants with, to borrow a popular culture reference, a lasso of truth. He compels them, wills them to be truthful because the ground of the experience cannot lie to them. After all, it was their experience. If I am following correctly, our informants merit our trust not on the details of their experience, but rather on the mode of experiencing. Those experiences then fall either on the side of the ego and the everyday or the side of the extraordinary where consciousness is universal, groundless or “empty.”

Shall we put aside the issue that we have not explained how to differentiate between types of experiences apart from the informant or the observer’s explanations? Or how groundless experiences in our consciousness are anything other than wordplay for the sacred? How have we improved our lot by this shift to the term consciousness? Have we not just substituted ego and emptiness for homo faber and homo religiosus?

Like Kripal, I think it is unlikely that most (or perhaps any) informants are describing an experience from our world when they narrate an alien abduction. So I fail to see how we can do significantly more than say they have told him a story they believe is true. As observers receiving such a story, I find it our duty to walk the line that holds us from letting the veracity of a claim dictate our field’s observational models or orientations. A single informant’s truth is anecdote, not evidence. Nor does a body of similar anecdotes become truth through the weight of repetition. If corroborating evidence fails to appear, it does not rob an anecdote of meaning or significance. For we do not set our business upon the truth-claim, but rather on the value of the story. Though Kripal acknowledges his informants’ desire to place ontologies at the center of their experiences, this should not compel us to then reassert the grounds of our field’s ontologies. Should we not feel uneasy when told that it is appropriate to do so? Have we really escaped the trouble of sui generis critiques by replacing the sacred with an something that Kripal says cannot be measured or known “in principle because it is not an object”? Though we need not be utter materialists or empiricists to do our work, are we not placing our interpretations at risk when we place them on immeasurable and unknowable foundations?

 

 

Truthiness

Capture

Fox Mulder and his iconic “I want to believe” poster from The X-Files

Let me try another tack to conclude my thoughts on the issue of truth and its relationship to scholarly discussions of the paranormal and supernatural. In the pilot episode of his television show The Colbert Report in 2005, Stephen Colbert introduced western audiences to truthiness. “We’re divided between those that think with their heads and those that know with their hearts,” Colbert said. “The truthiness is that anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.” Truthiness is the simulacrum of the truth we wish existed “in our gut.” Or, as he said in an interview for The Onion, “Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.”

So how should we then perceive experiences of the paranormal? Is it the truth of the sacred in the gut of religious studies? Or is it a semblance of truth that feels better than the materialistic, reductionist alternative? Are these our only options?

In Authors of the Impossible, Kripal attempted to show how both religious and scientific registers came to be seen as failing to explain paranormal experiences for a wide range of pseudo-religious personalities. For folks like Charles Fort, for instance, science had all the answers. Later, science became a target of great skepticism, a “trickster” that appeared to offer answers but could not actually explain much that mattered. In Kripal’s hands, this argument takes a new shape: if science cannot address consciousness and it is universal, then perhaps it is that substance or ground upon which the sacred can also be found. It seems to have a sense of truth to it. It feels like it could make the fantastic possible. But how are we to be sure?

Pivoting in the last few minutes, Kripal argues that the thing that we need to truly understand paranormal experiences is symbolic imagination. In our efforts to embrace difference and “demonize” sameness, we seem to have lost the ability to appreciate radical experiences. We are too interested in reducing the world to scientific claims and are insulated from the opportunities of experiences that break the mold. This is the mystical invitation–the root of much inspiration for authors of science fiction and comic books in Mutants and Mystics–that reveals the paradigm shift Kripal asks for: to have the field deal with the paranormal. Can we treat the fantastic seriously on these terms? Let us know how you feel in the comments.

Human Consciousness & Religious Reality

It was real to me. There I was, curled into a corner, comforter wrapped around my shaking limbs and sweating torso, twisted in terror in the sinister hours of the morning. The salt of my tears were laced with the visceral reality of a specter, a monster, or some strange creature slowly scratching its course along the hallway outside my bedroom. I never saw the demon. I eventually fell asleep in exhaustion, still crimped into the corner of my room. The memory of those tormenting moments is still forbidding and physical for me, etched forever into my consciousness. Was it ontologically real? That is beyond the purview of my recollection. Was it real in my mind? Damn straight.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal, the RSP talked with the man who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University about his recent works Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011) and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010).

In these works, Kripal shared how participation in what we call “the sacred” is a critical element that undergirds religious understanding and activity. From his perspective, human consciousness qualifies, as well as anything else, as “the sacred” itself, and must therefore be addressed and wrestled with by any self-respecting student of religion.

Particularly, Kripal argued that generally marginalized authors who have attempted to theorize the paranormal be treated as central to the religious project, even though their work deals with marvels deemed outside both mainstream scientific and/or religious parameters. These authors, Kripal contested, are “authors of the impossible,” but that does not make them charlatans or crackpots. Although Kripal does not come to conclusions about the ontological reality of these phenomena, and maintains a scholarly agnosticism, he does insist that the paranormal must be understood on its own terms (Authors of the Impossible, 158). Though these marvels may not be appreciated as “real,” they cannot be simply explained away or dismissed with snark or sarcasm either (all too often the case among “respectable scholars”).

Kripal fleshes this out in Mutants and Mystics, which acts as a case-study of sorts, applying the aforementioned theory to the symbiosis between paranormal believers and the production of superhero pop culture. As Kripal pointed out, many of the most popular science fiction and superhero creators were metaphysicists and New Age apostles. They imbued their fantasy narratives with spiritual themes that revealed that the sacred resides in each one of us and we, ourselves, are the superheroes, the true miracles of the divine world. Yes, indeed, behind the veil of science in the sci-fi genre, there is a touch of the ethereal, he asserted. This perspective lends itself to a “new anthropology” where, in the words of Kripal, “the Human [is] Two (and One),” which, “is the neuroanatomical, cognitive, and spiritual bedrock of the paranormal and its fantastic both-and, physical-mythical, masterful-mental, real-unreal expressions in popular culture.” (Mutants and Mystics, 333)

All-in-all, Kripal’s outlook stands as a corrective to purely anthropological, political, or economic analyses of religion as social construct. Counteracting strictly Durkheimian models, Kripal re-centers “the sacred” — posited as “consciousness” — as not only important to understanding religion, but as its critical point of departure. Essentially, Kripal calls out the religious studies world for not having a sufficient appreciation of the power of imagination and invites scholars and the interested public into a new comparativism that moves away from strict materialism.

As an ethnographer of religion, I appreciate this remedial position. I first encountered Kripal’s work as a journalist covering religion in Houston, the home of Rice University. This led to multiple conversations between the two of us about religion, the study thereof, and academia in general. While we come from two different perspectives and ask critically different questions as we approach the same topic, I value Kripal’s emphasis on the conscious as the seat of “the sacred.” While he readily admits that he is not concerned with the sociological questions of religion, and instead recasts some of the Otto and Eliade perspectives on “the numinous,” his viewpoint impacts me as an ethnographer.

I am often frustrated by the lack of empathy from the perspective of sociologists and ethnographers who study religion (and, for that matter, historians, political scientists, economists, and armchair scholars), but do not take the reality of religious experiences seriously. There are certainly exceptions to this rule (Daniel Levine’s Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism immediately comes to mind), but in general the great swathe of scholars dealing with religion too easily dismiss the complexity of human consciousness, the power of the psycho-social, and the reality of the sacred.

As Kripal intimated in the interview, the applications of his perspective reach beyond New Religious Movements or paranormal phenomena and include historical analyses and contemporary studies of local and global religioscapes. Immediately, I can think of ethnographers working on the use of amulets and talismans in West Africa, the role of dreams in conversion to Christianity and/or Islam, or Pentecostal healing practices in Latin America.

While these cases may be summarily theorized by many as elements of social control, political context, or economic realities there is ample need to appreciate these occurrences as they occur — as real to those experiencing them. Although researchers should not treat them as ontological fact, they can at the very least be approached as “real” in respect to the human conscious.

And yet, the problem occurs when these experiences contradict each other. Take, for example, dreams that lead to conversion (or occur during the process thereof). While not the majority, I discovered in my own research that some Latina/o Muslims convert because of mystical dream experiences. One “revert” related the content of a dream wherein, “Allah spoke to me and told me I have to change.” Another related that she “had the same dream three times” in which she was in Mecca, wearing a hijab, and felt close to her other Muslim sisters there. Soon after she converted to Islam. Interestingly enough, these experiences mirror reports of many missionaries and Christian converts in the Middle East who also claim that dreams are playing a significant role in Muslims converting to Christianity. Furthermore, there is evidence that dreams have frequently played a role in conversions throughout history, including the mass conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the 7th-century. What does the reality of these experiences mean when they seem to lead in different convictional directions?

Further, while Kripal’s points about consciousness and the sacred prove a potent corrective, they cannot stand on their own in the study of religion. Even if Kripal himself is not concerned with religion as a social construct, we cannot neglect the social realities of religion. In fact, rather than treating the human as two (and one), perhaps we should theorize the human as three (and one). First, as a “conscious subject” (which Kripal makes us critically aware of); second, as an “embodied physicality”; and third, as a “socially constructed being” shaped by their social context and a conscience collective (to invoke Durkheim).

Regardless of these critiques and ruminations on my part, Kripal’s theory deserves attention and examination on the part of religious studies scholars. There certainly is no easy answer in dealing with such complex discussions such as human consciousness and religious reality, but that is no reason why we should not pursue it from multiple perspectives and ends, which Kripal worthily invites us to do.

Experiences Deemed Religious from Micro and Qualitative to Macro and Quantitative

Overview

This joint Religious Studies Project/SSSR session was a symposium that included four presentations, all focused on some variation on the topic of “religious experiences,” a category better described as experiences deemed religious (EDRs; Taves, 2009). Beyond that idea in the symposium summary, the only similarity among the presentations was that that they were almost purely descriptive. There was little if any theoretical synthesis, either psychologically or sociologically, to help the audience gain a conceptual understanding of the processes mediating these or other EDRs.

The combined result of the four presentations is certainly positive for purposes of illustrating ways that qualitative or quantitative research on EDRs can be executed. Three of the four presentations also gave the viewer-listener a relatively vivid picture of the questions posed, the participants involved, and what was actually learned from the studies. This is, of course, all good. The downside, however, which is not at all unusual for symposia of this sort, was that the methods and findings were presented and the presentation then stopped, usually for reasons of time.

As an observer-listener I was left with an illuminating picture of what the researchers were trying to get at and what they found. However, my mind strained at the theoretical emptiness left in their wake – my intellectual need to dig deeper and understand why the findings were what they were. That, of course, is the much more difficult task.

Presentations Snapshot

A brief summary of the presentations looks like this:

(1) In Study 1, seven people were interviewed who are active in Christian snake-handling sects in the rural Southern U.S. states. Their beliefs and practices are derived from a literal application of the “five signs” said to follow believers as listed in the last chapter of the Gospel of Mark. The two life-threatening signs are handling poisonous snakes and drinking deadly poison; Each participant had done both. The interviews focused on the phenomenology of drinking strychnine. In order to confirm its toxicity, an independent lab examined a sample of the liquid used; it was confirmed lethal. Reported effects included a powerful sense of awe, “victory,” a “rush” or mental “high,” and sensations such as peace, joy, satisfaction, and spiritual perfection.

(2) In Study 2, several modern Christian churches were observed, and their clergy interviewed, about the role of popular secular and religious music in worship services. The interviews showed that, for these ministers and worshipers, secular music is thought to be “more real” in helping people confront their own shortcomings. It is included such services in order to facilitate an internal sense of honesty, while comfort and hope are subsequently provided by religious music and other non-musical aspects of the service.

(3) Study 3 focused on natural disaster relief and symptoms of PTSD, as approached by clergy and others in Japan, the U.S., and the Philippines. Clergy of various religions, including Christians and Buddhists, completed questionnaires that asked, for instance, how they perceived disasters, whether they had an obligation to help victims or pray with victims, whether they thought disasters were God’s will, if they see signs of PTSD or lesser symptoms in those they help. The results generally affirmed the clergy’s motivation to help, which seem to help decrease the suffering of the victims.

(4) In Study 4, although research was referred to, the main argument was that researchers should get away from doing research only within their narrow disciplinary boundaries. It was proposed that we should instead aim to “highlight the lines of continuity” between disciplines through research that, for example, combines social and natural scientific methods, using methods that exploit the potentials for cooperative effort between fields.

Qualitative and Quantitative Methods

To be fair, the four presentations were so varied that I would not expect to be able to view them, with much accuracy, through only one theoretical or methodological lens. Study 1 was a content analysis of seven interviews aimed at creating a clear, accurate picture of the mental experiences of people that had drunk a poison. With the research goal thus defined and the available N so small, an in-depth interview method is the way to go. Qualitative methodologies of this sort yield a vividness and completeness in the data that physiological recordings cannot produce.

Does this mean that qualitative research is better than quantitative research? No. Nor does it mean it is worse. It means that for a research question posed as this one was, a qualitative method is better equipped to answer it with data of the form most meaningful to the question. Qualitative methods, such as the use of questionnaires in Study 3, are desirable when the research intent is to go deeply into single cases and yield the most complete graphic possible of what is being examined, whether the case is an individual human, as occurs in psychological research, or an individual village, as in anthropological research. Such methods yield a form of data that are sometimes referred to as “deeper” and “richer.” That is their gift and their strength. Vivid pictures of the phenomenology of EDRs can be painted with such methods.

With the strength of a research method, however, there is a corresponding weakness. And these weaknesses turn out to be overcome by the strengths of other, “opposite” kinds of methods. In the case of the small-N phenomenological interview methods used in Study 1, weaknesses include difficulties in going beyond describing the subjects’ experiences to test theoretical predictions about what might happen mentally when someone drinks poison (or does anything else), why the experience might be interpreted in one way or another by the individual, ways people might respond when the experience is discrepant from that which was anticipated, and so forth. Answers to questions phrased in these ways are more amenable to quantitative approaches that allow for testing hypotheses derived from theories about the processes operating inside human minds, such as, the processes that mediate interpretations and responses to unusual mental events, and the consideration their social and physical contexts. Nonetheless, the theoretical gains of using quantitative methods not infrequently come with a loss of the benefits of qualitative methods.

Multilevel Interdisciplinary Paradigm

What is the solution? The main argument of Study 4 was that for comprehensive knowledge to emerge, we must do more research that combines approaches from different disciplines. I have written extensively about this approach, which I call the multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm (MIP; Paloutzian & Park, 2013; Park & Paloutzian, 2013). It involves researchers from different disciplines not just telling others about their research, but engaging in genuine collaborative work around common questions that cannot be answered by one discipline alone. I think future research within the MIP will demonstrate its capability to accomplish the goals of both qualitative and quantitative research, both within disciplines and across their borders.

References

Paloutzian, R. F., & Park, C. L. (2013). Recent progress and core issues in the science of the psychology of religion and spirituality. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. (pp. 3-22). New York: Guilford.

Park, C. L., & Paloutzian, R. F. (2013). Directions for the future of the psychology of religion and spirituality: Research advances in methodology and meaning systems. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. (pp. 651-665). New York: Guilford.

Taves, A. (2009). Religious experience reconsidered: A building block approach to the study of religion and other special things. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining (Video)

In the academic study of ‘religion’, an organization that is at the forefront of encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue is the Grace Davie and Jay Demerath – were recorded at the SSSR Annual Meeting back in 2011. While SSSR was originally dominated by the field of sociology, there has been a recent shift in attendees toward other disciplines such as psychology, education, religious studies, nursing and others that share an interest in understanding ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ from their respective perspectives. The diversity of presenters is only matched by the diversity of paper topics presented. While SSSR is typically hosted in an US city, SSSR has gained popularity as an international conference as well with the 2014 Annual Meeting hosting the largest number of international scholars to date.

Considering these observations, the RSP collaborated with SSSR at the 2014 Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana to offer an interdisciplinary panel on the study of religion. Each of the papers presented are not only from different fields in the study of religion but also methodologically or theoretically apply an interdisciplinary approach. The authors represent the best in their fields. Some are established scholars with a body of work while others are up-and-coming talent. We hope you enjoy the RSP sponsored panel on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion. See below for the abstracts of the papers presented.

Many thanks to Chris SIlver, Tommy Coleman, and all at the SSSR for making this recording possible. This panel recording is somewhat different from our usual weekly podcast – if you enjoyed this, why not check out the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes? And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, knitting needles, Alien Ant Farms, and more.

The Religious Studies Project Panel on Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJp5DiV3WKc&feature=youtu.be]

Convener: Christopher Silver

W. Paul Williamson,  Poison-Drinking in Obedience to the Faith: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience

Christian serpent handlers of American Appalachia are most noted for handling venomous snakes in obedience to one of five perceived mandates of Christ in Mark 16:17-18: Casting out devils, speaking new tongues, taking up serpents, drinking poison, and laying on hands for healing. Over the past two decades, I have studied several phenomena among this compelling group including their sermons, their music, the anointing, near-death serpent bites, community support (Williamson & Hood, in press), and of course serpent handling (see Hood & Williamson, 2008, for summaries of the above uncited studies). The sign of drinking poison, however, has been largely ignored. To address this neglect, I conducted phenomenological interviews with nine serpent handlers who have practiced poison-drinking. Based on a hermeneutic analysis of these interviews, this paper presents a pattern of themes that describe the structure of meaning in the experience of drinking poison in obedience to the faith.

April Stace Vega, “That’s a Really Real Feeling”: Popular Music and the Sacralization of the Self in Evangelical Worship

“Should Churches Play ‘Highway to Hell’ in order to Reach Unbelievers?” This question is posed on a website catering to evangelical pastors with a link to a video. In the video, several prominent pastors discuss the use of the song (by rock band AC/DC) at a recent Easter morning service. It considered a controversial music choice due to the lyrics of the song and the persona that the band projects, but is also considered a useful tool for evangelism. This project is an ethnographic study on the use of music with no overtly religious lyrics in what sociologist Donald Miller terms “new paradigm” churches in the Washington, D.C. area. I view the use of popular-secular music through the lens of the subjectivization thesis of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. In this paper, I focus on one particular meaning ascribed to popular-secular music in these churches: the ability of the music to express “real feeling” in a way traditional sacred music does not.

Tatsushi Hirono, Corroborative Efforts between Social Workers and Religious Leaders in Natural Disaster Relief: A Comparative Analysis among the USA, Philippines and Japan

The United States of America, the Philippines, and Japan, have suffered multiple natural disasters: Typhoon in Philippines (2013), Hurricanes Sandy (2012) and Katrina (2005) in the USA, and the 8.9 Magnitude earthquake (2011) in Japan. Immediately after these natural disasters, victims needed shelter, water, food, and blankets. However, a few weeks after, they needed mental health support. The investigator hypothesizes that religion would reduce the natural disaster victims’ PTSD symptoms and increase their “hope.” He sent 1,500 mailing surveys to Christian and Buddhist clergy in the New Orleans, New York, Manila, Tacloban, Tokyo, and Fukushima areas. He found that cultural differences between Christian and Buddhist religious communities: (a) More Christian clergy thought natural disaster relief efforts are their obligation. (b) Christian clergy focus more on “comfort”, “reducing pain,” and “hope,” while Buddhist clergy focus more on “listening” and “praying” when they talk with family members who lost their loved ones.

Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter, Against Silver Bullet Explanations for Religion: Toward Interdisciplinary Conversations that Allow for Both Consilience and Divergence

Single explanations of religion from within one particular discipline are partial explanations and do not suffice by themselves. As an enterprise, the scientific study of religion will do well to continue to foster conversations across disciplinary boundaries in an overall team effort, moving, on the one hand, toward increased consilience, or a ‘unity of knowledge’ (E.O. Wilson 1998), while also allowing, on the other hand, plenty of freedom for divergence. This presentation briefly highlights key contributions from disciplines such as biology (e.g., Ridley 2004; Feierman 2009), evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides, Tooby 1992; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2004), evolutionary-oriented sociology (e.g., D.S. Wilson 2002; Diamond 2012), and semiotic-oriented communication studies (e.g., Baudrillard 1988; Raschke 2012; Bennett-Carpenter 2014) as touch-points for conversation that move toward consilience, while at the same time remaining open to divergence.

Other reasons to unpack ‘religious experience’

…scholars should be more conscious of the ways in which some experiences are being distinguished (often implicitly), by either the person having the experience, the community in which the experience is happening, or the scholar studying it. Attention should be paid to the ways in which an experience is being marked as the sort of experience that is interesting.

Other reasons to unpack ‘religions experience’

by Daniel Silliman, Heidelberg University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 13 March 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ann Taves on Religious Experience (11 March 2013).

Charles Fox Parham’s historical significance is due to one fact: he was the first to outline and define early Pentecostal theology of glossolali, the experience that Pentecostals call “speaking in tongues.” He himself wasn’t the first to have the ecstatic experience of “spirit baptism,” and utter unknown words in an unknown language, but rather, as the religious leader at the Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas in 1901 he was the one who theologized the experience of others (Goff 164). He said that the tongues were tongues. He said the experience was the spiritual gift of a new language, the evidence of sanctification, and the tool that God would use to spread the gospel at the end of time. In Ann Taves’ terminology, he was the one who deemed the experience of tongues a religious experience. Parham referred to himself as the movement’s “projector.” In light of Taves’ work, he might more precisely be called the “ascriber,” as he is the one who set this particular experience apart as special, founding this specific religious tradition with his ascriptions.

Lesser known, but perhaps also significant, is another aspect of Parham’s work as founder and leader of the nascent Pentecostal movement. He spent much of his time, from 1901 on, aggressively contesting the validity of Pentecostals’ ecstatic experiences.

After he started the movement, Parham was among its fiercest critics. According to historian Grant Wacker, he dismissed Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, one of the most successful moments of early Pentecostalism,  as “holy-rolling-dancing-jumping, shaking, jabbering, chattering, wind-sucking and giving vent to meaningless sounds and noises” (232). Many ecstatic experiences that others deemed the work of the Holy Ghost were, for Parham, “disorders” (Wacker 107). He dedicated himself, time and again, to brusque denunciations of experiences he considered to be lewd or racially inferior, manifestations of “the flesh” or “spook spirits” in “wild, weird prayer services” (Wacker 53, 125; Goff 130, 132).

These efforts to police the boundaries of Pentecostal experience have not gone unnoticed in Pentecostal historiography. Yet, they haven’t been foregrounded, either. They have been considered as secondary or even tertiary in the beginnings of this movement, construed normally as curious but not critically important power struggles. Taves’ work suggests it might be fruitful for historians to re-focus on these disputes.

Conversely, thinking about how Taves’ work could profitably re-direct religious historians in a case such as this might also serve to demonstrate the broader potential of Taves’ proposals. It can seem like Taves is interested only in very limited questions, that she is restricting herself to theoretical or definitional issues. A lot of what she does, for instance in Religious Experience Reconsidered, is very abstract, and focused on seemingly obtuse issues such as whether or not it’s helpful to use second-order terms such as “religion,” “sacred,” “mystical” and “magic” (Taves 161). The project of unpacking “religious experience,” turns out, though, to be useful for more than just clarifying what is meant by “religious experience.”

For Taves, an intra-tradition dispute over the authenticity and legitimacy of experiences, such as happens with Parham and Pentecostalism, serves much the same purpose as flags at an archeological site: This is where the digging should start. As she tells David Wilson, late in her interview with the Religious Studies Project, “it’s that kind of process that I just kind of have gotten entranced with.” For Pentecostals, this process of separating true and false manifestations of the Holy Spirit is called “discernment.” For scholars, Taves argues, attending to such practices and processes can allow for the differentiation of the many interacting forces at work in experiences that are understood as religious. “We can see,” she says,

how different individuals or groups or traditions characterize the experience in question, so we can look at how they set the boundaries of what counts as religious experience, but we can also watch how these experiences come into being. How they’re shaped. How they develop. How they morph.

That is to say, examinations of the processes by which experiences are marked out as especially needing ascriptive explanation, how they are deemed religious, and the ways in which subsequent contestations over that then play out, might clarify what it is that’s being studied when one studies “religious experience.” But then, further, it might also uncover a host of worthwhile questions that enable new examinations not just of experience as such, but of whole histories and traditions.

From a certain perspective, Taves’ work is perhaps best understood as an attempt to mediate in a theoretical dispute between constructivists and neo-perennialists over what “religious experiences” actually are, or if there are any, and the best way to understand what is “religious” about experiences deemed religious (Taves 91). In her intervention into this dispute, Taves endeavors to destabilize the object of study in places where it has become too stable, so that it is, as she tells Wilson, “this totally clear mystical or spiritual experience [that has] surfaced totally without any attributional processes at all,” and to stabilize the object of study in other places, where it has seemingly dissolved into discourse, so that it seems that “there was no experience there that could be accessed in any sort of way.” The idea is that approaching those experiences that are taken as religious experiences as being either simply, irreducibly religious, i.e., sui generis, or, alternatively, as merely social constructions, as if the experience were invented out of the thin air of discourse, is insufficient. In both cases, too many of the details “on the ground” are obscured or lost by the scholarly approach.

The answer Taves develops to that problem, that theoretical impasse, begins with an apparently sideways inquiry into why any given experience seems interesting in the first place. Taves proposes, first, that scholars should be more conscious of the ways in which some experiences are being distinguished (often implicitly), by either the person having the experience, the community in which the experience is happening, or the scholar studying it. Attention should be paid to the ways in which an experience is being marked as the sort of experience that is interesting. That is to say, attention should be paid to the ways in which certain experiences seem or come to seem special or singular (Taves 162). This can be done by asking a series of inter-related questions of the “specialness” or “singularity” of a given experience:

It is special in what way?

It is special to whom?

It is special to what end?

Such a line of inquiry is proposed as a way to overcome a deadlocked dispute between two schools of thought. The result, however, need not be merely the settling of an academic quarrel: that series of questions can also open up new ways to understand the shape of movements such as Pentecostalism. By focusing first on the question of the importance of an experience, by being interested in the interestingness with which an experience seems to be endowed, it’s possible to come up with all sorts of new questions. As Taves writes in Religious Experience Reconsidered,

we could ask, for example, if there are traditions that consider visualization practices efficacious relative to a goal they deem religious. If so, do the practices always work? If not, how do practitioners deal with or account for that? [….] We could also examine the relationship between experiences that individuals consider religious and traditions that rely on composite ascriptions to make authoritative judgements about experience at the group level. What happens if someone seemingly has a spontaneous experience, which they consider significant, within a tradition or cultural context that places little value on such experiences? Will it still seem important? If it does, what claims will the individual make about the experience in light of what is or is not expected by the group? How will the group respond? Alternatively, what happens if the tradition or culture does value such experiences? Will they develop, shape, and/or constrain it? And what happens if outsiders or internal critics attribute experiences to different causes than insiders do?

One example of the potential for such a project is T.M. Luhrmann’s new book, When God Talks Back, a psychological-anthropological investigation into the prayer practices of Charismatic Christians in The Vineyard church. As Luhrmann explains her project, she “use[d] the ethnographic method to identify a process that seems to be psychological [….] identifying the consequences of those practices that seem to have something to do with the way brains and bodies are built” (377). Lurhmann unpacks the experience that people in these churches are having of God, looking at the contexts in which those experiences happen, the processes by which they happen, the ways in which specialness is ascribed the experience and the ways that that is negotiated. In the story Luhrmann tells, Charismatics begin by learning how to be conscious of and attentive to mental processes that others do not note as important or interesting or special. They become aware of something non-ordinary, which had previously seemed so ordinary as not be notable. They adopt a new “theory of mind,” and “learn to experience some of their thoughts as not being thoughts from them, but thoughts from God that they hear inside their mind,” as Luhrmann told Terry Gross late last year .

One of the things that’s so compelling about Luhrmann’s work is that it gets at the question of why someone would want to embrace this faith and be a part of these religious communities. There’s lots and lots of work on the ontological commitments of such religious groups, not to mention their political commitments and position in contemporary American culture wars. Much has been done on the content of their belief, but Luhrmann’s work examines instead the questions of the practice and experience of that belief. She isn’t writing about religious experience as such, with the aim of understanding specifically this idea or this category of experience, but by focusing first on the question of the experienced specialness of an experience, she provide a quite compelling account of this contemporary spirituality, of how and why it has the shape it has.

Looking at the way such things were negotiated historically in early intra-Pentecostal disputes over experiences could, I think, lead to a valuable alternative account of how Pentecostalism developed in the way it did. This would mean looking at the acriptive work that was done in the founding moment in 1901, when Agnes Ozman spoke in tongues and was understood, by herself and those around her, to be doing something important and special (Goff 67-69), but it would also mean foregrounding other moments that have been given less attention. A moment such as the one in 1910, for example, where Ozman began to dance ecstatically and danced up the aisle of a church and to the pulpit (Wacker 106), a controversial place for her to be dancing, could be profitably examined using Taves’ ideas about “religious experience.” In that controversy, Ozman offered answers to the questions about how the experience was special, and to whom, and to what end. Her answers were quite different from those that Parham and other religious authorities offered. There were conflicting strategies of discernment. If one follows Taves’, though, in the apparently tangential project of unpacking the various ideas about “religious experience,” and the processes by which such experiences are deemed important, and the ways in which conflicts about their legitimacy play out, the whole history of this tradition starts to open up in new ways.

This is perhaps an unorthodox way to argued for the value of Taves’ theoretical work on the question of experience. When asked what the goal of her work was in 2010, Taves’ told The Immanent Frame that she wanted to “open up pathways that will make it easier to engage the scientific literature on the study of the mind without simplifying the conceptual framework in ways that would frustrate scholars of religion” . Her engagements with these theoretical issues and definitional issues have significant potential for a broad applicability, though, as they give scholars a number of seemingly sideways approaches that turn out to be quite powerful.

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About the Author:

Daniel Silliman teaches American religion and culture at Heidelberg University’s Center for American Studies. His research is focused on 20th century American evangelical engagements with culture, contemporary cultural practices of belief, and religious book history. He is currently working on his doctoral dissertation on representations of belief in evangelical Christian fiction. He has an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Tübingen and a B.A. in Philosophy from Hillsdale College. He blogs on American religion at www.danielsilliman.blogspot.com

References:

  • Goff, James R., Jr. Fields White Unto Harvest: Charels F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 1988.
  • Luhrmann, T.M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Knopf, 2012.
  • Taves, Ann. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton: Princeton, 2009.
  • Wacker, Grant. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge: Harvard, 2003.