Posts

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.

“Would You Still Call Yourself an Asianist?”

There’s a group on Facebook devoted to the History of Religions. Apart from a quite regularly posted Christian bible study blog that’s devoted to scriptural exegesis—and which prompts reader comments such as this recent one:

It seems obvious God is a God who feels. I am imagining He grieved, felt sorry not only to see the depravity of man whom He made in His image, but of every single cell which He created, His art, His masterpiece. God as an artist experiencing the destruction and loss of it all. Every flower, creature, piece of nature which He had created GOOD.

—almost all that gets posted on its wall are links to articles or announcements about the things we study: decaying scrolls found here or there, rituals practiced by this or that group, etc. Once in a while you see a link to an article on methodology—how we study things—but rarely does someone post an item related to why we study them or why our work should matter to people who don’t happen to share our focus on this piece of pottery or that ancient text. That’s because it seems that, for many if not most of us, there’s an obviousness to the things that we’re interested in, both for us, as scholars, as well as for the wider groups in which we live and shop and work: we all know they’re important because, well…, they’re important, simple as that.

10000128_10102136414819645_635038881_n

What’s therefore intriguing about Steven Ramey’s work is that while he, like all of us, was trained in a specific expertise related to a world religion, to fieldwork, to languages, and to texts and distant lands—he did his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the religions of south Asia, and came to the University of Alabama in 2006, after a couple years working at UNC Pembroke—over the course of his career he has gradually and smoothly made a significant shift. Of course he still studies material relevant to his earlier training, but a shift in research focus from inter-religious cooperation to diaspora religion, eventually studying south Asian communities in the U.S. south, led the way to a far broader interest not only in social theory but in the practical implications of categorization for creating identities. Now, apart from regularly blogging on wide topics in identity formation at Culture on the Edge (a research group in which he participates), he is among the few who paused when some Pew survey data came out not long ago, on the so-called “Nones” (people who responded to a questionnaire saying that they had no religious affiliation), and asked how reasonably it is for scholars to assume that an entire, cohesive social group somehow exists based on a common answer to this or that isolated question when the respondents differed so much on the rest of the survey? The point? Why do we, as scholars, think the Nones are out there and what effect does our presumption of their identity have on making it possible for others to think and act as if the Nones are real and of growing influence?

It was this career arc—moving from what or how we study to why we study something, focusing on the wider theoretical interests that motivate our work with specific e.g.s and which ought to be relevant to scholars in fields far outside the academic study of religion—that prompted Russell McCutcheon to sit down with Steven, his colleague at Alabama, on a chilly day last December, to talk about Steven’s training and earlier interests but then to learn more about how a scholar who heads up our interdisciplinary minor in Asian Studies found himself at the Baltimore meeting of the American Academy of Religion inviting Americanists and sociologists to give the Nones a second thought.

1980814_10102136415398485_877553125_n

Thanks to Russell McCutcheon for writing this piece, and for conducting the interview. You can read a Huffington Post article by Ramey on the ‘Nones’ here. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your philosophical tomes etc.

Tomato: Fruit or Vegetable? Discuss.

Budding theorists may find themselves conscripted into the ideological battles over the nature of religion or, to put a finer point on the argument, how scholarship in religious studies should be done. For even if one has not openly sided with a particular group regarding what ‘religion’ is, it is very likely you do have some inkling regarding how scholarship in religious studies should be done. As Russell McCutcheon notes in this interview one of his teaching texts is a brief opinion from a lawsuit in 1893 (Nix v. Hedden) regarding the nature of tomatoes. Are tomatoes fruits or are they vegetables? And why does it matter?

For the Purposes of…

McCutcheon, like the presiding judge in this case, is not terribly interested in the intrinsic nature or essence of the ‘tomato’ but rather what the tomato will be for purposes of trade and tariffs. This case upheld the Tariff Act of 1883 which did not charge a tax on imported fruit but did charge a tax for imported vegetables. If this case appears to have nothing to do with the battles over ‘religion’ look again and ask what happens when you supplement the word ‘tomato’ with ‘religion.’ Make the categorical division not between ‘fruit’ or ‘vegetable’ but rather envision a litany of possible interpretations such as ‘religion’ is at heart really about wielding knowledge and power, money and manipulation, primordial man’s explanation of the terrors and wonders of the natural world, individual neurosis, or a deep, personal and private encounter with an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity, etc. How quickly seemingly solid categories come unraveled… suddenly, I am much more comfortable becoming an arbitrator on anything, tomatoes included, than on what I supposedly study.

Okay, let’s return to the tomato argument for a moment as perhaps it will shed some light on our predicament. In order to come to a conclusion we must look at precedent (i.e. how has the word been used before). We can also compare dictionary entries and call ‘expert’ witnesses. Oxford Dictionaries even weighs in on the argument… it seems that this issue arose because scientists and cooks use the word differently. According to Oxford Dictionaries, scientifically speaking, a tomato is a fruit. In the culinary world, the tomato is referenced as a vegetable because it is savory. Notice that the argument has morphed from pertaining to what category the tomato is in based on its qualities to a matter of who is doing the speaking.

One need only remember that Gershwin classic “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” to know that how one pronounces a word denotes not just dialectic difference but class distinction as well.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZ3fjQa5Hls]

The tomato has a long and varied history. A native to South America, the term originates from the Nahuatl tomatl. Although recently heralded as a cancer-fighting food, historically the tomato has an infamous reputation.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) Film Poster

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) Film Poster

A member of the night shade family, the tomato has sporadically been labeled as poisonous, or at least suspect, and some naysayers have even gone so far as to dedicate websites to (www.tomatoesareevil.com) or make cult classic films about their true diabolical nature like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. And many readers are probably aware of the tales of throwing rotten tomatoes at bad actors! What may come as a surprise to these same readers is that tourists in Spain can pay $13 to participate in the world’s largest tomato fight!

Who knew that the tomato could be so polarizing?! Who knew this tiny fruit/vegetable could arouse such vitriol?! Fruit? Vegetable? Poisonous? Nutritious? Good? Evil? Is it a panacea or pandemic? It seems that the tomato defies our categories. It appears to transcend barriers. It is irreducible. And yet where are the departments of Tomato Studies? Where are the calls for the study of sui generis Tomato?

So before we sharpen the pitchforks and enter the fray, we should note that this doesn’t seem to be an either/ or (as in a tomato must be either a fruit or a vegetable) battle at all but a squabble addressed best by thinking about context. Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Is it good or evil? My answer to the ‘tomato’ question is one I offer frequently regarding the ‘religion’ question, much to the chagrin of my students, when they ask questions like “are Mormons Christians?”… it depends on who you ask and it depends on the context. And in a classic McCutcheon twist, I might ask them, who gains and who loses if we admit or deny Mormons (or tomatoes) entry into the halls of Christendom (or fruitdom)? And are any Mormons (or grocers or botanists) stopping by our classroom to ask our opinion?

Essence of Tomato

So we may never know the true, deep meaning, of ‘religion’ or ‘tomato.’ ‘Tomato’ as a Platonic ideal may always elude us. ‘Tomato’ like ‘religion’ may defy our categories. By using this example, McCutcheon is pointing out to us that perhaps we are too wedded to our conceptions of sui generis (unique, irreducible, pristine) ‘religion’ to see the social and political implications on our scholarship. Suddenly, the situation is a lot less dire when I apply these same questions to the enigma of the tomato. But before we dismiss the tomato controversy, we need to remember that the above case was judged by the Supreme Court. So, what do we do if declaring the true essence of ‘tomato’ or ‘religion’ is not within our jurisdiction as academics?

The judge in this case, along with McCutcheon, appears to nudge us towards a more terrestrial interpretation. Perhaps we will never know what a tomato, vegetable, or a fruit really is (ontologically speaking) but for purposes of trade and tariff, we can decide what a tomato will be. After all, our categories themselves (fruit and vegetable) as well as the term ‘tomato’ are products of language. Our categories and words could have been otherwise and in other cultures often are. As McCutcheon might argue our categories and words are contingent, conditional, and contextual.

‘Religion’ as ‘sui generis’

Is ‘religion’ sui generis? In other words, do scholars of religion study something that forms a unique and special domain of things in the world unlike any other? Wittgenstein thought religion constituted a distinct “form of life”. Eliade spoke of the ‘Sacred’ as existing in a separate reality above the mundaneness of the everyday (i.e. the profane).  Historically and in more modern times, other scholars have held similar views that paint the category of religion as naming a specific and stable set of things in the world set apart from all other. However, it is a view that has fallen out of favour as noted by Dr. Russell McCutcheon.

In this interview with Thomas Coleman, McCutcheon discusses what he terms as the “socio-political strategy” behind the label of “sui generis” as it is applied to religion. The interview begins by exploring some of the terms used to support sui generis claims to religion (e.g. un-mediated, irreducible etc.) followed by a brief overview on the rise of religious studies departments mid-20th century using such claims to obtain funding and autonomy from other disciplines. In closing, Dr. McCutcheon explains one example of how the ideological foundations of belief are ontology centered, examines how the term religion is “traded” and departs leaving us to consider the role of social agreement in defining what religion is or is not.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment torate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Dr. Russell McCutcheon is a full professor of religion and the department chair for the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His main interests lie in the academic study of ‘the academic study of religion’, focusing on how the category and term ‘religion’ has been employed throughout time. He has published several books such as Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia and more recently The Sacred Is the Profane: The Political Nature of “Religion”  (co-authored with William Arnal). Dr. McCutcheon is a member of Culture on the Edge, an international scholarly collaborative looking at how “identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced” in society and in academia. Be sure to check out his latest book titled Entanglements: Marking Place in the Field of Religion coming out this March!

Podcasts

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.

“Would You Still Call Yourself an Asianist?”

There’s a group on Facebook devoted to the History of Religions. Apart from a quite regularly posted Christian bible study blog that’s devoted to scriptural exegesis—and which prompts reader comments such as this recent one:

It seems obvious God is a God who feels. I am imagining He grieved, felt sorry not only to see the depravity of man whom He made in His image, but of every single cell which He created, His art, His masterpiece. God as an artist experiencing the destruction and loss of it all. Every flower, creature, piece of nature which He had created GOOD.

—almost all that gets posted on its wall are links to articles or announcements about the things we study: decaying scrolls found here or there, rituals practiced by this or that group, etc. Once in a while you see a link to an article on methodology—how we study things—but rarely does someone post an item related to why we study them or why our work should matter to people who don’t happen to share our focus on this piece of pottery or that ancient text. That’s because it seems that, for many if not most of us, there’s an obviousness to the things that we’re interested in, both for us, as scholars, as well as for the wider groups in which we live and shop and work: we all know they’re important because, well…, they’re important, simple as that.

10000128_10102136414819645_635038881_n

What’s therefore intriguing about Steven Ramey’s work is that while he, like all of us, was trained in a specific expertise related to a world religion, to fieldwork, to languages, and to texts and distant lands—he did his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the religions of south Asia, and came to the University of Alabama in 2006, after a couple years working at UNC Pembroke—over the course of his career he has gradually and smoothly made a significant shift. Of course he still studies material relevant to his earlier training, but a shift in research focus from inter-religious cooperation to diaspora religion, eventually studying south Asian communities in the U.S. south, led the way to a far broader interest not only in social theory but in the practical implications of categorization for creating identities. Now, apart from regularly blogging on wide topics in identity formation at Culture on the Edge (a research group in which he participates), he is among the few who paused when some Pew survey data came out not long ago, on the so-called “Nones” (people who responded to a questionnaire saying that they had no religious affiliation), and asked how reasonably it is for scholars to assume that an entire, cohesive social group somehow exists based on a common answer to this or that isolated question when the respondents differed so much on the rest of the survey? The point? Why do we, as scholars, think the Nones are out there and what effect does our presumption of their identity have on making it possible for others to think and act as if the Nones are real and of growing influence?

It was this career arc—moving from what or how we study to why we study something, focusing on the wider theoretical interests that motivate our work with specific e.g.s and which ought to be relevant to scholars in fields far outside the academic study of religion—that prompted Russell McCutcheon to sit down with Steven, his colleague at Alabama, on a chilly day last December, to talk about Steven’s training and earlier interests but then to learn more about how a scholar who heads up our interdisciplinary minor in Asian Studies found himself at the Baltimore meeting of the American Academy of Religion inviting Americanists and sociologists to give the Nones a second thought.

1980814_10102136415398485_877553125_n

Thanks to Russell McCutcheon for writing this piece, and for conducting the interview. You can read a Huffington Post article by Ramey on the ‘Nones’ here. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your philosophical tomes etc.

Tomato: Fruit or Vegetable? Discuss.

Budding theorists may find themselves conscripted into the ideological battles over the nature of religion or, to put a finer point on the argument, how scholarship in religious studies should be done. For even if one has not openly sided with a particular group regarding what ‘religion’ is, it is very likely you do have some inkling regarding how scholarship in religious studies should be done. As Russell McCutcheon notes in this interview one of his teaching texts is a brief opinion from a lawsuit in 1893 (Nix v. Hedden) regarding the nature of tomatoes. Are tomatoes fruits or are they vegetables? And why does it matter?

For the Purposes of…

McCutcheon, like the presiding judge in this case, is not terribly interested in the intrinsic nature or essence of the ‘tomato’ but rather what the tomato will be for purposes of trade and tariffs. This case upheld the Tariff Act of 1883 which did not charge a tax on imported fruit but did charge a tax for imported vegetables. If this case appears to have nothing to do with the battles over ‘religion’ look again and ask what happens when you supplement the word ‘tomato’ with ‘religion.’ Make the categorical division not between ‘fruit’ or ‘vegetable’ but rather envision a litany of possible interpretations such as ‘religion’ is at heart really about wielding knowledge and power, money and manipulation, primordial man’s explanation of the terrors and wonders of the natural world, individual neurosis, or a deep, personal and private encounter with an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity, etc. How quickly seemingly solid categories come unraveled… suddenly, I am much more comfortable becoming an arbitrator on anything, tomatoes included, than on what I supposedly study.

Okay, let’s return to the tomato argument for a moment as perhaps it will shed some light on our predicament. In order to come to a conclusion we must look at precedent (i.e. how has the word been used before). We can also compare dictionary entries and call ‘expert’ witnesses. Oxford Dictionaries even weighs in on the argument… it seems that this issue arose because scientists and cooks use the word differently. According to Oxford Dictionaries, scientifically speaking, a tomato is a fruit. In the culinary world, the tomato is referenced as a vegetable because it is savory. Notice that the argument has morphed from pertaining to what category the tomato is in based on its qualities to a matter of who is doing the speaking.

One need only remember that Gershwin classic “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” to know that how one pronounces a word denotes not just dialectic difference but class distinction as well.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZ3fjQa5Hls]

The tomato has a long and varied history. A native to South America, the term originates from the Nahuatl tomatl. Although recently heralded as a cancer-fighting food, historically the tomato has an infamous reputation.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) Film Poster

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) Film Poster

A member of the night shade family, the tomato has sporadically been labeled as poisonous, or at least suspect, and some naysayers have even gone so far as to dedicate websites to (www.tomatoesareevil.com) or make cult classic films about their true diabolical nature like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. And many readers are probably aware of the tales of throwing rotten tomatoes at bad actors! What may come as a surprise to these same readers is that tourists in Spain can pay $13 to participate in the world’s largest tomato fight!

Who knew that the tomato could be so polarizing?! Who knew this tiny fruit/vegetable could arouse such vitriol?! Fruit? Vegetable? Poisonous? Nutritious? Good? Evil? Is it a panacea or pandemic? It seems that the tomato defies our categories. It appears to transcend barriers. It is irreducible. And yet where are the departments of Tomato Studies? Where are the calls for the study of sui generis Tomato?

So before we sharpen the pitchforks and enter the fray, we should note that this doesn’t seem to be an either/ or (as in a tomato must be either a fruit or a vegetable) battle at all but a squabble addressed best by thinking about context. Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Is it good or evil? My answer to the ‘tomato’ question is one I offer frequently regarding the ‘religion’ question, much to the chagrin of my students, when they ask questions like “are Mormons Christians?”… it depends on who you ask and it depends on the context. And in a classic McCutcheon twist, I might ask them, who gains and who loses if we admit or deny Mormons (or tomatoes) entry into the halls of Christendom (or fruitdom)? And are any Mormons (or grocers or botanists) stopping by our classroom to ask our opinion?

Essence of Tomato

So we may never know the true, deep meaning, of ‘religion’ or ‘tomato.’ ‘Tomato’ as a Platonic ideal may always elude us. ‘Tomato’ like ‘religion’ may defy our categories. By using this example, McCutcheon is pointing out to us that perhaps we are too wedded to our conceptions of sui generis (unique, irreducible, pristine) ‘religion’ to see the social and political implications on our scholarship. Suddenly, the situation is a lot less dire when I apply these same questions to the enigma of the tomato. But before we dismiss the tomato controversy, we need to remember that the above case was judged by the Supreme Court. So, what do we do if declaring the true essence of ‘tomato’ or ‘religion’ is not within our jurisdiction as academics?

The judge in this case, along with McCutcheon, appears to nudge us towards a more terrestrial interpretation. Perhaps we will never know what a tomato, vegetable, or a fruit really is (ontologically speaking) but for purposes of trade and tariff, we can decide what a tomato will be. After all, our categories themselves (fruit and vegetable) as well as the term ‘tomato’ are products of language. Our categories and words could have been otherwise and in other cultures often are. As McCutcheon might argue our categories and words are contingent, conditional, and contextual.

‘Religion’ as ‘sui generis’

Is ‘religion’ sui generis? In other words, do scholars of religion study something that forms a unique and special domain of things in the world unlike any other? Wittgenstein thought religion constituted a distinct “form of life”. Eliade spoke of the ‘Sacred’ as existing in a separate reality above the mundaneness of the everyday (i.e. the profane).  Historically and in more modern times, other scholars have held similar views that paint the category of religion as naming a specific and stable set of things in the world set apart from all other. However, it is a view that has fallen out of favour as noted by Dr. Russell McCutcheon.

In this interview with Thomas Coleman, McCutcheon discusses what he terms as the “socio-political strategy” behind the label of “sui generis” as it is applied to religion. The interview begins by exploring some of the terms used to support sui generis claims to religion (e.g. un-mediated, irreducible etc.) followed by a brief overview on the rise of religious studies departments mid-20th century using such claims to obtain funding and autonomy from other disciplines. In closing, Dr. McCutcheon explains one example of how the ideological foundations of belief are ontology centered, examines how the term religion is “traded” and departs leaving us to consider the role of social agreement in defining what religion is or is not.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment torate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Dr. Russell McCutcheon is a full professor of religion and the department chair for the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His main interests lie in the academic study of ‘the academic study of religion’, focusing on how the category and term ‘religion’ has been employed throughout time. He has published several books such as Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia and more recently The Sacred Is the Profane: The Political Nature of “Religion”  (co-authored with William Arnal). Dr. McCutcheon is a member of Culture on the Edge, an international scholarly collaborative looking at how “identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced” in society and in academia. Be sure to check out his latest book titled Entanglements: Marking Place in the Field of Religion coming out this March!