Jon Bialecki

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Monthly Archives: August 2016

Summer crop of religious realism

I’ve been sparse on posting – mostly because of heavy writing commitments, and work on my book, A Diagram for Fire, which should be coming out with University of California Press early in the next year. And the American election has been praying on my attention as well, as both Charismatic Evangelicals and Mormons (the two groups I study) have reacted to the election in different and surprising ways.

I’ll have more – much more – to say later about both the book, and about the political imagination of Mormons and Charismatic Evangelicals. But I want to mention two essays of mine that came out this summer, both of which touched on the same issue: religious realism.

By realism, I mean here not realism as opposed to idealism, or realism in the sense of realpolitik. Rather, I mean the claim that various things ‘exist’ in the world as distinct phenomena or classes. Realism is usually a position opposed to nominalism, which states that these collectivities are merely conventions of language, and that there is nothing necessarily ‘shared’ by, say, all the creatures that we label as  ‘cats’ or ‘bureaucracy’ or whatever.

Nominalism is the default position in much of anthropology of religion these days. That this is the case is the result of critiques of the concept of religion by Talal Asad, Jonathan Z. Smith, and Tomoko Masuzawa, who rightly argue that previous anthropological definitions of religion were too influenced by Euro-American, and particularly Protestant, understandings of what religion was. This crypto-Protestant influence caused anthropologists to constrict the variety of religious forms that could be recognized, and made some phenomena, like Islam, be seen as ‘bad’ religions because they were inextricably interwoven with phenomena that are classified in the West as ‘politics’ or ‘law.’

But it seems though that we can acknowledge variation in religion without dissolving religion entirely as a category. Both of these essays lay out the argument in more detail, but the TL;DR version is that religions all involve some kind of problem of communicating or engaging with invisible or difficult to discern agents or forces. This communicative problem is resolved in numerous ways, from possession and sacrifice (where an immediacy in communication is seen as more likely), to privileging texts and moral orders (where it appears that communication might be chiefly or only unidirectional). Resolutions would also include transforming oneself into such a supra-human entity or force as well. It might even include positions that elaborate or double down on any claim that communication is impossible, due to distance, ontological or otherwise, or even due to the non-existence of actors of this sort (so an active atheism would be a religion, though not a passive atheism, or a failure to simply address the issue).

This approach has the flavor of Tylor’s definition of religion, I’ll admit, but only the flavor. This is because this communicative problem has no single solution.  Further, the set of possible resolutions of this problem is complexified by the fact that problems never come alone. The problem of communicating with these entities or forces arises as part of an approach to some other problem or problems (will the crops fail this year? Is life meaningless?). And any solution will give rise to knock-on problems (how do I know that the shaman was possessed by the entity she claims, and wasn’t possessed by some other entity, or perhaps was faking it? how do I know how to interpret this text? how to I come to terms with the fact that I shall never talk to God?). And there is nothing that restricts what problems might cause people to turn to this insistent religious problem, or that mandates how the ‘logically subsequent’ problems caused by the communicative problem will be resolved.  It is this set of concrete assemblages, all with different materialities and different social and psychological entailments, which we might imagine to be religion. And this is why I am not a nominalist when it comes to religion. All the manifold forms of religion as concrete actualizations are too varied, and too imbricated with other arrangements and concerns to have any universal definition. But the underlying problem, though, is common to them all, even if it at times gives rise to ‘unmarked’ or porously bordered forms of religion. If we grant problems an ontological status, then despite this undefinable surplus of forms, something underneath insists.

There is one last thing to note. This open arrangement of interlinked problems and pluriform solutions leaves a lot of freedom to religious forms. In fact, as I argue in detail in my upcoming book, there is good reason to think that religion is the most plastic human phenomenon. This makes religion the ultimate kludge: a practice, institution, structure, ethics or aesthetics that can be inserted anywhere, catalyzing and decelerating all sorts of other human belongings…..

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