I’m really stoked about reading this summer. Now that school is done, I want to focus a lot on developing my own approach to religious studies by using some fields of thought not superficially associated with religion: critical theory/Marxism, feminism/gender studies, critical race theory, post-colonialism, general social theory, and ideology/discourse.
If anyone is interested, I can let you know what I’m reading. I just started two books, one ostensibly not having to do with religion and one kind of: Ideology: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton (the edition I borrowed from the library has a cool cover image called “Industrialized Peasants” by Georg Sholz) and Studying Religion: An Introduction by Russell McCutcheon.
Why I’m focusing on these areas for the time being is that they are not boring. They approach ideas from the outskirts of norms, thus offering perspectives I don’t usually encounter. In fact, I’ll probably not use much of it, but it will at least spur me to think about why I think certain things.
I don’t know why, but I have been notoriously scared about reading what I term “the heavies” (what I call heavies are those authors everyone calls classic and authoritative but has never read) since I left undergrad. There are perhaps a few reasons.
I used to maintain that there was only one meaning a work could have and that one has to interpret the work according to that reading, or miss the point entirely. So there was fear because of not getting things correct.
There was also the possibility that these names that I have heard as respected authorities, or at least incredible thinkers—Kant, Marx, the Frankfurt School, Nietzsche, Dubois, Durkheim, Foucault, Haraway, Weber, Butler, Said, Bhaba, etc.—what if I read them and wasn’t impressed? I call that the fear of losing the mystery behind these people rather than dealing with what got them considered authoritative in the first place: novel ideas.
Then there is the possibility that I won’t be able to understand them and my own intellectual shortcomings will shine. Perhaps this is everyone, but I like to think better of myself than I maybe should. More often than not I like to run from my shortcomings rather than face them and grow.
After having the class “Theories of Religion” where I read a lot of “heavies,” I became less intimidated and more sorrowful: why had I avoided these exciting things for so long? I didn’t dwell on that feeling for long, though. I made a plan for this summer and now I’m starting it. We’ll see what happens. Perhaps I’ll become a radical. More probably, I’ll become a better thinker as I sharpen myself with already sharpened minds.
Here are some things I’ve learned this year in school:
I am capable of a lot of work when I put my mind to it, but I also recognize my finitude. I have sometimes taken on too much to the detriment of my family. This will require that I plan my time better in adopting a consistent sleep schedule and study plan. My family deserves better than I gave them this year.
I had an inkling of this, but it got fleshed more out in my research of Gordon Kaufman’s theological method: all theology is constructed, from beginning to end. It does not exist “out there” to be discovered and exegeted but emerges out of a thinker’s use of sources. This means that one is responsible for what one says; one cannot just blame something on God.
Because of what I discovered with Kaufman, I am giving Christianity not another try, but a different try. I will be actively engaged in the process, not just uncritically accepting certain things. In a sense, Christianity exists “outside” the person because it is a social phenomenon. However, Christianity does not exist above and beyond the individual, because it is always embodied and expressed by individual persons. It shows up socially, too, social or political movements. I’m still working out what this even means.
I’ve come to realize more and more that I cannot universalize my personal experience and call myself a responsible person. I don’t call what I do “common sense,” “the way things are,” etc. I own what I do, say, and believe to the point that I recognize I have to demonstrate to others how I’ve come to some of my conclusions. I can’t take for granted that people share certain elements of experience with me to come to the same conclusions. And so this gives me room to hear other people’s stories and how they’ve constructed meaning on their journeys and not dismiss them out of hand; those are their experiences, as important to them as mine are to me. True dialogue can occur after each person recognizes this in the other, once we accept that we are not the same, and then attempt to find shared spaces or possibly create them.
There’s a world full of religions (one could just as easily say cultures since “religion” and “culture” intersect so seamlessly sometimes) that have worked for peoples to organize their societies. It’s interesting to learn how diverse understandings of religion arbitrate the relationship between church and state, individual and group, secular and sacred, what actually constitutes “religion,” male and female, or beyond binaries in more recent thought.
The word “religion” means something obvious to everyone else besides religious studies scholars. Ninian Smart outlined seven elements that most religions of the world have at least some of: doctrine, ethics, narratives/myths, ritual, experience, material culture, and institutions (here is a picture showing the interrelations of six of those dimensions, minus material culture). Some religions will denigrate others for not emphasizing what they emphasize. Some emphasize ritual and minimize ethics and doctrine, while others do the complete opposite. Both wonder at each other as a foreign, exotic “Other,” which is nonetheless wrong. Religion can also be defined in other ways: functionally, essentially, descriptively, and normatively.
There are lots of smart people in the world. I no longer feel the impulse to be the smartest in the class or see myself in competition with others to do better. I’ve adopted a more cooperative attitude that feels better. When I treat my classmates as fellow scholars or collaborators rather than as competition, we all benefit. I don’t glean nearly as much as when I share with others and they with me in a dynamic relationship. I just do my best and hope for the best.
Facebook and other internet activities waste a lot of my time. So does Netflix. Not to say these aren’t wonderful things in limited quantities, but they kind of contribute to me being a more passive than active person, making my brain feel kind of mushy after indulging for too long.
After reading an article by Richard Godbeer (his writing is as cool as his last name sounds), I encountered the idea that discourses of sex are always present in every sex act. One never “just has sex”; one is playing a script, like it fulfills a biological need or emotional desire, acts as a means to bond with a lover, a duty to fulfill, a peak experience with another involved, etc. He was drawing his ideas from Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality in three volumes, some of which I’d like to read this summer. The class I was in, Sexuality and American Religion, has actually given me some ideas of possible minors I’d like to pursue alongside the major of religious studies, like gender or sexuality studies and their presence in religions.
That is all I can think of for now. If I think of other things, I’ll edit this post and add them. Ask questions or comment if you want.