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Political Theology And “Religiography” – On Shifting Liminalities (Roger Green)

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Stephen S. Bush’s Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power (2014) offers a discourse analysis on twentieth century developments in religious studies.  While no theory is perfect, Bush’s attempt to formulate his own theory of religion gives those of us working in Political theology food for thought.  With ongoing interdisciplinary interest in political theology, Bush’s book offers a way to consider questions of methodology.  Using Visions of Religion as a point of departure, in this post I try to parse out the benefits Bush’s theory of religion for political theological discourse.

In his narrative of trends in religious studies, Bush begins with approaches to religious experience, including Schleiermacher, William James, the phenomenology of Gerardus van der Leeuw, Rudolf Otto, and Mircea Eliade.  He moves to a shift from experience to meaning, which he characterizes as the post-Wittgenstein emphasis on the primacy of language, characteristic of the hermeneutics of Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, Charles Taylor, and Clifford Geertz (31), emphasizing Geertz’s ‘thick description.’  As Bush reads Geertz, religion is one “cultural system”:

The ‘general order of existence’ is what sets religions apart from other cultural systems.  This order is a ‘cosmic framework’ that concerns the ‘fundamental nature of reality’ and ‘unconditioned ends,’ as opposed to the more particular and intermediate ends that characterize our ordinary economic, household, and political activities.”(36)

Bush notes the shift from meaning to power with the arrival of poststructuralist and postcolonial criticisms. He characterizes this through the 20th-century revival of Nietzschean genealogies in Foucault and Asad, and particularly Asad’s famous critique of Geertz in Genealogies of Religion: “Asad thinks that the very attempt to define religion universally must posit a ‘transhistorical and transcultural’ essence, an essence that is distinct and so insulated from power and politics” (48).

 Bush locates the disciplinary shift and critique of Geertz with the work of Bruce Lincoln and Catherine Bell.  He cites Saba Mahmood, David Chidester, Tomoko Masuzawa and Donald Lopez and the critique of “new materialism,” that wants to retain the difficult term, “religion” within their analyses (51).

The shift to an emphasis on power afforded important reinterpretations of history along the lines of gender, as in the work of Grace Jantzen and Robert Sharf, both of whom critique the ideologically and historically imbricated notion of experience and Western-centered individualism.

Bush’s thesis argues thatdespite the controversies pushing religious studies from experience to meaning to power, each of these concepts is necessary to the study of religion and each needs to be treated with nuance. He then covers critiques of Geertz, giving robust descriptions of how experience, meaning, and power interact with and interpenetrate each other.

Bush’s most powerful chapters, “Experience and Meaning” and “Experience and Power,” account for developments in the discussion of religious and mystical experience from Schleiermacher, to James, and to Ann Taves’s recent and excellent book, Religious Experience Reconsidered.  Taves notes the formation of Protestant conceptions of magic developing in sixteenth century debates over the Eucharist and differing notions ritual efficacy.  These distinctions, she argues, still underwrite and inform academic study of religion. Resisting binary distinctions between sacred and profane, Taves argues for religious studies as giving particular attention to what we deem “special.”

Bush pushes back against Taves’s idea that special things make up the “building blocks” of religions but also notes:

Taves contributes to the debate between perennialists and constructivists a distinction between top-down mental processes, in which our (culturally specific) conceptual facility is prominent, and bottom-up mental processes, in which unconscious and largely universal cognitive systems process information that subsequently enters our conscious awareness. (158)

Bush allows for the importance of Taves’s ability to put current religious studies in dialogue with neuroscience and biology while still remaining attentive to the ways that religious experience and the very discussion on religious experience is imbricated within discursive power relationships that have shaped the field of study.

The discourse of power, emerging out of post-structuralism, remains current in the field of Religious studies, but Bush claims, “We must correct the power approach for focusing on discourse, practices, and bodies to the exclusion of meaning and experience” (196).

Bush’s conclusion situates his social practical theory of religion in relation to “subfields” of religious studies: lived religion, philosophy of religion, history of religion, textual studies, and theology.  Absent from his study is any account of nuanced thinkers that cross some of these categories; for example, Emmanuel Levinas.  He is also unconcerned with an account of political theology as a subfield, which is part of why I use his text here.

In a September post on Political theology Today, journal editors Vincent Lloyd and David True discussed the “canon” of political theology.  In contrast to Bush’s book’s account of religious studies, the discussion on Political theology in recent decades – at least potentially – already performs much of what his theory attempts to account.

For example, we frequently read on the blog textual interpretations of Judeo-Christian scripture in light of current political events.  Experience, meaning, and power are internalized within the articles themselves – though, unfortunately, often with little to no historical contextual or linguistic translation nuances.  The posts are usually serve to hermeneutically re-inscribe a kind of textual binding to what is regarded as scripture, almost always within an assumed Christian theological disposition.

We do not read on Political Theology Today interpretations of, say, Buddhist sutras of Islamic Hadith. Nor do we encounter techniques of interpretation in line with Jewish midrash. In Bush’s terms, rather than serving as Textual Studies, such posts perform a religious experience by deriving meaning from a transcendent and universalized sense of what scriptural stories afford.

Lloyd and True, write:

Our aspiration is for political theology to model an intellectual space without such a “trade deficit,” for it to be a place where scholars from across the humanities who invoke political theology can thicken their understanding of theology, and religion more broadly, and for it to be a place where scholars of religious studies and theology can learn about the most useful critical tools developing in other disciplines. At the end of the day, we aspire to create a sufficiently complex and vibrant space animated by intellectual questions that these disciplinary labels recede, if only for a moment.

But the question of the “canon” also begs the question of political theology as a subfield of religious studies.  While the journal and the blog are certainly different media, any glance at Political Theology Today in connection with the idea that it is filling a “trade deficit” would seem to see it as an argument a deficit in applied theological readings of scripture to daily political life.  It is not the “postsecular” efforts at translating religious concepts into a secular world that Jürgen Habermas called for a number of years ago.

The editors describe the aim of the journal as “interdisciplinary, drawing on theology, religious studies, politics, philosophy, ethics, cultural studies, social theory, and economics. It reflects the diversity of religious and theological engagements with public and political life.”

The recent award from the Luce Foundation to Political theology and the formation of The Political theology Network speaks to the power aspect of Bush’s analysis with respect to the “subfield” or political theology.  With money, there is power; and this is quickly transforming by way of interdisciplinary presence at conferences.

As all of this is exciting, but the question of how we maintain rigor and avoid overly simplified or reductive accounts of merely “re-enchanting” the increasingly fragile public venues founded on secularization narratives remain.  Despite a lack of faith in ideology critique following the poststructural and materialist discussion that precede Fukuyama’s claims to the end of history, José Casanova’s attention to (re)emergence of religion into the public sphere, and Talal Asad’s defense of the ongoing need for liberal, secular society, we need to increasingly account for the saturation of new forms of nationalism and dogmatism.

Perhaps one of the most pressing issues at stake – a discussion that has been heavily addressed in Religious studies recently – is of course what we mean by ‘religion.’  Theologically-driven analyses can in some ways side-step the issue by saying, implicitly, “this is a _________ perspective.”  But that move risks performing a neoliberal reaction formation in the shape of religious (or political “identities” while maintaining a “neutral market” as a cypher that perpetuates its own historical entrenchment within Euro-Christian ideas of culture and civilization).

The critique I am addressing is more than what has been called and domesticated as “post-colonial”.  In the United States, it often erupts in racial politics, or more recently the attention to women abused by celebrities yet imbricated within liberal democratic ideology.  The conservative reaction-formation to decreased “territory” that we see among Americans and Europeans, which inscribes identity-political and nationalist impulses, is often employed to obscure social justice gains, as when my well-to-do white male university students claim that their Protestant Christianity is under attack and they are therefore oppressed “just like” people of color, rhetorically co-opting civil rights rhetoric for historically dominant positions.

What theories of religion like Stephen Bush’s do not adequately account for, even though he cites Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow briefly (215), is the entrenchment of the concept of religion within power.  Bush is certainly capable of bringing up scholars like David Chidester and pointing out the flaws of static-transcendent notions of “religion”, but even with his qualifiers the approach remains largely nominative.  Here is where our ethically informed theological perspectives can serve us well, so long as they’re tempered with awareness of their own historical dominance.

Bush leaves out, for example the ways indigenous peoples with no concept of religion are compelled to adopt Euro-Christian frames in order to vie for rights and recognition of practices.  As an addition to Bush, I would point toward the brilliant analysis of “religiography” in Markus Dressler’s Writing Religion: The Making of Turkish Alevi Islam, which has more explicit critiques of static and transcendent notions of religion while simultaneously historicizing the ways religiosity and nationalism are conceptually entwined and cannot be accounted for by either secularist or postsecular, “(re)-enchantment” narratives.

The discussion of political theology has in some ways addressed the “trade deficit” that kept ethical perspectives grounded in theological frames marginalized from academic discussions.  As my former Christian ethics professor, Miguel De La Torre – who last week claimed that in the U.S., “Christianity has died in the hand of evangelicals” – frequently complains of historical attempts by white Christian ethicists in the 20th century, they weren’t reading the news!  Political theology has been used by the theologically inclined as a discursive medium for reading the news, which is a good thing.

But political theology needs to do more than respond to the news by way of references to scriptures and theologically informed ethical dispositions.  Its rigor needs to be grounded within a porous approach to the categories Bush rightly discusses in his historical account of the largely 20th-century development from experience, to meaning, and to power.  It needs to be more than interdisciplinary and merely doing the work of liberal-democratic translating that Habermas calls for.  It must remain of its own entrenchment within power, the historical and often violent power of Euro-Christianity.

Liminalities are dynamic, as are disciplines and “subfields.” Many philosophers of religion, Alain Badiou for example, have recently been enthralled with Pauline universalism.  But in contrast, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been rightfully critiqued for its exclusions by The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Theologically informed ethical philosophers, such as Emmanuel Levinas, have found nuanced and rigorous ways to address the political problems that wreak havoc upon contemporary public discourse.  Civilization, as Charles Long pointed out over thirty years ago, is largely a whitely concept.

Theologico-political forces move historically and genealogically, as Carl Raschke has argued.  My point is that as it flourishes, perhaps becoming a subfield,  political theology must keep on interrogating its own will-to-power amid the historical will-to-power that established our universities and our disciplines.

It must be aware of its own religiography.

Roger Green is a Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.   He is the author of “Aldous Huxley the Political Theologian” in Aldous Huxley Annual (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015), and “Force in Religious Thought: Carl Raschke and Victoria Kahn in Dialogue” in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  His doctoral dissertation, Beware of Mad John (2013) explores connections between political theology and psychedelic literature.  He is currently working on a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for this. I’ve been writing for Politics of Scripture for about a year, and don’t often have the time to explore articles such as yours.

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