Tag Archives: religious studies

The Unasked Question

Where were you when. Everybody asks that.

I was about to start a class. Some of the students had heard and told the rest of us.

Later that day, a colleague asked me to be on a panel discussion the next evening. Why? Because I’m the religious studies prof. The only one. Not tenure-track, nor any hope of same.

One of my major memories of that September has been on my mind lately. It’s the question no one ever asks: How do you feel about being a scholar of religion – now?

What’s it like to have your field treated as fluff, and then suddenly one day, everyone is interested?

What’s it like to have to school everyone in the asking of questions? To stammer at answering questions because the concepts in which they are posed are flimsy?

(“Does religion make people violent?” Is “religion” a single monolithic thing that can be summed over human experience? Does it make sense to speak of it as somehow outside of “people,” such that it could make people something they aren’t already? Violent – how much, when, where?)

Do events like these change your connection to what you study?

That’s the big one, the one I’m aware of not being asked. Generally, people assume that scholars of religion are religious in the terms that make sense for the supposer’s thought balloon. Often, people assume that I agree with their own religiosity, but just know more about it. Or at least, they assume that until I open my mouth.

Yes. In the weeks following 9/11/01, I couldn’t stand my subject, or anybody’s assumptions about what I do, or the terms in which questions were posed to me, or the sheer lack of any place to stand – that is, any discursive footholds in which to speak in a different mode about religions and those who make them. Those who make them, meaning, us.

Popular discourse about religion is dominantly configured as unispace – a continuous ground of things or events, with only affirmation or denial recognized as options. Religious people believe. Scholars believe. With the verb “believe” effacing numerous and disparate actions and relations. No second or third dimensions available in which the objects of unispace might be framed, or non-unispace acts performed.

I’ll have to explain more later what I mean by unispace. Not today.

I don’t hate-study things. Very few scholars do. Given the demands of academic life, it would be strange to spend so much of one’s energy studying something that you hate. Not impossible, but strange, and rare.

Sometimes students infer that I hate the Bible, which just means that I don’t view it as they do. Look at those available settings: agree with me, or hate. They’re wrong in the inference, and even more wrong in the underlying structure. It saddens me that a few write that at the end of a semester, by which time, they should know just a tiny bit better.

Or there’s this: “Oh, but you don’t have to read it this way. True religion is . . .”

Nope. Everything that people have constructed as religion goes into the pot of stuff with which we work. Suppose I were a meteorologist and, before doing the grunt work, I threw out of the pot all the weather I don’t like? That’s not true weather! Just focus on true weather, and you’ll understand.

No. I’ll be doing something – deceiving myself, among other things – but I won’t be understanding anything much.

Whether I like something or not, whether I find it compatible with my values, has no bearing on whether it rightly goes in the pot of what’s “religion.”

So: by temperament, I don’t hate-study things; but some events so disturb me that I wish I were not a scholar of religion. I could stop being one. That’s always an option. But so far, I haven’t taken it.

I don’t know if the usual 9/11 memorials are really different this year, or if it’s only me. Probably the latter: I am, once again, troubled by what I study. And not just by religions, but by the way people talk about them, by the questions people ask that can’t be answered because they’re ill-formed. I get irritated at all questions, and wish I had just gone into classics.

My current mood has nothing to do with this anniversary. But no, not ready to write about it yet.