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Rethinking Religion

Project leaders

Project Directors: Gavin Flood, Jessica Frazier

Project Manager: Jessica Frazier

Project outline

The "Rethinking Religion" project seeks to develop fresh perspectives on religious meaning, religious experience, and the place of religious concerns in human life. Research within this project looks at ways of refining traditional notions surrounding the nature of religion, including the function of religion, religious interiority, the experiential dimension of religion, and the phenomenology of religious life more broadly. It also looks at methodological issues in the study of religion, seeking a more full and nuanced view.

Outputs for this project include monographs (The Importance of Religion: Meaning and Action in our Strange World, Gavin Flood (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012); Religion and Experience: Models of the Self in the Study of Religion, Jessica Frazier (Routledge, Forthcoming)) and seminar series (The Importance of Religion, Inwardness and Visual Contemplation in Tantric traditions).

Project programme

The programme of research, events, and outputs for the project centers around:

1. Book publications

These are aimed at bringing clearly defined original research into the public sphere, offering building blocks for an increasingly robust conception of religious subjectivity that will be of value to researchers in the study of religion, philosophy of religion, systematic theology, comparative approaches to religion and philosophy, and the various social sciences associated with the study of religion. Current planned publications include the following:

Gavin Flood (OCHS), The Importance of Religion: Meaning and Action in
Our Strange World.

This book is about the relationship between self and textual revelation in the scriptural religions of Europe and South Asia. It offers a thesis that the self is formed in text- and tradition-specific ways and that this self-formation needs to be understood as the formation of inwardness. In earlier work Prof. Flood began to develop the idea of subjectivity formed by and within religious traditions, particularly pre-modern, cosmological traditions in India and Europe. The present proposal builds upon that work but is a more systematic exploration of the idea which introduces a broader theoretical apparatus.

While the book offers a substantial historical survey of inwardness in Christian, Neo-Platonic, and Hindu traditions, it locates the general thesis in the context of contemporary debates about religion, theology, phenomenology and responses to it, sociology and literary criticism. That is, an account of inwardness formed through the self’s appropriation of the text needs to be approached from three angles, a philosophical account of subjectivity, a sociological account of agency and the location of the self in social structure, and a theological account of revelation that draws on literary theories of the text. These debates are also germane to the discussion about whether religion is a category that can be used across all cultures, whether it refers to anything distinctive in human societies or whether it can be understood purely in other terms.

Jessica Frazier (OCHS), Religion and Experience: Models of the Self
in the Study of Religion.

Employing the metaphor of restoring the 'soul' of religious studies, this book examines the ways in which private religious experience has been problematised in recent scholarship, and aims to construct a new theory and method for understanding and examining the subjective inner experience of religious persons. It formulates this by re-assessing hidden methodologies in the canonical theorists of religion (including Frazer, Freud, Otto, Evans-Pritchard, Durkheim, Weber, Levi-Strauss, and others) relative to the thought of more recent scholars (such as Geertz, Boyer, Stoller, Caldwell), and to contemporary hermeneutic conceptions of knowledge and subjectivity (in Gadamer, Badiou and Zizek). The project aims to present a renewed vision of religiosity and of the study of religion itself.

A reluctance to address the methodological difficulties of studying interiority has contributed to the popularity of a centripetal constructivist approach to religious identity. Moreover, the results of this exoteric shift have worrying implications; now in our study of religiously 'Other' people there is a danger of dealing only with cultural artefacts but no subject or 'soul', no ghost in the machine. In response to these concerns this study aims to revision and reconstruct three key methods for study of religious subjectivity:

  • Empathetic imagination: Many of the canonical names in anthropology have been criticised for their literary style and their tendency towards evocative narrative. Here we argue that this is not a methodological weakness, but the autonomous development of a hermeneutic conception of understanding in terms of imaginative empathy and inter-subjectivity within the discipline of anthropology.
  • Psychological modelling: Psychologists of religion from Freud to Jung, Laing and Boyer have produced speculative models of religious subjectivity as a method of study, drawing predominantly on metaphors of spatial relations and fluid dynamics to provide a mapping of the self as causal disposition. We examine this mechanistic model, and also look at the way in which unmappable territories are integrated as a necessary check on this systematic approach by less reductive thinkers.
  • Socio-dynamic deduction: the analysis of religious causality in key sociologists of religion from Marx to Weber, many of whom have insisted on the foundational significance of concepts of mood, motivation, and individual agency as the cornerstone enabling their theorization of social dynamics. Here causal deduction from symptomatic social signs of individual interior motivation provides a model for studying subjectivity as an autonomous 'centre' of dynamism and force.

2. Lectures and seminars series

Short series of lectures by the main investigators disseminating and developing the research that will lead to the publications. In Autumn 2008 these include the following lecture series:

The Importance of Religion, Prof. Gavin Flood

That religion is of fundamental public concern cannot be doubted as we move into the twenty first century, central to global politics, cultural or identity politics, ethics and the socio-economic processes of late modernity, as well as to the contested claims made in its name. Yet never has religion been so misunderstood. Never has there been a time when the critical understanding of religions (of the kind that can be done within Religious Studies) has been more important and never has there been a greater need for such knowledge and critical understanding to inform public debate which so often lacks informed perspectives. Some disparage religion as irrational, making claims about the world that simply cannot be substantiated in the light of modern scientific knowledge. On this view religion is a series of propositions about the world akin to scientific theories. Apologists for religion react to this critique defending it on rational grounds, that its claims are indeed compatible with modern knowledge and scientific thinking. We only need to look around bookshops to see the proliferation of these kinds of works. Yet both critique and apologetic have fundamentally misunderstood the nature and importance of religion in people's lives. These lectures attempt to understand religions as ways of life, ways of acting, ways of responding to the strange world in which we find ourselves, ways of being in the world which make claims upon people and which primarily function to address questions of ultimate meaning at a bodily and temporal level in which human beings make sense of their experience.

Lecture 1. Religion and reductionism

Two tendencies in recent years have sought to provide explanations of religion in terms of a naturalist or eliminative reductionism, the realm of science, on the one hand, and a cultural reductionism, the realm of politics, on the other. Eliminative reductionism primarily refers to theories of cognition and evolutionary psychology along with their philosophical justification. By cultural reductionism I mean accounts that see religion only in terms of a politics of representation and structures of power. On this view, religion is a disempowering hegemony caused by a 'false consciousness' that has served the interests of the rich and powerful. Both kinds of reductionism share an incredulity to religious truth claims and offer explanation and critique that are rigorously externalist in their explanation of religion and thoroughly materialist in their ontological and ethical pre-commitments. On reductionist accounts, to explain religion is to locate a cause (in cognition, genetics, socio-political structures) and to explain religion is to present an external account of it, often antithetical to the internal claims of traditions. This understanding of explanation has been the predominant model in the natural sciences from Bacon through to the social sciences of our own time. Even Theology traditionally understood claimed to explain religion in this way, locating the cause of religion in God. Scientific explanations have generally been antithetical to Theology in locating causes of religion in nature and claiming superiority to theological accounts because, unlike such accounts, they are falsifiable and have predictive power. Both eliminative and cultural reductionisms offer external accounts of religion through the location of cause, the former in nature the latter in the genealogy of cultural politics, and so do not engage seriously with traditions' claims and concerns.

But there is a different sense of explanation that is not the location of a cause. This is to draw on, or return to, the verstehen tradition in the history of social science where explanation is 'understanding' and to claim that the explanation of religion is the exposition of a meaning rather than the location of a cause: to explain religion is not to seek a causal account in the first instance but to show how something is connected to a broader sphere or context and to demonstrate or translate a tradition's semantic density into a language which is implicitly comparative. This kind of account is both descriptive and interpretative in drawing out the implications of description in theory-informed, semiotically sophisticated ways, and reasoning within the horizon of the western academy. This account is akin to phenomenology in wishing to offer thick description yet like hermeneutics in wishing to inquire beyond description. Unlike eliminative reductionism it must recognise the autonomy of higher level processes in any hierarchy or multiple levels of organised systems and unlike postmodern, cultural constructivists and genealogists it must recognise the legitimacy of tradition and tradition internal concerns. In the context of this debate, the lecture will discuss the two kinds of reductionism and the idea of 'explanation'.

Lecture 2. Towards a theory of religious action

On the one hand there is a critique of religion that sees religion in terms of propositions about the nature of the world. On the other there is a reaction to such claims by the rational defence of religion. But both positions fail to understand the true nature and function of religions as action and responses to life, as ways of life and kinds of action that provide frameworks for living and dying, especially in the context of late modernity and what Richard Roberts has called 'the reconfiguring of the religious field.' This lecture develops the idea of religion as action which is also an orientation towards meaning and transcendence; an orientation to understanding life as a journey for both individuals and communities, a journey that can have an end in a 'liberation' or a 'heaven' or some variation of an ideal of perfection. Religion is always teleological and orientated towards transcendence of the human condition; religion is predominantly soteriological. The theoretical apparatus behind some of this thinking lies in Bakhtin's Towards a Philosophy of the Act in which he presents a distinction between the world of culture (which contains various theoretical frameworks such as philosophy, sociology, politics) and the world of life, the world in which we live our lives and die and in which acts are accomplished once and for all (and only once) as being is unrepeatable action (Being-as-event). The theory of religious action I am proposing claims that religious action is a penetration of being-as-event, that it is not restricted to the world of culture but is the only practice and discourse that attempts to penetrate, order and make sense of world of life. This world of life is a synonym for the strangeness of the world.

It follows from this is that the heart of religion is human action that forms a kind of subjectivity. This action and its accompanying subjectivity is formed only in inter-subjective, tradition specific ways that entail a particular kind of orientation towards the future. This orientation entails hope or anticipation of the future and a retrieval of meaning from the past (expressed as text) which are realised in present action. The sacred text from the past is brought to life through ritual in the living context of present speech for a particular speech community. Religious actions and their accompanying kinds of speech foster a subjectivity, inwardness, or interiority which is the realisation of a religion's claims, a soteriology, and the projection of a narrative into the future. This kind of inwardness feeds back into the community as a source of life, of new interpretations, and of new vision.

Lecture 3. Religon, text, and subjectivity

A religious community is defined and adapts to present conditions by the way it reads or receives its sacred texts realised in the present in a ritual space and internalised within subjectivity. The self becomes an index of tradition and subjectivity is formed through repeated liturgical acts which are enactments or embodiments of the revelation or text (broadly defined and not restricted to written document). The lecture will explore the internalisation of the text through the ritual process as the expression or realisation of the religious imperative. The realisation of the text in present speech (and it can only be realised in the present here and now) is accompanied by the internalisation of the text in subjectivity and also by the externalisation of the text in ethics, art and politics: the religious imperative comes to be articulated through ethical behaviour defined by a community, artistic expression and political institution. The ritual space within which the text is realised and brought to life for a present speech community, along with the internalisation of text and tradition, is the site of transcendence as instantiated in the history of religions. In technical terms from Linguistic Anthropology this is the subordination of the 'indexical-I' to the 'I' contained within the text, the implied reader or 'I of discourse' (Urban 'The 'I' of Discourse'). The self of religions is formed through revelation mediated by tradition and realised in specific acts of 'reading' or the reception of texts. The argument will be that the central aspect of the religious self is the internalisation of the text and the alignment with the narrative of one's own life with the tradition. This is to see life as quest for meaning through the internalisation of tradition. This internalisation is also an orientation towards the future.

Lecture 4. Religion and politics

Religion has always been deeply implicated with politics. While the claim of these lectures is that the religious imperative cannot be reduced to power, the formation of religions as institutions has always been closely implicated in the formation of states and the legitimising of particular social and political structures. Many contemporary thinkers, deriving inspiration from genealogical thinkers such as Foucault, claim that religion can be understood in terms of power relationships and that the discourse of religion hides a will to power. By contrast many religious communities claim that religion is the well spring of their life's energy and that tradition cannot be explained only in terms of a politics of representation.

In this lecture we presented a particular view of the religious imperative as being expressed in a community's reception of its revelation and the internalisation of the revelation. The lecture will develop the political implications of the religious imperative. We will discuss the externalisation of religious subjectivity through institutions and examine the interface between secular institutions and religious tradition. This is especially pertinent where there is a conflict between religious law and secular law. While the issue of this relation will be examined at a fairly abstract level, engaging with relevant philosophical literature such as Batnitzky's work on Strauss and Levinas (Leo Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas CUP 2006), the lecture also needs to discuss contemporary examples of the relation of the religious imperative to politics and the conflict of religious and secular law. For religions, adherence to revelation and the law that expresses it is primary, for secular modernity, adherence to secular law is primary. This might also be configured as a conflict between revelation and philosophy. The contemporary religious subject in the global context of late modernity needs to negotiate these complex identities and the success to which that occurs is the degree to which the religious imperative can locate itself within the modern context.

Lecture 5. Religion and Art

Shifting from explicit politics to implicit cultural politics, this lecture will focus on the relation of religion to art, raising questions about how religious art expresses tradition and links in to a cosmology absent from secular art. Questions of aesthetics and function will be raised. An exhibition in London by Gilbert and George in January 2006 presented religion through a pastiche of images that showed religions to be essentially oppressive. In the context of this radical juxtaposition between secular art in late modernity and religious art, the lecture will show how the problem of aesthetic appreciation in tradition and modernity is linked to the problem of the world seen as cosmology or as stripped of cosmological understanding. Thus icons, cathedrals and images of gods function only within religious cosmology in contrast to the work of Gilbert and George which draws on an aesthetic devoid of, and antithetical to, religious cosmologies.

But the religious imperative, while prototypically expressed in religious tradition, also finds expression through art. In the contemporary context this can be seen especially in the work of artists such as Bill Viola who deals explicitly with the themes of transcendence and being born and dying and whose work attempts to penetrate the world of life. The idea of the artist as shaman who shows human communities something from another place is relevant here. The religious imperative shows us the proximity of art to religion and in the context of modernity shows how art outside of religious tradition nevertheless still deals with questions of transcendent meaning in human life.

Project Outputs

The project will produce two book publications, a national symposium, and a dedicated webpage with articles and discussion.