The Seminar Room

A Religious Studies Podcast

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Fences and Neighbors; The Devil in Mr. Jones

Listen to Episode 10 here:

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Experience: A Response from Eva Kelley

Eva Kelley, a Ph.D student in UCSB’s Department of Religious Studies and friend of ours, graciously agreed to write a response to both the chapter we discussed this week, “Experience” by Robert Sharf, and to the podcast itself. We at TSR thank her for her thoughtful work here! Her post follows below. References in her post refer to the actual page numbers of Critical Terms for Religious Studies rather than the PDF version which Lucas and I used for the podcast.

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Robert Sharf argues that experience ought not be a critical term for religious studies because experience, as something private and ineffable, will always remain inaccessible to the scholar. His objection then is not just to the term experience but to the pursuit of the thing it supposedly denotes. Sharf’s issue is not simply with scholarly terminology—that in some languages and cultures there may be no conceptual equivalent to the English word experience which we could somehow refine by discovering terms native to various traditions and languages. Rather, he makes a stronger claim: other people’s interiority is just not something we can ever get at publicly, so it should not be the object of scholarly inquiry. Proper objects of religious studies inquiry are texts, sacred rites, and oral traditions—i.e., all publically accessible displays of human culture.

Some accuse religious studies scholarship of being reductionistic when it fails to consider experience or the inner dimension of religious practice, that it elides the living, breathing, dynamic, personally affecting dimension of religion. To such critics, Sharf answers that considerations of such an inner dimension usually end up as one more form of ideological appropriation, because the category of experience, as it is wielded by scholars, is “a mere placeholder that entails a substantive if indeterminate terminus for the relentless deferral of meaning.”[1] Experience can mean whatever the scholar wants it to mean, precisely because the term has no observable content—we have no standard or data against which to measure one person’s consciousness and interiority against another’s, so we load the term experience with whatever meanings we need it to bear for us. Thus Sharf’s critique of method is closely tied to his position on philosophy of mind.

Interpretation is no doubt a central part of our work in the humanities, but it is hard not to agree with Sharf that “scholars of religion are not presented with experiences that stand in need of interpretation but rather with texts, narratives, performances, and so forth,” which is why “it is ill conceived to construe the object of the study of religion to be the inner experience of religious practitioners.”[2] My job is to interpret, for example, the texts of the medieval Kabbalists, Julian of Norwich, and Bonaventure, which contain visionary accounts, not to try to interpret their experiences of such divine visions because I have no access to the latter (the experience), only to the former (the text about the experience). It is fruitful for me to examine the neoplatonic and Talmudic influences on the Zohar, or the blending of Franciscan and Dionysian themes in Bonaventure’s Itinerarium. It is pointless for me to ask, using the tools of RS scholarship, “What did the Kabbalists or Bonaventure in fact experience during an out of body union with God, the creator of the universe?” Attempts to answer that kind of question take us all too quickly into the domain of theology.

This is where Sharf’s implicit scientific materialism strikes me as odd and out of place. Sharf rebukes Felicitas Goodman for her agnosticism about the reality of extraordinary experiences such as spirit possession or divine visions, calling her agnosticism “a small step away from John Mack’s qualified acceptance of the existence of alien abductors.”[3] First of all, agnosticism in no way approximates qualified acceptance; agnosticism properly refrains from making a judgment, so it is precisely not acceptance. Goodman is simply arguing that “whether these changes [in the bodies of those who report spirit possession] are internally generated or created by external agencies is not something discoverable,” which sounds much like the position for which Sharf himself is arguing.[4] The object of religion scholarship is not inner experience, but rather the stories, myths, and practices about such experiences. To be faithful to his own prescription, Sharf would be obligated to remain agnostic about the veracity of alien abduction accounts, or at least would be obligated to refrain from the attempt (which would be futile, according to his own assertions about philosophy of mind) to establish or disprove their veracity through scholarship.

Joel and Lucas pick up on this tension, though there seems to be bit of confusion about which of the many camps within the religious studies discipline are allies on these issues. Joel and Lucas note that the interesting question for RS scholars is not “did this person really experience alien abduction, or touch the wounds of a bleeding Christ, or become demon-possessed” but rather “how do these discourses of experience function in their social context? What power do they wield? What institutions and values are being critiqued or reshaped by these discourses?”

Joel reads Sharf’s critical approach as one amenable to cognitive science assessments of religion and as at odds with critical theory, but on my reading, it is the reverse. Sharf’s position is much more amenable to analyzing religion according to power dynamics, values, and institutions than to cognitive science. Sharf’s own explanation of the rise of the term experience in Japanese and Chinese contexts as a response to western imperialism is a great example of exactly this kind of work. He looks not at whether Theravāda and Zen masters have in fact achieved enlightenment, but rather at the terms for enlightenment (satori or kenshō), the techniques used to achieve it (samatha versus vipassamā), and the authorities attempting to define authentic forms of it vis-à-vis Christian missionary activity. Whereas Sharf says the religion scholar ought simply to investigate and catalogue religious artifacts and leave well alone the inevitably ineffable domain of religious experience, cognitive science takes inner experience as its primary object of investigation. It seems to me that it has to presume from the get-go that inner experience is accessible to us, is quantifiable, and can be mapped according to neurological activity and blood flow to certain brain tissues. This is precisely the kind of work Sharf is most roundly rejecting, relying as it does not on literary and artistic representations but on the “numinous inner realm” to which those representations supposedly refer back.[5]


[1] Robert H. Sharf, “Experience,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 113.

[2] Ibid., 111.

[3] Ibid., 112.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 113.

Episode 3 Introduction: Marx’s “On the Jewish Question”

In this week’s episode we discuss Karl Marx’s “On the Jewish Question.” At the outset of this brief introduction I think it is important to note that there are a number of aspects to Marx’s piece that for reasons pertaining to time limits we were unable to cover. Among these aspects is the history and debate concerning “the Jewish Question” in German society up to the point of Marx’s writing. In the future I think it would be good for us to revisit this piece by Marx in relation to some secondary literature that focuses on the various aspects of the Jewish Question in Germany. In particular, engaging Bruce Rosenstock’s book Philosophy and the Jewish Question: Mendelsohn, Rosenzweig, and Beyond in tandem with this piece might help shed light on some particularities that characterised that debate.

Initial qualifications aside, I found our discussion of Marx to be helpful in synthesizing the range of theoretical issues we had been discussing in the previous two episodes pertaining to the concept “religion.” To recap (in very general terms), we first saw in our examination of Fitzgerald’s article how he seeks to deconstruct the concept of religion by showing how its construction has no referent in the world. What we call “religion” is really a protestant western imposition of categories upon a diverse array of power-relations, practices and institutions that are too broad to coincide with the limited contours of the concept. Basic questions about the history of the concept “religion” and the nature of “the concept” within a philosophical register began emerging for us and we decided to move from Fitzgerald a few steps back to examine some “classic” texts.

Feuerbach gave us a notion of religion as projection of human deficiency, a result of our limited understanding of the world that we may leave behind upon recognising its nature as such. The concept “religion” thus takes on a concrete form and function in Feuerbach’s analysis, is an autonomous determination that is capable of affecting negatively other aspects of the human life and thought and is something that is constructed, that has an origin and is not an apriori element of human being. Here we found ourselves, to a greater or lesser degree, dissatisfied with the way the Feuerbach positions the concept “religion” in a singularly causal relation to the rest of human life. How is it that religion serves as the problematic human construct that leads to misunderstandings and division in other arenas of human life? Why is is not that other determinations in thinking and social life affect the religious in a negative way too? Thus, we arrive at Marx.

Marx sets up our discussion of how religion figures into a larger problem of political and social alienation through his critical analysis of and response to Bruno Bauer’s work on the “Jewish Question.” At issue for Marx is the way in which civil society and political society are distinguished in relation to the question of how Jews are to become liberated from their current situation in Germany. For Bauer however, the state of alienation that characterizes the relation between Jews in Germany and the Christian state is the result of a purely religious difference, a “religious opposition.”

“How is religious opposition made impossible? By abolishing religion. As soon as Jew and Christian recognize that their respective religions are no more than different stages in the development of the human mind, different snake skins cast of by history, and that man is the snake who sloughed them, the relation of Jew and Christian is no longer religious but is only a critical, scientific, and human relation.”

Here Bauer makes a similar move that Marx locates in Feuerbach with regard to the relation between religion and societal ills. In the latter’s case, problems pertaining to division in society and religion are the result of conflicts between differing identities within a separate sphere of human being – the religious. As we discuss in the Feuerbach episode, the operational definition of the concept “religion” is a stop-gap measure that is meant to fill-in empty spaces in our understanding of the world – i.e. “Im not sure what stars are, they must be my ancestors or deities that control the universe.” Once we realise that religious understandings of the world are not only flawed in their various propositions, but are also simply the result of a lack of proper understanding, we are able to reject religion and pursue real knowledge.

Bauer’s assertion that the abolition of religion itself is the goal for which German society should strive demarcates the concept “religion” as a quasi-autonomous and deeply flawed sphere of being and thinking for human beings. As with Feuerbach, we see within Marx’s construal of Bauer a one-directional causal notion of religion: religion is able to affect negatively the other aspects of societal life, yet these other dimensions of society are unable to affect negatively the sphere of religion. So the sphere “religion” becomes the causal mechanism for alienation and division within society. A coincident result of Bauer’s construal of the concept “religion” is that “society” becomes an abstract concept insulated from value-critique. Religion is that which misunderstands, divides and contradicts rational thinking, society is the neutrally blank space in which rational individuals exist.

As Joel notes in our discussion, it is precisely this construction of religion in tandem with the rendering of society as a neutral space that Marx’s critique of the distinction between civil society and political society is meant to challenge. For Marx, emancipation means the collapsing of the distinction between a person’s abstract “citizen” life and the private workaday life that the individual lives – i.e. a person’s religious and social life. Bauer is only able to conceive emancipation as emancipation from religion, emancipation at the level of privatised identity of persons, as that singular determination which bears responsibility for the division between Jews in Germany and Christians. Marx challenges the causal ordering that Feuerbach and Bauer assign to the religion-society relation, illustrating that religious division is epiphenomenal to a much more basic division – the alienation of the social and political person itself.

Our discussion pivots from a summary discussion of Marx’s argument into questions pertaining to the operative concept of religion implicit in Marx’s argument. Here we debate the appropriateness of characterising Marx’s concept of religion – a concept that manifests only indirectly within Marx’s work itself – as another iteration of “projection.” I will leave it up to our listeners to decide whether that is an appropriate descriptor or not. For myself, I am of the view that while Marx correctly identifies the deficiencies of a causally one-directional model of projection vis-à-vis Feuerbach and Bauer, he is unable to conceive of the concept such that religion and non-religious aspects of human being function in a multi-directional feedback loop of causation. I take this latter sort of model as that which is operative within the work of social theorists such as Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and Horkheimer and Adorno and I think that the movement in these thinkers away from a one-directional model is an important move that our future episodes will certainly need to discuss.

Listen to Episode 3:

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The Essence of Religion: Critical Reduction in Thought Concerning Religion

Lucas and I recorded two episodes back to back over the holiday break and even got to sit in the same room to do it (my brother’s kitchen in Highland Park, CA). In the first of the two, we discuss Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Religion (1848). There are two points I want to highlight: a clarification and then an elaboration.

The clarification has to do with the first part of the episode when I say that Feuerbach is a “materialist.” Feuerbach plays a very important role in the transition between Hegelian idealism and various kinds of materialist philosophy, but he is not a “materialist” in the strict sense of Marxian [historical] materialism: a distinction important for the next episode which is about Marx’s “On the Jewish Question.” In short, even though Feuerbach “reduces” religion to “Nature”–i.e. that claims about and attributions given to a transcendent god are really naming attributes of Nature–Feuerbach’s primary point is that humans are making a mental error. In other words, if human beings thought about religious concepts differently–recognized them for what they actually are–everyone would be a lot better off. Marx, on the other, argues that no amount of change in ideas can bring about the world-historical change necessary for the liberation of the oppressed. The change has to come in the material circumstances in which humans are embedded; namely, the means of production used to meet needs. This is a really important difference for sussing out later developments in religious studies, particularly what scholars are getting at when they talk about solutions to some of the problems someone like Fitzgerald raises.

To explain this difference a little more, I’m going to begin with Marx’s critique. When Marx identifies the problem of the state in which German philosophy finds itself in The German Ideology, he sees two distinct groups, the Old Hegelians and the Young Hegelians (which were actual schools of philosophy following Hegel), who set up their response to Hegel as being in opposition to each other. For the Old Hegelians, everything in the world is comprehended if reduced to a logical category. In other words, if you’re asking, “Which is the best form of the state?” you have to begin by identifying the logical category of the state–the Hegelian “concept” of the state, or the “ideal” state. From there, you can generate hierarchies of the particular, positive instantiations of states found in the world. The Young Hegelians, on the other hand, considered concepts to be pure “religious dogma”–their actual phrasing. That is, the concept “state” doesn’t actually transcend humans–is constructed–therefore, to appeal to the concept in order to justify the existence of a particular state is dogmatic. Their solution was to stop thinking religiously about concepts and realize that concepts like “the state” are human constructs.

Marx thinks, however, that both sides are actually part of the same problem. In other words, the problem isn’t how you think about concepts–the problem is in thinking that ideas determine historical reality at all. For Marx, ideas are a consequence of material reality. Thus, a change in ideas nets no actual change in material circumstances.

Feuerbach is usually lumped in with the Young Hegelian school, and if we think about their position generally, we can see a kind of materialism at work. Concepts do not transcend human particularity–they come from it. It is in this narrow sense that Feuerbach can be considered a kind of materialist: he wanted us to stop thinking that our religious ideas transcend nature. It is in the fact that he puts the emphasis on how we think–our ideas and concepts regarding religion–that Marx does not think he goes far enough.

Now the elaboration. Toward the end of the episode I pose a thought experiment to Lucas that asks whether or not a purely physical account of himself (e.g. based on DNA, etc.) would seem to him as though it had accounted for the total of “who he is” as a person. The aim of the thought experiment is merely to try and point out the usefulness of choosing a place to begin an analysis, rather than demand that the place from which we begin be the reductive “starting point.” Indeed, I would argue that even though Feuerbach thinks that we always have to begin from the scientific explanation for phenomena, he is still choosing a point from which to begin in that account. What interests me most in the study of religion is the effects that religious “activity” (beliefs, action, institutions, etc.) have on the material world and vice versa. Religious explanations of the world have real consequences, I think, that are not confined to self-reflexion. That is, religious explanations of the world don’t only affect religious practice and other religious ideas–the have tangible effects on economy, politics, society, ethics, aesthetics, sexuality, etc. This is, I think, an uncontroversial point but one that Feuerbach clearly misses or is simply not interested in. Certainly later materialists who follow Feuerbach–Marx–think that religious explanations of the world have absolutely no material consequences whatsoever.

And still, we continue to see versions of this crop up in debates on religious studies methodology. For instance, this debate posted on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog contains some hints of this non-consequentialist view. The debate features two scholars of religion, one advocating for “methodological agnosticism” and the other for “methodological atheism.” The latter provides the following example to support his position:

[A] zoologist doesn’t ask an elephant what it’s like to be an elephant; she studies the elephant. A biologist doesn’t try to imagine the experience of a frog before cutting it open and trying to understand how it works. Religion can be studied analytically, etically, from the outside, as in other analytical disciplines. It can also be studied as a member, supporter, and practioner, honoring the experiences of one’s fellow members, and honoring the claims of authority within it. But that’s an entirely different discipline from the Study of Religion. It’s not about neutrality, but about disciplinary boundaries.

Notice the same reductive claim that Feuerbach makes–or any of the “classical” reductive scholars of religion (Marx, Freud, etc.) An either/or proposition is set up here, which I think is a false dichotomy. Either we study religion “from the outside,” never once caring what a religious person says “it’s like” to be religious, or else we are studying religion “confessionally” and with proper honor due the authority of the tradition. To put it in terms of my thought experiment, this view would ignore, or at least downplay, the ways in which the meaning attributed to religious activity by religious adherents themselves has actual effects on material circumstances.

To go this direction is not to “use God” as a means of explaining religious phenomena, which is something the proponent of methodological atheism worries about. I do worry about that as well, since he is precisely correct in recognizing that in other disciplines (e.g. biology) scholars, even Christian ones, do not invoke characteristically “religious” explanations in their scholarship. This is likely always true in the natural sciences. But would any scholar of literature even blink at someone using theology to give a reading of Dostoevsky? Again–not using Dostoevsky to explain an aspect of confessional theology, but the reverse. Religious, confessional ideas can be put in the service of religious studies as long as our aim is not confessional–explicitly or implicitly.

Listen to Episode 2:

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Welcome to The Seminar Room


“The Seminar Room” (TSR) is a religious studies podcast by and for students and scholars of religion that engages specific texts and concepts in religious studies theory and method, philosophy and critical theory. Our regular contributors are Joel Harrison (Northwestern), Lucas Scott Wright (UCSB) and Sean Capener (Toronto).

The format and title of the podcast are meant to reflect “the seminar room” in which grad students encounter and reflect upon texts in their respective graduate programs. Our goal is to provide an online seminar room in which contributors may debate texts and ideas in a way that opens up further discussion with our listeners.

Episodes are released every other week on Saturdays. In addition to our podcast recordings, this blog contains supplementary introductions to and reflections on the texts, and links to each text we discuss.

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