This introduction is going to be a bit shorter than the first three since we have a very special guest response to the episode coming later this week. Eva Kelley, good friend of ours and colleague of Lucas’s in UCSB’s Department of Religious Studies, will be offering her thoughts on the status of “experience” as a concept in religious studies. It’s going to be fantastic.
This week we discussed “Experience” by Robert Sharf which is a chapter from Critical Terms for Religious Studies (1998). There is really no good reason to choose this chapter over any of the others from the text except that it was the first I read from the collection after a professor from one of my first seminars at Northwestern gave it to me as a supplement she thought I might find interesting. I found it exasperating, and thus extremely interesting, and it’s an essay that has sort of stuck with me ever since.
I find it exasperating for reasons that I get into in the actual podcast, but there are elements I appreciate about the essay. The colonial history of the inherited terms in religious studies is seemingly inexhaustible, so I think it’s always worth digging into and telling. Though I don’t think Sharf is conscious of it in this essay, through his analysis of the colonial genealogy of “experience,” he touches on something that I’ve become increasingly interested in: the fault lines between indigenous uses of colonial power as resistance or as consolidation of different, non-colonial discourses of power and the imposition of categories as a means of colonial political taxonomy and control. Put another way, as I wonder in this episode, can we understand someone like D.T. Suzuki or Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan as colonizers of their own religious traditions? Sharf’s account of these two figures raises some important questions about how we mediate the boundaries between criticizing a colonial imposition and criticizing what is perhaps an internal change from within a tradition, even if it is employing “colonial” concepts for its own ends.
Lastly, Lucas and I have a slight disagreement toward the end of the episode over whether or not Sharf’s handling of epistemology is a problem related to assuming a kind of scientific naturalism or a logical problem. My position was the former (which I don’t think excludes logical problems necessarily), which is part of a larger problematic trend I see in critical religion. I don’t have any problem out of hand with natural scientific approaches to the study of religion if we’re talking about cognitive science or something like that. I see an actual logical distinction between what natural sciences does and what “historical sciences,” die Geisteswissenschaften, the humanities, do (a distinction that I will talk about in the next episode when we discuss Max Weber), so natural science people can go nuts. The problem I have is moving from a critique of colonial imposition to the conclusion that religious studies should, therefore, engage natural scientific approaches in the study of religion. The leap this conclusion makes is evident in the way in which the first part of Sharf’s chapter seems almost completely unrelated to the second part where he eludes to the reducibility of all phenomena to natural scientific explanations (by invoking Daniel Dennett.) At odds in this leap, on my reading, is a confusion of the fact/value distinction where certain “value-centered” approaches are employed while at the same time rejecting such approaches as meaningless, useless, or nefarious in favor of fact-based “science.” This is an argument that I’m still developing, so I’ll leave it there for now. It’s certainly going to come up again in future episodes!
Listen to Episode 4: