Religious Negotiations at the Boundaries
Postmodern critiques of so-called essentialism are by now numbingly familiar to many humanities scholars. We have been schooled in the costs inherent in speaking of cultures, nations, ethnicities, ideas, or philosophical tendencies as if they were fixed, unchanging, hermetically sealed, self-generated entities. Yet scholars of religion still lack satisfying alternative ways of speaking about the things (if they are “things”) formerly imagined as the stable “isms” populating curricula and textbooks on the religions of the world. Meanwhile, postmodern-style analysis has focused almost exclusively on the “sins” of modern Western discourse without often pausing to ask whether other cultures “sin” similarly or not. If religions are not “essences,” then what are they, or how ought we to characterize them? How have people in other times and places, operating in different language families—or even through other modes such as ritual action or visual representation— performed what we in modern English call “religions” and, more especially, the interaction of multiple religions? How, in other words, have they negotiated perceived religious difference?
With this project we want to do two things simultaneously. First, we seek to analyze and better understand the ways in which religious studies as a loosely organized discipline has constructed its objects—specifically the plural “religions” of history and their mutual interactions. We are particularly interested in dynamic processes of interaction across religious boundaries. We want to explore new ways of imagining and speaking that will generate new research paradigms. This first agendum of our project, then, focusing on how religion is studied, is both critical and constructive. Secondly, however, we are not content simply to analyze Western constructions of “religions” and interreligious interactions without also investigating the shape of indigenous ways of imagining and performing those very phenomena. We feel that philologically and ethnographically informed inquiry into how people in various places and times have ideationally and metaphorically construed matters analogous to (which is emphatically not to say “the same as”!) what the modern West has labeled religious difference will open up new directions for research. Through what sorts of metaphors, cultural processes, and expressive media have people in earlier times imagined the sorts of phenomena Western discourses have labeled “religions” and their interactions—if they have done so at all? And how, in recent times, have modern Western constructions been taken up, used, and modified in non-Western societies, and to what effects? We wish to study ways in which people have continually invented and reinvented what we are provisionally here calling their religious traditions and, more especially, how they have constructed and reconstructed, metaphorically imagined and reimagined, and thereby negotiated perceived religious difference, however they have characterized what we thereby name.