Aesthetics and Analysis in Writing on Religion
Publication Year: 2003
Published by: University of California Press
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Title Page, Copyright
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...Certainly, this book would not have taken the shape that it has if I hadn’t spent the 1996–97 academic year at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities. The seminar that year—its topic was “disciplines”—helped me understand my project in a larger context, see the book as a whole, and begin writing. Mieke Bal, whose work spans religious studies as well as much else in the humanities, was generous...
Introduction: Modern Dilemmas in Writing on Religion
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...Notoriously diverse in the truths they profess and the methods they use to arrive at them, most religion scholars nevertheless seem to share a fascination with the human depth of the material they study. This makes the aesthetics of writing on religion more central to the institutional coherence of their field than many of them realize. For a number of the most influential writers on religion have consistently...
PART ONE: Ambivalent Feelings
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...their subject are extremely diverse but rarely simple. The nature of their professional work seems to dictate some ambivalence. Certainly, if the stuff of religious traditions—creation myths, liturgical display, mystical journeys—did not somehow fascinate scholars, they would not study it; but without some degree of detachment in their studies, most would not also be drawn to the academy. The gamut...
1. Fascinated Scientists and Empathizing Theologians
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...The different ambivalences toward their subject found in present-day writers on religion derive in part from their field’s imperfect fusion of two historically distinct intellectual traditions. One of these is dominant in the social-scientific end of the field. It looks back to Enlightenment rationalism and maintains a spirit of scientific discovery triumphant in the late nineteenth century.1 The other, more...
2. Finding Middle Grounds
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...In balancing analysis with engagement and detachment with empathy, interpretive writers have found distinct stances within the middle grounds of religious studies—that expansive scholarly space where head and heart come to terms with one another about the subject of religion. Scholars’ own, not always positive, personal experiences of religion (in more and less conventional varieties) have coalesced...
PART TWO: The Art of Writing on Religion
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...it seems to me, is determined by the two faces of the field seen in part 1—the appreciative and the analytical. For the art found in the most successful historians of religion plays on the tension between a romantic evocation of the human imagination and a rationally enlightened, scientifically true, analysis. Although that tension can produce engaging writing in any number...
3. A Creative Process
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...What does it mean to say that interpretive writing on religion is an art? All that is entailed in the creation and appreciation of works of art has been the subject of long philosophical discussion, so thinking about the aesthetics of interpretive writing could easily lead us into extensive ruminations on classical mimesis, romantic expressionism, and contemporary speculation about the role of institutions in the creative process. We will not, however, let ourselves be so led...
4. Other Scholars’ UFOs
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...Bringing evocative materials together in rationally cogent ways, interpretive writers try to make arguments that are both emotionally and intellectually compelling. Their arguments must stand, however, in a world of diverse cultural and religious sensibilities and, more crucial for our discussion here, of increasingly fragmented intellectual life. The UFOs with which interpretive writers begin—intuitions...
5. The Religiohistorical Sublime
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...The excitement elicited by interpretive writers in their readers is, it seems to me, of a distinctive aesthetic genre, generated largely by a characteristic dynamic between the intellectual structures and imaginative resonances of individual works. Yet the failure of Eliade’s intellectually static extended oeuvre to maintain that excitement over time also suggests that individual works do not exercise their appeal through...
PART THREE: Two Truths
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...everyday no-nonsense minds. But the dialectic of the sublime occurs only when the implications of that proposition play out within imaginative worlds that are never quite fully determined. Successful interpretive writing on religion thus inevitably presents its readers with, first, explicit statements about traditions that we can discuss with colleagues, expand, and refine; and, second, insights...
6. Relating Stories about Religious Traditions
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...To explore the scientific truths of interpretive writing, I will draw on a set of primary metaphors that differ from those used in the last section on the aesthetics of the writing per se. The language of vision used there will now yield to one of story. Instead of describing how writers “see depth” in their materials and express it in created objects, I will examine the ways in which they try to convince...
7. Aesthetic Objects and Objective Knowledge
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...The dilemmas presented to writers on religion by questions of truth, validity, and objectivity can sometimes seem extreme. Dealing with diverse religious and scholarly worlds, interpretive writers may find it hard to escape the conclusion that specific religious beliefs are in an important sense relative. Seeing those beliefs in their respective contexts, moreover, interpreters may also be all too aware of the...
PART FOUR: Working Together
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...whose feelings about religion are individually ambivalent—develop pronounced personal perspectives of their own. Thus arises a characteristic dilemma of public and private in the study of religion. Aesthetic depth in writing on religion comes from finding a focus for broad personal perspectives, and although that focus typically finds public articulation as a clear, if guarded, statement, the private perspective from which it derives may be unified in less than...
8. Interpreting Anew and Alone: Vision and Succession in Dutch Phenomenology
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...to be interpretive. But highlighting the phenomena of religion can also lead scholars in another direction, toward abstractions about the materials of traditions, toward identifying basic types of phenomena. In this sense, phenomenology is an inherently interpretive exercise: Eliade’s work is sometimes characterized as a phenomenology, even though he did not normally refer to it as such himself. The writer...
9. Explaining Together: The Excitement of Diffusionist Ideas
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...Emerging in a fragmented discipline that fosters individual insights, group projects in religious studies have been much more the exception than the rule. Usually small-scale and short-lived, they depend on some potent combination of institutional circumstances, personal styles, and unifying ideas. As bases for public knowledge, central ideas in group projects tend to be presented in an explanatory...
10. Interpreting Together: The Cambridge Ritualists’ Affair of the Intellect
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...From the long-standing extended academic networks of a Germanspeaking religious order, we turn to some affectionate intellectual enthusiasms that blossomed for a time in Cambridge, England, before the First World War. For somewhat more than ten years, Jane Harrison, Gilbert Murray, and Francis Cornford—known as the Cambridge Ritualists— interacted creatively with one...
11. Concepts of Collectivity and the Fabric of Religiohistorical Knowledge
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...If, as in other humanistic fields, long-lived collaborative projects are rare in religious studies, small-scale collaborative volumes often seem all too common. Many of these begin with a core of like-minded intellectual friends—working together, perhaps, in ways recalling the intellectual (although not usually the emotional) dynamics among the Cambridge Ritualists. Others derive from the interaction...
Afterword: The Future of Modern Dilemmas
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...The individual insights crucial to public knowledge in history of religions have undergone some shifts in course at the beginning of the twenty-first century, impelled by some brisk theoretical currents of the 1980s and 1990s: postcolonial studies, literary poststructuralism, postmodern thinking on and within religion. Although those currents do not play on the surface of my discussions, they have...
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Page Count: 314
Publication Year: 2003