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Reviewed by:
  • The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies ed. by Robert A. Orsi
  • Kathryn Lofton
The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies. Edited by Robert A. Orsi. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 442 pp. $29.99.

Not since Mark Taylor’s Critical Terms for Religious Studies (1998) has the study of religion had such a representative intellectual gathering and importantly critical representation of the field. The overall sense of the volume is one of intense rebuilding, including essays that recuperate such vexatious concepts like sympathy, experience, and tradition for contemporary analytical application. Editor Robert A. Orsi encouraged among his authors a diagnosis of “the dynamic and contingent encounters out of which came both our certainties and the resources with which to challenge them.” (3) Model contributions in this vein include Talal Asad’s extraordinary critique of the role liberal democracies play in the formation of religious belief; Anne Blackburn’s careful reconstitution of textual analysis in the wake of postcolonial self-criticism; and Martin Kavka’s provocative diagnosis of usable essentialisms within customary acts of scholarly translation. Each of the contributors tracks a particular problem in religious studies, and [End Page 76] exhumes the illogical presuppositions that inform the naming of such subjects as problems. How did we come to be so worried about the interpretive possibilities of texts? What do we do when we claim to translate between two differing vantages, or from one language into another? There is something remarkably soothing in these papers, as they quell kneejerk methodological anxieties with steady logic and illustrative case work. This is how a volume such as this one feels to be one of rebuilding the field, as every scholar who contributed takes up some brick tossed aside in the last thirty years of deconstructing worry in an effort to repurpose them for ongoing use. Several essays pursue more topical objects – like Buddhism and violence, or sex and religion, or globalization and Pentecostalism – but even those essays connect their particular to broader hermeneutical challenges. When Bernard Faure, for example, uses canonical Buddhist materials to traverse the fraught relationship between religious violence and religious nonviolence, he offers a model example of the way to reckon with seeming contradiction between scriptural ideation and social practice.

If there is any strand of interpretive consistency in this volume, it is a desire to rediscover the relationship between normative and descriptive work. This is a collection in which German theologian Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) is discussed with greater frequency than American anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926–2006). Surely such a focus portends a sea-change in religious studies. Indicative of this impulse are two essays by Thomas A. Lewis and Christine Helmer, which each conceive again the default dichotomies established between descriptive and normative work, between religious studies and theology. “What is needed to correct the prejudices embedded in this story of the modern Western antithesis between reason and religion,” Helmer explains, “is a revisionist account of the trinity of reason, religion, and theology as reciprocally related and mutually enriching” (234). Although the entire volume could be usefully deployed as the syllabus for a graduate seminar in the study of religion, those two essays in particular ought to be read, and debated, in pedagogical and professional locations that define the interdisciplinary study of religion this book marvelously profiles. [End Page 77]

Kathryn Lofton
Yale University


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