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  • Seven Ways of Looking at Religion: The Major Narratives by Benjamin Schewel
  • Benjamin P. Davis
Seven Ways of Looking at Religion: The Major Narratives by Benjamin Schewel New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. Pp. 248. Hardback $40.00, ISBN 9780300218473.

"[I]t is not yet clear," Benjamin Schewel contends, "what kind of narrative we should be telling" (2).

"[T]he contemporary academic discourse on religion," he argues, "is severely hindered by our lack of a broader, synthetic narrative paradigm" (9). Filling our lack in this unclear context, Schewel advances a narrative-based approach to religion that encompasses the basic claims, logic, and utilization of each "way." For Schewel, the kind of "way" we should be looking at religion, if not clear, emerges as translucent: plurality, practice, process, and progress characterize a research program that describes and develops a global religious movement. Thus "religion," as a concept grounded normatively, could contribute toward the transformation—indeed, given Schewel's normative emphasis, the improvement—of the world. As a hermeneutical device, Schewel's concept of "narratives" is helpful, but his arc toward progress is not unproblematic. The result is a text both ambitious and insightful, one that leaves the reader wondering whether the "way" Schewel indicates is the one we want to follow. [End Page 187]

The [1] "subtraction narrative" argues that religion is a coping mechanism to deal with passivity, powerlessness, and ignorance. As humans become more dynamic, powerful, and knowledgeable, then, religion should decline. The [2] "renewal narrative" attributes modern problems to the diminishment of a tradition and, further, argues that said problems can only be solved by re- engaging with that tradition. To each renewal narrative (MacIntyre, Heidegger, Iqbal), Schewel issues a pluralistic challenge: "[T]he simple fact that we can identify multiple dynamics that are worthy of renewal undermines the logic of most renewal narratives" (55). Indeed, for Schewel it is more reasonable to look forward to new religious movements than it is to harken back to a single tradition.

The [3] "transsecular narrative" moves beyond the dichotomy of the subtraction and renewal narratives, namely, an inverse relationship between modernity and religion. Less interested in a "decline" of religion, this narrative focuses on its transformation. The forces of modernity are thus seen "as part of a broader process of religious change" (56, emphasis mine). The [4] "postnaturalist narrative" is a kind of subvariant of the transsecular narrative: within the specific domain of modern natural science, it describes how modernization transformed religion. Here Schewel makes the case for a "veritable research program," developed both in the academy and with "diverse religious communities," that would advance religion as contributing to "processes of individual development and social change" (100). The [5] "construct narrative" describes a distinctive, generalized concept of religion as it arose in the modern period. Such a description shows that "religion in general" is "an illusion, a discovery, a political project, or some mix of all three" (102). It is in this context that Schewel argues in favor of a normative turn: because religion "is an irreducibly normative phenomenon," its deployment as a term should not pretend to be simply descriptive (119). Instead, "a vision of religious normativity … could be used to ground a more robust general conception of religion" with a view toward "the betterment of the world" (121).

The [6] perennial narrative claims that all religions share common characteristics and focuses on recurrences of religious phenomena. In this context, Schewel conceptualizes "transcendence" as both surpassing and interacting with human beings. With respect to the latter, he prescribes [End Page 188] "more grounded explorations of how individuals, communities, and institutions can draw upon the powers of religion to stimulate constructive processes of transformation" (141). The [7] "developmental narrative"—whether in progressive, teleological, or more neutral variants—argues that religious history features growth and improvement. Here Schewel places himself alongside Hegel in advancing "that religion best contributes to the advancement of modern societies by remolding the cultural and intellectual systems upon which these societies depend, as opposed to either pursuing partisan political activity or reasserting orthodox convictions in public discourse" (151). Schewel then ends his chapter in favor of a developmental narrative: "[E]mbracing even a moderately 'progressive...


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