In the nineteenth century the new disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities were ‘emancipated’ from Christian theology. To an important extent these new forms of inquiry were connected to the rise of modern, industrial society and the nation-form. They were secular in nature—that is, they were part of a secularization of the mind and a de-clericalization of science and scholarship. The most important aspect of this transformation was, obviously, the study of religion itself. This is perhaps clearest in the development of a “science of religion,” an attempt to create a scientific study of religion without Christian theological suppositions. Its claim to scientific truth was based mainly on comparative linguistics and evolutionary theory. Religion was no longer left to Christian theologians but was now the province of anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and “scientists of religion.”
Posts Tagged ‘social science’
Striking changes are afoot in the way intellectuals address Christianity. Long seen as a largely Western tradition steadily losing its cultural influence in the West, Christianity has recently been re-installed at the center of debates that concern academic specialists and public intellectuals alike. In the last few years, it has suddenly become possible, maybe even fashionable, to ask whether Christianity might be a leading force of change in the contemporary world. Even more surprisingly, scholars who self-consciously stand outside what they think of as religious circles now find themselves promoting episodes in Christian history as key models for the way important social changes ought to occur.
The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation is currently fielding applications for the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship.
David Buckley’s recent post in Notes from the field raises a crucial methodological question. On what basis is comparative work to be done if the methods of comparison developed by the culture of reference (the analyst’s culture) are seen to be so deeply embedded in the ethos—that is, in many cases, a worldview with a clearly identifiable history of religion and secularization—of the culture of reference that these “methods of comparison” obviously fall under the umbrella of what is to be analyzed from the start, and hence to be differentiated from or likened to some other culture or cultures? If my perspective on what rational comparison amounts to cannot be shared by those in the situations I am comparing, then what does it mean to compare anything in such a context, since the “frame” I construct for the comparison could itself always already be just “my” frame, and hence something that would in turn require a larger “frame” (but whence would it come?) to be properly understood?
Scholars of religion (like, it seems, scholars of nearly everything animate and inanimate) have yet to decide if the world is full of repeated patterns awaiting discernment or replete with indiscriminate idiosyncrasy. Scholarship on this problem—the problem of comparison, of classification, of the role of the human sciences in their description—fills many an obscure treatise, treatises which rarely find their way to your local Barnes & Noble. And yet, there it is, and here it is, repeated in these posts about Courtney Bender’s new book, and repeated by her most incessantly idiosyncratic characters, her New Metaphysicals. Is the world as plural as every individual proposes (for themselves, to their observing scholar)? Or is the world as redundant as the survey answers format us to suggest? Which will it be: the sociology of well-considered wholes or the beloved humanity of our self-nominated smatterings?
“Shoveling fog” is Courtney Bender’s acute phrase for the work of “studying spirituality,” an amorphous term that has suffered much scorn and derision at the hands of both scholars and skeptics, nonplussed as they are by its conceptual vagueness and lack of clear social boundaries. While The New Metaphysicals does not tidy up the concepts or borders of spirituality, it goes a long way toward providing a new way of seeing its contours in the twenty-first-century United States, by zooming in on the present and past of metaphysical adepts in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Carefully attending to a network of metaphysical practices, which include past life regression, yoga, Reiki, out-of-body experiences, and a “mystical discussion group,” Bender finds that though these practices have a long and storied past in the salons, woods, and lecture halls of Cambridge, their contemporary practitioners are not really that interested in claiming, or even knowing about, such lineages.
Even the most open-minded social scientists—those who are up for studying almost any social group or activity—tend to find the kind of spiritual practitioners at the heart of Bender’s book hard to take. These practitioners, whom Bender refers to as “metaphysicals,” are given to individualistic self-understandings that run directly counter to how most social scientists think the world works, and their apparently free spirited way of hopping between institutions and borrowing liberally from all manner of religious and philosophical traditions makes it look as if they almost live the kinds of intensely self-focused and self-created lives that they proclaim they do.
The portraits social scientists create get appropriated by their subjects, used, and fed back to social scientists. Like a Cherokee Indian wearing a headdress to fulfill tourists’ stereotypes, respondents can make etic meanings emic when these meanings fit their purposes. This is precisely the “entanglement” that Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals masterfully addresses. Few books so adroitly and so fruitfully work through the interplay of emic and etic, not merely as a methodological obstacle, but as a substantive issue. Bender’s study of the social structure of American mysticism reveals a sort of collusion between academics and metaphysicals to occlude the fact that mysticism has a social structure and a history, and that it has been and still is an important part of the American religious experience.
At PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly site, George R. Lucas Jr wonders whether David Petraeus might “ramp up” efforts in Afghanistan to “enlist the aid of anthropologists and other academic social scientists to advise on ethics and local cultural practices,” as he did in Iraq. Meanwhile, Susan Jacoby, in her Washington Post blog, doubts the degree to which this change in American military leadership will yield meaningful, long-lasting cultural effects. She writes: “Regardless of who is in charge of U.S. forces in that country, the inside story remains the same: this is a society dominated by a toxic mixture of tribal thuggery and radical Islam, both of them based on repression of women.”
Several decades ago, well before there had been any concerted effort among historians and sociologists of religion to trash the standard model of the “secularization thesis,” Jürgen Habermas famously pronounced modernity an “unfinished project,” and then proceeded to outline both the conditions needed to complete the project and the barriers that the twentieth century had thrown up in its way. This is obviously not the place to rehearse Habermas’s ideas, especially since so many others have done it well. . . . But, for the present purposes, I think we can usefully boil the conditions down to two.