What’s Essential about Essentialism? On an Interreligious Studies Model for Religious Studies

Explainer: essentialism is defining the essence of something as a fixed and static thing, i.e. if you say: “The true nature of religion is peace,” or “Religions are inherently violent and the cause of conflict” you are making an essentialist claim about the nature of religion.

A while back I was talking with one of my colleagues at Winchester, Dr Anna King, and she noted a strange thing. This is that scholars of Religious Studies strive to avoid essentialism in their definitions and discussions of religion, while religious devotees in most traditions will tend to endorse quite a strong essentialist line to explain their own tradition. For a tradition that often sees empathy with the insider (“believer/devotee”) position as important this seems a bit of a mismatch. I would like to spend a bit of time musing over this question with you.

For anyone who has ever done an introductory “World Religions/ Approaches to the Study of Religion” type class or module with me, or most of my colleagues (and I assume pretty much anyone anywhere in the Religious Studies community) you’ll have your normal perceptions about what “religion” is called into question. Amongst these will be the idea that any specific religious tradition is such-and-such-a-thing. That is to say, rather than asking what, for example, “Islam” is in and of itself, you’ll be expected to think that “Islam” is the set of behaviours, attitudes, opinions, etc. that belong to Muslims. (1)

Let’s take an example. Today, many Christians will tell you that the missionary imperative is the heart of Christianity: to be a Christian is to be a missionary, to spread the word and love of God. Indeed, there is all sorts of stuff in Christian history that will support such a viewpoint: from its spread across Europe, Africa, and Asia in its early centuries, to the missionary efforts that supported the colonial enterprise of Europeans from around the sixteenth century, perhaps peaking in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Further, people will point to scriptural evidence like the so-called Great Commission in Matt 28: 19 (Traditionally: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (KJV/AV). However, this would ignore the fact that for many centuries little or no missionary impetus existed in the Christian tradition: for instance, once medieval Europe had become primarily converted to Christianity it existed as a fairly static Christendom without much missionary endeavour; indeed, even during times of missionary excitement and endeavour many have not undertaken such work or seen it part of their calling; while some may suggest that Matt 28:19 spoke to a particular group or time and isn’t universally valid; and so on.(2) Now one response that might come out is that those in the second group don’t properly represent Christians or Christianity, but this makes an essentialist, in this case a theological, claim. It is not one which belongs to Religious Studies.

What this means, I would suggest, is that we most always see an inevitable gap between the judgement of scholars and the opinions of devotees/ believers in most traditions at most times. Theologians may therefore claim that they are better able to understand religions than Religious Studies scholars – indeed, not just “may”, some do say this.(3) However, we reach a bit of an impasse here because suppose two theologians in different religions (we will suppose for the moment that every tradition has theologians and that “theology” is a useful term for speaking about the way different religious traditions speak about themselves which is far from clear, but this is just primarily for didactic purposes) disagree: the Jewish theologian says: “G#d has revealed the final revelation to humanity in the Torah and it resides with the Jewish people;” while the Hindu theologian says: “The ultimate divine revelation is that found in the Vedas and made known through Lord Krishna.” When each comes to the Other their understanding of them will be filtered through their own essentialist lens. So the Hindu theologian thinks, well whatever this Jewish guy says about the Torah I know that it is, at best, just a pale imitation of whatever is in the Vedas. Of course, it’s not just a problem between religions, even within them, so one Christian theologian may claim that all Christians must be missionaries is some form, another says this isn’t necessary. Clearly, such essentialism will only help us get a perspective of one tradition and its attitude towards the Others. Presumably then, if we wish to understand religious Others we need to approach from the Religious Studies angle if we are to avoid this which means disavowing essentialism. This, of course, is not to dismiss the validating of making essentialist claims from a more theological perspective as a “belief” statement within a tradition; if a Sokka Gakai Buddhist wants to claim that the true meaning of the Buddha’s teaching are summed up in the Lotus Sutra that is perfectly explicable within the meaning of their own tradition. A Religious Studies scholar, however, would want to show how their essentialist claim is not in accord with those in other parts of their tradition, how it arose in historical, social, political, and gendered perspective, etc.

Returning to Religious Studies then, essentialism, it may be suggested, will get in the way of trying to understand the religious Other; yet we are still left with the issue that for those within the tradition those essentialist claims about their own tradition are normative and significant. Now, one way forward is to go into the whole Insider/Outsider debate which I won’t do here (but again all of you who have been through your basic Religious Studies training will know the score on this).(4) Another way, however, is to ask what place essentialism might have within a legitimate Religious Studies (and here read broader Cultural Studies, sociological, humanities, critical theory) approach. Immediately suggesting this is going to raise the hackles of many and get me carted off for heresy for suggesting such a thing: essentialism is bad we know that, there must be no essentialism! (Although this immediately ties us up in the old post-modern bind: the only way to utterly repudiate essentialism (insert: grand narratives, etc.) is by the equally essentialist stance of saying that ALL essentialism is wrong, which is of itself essentialist – defining the essence of essentialism).(5) While my would-be inquisitors scratch their befuddled brains and seek to deconstruct the problem, let us use the space to think about essentialism.

One reason why much post-modern/ critical scholarship has been lambasted by critics, despite finding much alliance in the way it deconstructs political and social narratives of hegemonic powers, is that it seems powerless to construct a new narrative. Feminist critics, for instance, while employing the anti-essentialist/ deconstructive tools which have shown us how patriarchy and gender is constructed and maintained as an ideology want to keep some essentialism: oppression and violence against women is bad. Period. Equally, post-colonial critics want to go further than deconstructive and critical methods allow – unless you empower those once oppressed, and name the problem (which involves essentialism: once again, oppression is bad, etc.) then you get nowhere.(6)

If we believe in justice, freedom, and liberty then we are essentialist to some degree. Of course, we can argue about what exactly such terms mean and how they have been used (justice of course has been used to oppress and condemn those the ruling powers disagree if), but to stop and endlessly avoid any essential statement about what kind of justice or freedom we want and how to get it means we are powerless to act. (7)

Now, what has this got to do with Religious Studies? One answer is nothing. Some will contend that as an academic discipline it simply analyses what is out there without prejudice, keeping to a neutral distance, or rather these days a reflexive awareness of the practitioner’s own embeddedness in various discourses and beliefs.(8) However, it is not the only answer, and recently often trading under the name Interreligious Studies some scholars from disciplines like sociology, history, Religious Studies, theology, and elsewhere have argued that we should not simply sit with clear lines between “academics” and “practitioners/ activists” but realise that such walls are all part of the way we create and name what we do.(9) Indeed, it can even suggest that in the name of justice, liberty, freedom, academic integrity of other such concepts that scholarship should have not simply a “passive” voice, but an “active” one too. This of course is not to say that it becomes the role of the scholar in the classroom to tell students what they should believe or think, but to give them the critical tools and raise the questions which will allow this. Of course, we can all maintain our own definitions of things like justice, freedom, liberty, goodness, evil, and so on, but I would argue that such essential categories need to be part and parcel of academic thinking, teaching, and discussion. I should note that I am not saying that scholars, in Religious Studies, or elsewhere have ever neglected these things or been unaware of them, of course many scholars have been active political activists and have had their own beliefs and agendas. Rather, we are at a point where the rethinking of essentialist categories in academic studies should be more clearly on the agenda. Hopefully my would-be inquisitors will agree.

(1) For a discussion on the kind of debates about whether religion exists see Timothy Fitzgerald, 2000, The Ideology of Religious Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, or Paul Hedges, 2014, “Discourse on Discourses: Why we still need the Terminology of ‘Religion’ and ‘Religions’”, Journal of Religious History, 38:1, pp. 132-48. For a wider discussion about methods in the study of religion, see Anna King and Paul Hedges, 2014, “Is the Study of Religion Religious? How to Study Religion, and Who Studies Religion?”, in Paul Hedges (ed.), Controversies in Contemporary Religion, vol. I, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, pp. 31-56.
(2) For discussion around the place of mission in the Christian tradition, see Dana L. Robert, 2009, Christian Mission: How Christianity became a World Religion, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, or Paul Hedges, 2010, Controversies in Interreligious Dialogue and the Theology of Religions, London: SCM, pp. 102-8.
(3) See Gavin D’Costa, 2009, Christianity and World Religions: disputed Questions in the Theology of Religions, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 91: “Only from this [Christian] theological narrative can other religions be truly understood, simply because Christianity is true.” This quote takes place in a context where D’Costa is contesting whether secular/ Religious Studies approaches can actually understand religion, and arguing that they have falsely construed them (see especially, pp. 74-87, 91-101).
(4) On the Insider/Outsider debate see King and Hedges, 2014.
(5) For a brief definition of “post-modern(ism)”, see Hedges, 2010, pp. 165-7, which will reference a wider range of texts to follow up here. The notion of grand narratives, of course, relates to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s seminal work in this area.
(6) For a discussion on feminist and post-colonial responses to post-modernism and critical theory more generally see, Chris Weedon, “Feminist Theory and Criticism: 5. 1990 and After,”in Michael Groden, Martin Kreiswirth, and Imre Szeman (eds), The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, The John Hopkins University Press, available at: http://litguide.press.jhu.edu/contributors.html, last accessed 14th August 2014.
(7) A somewhat related link about contemporary philosophies and critical theory not being able to act (or a critique of Kant and traditional philosophy – depending on how you read it), see http://existentialcomics.com/comic/23, last accessed 14th August 2014.
(8) See King and Hedges, 2014, and Gavin Flood, 1999, Beyond Phenomenology: Rethinking the Study of Religion, London and New York: Cassell, pp. 35-8.
(9) On Interreligious Studies, see Oddbjørn Leirvik, 2014, Interreligious Studies: A Relational approach to Religious Activism and the Study of Religion, London and New York: Bloomsbury, Oddbjørn Leirvik, “Interreligious Studies: a Relational Approach to the Study of Religion,” Journal of Interreligious Studies, 13, available at: http://irdialogue.org/journal/interreligious-studies-a-relational-approach-to-the-study-of-religion-by-oddbjorn-leirvik/, last accessed 14th August 2014, Paul Hedges, 2013, “Interreligious Studies”, in Anne Runehov and Lluis Oviedo (eds), Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions, New York, NY: Springer, pp. 1176-80, and Paul Hedges, 2014, “Editorial: Introducing Interreligious Studies”, The Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, 27.2, and Paul Hedges, “Interreligious Studies: A New Direction in the Study of Religion?”, Bulletin of the British Association for the Study of Religions, November 2014.

Note: I have posted an identical version of this blog on the Winchester TRS/TRP weblog site, which can be found here: trswinchester.wordpress.com.

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