Jonathan Z. Smith on Religion
- ISBN: 9780429020292
- Published By: Routledge
- Published: December 2020
The late Jonathan Z. Smith, whose towering legacy continues to loom large in religious studies, needs no introduction among scholars and students of religion. This makes Christopher I. Lehrich’s task of introducing him to us all the more difficult. For, if we already know Smith, what more can there be to learn? In Jonathan Z. Smith on Religion, Lehrich “redescribes” (to use a Smithian term) the late historian of religion to his audience with fresh readings of Smith’s well-known and oft-cited corpus. In so doing, we learn that the Smith we “know” is perhaps one of our imagining. In fact, the real Smith, evident from his scholarly output, is even more fascinating than the myth we have invented.
As part of the Routledge Key Thinkers in the Study of Religion series, Lehrich’s text introduces Smith’s work through methods and terms which preoccupied the late scholar during his career. Lehrich surveys Smith’s technical terms of classification, definition, and difference. He also examines Smith’s comparative method and his predecessors in the field, Sir James George Frazer and Mircea Eliade. Additionally, Lehrich frames Smith as a dissatisfied critic of the field during the height of his career (roughly 1980-2000), during which time he frequently cautioned against the increasing “localization” or “Balkanization” of the field—now firmly entrenched in religious studies departments throughout North America (151).
After a short first chapter of biography containing helpful and explanatory remarks about Smith and his background, Lehrich begins the bulk of the work in chapter 2, with a technical introduction to classification and taxonomy. In this sprawling chapter, Lehrich puts Smith directly in counterpoint with his intellectual influences in the biological field of taxonomy. This section is both tedious and informative, given that most students and scholars of religion have little familiarity with—nor do they share Smith’s fascination of—the technical aspects of phenetics, cladistics, polythetic taxonomy, and the like. Therefore, Lehrich’s redescription of Smith’s preoccupation with definition, classification, and polythetic taxonomy clarifies important aspects of Smith’s methodological framework. This is particularly important for understanding how Smith confounded the notion of a sine qua non, or essential quality, for religion and religions.
Lehrich’s chapter on comparison, Smith’s primary method of inquiry, sets out to complete a difficult, two-pronged task in both outlining Smith’s criticism of past use(s) of the comparative method as well as presenting Smith’s use of comparison in practice. Perhaps the weakest chapter of the book, I am left wondering a) if Smith executed this method as well as he advocated its use, or b) if Lehrich comes up short in “redescribing” or “translating” Smith’s comparative method to us. For an introductory text, less dense examples of comparison from Smith’s work would be helpful in understanding his method.
Chapter 4 focuses on Smith’s critical engagement with Frazer and Eliade, “founding fathers” in religious studies. Lehrich first surveys Smith’s unpublished dissertation, “The Glory, Jest and Riddle: James George Frazer and The Golden Bough” (1969). This is an interesting choice, given this volume’s introductory nature and the fact that this unpublished dissertation falls outside the commonly read canon of Smith’s work. Smith asserts that Frazer both misread his sources and further had no actual method. Thus, “He offers no answer to the question, how shall we compare?” (81). The chapter continues by tracing Smith’s work vis-à-vis Eliade chronologically. Lehrich shows us a more nuanced reading of Eliade than the “received Smith” is known to have; in fact, Lehrich suggests, we are the ones who have imagined Eliade and Smith as diametric opposites. In reality, Lehrich argues, Smith was much more sympathetic to Eliade’s focus on generality and comparison while still critical of Eliade’s ahistorical method and crypto-theological output.
Chapter 5 deals with Smith’s outspoken criticism of the field which, Lehrich explains, has been both widely celebrated and severely misunderstood. Smith’s most direct criticism is reserved for scholars’ movement away from religious studies as an enterprise, the abandonment of any search for a uniting method or paradigm for the field, and the subsequent “localization” of scholars into (seemingly) distinct and disparate area studies corners (114). Smith criticized this isolating migration because it prevented any further development of understanding religion or religions broadly construed. Instead, each area has become fascinated with their data qua data.
Chapter 6 focuses on “incongruity” and “difference,” tracing the use of these terms throughout Smith’s career to understand what he might mean by them. What emerges is a picture of a scholar who, exceptionally well read in both breadth and depth, used disparate data in his comparative method to critically examine accepted assumptions and categories (e.g. religion, religions, ritual, myth), thus showing that the politics and discursive practices of the status quo have damaged the scholarly enterprise. This picture, (re)constructed for us by Lehrich, reminds us how important it is to critically engage with Smith’s corpus as a whole, rather than cherry picking our way through his oeuvre on the lookout for delightful bits which beef up our argument at an opportune time.
The reader of this volume will come away well-acquainted with Smith, through both his oft-read and rarely considered works. For this Lehrich deserves significant credit. The arduous task of distilling as wide-ranging and idiosyncratic a scholar as Smith while preserving the nuance, thrust, and chronological development of his thought and argument has been accomplished in this introductory text. By exploring Smith’s “paradoxical status as both enfant terrible and elder statesman” (111) within the field, Lehrich has not bowed to the temptation to “imagine” Smith, nor to further reify his mythical status in the field. Rather, he critically considers the full corpus of Smith’s work, bringing fresh ideas to devoted readers of Smith and a welcome, even-handed introduction to first timers. The field is all the better for Lehrich’s well-written and researched volume.
Adam T. DeSchriver is Fulbright MA Fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.Adam DeSchriverDate Of Review:April 4, 2022