Global Phenomenologies of Religion
An Oral History in Interviews
- ISBN: 9781781799147
- Published By: Equinox Publishing Limited
- Published: March 2021
What is the “phenomenology of religion” (PoR)? A system of classification? A hermeneutic? A type of introspection? A kind of “crypto-theology”? Or, as Charles Long suggests in his interview in Global Phenomenologies of Religion: An Oral History in Interviews, is it actually something “much more ordinary than abstract” (204)? The surprising answer, according to this book, is: Yes, to all of the above.
This book explores the significance of PoR through a series of rich conversations between established scholars in the field of religious studies from ten different countries. Each interview is followed by a commentary, and the volume as a whole is bookended by an insightful analysis of the results of the interviews by the editors, Satoko Fujiwara, David Thurfjell, and Steven Engler. However, before turning to that analysis, some contextualization is in order.
Fujiwara, Thurfjell, and Engler state that the volume was conceived under two basic assumptions: first, PoR declined from a place of prominence in the study of religion over the last fifty years, and second, most contemporary scholars in the study of religion hold a negative view of PoR (5).
In the context of North American religious studies (the intellectual climate of this reviewer), the debates about PoR were heated between the 1980s and early 2000s, concerning the very identity of religious studies as a discipline. For if the field of religious studies is believed to be defined by some sort of a sui generis (unique) object of analysis—whether that object be conceived in terms of transcendence (e.g., God), numinous experience, or a unique form of human belief or behavior (say, myth or ritual)—and PoR is posited as the only way to study said object, then two problems present themselves.
First, what, exactly distinguishes the academic study of religion from theology? And if PoR is fundamentally concerned with understanding, what place do social scientific and natural scientific modes of explanation hold in the study of religion? This is the issue of religionism vs. reductionism.
Second, given the critique of the concept of “the given” in both analytic philosophy (such as Wilfrid Sellars’ contention that no cognitive experience can be both epistemic and immediate) and continental philosophy (think of Jacques Derrida’s assertion that every phainomenon is also a sign), it is unclear if there even are “essential structures of meaning.” Hence the essentialism vs. historicism debate.
This volume is a refreshing contribution to the literature about PoR because the editors present neither a lapsarian nor progressive story about the history and development of the study of religions in terms of religionism and essentialism, but rather seek to problematize many of the “straw dolls” (8) that have governed perceptions about PoR. In this way, the book offers “a different way of looking at the past” (2). And it accomplishes this through using an ethnographic methodology and treating its interviewees as “historical witnesses” (5). This, as opposed to taking up a normative philosophical perspective on how PoR should be construed.
Each of the scholars interviewed was asked to provide their own “emic” (277) definitions of PoR and then narrate how they understand this term in relation to their own work and religious studies as it developed in each interviewee’s national context. The advantage of this approach is that it allows for finely grained and regional-specific descriptions of PoR to come to the fore, revealing that there was not one but clearly “many ‘phenomenologies of religion’ in the twentieth century” (8). Indeed, the main empirical takeaway of the book is that “scholars have a wide variety of views of PoR” (277).
But this modest-sounding conclusion does not capture the varied insights found in the volume—some of which surprised me as a student of religious studies trained in the North American context. A few examples pulled at random: that arguably the legacy of Gerardus van der Leeuw has been exaggerated and that there was no such thing as a Dutch “school” of PoR (Jan Platvoet); that PoR was never a dominant intellectual force in Germany (Peter Antes and Hubert Seiwert); that some Japanese scholars who warmly received the work of van der Leeuw believed his methods were insufficiently Husserlian and wished further to incorporate German philosophical phenomenology into the study of religion (Toshimaro Hanazono); that there never was a perceived tension between PoR and the history of religions in the Chicago school and that PoR is not a specialized methodology at all (Charles Long).
Overall, what becomes clear in reading through the interviews is that in some countries, PoR never held prominence whatsoever, and also that many contemporary scholars seem to not even hold a negative view of PoR—or if they do, it is of a “robust” (i.e., naively essentialist and religionist) as opposed to “selective” (279) version of PoR, to use a helpful distinction employed by Fujiwara, et al.
At least since Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion (Macmillan,1963), it has become common among scholars of religion to affirm the idea that all religions are internally diverse, evolve over time, and are always already acculturated. One of the virtues of this book is that it helps remind us that intellectual movements, such as PoR, used to study religions are also themselves internally diverse, evolving, and acculturated in often non-trivial ways. For it is all too easy to project consensus and uniformity onto the history of ideas when there is none.
To the extent, then, that Global Phenomenologies of Religion offers a different way of looking at the past, and retrospective reinterpretations can in fact open up new ways of looking at the future, this new perspective also allows one to appreciate the opening lines of the book: “Phenomenology is dead; long live phenomenology of religion!” (1). I would recommend this book to scholars or graduate students interested in the history and development of the field of religious studies in a global context, and its possible futures.
John Matthew Allison is a PhD student in the Department of Religion at Rice University.John AllisonDate Of Review:March 27, 2023