Religion As Relation
Studying Religion in Context
- ISBN: 9781800500709
- Published By: Equinox Publishing
- Published: October 2021
Religion as Relation: Studying Religion in Context is a multi-author work featuring fifteen chapters that examine the nature and methods of the famously multidisciplinary field of religious studies (“a collection of disciplines,” as the book aptly describes it ). The volume has a clearly defined audience (“intended for undergraduate students in the study of religion”), a stated purpose (“to show how these diverse ways of reflecting on religion and conducting research are manifested in particular approaches”), and a broadly defined method (“showing a diversity of approaches without attempting to systematize them in order to provide an overview of the ‘state of the art’” ).
In other words, Religion as Relation is intended to serve as an introduction and orientation to the academic study of religion, and therefore as a primer of sorts, as well as a methodological handbook that shows “how” researchers conduct their respective research projects. For the most part, each chapter instantiates its own “case study” that can serve as an exemplary model of how a particular approach can be applied to a given research project. This, of course, has practical significance, and the volume was designed with this end in mind.
Standing alone, the title, Religion as Relation, implicitly raises the question, “In relation to what?” The answer, it seems, is in relation to “context,” as the subtitle suggests. In the introduction, the editors—Marjo Buitelaar, Kim Knibbe, and Peter Berger (not to be confused with the Austrian-born American sociologist of the same name who died in 2017)—write that “we chose ‘religion as relation’ as the loosely connecting theme for this book to highlight that for many of the approaches contributing to religious studies, religion is thought of as something ‘in context’” (2). That said, later in the book, Berger writes: “‘Relation’ is perhaps the single most important word with reference to approaches associated with structural anthropology” (275). He also notes that “context refers to an empirical situation, quotidian or spectacular, such as a class at a university, a football match, a demonstration or a presidential inauguration” (283).
In chapter 1, which serves as the volume’s introduction, Berger, Buitelaar, and Knibbe “outline three different modes of defining religion” (3). These are, (1) “religion as a category . . . that circulates, is productive and creates facticity”; (2) “conceptual approaches, which define the religion in terms of abstract, sometimes functionalist terms such as sacralization, ritualization, the experience of the world as meaningful, etc.”; and (3) “religion as the collections of practices, institutions and beliefs that refer to a domain that transcends the ordinary” (6). Religion as Relation explores the second and third approaches. The book is notable for its structure and pedagogical design. As in any (and perhaps every) multi-author work, there is a certain unevenness in the quality and depth of chapters. Throughout the book, each of the fifteen chapters ends with a useful “References” section. The book is well indexed.
Chapters 2 through 14 each set forth a clearly defined method, which is then applied to a particular “case study” drawn from each author’s own research. Among the most effective contributions to the aims and purposes of the book is Chapter 3, a methodologically elegant study titled “Turning the Tables: The History of Philosophy as a Field of Enquiry for Religious Studies” (70–93), in which Christoph Jedan applies Ninian Smart’s well-known seven “dimensions” of religion—doctrinal, mythological, ethical, ritual, experiential, social, and material (72)—to the history of philosophy. Jedan succeeds in broadening analysis of the history of philosophy by applying a “religious studies approach,” which has value in “stimulating comparative work” (81). And further: “It is worth pointing out that these suggestions tie in with a rising academic interest in ‘comparative philosophy’” (82). This valorization and revitalizing of Ninian Smart’s seven “dimensions” of religion is welcome.
Berger’s contribution, chapter 14 (“Configurations of Values” [275–295]), opens with a striking epigraph from the French anthropologist Louis Dumont (1911–1998): “What ought to be compared is not religion, but the general configuration of values, which in all cases but one is coterminous with religion.” Berger’s essay largely focuses on Dumont’s theory of value. Berger’s prefatory comments on “ideas” and their properties and functions is particularly valuable for students, whether undergraduate or graduate. Here is an excerpt, which I quote at length to illustrate Berger’s capacious thinking style:
Ideas enable human beings to organize the diversity of their perceptions of the world around them (social and otherwise); they constitute worldviews. Because of that function, as pointed out in the introduction to this volume, ideas have a relatively high degree of durability. Otherwise, sustained attempts of meaning-making would be difficult, if not impossible. Moreover, as they are provided by culture, ideas have a conventional character and are shared. Ideas would also be without consequence if they did not translate into implicit or explicit rules and if they did not inform people’s actual behavior. But ideas do all this and as such anthropologists and historians (among others) consider the study of ideas as important in their attempt to understand culture, politics, history, and certainly religion. (275–276)
Overall, Religion as Relation may not be easy reading for most undergraduates. The work is perhaps more suited to entry-level graduate studies in the academic study of religion and cognate subdisciplines, such as philosophy of religion (see chapters 2, 3, 6), history of religions (see chapters 4, 5), psychology of religion (see chapters 7, 8, 9), sociology of religion (see chapters 10, 11, 12), and anthropology of religion (see chapters 13, 14). In covering so much ground, the volume does an admirable job conveying the richness and variety of religious studies.
Christopher Buck is an independent scholar.Chrstopher BuckDate Of Review:June 6, 2023