Symbols, Worlds, Selves

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Antonio R. Gualtieri
  • Stanford, CA: 
    Lifeworld Press
    , April
     288 pages.
     For other formats: .


What is a monograph? What should an academic work strive to be? Whatever your presuppositions, Disclosures: Symbols, Worlds, Selves will most likely stretch them beyond recognition. Styled after Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Disclosures is a collage of partial thoughts, reflections, and essays. Ranging in topic from cosmologies to selfhood, mythologies to modernity, and structure to power, there is little that escapes author Antonio R. Gualtieri’s promiscuous eye. Far from jumbled, however, the pieces somehow fit into a larger whole—though exactly how is often unclear. I do not mean to disparage the work, for it is a fascinating performance, but rather to warn those opening its pages. There is no primary thesis argued throughout the length of Disclosures. There is no clearly articulated summary. To understand, one must read it, which makes the task of the reviewer rather difficult.

What can be said about Disclosures then? It is as if Gualtieri, throughout his academic career, kept a daily journal of what he read, discussed, and sought to understand. That is not to say that Disclosures is somehow naïve or overly personal—though at times Gualtieri’s anecdotes are rather refreshing. It is to say, rather, that Disclosures is a sophisticated, intricate, and complex collection of ruminations on religion from a senior scholar. When read and understood from that perspective, Disclosures has much to offer the field.

Where Disclosures has the most to say to religious studies is both in the way it approaches the definition of religion and in its uncompromising insistence on the dialectical nature of any religious studies binary. First, Gualtieri understands religion as both semiotic and material. Humans participate in identity creating semiotics that communicate both visions of reality and value systems. Gualtieri’s semiotics, however, are not adrift in some acultural space; rather, they are created and informed by reality or the material world. In this way, the semiotic and the material are mutually informing or entangled (7). Second, Gualtieri rarely takes sides in any current religious studies binary. For him, experience and power, semiotics and materiality, or secularism and sacredness are in dialectical relationships. The one informs the other based upon context, experience, and a governing semiotic system. While Gualtieri often uses “dialectic” to explain the complexity of his positions, his dialectic does not always resolve into a neat and tidy synthesis. The reader, in other words, is often left in a kind of “existential aporia” (262). While some might feel a need to force Gualtieri to stake a claim, Disclosures comes off as a refreshing approach willing to take all positions seriously without minimizing their shortcomings.

Disclosures performs that which it seeks to argue through a plurality of fractured narratives. Religious symbols both order and are ordered by an all-too-often ambiguous and contradictory world. For Gualtieri, this is an existentialist-functional understanding of religions, which locates, analyzes, and interprets religions as they disclose the world as it truly (read: subjunctively) is (7-8). Disclosures, in the end, is an intimately personal exploration of the typically sterile and distanced field of religious studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin John Peters is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Denver.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Antonio R. Gualtieri is a Professor Emeritus of Religion at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Besides graduate degrees in Theology, he holds a Ph.D. in History of Religion from McGill University. His interests lie in problems of religious diversity, comparative religious ethics, method and theory in the study of religion and the Ahmadi movement in Islam. Previously, he was a minister in the United Church of Canada and served as a teacher and chaplain at Vassar College.



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