Feeling Religion

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John Corrigan
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , January
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.



The study of emotion within the field of religion is both old and new. It is old because some of the most influential early theorists of religion, such as Friedrich Schleiermacher and Rudolf Otto, held that the essence of religion was the believer’s affective, rather than rational, knowledge of God. It is new because scholars in religion, following scholars in the humanities and the natural and social sciences, have begun to think anew about the role of emotion in human social life. There are a variety of new approaches taking shape around the study of emotion, among which the editor of this volume, John Corrigan, includes “constructivist theory, affect theory, embodiment, cognitive science, the affecognitive” (10). This collection of essays embraces variation in order to demarcate possible ways of using emotion as an analytical tool for studying religion. In doing so it challenges not only those theories of religion that would treat religion primarily as a matter of propositional belief, but also those that would prioritize constructing theoretical edifices that would separate the scholar from the object of his or her research.

Several terms are used to describe the subject matter of this volume: affect, emotion, and feeling. Even though all of these terms unsettle the priority of rationality in analyzing religion, defining what they mean, and whether or not they point to the same phenomenon, is difficult. Two essays in this volume think through these definitional difficulties. Diana Fritz Cates argues that constructing a stable theory of emotion across time is difficult, if not impossible. Through a comparison of Seneca and Thomas Aquinas, she shows that when we talk about emotion philosophically, we need to know the role of emotion in a philosopher’s larger theoretical framework if we want a true understanding of how that philosopher defines emotion. With this knowledge, however, it is difficult to compare different accounts of emotion across time and place. Mark Wynn makes a similar point in his essay when he shows how emotional experiences are dependent upon, even if not wholly determined by, the metaphysical assumptions that frame our understanding of the world. 

Anna M. Gade and June McDaniel add complexity to our understanding of emotion by considering how we prioritize some emotions over others. Gade shows how emotions connected to our relationship with the environment differ in the West and among Muslims in Indonesia. Those associated with international environmentalist groups generally assume that the earth is something that we should care for as an end in itself, whereas among Muslims in Indonesia less connected to such groups, care for the world is in service of the next life. McDaniel likewise challenges normative conceptions of emotion in the West through cross-cultural comparison, but in doing so challenges the contextualist approach for conceptualizing religious emotion. She does so by prioritizing the first-person descriptions of religious emotion. Through an analysis of Bengali Shakta literature and Shi’a ritual and poetry, McDaniel shows how those dark emotions we in the West often try to explain away as the emotions of “madmen” or “fanatics” (118) form a central role in the lives of these religious actors. 

While all of the essays in this volume engage with theory, four of the essays in particular work through the theoretical stakes that come with adopting one theory of emotion or another. Donovan O. Schaefer, M. Gail Hamner, and Jessica Johnson apply affect theory to different religious phenomena, and David Morgan uses the work of Émile Durkheim to examine the relationship between religion, nationalism, and sport. Schaefer and Hamner apply affect theory to texts and film. Schaefer uses feminist affect theory—often associated with the work of Lauren Berlant and Eve Sedgwick—to show that, despite their claims to the contrary, those thinkers associated with the “new atheist” movement are driven not simply by a disinterested respect for the facts but by “fear, anger, and scorn” at what they perceive to be the inadequacies of religion, an inadequacy that is also often racialized (85–86). 

In her analysis of several documentary films focused on religious actors, Hamner shows how, at their best, documentaries can help us “feel and then think the interval between truth and meaning” (105). Those films that seem to collapse this distinction, for example Jesus Camp, provide an audience with certainty—that the film’s subjects’ religious practices are troubling—and thus allows the complexities of religious identity to be ignored. Those that maintain this distinction, and create cinematic moments that reveal the space between truth and meaning do better on Hamner’s account. For example, Trembling before G-d reveals to the viewer the complexity of being both an LGBTIQ person and an Orthodox Jew without giving the viewer the satisfaction of knowing how to easily reconcile these identities. 

Johnson, drawing on affect theory, shows the ways that affect moves between subjects without ever settling. She argues that scholars who do ethnographic work need “a willingness to acknowledge our vulnerability and lack of control as fieldwork involves us in unpredictable social experiences through unruly bodily encounters” (212). While not drawing on affect theory, Morgan’s essay follows a similar line, showing that people are bonded together through collective action, and that such action is primarily transferred from person to person affectively rather than rationally. Watching World Cup football binds the people of a nation together and “sacralizes” that bonding (227–28). It is not that football is religion, for Morgan, but rather that football is a social practice that bonds people together in the way that Émile Durkheim once thought was the exclusive province of religion. 

Challenges to prominent theories of emotion appear in essays by Abby Kluchin and Sarah M. Ross. In focusing on the effects of treating affect as a fluid phenomenon that points to the instability of the subject, Kluchin suggests that affect theory, at times, neglects the importance of autonomy in marginalized groups’ social and political projects. She draws on psychoanalytic theory to show how the importance of affect can be preserved without merely treating the individual as a “site to be traversed” (251). Kluchin reminds us of the normative implications for adopting one theory of affect over another and forces us to reflect on the ethical implications of such adoption. Ross’s essay complements Kluchin’s by showing how the first-person perspective is indispensable when thinking about the response of an audience to religious music. Ross challenges what she sees as the bias in musicology toward examining the technicalities of written music when studying the emotion that music elicits. Taking objective measures of people’s emotional states is difficult, she argues, and because of this difficulty she advocates reflecting on and self-reporting one’s own emotional state while listening to music. 

A question that will surely be at the forefront of readers’ minds when grappling with these essays is whether or not current affect theory recreates the same problems associated with the (Protestant) emphasis on feeling typical of theories of religion that are indebted to Otto or Schleiermacher. Indeed, relatively little space in this volume is devoted to providing a genealogical account of the role of affect or emotion in past theories of religion, and how we can make sure that returning to emotion does not return us to Protestant biases. In other words, an account of how theories of emotion can be applied to religion is not all that is needed. What is also needed is an account of how our ideas about religion have influenced our understanding of emotion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua S. Lupo received his doctorate in religion from Florida State University in 2018. His dissertation, “After Essentialism: Possibilities in Phenomenology of Religion,” traces the relationship between the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and the work of phenomenologists of religion such as Mircea Eliade and Rudolf Otto. 

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Corrigan is Lucius Moody Bristol Distinguished Professor of Religion and Professor of History at Florida State University and the author and editor of numerous books, most recently, Emptiness: Feeling Christian in America.



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