Theory in a Time of Excess

Beyond Reflection and Explanation in Religious Studies

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Aaron W. Hughes
  • Sheffield, England: 
    Equinox Publishing Limited
    , March
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Theory in a Time of Excess is a compelling and stimulating read that effectively conveys the intensity of scholarly reflection, debate, and exchange of ideas presented at the 2015 North American Association for the Study of Religion [NAASR] meeting, from whose proceedings the book was developed. In this respect, the volume clearly betrays its origin both in content and structure.

The chapters are deeply reflective of NAASR's thirty-year-long work within—and often against—the seemingly-dominant scholarly productions, their approaches to the sources, and their uses (and "abuses") of theory, presented through the American Academy of Religion’s [AAR] annual meetings, website and its publication, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (1-10, 191-202). Thus, the titular "excess" is a reference to the ubiquity of "theory" to the point of "making it coterminous with virtually all forms of scholarship on religion" (6). The question to ask, then, and which the volume's contributors address from a diverse range of perspectives and backgrounds, is what actually is meant by "theory," and its related study and application. A caveat to the reader: this book reflects an almost-all-pervasive subscription to "critical theory" as, arguably, the sole effective approach to doing and using theory, though as contributor Aaron Hughes observes, this is also understood "a little more broadly than the Frankfurt School" (2).

Structurally, the book is divided into eight sections: an introduction by Hughes, which offers a summative assessment of the state of the field with regard to the role and use of theory; part 1 consists of a reprint of Luther Martin and Donald Wiebe's 2004 twenty-year appraisal of NAASR's work; parts 2 through 5 reproduce the panel cum-respondents structure of the original NAASR conference sessions; part 6 is a summative critical reflection by Leslie Dorrough Smith on the apparent progress—or lack thereof—since Martin and Wiebe's letter; and an afterword by Russell McCutcheon on the relevance of NAASR and its mission concludes the volume.

Although such a format necessarily precludes the presentation of a unified proposition on the issues surrounding theory, it nevertheless successfully conveys the underlying complexity of the debate, especially in light of religious studies' fundamental multi-disciplinary character. Furthermore, it also provides an overall sense of great urgency to the topic: for it would seem, as McCutcheon observes, that "despite some in the study of religion claiming that we are now post-theory … the issues that have long animated … NAASR are still as relevant now as ever" (192).

The first original contribution is offered in Part 2, and develops around Jason Blum's engagement, from the perspective of the history of religions, with theory's "two basic features … the inherent limitations of its explanatory power, and its dependency on methods of analysis, including interpretation" (21). Three responses follow. Michael Altman addresses concerns with theory as "a process of knowledge production" (33), and "meaning … as the newest form of essentialism" (34). Richard Newton writes on theory as a prompt to "take note of the constructed self" of the scholar doing theory and, through it, constructing meaning (38). And Tara Baldrick-Morrone offers a critique of Blum's appeal to including, in the scholarly analysis of religious phenomena, the "agent's self-understanding [as] prima facie more insightful" (47).

Part 3 is informed by K. Merinda Simmons's literary theory approach to academic work as "a process of identifying" and, as such, also as a formative endeavor shaped by our own interests as scholars (60). Again, three responses follow. Martha Smith Roberts's reply engages with the issue of the "culture-centrism of religion" and against a critique of the emphasis on lived religion (70). Thomas Whitley writes against systems of classification as means to "[win] academic capital" (75). And Stephen Young proposes "historiciz[ing] our uses of critical theory in religious studies" (80), thus experimenting with making scholars the object of study.

Part 4 is centered around Claire White synthetic, yet extremely thorough, assessment of the cognitive science of religion [CSR], which is then presented as a valid and valuable "attempt to explain, rather than describe, religion," based on "the role of the human mind" (95). Two rejoinders, by Brad Stobbart and Matt Sheedy, address White’s contribution by engaging, respectively, with the "human, all too human interests that lurk behind this new model of religiosity" (118), through a fierce critique of the alleged funding sources behind most CSR research—particularly the Templeton Foundation—and with a social constructionist critique of CSR and the need for this approach to "pay much closer attention to historicizing concepts" (126).

Part 5 builds on Matthew Bagger's philosophical reflection on religious studies as a field of enquiry, rather than an academic discipline, and on a proposition for the understanding of "religion" grounded in the work of David Hume, and in Robert Brandom's "anti-representationalist and inferentialist" philosophy of language (143). Rebekka King's response addresses the social connotations of theory and the potential losses, in the "service, teaching and scholarship" proper to our academic vocation, of a shift from "discipline to field" (150-151). James Dennis LoRusso points to the significance of "historical context in the production of beliefs" (158), as a critique to Hume and Brandom's universal accounts of religious belief. And Robyn Faith Walsh offers a counter argument to the understanding of "religion" embedded in the "reliabilism and naturalized epistemology [of] Hilary Kornblith" (165).

In light of this plurality of approaches to understanding and implementing theory, Hughes's expectation that "a multi-hued theoretical vision" might emerge from the volume accurately reflects the book's potential contribution to the meta-reflection on the mode, manner and scope of doing religious studies (9). Unfortunately, in my view, the very audience who may be the ideal focus of this publication and, I would argue, who would either benefit from it the most or could provide a stimulating and challenging response, will never truly hear its message.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Massimo Rondolino is assistant professor of philosophy at Carroll University.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aaron W. Hughes is the Philip S. Bernstein Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Rochester. His research and publications focus on both Jewish philosophy and Islamic Studies. He has authored numerous books, including Situating Islam: The Past and Future of an Academic Discipline (Equinox, 2007); Theorizing Islam: Disciplinary Deconstruction and Reconstruction (Equinox, 2012); Muslim Identities: An Introduction to Islam (Columbia, 2012); and Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (Oxford, 2012). He currently serves as the editor of the journal Method and Theory in the Study of Religion.


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