Who Owns Religion?

Scholars and Their Publics in the Late Twentieth Century

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Laurie L. Patton
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , November
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Who Owns Religion?: Scholars and Their Publics in the Late Twentieth Century First Edition analyzes the public controversies occasioned by scholarly work in religious studies in the 1980s and 1990s. Part 1 lays some theoretical groundwork: the public sphere (drawing on Jürgen Habermas and critiques of Habermas, primarily Nancy Fraser’s), the relationship of scholars of religion to the public sphere in illo tempore (lit. “in that time,” the time of the ancestors)(examining the work of Mircea Eliade and Wilfred Cantwell Smith), and contextual shifts in the 1990s (the internet, postcolonialism, a politics of recognition).

Part 2 takes up six case studies of controversies (Patton calls these “eruptive public spaces,” replacing Habermas’s term the “wild sphere”): Sam Gill’s Mother Earth (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), Harjot Oberoi’s The Construction of Religious Boundaries (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), Tazim Kassam’s Songs of Wisdom and Circles of Dance (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995), Jane Schabery’s The Illegitimacy of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), Howard Schwartz’s departure from a tenured position in Jewish studies at San Francisco State University (1995), and Jeffrey Kripal’s Kāli’s Child (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995). Part 3 offers some recommendations for how scholars of religion might best think about and relate to the various publics with whom they interact.

Eliade and Smith were giants in religious studies during a foundational time in the field’s history. Both advocated for an important public role for universities. Smith argued that “universities understand the key issues facing a society, and their theoretical solutions are produced in such a way that they can be translated back into practical solutions” (93). Eliade argued for a “new humanism” in which the history of religions facilitates “cultural dialogue” between “people who have recently reentered history” (Asians, “the so-called ‘primitive peoples’”) and “the mind of modern man” (101 and 102—Patton is quoting here from Eliade’s own words).

Neither Eliade or Smith engaged in, nor imagined engaging in, a disagreement with an interlocutor from the religious traditions about which they wrote. Smith could not believe that “the good religious people of the world would disagree with a well-intentioned description of their reality that was produced in collaboration with them” (117). Eliade dealt in (usually ancient) texts, which he believed captured the essences of cultures better than contemporary representatives.

The first (and “paradigmatic,” 143) controversy was Sam Gill’s Mother Earth: An American Story. Gill uses historical-critical methods to investigate the myth of “Mother Earth,” a creator goddess important to many North American Indians. Gill argues that the figure of Mother Earth is influenced by European and American ideas as well as Native American ones. He intends his argument to be “for the inclusion of Native Americans as participants in the creation of their own myths, not as artifacts that spring full-blown from a faceless Native American ‘culture’ as such” (125).

What could possibly go wrong?  Gill did not say much about the practices and languages in which the myth is embedded (129–130) and did not solicit Indian feedback before publishing. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn argued that Gill’s claim about the role of whites in inventing the myth was understood by many readers not as a charge of bad previous scholarship but as a claim to ownership of the myth (131). Ward Churchill saw the book as part of a tradition of taking Indian traditions for New Age spiritualism and commercialization (130). If Indians do not have “control and rights” of their traditions, does that continue colonialist practices?

Patton’s other case studies have all this and more. Harjot Oberoi was the first occupant of a chair in Sikh and Punjabi studies for which the diaspora Sikh community in Vancouver had raised half the funds. Oberoi was caught between academic method and the Sikh community’s expectation that he would affirm their theology. He notes wryly, “those present at [a public protest of his book] were not persuaded by my historicist account” (156). The use of the internet to organize resistance from a community that expects respect, not criticism, and the perceived power differential between the university and a diasporic community, have come into play. The scandal around Tazim Kassam had many of the same dynamics; her book also ran afoul of the Ismaili tradition of concealing the hymns about which she writes from outsiders. Jane Schaberg’s work, a feminist and historicist analysis of the New Testament, was called a heresy by her archbishop. Again there is a tension between historicist methods and the hermeneutics of a community of practitioners, but this time practitioners with more power and more social capital. Howard Schwartz felt he was unable to navigate his responsibilities as the holder of a chair in Jewish studies (for which he was responsible for raising money) after the Jewish community felt betrayed by his commitment to debate about the politics of Israel.

The assumption that scholarship is a conversation “entre nous”—by scholars for scholars—worked for Smith and Eliade, but the conversation now has multiple publics with different goals, methods, and sources of legitimation and power. What to do? In addition to theorizing “the manufacture of the category of religion” and “the position scholars take relative to their subjects” (work that has been central to religious studies for the past two decades), Patton argues for theorizing the university and the multiple publics now interacting in the public sphere.

I admit to some voyeuristic pleasure reading this book. I also admit to some nostalgia for the days when a book, by the very fact of its use of historical-critical methods, could become the subject of news reports. The scandals today are the closing of departments of religion, the cuts to the humanities (by administrations, but also by students voting with their feet), the fact that families cannot afford college, and many who can no longer see the value proposition, the tail of corporate funding wagging the dog, and the politicization of academic processes by state legislatures and boards of trustees. The academy reinforces class and race divisions as much as it promotes social mobility. Patton, who in addition to being an eminent scholar of South Asian religions, has been president of the American Academy of Religion, dean at a major research university, and is currently president of an elite liberal arts college, is well positioned to make a major contribution to theorizing these institutions. The terrain of the academic study of religion and of the academy in our ociety is shifting again—I would advocate for an ongoing series by Patton. Who owns the academy, and who owns religion in 2021?


About the Reviewer(s): 

Theodore Vial is professor of theology at Iliff School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
October 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Laurie L. Patton is president of Middlebury College and president of the American Academy of Religion for 2019. Her books include Bringing the Gods to Mind: Mantra and Ritual in Early Indian Sacrifice.


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