July 17 2018

A Theory and Method of Comparison - Part 2

by Sarah Levine, American Academy of Religion

This is Part 2 of "A Theory of Method and Comparison." In Part 1, Georgia State University associate professor of religious studies, Molly Bassett, writes about a dual-level course she's teaching for a third time this fall titled "Religious Dimensions in Human Experience." Part 2, below, is a reflection by one of her former graduate students, Sarah Levine, who took the course the first time Bassett taught it in the fall of 2010.


In the fall of 2010, I was a MA student beginning my second year of graduate school at Georgia State University. Molly Bassett was a new hire for our department, in her first year teaching in a tenure-track position. The previous semester I had taken a graduate seminar with her on material culture theory and method in religious studies, and it was there that I found her perspective and approach to teaching really engaging.1 She presented her ideological stance in that course, often reiterating that religious studies is more a field than a discipline, and that became even more clear in the course we discuss here, "Religious Dimensions in Human Experience." In our preliminary discussions about this series, Molly referred to her pedagogical approach to that class as an “ensemble approach.” That will bare itself out in my reflection on the iteration of the course I took in 2010 and in our discussion about the one she’s organized for this fall. It’s also, I think, a meta-term for the way she methodologically approaches religious studies more generally.

"Religious Dimensions" had two primary lenses that Molly made clear in her syllabus. The first was that the class was anthropological in nature. “In this course,” she noted in the course introduction, “we will not assume the category of ‘religious experience,' but rather interrogate various dimensions of human experience that we might call ‘religious’.” While this may not satisfy all scholars skeptical of phenomenological approaches, it was more than adequate for reasons I’ll explain later. The second lens, a subcategory of the first, was that of narrative. Overall, one of the main takeaways of the class was an implicit request that we become more cognizant of the primacy of narrative—not just in “religions,” but in the ways we make sense of the worlds we encounter as scholars. The sheer variety of approaches, media, and sources in the syllabus—the ensemble approach—worked together to make this latter point clearer over time.

There are three scopes I consider in my reflection of the course; its intellectual framework(s); how those frameworks were communicated and mediated; and the course logistics (class size, assignments, and student cohesion).

Intellectual Frameworks

The ensemble approach was crucial to the success of the course, not merely because it exposed students to texts, theories, stories, and media they were unfamiliar with, but also because it forced students to take a more active role in learning. The assignments, which I’ll talk about in another section, helped with that, but the readings and their location in the course were invitations for us to think about why Molly placed them together. For instance, one class meeting called for us to read Stephen Jay Gould, Cornel West, and for graduate students, Walter Benjamin, together. That diversity repeated itself throughout the course and encouraged us to synthesize sources in more creative ways than more traditional classes in religious studies.

Even with so much diversity, a series of theoretical texts distinguished themselves as an important basis for understanding the evolution of the course. Like many humanities fields, individual religious studies scholars and their courses have long intellectual lineages that present themselves in teaching; this was the case for Religious Dimensions in Human Experience as well. Looking back now, the primary intellectual framework was laid out in a succession of four readings by three authors, two of whom are in Molly’s scholarly ancestry. At Harvard, she studied under Davíd Carrasco, who at the University of Chicago, had studied under Charles H. Long, and, of course, Mircea Eliade.2

Book covers, L to R: "Alpha," by Charles H. Long; "Religions of Mesoamerica," by David Carrasco; "The Sacred Canopy" by Peter Berger; "Significations," by Charles H. Long

For the second week of the course, the introduction to Charles H. Long’s 1963 Alpha: The Myths of Creation was among the assigned readings. Long’s understanding of religion at this time is significantly colored by his then-colleague, Mircea Eliade. “The sui generis nature of religion must be maintained if the concreteness of man’s history is to be understood and appreciated,” Long writes ([1963] 1969, 6). In fact, this single sentence says much about Long’s writing and conception of religion at the time. His language and parameters read to us now as extremely antiquated—from reference to “man’s history” to his consistent use of the almost-royal “we,” and overdetermined reliance on the grave importance of cosmogonic myths. He delivers these concepts as distinct entities, traceable in form to a long-distant past. That said, he also supplied one of the most generative ideas throughout the course, that the “myth is a true story—the myth is a story about reality" (11–12). What was to come was a probing of what it means to talk about myths, true stories, and reality.

Carrasco’s Religions of Mesoamerica ([1990] 2013) is still very much influenced by Eliade—especially in how he characterizes a shared “cosmovision” in Mesoamerica and multimillenial “religious patterns” (46), but he expands his inquiry to try to historically date the emergence of some of Mesoamerica’s enduring symbols. What became apparent in both Long and Carrasco’s characterizations wasn’t so much that they’re wrong, but that they’re limited. How, for instance, is “cosmovision,” defined by Carrasco as the sui generis cultural worldview of Mesoamerica that was “charged with religious forces, stories, divinities, and ancestors who created the world and assist in its maintenance and renewal” (14–15) any different from a mere cultural worldview? The privileging of a mysterious, even exotic, dimension to Mesoamerican life animates the work. His evaluations, for instance, that the “most impressive pattern of the Olmec culture was the manner in which the earth was reshaped as a means of religious expression” (49) are examples of modern preoccupations with ancient cultures. There is little to no reflection on how religiously literate everyday Mesoamericans were when he writes that “there were, at least among the ancient Nahuas, 13 celestial levels and nine underworld levels, each inhabited by diverse gods and supernatural beings, often depicted as conjugal pairs. The top level…was inhabited by Ometeotl, the God of Duality" (69). The text is meant to help the lay reader appreciate recognizably religious components to Mesoamerican cultures, if not necessarily understand how those components become recognized as such.

Compare this passive version of religion to the dynamic one presented by Peter Berger in 1967’s The Sacred Canopy, the first three chapters of which were assigned for the fourth week of class. This, I think, was the single most important theoretical text we read as a class. His description of the sociological function of religion took the class from a relatively stable understanding of religion (namely, the Eliadean framework of the sacred and the profane) to one where religion and all components of culture are under constant pressures, pulls, and reassemblages. Nevertheless, the nomos is societally developed in service of creating a world that makes sense: where events can be comprehended and expected, where there is guidance for what is right and wrong, and where cause and effect take place. He explains that the world, as lived by humans, is fragile—it is through society that norms, values, and points of view are established, negotiated, and hegemonized. What Berger’s book does is localize control of cultural production in human beings, solely in the feedback process between single individuals and their communities (societies), even if that control is not distributed evenly or consciously.

Finally then, after Berger and only after Berger (in week ten, no less), do we get culmination of this arc: Charles H. Long’s 1986 Significations. By this time, Long is far more skeptical of the field of history of religions and the ideas it reifies. Where, in Alpha, he spoke of civilizational or archaic cultures, in Significations, he is critical of “civilization” altogether as a product of conceptual and rhetorical practices of Western Europe. At this point, Long speaks of cultural dialectics and symbols that develop and evolve as part of a self-referential negotiation. For instance, he cites Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process: “This concept [civilization] expresses the self-consciousness of the West...By this term Western society seeks to describe what constitutes its special character and what it is proud of: the level of its technology, the nature of its manners, the development of its scientific knowledge or view of the world and much more" (94). Long himself concludes, “what is at stake and what has appeared is the symbol, civilization—a symbol that includes the meaning and definition of primitive” (95). Symbols, then, are in constant state of process, responding to new “facts” on the ground; because of this, Long is rightly suspicious of “creations” (i.e., ex nihilio appearances of ideas) and instead is more attracted to “inventions,” a term related more to human desire and necessity than to primordial emergence.

To be clear, these four readings weren’t directly linked with each other, and I was probably a privileged learner because I was familiar with Molly’s educational background. But together they represented a trend in religious studies that took us from the nineteenth century comparative approaches to the mid-twentieth century sui generis paradigm (both represented in some degree in Long’s Alpha) and the shifts in the 70s and 80s that took into account postcolonial, feminist, and (JZ) Smithian critiques of western productions of knowledge. Smith wasn’t part of the course, but by the time we get to Long’s Significations, the imperative to be self-reflexive and skeptical of scholarly organizing principles was clearly demonstrated: “religion,” much like “civilization,” is a modern invention.

Course Media

Short of including the entire syllabus here (heck, why not?), it’s impossible to give a sense of just how theoretically differentiated the course media was, but Molly’s choice for our first assigned reading was an astute selection that set the tone of a course whose title is ambiguous. Errol Morris’ five-part series in The New York Times, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is,” was both perfect and unexpected: it was fun but not conceptually unsophisticated—a happy medium for a mixed graduate-undergraduate class of 25 or so. I absolutely recommend it to instructors trying to complicate categories through the backdoor, so to speak. This first portion of the course fell under the heading “Beginnings,” but that term was really a synonym for “ignorance”—exploring just how ignorance (or obliviousness) is an unacknowledged but major participant in human sense-making. With that opening, the intellectual floodgates are open: what is narrative? how do we incorporate new information into narrative structures? how and why do we classify this thing and that, and in by what mechanism does the nature of experiences we have change?

Early course readings also included traditional primary sources3 whose “primary” status was complicated with inclusions of creations stories that are more readily recognized as mediated or influenced—for instance, The Nican Mopohua as well as excerpts from Diego Duran’s The History of the Indies of New Spain and Bernardino de Sahagun’s The General History of the Things of New Spain. While historically interesting, the pedagogical purpose of including these readings seemed much more directed to undergraduate students; this baseline, of course, was necessary if undergraduate and graduate students were to intellectually engage with each other.

The story of the scientific reconstruction of Hallucigenia sparsa was part of the evo-devo story told by Stephen Jay Gould. Paleontologists originally reconstructed upside down and back to front. Hallucigenia sparsa by Apokryltaros at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons

The syllabus also encouraged cross-level student interaction by including material from disciplines far outside religion. After reading it in class, I began to incorporate the story documented in Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989) into my own "Introduction to World Religion" courses, mostly to highlight instances where paleontologists were completely unable to understand the anatomy of an animal because its evolutionary story was unrecognizable in other creatures—present or past. Demonstrating these shared characteristics of human understanding—whether they be in the humanities or sciences, was an important way of bridging knowledge and interest gaps among students, first in Molly’s course, and as I found, in my own.

Of many to speak, a major strength in the course was how the material was organized in such a way that begged for analysis and synthesis. We watched films, looked at pictorial representations of creation myths, read novels (and Gloria Anzaldúa’s hybrid novella-autobiography, Borderlands) and other popular publications, and listened to podcasts. So not only did we, as traditionally required in college classrooms, put books and articles into dialogue with each other, we developed a heightened awareness of how different kinds of media could engage each other—and to what purpose. How is a theory presented to a scholarly audience vs. a popular one? How, for instance, in a popular radio show and podcast do the producers and hosts choose stories that blur the line between science and story? What changes our minds, and how? I recall immediately sounding off a skeptical reaction to a TED talk we watched in class, one presented by Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist who explained the spiritual-like experience she had as a result of a stroke. Only later did I realize I had served as another example of a victim of schematic assumptions; Taylor’s description didn’t conform to what I had come to expect of a scientist, and my kneejerk response initially foreclosed my consideration of a whole set of more interesting, sophisticated, and relevant analyses.

Risks

One of the most inspiring personal characteristics about Molly is how willing she is to try new techniques in the classroom. With that comes some risk, and so while some things succeeded wildly, others were only moderately so. Throughout the semester, each student was to submit ten responses to the assigned reading, each 500–600 words and tightly focused. These were fantastic exercises that required clarity and economy. They made me a stronger writer, and I'm not sure if those invaluable skills will make it into the course this semester. That said, the routine and discipline it encouraged—along with that diverse syllabus I’ve been raving about—made it very difficult for me when the time came to turn in a final paper. It was both perhaps too much and too little to ask; given just 1,750 words, turning in a paper that “integrate[d] specific and general course themes into a final reflection” was a tall order.

There’s also a delicate equilibrium an instructor has to find when she’s teaching a mixed class of undergraduate and graduate students. It’s a necessary condition of a small department, but not ideal.4 The intimacy of a cohort and their relationship to the professor is lost in these larger classes, and I wish I could have experienced and argued some of the material with peers in a smaller and more comfortable setting. At the same time, course and pedagogical development for undergraduates is more deliberate, I think. I’m not sure if some of innovations Molly used in this class would have translated to a small seminar with graduate students. I’m also not sure if all of them would have been necessary, either.

Molly will be blogging about teaching the 2015 iteration of Religious Dimensions in Human Experience for Wabash, and I’m both excited to see what comes and jealous of her students. My 2010 class got to listen to podcasts; with how popular they’ve become now and with the technology more available, her 2015 class will get to create their own. It will be an awesome learning experience for professor and student alike, and a great way for the class to develop a tone that straddles the academic-popular entertainment line in a format that’s increasingly flocked to by smart people who want to reach a larger audience. They’ll also get to do a bit of fieldwork in the city—again, another avenue to take them off campus to see how broadly their learning applies in other contexts. Molly may not intend them as such, but I see these activities as smart interventions that partially answer “what can I do with a major in religious studies?” Quite a lot, if you’re open to new possibilities. So while graduate students may miss out on the typical seminar experience (one that I cherish and haven’t encountered since), they might just discover new skills and passions that will help the transition out of an MA program—especially as the career incentives to pursue the PhD dwindle.

 

Notes

1 ^ I’ve been fairly itinerant since taking her course Icons, Idols, and Amulets; the giant course reader used in that seminar has made it with me through every move. I reference it often, even being out of school since the end of 2012.

2 ^ Carrasco generously introduced students to his own teachers, including Prof. Long.

3 ^ These included some old standards, Genesis, 1:1-2:25; Gospel of John 1:1-51; and the Enuma Elish.

4 ^ I took several mixed courses as a student. When I was an undergraduate, I mostly resented the smarmy grad students sprinkled throughout a class. When I was a graduate student, I sometimes felt that my peers had to hold themselves back from diving into certain topics so as not to derail the entire class.

References

Berger Peter L. (1967) 1990. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Reprint, New York: Anchor Books. Citations refer to 1990 Anchor Books edition.

Carrasco, Davíd. (1990) 2013, second edition. Religions of Mesoamerica. New York: Harper & Row. Second edition, Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press. The chapter we were assigned in class was “History and Cosmovision in Mesoamerican Religions” from the 1990 Harper & Row edition. The title of that chapter was changed in the 2013 edition to “Mesoamerican Religions: Origins, Ancestors, and Histories,” but most, if not all of the chapter’s content remains the same as 1990 edition. Citations refer to the Waveland Press edition.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1989. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Long, Charles H. (1963) 1969. Alpha: The Myths of Creation. New York: George Braziller. Reprint, New York: Collier Books, 1969. Citations refer to the 1969 Collier edition.

———. (1986) 1999. Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress. Reprint, Aurora, CO: The Davies Group. Citations refer to the 1999 Augsburg Fortress edition.


Sarah Levine is associate director of publishing at the American Academy of Religion and the managing editor of Religious Studies News. She earned her BA and MA in religious studies at Georgia State University and focused on the relationship between the categories of art and religion in 20th century Europe. She and her partner live in the east side of Atlanta with a coddle of cats, and enjoy reading on the porch and outdoor adventures.

 

Image: Unmodified image appeared in the paper "Art in Shells" by William H. Holmes, published in the Transactions of the Anthropological Society of Washington, Volume II (1882). Holmes identifies the image as the "common yellow rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) of the Atlantic slope." Via Archive.org.