November 26 2022

Building on Jonathan Z. Smith with Sam Gill

Interview with Sam Gill

Sam Gill joins Kristian Petersen to discuss his award-winning 2021 book, The Proper Study of Religion: Building on Jonathan Z. Smith (OUP, 2020). Through the book, Gill invites the reader to build on Smith’s work by considering the significance of Smith’s tendency towards jest and play, the centrality of incongruity to Smith’s theories of religion, and how to academically evaluate the category of “experience.”

Gill's book won AAR's 2021 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the analytical-descriptive studies category. He is a professor emeritus of religion studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
 

Kristian Petersen:
Welcome to Religious Studies News. I'm your host, Kristian Petersen, and today I'm here with Sam Gill, who's professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder and winner of the AAR book Award in Analytical Descriptive Studies. He's here to speak to us about his book, "The Proper Study of Religion," building on Jonathan Z. Smith, which was published with Oxford University Press. Congratulations, Sam, and thanks for joining me.

Sam Gill:
Thank you, Kristian. It's really a pleasure to be here.

Kristian Petersen:
Yeah, this was a really fascinating book as somebody who's a fan of Jonathan Z. Smith's work and also yours. It was great to see this dialogue happening, and while J.Z. Smith is really central to the book, I think what you do that might be something that other people could emulate is you really put his work into a constructive dialogue. I'm wondering if you could start by telling us a little bit about who J.Z. Smith was in relationship to you, as you guys had a long parallel together, and talk a little bit about how this project came together.

Sam Gill:
Yes, I'm happy to do that. It's a long story. I'll try to give the short version. I started at the University of Chicago in 1967. I was actually a student of math and business at the time, but this was the period when the study of religion was just blossoming due to that Supreme Court decision in 1963 that made it legal to teach religion in state-supported universities. I arrived there in '67 and Jonathan arrived there in '68, and he was from the University of Santa Barbara at that time, where he had been teaching and finishing his dissertation on James George Frazer's, "The Golden Bough." I took courses from Smith all the time I was there and then of course have known him over the entire period from that point until the time of his death, which was the very next to last day of 2017.

I think many people would agree that Jonathan is one of the most important scholars in the study of religion in the last 25 years or so. And though my work is completely different than his, and my background and interests are completely different than his, he inspired me throughout the entire time. I consider him really one of my main mentors. The way my project came about after his death at the end of 2017 is that the NAASR asked me to do a little presentation on him at the Annual Meeting, which was in November of 2018.

And when I began to put that material together for that, I realized that though I had known Jonathan for nearly 50 years. I had written about him some, but there were a lot of issues that I felt I really needed to address just to make clear how I can understand his influence on me over all that time despite our vast differences. While I put together that little presentation for the NAASR, I realized I just had a whole lot more to write about and the book, "The Proper Study of Religion" then just emerged from that. I really had no intention of writing it, had no plan of what I wanted to do with it. I simply wanted to engage in a conversation with his work and with both of our pasts to make sense of the whole thing.

Kristian Petersen:
Yeah. I think it's a very fruitful project because it does seem that the way you've organized it, all of these concepts and ideas that you're both engaging with and then producing yourself are built on each other. But then also it seems that each chapter probably could be read on its own and maybe used in classes separately too. I hope others take this on in a similar way.

You start the book with thinking about Smith's study of Frazer's "The Golden Bough" and thinking about concepts of comparison. Can you tell us a little bit about how Smith employed the comparative method and then in what possible ways we can extend his approach?

Sam Gill:
That's a great question. I'm glad you asked that. When I was first asked to talk about Smith, the first thing that came to my mind was comparison because I felt that this was one of his greatest contributions, but also one that was both misunderstood and overlooked. My sense of Smith's understanding of comparison was that for him, it began with his Frazer studies, and he only published one article on Frazer in his entire career. He had really planned to do a second one, but he never did. There's some intriguing mystery about why Jonathan didn't ever want to publish a book on Frazer, why he didn't want to publish his dissertation, all those kinds of issues. But I had read his dissertation carefully and found in it all of the elements that I think emerged in his work throughout his career, especially that of comparison.

Yet when I read the works that people have written about Smith's comparison, they almost never refer to his Frazer work. That gave me an opportunity to frame his work. But then also in this chapter to review the many, many studies he did, he did historical studies on the history of comparison. He did method studies to show all the different forms and methods that comparison has taken. And then he offered his own critiques of all of those, and sometimes hinted at least at a program that he would suggest would be important for the comparison in the study of religion.

My sense is that everybody was looking for a straight method, and what he did in a weird little concluding chapter to a collection of works on his comparison in comparison to magic dwells—Pat Kimberly Patton did that book—was lay out a linear method and a lot of people grabbed on that as what he wanted to do with comparison.

My sense is in reading all of his work related to comparison is that that was the least interesting aspect of his work. To make this whole thing very brief, what I found is that Smith really employed two types of comparison. One that he used extensively in Frazer's work on " The Golden Bough" was what I would call a limited objective comparison. And this is basically nothing more than source criticism, to say Frazer gave this example, he cited the source, and he uses the source properly. If he didn't, why didn't he? And what's the story behind that? And he did that for Frazer on literally tens of thousands of examples. This comparison, the limited objective comparison really creates a conclusion. You compare, you know what it was, and that then gives rise to either telling a story or critiquing the work that you're working with.

The other comparison he did, which I think was the more productive, in a certain way, I would call a subjective heuristic style comparison. And in this you put two things together, and based on the scholar's own interest, you allow those two things to percolate with one another and just see what happens. And Smith did this and proposed this a lot, and it does not lead then to an immediate answer, but to an ongoing line of inquiry that can last a week, a month, a year, your whole lifetime. I think that these two kinds of comparison that Smith used can still be used, and absolutely should be used, in the study of religion as we go forward.

Kristian Petersen:
You also explore the idea of place in developing a definition of religion and how it intersects with notions of play, which is been central to a lot of your work. How are the dynamics of play fundamental to Smith's theories of place, myth, religion, ritual, and so on?

Sam Gill:
Right. This comes at an intersection of a lot of the work that I have done throughout my whole career. My current work on this is focused on the notion of moving. If I were to distinguish movement, which is what's most commonly considered, which is a change of place, with moving, which is the actual action of ongoingness, then we have a very important distinction. And that is when you consider movement, then you're moving from one place to another place. And that aligns, I think, with the way that the study of religion has really seen its objectives. And that is we have a problem, we have a historical situation, we have a cultural situation, we have a religious situation, and where we take a stand on that leads us to where we'll come out on that. It gives us answers, it gives us meaning, it gives us interpretation.

Now, what I have wanted to do to invoke both play and my notion of moving, is that if you put the process back in, play is ongoingness. When movement stops, then the play stops. What I've wanted to focus on is the ongoingness that ought to be a part of a proper study of religion. And when you do that then, you focus much more on the dynamics than on change of place. And that gives rise to a whole new understanding of how we ought to go forward with what we do. And that is we ought to look at the elements that energize our subject, and that's usually: why do we go there in the first place? Well, something vital, and exciting, and unexplainable, and powerful emerges from this subject matter, and it's not a problem to be solved. It's a process, and a dynamic, and a force, and a vitality to be understood.

When we shift then to ideas of play, and place, and moving, then we put away these notions that we need to understand the place on which we stand, which is what Smith often referred to. And we can also give up notions that we're looking for the interpretation, or the meaning, or the solution to the situation. And then we explore then the vitality of the dynamics of it all. That's really my own contribution to the book, to emphasize that as important to the study of religion going forward.

Kristian Petersen:
Yeah, and one of the terms you use to think about this is this word "transduction," and this is involved with issues of sensory experience, the role of the body, and then movement as you were saying. Can you tell us what you mean when you use this term "transduction" and how maybe other scholars could go about participating in this process?

Sam Gill:
Of course. This is a fun topic and I frankly don't quite remember where the term originated for me. But transduction really means, for me at least, a change in the form of reality. And the most obvious example of that, that as scholars of religion we encounter constantly, is that the materials that we study are usually writings or perhaps writings supplemented with visual or graphic materials. But those writings, the materials really represent a living subject. The living subject is a very sensory-rich, sensory-drenched subject with all of the senses involved. And anyone who's done any field work at all, or engaged in any contact with religious activity at all, knows how rich that sensory aspect of religion is. It's actually known for its sensory elements. It's very visual. The smells, the sounds, the food—everything is so important. Yet what we study is a transduction of that extreme multidimensional richness into simply printed words on pages.

And when we then often simply limit ourselves to just those printed words, we never think, well, what happened when we went from the sensory-rich subject to the printed word? That becomes, then, an important topic that I think is most commonly engaged in scholars that are working with translation, for example. But what about the real living subjects? Because these are bodied, breathing, living human beings. And if we were more aware of this notion of transduction, then my sense is we ought to be more aware of who those people are.

Kristian Petersen:
Another interesting concept you introduce is something called story tracking, and this is your own take on the comparative method. Can you tell us what this approach is all about and how did you come to develop it?

Sam Gill:
That's a great question. Thank you for that. Story tracking came about for me when I had written a little book called, "Beyond a Primitive," in which I used an example that Mircha Ilioti offered from an Australian culture in Central Australia. And that example was about the world axis and how people used a pole to connect with God after God created the world and so forth. And Ilioti says, "Well, when they broke the pole, they all laid down and died," because this is a perfect example that religious people cannot live without a center and without access to their God. I had published that in a little book and somebody wrote me a letter and said, "Well, we actually looked up the source for this, and it doesn't really seem quite like that works." And I was blown away because my whole training from Jonathan and everyone else is look up your sources. And I hadn't done that.

That then launched me into a multi-year project that took me to Australia. Actually, this relates to the last question you asked, transduction, because I wanted to trace down where Ilioti got this example, which happened to be one of the very main ones he used throughout his entire career to establish his theory of religion. I wanted to know where that came from, how it came about, and trace it back to the actual body. Who was this aboriginal that gave him this information? That was then a multi-year project. It took me to Australia twice. I went to many libraries and archives to search out the documents. It goes from Ilioti, to his sources, to their fieldwork, to their field notes, to the person that I could actually find.

And what I had discovered in that process, in a book that I wrote called "Story Tracking" is that the closer you got to the source of this material, the farther away you got from the reality of what Ilioti was trying to present. The whole thing exploded then. And that left me then with the question, "Well, do I simply say that my teacher, Mircha Ilioti, who was a very, very famous scholar, was simply irresponsible, or had it wrong, or what do I do with that?

What I began to understand is that scholarship, just like everything else, is made up of people who are living, trying to make sense of the world, and they have their own stories. I began then to say, "Well, Ilioti has his story." But then the people like Spencer and Gillon, who were the people in Australia who collected this material, had their stories and many, many other people that were involved in this whole complex had their stories as well.

That left me then this idea that if I were to track each of these stories, they all then really stem from this one example, but they then tell a whole range of stories, a network of stories that reveal something to the history of Australia, something to the history of anthropology, something to the history of the academic study of religion. And when I put all that together, it also said, "Well, it also tells me something of my own interests and my own history." Story tracking is a way of telling everyone's story as clearly as possible, but then realizing as I do that all of these are my take on all these stories. It's a creative story making process through the whole time, through every aspect of this.

Kristian Petersen:
Now, this book covers a whole range of things, and you offer some really interesting analyses of Smith's work and others like Ilioti that you mentioned. Of course, we can't cover all of them. I'm wondering if to wrap up,  could you tell us how you imagine that others in the study of religion might benefit from reading this book? Could it be following your method, or do you think you've brought new things that will help them analyze their own subject matters? What might be a takeaway you're hoping readers will get?

Sam Gill:
By titling this book, "The Proper Study Religion," I wanted to assess the period of time that really covers my career and Jonathan's in the academic study of religion. If we begin with that explosion of religion departments into academic secular institutions that occurred in the late 1960s, up through Jonathan's retirement and his death, that's about a 50-year period. My sense is that what happened to the study of religion that began by incorporating a lot of scholars that were theologically trained, seminary trained, into the field, that this whole first period of time has been one of trying to understand what a proper academic study of religion should be.

The heritage from Christian studies tips the study of religion very heavily in that area, I think. The response to that, which in a certain sense, my feeling is it's an overresponse, is that the study of religion then has become segmented into area studies, that while each of them is important, and essential, and powerful in itself, it has emphasized area studies and ignored then the general issues of what is religion? What is religion and human culture? What does religion say about what it means to be a human being? So my work, as well as much of Jonathan's work, really attempted to say, "Well, how can we ask that question without either assuming a religious stance," or actually it's just basically to say, "How can we study religion from a profane perspective, which is outside the temple?" That would be what profane would mean.

In a secular institution, how can we make a powerful, and important, and fundamental study of religion that does not begin with an assumption that is based in religion so it's on a par with all of the social sciences and even the national sciences? What I wanted to do in this book is really to propose a biological and a philosophical foundation on which to build that particular approach. What I would hope this book would do would be to be extremely provocative, not necessarily to provide a method that people could simply follow along on, but rather to raise questions that have not been raised before in quite the same way at least, that would then be argued, and discussed, and engaged, and experimented with as the field then moves on. My sense is the field is at a critical point and that this input is really essential to help move it on forward.

Kristian Petersen:
Yeah. Congratulations, Sam. I think you've accomplished that. If nothing else, it's a wonderful conversation starter and I hope people will continue the conversation moving forward.

Sam Gill:
Excellent. Thank you so much.