Theory After Postmodernism Workshop May 16-17, 2014

Readers of the blog might be interested to know that I’ve organized a small workshop on Theory After Postmodernism here at Williams College on May 16-17, 2014.


Theory After Postmodernism May 16-17

It is free and open to the public. More details can be found here:



Reflexive Religious Studies: A Note

I’ve been lecturing about and, even calling for, what I term “Reflexive Religious Studies” for some time. My comments about it will be appearing in print in the near(ish) future in greater detail, but I thought a small note about the idea here might prove useful.


As I have been arguing for a long time, the category “religion” is transformative. [i] Various entities become “religions.” I want to emphasize that this is not a teleological or transhistorical process, but one that came out of a particular logic at a particular moment in Western Christendom, and its globalization was necessarily selective and to some extent arbitrary. It should also be noted that this was a modern process, articulated in various stages, but in essence coinciding with the formation of globalization or transnational modernity.

This process is always incomplete. Christianity, Buddhism, and so on always retain remainders that are not fully brought under the category. Moreover, this process of becoming a religion is still ongoing. Indeed, in a certain sense it may be seen as having permeated the whole intellectual stratum of modernity. Even in modernity, “religion” cannot be taken as a self-evident category. Religious Studies must therefore be the discipline that suspends its primary object of inquiry, never taking for granted religion’s meaning.

To put it in different terms and to indicate this non-universal category, one might say that: things become religions. At the risk of skirting typographical silliness, I want to use the strike through here (evocative of the Lacanian barred subject) in order to indicate religion as an impossible object, something like a term “under erasure” (Sous rature) in the Heidegger/Derrida sense, which for our purposes we might identify with a de-essentialized process. By this I mean more than the reification of an abstraction. Irrespective of any “essential” nature, to designate something a religion is to place it into a series of relations with other “religions.” Various entities become religions by being linked up to the world-system in a way that transforms them. Here I mean to gesture toward the insights of both Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis and Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory (as well as those articulated more recently by Peter Beyer). According to a synthesis of these accounts, our current world-system came into effect along with the formation of a system exchange of knowledge and capital, which began to encircle the globe over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In so doing, it produced global systems of self-reinforcing discourse.

Once this insight has been granted, it provides an opening for a new vantage in Religious Studies that would study these processes of becoming, a way to study the term “under erasure.” Not as a universal or essential part of human nature but in its transformative effects.

What I have in mind is what I call “Reflexive Religious Studies.” I model this on a movement in sociology, which notes that you have to have different kinds of sociological techniques to examine those societies in which sociology as a discipline is itself an influence.[ii] You need a new “reflexive sociology” to take into account the way that people’s social identities are shaped by “sociological surveys” or transformed by governments that have already internalized some form of the discipline of sociology. Put differently, there is a place for a higher order sociology that recons with the fact that academic sociology is in a sense porous and tends to seep into the societies that it purports to study.

I want to extend this move to Religious Studies. Reflexive Religious Studies would examine those societies in which religion and its attendant differentiations (e.g. secularism) have begun to function as concepts. It would trace the continuities and disruptions that this category produces in older conceptual orders and aim for precision. And it would also necessarily take into account how the discipline of Religious Studies shapes and produces religions.

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The Invention of Religion in Japan- Won Distinguished Book Award

I haven’t been blogging much lately. I’ve been overwhelmed in trying to simultaneously  finish a manuscript (Dialectic of Darkness) and with the business of chairing a Department for the first time (more work than you’d think). Still I did want to make a quick post because my first monograph The Invention of Religion in Japan has won a major book award “The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion: 2013 Distinguished Book Award.” 


I’m honored that my book has achieved this kind of recognition and from such an august academic society. A million thanks are due to my wonderful friends and colleagues whose suggestions and critical comments helped make it a better work! Also, don’t worry:  I haven’t forgotten about this blog, but I seem to post most when I’m in the early phases of a project and still casting about for ideas….Still, I hope to free up some time this Spring for some more reviews.

Faith of the Faithless

Faith of the FaithlessCritchley, Simon. 2012. The Faith of the Faithless: experiments in political theology. London: Verso Books.

Under the encouragement of a friend, I’ve spent the last six months reading a lot of Žižek. This has been simultaneously pleasurable and infuriating because while I love Žižek’s style (and even agree with him on many issues), I find the politics implied by his more recent turn to Lenin and praise of “divine violence” to be profoundly troubling. (I also radically disagree with Žižek’s analysis of religion, but I’ll save that for a later blog post). My interest was piqued when Žižek condemned the British born, New School-based, political philosopher Simon Critchley, stating that Critchley’s work was “an almost perfect embodiment of the position to which my work is absolutely opposed.” When I then heard that Critchley had made a recent foray into Religious Studies that was getting a lot of attention, I knew that I had to add Faith of the Faithless to my reading list. Having done so, and having cajoled friends and colleagues to read and discuss it with me, I am now in a position to report back some observations.

At the most basic level, Faith of the Faithless is premised on Carl Schmitt’s claim that all significant modern political concepts are really secularized theological concepts (103). In Schmitt’s day an older theory of secularization held sway and many scholars likely imagined that even these theological remainders would be purged over the course of modernity. But in today’s so-called “post-secular age” it appears that instead of increased differentiation, politics and religion are becoming even more deeply intertwined. As Critchley puts it:

“Somehow we seem to have passed from a secular age, which we were ceaselessly told was post-metaphysical, to a new situation in which political action seems to flow directly from metaphysical conflict.” (8)

In effect, Critchley considers all politics to be religious. He suggests that theological concepts are so heavily intertwined with political concepts that in order to have a functioning politics, politics must escape itself by articulating a relation to the transcendent. As a committed atheist, this puts Critchley in a bit of a bind, which he tries to solve by constructing a kind of atheistic political theology. Basically, Faith of the Faithless is an attempt to think about how to organize a new Left politics in the face of the Death of God (or the confrontation with relativistic nihilism). Interestingly Critchley tries to conjure this new political community not by drawing attention to society’s injustices (classic liberal guilt), but through appropriating an explicitly theological language.

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