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Religious Literacy and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion

March 10, 2010

In the conversation I’ve been having with Tom in the comments to this post on the hermeneutics of suspicion, the issue of literacy came up. Tom suggested that one of the reasons he uses a phenomenological approach in his world religions course is that the goal of the course is primarily to make students literate about religion. I’m not entirely sure how Tom teaches the course, and he does suggest that his approach is not 100% phenomenological, so what follows should not be taken as a critique of him; I’m just commenting on the idea of religious literacy in general.

In Religious Literacy, Stephen Prothero recommends the phenomenological approach (though not by name). He suggests that the American public should be aware of the content of religious traditions. People should have a working knowledge of things like the Sermon on the Mount, and the differences between Sunnis and Shi’as. For him, that working knowledge needn’t be critical.

Julie Ingersoll, Nathan Rein, and Ken Lokensgard take him to task for this in the special issue of the Bulletin dedicated to a consideration of Religious Literacy. Rein in particular suggests that what Prothero is recommending is that students amass trivia. The implication, I presume, is that trivia isn’t worth much. Ingersoll suggests the following (she’s discussing in part Prothero’s lament that Americans know very little about the content of their very own religions):

The reason that Americans can be so religious and yet know little of the “content” of their religions is that “the content” is only one part of religion. In fact, I contend it it’s the less important part; what really matters is the tribal quality, the group cohesion, the manner in which the religion can help a person form a coherent identity (for better or ill) and to connect with a social group.

In his “Theses on Method,” our discipline’s reigning master of the hermeneutics of suspicion—Bruce Lincoln—suggests that the study of religion should include the following:

The same destabilizing and irreverent questions one might ask of any speech act ought be posed of religious discourse. The first of these is “Who speaks here?”, i.e., what person, group, or institution is responsible for a text, whatever its putative or apparent author. Beyond that, “To what audience? In what immediate and broader context? Through what system of mediations? With what interests?” And further, “Of what would the speaker(s) persuade the audience? What are the consequences if this project of persuasion should happen to succeed? Who wins what, and how much? Who, conversely, loses?”

I would say that we are not “literate” if we know the basic content of a religious tradition (it’s dominant symbols, rituals, or whatever). I would say we are “literate” only if we can begin to answer the questions Lincoln poses.

Consider, for instance, the baptism of Jesus, which I recently mentioned in this post:

  • According to Mark, John baptized Jesus.
  • According to Matthew, John baptized Jesus only after getting Jesus’ permission.
  • According to Luke, it looks like John was in prison when Jesus was baptized.

We are not “literate” about what is going on here unless we ask and answer Lincoln’s critical questions. We need to consider how this story might have been embarrassing, and that it stands to reason that Matthew and Luke might have fabricated their additions or changes in order to make the story less embarrassing. We are not “literate” about what’s going on here if we don’t ask those questions.

When I teach Prothero’s book and Ingersoll’s response in my Hebrew Bible course, I ask students if they think that having read the Hebrew Bible and knowing its contents helps them understand contemporary Judaism. They immediately say no, and I concur: in order to understand contemporary Judaism we would have think think not about what their sacred texts say but how different Jewish groups use those texts—and once we move on to that question we’re into critical territory.

Basic literacy entails critique. If we stopped where Prothero suggests—if we sat back and rested upon having reviewed a tradition’s basic content—then we wouldn’t have understood anything.

One Comment leave one →
  1. tom c. permalink
    March 10, 2010 10:39 pm

    A very good post! I’m enjoying the provocation to think a bit more critically about method and pedagogy.

    One idea I might offer in reply is that the factors discussed by Ingersoll and Lincoln in those quotations would, I contend, need to be among the data scholars/students attend to in their investigations. What I’m saying essentially is that I want to absorb those criticisms of phenomenology in order to improve the method. (Perhaps I’m not really a phenomenologist — I may be more of a pragmatist; it’s just that I find phenomenology to be useful for the objectives of my world religions course.) In fact, in my teaching I tend to emphasize the pluralities within larger religious traditions; I consider the disagreements and disputes within and between larger traditions to be among the data a responsible study will cover. Where I struggle is in choosing what to cover and what not to cover about a larger tradition in a single course.

    In any case, I don’t think of religious literacy as a goal that can be achieved by a single course, but it is a guiding ideal for me. I should also say that ultimately I think that the idea of bracketing off preconceptions or interpretations of data is illusory. I just don’t think we can occupy that sort of epistemic standpoint. Yet, learning to look or listen carefully is a very useful skill; it can enable more subtle interpretations of a field of phenomena.

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