Visions of Religion

snakeStephen Bush argues for viewing the study of religion as a succession of three visions. The first was a vision of experience (James, Otto, and Eliade). The second was of symbolic meaning of religious phenomena (Geertz). And the third was of systemic and social forms of power operating upon material media (bodies, practices, and artifacts) to produce, reproduce and resist dominant political and economic structures (Foucault, Asad, Bourdieu). Bush continues that each of the three visions (experience, meaning, and power) are indispensable for the study of religion (2). “We should think of religion,’’ he writes, ‘‘not as a special type of experience, or as a system of meanings, or as power relations, but as something that incorporates all three: a social practice’’ (3). Bush, after laying out his thesis, goes on to show why each particular vision failed after a time. Experience was spurned for meaning because it ignored language and risked locating religion in a private interior realm. Power outpaced meaning because the latter removed religion from its systemic and material grounding.

Religion is a social practice.

Bush is able to rescue both experience and meaning, however, by relying on a inferentialist semantics grounded in pragmatics, which is a fancy way of claiming that language and practice are infinitely entangled within social contexts. ‘‘Power,’’ Bush argues, ‘‘could not produce its [disciplinary or coercive] effects without the symbolic context in which it operates’’ (74). Finally, Bush defines his theory of religion as ‘‘the critical analysis of the assumptions and key concepts involved in the practice and study of religion’’ (201).

*Bush, S. S. Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

*This summary is for my upcoming comprehensive exam in the study of religion. Each week, I pick what I find to be the most interesting book of the current section and post a short summary of it.