Religion is what is always slipping away. It is about, Tyler Roberts writes, “the fact that as we pursue and try to articulate and grasp the things most important to us—whether ‘meaning,’ ‘value,’ ‘identity,’ ‘love,’ ‘God’—they elude us” (12). In fact, meaning and value take place in this elusiveness, in this slippage. Religion cannot be grasped “unless…what we grasp is the impossibility of grasping” (13). It can also be that which locates and fixes and orders and identifies. There is both a compelling mystery and an all-consuming horror to religion. And yet, religious scholars seek to uphold a porous border between the religious and the secular, between objectivity and subjectivity. This is an impossible task that results in the loss of important matters and subtle differences, in the impulse of religion to acknowledge that which cannot be grasped. It would be a failure, Roberts writes, “to attend to practices and ideas that may offer alternatives to dominating and destructive ideologies…it would be a failure to know religion in all its complexity and power” (14).
Religion is that which slips away.
If too many scholars have relied on developments in social theory, naturalism, and the ordinary, then they have also overlooked religion’s ambiguity—they have too securely located themselves and their religious objects. They have ordered both their cosmos and the cosmos of their objects. Moving away from this, Roberts suggests that scholars need to think about what it might look like to study religion humanistically. For him, this takes the shape of what he calls, “post-metaphysical humanism,” wherein the humanities are a site of “encounter” and “response” (21). If encounter is a desire to understand the diverse ways in which humans have reflected on and represented themselves to themselves and others, then response is to reflect on what the ideas and practices scholars study might mean for “us,” in “our” world. “I think,” Roberts writes, “we should consider how attending carefully to crossings between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ discourses, and rethinking what it means to think humanistically, enables valuable forms of critical thinking about religion and about life in general. We should consider…whether as scholars of religion we might learn something valuable by treating certain religious discourses not only as objects of study but as potential methodological resources for the study of religion and for cultural criticism” (23).
*Roberts, Tyler. Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism After Secularism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
*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.