Comparing the experience and traditions of religion to Kant’s understanding of the sublime as a “representation of limitlessness” that provokes a sense of rational and imaginative “unboundedness,” Daniel Gold argues convincingly that the most provocative “religiohistorical writing” is situated somewhere between the poles of absolute, explanatory understanding and completely individual creativity. Any analysis of religious objects should depict accurately while also being an imaginatively constructed product of an individual perspective. This is accomplished by what Gold calls “interpretive writing,” which seeks to both place religious meaning within a broad vision of humankind in the universe and as stemming from a specific human situation (3). Practically, interpretive writers try both to represent their subject more or less accurately and to sharpen their perspectives on it. This offers two sorts of truth: depth of knowledge, which offers truths of enlightened science, and depth of vision, which offers truths of romantic art. This is the contrast between explanation and interpretation (4).
Religion is an imaginative act.
“Interpretive writers,” Gold writes, “tend to suffer from an uncomfortable modern dilemma. They like religion—in the sense that they see it as revealing vital human truths—but they believe in science, that is in some version of post-Enlightenment positivism” (5). Interpretive writing strives for a middle ground between isolated statements about particulars and grand generalities. Similarly, interpretive writers, pulling from romanticism and neoclassicism, look for depth and rule and order, for pattern and type (49). Finally, interpretive writes utilize “religiohistorical imagination,” which is a way that scholars can validate without authorizing the objects they study while also highlighting the role that imagination plays in the role of the scholar. Religion is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by imaginative acts of comparison and generalization (50). Imagination, for the scholar, seeks to express a vision that colleagues will find intellectually compelling.
*Gold, Daniel. Aesthetics and Analysis in Writing on Religion: Modern Fascinations. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.
*This is the final summary for my upcoming comprehensive exam in the study of religion. Each week, I picked what I found to be the most interesting book of the current section and posted a short summary of it.