The Aesthetics of Writing Religion

religion-assignment-writing-tipsComparing 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.

Religion in Objects

runesS. Brent Plate seeks to shift our focus away from the role of the senses in religious experience and towards the role of the object. Religion, for Plate, is rooted in interactions not only with posited superhuman agents but also in the body and its sensual relations to physical objects. It is not the religious significance of the five objects Plate describes that is universal, but rather the apparent incompleteness of human beings and their yearning for contact with things outside of themselves. This is the ½ in the title of the book and the argument Plate makes in his final chapter. Plate suggests that ‘‘religion, in its deepest forms aims to rebind the half body to the world’’ (218). Plate rightly argues, ‘‘religious history is incomplete if it ignores the sensing body and the seemingly trivial things it confronts’’ (14). Ordinary things can become extraordinary through religious experience via the primary contact points between the self and the world, which are the sense organs: the mouth, nose, eyes, ears, and skin. “This is to say,” Plate writes, “that religious history is incomplete if it ignores the sensing body and the seemingly trivial things it confronts” (12).

Religion is a rebinding, a physicality, a sensual engagement with the physical bodies of the world.

Religion derives from rudimentary human experiences, from lived, embodied practices. A shift, Plate argues, that highlights the many histories that begin with an indefinite article, histories that more scholars of religion should seek to write. In an extremely helpful metaphor that examines the distinction between semiotics and the material world, Plate writes: “The river is made up of the primary physical experiences of our sensual body, and the bridge is the language we use to build upon these experiences and make them intelligible to others and to ourselves. Without the bridge, we are just swimming in the current. With only the bridge, we are forgetful, disconnected creatures” (14). Plate’s book then is written in order to bring religion to its senses, to return religion to the materiality of the flowing river. In this way, Plate argues that scholars of religion should imagine religious histories as histories of technology. “Religious people are not believers,” he writes, “so much as technologists…[as] it is physical objects like stones, incense, drums, crosses, and bread, and our technological encounters with them, that give rise to our religious language and make sacred utterances meaningful” (15-16).

*Plate, S. Brent. A History of Religion in 5½ Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses. Boston: Beacon, 2015.

*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.