Journal Article

Between the Lines: Exceeding Historicism in the Study of Religion

Tyler Roberts

in Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Published on behalf of American Academy of Religion

Volume 74, issue 3, pages 697-719
Published in print September 2006 | ISSN: 0002-7189
Published online July 2006 | e-ISSN: 1477-4585 | DOI:
Between the Lines: Exceeding Historicism in the Study of Religion

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“Always historicize”: Frederic Jameson’s imperative today exerts a powerful influence on the study of religion. It informs a wide range of methods and, perhaps more important, it shapes influential definitions of religion and religious subjectivity and agency. This article examines this influence and argues for the necessity of thinking the limits of historicism. Building on Robert Orsi’s efforts to identify a space for academic exploration in-between religious testimony/narrative and social–scientific diagnosis/explanation, I turn to recent efforts by Eric Santner and Slavoj Zizek to articulate a concept of subjectivity—tied closely to Franz Rosenzweig’s concept of “revelation”—in “excess” of history and ideology. Santner and Zizek do not argue for a new, extra-historical foundation for agency and for religious claims but rather theorize and intervene in the “syntax” by which we are bound to history and society. This approach to historicism allows the scholar of religion to enrich accounts of creative religious agency at the same time that it forces them to rethink their relation to religious phenomena and religious subjects in terms of what the anthropologist Michael Jackson calls “encounter.”

But in their prayers to Jude in disorienting times women experienced the “reality of the reality-refusing imagination . . .” they refashioned the world and then directed themselves toward this new horizon become real in the moment of praying.

—Robert Orsi (1996: 211)

The Lacanian lacuna, therefore, is the great crack in the ramparts of late modernism. It is the demystification of the demystifiers.

—Carl Raschke (1996: 65)

Journal Article.  9593 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies

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