Journal Article


Eric J. Ziolkowski

in Literature and Theology

Volume 12, issue 3, pages 305-325
Published in print September 1998 | ISSN: 0269-1205
Published online September 1998 | e-ISSN: 1477-4623 | DOI:

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Our age of carnival, as Nathan Scott dubbed it ten years ago, adapting the phrase from Mikhail Bakhtin, is a daunting time for humanistic inquiry. It is a time when ‘nothing is accorded a privilaged status, and everything is relativized,’ and ‘the myriad disjunctions that fractionize and disunite cultural discourse… make all are our formus a scene of babel’. Amidst the polyphony (or cacophony) arising out of this scene, where, in the words of another scholar, ‘the humanities, along with some of the “softer” social sciences like anthropology and sociology, have been the battlefields of the extended Kulturkampf’, no areas of study become more challenging than those whose parameters encompass two or more different disciplines This is preeminently true of the area which Scott began helping to pioneer almost half a century ago, religion and literature.

Like that legendary tower that arose on the plain of Shinar, only to be destroyed, the imposing theoretical structures of Western philosophy and theology, together with the time-honoured canons of Western literature, have been assailed in recent decades—not by a supreme deity, but by the very heirs of those who erected and arranged them Coinciding with that assault, serious doubt has been cast upon the very categories that define religion and literature. As if to support the ‘death of God’ vogue among theologians in the early 1960s, the scholarly concept of ‘religion’ was soon proclaimed bankrupt, and two of its primary siblings, ‘myth’ and ‘the sacred’, have more recently been dismissed as shams, at least as employed by historians of religions. Similarly ‘literature’ can now be critiqued as a construct of ‘modern bourgeois culture’. And were we to extend the negative innuendo of the question posed by the reader-response theorist, ‘Is there a text in this class?, the logical corollary would be that ‘literature’ is conjured only in the minds of readers, or of communities of readers, and hence that texts do not really exist.

This latter conclusion is what deconstruction also came to imply, albeit through a different argument. By breaking down the linguistic dichotomies of ordinary/non-ordinary or serious/non-serious speech, deconstruction erases the distinction between literature and such other modes of discourse as philosophy, history, and journalism, making literature all, or, in effect, nothing. Ironically, the deconstructionist will inevitably turn to attack ‘theory’ itself. Yet such an exercise does nothing, nor is meant to do anything, to reverse the ‘revolution in methodology’ that has just occurred, a revolution whose ‘dominating force … is postmodernism, an omnibus term for poststructuralism, deconstruction, new historicism, semiotics, and the like’.

In the wake of such conceptual ferment and negation, not to mention the backlash against that negation, it behoves humanists more than ever to be clear about how they conceive their disciplines. If, as Gertrude Himmelfarb observes, ‘for the scholar, the method is the medium,’ it is also true that the conceptualizing of an academic field must precede the formulation of any method or medium for tilling it, let alone the articulation of any message to be reaped from its soil. So it is primarily upon the level of conceptualization as opposed to that of methodological discussion that I wish to proceed in this essay.

It is my conviction that in charting courses of study for the future, something worthy is to be gained by reconsidering the contributions, both substantive and theoretical, of whatever past scholarly traditions might be pertinent to one's interests. As I have contended in another forum, recent tendencies among scholars of religion and literature to immerse themselves in literary theory should complement, but cannot substitute for, study of religious phenomena per se. Such scholars, together with those who reaffirm the importance of the ‘creative dialectic’ of literature and theology, might find their work fruitfully allied with an approach that is informed by the theoretical and methodological insights of the scholarly enterprise once called Religionswissenschaft, or ‘science of religion’, known more loosely now as comparative religion or the history of religions—the one aspinngly autonomous discipline devoted to the study of religious phenomena.

My purpose here will be to elaborate upon this point by remarking the separate histories of comparative religion and the study of religion and literature, and then suggesting a framework in which to conceive of the two fields in alliance with one another. (Most readers are probably aware of the somewhat comparable effort initiated by faculty at The University of Chicago Divinity School in the late 1980s to draw die discipline of philosophy of religion into a meaningful dialogue with the history of religions, anthropology, and theology.) For some, what I shall be up to might call to mind Foucault's practice of ‘archaeology’; although not conceived in accordance with his methodology, my ensuing endeavor might be described as a brief excavation at the scholarly ‘site’ of comparative religion—an excavation done with the aim of exposing the overlappings of that area with the area of literary studies, in the hope of revealing some inherent affinities that might allow for a conception of those two fields in alliance together.

From the outset it should be understood that my plan is not to provide up-to-the-moment reportage on the most recent developments in either the history of religions or religion and literature. Rather I shall focus mainly upon certain lineages of classic sources in the two areas In doing so, I readily acknowledge the ‘ambiguity’ and ‘ambivalence’ which has been sensed ‘permeating the scene of incomplete burial of the classical masters’ such as F. Max Muller, Durkheim, and Freud. ‘First, there is the ambivalence of the contemporary appraisal and of the attitude toward the dead admiration and virtual veneration for their daring on the one hand, and condemnation of their hubns and naivete on the other. Second, there is the ambivalence of the position of the contemporary scholar, qua “Western man”, that “he” both does and does not renounce die quest for origins.’ Qua myself, however, I am interested in approaching the classics not with an a priori intent of negating or ‘deconstructing’ them or the traditions they spawned, but for the purpose of distilling from them whatever might illuminate paths of inquiry that might be viably and worthily followed Indeed, while some feel impelled to ‘renounce’ outright the quest for origins for its having possibly led ‘those great forefathers’ to hitting upon ‘some monstrosity, a discovery which threatened to overpower the very basis of dieir original quest’, the suspicion of diose scholarly ‘dead’ that the origins of religious and aesthetic phenomena were somehow interrelated is precisely one of die issues that intrigues me.

Journal Article.  0 words. 

Subjects: Literature ; Religion and Art, Literature, and Music

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