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"Had we but world enough, and time..." *
An Alchemy of Religion4/23/2007 13:26:35
As a student of religious studies, I am pretty regularly asked what I am going to do with this. I've never quite figured out how not to trail off in my answer: "Um, ... teach ... or write ... or work in Washington or something ..." And in an irreverent mood I might add an old standby that I first thought of in college: "start a cult." It is interesting, actually, that this isn't more talked about.
With a degree in physics, a person has learned the principles for making a lot of machines. With chemistry, the principles for making chemicals. People get sociology degrees so that they can go into advertising and control groups of people, and others get political science degrees so they can consult for political campaigns. Then there are, of course, the historians who don't make history, the critics who don't make art, and so forth. Religious studies, as a field between the humanities and social sciences with a little toe-hold in the arts (as I would argue from both history and contemporary method), leaves making an open question. This is plain enough to see at the American Academy of Religion meetings, which are bizarre carnivals made up of shy chroniclers, preachy theologians, and everything in between. Some of us are there to make religion, some of us decidedly not.
In his series of articles titled "Acknowledgments," J.Z. Smith link's Eliade's foundational method for the study of religion to Goethe's morphology of plants. In it, he cites this fabulous passage from one of Goethe's letters:
I must confess to you that I am very close to discovering the secret of the creation and organization of plants ... With such a model ... it will be possible to invent plants ad infinitum. They will be strictly logical plants - that is to say, even though they may not actually exist they could exist - they would not be mere pictutresque or poetic shadows or dreams, but would possess an inner truth and necessity. (Smith, Relating Religion, 71)
With the connection between Eliade and Goethe established, this passage raises the question of whether Eliade dreamed of something similar, dreamed of dreaming up new religions from only air and his set of universal structures. And further, with the ambiguous but unavoidable connections between so much current comparative religion and Eliade's work, whether that dream might still be alive in the field today.
If this is the cause, of course, we have been beaten to it by science fiction writers, few of whom had religious studies training. L. Ron Hubbard is unquestionably the greatest, who is recorded as having said that he would invent a religion and who proceded to do just that with Scientology. No graduate of a religious studies program has been nearly so successful.
But I am not convinced, even after the total critique of Eliade's method, that this dream is altogether disappeared. We certainly are not pursuing it with all our energies, but it still might lurk in the shadows. Especially in the ambition for a science of religions, there is the nagging question that I keep getting asked (which is more sensible than we like to lead on): "What are you going to do with that?"
re: An Alchemy of Religion - 4/25/2007 19:38:39