The “Problems” of Comparison Will Not Be Solved: Acceptance, Resistance and Other “Cures” for the Religious Studies Scholar

world-religionsIn the Guide to the Study of Religion, the fourth chapter entitled “Comparison” by Luther H. Martin emphasizes the theoretical problems that surround the issue of comparison in the study of religions, how these problems have been dealt with by various scholars in multiple disciplinary approaches, and concludes by offering his suggestions for the future of scholarship in the field. While giving the guise of being a mere survey of the evolution of the study of religions in academia through time, the seasoned reader is, by no means, persuaded of his very directed, very rigorous attempt to resuscitate positivism into a methodology of study. In fact, with a few variations based on past mistakes, Martin puts forth a pseudo neo-positivism that claims that a scientific comparison of religion is not only possible, but the only way to study religion(s). The issues with Martin’s reform rests in his misunderstanding of post-modernism which he is quick to dismiss as being apologetic or overprotective of particularism and so descends into a kind of relativism from which no knowledge of value for the scholar can be gleaned (50). In this short analysis, I will show where Martin’s inadequate understanding and generalizations of the postmodern method take hold, particularly illuminating through a meditation on translation from Jonathan Z. Smith. Finally, I will borrow lessons from the study of Social Memory in order to offer the death knell for positivism with an order to not resuscitate (for once and for all) by engaging with the poor assumptions of Martin’s final proposals. What is missing from this text is a clear and concise postmodern-inspired methodology that functions for the scholar of religions as a replacement. While I see this as fundamentally necessary, the space constraints of this paper prevent me from formulating it here and I will have to be satisfied with arguing that point elsewhere. It should also be noted that any passing reference to post-modernity will be offered on a scholar-by-scholar basis as a comprehensive synthesis is not possible in this size of a paper.

Post Modernism Does Not Equal Pandering Relativism

An elementary observation by scholars who have only done cursory readings of postmodernist literature tend to assert that the final outcome of their theoretical understanding is relativism. This is because many postmodernists, especially Foucault, focus on the power of discourses to shape our “realities” (which do not ontologically exist or at least can never be accessed), including our ethical systems, and theoretical and scientific generalizations. However, it might be construed that “such well-meant attempts to preserve the integrity of “others”…has often result[ed] in a reiteration by paraphrase of what others say of themselves…” (50) In other words, Martin claims that by recognizing the differences in how people construct generalizations and categories for comparison, the analysis will be null and descriptive studies will be the result. This could not be further from the truth.

Jonathan Z. Smith is also quoted by Martin and is even cited as being the only scholar of religion to give sustained attention to the issue of comparison (45). Interestingly, Smith himself puts forth a criteria for comparative study that closely resembles what is proposed by postmodernism in general. While I do not claim to apply that label of “postmodernist” to him (something that might horrify), particularly after reading his book Imagining Religion in which he equates the act of comparison to that of conducting “magic” (in the derogatory sense of the term), it should be said, that some of what he argues for fits the methodology employed by some scholars in the postmodernist school of religious studies. A few examples of these scholars will be explored later.

In a lecture entitled “Why Compare Religions?” given at Princeton University in October 2003, Smith states that “the value of comparison [is] as an intrusive activity, one of methodical manipulation” (4). This is not something that can wished away by positivists – it is how things are: scholars manipulate. This is an action consciously built into the so-called scientific method itself. Like the postmodernists, Smith too argues that comparison “requires assuming responsibility for your work and… to make your workings so explicit that they can subsequently be undone”(5)[1]. In this assertion is the assumption that our scholarly analysis is necessarily subjective, personal, and temporal-spatial-culturally contextual which will shift over time among scholars to yield new mental frameworks that offer other methods or scopes of analysis and, subsequently, yield different results and values of results. Smith further goes on to argue that while comparison “entails difference if it is to be at all interesting [ie. of value in the pursuit of knowledge]” (7) and that “comparison requires difference and aims at difference” (9), he is not so quick to destroy the possibility of similarity. The idea is that for there to be difference, there must be some perceived form of similarity, even if on the most general, superficial level. While asserting ontological sameness for postmodernists is inherently problematic, this is not what Smith is doing here. Instead, Smith aptly recognize that there must be some degree of sameness to initiate comparison and that taking responsibility for your work lays in the recognition that “there is nothing ‘given’ or ‘natural’ in those elements selected for comparison, [that] they are the result of the scholar’s mental operations” (11-12). Does this mean that comparisons will be inherently descriptive and devoid of meaning? Absolutely not. As Smith said in this lecture and elsewhere, “religion’ and ‘religions’ [are] conceptual categories created for the scholar’s analytic purposes” (17) and when we compare them, we are necessarily engaging in an act of interpretation from our viewpoint.

Translation: The Only Essentialism is Difference

Smith channels Hans Penner and Donald Davidson in his lecture when he states that “to interpret means to translate,” (14) further noting that “translation recognizes, at the very heart of its enterprise, that nothing is ever quite the same” (Ibid). While this echoes the postmodernist assertions about an inherent incomparability of all things, I want to quote the sentences that followed because they are crucial to understanding how, then, interpretation can still take place. Rather than cower in the prehistoric corner of “the scientific method”, as Martin does, grabbing at his grossly inadequate security blanket of empiricism in the face of what can be overwhelming biological and philosophical plurality, Smith embraces this wholeheartedly and plunges forth into the diverse unknown. He claims, “translation can be congruent, its adequacy can be evaluated, it can be criticized, negotiated, and improved – but it cannot be identical, it cannot be complete, the relative difference cannot (finally) be overcome”(15). This is the centerpiece of postmodernism, which Martin was so quick to dismiss: difference will always be maintained but methodology is what changes and can be studied as elucidating some form of knowledge about either of the units compared, in light of the scholar comparing. Perhaps a quotation from the Preface of Patton and Ray’s anthology A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in Postmodernism would be most helpful in illustrating this point. The authours “reclaim the term ‘magic’ [from Smith] to endorse and extend his claim that comparison is an indeterminate scholarly procedure that is best undertaken as an intellectually creative enterprise, not as a science but as an art – an imaginative and critical act of mediation and redescription in the service of knowledge” (4). It is in the manipulation of difference, “ a playing across the “gap” of differences, for the purpose of gaining intellectual insight” (Ibid). Most provocative are the attempts in this volume to reimagine comparison as a form of “imaginative and ironical juxtaposition…as a way of stripping away illusions of ‘uniqueness’ for each religious situation” (Ibid). This stripping of uniqueness is not in the sense of removing particularism, which cannot be done, but rather some metaphysical understanding of uniqueness that qualifies one religion valuationally in comparison to another. For a succinct understanding of this idea, I will briefly turn to Theodore Adorno whose method of “constellating” (handed down from Benjamin and Giedion) is particularly provocative here, as defined by Martin Jay in meditations on Adorno’s work: “a juxtaposed, rather than integrated cluster of changing elements that resist reduction to a common denominator, essential core or generative first principle” (14-15). The argument that these are the only ways to derive meaning is absurd and begs the question of why people see the unifying or generalizing narrative as being more meaningful in the first place.

Lessons from Social Memory

Adorno is particularly well-loved in the emerging and evolving field of Social Memory – a field practically founded by postmodernists and engaging in historical, anthropological, sociological, psychological and other forms of analysis quite prominently in the Academy. In fact, many of the basic theoretical foundations in the field of social memory will help us to understand how their application in comparative religious studies might be of benefit in the pursuit of ethical knowledge – the last concept something I will explore briefly in the conclusion but which must be left for future debate elsewhere. For these purposes, I want to look at a text by Mario Liverani, Memorandum on the Approach to Historiographic Texts which echoes some of the sentiments of Smith. After establishing an understanding of a text (which could just as easily be applied to other items of analysis that are non-textual) “not as a ‘source of information’ but as information in itself; not as an opening on a reality laying beyond, but as an element which makes up that reality” (179). In this method, the importance is not placed on understanding events or elements that can be said to comprise a religion, “but on how they are narrated” (Ibid). This is further qualified by showing how the type of research that involves the examination of how peoples’ existential feelings and historical events correspond is all but impossible. It should be noted that ‘historical events’ can easily be replaced with ritual, religious belief or some other piece of ‘observable’ data. As Liverani succinctly puts it:

We are not in possession of the historical event, only of some interpretation of it: the views taken by the different actors and witnesses, and the opinions of the historians [or scholars of religion] who reconstruct [them] through those views… the concept of “historical event”, which in all cases implies a choice in interpretation, a way of understanding and presenting (185).[2]

Smith himself affirms this sentiment in his lecture, stating “we cannot compare ‘religions’ as if they were concrete objects. (After all, there are no existent genera)” (17) and despite violence that might be done as a result of comparison, it is definitively a human enterprise and must be carried out – “reflexively refined and critically deployed as a disciplinary tool, it can reveal as much about our practices as scholars as it may about the activities of other folk” (17-18).

The point about violence or harm is important for understanding, something that may have been misunderstood by Martin as well. In terms of radical postmodernist thought, there can be no discourse without potential violence or harm done to the terms studied as it will always necessitate some form of definition foreign to the object. I would argue that if harm can be done in such an instance, this is also the point where resistance can be found.[3]

Conclusions: The Final Death of Positivism?

If postmodern methodology is neither relativistic nor deluded by the idea that you could study anything in religion except an individual’s or group’s memory of its phenomena, and if postmodernism is not so hubristic as to claim an overcoming of inherent, insoluble difference between things compared, then what of positivism? What of Martin’s final prospects for the future of the act of comparison in religious studies? Near the end of his chapter, Martin claims that” formal, theoretically constructed generalizations about religion can finally be filled in or amplified with the data of particular religious traditions” and that such generalizations would also define the data (53). Though he concedes that this data makes a religion inherently unique for its participants, his framework is backwards. A close analysis of the data and its self-definitions juxtaposed against alternate data can yield the highly contextual generalizations, not the other way around. He claims that naturalistic theories “raise once again the Enlightenment proposal of human universals but without the metaphysical/theological assumptions” (55) – a point inherently problematic for postmodernists who, again, beg the question of what benefit there is in resurrecting universals if they have shown time and time again (whether metaphysical in their assumptions or not) to contain the seeds of oppression and misinformation. Far more interesting, is why we, as scholars, continuously feel the need to do so.


Sources Referenced and Cited

Coleman, Simon and John Eade, eds. Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion. Routledge: London. 2004.

Critchley, Simon. The Ethics of Deconstruction. Blackwell Publishers: India. 1992.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison. Pantheon Books: New York. 1977.

Hirst, Aggie. “Derrida and Political Resistance: The Radical Potential of Deconstruction” in Globalizations, Vol 12:1, 2015, p 6-24

Liverani, Mario. “Memorandum on the Approach to Historiographic Texts” in Orientalia, Vol 42, 1973, p. 178-94.

Martin, Jay. Adorno. Harvard University Press. 1984.

Martin, Luther H. “Comparison” in Guide to the Study of Religion. Willi Braun and Russell . McCutcheon, eds. Cassell: London. 2000.

Patton, Kimberley and Benjamin Ray, Eds. A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age. University of California Press: Berkeley. 2000.

Smith, Jonathan Z. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. University of Chicago Press. 1982.

Smith, Jonathan Z. “Why Compare Religions?” Princeton University, October 2003. Conference in Honor of John F. Wilson.

[1] Note that the notion of ethical responsibility is considered a fundamental point of Derrida’s deconstructive methodology. For more meditations on this, I recommend Simon Critchley’s The Ethics of Deconstruction:Derrida and Levinas.

[2] An excellent example of the application of these ideas onto the actual study of some religious phenomena while still deriving legitimate meaning can be found in the Introduction of Coleman and Eade’s Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion. For an analysis that employs some of these ideas, also see “On Social Memory and Identity Formation in Late Persian Yehud” by Ben Zvi.

[3] For an excellent, very recent analysis of this, please see Hirst, Aggie. “Derrida and Political Resistance: The Radical Potential of Deconstruction” in Globalizations, Vol 12:1, 2015, p 6-24. Hirst argues that resistance in the Neo-Gramscian and Foucauldian traditions “suffer from a common problem in that the forms of resistance they conceptualise are highly susceptible to appropriation by, or reinscription within, prevailing forms of global ordering…[however] inasmuch as deconstruction attempts to interrupt forms of thinking and knowing right up to and including processes of conscious and unconscious subjectification, it can provide valuable means by which the micro-gestures of onto-politics can be resisted at the (fundamentally interrelated) levels of political thought and concrete praxis.” While this is aimed at political activism, a similar argument can be made for activism through scholarship.


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