In-Between Places

In “Snakes Alive: Religious Studies between Heaven and Earth,” [1] Robert Orsi describes the “moralizing imperative” of religious studies. For Orsi, “it seems to be virtually impossible to study religion without attempting to distinguish between its good and bad expressions, without working to establish a normative hierarchy of religious idioms (ascending from negative to positive, ‘primitive’ to high, local to universal, infantile to mature … and a methodological justification for it” (Orsi, 183). For Orsi, this moralizing imperative inherent to religious studies is attributable to “the charged political and intellectual circumstances within which the modern study of religion came to be” and “our hidden moral and political history” (Orsi, 180). For Orsi, methodology in religious studies is riddled with unacknowledged assumptions that serve to perpetuate specific historical biases and the implicit power relations that underlie those biases, under the guise of a “scientific” academic enterprise. As part of the historical development and consolidation of these biases within the methodological structure of the study of religion, “Normative terms were presented as analytical categories, and their implicit moral and cultural assumptions went unchallenged” (Orsi, 187). From a strictly academic perspective, the moralizing imperative of religious studies is especially damaging insofar as it limits “the range of human practices, needs, and responses that count as ‘religion’” (Orsi, 179). Hence, the moralizing imperative blinds religious scholars to much of the phenomena that, in Orsi’s view, these scholars should be concerned with. Certain human behaviours and practices are being excluded from the scope of legitimate religious phenomena on a basis that has more to do with power relations between cultural groups and less to do with genuine advancement in the intellectual understanding of the human religious imagination. Scholars of religion, it would seem, do too much judging and not enough observing.

Orsi complains that the modern study of religion is too analytical and objective, and tends to ignore certain qualitative aspects of individual religious experiences. From the moralizing imperative and the associated preoccupation of religious scholars with “true” or “good” religion, “all the complex dynamism of religion is stripped away” (Orsi, 188). For Orsi, there is a wealth of important knowledge pertaining to the human religious imagination that is accessible to scholars exclusively through the means of subjection, engagement, and participation, as opposed to traditional observation and analysis. To address this perceived gap in the study of religion, Orsi recommends that scholars assume “an in-between orientation, located at the intersection of self and other, at the boundary between one’s own moral universe and the moral world of the other” (Orsi, 198). But Orsi warns that this in-between stance, commensurate with the rewards it can generate, may also constitute an occupational risk for the religious scholar, who must delve so deeply into the religious experiences of others that s/he becomes vulnerable to the spiritual power of attraction of those observed: “The space is a dangerous one because one cannot, after all, simply abandon one’s deepest values or tolerate the intolerable, even though something awful and intolerable might make sense in someone else’s world” (Orsi, 202).

In “Belief Unbracketed,”[2] Stephen Prothero also calls for deeper engagement on behalf of scholars of religion with their religious subjects, albeit in a different form than Orsi’s in-between stance. The moralizing imperative that Orsi shuns is precisely the avenue that Prothero thinks religious studies should pursue. For Prothero, we need to “resuscitate religion as a moral enterprise” by tearing down “the barrier against our own judgements” and tackle the moral issues “head-on.” Prothero’s intention might be to critique Orsi’s direction in “Snakes Alive,” yet, as it might not have occurred to Prothero, the true nature of the moral engagements of religious subjects might best be understood, and confronted, precisely within Orsi’s dangerous, in-between place, since it is here that one’s deepest values face potential abandonment. 

[1] Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

[2] Prothero, Stephen, “Belief Unbracketed,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin (November 6, 2007).


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