Abstract: Religions, myths, rituals and theologies are understood by many scholars somehow to possess or transmit essential truths or values that magically transcend their particular setting. In a word, “things religious” are presumed from the outset to be extraordinary, thus requiring special interpretive methods for their study. This essay attempts to reverse this penchant in modern scholarship on religion by presuming instead that those observable activities we name as “religion” are an ordinary component of social formations and, as such, can be sufficiently studied by drawing on the methods commonly used throughout the human sciences. Using “the problem of evil” as a test case, the essay argues that seemingly privileged or unique discourses on evil are but ordinary efforts at establishing cognitive intelligibility and overt political justification.Order now
There is nothing more difficult to convey than reality in all its ordinariness. Flaubert was fond of saying that it takes a lot of hard work to portray mediocrity. Sociologists run into this problem all the time: How can we make the ordinary extraordinary and evoke ordinariness in such a way that people will see just how extraordinary it is? (Bourdieu 1998: 21)
Theology as Ordinary Human Data
When I first read Pierre Bourdieu’s above comment on the surprising effort it takes to represent ordinariness as extraordinary, I was struck by the importance of his seemingly subtle point. It is important for three reasons. First, it takes seriously the insider’s unreflective understanding of their own social worlds after all, the object of study throughout the human sciences is people simply doing what they happen to be doing. Second, Bourdieu helps scholars to focus their attention on the techniques whereby people represent a subset of their behaviors (i.e., what they happen to be doing) as important, meaningful, and worthy of reproduction and transmission (i.e., what they must or ought to be doing). Finally, both of these points reinforce the notion that scholars are not in the business of merely paraphrasing a group’s own articulate or reflective understanding of themselves; instead, we bring our own curiosities, value systems, and sets of anticipations (i.e., theories) to bear on our human data, leaving us responsible for making this or that cultural act significant in a whole new way.
For scholars concerned with studying those assorted cultural practices easily understood by most everyone in society to be obviously important – I’m talking here about those things we call religion,’ by the way – Bourdieu’s comment has profound implications. If we presume those beliefs, behaviors, and institutions usually classified as religious’ to be nothing more or less than instances of completely ordinary social-formative behavior, then the trick would be to develop an interest in the ways that such routine social acts come to stand out as privileged in the first place. The trick, then, is not simply to reproduce the classification scheme, value system, and hence sociopolitical world, of one’s informants (i.e., the so-called religious people themselves), but to bring a new language to bear, a language capable of redescribing the indigenous accounts of extraordinariness, privilege, and authority as being ordinary rhetorical efforts that make extraordinariness, privilege, and authority possible.
In a word, the trick would be to make participant rhetorics and indigenous self-reflection on religion’ one’s data. I am therefore part of a scholarly tradition that sees theology and its practitioners as nothing more or less than native informants1; they are but one more group whose reports and actions are in need of study and theorization. For instance, I recall that the Protestant process theologian and advocate of liberal religious pluralism, John Cobb, once spoke at a university where I was teaching; I found it rather odd attending his talk for I did not see myself there as Cobb’s colleague or dialogue partner. Rather, I attended the lecture much as an anthropologist might attend a ritual ceremony as a participant-observer gathering descriptive data for later theoretical reworking.
Scholars of religion, such as myself, therefore conceive of and study theologians as elite social practitioners, as generally privileged, influential mythmakers.2 Although not all of the scholars of religion’s data will come from the ranks of theologians (after all, not all of the people and groups we study are involved in the articulate, systematic reflection and rational expression