Religion scholar confronts 'the hard edges'

Spirited Thinking | June 21, 2013

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Emory faculty members have earned a reputation for having conversations that transcend disciplinary boundaries. That path often takes scholars out of their comfort zones—and sometimes toward revelation.

Don Seeman, Emory associate professor of religion and Harvard-trained anthropologist, is among those leading the conversation. This year he convened the Emory Forum for the Ethnographic Study of Religion, dedicated to intellectual exchange among scholars from diverse fields who employ ethnographic methods (i.e. scientific description of specific human cultures) to study religion.

Seeman also led an exploration of the intersection of the study of human cultures—ethnography—with theology and ethics, in the latest issue of Practical Matters.

Seeman's "animating passion," in organizing the roundtable, titled "Engaging Religious Experience: A Return to Ethnography and Theology," centers on what he sees as the importance of ethnography as a window on religious experience.

"Because it begins with the vernacular and everyday qualities of religious life," says Seeman, "ethnography has the potential to engage critically and non-reductively with basic religious phenomena like interaction with divinity, as well as social relations and religiously inflected forms of suffering."

The roundtable engages several prominent anthropologists and scholars of religion, along with a response by theologian (and former Emory professor) Mark Jordan. All were asked to reflect critically on some of the crucial theoretical and methodological issues related to ethnographic research and writing on religion.

To get the conversation started, scholars were asked to respond to an essay by Robert Orsi, a prominent scholar of American Catholicism at Northwestern University. Orsi's essay, "Doing Religious Studies With Your Whole Body," argues that the topic of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church demands attention by religion scholars as well as anthropologists.

To Orsi, "scholars of religion do not speak for the people we study, but rather about them," and that there is a "hard core of experience" to which scholars must faithfully attend.

The abuse [in the Roman Catholic Church] is "inflected religiously," says Seeman, "and thus Orsi's contribution invited critical dialogue from both sides of the equation, i.e., it challenges religion scholars to attend critically to the lived realities of religious adherents while also pressing anthropologists to realize that such experiences are not reducible to culture, but are religiously significant."

In his response to Orsi, Seeman outlines his own challenges as an anthropologist of religion.

"Orsi has me thinking about the hard edges of things," writes Seeman:

What ethnographer has never felt the uncompromising urgency to “get the damned story straight,” especially when mistelling might have real and immediate consequences for people whose very hospitality to a researcher may have compounded their vulnerability? This may be even more complex and morally taxing than Orsi suggests, because sometimes getting the story straight does not mean telling it just the way one's informants—almost inevitably one’s friends— would like it to be told.

For this reason, Seeman sees much to be applauded in Mark Jordan's comparison of ethnographic and fiction writing. Jordan has gone so far as to propose that all religion doctoral programs apprentice their students for a year to creative writing workshops.

"I hope to break scholarly writing out of the moribund genres to which its guilds confine it," writes Jordan, "but even more I want to instill in writers a piercing humility about writing out human lives."

Seeman the anthropologist echoes those sentiments, observing that "ethnography is close to worthless, in my view, if it does not also contain something else: a portrayal of the hard edges of things that resist all our interpretive and theoretical interventions; a commitment to honestly confront the ways in which contours of other lives push back against our most cherished moral visions, no matter what these may be."

For Seeman, that doesn't mean a total surrender to "the hard edges," but perhaps a truce. He concludes:

At the end of the day, it isn’t the novelist I think we ought to approximate in the writing of other people’s lives but the medieval exegete. Confronted by a text that is neither subservient nor easily domesticated, he struggles simultaneously to overcome and to perpetuate the power of its alterity. In marginal notes or between the lines, he inscribes something of his own moral and intellectual life in hopes that it may enlighten or bring comfort, but also in the knowledge that no commentary is ever final. If there is revelation here, it lies in the space between.