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WHAT A DIFFERENCE THEORY MAKES

The solution is not more data but the recognition that the problems we face are often generated by the theoretical assumptions we use. The problems raised by representational or referential theories of religion or myth can be solved once we recognize that questions about the meaning of myth are equivalent to questions about the meaning of language, or the meaning of a sentence; the meaning of a sentence is not its reference to or correspondence with something (Davidson 1985; Penner 1999). If this theoretical claim is true, and I believe that it is, then the question that requires an answer is this: Why have scholars of religion continued to work as if the claim did not exist? There are two answers to this question. The first answer attempts to establish the meaning of myth as a special case. That is to say, the meaning of myth is sui generis. Some of the great Romantic scholars can be interpreted as claiming such a thesis with the notion that myths are “tautegorical” or self-referential. I know of no analysis of the meaning of myth as semantically sui generis. Such an interpretation or translation would involve expressing truth conditions that are themselves sui generis and thus incommensurable with language. You can attempt to solve this particular problem by claiming that the language of myth and religion simply does not involve truth conditions or propositions, that both languages are basically nonrational (see Tambiah 1985; Bloch 1974; Penner 2002). Although we may at times find such claims very tempting, it is always best to pause and reflect on the nonsense, the self-contradiction, to which these claims inevitably lead. Those who track Jonathan Smith’s footnotesan adventure in itself-may remember this one from H. W. Turner: “when Otto describes this experience of the Numen as ‘Wholly Other’ he cannot mean wholly ‘Wholly Other’” (2004, 301 n. 184). Rudolf Otto, of course, provides us with an entrance into the second exception, an exception that you can still find in the study of religion at the present time, particularly in its Protestant Christian varieties. This exception can be found in studies of religion that assume a theological framework; fideism is the classic example. The numinous, god, the referent of myth and other forms of religious language and practice is not, and can never be, an object of study. Thus the denial or persistent resistance to theoretical work in the study of religion can often be traced to the theological assumption that religion cannot be interpreted by the use of theory, but, rather, it must be experienced, it is “a given.” The usual identification of this approach can be noted by the use of “faith” as a synonym for “religion,” as in “the Christian and other faiths.” The referent of faith cannot be known, it is beyond any and all descriptions. Religious language, the language of myth, is at best always symbolic in a very loose sense since the numinous, that which is wholly other, cannot be objectified. Myths, religious language, we are told,

are “multivalent” (Eliade 1959; Turner 1967). The hankering for archaic wholeness, the given, remains the trademark of Romanticism in the study of religion. But the consequences of this approach to the meaning of religion and myth are catastrophic. If the numinous, “the given,” can never be known we are left with a permanent epistemological gap between the cognitive self and the numinous reality, the subjective experience and the “Real.” Unable to extrapolate knowledge from such a position we are left with dualisms such as body/mind, subjectivity/objectivity and the like, symptoms of a lapse into incommensurability. All expressions of myth and religion are symbolic, to be understood at best “as if” they are true. The postmodern solution to this impasse is to conceal it, as well as the scandal it has produced, by stressing story-telling; X tells the story of creation this way, Y tells the story of creation a different way. Without a meta-language to bridge the stories, making theoretical construction and comparison possible, the absolute indeterminacy of this incommensurable situation leads us back into the incoherence of relativism. The best we can do then, in the classroom and in our scholarly journals, is to transmit the tradition we call “faith” and hope for tolerance from those who listen. A very good case can be made for explaining the persistent resistance to the necessity of theory for the study of religion as rooted in the theological denial of its necessity; god is not an object.1