ABSTRACT

Religion cuts across every layer of human experience. Whether conceived as an expression of ultimate meaning, a binding social force, a physiological impulse, or a set of beliefs and practices, the study of religion engages multiple disciplinary lenses to reveal the variety and complexity of religious expression in human life. Indeed, religion is perhaps best described as an “inter-discipline,” a field of study that relies on the complementarity of a wide array of methodologies. In the words of Wendy Doniger, scholars of religion work with a rich “tool box” of meth-

odological lenses. In her work on the study of myth, Doniger argued that religionists must carry “as wide a range of tools as possible, and reach for the right one at the right time … [and] take responsibility for choosing the ‘right one’ on each separate occasion, rather than choosing a single one, once and for all as a matter of principle” (Doniger 1980). When Doniger offered this metaphor in the 1980s, a religious studies toolbox might have included theology, history, sociology, or psychology, among other disciplinary lenses. Today, in response to an increasingly interdisciplinary and multicultural academy, that toolbox has expanded to include the diverse methods of literary or postcolonial theory, gender studies, cultural anthropology, queer theory or even neurobiology. Consider, as an example, the possible approaches a religionist could take to the study of a

Jewish wedding ceremony. One might focus on ceremonial ritual, or be concerned with the liturgy, its theology and its meaning. Still another approach might be to look at the way the ceremony reinforces or disrupts conventions of power, gender or other social hierarchies. The historical origins of the ceremony and its social and legal implications could also serve as a starting point for analysis. Or, one might analyze the repertoire of music performed, the style of dress, or the design of an illuminated marriage contract displayed under the wedding canopy. Scholarship in the field of religion is diverse precisely because the phenomena we call “religion”

are diverse and resist neat definitions. Although religionists tend to share a fascination with the varied ways in which religion creates meaning in human life, they rarely agree on what, exactly, we mean when we talk about, and theorize about religion. Jonathan Z. Smith, one of the foremost voices in the field, has argued persuasively that “religion” as a category does not even exist outside of the confines of the scholar’s study. Smith writes, “It is the study of religion that created the category, it is the study of religion that invented ‘religion’” (Smith and Lehrich 2013: 80).