“Methodological Considerations in Religious Studies” Guest Lecture

Guest Lecture for Dr. Jennifer Otto’s seminar “Methods in Religious Studies,” University of Lethbridge. February 24, 2021.

Hi Everyone,

Thank you very much for having me in your seminar, and for the introduction. In the next ten minutes or so I am going to say a bit about Religious Studies, before giving an outline of my current research projects and outlining the methods I use in my work.

But before I talk about methods that are specific to Religious Studies, I want to give you a sense for the big-picture paradigm I use to judge work in my field, including my own.

Suspicion and Sympathy

I think it is helpful to evaluate work in the humanities and social sciences using two lenses. I picture a pair of 3D glasses through which one would see and evaluate the methods and topics in one’s discipline. I think of one lens as being critical, negative, and suspicious – always asking questions that suspect there is more going on that what first appears. In contrast, I think of the other lens as being charitable, positive, and sympathetic – always giving the benefit of the doubt to whatever I’m looking at and trying to step into the shoes of others before judging them. My approach to evaluating work in Religious Studies is to balance these two lenses so that my criticisms come from sympathetic and rich knowledge of what I critique, and so that my descriptions of texts and traditions are not naïve or idealized.

So that’s my big-picture orientation. I try to be both suspicious and sympathetic in somewhat equal measure when I read texts, learn about traditions, and engage in academic writing.

Religious Studies

Before going any further I should also say a bit about how my work fits into the discipline of Religious Studies. I was trained in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University where the discipline of Religious Studies is understood in a very broad, pluralistic, and interdisciplinary way. Scholars in my department study Buddhism, Jewish philosophy, Ancient Greek political thought, health and healing, death and dying, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Christian theology, and many other things.

At McMaster there is no one singular way to do Religious Studies. Professors and graduate students in my department take up different disciplinary frameworks (many of which you are learning about in your textbook for this course). We have anthropologists of religion like my friend Jeremy Cohen. Through ethnographies and field interviews Jeremy studies ‘transhumanists’ and ‘immortalists’ who believe that with the right diet, technologies, and ways of thinking, they will live forever. We also have Christian theologians like my friend Zac Klassen. Through a reading of theological texts and concepts Zac studies how Christian doctrines interact with the Jewish texts and traditions they revise. These are my colleagues in the ‘western’ field. Our department further divides its work into Western, Biblical, and Asian fields, and so I have friends like Anna Phipps-Burton and Gerjan Altenburg who closely study Buddhist monastic law codes in the original Sanskrit, and I have colleagues in the Biblical field who study early Christian and Jewish cultures and texts – for example Matt Thiessen has recently published a very well received book on Jesus and ritual purity.

My work is different from each of these approaches. I’m not an anthropologist because I don’t go out and do fieldwork or interviews with a religious population, and I’m not a Christian theologian because I do not seek to do my work for the specific benefit of the Christian tradition, and I am not a biblical scholar who works with ancient Greek and Hebrew texts, or scholar of Buddhism or Chinese traditions.

Instead, I engage in social critique while working in two subfields of Religious Studies. The first field I work in is called the “Philosophy of Religion” which focuses on the interaction between philosophical and theological ideas. I also use methods from a field called “Political Theology” which analyses how religious concepts become secularized and critiques the use of big categories like “religion” and “secularity.”  

That’s where I am situated under the broad and pluralistic banner of Religious Studies. In my education at McMaster, I was trained to undertake close and detailed readings of important theological, philosophical, and literary texts, and to analyze both ideas and their histories. So my work focuses on both the descriptive history of ideas and also takes up certain concepts for the purposes of normative social critique. As an aside, I think that the relationship between description of “what is,” and normative prescription that says “what ought to be,” is so important for scholars (and I look at this distinction in another lecture).

Projects and Methods

Right now, I’m at a juncture in my academic career where I have three very different but connected projects coming to fruition at the same time. In each project I have a particular object of study and a methodological approach that I use to understand that object. The three projects are my dissertation on violence, a book manuscript on time and history, and a research project and journal issue on Mennonite political theologies.

Dissertation: “Ontologies of Violence”

My dissertation on violence studies the early work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, debates involving philosophical Mennonite pacifists, and the late work of feminist philosopher of religion Grace Jantzen. The objects of study in my dissertation are three sets of source texts that are philosophical, theological, and critical. My first chapter interprets a long essay by Derrida called “Violence and Metaphysics,” my second chapter returns to a debate between Mennonites and Anglican theologians in the early 2000s, and my third chapter analyzes a trilogy of books by Grace Jantzen called Death and the Displacement of Beauty.

My dissertation shows how each of these sources are connected in ways that have not yet been articulated, and so one way to think about my method is to picture it as me hosting a conference roundtable discussion with my sources where I ask them questions and put them in dialogue with each other.

So those are my sources. A long essay by a French philosopher, a debate involving Mennonite pacifist theologians, and a trilogy of books by a feminist philosopher of religion. I chose these three sources because I saw significant connections between them that were not being discussed, and I thought that I could show how they mutually challenge each other. The main connection between these three sources is that each of them think of violence as something more than physical violations like war or murder. Unlike many thinkers, Derrida, Jantzen, and the Mennonites see violence as something that starts with how we think about the world.

So I began work on my dissertation several years ago, only to find that each of my sources used the word “violence” in a different way – disagreeing not only about whether words or thoughts could be called violent, but also disagreeing about how we should judge whether something is violent in the first place. I soon realized that my method would have to account for the fact that they each use the key term “violence” in wildly different ways. So, after reading a great book on alienation by a critical theorist named Rahel Jaeggi, I decided that it would help to think about the concept of violence as a “diagnostic concept.” Rather than thinking of the word “violence” as having an essential definition with one fixed center and one proper use, and rather than suggest that some of my sources use the term rightly and others of use the term wrongly, I decided that my method would be to examine what their use of the term revealed about their priorities and values.

Violence is a term that names a violation, and points to the crossing, transgression, or profanation of some boundary. Every time we call something “violent” we are saying that a boundary around something important has been violated. If I did not think that human life was valuable, I would not call murder “violent.” It stands to reason then, that uses of the term violence would reflect the values and priorities of their users. I found that when I looked at the boundaries and values that my sources sought to protect when they used the word violence, I learned a lot about what they think is important.

Book Project: “Postsecular History”

So that is my methodological approach to the three major texts that my dissertation explores. I do something similar in my forthcoming book Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). This book collects several of my essays and articles on a variety of thinkers and shows how religion and secularity are very difficult to distinguish. My main argument concerns the term “postsecular” which refers to a social and academic movement beyond the idea that secular ways of thinking are neutral and objective.

In each of the essays in the book I undertake a close and careful reading of major texts in the field of Political Theology or the Philosophy of Religion. These close readings reflect the methods I was taught at McMaster, and in each chapter I try to give rich and textured account of major philosophical, theological, and literary works. I try to provide interesting and deep interpretations that don’t reduce complex texts and ideas down to ‘isms’ or vague categories. Instead, I show how texts and ideas that may initially seem to be opposed can resonate with each other. For example, in Chapter 4 of my book I show connections between Saint Augustine’s Confessions and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra – two texts that seem completely opposed (because one is written by a very important Christian theologian and the other is written by one of Christianity’s greatest critics), but which share some interesting connections that are revealed only after a close reading.

Whereas my dissertation unfolds one linear argument over the course of 250 pages, my book project provides six chapters that each approach religion and secularity from different angles, using readings of different thinkers to show how we have not definitively moved past religion in our contemporary world.

Research Project: “Mennonite Studies”

My third project focuses on how Mennonites – predominantly pacifist Christians who trace their roots to the radical fringes of the Protestant Reformation – have expanded their approaches to politics in a variety of directions. This week I am putting the finishing touches on a book chapter and a special issue of the journal Political Theology that showcases how Mennonites are not only a theological and historical tradition, but also have interesting philosophical, secular, literary, and feminist minority traditions within the major tradition.

My methodological approach in this project is a little different than my dissertation and book project because I am not providing detailed close readings of texts or unfolding a single argument. Instead, I am approaching the theological tradition of the Mennonites while trying to find the minority traditions within it that have been ignored or pushed aside. My work is focused on showcasing the ways that Mennonite thinkers have not only been theologians and historians, but have also seen themselves as secular, used philosophical materials, become entangled with politics, and engaged in feminist critique.


1. I think that one difference between my research project on Mennonite Studies and my dissertation and book is scope. One major consideration when we are thinking about method concerns how we limit our projects. These questions are especially important when we’re writing research essays. Where do we start and stop? How do we decide what to include and what to leave out? Do we want to focus on small textual details or big picture ideas? Perhaps a more important question is: How do we move between the big picture and the specifics of our research?

2. In this course you have been studying from Hilary Rodrigues and John Harding’s Introduction to the Study of Religion. I really appreciate this textbook and when I use it to teach (as I will this coming Spring term at McMaster), I notice that it periodizes the history of thinking about religion in interesting ways. The book covers philosophical, theological, anthropological, sociological, political, economic, phenomenological, psychological, feminist, historical, and comparative approaches to the study of religion. In my course I encourage students to look critically and sympathetically at each of these perspectives, and so I am interested in hearing about the major benefits and blind-spots you see in the perspectives you’ve studied so far?

3. My final question is whether you have questions for me about my methods and how I might fit or not fit into the perspectives you have studied so far? I’m happy to clarify.

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