Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religion : JSR

Editorial Introduction Materializing Religion: Essays in Honor of David Chidester

Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religion : JSR

Editorial Introduction Materializing Religion: Essays in Honor of David Chidester

Article excerpt

In his recent Religion: Material dynamics, David Chidester (2018) selected a number of key concepts that have preoccupied him during his forty years of studying religion. Having contributed to critiques of the concept of religion as a modern Western imperial and colonial invention, Chidester is intensely aware of the legacy of the term but has nevertheless employed it productively as an analytical term. If the academic study of religion, as heir of a Protestant bias, used to study beliefs, Chidester has been a pioneer in foregrounding material terms as a corrective in the study of religion, crediting Marx as crucial ancestor of this approach for his insight into the material basis of religion. The terms essayed in this book, considered under the title material dynamics, were selected by Chidester for the real, practical consequences they have had in the world, and were grouped under three sections: Categories, formations, and circulations.

Under categories, Chidester challenges us to reconsider a number of basic analytical categories in the academic study of religion: The prioritization of ideas over matter in imperial studies of religion; the Durkheimian opposition between sacred and profane in light of popular culture in which anything can be made sacred by intensive interpretation and ritualization; sacred time and space as historically contingent constructs that entail exclusions, hierarchies and contestations of ownership; and the crucial importance of the destabilizing concept of incongruity, which enables us to not only rethink myth and ritual, particularly in colonial conditions, but all categories in the study of religion.

Under formations, he insists that religion be studied in context, by embedding it within the cultural, economic, and political forces that have shaped religious formations and the academic study of religion: Capitalism as a material force has shaped religion, but also functions like a religion; imperialism, colonialism, and apartheid constituted material political and economic conditions that profoundly shaped and altered religious formations of the colonized and colonizers, but also contaminated the academic study of religion. If dominant religions and religious studies under these conditions have systematically dehumanized colonized people, the latter have simultaneously also been creative agents in their interactions with colonizers.

Circulations, properly theorized, he argues, focus our analytical attention on material changes, discontinuities and disruptions in space and time, as we track religious mobility, for example, in Zulu neoshamanism spreading globally through dreams and technology (as extensions of the conventional senses), and in sacred objects of economic exchange, such as 'fetishes' and cargo crossing oceans, or Tupperware and Coca-Cola being appropriated globally. Maintaining that the sense of touch is probably the most fundamental sense in our time, Chidester shows how it mediates religion materially by caressing and embracing on the one hand and striking on the other hand.

Reading through these chapters of the book, which were to a large extent previously published, but brought together in a particular way in Religion: Material dynamics, one is struck by numerous overlaps and intersections. The value of foregrounding a specific term, and giving it theoretical depth to analyze religious phenomena, has been proposed and experimented with by Chidester as a strategy to produce innovative or cuttingedge knowledge in the academic study of religion. Foregrounding one concept, though, has clearly not excluded the conscious exploration of its intersection with other concepts, as Chidester emphasizes in the Introduction1 to his selection of material keywords: It is in relating categories to formations, formations to circulations, circulations to categories, and in unexpected inversions of terms such as 'economy of religion' and 'religion of economy', that we might gain new perspectives in the study of religion and religions. …

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