Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion

Article excerpt

RELATING RELIGION: ESSAYS IN THE STUDY OF RELIGION. By JONATHAN Z. SMITH. University of Chicago Press, 424pp. $24.

Jonathan Z. Smith is one of the two or three most widely read and discussed living theorists of religion. He has been publishing in that field for almost forty years, and for thirty years has been teaching at the University of Chicago, which has for several generations been at the center of attempts to constitute and develop an academic discipline called the history of religions. This volume collects thirteen of his published essays, mostly from the last ten years, and adds to them four previously unpublished pieces. The collection is miscellaneous in the sense that the pieces were prompted by different occasions and treat different topics. But there is also a good deal of thematic coherence (and also repetition), since Smith, like all scholars, has a few questions and topics that he returns to with obsessive interest. First among these interests is a range of issues connected with taxonomy and comparison. These are of central concern to historians of religion, who for the last 300 years have been trying to establish a discipline whose central ordering categories-including that of "religion" itself-have had to be established comparatively and from a standpoint whose contours are not altogether clear. Smith shows with considerable learning and occasional wit what the difficulties have been here. …

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