Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion

By van der Toorn, Karel | Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion


van der Toorn, Karel, Journal of Biblical Literature


Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion, by Jonathan Z. Smith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Pp. XV + 412. $24.00 (paper). ISBN 0226763870.

A new book by Jonathan Z. Smith is something to look forward to. This latest book by one of the most inspiring theorists of religion fully justifies the high-level expectations of the reader. It brings together sixteen essays, fifteen of them papers delivered between 1983 and 2003, and one a chapter from a textbook on the study of religion. Preceding these essays is a chapter containing what Smith calls a "bio-bibliographical essay" in which he sketches the development of his thinking on religion in response to his encounters with a succession of teachers, books, and students. It is a marvelous blend of autobiographical narrative and intellectual inquiry that deepens the appreciation for his work as a scholar; one comes away with the feeling of understanding why Smith is preoccupied with the questions that he has been pursuing for a lifetime.

This book is not the testament of a scholar at the close of a long and productive academic career. Nevertheless, the work allows us to identify some of the persistent concerns of Smith in his lifelong attempt to come to grips with religion. In fact, the intellectual biography that opens the book is almost an overt invitation to the reader to do the same. This review will signal two of those concerns. They seem to me to be central to the project of the study of religion as Smith understands it; they also touch on controversial issues and therefore merit commentary. The first is about taxonomy; the second about the relationship between language and experience.

In the autobiographical piece that serves as the first chapter, Smith describes his early fascination with grasses and their taxonomy. So strong was his fascination that for a time he thought about studying agrostology. Though his academic career took a different turn, he still is a reader of taxonomic journals. Far from being a simple anecdote from his adolescence, this tidbit is relevant for the enterprise on which Smith eventually launched, because issues of taxonomy, classification, and definition are crucial to the study of religion as a legitimate academic discipline.

The study of religion has basically two goals from which it derives legitimacy. First, it seeks to classify the forms of religious life by relating the particular to the general, the religions to religion, ritual acts to the structures of symbolic action, and so on. Second, it seeks to explain religious phenomena the way linguists explain linguistic phenomena. These two tasks are essential to the discipline; should one declare them impossible, there would be no place for the study of religion at the university. If some are willing to draw such a conclusion, relegating the study of religious phenomena to either philology or anthropology, Smith does not accept that the study of religion should forgo its claim to be an academic discipline in its own right.

Taxonomy, classification, and definition are the primary tools in relating the particular to the general. To Smith, the root metaphor for the taxonomic enterprise of the student of religion is the botanical morphology as developed by Goethe in his 1790 monograph The Metamorphosis of Plants. In defense of a formidable colleague from Chicago, Smith argues that what Mircea Eliade had to offer in his Patterns in Comparative Religion was not a phenomenology of religion but in fact a morphology. Without sharing the ontological presuppositions of the master, Smith is wholly sympathetic to his taxonomic enterprise. Much of his own work is to be understood against this background.

The commitment to the taxonomic enterprise leads Smith to postulate the necessity of the concept of religion in the singular. He is well aware that "religion" is neither a native concept nor a theological category: "it is a term created by scholars . …

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