2017 – William E. Arnal

Hi everyone, and welcome to 2017’s SORAAAD workshop, treating the issue of appropriation, and aiming to explore the validity and potential utility of the notion of appropriation as an analytic tool for making sense of some of the “stuff” of religion. Thanks especially to David, for being willing to read this statement to you all. I wish I could be here today, but the constraints of administering not one but two distinct departments has made it impossible for me to get away, especially at this ridiculously busy time of the year.

I was asked to begin our workshop this year by commenting on why I personally, and the department of Religious Studies at University of Regina, institutionally, think we need something like SORAAAD, and why we are willing to put our money where our mouth is — literally — and provide both an institutional home and actual financial support to this endeavor. I can be very brief here because I think the answer is simple and self-evident: SORAAAD fills an important lacuna by providing a unique space for scholars of religion to learn about, test, and apply conceptual models and new techniques to the data or “stuff” of religion. We are here so that important mid-level analytic tools and the broad second-order concepts that we so urgently need can be examined and applied. It is precisely our ability — or lack thereof — to engage in this kind of analysis, to make sense of the data each of us, variously, is obsessed with, in such a way that we can make connections and draw testable conclusions about it that intersect with, are of interest to, and make sense to students of religion who are obsessed with different particular data-sets, that defines us. Our success or failure as a field — or even, god forbid, a discipline — will, I think, rest on how convincingly and assertively we can have these kinds of conversations, among each other, in the classroom, and even with the public. Conceptual and methodological tools such as canon, aesthetics, appropriation, and comparison, constitute a language we can use to talk to each other, as well as a language shared by the social sciences and humanities in the universities in which we work and teach; it is the language we need to learn, therefore, to be intelligible to our academic peers. What SORAAAD does, and what I fervently hope it will continue to do, and to do in increasingly expansive ways, is to provide a platform for training one another in the careful and rigorous use of this language.

And while I am reluctant to be too negative, there really is a lacuna in our field on precisely this point. Genuinely analytic work on religion, work that takes its proper place among the University’s social sciences and humanities disciplines, has an ambiguous status in our main professional organizations, the AAR and the SBL. The “big tent” approach of both organizations encourages the development of sections or groups — and thereby dictates programming — along lines that will be inclusive of radically incompatible goals. Both organizations solicit and encourage the active participation of the religiously committed. There is of course nothing at all wrong with being religiously committed, and nothing about it that need preclude the most rigorous forms of scholarship. But unfortunately, the AAR and SBL, in different but analogous ways, envision their missions as inclusive of academic work that is in itself a form of religious practice; that is to say, scholarship as support and defense of the religious views and practices of the scholar in question. Again, I see no intrinsic problem with such a generous inclusive spirit. But the reality of the matter is, advocates of these kinds of approaches are not pursuing their goals in isolation, but in the very same groups and sections populated by people with a more analytic, or secular, or “scientific” agenda. And so what ends up happening is that these latter approaches, insofar as they mesh poorly with or even actively offend the religious practitioners with whom they are in enforced conversation, come to be marginalized, treated with suspicion, regarded as antithetic to the inclusive agenda of AAR and SBL.

Scholars of a more analytic bent have long complained about the covert and implicit confessional — or at least celebratory — bias of our main scholarly organizations. In the last few decades, we have witnessed a burgeoning of what is called, with a rather shocking lack of precision, theory; this discourse has, reasonably enough, become a focal point for critique of the mushiness, the lack of rigor, that characterizes at least some elements of our field. Unfortunately, here too, the opportunity for solid, productive analysis has often been squandered. Being attentive to theoretical considerations has in some circles become merely an excuse to “call out” the ideological assumptions and commitments that, of course, everyone has. The perverse effect of this is that instead of generating a new era of increasingly rigorous analysis of religious data, the discourse has tended to resist and even attack any effort to draw substantive conclusions about religion; it has become, at worst, a discourse merely on the discourse of religion, a conversation about little else but itself, and even a denial that the conversation can be anything but this.

It is time, and past time, to use theory for what it is for: to understand things better, to form provisional hypotheses, to talk to each other; rather than to talk about theory itself or how very, very much more insightful we are than everyone else. SORAAAD is exactly the right venue for this, as I think it has demonstrated with year after year of productive workshops. Those of you who are here, I hope — and I do wish I could be among you — are taking important steps in quietly redefining the field of Religionswissenschaft, training one another and testing with one another the application of the tools of the social sciences, and perhaps, just perhaps, drawing some actual conclusions about the religious ideas and practices under examination. It is a great source of pride to me personally, and should be a source of pride to the University of Regina, that we are involved in this critically-necessary intellectual project.

Bill Arnal, University of Regina, Director, the SORAAAD Workshop