S.Prothero: Stop “Otherizing” Ourselves

Stephen Prothero (American Jesus and Religious Literacy) penned a very interesting piece (here) in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin.  The title & subtitle are:  BELIEF UNBRACKETED A Case for the Religion Scholar to Reveal More of Where He or She Is Coming From.

By unbracketed, Prothero is referring to the “bracketing” (epoche) of religious thought relative to the “truth” or “real”–that is whether our religious experiences or beliefs point to anything beyond their own phenomenological makeup.

Prothero begins discussing a book called Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington.  Covington goes and lives with (and eventually practices) snake-handlers in the Appalachians.  Covington, while sympathetic to this amazing degree, eventually snaps at a woman in the church and leaves the congregation.

While Prothero understand the outburst, other scholars do not.  Prothero writes:

Harvard Divinity School Professor Robert Orsi is not so forgiving. In a provocative essay called “Snakes Alive: Resituating the Moral in the Study of Religion,” he praises Covington for providing “a good model for engaged, interpersonal, participatory religious study,” then chastises him for getting above his raisin’ at the end. According to Orsi, Covington commits at the conclusion of his quest the unpardonable sin of “otherizing”: of defining himself over against his subjects and then judging them to be morally inferior to himself.1

What Covington should have done, Orsi argues, is linger in the no-man’s-land between going native and going home, forever flirting not only with his subjects but also with his own identity. He should have practiced the “erotics of Religious Studies” by suspending ad infinitum his judgments, endlessly playing his own religious world against the worlds of his subjects, and otherwise refusing closure. “Religious studies is not a moralizing discipline,” Orsi concludes. “It exists in the suspension of the ethical.”2

The language of “otherizing” is postmodern (though Prothero does not specifically mention this, which gets him into a little confusion I think, but he pulls it out at the end nevertheless).  Otherizing is the sin (so-claimed by pomos) of modernism:  de-humanizing and marginalizing peoples for not fitting into the programmatic WASP capitalist image.

Prothero links this non-othering line with bracketing from Edmund Husserl.  But Husserl was not a  postmodernist.  Though the bracketing method, as Prothero points out, is subsumed (for some/many in the religious studies field) into the tolerance model of PC postmodernism.   The modernist version of phenomenology (orange in Spiral terms) was not about “othering” but more a distant objectivity relative to the phenomena of religious experience/belief (even if the final truth claims were then never made).  Or the phenomenology served some other larger theory:  Jung’s collective unconscious; Eliade’s or Frazer’s mythology as examples.

I think Prothero would do better to distinguish between the modernist and postmodernist versions of this problem, but he has named it nonetheless.  Prothero shows where this tolerance/non-othering model will go when pushed to its extreme.  He summarizes the classic text Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown (1988) by David Chidester.

Prothero on Salvation & Suicide (relativism and immorality):

A classic example of Orsi’s “erotic methodology,” Salvation and Suicide dances around these concerns with a smile and a swagger, making it not only one of the most brilliant books in the field but also one of the most perverse. Chidester proudly refuses “causal explanations,” offering instead a “religiohistorical interpretation” that seeks to understand empathetically what turned Jonestown into a “meaningful human enterprise.” After invoking his method of “temporarily” suspending value judgments, he writes, “I stress the word temporarily here because after the strategy of epochē has been exercised, and the phenomenon we are exploring has appeared in as much clarity as we can bring to it, we can always go on (or back) to making moral judgments.” Yet he never goes on, or back. True to his training (and my own), he refuses to moralize, except about the meaningfulness of Jonestown for its participants.6

In other words, without explicitly adding the ability to make judgments to the field, murderers become simply meaning makers.  It is one thing, a good thing, to follow the erotic path up to a point as Chidester himself acknowledged.  But then actually take it the next step.  (Beauty and Truth over Goodness can=Beautiful, Truth-Making Cultism or Spiritual Fascism).

Prothero in this piece only calls for an un-bracketing (and un-binding, a freeing) of religious studies scholars to make their cases, to make judgments, to stand not only in erotic connection but compassionate-justice seeking loving judgment (rightly done).

In other words, Prothero to me is a signaling a post-postmodern turn.  Or by my lights, an integral turn.  And this un-bracketing would be given a greater philosophical grounding, imo, by the incorporation of an integral model, e.g. AQAL.

Prothero has it right at the end.  If we are always worried about non-othering another, we will end up “othering” ourselves—i.e. denying our true feelings and thoughts.

An AQAL (or similar) integral frame argues that self and other co-arise.  And within the self there are little “others” (disconnected/disowned parts of the self) just as within the “Other” are many selves.  Meaning in the relative sphere there is no way to ever perfectly not-other someone.  Oneself included.  There are only degrees or not doing so.  And the “othering” aspect is not always a product of one’s own evil intentions and actions, but can be the choice of an other to interpret someone else’s words as victimizing/oppressive, when they are not intended or meaning so.  Thereby othering oneself.

Judgment is inherent because the 2nd and 3rd person perspective is a mode of being-in-the-world, prehending the world and adding to the worlds/Kosmos.

Postmodern relativism (erotic religious studies methodology) is not judgment-less or non-judgmental.  It’s just bad judgment.   But judgment it is.

Published in: on November 19, 2007 at 10:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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