Tibetan Pluralism, American Mysticism: On Comparative Religion in a Post-"Religion" Academy

Taylor, Andrew, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Germano, David, Religious Studies, University of Virginia

Scholars outside the field might suppose that scholars of religious studies study religion. This was once true. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, religion and its accompanying categories (scripture, ritual, gods, etc.) were understood as objective phenomena to be explained and theorized. But in the 1970s a postmodern critique associated with J.Z. Smith countered that “religion” was a western scholarly construct rather than an emic category and of little analytic value in understanding other cultures. Postcolonial scholars like Talal Asad elaborated on this insight by showing the devastating ethical consequences of this epistemological overlay on non-western peoples.

Scholars of religion heeded both critiques and retreated into area studies. A scholar of Hinduism might study a specific body of twelfth-century tantric texts, but the idea that tantra could possibly tell us something about, say, the Second Great Awakening on the grounds that both are manifestations of “religion” will never cross her mind. The benefits of such a localized approach are obvious: We avoid the pitfalls raised by postmodern and postcolonial critics. However, I contend in my dissertation that the tradeoffs have also been severe: There is no longer a common subject of study binding religious studies together as a field. Indeed, some of our own theorists have suggested that we discard the term altogether and dissolve departments of religious studies into the social sciences.

My dissertation seeks to reclaim and reimagine comparative religion. I freely concede that both lines of criticism indicated above were epistemologically sound and politically warranted. However, I draw on feminist ethics of care to argue that the very imperatives that led to the demise of comparative religion now demand its resuscitation. Rather than leave this summons in the abstract, I proceed to model my vision of an ethically responsible religious comparison in a postmodern world by juxtaposing the pluralist discourses of two teachers: The Tibetan Buddhist polymath Jamgon Kongtrul (1813-99) and the Quaker mystic Rufus Jones (1863-1948).

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
comparative religion, Jamgon Kongtrul, ris med, Rufus Jones, mysticism, religious pluralism
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