Religious Studies Today: Diversity, Postcolonial Perspectives and Critique

26 October, 2017

The annual conference of the Dutch association for religious studies, the Nederlands Genootschap voor Godsdienstwetenschap (NGG), was held this year at Utrecht University, October 19-20, marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the society by Gerardus van der Leeuw in 1947. This year, the new president of the NGG, Birgit Meyer, presented religious studies as “losing theology as significant other,” continuing to be opened to hitherto separated disciplines, especially anthropology, and to a broad conception of religious studies that engages constructively with critical, political, theory in the present.

The conference title captures the critical intent: “Dynamics of Religious Diversity: The Study of Different Religions and Religious Difference in Postcolonial Configurations.” Two guiding concepts stand out, “diversity” and the “postcolonial.” The conference reminded me of James Clifford’s recent observation that in his famous book Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, published in 1986, the index did not even show the key terms “globalization” or “postcolonial,” even as major processes of globalization and decolonization had already been under way for decades. While it would be an exaggeration to say that scholars did not previously attend to these concepts, it certainly cannot be denied that a new wave of academic, activist, and artistic decentering of the Western world calls for decolonizing knowledge institutions. Meanwhile, a new generation of critical theorists based in “the South,” are gaining importance within and outside universities. The NGG conference dealt with these and other issues in various panels covering, for instance, global trajectories of Brazilian religion, women’s conversion in Europe, or religious diversity in China (click here for the program and abstracts).

The main concern for religious diversity and the postcolonial began with a panel that looked back at some of the so-called key figures in the field of religious studies, with a specific emphasis on critical analysis of the Dutch colonial past. This approach uncovers genealogies important in the current context of anxieties concerning the religio-cultural backgrounds of nations. Johan Strijdom, for example, visiting from the University of South Africa in Pretoria, discussed Gerardus van der Leeuw’s (1890-1950) notion of “sacred place” from a postcolonial perspective. Taking material mediations seriously, he considered Van der Leeuw’s attendance speech at the inauguration of the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, in 1949. Strijdom showed that, in hindsight, van der Leeuw’s phenomenology of religion did not resist, but rather even aligned with, the monumental glorification of Afrikaner nationalism. Van der Leeuw in his capacity as Dutch Minister of Education, aligned the Netherlands uncritically with the construction of the apartheid regime, employing racist notions of sacred place and the concomitant idea of a volk. Strijdom’s point, however, was not to simply criticize the past, and to feel good about ourselves in the present, but in the words of Birgit Meyer chairing this panel, to show how “even an a-political scholarly stance exemplified by uncritical phenomenological approaches towards religion may have political consequences.”

That there is still an important role for religious studies to do a critical archeology of past thinkers and their concepts, was also made explicit by Ernst van den Hemel’s presentation about Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), the famous Dutch founder of a church, a political party, a university, a newspaper and the figurehead of the Netherlands governance model associated with “pillarization.” Van den Hemel showed how ideas dominant in contemporary politics, such as that citizenship must be tied to a national culture said to be rooted in a “Judeo-Christian tradition” (a “postsecular” ideological fiction according to Van den Hemel), were already part of Kuyper’s perspective of the Netherlands as essentially tolerant and pluralist. Kuyper viewed his political-theology of diversity, his pluriformiteitsleer, and his influential notion of sphere sovereignty, as being based principally and exclusively on Calvinism. In other words, Calvinism was said to function as a meta-principle that structured liberal principles of religious freedom, pluriformity and tolerance. Van den Hemel also pointed out that Kuypers’ followers in South Africa drew on these ideas to hierarchically demarcate pluriformity and separate spheres of sovereignty in accordance with racist ideology.

It is not hard to understand why van den Hemel sees a continuation and a parallel with the present situation in the Netherlands, where major political parties openly defend the Netherlands as a culturally Christian nation, and attack Enlightenment universalism for the sake of a culturalist “universalism” that belongs only to a select number of chosen European nations. In my view, tracing the genealogy of concepts such as pluriformity, rather than uncritically and ahistorically celebrating these concepts or taking their inherited meanings for granted, is indeed a promising field of inquiry, allowing us to discover the complex triangulations of the secular, diversity, and religion, and to see whether and how concepts such as culture and race were or are entangled.

Looking to studies of religion in the present, three keynote speakers – Kim Knibbe, Eva Spies, and Peter van der Veer – argued against compartmentalized analysis of a single tradition, community or nation, culture or civilization. On the one hand, their presentations focused on what is called “dynamics” in the conference title, returning in several related guises as multidirectionality, entanglement, co-existence, and relationality. For example, Kim Knibbe’s field research among Nigerian Pentecostals in diaspora showed Europe from a postcolonial perspective in which the secular continent is seen as being in need of religious rebirth. Eva Spies argued that studying a single religious community, their beliefs and practices, is no longer sufficient as methodology, instead opting for a relational approach in her ethnographic study of religious co-existence in contemporary Madagascar. Taking diversity seriously entails, necessarily, a perspective in which literally everything is constituted by relations, partially dissolving a circumscribed understanding of religion, which Spies argued is a consequence of thinking outside of bounded wholes, to study relational life worlds.

One of the problems that arose during the conference, in my view, was that of making sure we understand each other when using various words to describe not only dynamics, but diversity itself. Birgit Meyer, for instance, recently suggested to use the notion of pluriformity, because of its stressing of forms in the English language, which goes well with an approach that emphasizes diverse aesthetics. However, drawing on the work of Deleuze and Guattari, Eva Spies suggested “multiplicity,” seeing religious dynamics as part of infinite processes that never form stable wholes, and therefore being in need of relational analyses. Meyer explains her choice of pluriformity by referring to the German Vielfalt, which can easily result in confusion, since it could be translated as multiplicity. Listening to van den Hemel adds another layer to the debate, since words like pluriformity already have a history, i.e. are less neutral than is often assumed. Or, to repeat in another way: genealogies of concepts such as religious diversity, plurality, and pluralism have been hardly addressed in religious studies.

Of some assistance, perhaps, is the defense of the comparative approach by Peter van der Veer, also in his latest book published by Duke University Press in 2016. While van der Veer agreed that western historical experience may not be simply universalized and projected unto other contexts, he did not posit a radical incommensurability that presupposes internal dynamics only, dis-entanglement, and at best one-directionality from the West to the Rest. A comparative approach can, on the contrary, show illuminating contrasts, partial commensurability and translation, in ways that do justice to a globalizing world. Van der Veer, though he did not dwell on the issue, explicitly suggested that the comparative approach can ultimately serve the grand ideal of equality, but not by flattening differences, nor by positing radical ontological uniqueness. This relation of diversity to equality formed the normative background of many contributions during the conference. Seen this way, combining diversity and the postcolonial with a concern for equality, both Meyer’s pluriformity and Spies’ use of multiplicity can be seen as describing a human condition. In the words of Hannah Arendt, the fact “that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world,” which forms the backdrop for meaningful political action, “because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.”

Such reflections on diversity and its dynamics as a permanent condition starkly contrast with the discourse of contemporary Dutch politics. Today, party leaders such as Christian-Democrat Sybrand Buma unapologetically refer with admiration to Abraham Kuyper’s Anti-Revolutionaire Partij, the first political party of the Netherlands. In his 2017 H.J. Schoo-lecture, Buma orated that “Africa” is unsettling social and cultural balance in Europe as the latter once did in colonial times, adding that diversity has never been a goal for the European Christian tradition. If one were to judge based on the NGG’s 70th annual conference, religious studies in the Netherlands today stands opposed to such disgusting comparisons, of colonial ships loaded with cannons seen as analogous to refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea. How exactly to research dynamics of religious diversity in globalized, postcolonial settings, without either falling to uncritical objectivism, or reducing the discipline to reactive criticism of xenophobic politicians, is one of today’s challenges for this interdisciplinary field.

Pooyan Tamimi Arab, October 26, 2017.

Acknowledgment: I would like to thank research master student Saskia Huygen for sharing her conference notes, and allowing me to use them.