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O’Riley 1 Russell McCutcheon and the Role of the Scholar in Religion In Critics Not Caretakers, Russell McCutcheon encourages

scholars of religion to reimagine their roles as public intellectuals, both within and beyond the academy. According to McCutcheon, the role of religious studies scholars is to study “the complex, observable behavior of biologically, socially, and historically situated human beings and human communities that talk, act, and organize themselves in ways that the scholar finds curious and in need of analysis” (11). Furthermore, these behaviors require analysis because they “authorize, normalize, and homogenize what are in fact divergent and highly contestable ‘experiences’ of the world in which we live” (8). McCutcheon thinks it is the scholar’s role as a public intellectual both to redescribe “religions” as social processes, and to encourage students to identify and challenge their own unquestioned ideas. In his redescription of public study of religion, McCutcheon criticizes the scholarship of “caretakers” like Diana Eck and Mircea Eliade, and wants to replace them in the academy. Instead, he thinks critics (also known a “culture critics,” “anthropologist of credibility,” or “social provocateurs) should serve as public intellectuals because they challenge the authority and credibility of caretakers. While I have some reservations with the way McCutcheon seems to privilege theoretical constructs and methodological approaches that lack any relation to something invisible “in here” or “out there,” I fully support his call for a more critical, unapologetic study of religion that challenges unquestioned power structures. McCutcheon wants to redescribe the academic role of scholars because he is dissatisfied by the amount of existing scholarship that fails to incorporate redescriptive analysis into phenomenological research. In his words, “there should be a why to accompany our current abundance of phenomenological research into the how, where, when, and who of religion” (174). He thinks that in order to do this, the scholar must redescribe absolute values and mystical ideals

O’Riley 2 in localized, historical terms. It makes no difference to McCutcheon whether these values and ideals actually exist, because according to him, “all we know for sure is that we think them up for specific reasons and purposes” (78). The scholar’s job is not to “caretake” religions by pondering their meaning and value. Instead, it is the scholar’s job to study how these values function and identify sites where humans create continuity amidst the discontinuities of life, which they do by explaining the historical, economic, psychological, and sociological causes of these sites (166). He thinks the work of scholars “is not intended to celebrate or enhance normative, dehistoricized discourses, but rather, to contextualize and redescribe them as human constructs” (139). In other words, critics localize and demystify religious sites and behavior by redescribing them as strictly historical, human processes. While McCutcheon might agree that all religious systems deserve historical redescription, he admits a preference of mythmaking that construct, legitimize, and contest power and privilege when he describes the academic study of religion as a “metatheoretical activity” that “critique[s] the model builders and sign makers for being so bold as to think that… their maps are adequate representations of actual territory” (24, 61). For him, any and all claims to knowledge are contextual by nature, so scholars of religion study those who fail to set contextual limits on their knowledge claims (227). In doing so, the critic challenges unsubstantiated claims for authority and authenticity that power structures make. However, the role of the critic extends beyond the mere policing of power structure. It can also function more pragmatically by “deciding whether and to what extent religious positions that claim ahistorical authority, wisdom, and direction are useful in charting the course of a public school curriculum, a welfare agency, or even a policy for war” (131). In these situations, the critic assists in distinguishing substantiated theories from absolute claims.

O’Riley 3 The distinction between absolute claims and theoretical arguments is an important element in McCutcheon’s redescription of the public study of religion. He says that unlike absolute claims, theories are “constructed models of reality that are not to be mistaken for reality itself … [and] that have yet to be thrown away” (112). Furthermore, theories “are constructed, ad hoc models that can never be in a one-to-one fit with reality but that, instead, have a tactical utility in some given situations,” and so “there is, by definition, no such beast as a final or grand theory of any- or everything” (114). Because absolute claims present themselves as selfevidently meaningful without offering explicit and defensible theoretical concerns, the critic cannot accept these claims as scholarship. Instead, absolute claims become part of the data set that the he or she studies (229). Likewise, by assuming “religion provides deep, essential, absolute or otherworldly insights into the very nature of things,” McCutcheon thinks many scholars misguidedly hope that their work “provides normative guidance for a society” (129). When it comes to academic scholarship, he does not necessarily find that normative statements are problematic—just when they are based on “the unquestioned acceptance of deep, essential truths” (129). This bears repeating: McCutcheon does not abhor all normative statements, but only those that blindly accept absolute claims because he thinks they misguide and distort reality. Nor does he demand that we abandon our own normative convictions. “In fact,” he admits, “given the centrality of using rhetorical, ideological, and normative claims and strategies in constructing and sanctioning the social and political models we live by and within, it would be naïve to think that these sorts of claims would ever disappear” (138). However, because of the tenuous nature of normative reflection, McCutcheon wants scholars to avoid comments on how the world ought to work, and instead to explain “how and why it happens to work as it does” (135). Unlike a caretaker, whose work simply repeats or translates religious claims uncritically

O’Riley 4 when they make “pronouncements on the future of human meaning, the nation, or the world,” the critic is not preoccupied by the need to tell others how to live their lives or how to achieve happiness (139, 135). Instead, the critic wants to explain in her terms how others live their lives and imagine happiness. By “trying to understand human behavior based on theories and models” of their own making, McCutcheon thinks critics are capable of taking a “theoretical leap” and separating themselves from the religious devotees they study and who “do not wear their intentions and meaning on their sleeves” (197). Consequently, critics are uniquely equipped to challenge absolute claims and resist the temptation to sacrifice theoretical stability (and therefore credibility) for the sake of universal ideals such as “tolerance” and “pluralism.” Finally, the critic is also a public intellectual, which means the scholar must not hoard his or her theoretical bounty from the public. Instead, the critic-as-public intellectual must reach out and encourage others to apply their own critical intelligence to the world in which they live. McCutcheon thinks one of the best ways to achieve this is through teaching, and he has undergraduate classes specifically in mind. However, McCutcheon also thinks the classroom in its present state is “the place where we often fail to live up to our responsibility of educating critical thinkers and future scholars, and, instead, where we often act as trustees concerned for the general well-being of religion” (66). Rather than encouraging students “to find curiosity in what they take to be self-evident and, thereby, to make themselves and the wider communities to which they belong data in need of analysis,” he says many religious studies courses are designed to reproduce “common sense” and “make students feel good about themselves” (169, 66). As with the analysis of caretaker scholars, he criticizes religious studies courses that forego provocative critical analysis for the sake of tolerance and appreciation. Conversely, the critic uses the classroom to provoke “unreflective participants in social systems into becoming

O’Riley 5 reflective scholars of social systems,” and to cultivate, not good citizens or good people, but rather good scholars (170). Even if our goal is to cultivate good people, he suggests that teaching students how to challenge unquestioned truths is more practical than to teach them how to tolerate others. Because there is no such thing as an absolute claim or grand totalizing narrative, and because normative reflections are often misguided attempts to achieve privilege and authority, students who practice tolerate instead of criticism might find themselves empathizing with distorted representations of reality. Therefore, McCutcheon redescribes the role scholars in the public study of religion “not simply as helping students to understand and appreciate…but instead as providing our students with critical thinking, debating, and writing skills upon which they will draw long after they have left our classes” (217). More simply put, he thinks he is teaching his students how to fish instead just giving them food. My initial aversion to McCutcheon stems from the fact that he challenged my own unquestioned and unsubstantiated belief that anyone (let alone I) has the authority or ability to improve the lives of others by teaching them about world religions. I recognize now that the role I envisioned for myself as a religious studies instructor also compelled me to indoctrinate students with my own liberal democratic ideology. The pedagogy that McCutcheon offers in Critics Not Caretakers may prove especially useful if I decide once again to pursue a career in teaching religious studies in higher education. Unfortunately, McCutcheon so effectively demystified my reality that I am not so sure I still have a place in the academic study of religion. I can handle challenging unquestioned truths; I will have more difficulty taming the “caretaker” inside me long enough to take the theoretical leaps that require me to turn away from the magic.

O’Riley 6 Works Cited McCutcheon, Russell T. Critics, Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2001.