What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Religion

“What are we talking about when we talk about religion” is such a haunting, troubling, and anxiety-producing question for, ironically, scholars of religion. As an undergraduate major in Religious Studies, I went happily through my degree program completely confident that I understood my object of study. When I got to the last semester of my senior year, I took a required course called something like “What is religion?” It undid everything that I had learned previously and made me fundamentally question what I had been doing. As a consequence, I entered my master’s program full of doubt, doubt that has never fully resolved itself. However, the instability, the variability, and the multiplicity of answers to this question is something that I have come to deeply appreciate about the field. In the last week, my reading has ranged from Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, Tomoka Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions to Tulsi Srinivas’ recent ethnography The Cow in the Elevator: An Anthropology of Wonder. Each of these scholars is working with a very different definition of religion and that is a good thing—it is the intellectual refusal of finitude to a question that cannot have a single answer. With projects ranging from religious emotion in new religious movements as a mode of perception to the poetics of Sufism as an idiom for human love in medieval Persian poetry, my students at the Divinity School mirror this richness. Indeed, the variability of students’ questions and the answers they come up with speaks to the liveliness of the study of religion within the walls of Swift Hall. 

So, what am I talking about when I talk about religion? What is my contribution to this beautiful multiverse? My research is on a minor religious community of medieval Digambara Jains whose most visible and vaulted religious practice was extreme forms of asceticism practiced in the nude that culminated in fasting until death. This particular strand of Jainism, I think, brings to crisis the idea that any tradition can be purely otherworldly in its orientation. We get to see this amazing moment in about the ninth century when nude Digambara monks began writing epic-length poetry in accessible languages that attempted to make sense of the here and the now, the every day, the this-worldly. They come up with cosmologies, ontologies, and soteriologies that make sense of love and hate, relationships between humans and animals, what it means to be in a body, and the pain of losing it. For Jains, religion was a hyper-explanatory vehicle to theorize being alive with the amplified stakes that the ultimate goal of liberation, a state of disaffection, is a hard sell after the wonder of being in the world. 

The answers that they come up with are different than their Buddhist and Hindu interlocutors but, presciently, for the Jains, the question of religion always had a multiplicity of correct answers. -- Sarah Pierce Taylor, Assistant Professor