Religious Studies Approaches in Heidelberg

I. Religious Studies as Cultural Studies

Since distancing itself from theological and religion-critical approaches, religious studies has increasingly established itself as multimethodological and transdisciplinary discipline working with a cultural studies approach. Philological, historical, sociological and ethnological expertise, as well as the formation of theories that consider current developments in the philosophy of science, are invaluable to research into religions. They allow us to find the right balance between the focus on actors and discourse analysis, between micro and macro perspectives and agency and determination. In light of postmodern criticism if knowledge and the rapid development of cognitive and neurosciences, this balancing act is indispensable.

II. Challenges for Religious Studies

Influential works in religious studies, philosophy, sociology, ethnology and cultural studies in recent years have shown that religion is a highly complex orchestration of individual actors and collectives, enabling and preventative structures and sensual and cognitive stimuli. The capacity for action of individual actors can thereby no longer be played-off against the question of structural determination though socialisation and power constructs. Instead, we must assume a side by side and interrelated existence of these apparently contradictory forces. The division between mental beliefs and material practices can also not be maintained: both are interwoven in the mediation of religions.

III. Two-Tracked Religious Studies

Religious studies muss work on two tracks. For one, in recent years it has been asserted that every attempt to adequately academically define religion is futile. The term religion can just as well describe social practices that legitimise the use of violence, as those which motivate the publication of weighty companions or strive for unity with an assumed transcendental being. Thus, a uniform definition without suppression of other meanings is not possible. From a semiotic point of view the term religion can be filled with any desired, even arbitrary, meaning. The meaning of religion depends on intention, ascription and context. As an alternative to searching for the correct definition of religion, scholars with a cultural studies approach increasingly discuss the codes and patterns by which ascriptions to religion are formed. On one hand, discourses, i.e., communicative negotiations of meaning, about religion are investigated. The context may be identified as religious by the actor or by the researcher. Here, it is key to ask the questions following questions: who is profiting from the use of the word religion, and how? These questions carry the implicit presupposition that religion does not exist as a concrete and objective substance but rather is made up of constantly changing sematic fixations, which must be described. With this in mind, every definition of religion is ideological.

Nevertheless, the persistent fixation on theory quickly leads to an epistemological dead end, as can be seen in the discussion around various definitions of religion and the purpose of defining religion. For this reason, researchers from other disciplines increasingly turn to definitions of religion from outside religious studies as they are discouraged by the long unpractical preambles by scholars of religious studies about the problems of defining religion. The continuing debate has led to many a graduate of religious studies being able to quash definitions of religion without knowing how to give a suitable alternative.

Despite the fluidity of the term religion and the social realities which the term should describe, pragmatic descriptions of religion are necessary to develop the insights of religious studies and make them heard. These definitions have to aim at certain sections of social reality without universalising findings. Heuristic definitions can help to make statements about the characteristics of evangelical Christianity in the USA without evoking the essence of Christianity in general, for example. The question of the causal connection between religion and violence or non-violence, however, cannot be definitely answered, as the implicit presuppositions of this question are considered outdated. Nevertheless, it is possible to show when, where and how religious actors and collectives are present in discourses about violence and non-violence and which socio-historic relationships can be identified.

Developments in religious studies up until now have led the subject into stalemate: the term "religion" should be given up as an analytic category because it is impossible to find a tenable definition. Furthermore, the definitions used by some researchers spread an idea of religion into society and the public discourse, that was formed in the mind of researchers. In this way, the alleged description of religion, turns into the norm of what religion should be.

In order to make the considerations of religious studies research heard we fruitfully synthesise the contradictory positions  two-tracked religious studies reflects the discursive power of the term religion, whilst taking on the challenge of suggesting heuristic definitions of religion and applying these to research.

IV. Pragmatic Working-Definitions

Next to pointing out complexities, current religious studies wants to communicate its findings in the public discourse (of which it itself is a part of) without loss of meaning. For this, pragmatic working definitions of religion are required, which reduce complexity without trivialising the subject matter. The sociologist of religion Martin Riesebrodt, for example, defines religion as the belief in superhuman entities, with which actors interact with the promise of salvation. Thomas Tweed differentiates religion even further as "confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and suprahuman forces to make home and cross boundaries". A speciality of Heidelberg is the focus on the materialisation of religions combined with new semiotic concepts.

V. Focus on the Materialisation of Religion

A further stimulus for current religious studies is provided by work about "Religionsästhetik", which was pioneered in the German speaking world by Hubert Cancik und Hubert Mohr with their 1988 work. The authors realised that religion does not only express itself communicatively, but also materially. Only through the investigation of the optical, the auditive, the haptic, the gustatory, the olfactory and the kinaesthetic the manifestation of religion becomes tangible. The concept of "Material Religion" - as it is known in the American study of religion - made known through the works of David Morgan amongst others, shows that discursive religious studies and "Religionsästhetik" can be interpreted dialogically.

As Manuel Vasquez fittingly identified, a great potential for religious studies theory formation can be found in overcoming the dichotomy of communicative and material composition. Thus, it is possible to re-materialise the object of religious studies research and at the same time understand it as a process of communication.

VI. Distinctiveness of Religious Studies in Heidelberg

The aim of religious studies in Heidelberg is therefore, to take up current impulses in cultural studies, apply these within our discipline and let the findings flow back into the interdisciplinary dialogue.

Thus, study of and research into religion at Heidelberg follow both the discursive and the pragmatic approach as part of a two-tracked religious studies. A speciality of Heidelberg is the focus on the materialisation of religions combined with new semiotic concepts.

Inken Prohl und Dimitry Okropiridze (2019)

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Letzte Änderung: 22.01.2021