Theorizing Modernities article

“The Dead Don’t Go Anywhere”: Phenomenology, Religious Studies, and History

Calvary Cemetery (Queens, New York) set against the modern Manhattan skyline. Via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

It is no secret that many former European Christian theologians who became students of world religions drew on phenomenology in their work. The philosophical tradition of phenomenology they in part drew on began in the early twentieth century with Edmund Husserl’s attempt to understand how humans experience the world prior to that experience’s redescription via the social and “hard” sciences.  To study religion phenomenologically for scholars of world religions—whom, among others, include Rudolf Otto (d. 1937), Gerardus van der Leeuw (d. 1950), and Mircea Eliade (d. 1986)—meant to bracket one’s own assumptions about the world and, as best as one could, empathetically describe what religious experiences are like for other persons and the manifold ways they are expressed across the various religious traditions of the world. While partially an attempt at understanding and arranging the various features of the world’s religion for the purposes of scholarly analysis, for many of these scholars, phenomenology of religion was also part of a quasi-divine quest to articulate an alternative to the modern world. They saw the latter as fragmented, alienated, and devoid of meaning; to articulate the deep meaning of religion was to offer an antidote to this disease of nihilism.

It is also no secret that this method of studying religion is now seen as passé and lacking in nuance, self-reflexivity, and attention to the dynamics of power in shaping the lives of religious actors and those who study them. Yet, even several decades following the demise of this theoretical and methodological approach, a scholar like Tim Murphy still felt the need in 2010 to write: “I study phenomenology of religion only to bury it,” an ambition in which he is not alone (34).

Murphy’s desire to bury phenomenology is the culmination of critiques of phenomenology of religion that began in the 1990s. During that decade scholars styling themselves as critical students of religion—rather than its “caretakers”—sought to dismantle phenomenology and in its place construct a theoretical approach to religion grounded in genealogical approaches inherited from Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault. Rarely has this involved, however, uncovering the philosophical foundations of phenomenology in philosophers like Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, or Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the impact of those philosophies on the study of religion. It has instead treated them as purveyors of an uncritical approach to examining social formations that should be discarded in favor of more “critical” methods.

The announcement of the death of phenomenology is premature, and in this brief post I show that its premature announcement has resulted in a vision of the critical study of religion that is anything but critical. This is because the critical study of religion has imagined itself as a detached form of engagement that does not take into account its own situatedness in a particular historical moment and the first-person perspective that critical inquiry takes. I do not advocate a return to the phenomenology of Eliade or Otto in staking out this position, but instead suggest that we might utilize the insights of philosophical phenomenology on these subjects to reimagine the practice of scholarship today. This call to engage classical sources in philosophical phenomenology, in other words, is not a call to return to them uncritically. Indeed, as decolonial critics in the Contending Modernities series have shown, these philosophers were often steeped in European nativism and exclusivism. This critical reappropriation is instead intended to contribute to philosophical accounts that prioritize the agency of the marginalized who challenge racism, coloniality, and misogyny in our politics and culture.

Phenomenology and Religion

As an initial counter to Murphy, a reader might expect me to employ the William Faulkner line made famous by Barack Obama, that the “past is never past, it is not even past.” On this account, the past cannot be buried because it remains present in how we experience the world today. But this line would be inadequate because it fails to capture the subjective way in which the past lives in us. I would offer instead the following lines from the Israeli TV drama, Shtisel, which focuses on the everyday lives of Hasidic Jews living in Jerusalem:

The dead don’t go anywhere. They are always here. Every man is a cemetery. An actual cemetery, in whom lie all our grandmothers and grandfathers. The father, the mother, the wife the child. Everyone is here all the time.

I prefer these lines, which are attributed to writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, because they remind us that the past is not something that lives outside of us—it is not something we can peer out at or down at from an objective position—rather, it is something carried within us; it fills us with possibility even as it weighs us down. This poetic description of the past is one that can be philosophically articulated via the existential phenomenology of Martin Heidegger. For Heidegger, as I will suggest later, history is the contingent source out of which our very subjectivity, and thus our agency in the world, is formed. Further, a critical reappropriation of Heidegger’s phenomenology provide scholars with a vision of critique that values history, contingency, and emancipatory horizons. There are many ways to practice phenomenology, in other words, and in advising against particular reductive approaches we need not abandon the philosophy altogether.

For instance, to embrace aspects of Heidegger’s thought need not mean embracing Eliade’s. The latter would find Heidegger’s historical phenomenology unacceptable. For Eliade, the modern approach to history—with its emphasis on contingencies rather than universals, the particular rather than the general—risked erasing from human existence the power of meaning, order, and a connection to something larger than our individual existence. Eliade saw his task as being to rescue us from such a vision of history—away from modernity—and to return it to a more authentic mode of being, one that was sacred rather than profane, meaningful rather than nihilistic. In nostalgically longing for a past where the burdens of history could be discarded, Eliade, as critics have rightly pointed out, buttressed an uncritical approach to studying religion that often reified patriarchal, heteronormative, colonialist, and racialized visions of religion. For example, in setting up the experience of “archaic societies” as the norm by which all other societies should be governed, he also took their social structures as natural and normatively binding.[1] Thus, for him, traditional gender roles that may restrain the flourishing of individuals were baked into the very essence of the cosmos. Oppression here is naturalized and normalized in such a way that it appears unchanging (See McCutcheon, Manufacturing Religion).

I argue that this kind of phenomenology is indeed both intellectually and ethically troubling. But in discarding all of phenomenology along with it, we have lost insight into the breakthroughs philosophical phenomenology made in understanding how it is we come to know the world through our conscious experience of it, and indeed how we are able to question and critique this knowledge.

The philosophical tools for articulating how it is we are able to make critical claims about the world—that is, claims that challenge the seeming naturalness of the normative order and the political, social, and economic institutions that support that order—can be found in the existential phenomenology of Martin Heidegger.[2] For Heidegger, our existence in the present is part of a continuum from the past. As such, authenticity is not realized in recovering an idealized past, as it is for Eliade, but in taking it up in the present via historical traditions to which we can be held responsible. This “critical phenomenology” has seeds in Edmund Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, which Heidegger developed in more historicist directions. For Husserl, the ego’s knowledge of the world is structured intentionally, that is, it is already directed outward away from itself. Husserl saw this as a universal feature of consciousness that would make it possible to articulate a unified and universal human account knowledge. While agreeing with Husserl’s notion of intentionality, Heidegger went further in embedding intentionality in the contingent world. He contended that the human being was indeed structured outwardly toward the world (what he called Being-in-the-world) but that this outward orientation meant that our very way of understanding the world was shaped by the history into which we were born. He further showed how the practice of critical engagement with the world could only come about through our confrontation with the possibility that our way of living in and understanding the world might come to an end. In realizing that my world is contingent in this way, it becomes possible to see my own responsibility to that world, as well as those with whom I share a community in it.

For Heidegger, our existence in the present is part of a continuum from the past. As such, authenticity is not realized in recovering an idealized past, as it is for Eliade, but in taking it up in the present via historical traditions to which we can be held responsible.

Scholars like Russell McCutcheon and Timothy Fitzgerald have assumed that the phenomenological tradition associated with Heidegger and his teacher Husserl committed the same sins as Eliade: highlighting the importance of cosmic meaning over contingency and history. In other words, Husserl emphasized the efficaciousness of meaning for individual flourishing over the way meaning is bound up with structures of domination. As such, self-described critical scholars of religion have rejected phenomenological approaches in favor of genealogical ones. Borrowing from Foucault and other poststructuralists, these critical scholars contend that the genealogical method best preserves a critical edge to analyses of religious traditions. While beyond the scope of this blog essay, I note briefly here that genealogy and phenomenology are not in essence opposed to one another. Indeed, both Heideggerian phenomenology and Foucauldian genealogy emphasize the importance of contingency and history. Where they perhaps differ is in their orientation towards constructing a future. For Heidegger, the self was not so restrained by contingency that it could not act in the world, whereas for Foucault if often appeared it was (even if in Foucault’s later work he shifted towards a more robust account of individual agency).

It would be easy to dismiss this turn as one that is simply based on a misreading of the history of the relationship between philosophical phenomenology and phenomenology of religion. To some extent, it is. But there is a deeper concern that motivates the turn to genealogy as well. And this is that even among philosophical phenomenologists, there is an emphasis on subjective experience and meaning that is suspect to scholars of religion. Why?

Theology, Critique, and the First-Person Perspective

As previously noted, the study of religion, in which phenomenology of religion was for many years a dominant force, often relied on concepts like subjective experience and meaning. As critics have noted, this often led phenomenologists of religion to implicitly or explicitly forward their own Christian theological assumptions about the world. If the past of religious studies lays in the particularity of the Christian theological tradition, so the logic goes, then any critical study of religion in the present must reject that past. Otherwise, scholarship on religion risks simply being another form of theology, and the very reason for the existence of the discipline of religious studies and the departments in which it is studied are thrown into question. Turning to Foucault or Derrida in the past has allowed scholars to claim a critical stance towards religion that bypasses the question of their own subjective relationship to their object of study. Recent developments within the humanities, however, have pointed to the limits of these genealogical approaches and provide an opening to return to phenomenology with fresh eyes.

One proponent of the postcritical turn in the humanities is Rita Felski, who in The Limits of Critique suggests that the critical approach taken by scholars in the humanities no longer offers the resources necessary to meet the needs of students or the wider scholarly community. Following Paul Ricoeur, she describes the critical approach that is now dominant in the humanities as a “hermeneutics of suspicion” characterized by  a Sherlock Holmesian “detective-like” approach to examining texts. It is “an attitude of vigilance, detachment, wariness (suspicion) with identifiable conventions of commentary (hermeneutics)” (3). Such an approach pushes to the wayside how a text might affect me, challenge me, or move me. It leaves aside, in other words, the affective ways in which I might meaningfully relate to the text. In detaching myself from my object of study, I repress the ways that I subjectively relate to the text.

Still from the American drama film Sherlock Holmes (1922) with John Barrymore, on page 41 of the May 13, 1922 Exhibitors Herald. Via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Detachment is often treated as a virtue, rather than a vice, in the study of religion. Detachment, we are taught, is necessary especially because of the subject matter we study. To be too attached is to risk becoming religious, i.e. failing to separate oneself from the object of study that is necessary for “academic” work. It is to become again a theologian, like the phenomenologists of old. We, that is “scholars of religion” rather than “apologists,” implement the tools of theory and in doing so set aside our “experience” and “first-person” perspective in order to practice detachment and sharpen our critical acumen. When we do so, however, I would contend that we risk—contra Felski—not becoming too critical, but uncritical. This is because criticism is always made from a first-person perspective, from a person who is indeed a cemetery of the past and is attached to what they study in a variety of ways.

How can we take account of our attachment to the world in ways that preserve the practice of critique? Phenomenology offers a—though not the—resource for sorting out such issues. When Heidegger and Husserl were analyzing the first-person perspective they were doing so not naively, but with the question of how it is that we have knowledge about the world, and thus how something like a critical stance towards the world was possible. For Heidegger, it is the human capacity to engage with the world in a way that does not merely accept what others say about it—the anonymous “they” (Das Man)—that makes it possible to say that there is something like an “I” that stands apart from the world. This is not the radically independent “I” that stands at the center of libertarian political philosophy or even the “I” that is restrained by the moral law in Kantian philosophy. This is an I enmeshed in history, one that defines itself necessarily through categories handed down to it from the past—Heidegger describes this as its fallen nature. The “I” is bound to a history not of its own choosing, and yet, in recognizing that it is an “I” who takes up that history, sets itself apart from it. For Heidegger, as mentioned previously, this most concretely happens when I am confronted by the possible “death” of the conceptual world that makes my life possible. This might occur, for example, when my concepts fail to make sense of the world—one might think here of the failure of stereotypical gender categories to match up to people’s experience—and thus their contingency, and ultimately their dependence upon me to take them up as meaningful (or not) becomes clear. To return to the earlier example, here we can see why Heideggerian phenomenology is unlike Eliadean phenomenology. Where the latter cements stereotypical gender roles into the cosmic order of the universe, the former treats them as contingent norms that we can take over, re-define, and re-signify.

It is ultimately the dependence of categories upon agents acting within history that makes critical thought possible. Otherwise, the distinction between the world that is known to me and the world itself vanishes, leaving the very possibility of questioning how one understands the world impossible to give an account of. For me to take on any historically constituted normative identity, whether “father,” “colleague,” “brother,” or “teammate,” presupposes an I who takes it up, and therefore cannot be reduced to it. And it is my ability to take these categories up and examine their imbrication in certain political, economic, and social systems, that makes it possible for me to critique them, revise them, or advocate for their abandonment. A more concrete example of this kind of engagement are the recent calls to reimagine what constitutes “public safety” beyond the current conceptual framework that centers on policing. It is thus taking historically constituted norms up from the first-person perspective that makes a critical relationship to the world possible.


How might this aid scholars who want to reconfigure the study of religion as a critical enterprise? First, it helpfully reminds us that a critical disposition toward the world should not be conflated with the desire for objectivity. For even objectivity has a history that spoils such a desire. We are all enmeshed in histories not of our choosing. Our focus should be on how we take up those histories rather than on the naïve assumption that we can abandon them. This requires that, in part, we take responsibility for our own past in the study of religion as a discipline that has always been attached to theology and that in order to self-consciously move forward cannot bury that history. The recent work of Noreen Khawaja is exemplary in this regard. Second, it also suggests that we can think more capaciously about what critical work in the study of religion might look like. Rather than disinterested studies of “other people” who might do theology, unlike those of us in the social sciences or humanities, we might imagine those whom we study as fellow travelers with whom we share a world. This might not mean we always agree with the claims of those we study, but it might mean we see ourselves as bound up with them in ways that cannot be undone by speaking and writing in jargon that distances us from them. Indeed, this is a claim that postcolonial and decolonial critics have for too long been suggesting is necessary if we are to be honest about the reasons for our methodological orientation. While scholars have been rightly eager to take up the tools of these fields, too often our own relationship to religion, theology, and the past of religious studies has remained occluded in our own analyses. In engaging with its phenomenological past in the way I outline here, religious studies might exhume the past and in so doing, learn to live with it even as those in the field set out on new paths beyond it.

[1] I do not mean here to imply that these societies were as oppressive and unchanging as Eliade’s construction suggests, but rather that his construction of them that he drew on using his own cultural presuppositions were.

[2] This is not of course to say that Heidegger’s own political commitments should evade scrutiny. Indeed, as has been carefully demonstrated by numerous scholars, Heidegger’s allegiance to the Nazi party in the 1930s was an allegiance he saw as bearing out the critique of liberalism embodied in his other philosophical work. Nonetheless, following Heidegger scholar Gregory Fried, I would contend that the philosophical problems he raised are ones that still require our coming to terms with and that indeed by interpreting Heidegger through a critical lens, we can excavate a liberatory potential in his thought he himself would not have endorsed. This is part of what it means to take responsibility for the phenomenological tradition of which he is a part.

Joshua Lupo
Joshua Lupo is the editor and writer for the Contending Modernities Blog and the classroom coordinator for the Madrasa Discourses program. He has published articles and reviews in Soundings, Reading Religion, Sophia, and Religious Studies Review. His current book project is titled After Essentialism: A Critical Phenomenology for the Study of Religion.

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