Saturday, March 31, 2018

Benjamin Schewel's "7 Ways of Looking at Religion": Book Review

Three approaches to the study of religion tend to dominate. Surveys of tradition exemplified by Huston Smith, theories such as those pioneered by Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, and cultural themes as with power, gender, ritual, and belief typify this trio. None of these satisfied Benjamin Schewel, so a decade ago, he began writing a guide he could not find: this one maps a broader view.

In turn, seven perspectives beckon. These elucidate "the narrative commitments that undergird the various strands of the contemporary academic discourse on religion." (194) For each chapter, Schewel introduces a framework, a justification for its inclusion, and three exponents of the type.

Secularization unsurprisingly stimulates reactions by philosophers and historians of religion. Starting off, the inroads made by rational pursuits upon spiritual programs encourage three thinkers. Daniel Dennett suggests various suppositions about the evolution of religious tendencies and strategies on how these might be diminished now. John Dewey embraces naturalism instead of supernaturalism. Marcel Gauchet charts how religion has gradually declined as human-centered projects supplant it.

After summing up these subtractive responses, Schewel ends chapter one by suggesting alternatives. Charles Taylor's framework acknowledges transcendence yet otherwise aligns with Dewey's angle. Dewey's argument can be appreciated apart from his "non-spiritual worldview." (30) Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart's data on the persistence of faith among "vulnerable populations" demonstrate a subtraction narrative of how the Scandinavian paucity of believers dwindles when tallied against increasing levels of income inequality and power disparity for billions in the rest of today's world.

This structure, of introduction, presentation times three, and consideration of that approach pro and con, repeats half-a-dozen times in this short study. Schewel proves a diligent investigator as he shows readers twenty-one takes via seven types. Although why he chooses his theorists remains tacit, each proponent has his (for no female expounders make the cut) fair say. He remains balanced and poised.

Inverting subtraction, the void left by the loss of religion might be filled by a move from the margins back into the center of society. An opposite movement regards this shift "as a sign of humanity's growing desire for substantive spiritual renewal." (33) Virtue ethics imbued with a Catholic influence satisfies Alasdair MacIntyre. Recovery of the pre-Socratic openness towards investigation pleases Martin Heidegger. The resurgence of the purity of "golden-age Islam" comforts Muhammed Iqbal.

For Schewel, the simple fact that three disparate proposals coexist weakens any particular appeals to a tradition. He wonders why another solution might appear, independent of these three legacies.

Modernity may energize religion, rather than dissipate its spirit. The two forces need not oppose one another. He often cites Charles Taylor, the first of Schewel's transsecularist scholars. Taylor promotes "exclusive humanism" as but one element in an "immanent frame" broadening "metaphysical and theological conceptions in a way that premodern cultures could not." (57) By page 61, Schewel repeats a Taylor quote from two chapters earlier, but at least it's a lively excoriation of the excesses of Latin Christendom's demands. Schewel summarizes A Secular Age, and then sums up that summary. Granted, Taylor's "illuminating and profound" account deserves careful credit, for the students likely to turn to 7 Ways during an upper-level seminar or first-year graduate course will welcome a précis.

Yet, for Schewel, Taylor "ends up perpetuating a falsely nativist historical world-view" dismissing "the robust global contexts within which the modern West emerged." (63) A slump, for another observer of Western prospects, accounts for a model of an open American but monopoly European Christian market competing for the unchurched by offering believers rewards. Schewel exposes flaws in Rodney Stark's analogy, although remaining more sympathetic to Jeffrey Stout's dogged avowal of "constructive religious contributions to public discourse" (74) which advance America's democracy.

Secular and secularism share with natural and naturalism multivalent meanings. The first pair examines how religion plays out in modernity; science provides the domain for postnaturalist encounters. Their prevalence in the United States convinced Schemel that a whole category merited selection for chapter 4. Thomas Nagel's effort to assert "some kind of Platonism" as a teleological foil against the excesses of neo-Darwinian assertions for cosmic evolution incites Schemel's longest rebuttal thus far. However, he typically returns to an equitable ruling,, here on Nagel's strengths.

Hans Jonas reports Gnostic tendencies reoccurring in the modern Western intellectual as well as religious legacies. Alfred North Whitehead's historical and scientific details from a century ago need revision, but Schewel guardedly agrees with Whitehead's quest to reconcile science and religion.

Similarly, intellectual history motivates a construction narrative which looks at the massive alteration religion causes in human affairs. In too-brief an entry, Talal Asad points back to medieval Christian monasticism resulting much later in the privatization of belief and practice. Guy Strousma considers the cause of missionaries encountering the wider world in the early modern era, and their effect on an outmoded Christian and Eurocentric polity. So does Jason Josephson, examining Japanese reactions to Western intrusions. He corrects Edward Said's miscalculated locus for Orientalism, moving it from the Middle to the Far East; Josephson details Japanese influences upon Western religious notions.

Schewel approves of this historian's argument, and by devoting more space to a specific case study, articulates for a new audience Josephson's contributions. Moving onto a venerable alternative look at non-Western ideas, perennial conceptions which stretch beyond the expected Traditionalists. Instead, Aldous Huxley's now-dated but certainly stimulating outlook reminds us of the value of spiritual objectivity. John Hick's admission that such a religious reality not only exists but exceeds finite human comprehension, and that this realization generates other-centeredness away from selfishness, extends Huxley's stance. Hick's "metaphysical ambiguity" complements Rudolf Otto's arousal of love and fear into the numinous experience. Schewel settles for siding with Hick's defined transcendence.

Development and growth occupy the last thematic chapter, commencing with G.W.F. Hegel's proposal that as humans understand God better, so religion advances. The density of this thesis demands articulation, which Schewel adds. He leans away from the Eurocentricity based on Hegel's limited global knowledge. Karl Jaspers' Axial Age formulation helps. Schewel realizes its limitations, but he reminds readers that its general scaffolding has stood up to sociological inspection. Robert Bellah's interplay between "cognitive capacities" and religious stages over history incorporates Jaspers' chronology, even as Bellah hesitates at the suggestion that a second Axial Age awaits us soon. Still, as Schewel puts it pithily, Bellah fails to answer the basic question: "Why religion?"

Concluding, Schewel opts for a synthesis of the best that each of these seven typologies may proclaim. He warns that he is not giving us a history of religion, but a narrative of religious history. Like Hick, Schewel avers that a spiritual reality exceeds human understanding. He parallels the developmental narrative by highlighting the tribal, archaic, Axial Age (extended until ca. 1500 C.E.), early modern, and global stages of religious emergence. His two-dozen pages depart from tying his guided tour to its theoretical predecessors, and Schewel inserts rather a brisk overview of millennia.

His prospectus predicts that religion will occupy a major role in global affairs. Plurality of religions within competing communities will spread and accelerate. Leading figures will try to alter this future by aggressive or amicable means. Globalization serves for Schewel as a benign process enabling a mature application of how "religion's many constructive powers can be effectively encouraged" while discouraging its less amenable expressions. (191) The intellectual elite will consider religious compatibility with "the natural-scientific framework." Finally, a second Axial Age may emerge.

This reference may spark conversations among those learning about the philosophy of religion, as well as its history and cultural aspects. Schewel discusses these concepts in academic language, but he lapses into neither jargon nor cant. His endnotes not only document but in some cases enrich his text with further commentary. Nearly 250 sources display Schewel's wide range of research. Given the complexity of this content, the index assists comprehension of its many assertions. That book which Schewel had not found now can be found, and may it ease the perplexity of many inquirers.
(Reading Religion 2/21/18 in edited form)