A Self Conscious Experiment in Constructive Theology

An ancient Indian sage and student dialoging together beneath a tree

One of the most interesting things about what we call “knowledge” is its extraordinary flexibility. Once a body of knowledge is mastered (or at least well understood), it can be inflected variously depending on the context, audience, and purpose of articulation. Those who study the field called “semiotics,” which, in its pragmatic dimension, refers to the collective process of meaning-making, are familiar with the seemingly spontaneous process by which distinct spheres of discourse are generated by specific contexts, and the fact that that apparent spontaneity does not equate with cultural transparency. In academic writing and teaching in the humanities, and most especially in religious studies, there is a tacit normative metadiscourse around “objective knowledge” and “knowledge for its own sake” that creates an artificial forced consensus, which almost completely prohibits the examination of religious ideas from a personal or pragmatic perspective. This is an institutionally imposed consensus in the sense that it is not shared by any undergraduates I have taught, certainly not by the general public, and it only appears in the discourse of graduate students because they have learned to conceal their personal religious commitments in order to conform to the normative concept of so-called objectivity, in an intellectual game glamorized as an academic ideal. (Show me a religion grad student, and I’ll show you a deeply religious person “in the closet,” or someone who’s had their religiosity pounded out of them by the reductionist discourse intellectually privileged by academia.) As the respected Buddhist scholar-practitioner José Cabezón has noted, “[T]here is still a widespread reticence to engage the question of the religious identity of the scholar within religious studies as a whole.”[note] José Cabezón. “The Discipline and Its Other: the Dialectics of Alterity in the Study of Religion,” Journal of American Academy of Religion, 74:1 (2006).[/note]

This situation has, in my view, brought about the current atrophying of the academic study of religion. The fashionability of the field which obtained in the 1960s and ‘70s has long since waned, and the field has been rightly criticized for failing to develop methodologies or hermeneutic strategies that justify its existence independent from departments of history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, etc. (I am reminded of Ninian Smart’s self-mocking characterization of religious studies as “polymethodological doodling all the time”). But none of this would matter, I think, if undergraduate students could study religion the way they want to, an approach that would, coincidentally, also constitute the unique methodology that religion departments are lacking. By this, I mean a serious engagement with the worldviews expressed by religions in acts of body, speech, and mind, in a manner that entails a range of thought experiments (and even body experiments) that allow the student to make his own embodied consciousness the locus for consideration of the question, What does reality actually look like and feel like from within this religious worldview? Such experimentation clearly does not involve an actual conversion to the given religion, nor does it necessitate the instructor’s personal adherence to the religious object of experimentation, and yet it is rarely practiced in the university setting. This despite the evidence that this sort of process is, in my experience, what students drawn to the study of religion are most interested in, and despite the fact that such an open and real exploration would be the most authentic engagement with the original ideals of academia one could imagine.

Though I am an academic scholar, I am also a spiritual practitioner. My book, Tantra Illuminated, is not one that is likely to gain me credibility in the academic world, despite the fact that in order to write it I had to earn three degrees and become competent in the reading and interpretation of a wide variety of primary and secondary sources. My endeavor was not to profit from the current popular interest in something called Tantra, nor was it a bid for notoriety by watering down and “making ready for prime time” ideas that are chiefly comprehensible by trained professionals (as academics are likely to view mainstream books in their field). Rather, Tantra Illuminated is something more interesting to me: it is an exercise in what Cabezón calls “academic theology,” or what I would call a self-conscious experiment in well-grounded constructive theology. It weds together the interests and needs of two diverse communities of readers in a way that, I here argue, only a scholar-practitioner is capable of doing. In such an individual, two realms of discourse – one rooted in intellectual claims of objectivity, the other in personal religious experience and concomitant beliefs – may either exist separately, forcing him to maintain a kind of split personality, or they may cohere into unity as he permits intellectual insight to inform his spiritual being and spiritual experience to guide his intellectual inquiry. For me, this process of coalescing did not arise within the academic context, in which the only good religious scholar is a dis-integrated religious scholar, but within a very different context to what I was driven by financial need: freelance teaching in yoga studies. This environment, derided by some academics as being anti-intellectual and woefully ignorant of “real yoga,” not only welcomed the process of sustained and engaged reflection on the philosophy and practices of yoga but pushed me to reflect in more productive ways on the material I had studied. (To clarify: I was always a practitioner as well as an academic, but it was teaching in the yoga studio environment that pushed me to integrate those identities.) Questions of how philosophy related to practice, and of what the religious life of those who authored the ancient texts might have really looked like, were forced into the center of my awareness as my audience relentlessly pushed the discourse away from intellectual abstraction and textual literalism and toward concerns about why the original historical actors held the views they did, what experiences informed those views, what it would mean for modern people to hold those views, and how our cultural context might alter, organically, the ways in which those views might be held. These nonacademic teaching engagements have compelled me to understand the knowledge systems of ancient Indian religion as what they originally were: ways of interpreting reality that were embedded in practice contexts and grounded in real-life concerns of human beings who worked with these religious understandings as ways of purposively refashioning their approach to daily lived existence. To avoid discussion of how religious ideas might personally impact us is to avoid confronting, in any real way, the original purpose and function of those ideas: for, I argue, it is only in actually applying religious ideas to our own lives that they can take on their power and significance, and only in this way do they become accessible to us as authentic and meaningful objects of inquiry.