Affects, Bodies, Religions

Some people use affect theory to challenge the notion that religion is inextricably linked to belief and language, proposing instead that body and affect are more primary. It’s good to affirm bodies, feeling, emotions, affects, but that isn’t the way to do it. It’s a red herring, challenging a notion about belief that nobody really believes (i.e., the notion that religion is inextricably linked to language and belief).

Even relatively old definitions of religion from Rudolf Otto, Paul Tillich, D. T. Suzuki, and Ninian Smart are pretty clear that religion is multidimensional, and not exclusively or primarily verbal and cognitive. Tillich’s “ultimate concern” is not language or belief. Likewise, experiences of the horrifying and fascinating wholly other (Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans) are not belief or language. Not to mention poststructuralist and materialist theories of religion, for which religion does not really exist in the singular or in general, and so is not inextricably linked to anything, except perhaps its historical link as a Latin (Roman and Christian) word that went global (Derrida’s “globolatinization”).

If you want to write about religion and the body, you don’t have to say that you are challenging that notion that religion is disembodied. If you want to write about religion and emotion, you don’t have to say that you are challenging the notion that religion is mainly intellectual. If you want to live in an enchanted universe, you don’t need to make a straw man argument against a disenchanted worldview. More generally, to say that you are “for” something doesn’t require that you first say what you are “against.”

Too many thinkers and scholars articulate themselves in terms of a pars destruens and pars construens, as if you have to challenge a bunch of faulty notions before you can propose your approach, as if there is a positive theory set apart from the ongoing work of correcting errant notions. This reminds me of books that offer a deconstruction and then a reconstruction, which basically means that the idea of deconstruction has been completely misunderstood, as in the incessantly repeated refrain enjoining so-called “deconstructionists” to finish deconstructing and start reconstructing already. If you really want to affirm bodies and affects in religions, open up your hermeneutics. Don’t fit everything within the pars destruens/construens schema, which is bound to lead thought into red herrings and straw men, obfuscating the religious phenomena you are attempting to understand.

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