[Not Really a Review] Secrecy and the Gods by Alan Lenzi

18 06 2011

I have just started reading Secrecy and the Gods: Secret Knowledge in Ancient Mesopotamia and Biblical Israel by Alan Lenzi as part of an effort to educate myself a little in the emergence and diffusion of religious ideas in the cradle of civilization. That fits into a broader project I have going on, but I talk about that sort of stuff on my other blog, Spirited Culture (and it will be a little bit before I am ready to post anything about that there).

Here, I just want to wax poetic on the value and rewards of clear scholarly writing. Well-formed scholastic discourse, with a clear sense of its foundations and aims, is like tonic for the intellect. Lenzi does an exceptional job situating his work within his discipline and, in so doing, shines a bright light on the temperament of the field at present.

Lacking as I do a discourse community to which I could be said to belong, I am always interested to see the shapes those communities take. He is even-handed with all his colleagues work, even as he highlights contentions and difficult aspects of their projects. Already, I have a sense of other works I would like to read and the sort of cautions with which I would approach them.

His section on methodology (pp. 16-19) has thoroughly engaged me. That engagement is less a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with him, than about finding the material he discusses very relevant to the work I am doing. Responding to that relevance, clarifying it, has been illuminating.

His methodology revolves around a couple key figures, Bruce Lincoln and Russel T. McCutcheon, and an emphasis on the reifying nature of mythmaking. I want to talk in an easygoing, loose way, about all of those.

As distant as I am from the field of Religious Studies, I was familiar with the estimable work of Lincoln. McCutcheon, though, is new to me and his approach enthuses and intrigues me. The very title of the work from Lenzi quotes, Critics not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion, inclines me to favor McCutcheon.

It does seem like a lot of ‘soft’ religion emerges out of an unhealthy scholarly ‘politeness’ toward religion. By giving undue deference to religion as bound up with mystery and the noumenal, scholarship can end up giving too little attention to the social mechanisms that define a religious community and the political ramifications of their religious claims. Those religious people ‘educated’ in this soft approach then often generalize this softness to conceal the intellectual and political faults within their communities under the soft-focus lens of spiritual mystery.

(I know, McCutcheon is probably not concerned with that; but I am.)

I quibble slightly, but significantly, with the formulation McCutcheon gives it here:

like all other aspects of human behavior, those collections of beliefs, behaviors, and institutions we classify as ‘religion’ can be conceptualized and then explained as thoroughly human activity, with no mysterious distillate left over. (quoted in Lenzi, p. 16 n. 74 from McCutcheon, p. xi)

But not because I disapprove of his effort to place religion alongside other forms of human behavior. I quibble because I doubt that any human behavior can be explained thoroughly without residue.

That doubt rests on three pillars. First, I take there to be significant limits to human understanding. While we are quite capable of forming multiple, overlapping explanations for behavior, I doubt our capacity to fully integrate those overlapping explanations into a coherent account ‘without residue.’

Second, I doubt our access to the quality of evidence required to form a complete explanation without residue. Only a portion of the evidence from the past for a behavior is available, only a portion of it is seen in the present based on the selectiveness of our perception, and the results for which behaviors are initiated are often in the not-yet of the future.

Third, I quibble with the implication that human behavior is something like a hermetically sealed container which can be divorced, without too much loss, from the impinging of factors beyond strictly behavioral responses. In the religious sphere, of course, I take the motivations of the divine to be such an impinging. This impingement isn’t unique to it, though. The builder has to deal with the impinging of weather, mudslides, and earthquakes.

(Yes, I wouldn’t be above suggesting the impingement of the divine can be quite a bit like the weather for religion as behavior–something that may not be entirely welcome to those forced to deal with it.)

His discussion of myth’s role in the reification of society is one of the better and briefest discussions I have seen on the matter. It is, for example, a significant improvement over Taussig’s in The Devil and Commodity Fetishism. Taussig seems to fall a little too far from the role of critic when he tries to suggest that indigenous religious practice is less reified than consumer discourse.

Quoting Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality, Lenzi defines reification as:

the apprehension of the products of human activity as if they were something else than human products–such as facts, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will. (quoted in Lenzi, p. 18 n. 86, from Berger and Luckmann, p. 89)

and clarifies how this reification “goes a step beyond authorization” and makes the reified social situation into something we ought not question or change.

Describing reification so clearly, though, also reveals some of its conceptual limitations. Just as one can misapprehend the products of human activity as something other than the result of human action, so too can you swing the opposite direction and misapprehend the product of nonhuman activity as being the result of human activity.

We don’t have to assume the existence of the divine to make this point. In fact, let me illustrate this by taking the exact opposite tactic. When Marcus Aurelius is deified by the Romans and a storm taken as a sign of his divine power, we are not seeing a case of reification. We encounter the opposite, in which a natural event unrelated to Marcus Aurelius’s will, is made the result of human action.

In a more complex fashion, what begins as a human action does not remain strictly under the purview of human action. The factors behind global warming are the result of human and nonhuman influences which we can’t entirely disentangle. At this point, slowing global warming is a possibility of human action, but the opportunity to put a stop to it by strictly human action likely is not.

A ‘critical’ attitude that takes aim solely at the reifying aspects of religious mythmaking misses this sort of thing. It also overlooks how that attitude can lead toward an even more reified explanation, one that makes the abstract notion of the ‘social structure’ a direct and immediate cause of particular human behavior.

Also, by assuming that myths are reified, that they are justifying the way things are, one risks overlooking how myths can be an attack on the way things are. Myths of a heavenly order may be called forth as a challenge to the present situation, as a way of undermining the necessity of the present order.

In other words, myths can be understood as going ‘both ways.’ They can, flowing downward, serve to justify the way things are by reference to the way things ought to be. They may also be read upward, as a way of understanding how things are. In that light, mythmaking might beget rival mythmaking that demands things be different. The danger attached to divination, the danger of God or a god/dess turning against a king, reveals this dimension wasn’t entirely absent from the situation.

This seems important to keep in mind in a study about secrecy. Injunctions to secrecy can serve to protect the king from having rivals employ his own mythmaking against him. Injunctions to secrecy can also occur when a group desires to protect its mythmaking from the king. By promising to keep their myths secret, they also, implicitly, promise not to challenge the king’s mythmaking with them.

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2 responses

22 06 2011
Alan Lenzi

Thanks for the write-up. Just a quick note about this:

“myths can be understood as going ‘both ways.’ . . . Injunctions to secrecy can serve to protect the king from having rivals employ his own mythmaking against him. Injunctions to secrecy can also occur when a group desires to protect its mythmaking from the king. By promising to keep their myths secret, they also, implicitly, promise not to challenge the king’s mythmaking with them.”

I deal with examples of the subversive power of myth-making in the second part of the book.

23 06 2011
Ian

I’m looking forward to it–the section on the role of diviners in the secret councils has been a good read,

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