Thirty years ago, Edward Said’s Orientalism called attention to the ways conceptual categories articulated in European and American universities obstruct our understanding of other worlds, other traditions. Talal Asad critiqued Clifford Geertz’s definition of "religion" as a "system of belief," questioning both the concept of "belief," and the predicate, that "religion" begins with "belief." More recently, following Said, scholars have called into question "comparative" approaches to religion, questioning whether it is possible to articulate categories of analysis that do not privilege one tradition over another.
At a public university, I teach a course on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Students come from a wide range of backgrounds—none shared. We begin by interrogating common conceptions of "religion," and drawing attention to assumptions in them. We start not with definitions, but sacred texts and reading practices—the living engagement of communities and individuals with those texts. We track three different conceptualizations of "revelation" and their implications for conceptions of knowledge and the relationship of living communities to that knowledge. Students observe contemporary worship, mindful of the dialectic between text and lives. We consider three discrete structurings of time, conceptualizations of person and of each person’s relationship to space and place that those readings have inscribed.
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