Uncovering Religion: One Train May Hide Another

By Angela Zito

This talk was delivered at the panel on “Refugees, immigration and national security” at the Symposium on Religious Literacy and Journalism, Harvard Divinity School, December 9, 2016. It ended a long day of discussion of how religion was, could and should be covered by journalists.

For the past 15 years, I have lived my life in a Venn diagram formed by journalism, religious studies and anthropology. What the three share is a deeply modern history of allegiance to the creation of knowledge through experience. Journalists value the eye-witness account; anthropologists do fieldwork to produce ethnography; and religious studies has wrestled with the issue of experience as key to its modern definition, at least since William James wrote about its varieties.

In their classic forms, they also share anxiety about experience: Journalists fear failure through overly subjective investment; anthropologists fear going native; religious studies trusts neither the converted nor the convicted. These anxieties all share the territory of the border, of insider/outsider policing. But even more, all three anxieties also register angst over how the passions of identity might swamp our rational faculties. As if. As if we could really defend ourselves against our “selves,” our parts. In global modernity religion is deeply embedded in persons and in systems as a marker of identity – too deeply to be easily turned aside or overlooked.

Today I’d like to tell one small story and share one large thought experiment. Both are done in service of understanding the difficulty of grasping the workings of religion in everyday motivations. Religion is often usefully unobvious, and yet present. Because, as the poet Kenneth Koch says: “One Train May Hide Another.”

The story: A young woman was once hired in her first tenure track job at a famous and very old small New England college. Let us call it Notamherst. It was exciting, even though the place was in the woods and required weekend commuting back to a place called Notmanhattan. It turned out to be exciting, as well, because she found out very quickly that she had the honor of being the first woman ever hired on the tenure track in the Religion Department. Ever. She was aghast as one colleague after another broke the news to her, as in, “So you’re the woman the Religion Department hired!” She figured that it was safe to say she had cracked a barrier in place for nearly 200 years, assuming that if the college had had one curriculum in place from the start, it would have been the study of religion.

But as she stayed and worked in the department, she took note of its structure in other ways. How the four senior professors were white and male and Protestant. And how they had assembled a junior staff around them consisting of The Guy Teaching Hinduism (a bridge figure since he was white and Protestant himself); The First Jew—working on Judaism; herself, The First Woman Ever, specializing in ritual studies and China (tellingly, not gender studies) and The First Ever Black Lesbian, a philosopher of Protestant theology. It dawned on her slowly that while outsiders were incited by the whole sexed-gender identity thing, she was coming to think that the more subversive identity she embodied was as, possibly, the first Catholic on the tenure track. Ever. This was born out in anecdotal, though not archival, research. It seemed to be so in people’s memories.

In fact, the intellectual topography of the department had been adroitly arranged so that the four senior white men taught all the courses on theory, while the junior faculty taught content. They had a kind of metropolitan center that contrasted with the (colonial) periphery. In the center, a lot of unmarked Protestant thinking went on, while the rest of them spent time on the body and its performances and rituals. Living the Cartesian split.

The woman was forced to conclude that she had harbored within herself an identity that was not nearly so obvious to her as it was to the others around her—she was well on her way out of the Church and toward Buddhism by then. And yet, in her scholarly interests, she was indeed Catholic: exuberantly absorbed in studying collective ritual life, in the capacities of embodiment and emotions to perform that life into being. The delicate, yet ironclad, filigree of her identity suit forged for her a set of opportunities and dangers. And she suddenly felt its heaviness, and its protection, in a way she had never noticed, since we all know that we acquire our selfhood in the eyes of Others. In her migration into the northern woods, looking for work, she never expected that being Catholic would count for much.

From that small story, I’d like to take up the issue of much vaster migrations, done for reasons far more exigent and deadly than the pursuit of one scholarly career. I invite us to move from the context in which migration actually takes place to the context in which it is imagined by a group of people we have all been wondering about for the past year and a half: Trump voters.

I’ll quote Shakyeed Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California from one of our collected news pieces on immigration: “Some have framed the issue as a monolithic issue of a particular denomination. But that is a myth: the immigration issue transcends all creeds, all colors, all languages.” Syed delivers this insight as a hopeful, positive point. But what if instead he has actually drawn attention to a source of profound anxiety about immigration—its transcendence of boundaries? What if religion now marks a feature of people “out of place”?

Historically, the great evangelizing religions have never respected borders. Beginning with Buddhism, continuing with Christianity and then Islam, they have not only, and always, been involved in providing ideas, bodies and practices for creating authoritative versions of life on the ground in specific places. They have also all been at the forefront of expanding that territory of influence. Indeed, the Buddhist Sangha, the Christian Kingdom of God, and the Islamic Umma provide a corollary genealogy to the world of globalization, a different angle of history of this new world we inhabit, now so tightly knit through transportation, communication. Yet the flows of religious enthusiasm have ridden upon and compelled the flow of money and its networks of financialization and debt.

Famously, Buddhist monks travelled with merchant caravans; within Islam developed some of the earliest forms of banking along the Mediterranean; the intimate ties between Christian missionaries and business interests were infamous within the European colonial world. So my question for us now is this: given the close ties religions have maintained with worlds of wealth, just how much of the anger and anxiety about Islam spreading itself through refugees and immigrants is really an expression about the other modern, global, non-respecter of borders, the Corporation?   I’ve been struck by Trump’s spectacular mash-up of things-to-fear: How corporate abandonment of the borders of the nation blends so well with stories of immigrants assailing those same borders. Do religions whose members are suspected of having extra-territorial first loyalties, harboring international ties beyond the (literal white) pale absorb anger deflected from corporate disloyalty and supra-national interests? And like that junior professor who found one hidden aspect of herself suddenly spotlighted, Arabic- speaking people must also be surprised to be squeezed into a singularity of religious identity.

My point here is to remind us of religion’s complexity, that it is never an object or an essence of traits, easy to find, even in a single person’s profile. It is always an achieved moment, the outcome of an ongoing process, an aspect of the assemblage of desire and fear that motivates a person, and persons, in their shifting collectivities. It can be contingent. It can surprise. In our small story, gender hides religion. In the large hypothesis, religion covers economics. When we write about religion, I hope we go for uncovering rather than covering. As in these last lines from Kenneth Koch’s poem

….One friend may hide another, you sit at the    

               foot of a tree

With one and when you get up to leave there is another

Whom you’d have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher,

One doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man

May hide another. Pause to let the first one pass.

You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It      

               can be important

To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.


Angela Zito teaches anthropology and religious studies at NYU, where she is co-founder and co-director of the Center for Religion and Media, publisher of The Revealer: a review of religion and media. Find her at www.angelazito.com.

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