What does it mean to respect another culture, or the people and ideas within that culture? In the prevailing climate of contemporary academic religious studies, it seems taken as a given that one should refrain from criticizing other cultures and their beliefs and ideas. Older Buddhologists like Edward Conze are viewed as an embarrassment, with their strong opinions, positive and negative, about Buddhism and India. We are told not to judge other cultures the way Conze did. Sometimes the refusal of judgement derives from a positivistic desire to ape natural science, with an “objectivity” that denies reference to value; but more often, making judgements about other cultures seems imperialist and disrespectful, a form of Orientalism or even racism.
This refusal to make judgements seems to me to underlie the currently fashionable “performance theory” in studies of ritual, and religious studies more generally. The approach here (usually drawing on the speech-act theory of J.L. Austin) is to remove attention from ideas and truth claims and direct it instead toward social functions: don’t look at what people’s claims say, look at what the claims do in their social context. (As a former sociologist it’s curious to me that the hot and trendy methodology in religious studies – look at functions rather than ideas – looks very similar to the sociological functionalism of Talcott Parsons, an approach that sociologists now discuss only to explain how discredited it is.) One former colleague of mine, describing his studies of Vedic texts, explained his approach as follows: “What do these texts mean when they say ‘gold causes jaundice’? They can’t really believe that gold causes jaundice! There must be something else going on here, something that it does to say such a thing.” As far as I understand it, much of this performance theory is motivated by a desire to respect other cultures. Surely people can’t be so stupid as to mean these bizarrely unscientific things they say; they must be saying it for another reason.
It seems to me, though, that this view gets it exactly backwards. Continue reading