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“Like Small Bumps on the Neck…”: The Problem of Evil as Something Ordinary

Abstract: Religions, myths, rituals and theologies are understood by many scholars somehow to possess or transmit essential truths or values that magically transcend their particular setting. In a word, “things religious” are presumed from the outset to be extraordinary, thus requiring special interpretive methods for their study. This essay attempts to reverse this penchant in modern scholarship on religion by presuming instead that those observable activities we name as “religion” are an ordinary component of social formations and, as such, can be sufficiently studied by drawing on the methods commonly used throughout the human sciences. Using “the problem of evil” as a test case, the essay argues that seemingly privileged or unique discourses on evil are but ordinary efforts at establishing cognitive intelligibility and overt political justification.

There is nothing more difficult to convey than reality in all its ordinariness. Flaubert was fond of saying that it takes a lot of hard work to portray mediocrity. Sociologists run into this problem all the time: How can we make the ordinary extraordinary and evoke ordinariness in such a way that people will see just how extraordinary it is? (Bourdieu 1998: 21)

Theology as Ordinary Human Data

When I first read Pierre Bourdieu’s above comment on the surprising effort it takes to represent ordinariness as extraordinary, I was struck by the importance of his seemingly subtle point. It is important for three reasons. First, it takes seriously the insider’s unreflective understanding of their own social worlds — after all, the object of study throughout the human sciences is people simply doing what they happen to be doing. Second, Bourdieu helps scholars to focus their attention on the techniques whereby people represent a subset of their behaviors (i.e., what they happen to be doing) as important, meaningful, and worthy of reproduction and transmission (i.e., what they must or ought to be doing). Finally, both of these points reinforce the notion that scholars are not in the business of merely paraphrasing a group’s own articulate or reflective understanding of themselves; instead, we bring our own curiosities, value systems, and sets of anticipations (i.e., theories) to bear on our human data, leaving us responsible for making this or that cultural act significant in a whole new way.

For scholars concerned with studying those assorted cultural practices easily understood by most everyone in society to be obviously important – I’m talking here about those things we call ‘religion,’ by the way – Bourdieu’s comment has profound implications. If we presume those beliefs, behaviors, and institutions usually classified as ‘religious’ to be nothing more or less than instances of completely ordinary social-formative behavior, then the trick would be to develop an interest in the ways that such routine social acts come to stand out as privileged in the first place. The trick, then, is not simply to reproduce the classification scheme, value system, and hence sociopolitical world, of one’s informants (i.e., the so-called religious people themselves), but to bring a new language to bear, a language capable of redescribing the indigenous accounts of extraordinariness, privilege, and authority as being ordinary rhetorical efforts that make extraordinariness, privilege, and authority possible.

In a word, the trick would be to make participant rhetorics and indigenous self-reflection on ‘religion’ one’s data. I am therefore part of a scholarly tradition that sees theology and its practitioners as nothing more or less than native informants1; they are but one more group whose reports and actions are in need of study and theorization. For instance, I recall that the Protestant process theologian and advocate of liberal religious pluralism, John Cobb, once spoke at a university where I was teaching; I found it rather odd attending his talk for I did not see myself there as Cobb’s colleague or dialogue partner. Rather, I attended the lecture much as an anthropologist might attend a ritual ceremony — as a participant-observer gathering descriptive data for later theoretical reworking.

Scholars of religion, such as myself, therefore conceive of and study theologians as elite social practitioners, as generally privileged, influential mythmakers.2 Although not all of the scholars of religion’s data will come from the ranks of theologians (after all, not all of the people and groups we study are involved in the articulate, systematic reflection and rational expression on the meaning, context, or implications of “the faith”), all theologians are fair game as data. It is for this reason that I decided to open a collection of my essays with an epigraph taken from David Lodge’s novel, The British Museum is Falling Down: “I don’t have any myself, but I believe in other people having religion”3; I believe in other people having religion for the simple reason that, without such people, their claims, and the institutions they establish and reproduce, scholars of religion would have nothing to study.

Answering the How and Why Questions

But what is it about theologians or other so-called religious people that scholars of religion such as myself study? To make a complex answer simple, I can say that we study how it is that they believe and behave and, having gathered this descriptive information, we go on to theorize as to just why it is that they believe and behave as they do. To accomplish this we draw on descriptive and comparative skills followed by explanatory theories concerning such things as the workings of human brains, bodies, and social formations to study why it is that people, from all over the globe and for countless generations, invest such tremendous amounts of intellectual creativity and social energy talking about invisible beings or the origins, purpose, and fate of the universe. Although some scholars — known variously as phenomenologists, historians of religions, or simply liberal humanists — are equally interested in investigating the descriptive where, when, what, who, and how of religious traditions (i.e., they pursue detailed descriptivist information and are generally concerned with what religion means, either to the participant or for humanity in general), the scholar of religion I am describing draws on the descriptive how of religion as data in need of theorizing. Unlike theologians, assorted other religious practitioners, and even liberal humanists — all of whom take the existence of religious beliefs as given, inevitable, necessary, or self-evidently meaningful and good (though they differ dramatically as to what this meaning may be) — scholars of religion go beyond mere description and comparison to inquire as to why people find such beliefs, behaviors, and institutions attractive, compelling, effective, and worthy of reproducing. For sure, not everyone studies religion in this way but, when studying religion in a publicly funded context — a “public” comprised not just of members of assorted complementary and contradictory religious traditions but also agnostics and atheists who equally pay taxes to support the education system — it strikes me that this is the only viable option for our field. Despite their intimate relation, then, there is a tremendous gulf between public scholars of religion, on the one hand, and theologians, on the other.

To phrase it as I do in my own introductory classes, whereas theologians (if we can use this term for not just Christians or theists in general, but for all forms of elite, systematic participant reflection on the meaning of their participation in those social movements we commonly name as religions) study the gods, scriptures, and origins (as opposed to historic beginnings), then scholars of religion study groups of historically-embedded people who talk about the gods, scriptures, origins, etc. Because I draw this distinction, the famous lines from Alexander Pope’s poem, Essay on Man (1733-1734), are particularly useful to me (but, I must add, it is useful only to a point4): “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan. The proper study of Mankind is Man” (Epistle II). Scholars of religion do not study religion or the gods whatsoever — as counter-intuitive as that may sound, I think it worth stating. Instead, they use a tool (the category ‘religion’ itself is one such tool, the comparative method is another, as are the explanatory theories they bring to their work) to demarcate, name, and study a relatively small range of the complex collection of observable, cross-cultural, and eminently ordinary human doings that are available to us through such artifacts as written and oral texts, architecture, archeological sites, ritual behavior, social institutions, etc. Whereas religion may have something to do with salvation or damnation for a theologian, for the scholar of religion ‘religion’ (which I now purposefully place in quotation marks) is a tool with a specific history and possible analytic utility for scholars studying but one aspect of the complex range of human behaviors.5 Other than human reports we can hear, the human systems of classification used to convey information, the human texts we can read, the human actions we can observe, and the social institutions that make these reports, taxonomies, texts, and actions possible, what else is there for scholars in the human sciences to study? Thus, updating Pope’s language and jettisoning his own theological agenda, I can simply say: “The only study of Humankind is Human Beings.”

What should be clear is that the theologian and the scholar of religion I am describing have two completely different starting points — a point that deserves to be highlighted, given the manner in which scholarship on religion is often misunderstood by our colleagues in the university. Whereas the former presumes religion to contain a world of self-evident meaning and value somehow apart from, and therefore which impinges upon, the world of mundane human doings, the latter presumes all meaning and value (including the social practice named theology) to be a thoroughly human, historical, even ad hoc concoction. This presumption makes the latter approach thoroughly anthropological.

Given this way of distinguishing between these two groups, I must now refine my terms; it should be clear that I find it misleading to talk about the study of religion vs. theology; after all, as already suggested, phenomenologists and other liberal humanists intent on studying the various manifestations of the enduring Human Spirit or Geist (notably as manifested in the so-called Great Works of Literature) have much in common with so-called theologians: all are equally invested in studying what the scholar of ancient Greek religion, Walter Burkert, simply terms “non-obvious beings” (i.e., “things” you don’t bump into). Although I would be the last to suggest that such things as ‘society’ or the ‘nation-state’ were real in the same way that my laptop, or the chair I’m now sitting in, are real, unlike the humanist or theologian, I see ‘society’ ‘economy,’ and ‘the nation-state’–not to mention ‘God,’ ‘sin,’ or ‘heaven’ – as analytically or heuristically useful, everyday fictions that people in certain groups use to organize and negotiate the complex world around them. Others before me have made this same observation about our tool ‘religion’ (most notably Jonathan Z. Smith). This taxon, ‘religion,’ and the set of ideas and social arrangements that we are able to name and identify when using it (e.g., the presumption that ‘faith’ is somehow a private, privileged insight into reality), is a way that certain sociolinguistic families (those traceable to Latin – from which we get our term ‘religion’6 – or those influenced by the European world through its history of conquest) name, divide up, and act out their world. Whereas for the theologian, religion or faith has something to do with salvation, human shortcomings, or communication with an unseen world, the scholar of religion understands the term ‘religion,’ or such rhetorical pairs as sacred/profane, as one way that certain human communities concoct cognitively and socially habitable ‘worlds.’ Although not all human communities concoct their worlds by means of inter-related discourses on non-obvious beings, absolute origins, and final end-times etc., some of us do just that. But why?

If you are not curious about this specific why question, then perhaps you should not be a scholar in the academic study of religion. If all you are curious about is where and when and by whom Hindu death rituals are enacted (description) or whether Buddhist rituals are similar to Christian rituals (comparison), then perhaps the academic study of religion is not your home, for it is precisely this question, “Why?”, that sets the anthropologically-based study of religion apart from both its theological and humanistic counterparts. Whereas both of these are concerned with the never-ending hermeneutic quest for elucidating meaning and significance, the study of religion, as I practice it, is concerned with what the late Michel de Certeau termed an anthropology of credibility (1997: viii) – with examining and explaining the conditions and socio-rhetorics that enable a group to portray a piece of social data as meaningful, significant, and credible in the first place, rhetorics such as sacred/profane or private/public. This different focus – a meta-focus when compared to quest to discover meaning – raises a host of questions and opportunities peculiar to the public study of religion as something ordinary.

To summarize, then, I provide the following assumptions that drive the anthropological study of religion as I understand it.7

‘World’ and the Natural World

The backdrop for all human doings is the natural world (i.e., the world we bump into when we try to cross either a street or the hotel lobby); because I presume the natural world to be a complex place, I also presume that no human community knows what is really going on in it (i.e., metaphysical reductionism simply makes no sense to me as an explanatory option; following Don Wiebe of the University of Toronto, I advocate methodological reductionism). Instead, whether we’re relying on individual hunches or socially-authorized traditions that began long before we came on the scene, we all recall just this or that past event, and anticipate this or that possible future event, all in an effort to narrativize a meaningful ‘world’ which is never quite in perfect step with the natural world.8 I borrow the term ‘world’ from William Paden who notes that, unlike the more philosophically-idealist terms worldview, philosophy, or viewpoint, ‘world’ connotes “the operating environment of linguistic and behavioural options which persons or communities presuppose, posit and inhabit at any given point in time and from which they choose courses of action” (Paden 2000: 335).9 I place this ‘world’ in single quotation marks when using it in this manner so as to draw attention to the fact that this is the contestable, ad hoc social lens or template by which we plot ourselves in relation to a select few aspects of what I referred to above as the natural world, a world whose many aspects are constantly competing for our attention.10 As an aside, given this presumption, one of the goals of a liberal arts education is to persuade students that the natural world is far more complex than suggested by their inherited ‘worlds.’

Pluralistic Methodological Reductionism

Because of this presumed complexity of social ‘worlds,’ a variety of methods and theories will be necessary to start talking about them in an academic manner–which means, first, describing them, but then situating them within their contexts, explaining their attraction to people, accounting for both their endurance and change over time, etc.11 I therefore support pluralistic methodological reductionism (“Given my methods of analysis, religion functions to…”). I would be quite mistaken to think that, once the work of studying social formations is exhausted (as if it could ever be exhausted), either there would be nothing left for colleagues using other scales of analysis to study or that there would remain some refined distillate called experience, consciousness, belief, the sacred, or Human Nature, that we could only study by means of some special methodology from outside the human sciences.12

Mythmaking vs. Theorization

Any system of thought and practice that fails to presume 1 and 2 is a candidate for the status of data. Reflection on the deeper truth or meaning of religion (whether that reflection is theological or humanistic) attempts to bypass the historically-grounded nature of all human attempts to know the world around us, making them instances of mythmaking open to theorization. It is for this reason that I think it sensible to exclude certain approaches from the pluralistic methodologically reductionist study of religion as carried out in the public university. Those approaches to be excluded (i.e., those approaches which are themselves instance of data) are those that (i) presume the natural world to be the tip of an unperceivable, supernatural or ahistoric world and (ii) presume that the underlying principle, workings, meaning, or purposes of both this natural and supernatural world can be known by those possessing special, gifted, intuitive, or privileged knowledge/wisdom.

Totalizing Discourses Are Data

Finally, there are no final explanations; explanations, like all cognitive endeavors, are products of specific social contexts and concerns, although when correctly understood in their technical sense, theories and explanations are a part of a specific, academic (as opposed to a folk) discourse about the natural world. Having said this, however, we must never fail to recognize that scholars are just as deeply involved in the art of rhetoric, contestation, and social formation as anyone else. It is just that scholars do not draw on the same rhetorics to accomplish their acts of social formation. As Bruce Lincoln has most recently phrased it, “scholarship is myth with footnotes” (1999: 209).13 Therefore, it is a useful rule of thumb to say that it is the people we study who typically propose final, universal, total, metaphysical explanations (e.g., “At the end of time…,” “God’s will is that…,” “The meaning of life is…,” etc.).14 Because scholars in the study of religion are methodological reductionists, their explanations are purely a function of their interests and the theories they propose and apply (“Given my theory of social formation, rituals functions to…,” etc.). This means that scholars of religion must own up to their own curiosities, instead of misportraying them as eternally interesting and obviously relevant questions. As anyone who has made idle conversation at either a wine and cheese party or a bus stop can tell you, nothing is self-evidently compelling or interesting. Things are compelling, interesting, or boring only in light of shared systems, grids, interests, and lenses of meaning, value, and significance–in a word, ‘worlds’ – that are produced and reproduced in social groups. That not just every ‘world’ counts as a participant in the institution we call ‘academe’ should go without saying.

Case in Point: The Problem of ‘Evil’

As a way to demonstrate what can be accomplished in the study of human doings by agreeing that our work on human doings is driven by these assumptions–and as a way to illustrate Bourdieu’s opening comment as applied to the field of data named ‘religion’ – I would like to examine a specific piece of religious data. Rather than ask questions concerning what it means to the actors, how it works within their context, or whether this sort of behavior is good or bad, I would like to suggest that the meta-focus of the anthropologically-based study of religion allows us to formulate general theories to investigate the historic precedents and effects of cross-culturally observable human behavior. The general theories of human minds, behaviors, and institutions that we employ in this activity thus enable us to interact with our colleagues throughout the human sciences. As opposed to being what I – following Burton Mack – have termed caretakers for the behavior under study,15 I would like to provide the following as a case study in applying a different sort of scholarship to the study of religion, an approach that makes scholars active and public culture critics. I would therefore like to turn our attention to the seemingly privileged or unique genre of Christian theological writing traditionally known as ‘theodicy’ to demonstrate what is to be gained by the anthropological approach to the study of religion as a particular form of human practice.

Theodicy Described

The term ‘theodicy’ is generally credited to the German philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716); it is a compound derived from combining two ancient Greek words, one referring to a divine being or god (theos) and the other referring to justice (dike): a theodicy is therefore a discourse on the justice of god. Although when strictly used the term applies only to those belief systems that posit some sort of moral, supernatural being who controls the universe (i.e., ethical monotheism), it is nevertheless widely used to denote any human attempt to deal with the fact that events in the natural world do not always unfold according to plan or anticipation. An example of this wider usage of the term can be found in the work of the early sociologist, Max Weber, who used the term to name any attempt to grapple with the problem of human suffering. For instance, although many Buddhist systems hardly posit a loving God ruling the universe (although countless, compassionate bodhisattvas are central to many Mahayanan Buddhist groups, such as Japanese Pure Land Buddhism), philosophers of religion have no difficulty speaking of a ‘Buddhist theodicy’; after all, as is made clear from the origins tale concerning Prince Siddhartha’s disillusionment and subsequent awakening, the problem of human suffering and disquiet (Pali, dukkha) is one of the central topics in Buddhist thought. Also, even though a ‘Hindu theodicy’ may strike some as an awkward choice of terms, others will undoubtedly answer that the interrelated notions of karma, caste, and dharma provide a powerful way of explaining why events in the world happen as they do. In fact, Weber called the law of karma “the most radical solution of the problem of theodicy” (1993: 147). However, despite this wider usage for the term ‘theodicy,’ even a quick glance at the world’s religions makes it clear that Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist writers, for example, have not been nearly as concerned with this issue as have been Christian writers.

Within the history of Christian theodicy writing, the problem of evil comes down to what many others before me have named as a trilemma: three related premises, any two of which can be held but to the exclusion of the third: (i) God is all-good; (ii) God is all-powerful; and (iii) Evil exists. For example, holding (i) and (ii) excludes (iii); in this case the observable evil in the world (whether natural evils such as rock slides or moral evils such as genocides) is explained away as merely the result of our inevitably limited, human viewpoint. Participant reports from this perspective would likely take the form of, “Yes, but in God’s eyes…,” “The time will come when we will see…,” or “These seemingly evil events are actually tests…” (as in the ancient Hebrew tale of Job). Holding (ii) and (iii) would exclude (i); in this case a malevolent but powerful God would be responsible for evil events. Holding (i) and (iii) would posit a well-intentioned God who was incapable of preventing certain harmful events, events caused by Fate, human freewill, or possibly the actions of some other deity (as in the case of the ancient Iranian religion, Zoroastrianism). It should be apparent that, in the history of Christianity at least, all three of these combinations have struck various participants as appealing explanations for evil, since evil events have been variously attributed to the inscrutable will of God, as tests for human worthiness, as the corrupt, rogue actions of Satan, or as the prideful acts of human free will traceable to Adam and Eve’s rebellion. Actually, despite the seeming logic of the trilemma, often mutually exclusive options arise in the same theodicy. Reporting on why he was bitten by a rattlesnake during a Pentecostal ritual ceremony, a snake handler in the Appalachian region of the U.S. informed the documentary film-maker that “It was God’s will but the devil’s work” – a theodicy that effectively frees God from responsibility for capricious events while simultaneously attributing to this same God absolute power and control.16

Although this partial list hardly exhausts the many different solutions that Christian writers have offered for the problem of evil, it nonetheless provides a descriptive starting point for our redescriptive efforts.

Theodicy Redescribed

Prior to embarking on a redescription of ‘theodicy,’ it is important to state explicitly that ‘theodicy’ is part of an emic, insider vocabulary that scholars of religion freely accept as part of their first level, descriptive lexicon, a term used to demarcate a specific indigenous discursive domain of interest to them. Sadly, virtually all treatments of theodicy – from textbook and encyclopedia entries to the work of contemporary philosophers and, of course, theologians – are concerned simply with grappling with the problem of evil and offering solutions to it rather than theorizing as to just why human beings even bother to grapple with this thing they call ‘the problem of evil.’ Where we do find attempts to explain the existence, attraction, or function of theodicies, they usually follow along the lines of Ronald M. Green’s thoughts as found in his entry on theodicy in the Encyclopedia of Religion: there is, Green asserts, “essentially a moral motivation” behind formulating theodicies, for they “draw upon and deepen our moral self-understanding” (1987: 441). As evidenced by Green’s comments, there are few, if any, attempts to talk about the problem of evil that are not themselves instances of mythmaking. Relying on the presumed existence of a non-empirical, “essential moral impulse,” Green’s explanation only mystifies our topic, for what we as anthropologically-based scholars of religion are trying to account for is not how independently existing moral impulses are expressed and deepened but why human communities presume the existence of such ‘things’ as inner or immutable moral impulses and how such rhetorics are employed for very specific, tactical, sociopolitical gains. Green does not help us in this endeavor because he presumes the existence of that which we as scholars of religion are trying to explain. The tremendous difference between solving, and studying why people attempt to solve, the problem of evil will hopefully become evident as we proceed with our redescription.17

To begin a redescription of theodicy as something ordinary, we need to recall that, as suggested by my earlier use of Pope’s quotation – as I am using it, at least – the study of religion is not concerned with extraordinary discourses on the gods but with studying ordinary groups of people who, in their everyday lives, commonly engage in discourses on the gods. When redescribed in this manner, the problem of evil can be seen as both a problem in cognitive intelligibility and a problem in political justification. I will deal with each in turn.

First of all, a theodicy is an attempt to come to terms with the divergence between a belief in a rational, coherent, meaningful natural world, on the one hand, and those daily observations of the empirical, natural world (once again, everything from rock slides to genocides) that contravene that belief. Redescribed in this way, theodicies are one of the ways in which human beings address anomalies in their expectations for how the natural world works. To appeal to a biological metaphor, theodicies are symptomatic of cognitive nausea; according to most recent studies, motion sickness “occurs when there is a conflict between the motion we experience and the motion we expect to experience…. Nausea arises when the brain receives unanticipated sensory inputs – for someone, say, new to boats feeling the ground beneath him pitch up and down, or, for someone in a virtual-reality helmet, seeing oneself move through the world while one’s body knows it is standing still” (Gawande 1999: 36-7). Moving from the biological to the cognitive, we can say that theodicies are evidence of cognitive queasiness.

Given that a belief system which provides a context for our expectations is part of a larger social ‘world,’ then theodicies mediate between our ‘world’ (i.e., our systems of socially reproduced knowledges and expectations) and the nagging observation that the natural world does not always conform to our expectations; because theodicies work much as shoe horns once did, to make the natural world fit our ‘world’ (or vice versa), we can conclude that they are part of a totalizing discourse and are evidence of ‘worlds’ conflicting with the world. Where we find a theodicy we thus find an attempt to make an ambiguous situation totally intelligible, knowable, and controllable.

Recalling our presumption of the utter complexity of the natural world, it is inevitable that all human communities will develop mechanisms to explain the lack of fit between their ‘worlds’ and the world. An important point arises here: although scholars using the scientific method are equally engaged in constructing a ‘world’ and actively constructing scientific theories to mediate the lack of fit between their ‘worlds’ and the natural world, their classification systems do not authorize themselves by appealing to destiny or the gods. Although such scholars are deeply engaged in making the world intelligible and knowable, they presume that their master narrative (narratives which have something to do with objectivity, neutrality, evidence, verification, falsification, progress, theory building, testing, etc.) is a thorough historical product. To appeal to Daniel Dennett’s imagery, they see their methods and theories as heuristically-useful cranes that are firmly grounded in human history and contestable social interests, rather than understanding them to be free-floating skyhooks originating from nothing in the historical world (1995: 73-80). The former are acknowledged by their makers to be tactical, ad hoc, and open to being discarded when their practical utility fails. The latter, although equally ad hoc when seen on the redescriptive level, are instead understood by their users as totalized, all-inclusive, necessary, and beyond all forms of falsification and testing. So, although the British literary critic Terry Eagelton is correct to observe that theories of all sorts are “just a practice forced into a new form of self-reflectiveness on account of certain grievous problems it has encountered [i.e., anomalies in expectations],” we must be careful to distinguish the differing ways humans grapple with these anomalies: we can develop naturalistic theories, as in the technical practices of the human and natural sciences, or we can develop theologies and, more specifically, theodicies. “Like small lumps on the neck,” then, both theories and theodicies are “a symptom that all is not well” (Eagleton 1992: 26).

The efficiency of theodicies in particular in addressing anomalies lies in their ability smoothly to posit two contradictory premises: (i) the natural world is rational; and (ii) its rationale is a mystery beyond comprehension. Take for example, the following quotation from The New York Times:

“All those people died for a reason” [said a sixteen year old sophomore at Columbine High School outside Denver, CO, site of the April 20, 1999, shootings]. “God was with them every step of the way,” she went on to say, “He chose them for some special reason.” (Rimer 1999: col. 4)

As the student makes clear in this attempt to understand what I would certainly agree to be a tragic event, there was a reason for the many student deaths at Columbine High School in Colorado, but it’s just that it was “some special reason” known, it seems, only in the mind of God. The oxymoronic presumption of ‘unknowable rationality’ functions because ‘God’ or ‘mystery’ plays the role of an empty signifier, which is, by strictest definition, devoid of content because it is, after all, “special” or, to us, utterly unknowable. ‘Mystery’ thus provides a place which acts, as Robert Sharf recently commented on the related concept ‘experience,’ as

a mere placeholder that entails a substantive if indeterminate terminus for the relentless deferral of meaning. And this is precisely what makes the term experience [and I would add, theodicy] so amenable to ideological appropriation. (1998: 113)

In the words of Gary Lease, religions – most notably, we can now add, by means of their theodicies – attempt “to be totally inclusive of all paradoxes by establishing exclusive meanings.” Because, as we have assumed, historical life is rather more complex than any totalized model, Lease predicts that, despite theologians’ best attempts to completely rationalize the natural world, the dissonances and conflicts that inevitably arise will eventually cause “the societal system to breakdown and the ‘structures’ [i.e., ‘worlds’] which allowed such a paradoxical mutuality to dissolve” (1994: 475). One set of such structures are, I suggest, theodicies. Lease immediately goes on to suggest that embarking on writing a history of the rise and decline of a social formation requires one to “catalog [the] strategies for maintaining paradoxes, fighting over dissonances, and surviving breakdowns.” Such a catalog would amount to a map of the many social sites where such devices as theodicies are developed, deployed, and contested.

As should by now be quite evident, theodicies are not only cognitive interfaces but are also an exercise in overt political justification and the exercise of power. Both of these two redescriptions are related for, insomuch as a theodicy can be understood as mediating between the natural world and social ‘worlds’ – thereby allowing participants to gloss over anomalous experiences and observations – then theodicies are also the mechanisms whereby this or that ‘world’ is authorized as being satisfactory and in a one-to-one fit with the natural world. Intelligibility is therefore intimately linked to social legitimacy (this is nothing other than the old knowledge/power equation). Theodicies therefore rationalize, in both senses of the term (‘to make rational’ and ‘to legitimize’). Because ‘worlds’ are neither innocent nor disconnected from their builders, theodicies are political insomuch as they enable participants to actively portray any one particular ‘world’ – along with the interests that shape this ‘world’ – as being just or unjust, changeable or inevitable, bearable or unbearable, necessary or contingent, or simply – to borrow the infamous words from Voltaire’s character, the metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-boobologist, Dr. Pangloss–”the best of all possible worlds.”18 Even a casual reader of Voltaire’s biting satire Candide easily sees the sadly comic lack of fit between Pangloss’s ‘world’ and the incredibly tragic situations in which he and his young student, Candide, repeatedly find themselves. Even the naive Candide has sufficient ironic sense to appreciate the lack of fit; early on in their travels, after they have been arrested–”one for talking and the other for listening with an air of approval” – Candide is flogged and Pangloss hung, all as part of an elaborate auto-da-fé: a public ceremony of repentance designed to protect the city from further earthquakes (a ritual, it turns out, which does not work).19 Candide, stunned by the whole affair, simply remarks, “If this is the best of all possible worlds, then what are the others like?” (1966: 12).

Although it is only a short novel, Candide nicely demonstrates how people (such as its author, Voltaire) with different interests and political commitments actively contest the status of competing social ‘worlds’ by means of differing theodicies (cosmogonies and apocalyptic tales can be redescribed in precisely this way as well). For, when read in his historical context, Voltaire’s Pangloss is clearly a critique of Pope’s (1688-1744), and, before him, Leibniz’s, well known “philosophical optimism.” Voltaire correctly understood the wider implications of their brand of complacent optimism: it is not only naive but it also amounts to little more than a politically conservative apologia for the status quo. After all, active social change of any sort is not really encouraged when, in the last lines from Epistle I of Pope’s Essay on Man, we read those often cited lines:

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony, not understood;
All partial Evil, universal Good:
And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, “Whatever is, is right.”

Although not all theodicies are politically regressive (obviously, Voltaire’s parody was clearly oppositional to the conservatism of both Pope and Leibniz), all theodicies are at their root political. Insomuch as they portray one possible ‘world’ as the World (whether that ‘world’ is conservative or liberal, dominant or oppositional), they are by definition ideological for their function is to portray the part as the Whole. As evidence of this we need look no further than the lines from Pope’s poem already quoted; they provide an example of the very totalizing of which Lease spoke earlier – all viewpoints, we are persuaded, are partial, limited, and subsumed under one harmonious, coherent, universal totality – a totality which, upon closer examination, is none other than yet another part dressed up as the Whole. This is the ideology of liberalism at its best; it is a profoundly political stance that seeks nonempirical, essential unity amidst empirical difference.20

So, when redescribed, theodicies become sociodicies (discourses on the status and legitimacy of this or that ‘world’) and the problem of evil then becomes the problem of ‘evil.’ By this I mean that, for the scholar of religion, the presumption that evil exists (and must therefore be addressed somehow) is itself the datum under study. So, instead of asking, along with Harold Kushner’s popular book on the problem of evil, “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?,” the scholar of religion asks two very different questions: “Why do people presume that the world ought to be coherent, sensible, intelligible, meaningful, or good in the first place?” and “What ends are served by this or that application of the good/bad pairing, or the rhetoric of ‘evil’?” The assumption that drives this sort of redescriptive work is that value judgments, such as identifying this or that event as ‘evil,’ always take place within ambiguous, ever changing historical, social ‘worlds.’ This means that we must seriously entertain that the designation ‘evil’ tells us far more about a particular social ‘world’ and the interests of the classifiers than it tells us about the act being classified.

Once again, the academic study of religion – when religion is conceived as but one more cultural practice – turns out to be an exercise in (i) determining the limits of what social groups understand as credible and (ii) identifying the mechanisms used to police and contest those limits. It is a conclusion seemingly related to Green’s own conclusion: “theodicy’s deepest impulse,” he writes, “is not to report the bitter facts of life but to overcome and transform them” (440). But upon a closer look, Green is still engaged in mythmaking rather than explanation, for the “facts of life” (i.e., events in the natural world) in themselves are neither bitter nor sweet – they just are. Theodicies are the means by which communities plot and process the generic stuff of experience as either bitter or sweet. Also, Green’s sense of “overcoming and transforming” – something that sounds surprisingly close to my notion of making ‘world’ fit the natural world – arises from a view of theodicies as expressions of private, essentially moral impulses and motivations, rather than seeing theodicies as structural mechanisms that enable communities to posit and act out this thing we come to know as morality.


Public scholars of religion study the way people such as theologians artfully deploy and manipulate such classifications and social focusing devices as discourses on evil, origins, end-times, and non-obvious beings. Or, to put it another way, because not all events in the natural world equally attract our attention (remember, the world’s a busy place and I’ve only got so much attention to focus), such things as doctrines, creeds, traditions, myths, and rituals constitute the mechanisms whereby groups concoct and reproduce their ‘world’ by exercising and managing what Jonathan Z. Smith terms an “economy of signification.” It is an economy efficiently managed by cognitive and social classifications that delineate this from that, important from unimportant, saved from damned, good from evil, and, finally, us from them. As public scholars of religion we therefore examine a rather specific group of narrative, behavioral, and institutional devices employed by people like, but not just, theologians, devices that represent and contest differing conceptions of who gets to count as part of the social ‘we.’

What should be clear is that public scholars of religion are not in the business of nurturing, enhancing, or – despite the caricatures of those who wish to make the academic study of religion essentially a theological pursuit – criticizing the communities they study; this is the business of the various groups’ members, theologians included. Neither are we in the business of proposing final, definitive, totalized theories; our work presumes the ambiguous, ad hoc nature of all social activity – scholarship included – making the academic study of religion tactical, problem-oriented, and ironic. As a cultural critic, the anthropologically-based scholar of religion’s contribution is therefore made as a scholar of classification and social rhetoric–both of which are all too human, historic activities with discernable beginnings and discernable consequences.21

Given this conclusion, I repeat something that I suggested earlier in this essay: unlike the theologian, for the scholar of religion qua anthropologist of credibility, there is nothing religious about religion. Religion is simply the classification some of us give to various collections of artful but all too human devices that help to portray any given ‘world’ as the “world without end. Amen.”22


1. I rely here on Jonathan Z. Smith of the University of Chicago: “From the perspective of the academic study of religion, theology is a datum, the theologian is a native informant” (1997: 60). Smith elaborates: “In the same spirit in which I welcome the study of the totalizing mythic endeavors, the univers imaginaires, of an Ogotemmêli [see Griaule 1965] or an Antonio Guzmàn [see Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971], I would hope, some day, to read a consonant treatment of the analogous enterprise of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.”

2. Mythmaking is a term I derive from Burton Mack; by ‘mythmaking’ I simply mean those discourses which dehistoricize and decontextualize. On this alternative use of the term ‘myth’ see McCutcheon 2000; on the relations between mythmaking and the Althusserian term ‘social formation,’ see Mack 2000 and McCutcheon 1998.

3. The epigraph appears in McCutcheon 2001.

4. Given the approach to the study of religion I advocate in this essay, Pope’s words have only limited use, of course. (On the politics of Pope’s theodicy, see below.) When we take into account the rest of the Essay on Man (Pope 1950), Pope’s other writings, as well as his historic context (1688-1744), it is obvious that he is not advising against metaphysical speculation and theology but, rather, warning against (mis)using human reason to pry into the inscrutable ways of God. For instance, compare Pope’s counsel to that which is found in Milton’s Paradise Lost (VIII: 72-75):

… the great Architect
Did wisely to conceal, and not divulge
His secrets to be scann’d by them who ought
Rather admire.

It should be clear that, despite my use of Pope, I follow neither he nor Milton in their counsel against the use of human reason when it comes to the study of religion.

5. For an example of a scholar who argues that ‘religion’ has little analytic utility, see Tim Fitzgerald 1997, 1999, 2000. For the geo-politics of the category ‘religion,’ notably during the Cold War period, see McCutcheon 1997.

6. Despite my disagreement with the late Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s well known criticism of the category ‘religion’ for its misplaced emphasis on the external, cumulative tradition at the expense of what he understands as the prior, inner, personalistic faith of the believer (a rhetorically loaded distinction), his survey of the history of the category ‘religion’ is still one of the most widely read (1991). For a more useful survey see Jonathan Z. Smith 1998.

7. The following four presumptions are derived from my brief rejoinder to Bryan S. Rennie, author of Reconstructing Eliade (1996); the rejoinder appeared as McCutcheon 1999.

8. To establish this point with students, I tell them a story about a dinner party one summer evening at my brother-in-law’s home in Niagara Falls. Several times throughout the course of the evening guests moving from the house to the patio, and vice versa, unknowingly walked straight into the patio door, knocking the screen out. Although each time was funnier than the last, and each guest more embarrassed (and inebriated) than the last, each instance was an example of how the guests’ expectations for how the external world functioned were not quite in step with the natural world itself.

9. We must be careful to distinguish ‘world’ from ‘ideology’ (when ideology is taken in its weaker sense as meaning “a system of ideas”); ideologies (when understood in the more critical sense) are the devices that actors employ to re-present some given ‘world’ as the World. I will elaborate more on this below.

10. On the roles selection and archiving play in the production of ‘history,’ see Braun 1999.

11. Perhaps this is why I would argue that scholars intent simply on studying the ‘meaning worlds’ of a novel are engaged in a rather different pursuit from the one I recommend here; they are engaged in a philosophically idealist study that sees the ‘meaning world’ as an end in itself (i.e., treating the text either on its own plane of reference or as the author intended it) and not the tip of an ongoing sociopolitical iceberg.

12. On the social (and hence political) nature of discourses on ‘experience’ see Sharf 1998 and Scott 1991.

13. The full quotation reads: “If myth is ideology in narrative form, then scholarship is myth with footnotes.” By this I believe Lincoln means to suggest that differing discursive communities concoct themselves by means of differing rhetorical techniques; connecting one’s ideas and arguments to a historical tradition of scholarship by means of footnotes is a technique that authorizes one’s own work by weaving it within an already recognized body of work (something this very citation of Lincoln has already accomplished for my own essay). Myth without footnotes–in other words, narratives that actively obscure their own historicity by appeals to, for example, the time of origins–is what Lincoln labels ideology.

14. Speaking of the “meaning of life,” Monty Python’s film by the same name comes to mind. What makes the film particularly comic is that it takes a topic of seemingly universal import and provides a number of clearly skewed, partial, and even idiotic takes on it, thereby effectively disarming the totalizing rhetoric of all “meaning of life” discourses.

15. On critics vs. caretakers in the study of religion, see McCutcheon 2001, especially chapters 8 and 9.

16. This quotation comes from the anthropological film on U.S. Pentecostal snake-handling churches in the Appalachian region, Jolo Serpent Handlers (Karen Kramer Films, 1977)

17. “Redescription” is a term derived from Jonathan Z. Smith; see in particular his essay, “Sacred Persistence: Toward a Redescription of Canon” (1982: 36-52).

18. In the French original, Pangloss is described as a teacher of “métaphysico-théologo-cosmolonigologie”; the French nigaud, whose phonetic equivalent “nigo” appears in this comical compound, translates as “boob.”

19. Readers must keep in mind that Candide was written in the wake of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 where it was first thought that more than 100,000 people had perished.

20. It is my contention that the methodologically reductive stance adopted in this paper avoids the kind of totalizing identified here.

21. I can do no better than cite as examples some of Bruce Lincoln’s work; see especially 1989, 1994, and 1999.

22. An earlier version of this paper was delivered to the Faculty of Theology at Georgetown University, November, 1999. My thanks to Professor Francisca Cho for kindly arranging my lecture. A longer version of this essay will appear in Delwin Brown and Linell Cady (eds.), Shifting Paradigms: Theology, Religious Studies and the University (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, forthcoming). Also, I would like to thank Linell Cady, Willi Braun, and William Arnal, as well as the Journal of Mundane Behavior’s anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.

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Author: The youngest of four exceptionally gifted and, according to newspaper accounts from the early 1960s, cute children, Russell McCutcheon obtained his Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. A displaced Canadian since 1993, he taught first at the University of Tennessee, and now at Southwest Missouri State University. Although he’s been engaged in his participant-observation for seven years, he’s still trying to figure out how “out and about” is really pronounced and why U.S. English calls what we all known to be zed “zee.” He’s also puzzled as to why Americans haven’t yet caught on to the wonderful ways that inserting “eh?” into virtually any conversation allows you to give the impression of interest, eh?

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