In response to Jason Blum’s “On the Restraint of Theory,” this chapter advocates for a clearer distinction between the tasks of explanation (or redescription) and interpretation, noting that both are forms of signification. Clarity on the different tasks also allows scholars to reimagine the content and forms of knowledge-production.
What does it mean to “do theory” in the study of religion today? The terms “method and theory” are now found in course titles, curricula/degree requirements, area/comprehensive exams, and frequently listed as competencies on the CVs of scholars from across a wide array of subfields. Are we really that theoretically and methodologically sophisticated? While a variety of groups at annual scholarly conferences now regularly itemize theorizing among the topics that they examine and carry out, it seems that few of the many examples of doing theory today involve either meta-reflection on the practical conditions of the field or rigorously explanatory studies of religion’s cause(s) or function(s). So, despite the appearance of tremendous advances in the field over the past 30 years, it can be argued that little has changed. Indeed, the term theory is today so widely understood as to make it coterminous with virtually all forms of scholarship on religion. This volume seeks to re-examine just what we ought to consider theory to signify.
The core of the book consists of chapters by leading theorists in the field — an anthropologist of religion, a literary theorist, a specialist in cognitive science of religion, and a philosopher of religion. Each statement is then followed by shorter response papers, and concludes with a response by the theorist.
“Signifying Theory: Toward a Method of Mutually Assured Deconstruction,” in Theory in a Time of Excess – Beyond Reflection and Explanation in Religious Studies Scholarship, ed. Aaron W. Hughes (UK: Equinox Publishing, 2017), 37-46.