Research Profile and Themes
My work is best described as cultural history of religion. I am particularly interested in the discursive structures that attribute meaning to and produce knowledge about “religion” in changing historical settings. Religion never arrives on its own; its cultural meaning and impact are always shaped by interaction with other societal domains, particularly with philosophy, science, art, law, and politics.
Trained in comparative religion, philosophy, and Jewish studies, my doctoral research into Jewish and Christian astrology in late antiquity introduced me to fundamental theoretical and methodological issues that have occupied my work ever since. Astrology is a good example of how boundaries between systems of knowledge are constructed, and how contemporary discourses shape perceptions and definitions of past arrangements. Depending on one’s perspective and interests, astrology has been framed in terms of philosophy, religion, theology, superstition, science, empiricism, law, politics, agriculture, or psychology. It was only in the nineteenth century that the disjuncture—which is common today—between astronomy and astrology was introduced. A similar disjunctive mechanism was applied to magic versus science, and to alchemy versus chemistry; the former were rendered “occult sciences,” and this turned out to be an important identity marker when it came to constituting “modernity.” Diagnoses of what it means to be “modern” in turn influenced the way the past was envisioned and historically reconstructed. My most recent book, The Scientification of Religion: An Historical Study of Discursive Change, 1800–2000 (2014), presents exactly these mechanisms. In my previous book, Locations of Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Esoteric Discourse and Western Identities (2010), I described the hybridity of knowledge systems that we often, and wrongly, perceive as being distinct from one another—most importantly philosophy, natural science, philology, art, mysticism, and religion.
I have studied similar questions with regard to shamanism. In my Schamanismus und Esoterik: Kultur- und wissenschaftsgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (Shamanism and Esotericism: Observations from Cultural and Scientific History, 2003) and in subsequent publications in English, I argued that European perceptions of shamanism since the sixteenth century have oscillated between refutation of and longing for shamanism. It is the genealogy of fascination with shamanism and its perceived privileged access to nature and the “sacred” that fostered shamanic practice in the twentieth century in Europe and North America. Shamanism has been linked to discourses on nature and the soul that have a long tradition in European thinking.
My published books include an Introduction to the Study of Religion: Objects and Concepts (in German, 2003, co-authored with Hans G. Kippenberg), as well as two books that provide a historical overview for a broader audience: History of Astrology from the Earliest Times to the Present (in German, 2003) and Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge (2007).
Theories and Methodologies
When it comes to a sound theory that would address all of these entanglements, I have found discursive approaches to religion to be the most suitable. Rather than defining religion as an independent variable, it seems more fruitful to analyze the changing constellations that produce knowledge about and definitions of religion. I have published a number of articles on religion and discourse research, as well as the co-edited volume (with Frans Wijsen) Making Religion: Theory and Practice in the Discursive Study of Religion (2016). In a forthcoming volume Religion and Discourse Research: Disciplinary Use and Interdisciplinary Dialogues, which I am co-editing with Jay Johnston, I will provide the chapter on “Historical Discourse Analysis: The Entanglement of Past and Present.”
My current research moves in two directions. In terms of historiography, I am writing a Cultural History of the Soul in the Twentieth Century (the German version will be published with Wilhelm Fink in spring 2019 as Die Seele im zwanzigsten Jahrhundert: Eine Kulturgeschichte, an English version is in preparation). In this book, I unravel discursive knots of religion, science, the soul, nature, psyche, animism, and more in their cultural contexts in the nineteenth century and follow their new entanglements through the twentieth century until today. Interestingly, while European and North American intellectual and political culture was virtually obsessed with the soul around 1900, the term “soul” almost entirely disappeared from academic psychological discourse after 1920 (as part of the discipline’s efforts to be accepted as an “exact” science), only to flourish outside of the academy in unprecedented ways, from literature (Harry Potter) to nature-based spiritualities to the idea that the earth (often addressed as “Gaia”) is an animated, living being. The study argues that concepts of the soul are carriers of religious discourse in the twentieth century, in an increasingly globalized manner, nurtured by secular frames of meaning.
In terms of theory, I am currently working on the challenges to constructivist approaches (such as discourse research) that come from entanglement theories (Hodder), relationalist approaches, object-oriented ontologies, and what has been introduced as “new materialisms.” In an interdisciplinary conversation, strongly informed by animal studies, ecology, and environmental ethics as well as materialist trends in cultural studies, the parameters of studying religion in the twenty-first century are changing. I am part of the “New Materialism, Religion, and Planetary Thinking Seminar” of the American Academy of Religion, which has already produced and is producing relevant publications in the field. In my own contribution, I am gauging the impact of these theories on our understandings of nature discourses, animism, and “discourse communities” that include nonhuman animals and objects.
In my view, scholars have a responsibility to engage with a wider audience and to get involved in cultural and political debates. The planet is currently undergoing a serious transformation, and we are in the middle of an unprecedented phase of extinction, caused by human regimes of domination. This situation calls for the concerted effort and active participation of scholars. As a humble contribution to this change, Whitney A. Bauman and I co-founded Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge, a platform and space for critical reflection on the foundations, opportunities, and limitations of knowledge systems, located at the interface of academic and non-academic knowledge practices and traditions.