Recap: Michael Puett on the study of religion

Rituals and Revelations

Re-thinking Comparative Approaches to the Study of Religion

Written by Alba Curry

The Center for Hellenic Studies would like to extend their greatest thanks and appreciation to all of those who participated in the second meeting of the Comparatism Seminar. We would also like to thank Professor Michael Puett for his talk, which offered a way out of the powerful criticisms of comparative work leveled by, for example, Talal Asad in the 1990s.

Puett briefly explained some influential criticisms of comparative work. One example: comparative religion is confounded by the fact that the very notion of “religion” frequently comes out of Western Protestant categories. Ironically, responses to such criticisms have so far mostly reinforced the very problems they aim to address in at least two ways. First, scholars have instead taken indigenous concepts and categories as their frameworks, but these categories are then universalized and treated unproblematically when, in fact, they may be quite subtly contested in their original contexts. Second, some scholars try so hard to avoid assimilating a foreign culture into their own that they end up radically othering that culture, making it a negative of the scholar’s own. 

For Puett, theoretical work should also be comparative since it is an empirical fact that there is nothing unusual about the Protestant, Euro-American categories. He used the example of a treatment of the Laozi in Chinese history which argued that Laozi is a high deity who takes human form whenever human beings have failed in doing what they are supposed to do. In this view, human beings have a true self which connects them to Laozi as the embodiment of the cosmos at large. The reason why we fail to do what we are supposed to do is that by reading the Laozi at face value and listening to our true selves we create endless mediations, such as rituals and textual interpretations. A productive line of questioning would be to think about what the Celestial Masters were rejecting when they embraced their interpretation of Laozi. Puett suggested that they were a kind of sincerity movement similar to early Protestant movements (in Christianity and elsewhere) around the world, all of which argue that the world is coherent on its own and needs no help from complex human rituals (i.e., a line that is evident in traditional European Protestant criticisms of Catholicism). Puett’s line of inquiry here opens the door for comparing ritual theories from many times and places as responses to the question of the coherence of the world generally speaking.

We would like to extend a special thanks to Professor Lisa Raphals from the University of California, Riverside for her work as organizer of this semester’s Comparatism Seminar Series. Comparatism has become a key issue in Classical Studies, both within the ancient Mediterranean and more broadly. This one-semester seminar investigates current research and methodologies. Topics include perspectives from anthropology, epic, gender, the study of language and metaphor, philosophical debates, and practices of cult and sacrifice. Any interested researchers should write to and visit the series event page for more details about the series schedule.