Charles H. Long in conversation on the topic of "Critical Perspectives on Religion in the 21st Century"

The venerable historian of religions Charles H. Long was in Claremont on Tuesday, March 3-4, 2009, as the 2009 ISS Distinguished Speaker. Set up as a conversation between Charles Long and ISS Director Vincent Wimbush on the topic of “Critical Perspectives on Religion in the 21st Century,” the event was attended by a packed audience in Claremont Graduate University’s Albrecht auditorium.

Responding to the conversation between Charles Long and Vincent Wimbush, some ISS research assistants reflect on the some of the highlights of the event:
Katrina van Heest:
“Charles Long’s visit was, I think, very liberating for the student of religion in the twenty-first century. In so many words, he encouraged us to look in UN-religious places if we want to understand what really makes meaning for people. I recall him suggesting that in America, we sequester religion to the houses of worship and private confessionals, but perhaps what really shapes our lives is, for instance, the stock market—it’s something that mystifies, creates a class of expert interpreters, and is made to influence our daily lives. That is, for Long, religion is meaningful exchange. It could be that not all exchange is religion, but his meditation on that possibility and that method—looking for religion where we see exchange—opens the field wide for those of us wrestling with what it means to study religion.”

Thomas Crawford: 
What impressed me with Charles Long’s speaking, was the scope, breadth and relevance of Long’s academic pursuits. Long’s erudition reveals an interested and interesting scholar who constantly resists the confines of “traditional” scholarship by examining religion in untraditional places, i.e. contemporary economics and culture writ large. Long’s career inspires the student of religion to come at the study of religion from a different angle and to find and study religion in places events and figures not generally regarded “religious.” Such scholarship needs the depth of knowledge that Long demonstrates. By interrogating the world at large, contemporary political and global developments, as well as the history of the study of religion, Long shows that the study of religion has something to contribute to discussions outside the usually insular field. Would that more scholars could integrate such diversity of learning and understanding.

Quynh-Hoa Nguyen:
“Charles Long’s concept of religion is striking to me because he regards it as fundamentally the work of human beings. He is not interested in religion that is expressed in the church, in institutions, or even in theology. For him religion found in those places is specific to Christian modes of thinking. Rather, he finds religion in a universal and more authentic mode of expression through the meaning and nature of exchanges. What is most impressive here is the notion of religion as the value coming out of exchange. This is to say that no truth is inherent or self-evident. The truth one claims is recognized valuable only through exchange. It is not valid until it is placed under the critique of the others of the knowledge one claims about oneself or about others.  Otherwise, it is just a form of false knowledge. Central to this understanding is that religion is socially constructed through exchange. This concept would be challenging to the modes of thinking that hold one’s own religion inherently superior to others. It also presents a challenge to those views that embrace theology as a way of thinking about religion. Implicit in this concept is that theology limits understanding of religion because there are cultures in which theology is not recognized as a mode of exchange.”

Fontella White:
“As Charles Long discussed aspects of his life, he mentioned that his first formal engagement with the study of religion took place at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. He enrolled at Moody after he confided in a family member that his mathematics program at the Illinois Institute of Technology was not working out for him. The family member suggested that Long ‘get close to God’ and Moody, located three blocks away from Long’s home, became the solution. Long said that at that time in his life he had ‘only negligible and general knowledge about Christianity.’ It was not until Long realized that Moody required reports on evangelism from its students that Long left the school. In his words, the problem was because ‘Moody had a rule where you were supposed to talk to somebody about Christ, sin, saving their soul, everyday. And, you were supposed to fill out a little piece of paper telling and put [it] in their box telling them you had done that.  Now that rankled me.’ Long left Moody, but his departure marked the beginning of his theorizing about the phenomenon of religion. He told the audience, ‘I realized that this religion business, you now, it’s more than I thought.’ So, Moody has been a key source for Long’s questions about the meaning of religion, and yet, the conversation with Long was my first time ever hearing any mention of Moody Bible Institute during nearly 10 years of graduate studies in religion. Why has Moody escaped my radar as a student of religion? Should I be interested in Moody’s “scriptures”? What does Moody signify as a mode of, for some, interpreting ‘scriptures’? How do we understand social-self definition in Moody’s scripturalizing practices?”

“The conversational style of the event went well because it helped situate Charles Long's contribution within a wider biographical frame. Two of Long's emphases that caught my attention were his suggestion that religion be understood in terms of human exchanges, and the need for voices from non-‘major’ religions and -western worlds. Though not entirely new, these emphases definitely push the boundary of religion in the twenty first century.”

Alonzo Huntsman:
“Charles Long, in the comfortable manner befitting a man of confidence and accomplishment, treated a number of us to some of his perspectives on religion.  He has a handle on the big picture.  For me, the important take-away of Long's interaction is somewhat imperfectly presented in the following synopsis - which could be elaborated upon at great length . . . 
 He reminded us that ‘hermeneutics’ was a reciprocal act and that each act of understanding includes an implicit critique of the one who is …[seeking] understanding.  This is especially important in a world where ethnocentrism, if not implicit egocentrism, is the norm.  Religion is the domain of ordinary people engaging in acts which are ordinary for them in their contexts.  They are too often depicted as extreme, exotic or bizarre.  In some cultures this is more obvious than others.  The Ashanti people do not have a ‘religion’ per se, they are just ‘Ashanti.’  What they do is perfectly normal for Ashanti.  There is no division between culture and people - which begs the question of where to draw the line for any of us here in twenty-first century America.  The study of religion necessitated a creation of religion as a category, a demarcation of specific human or cultural activity and functions that are dictated by and/or determined by scholars.  How does such a demarcation of religion from culture effect the way we are to study ‘religion’ and what does it say about those who concoct(ed) such demarcations?
 Much to think about.”
Wendell C. Miller:
“When asked how scholars and students of religion should address superiority as a characteristic of religion, Dr. Long replied that superiority of one group over another should not be understood as inherent. In contrast, superiority of ideas, processes, and proposed solutions is something that is decided upon by diverse groups engaged in serious exchanges. Long's answer served as a personal challenge for me to constantly re-evaluate the ways in which I engage local communities so as to produce the maximum benefit to me and to the communities with which I am involved.”

Kevin McGinnis:
“…what stood out for me was that {Long was] a scholar who had pushed certain boundaries within the field wasn't someone with a lifelong religious ax to grind…[I learned that Long was] someone interested in mathematics who first thought he would be an engineer. This doesn't seem to me to be coincidental. The field of religious studies can only benefit from such outsider(ish) perspectives. I also found it interesting that…[Long] acknowledg[ed] the validity and, in a way, truth of his own experiences that made him feel most welcome in the field when he was still a student.”

For more details click on:

program flyer
Charles Long bio

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