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Posted by: on Sep 23, 2013 | No Comments
Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech
By Bruno Latour


In one scene of the 2011 film Thor, the character—Marvel Comics' version of the Norse god of thunder—blithely explains his godhood to a human being: "Your ancestors called it magic... but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same."And with that throwaway reference to Arthur C. Clarke, the movie roughly reconciles religion and science, then hurriedly turns to other matters.

Thor's treatment of religion is about what you would expect from a movie based on a comic book—that is, a movie that focuses on mashing up characters from very different situations and arguably irreconcilable worldviews, ignoring the inconsistencies in favor of putting together epic spectacles. But in Rejoicing, Latour argues that religion in the modern age has taken this tack as well, attempting to measure itself against science on science's terms, using science's logic, and hiding itself in the areas that science can't explain. Suddenly—according to Latour—religion is about belief, and the world is separated into believers and nonbelievers. Both sides share a belief in belief (p.3). Yet, he says, once believers and nonbelievers did not exist; what existed was a common fabrication or social frame (p.5). This is how Latour describes himself, as a true agnostic who does not believe in belief (p.3). What is important in Latour's understanding of religion is not belief but practice.

If you've read much Latour, you'll find much that is familiar in this argument. Although Latour seems to be imitating a religious genre with which I am not familiar—a sermon, a prayer book?—he still talks about transformation-through-translation (p.18), he indicts the tendency to believe in transportation-without-transformation (p.22, here personified as the devil Double-Click Communication), and he touches on other concepts such as factishes and iconoclasm throughout. That is, Latour is trying to understand religion using many of the same concepts that he has used with such success to understand science, technology, politics, law, and art.

And where does this lead? Latour argues that religion is not meant to lift us higher but to transform us here (p.35); to focus on practice rather than belief; to result in the reformation of a unity, identity, union,  or people (p.55). Rather than rationalizing the old stories, such as Noah's Ark, religion (in Latour's reading) should treat them as parables, asking: "what would correspond for us now to what they were trying to represent by the flood?" (p.87). (Latour does this all the time in his writings.) This approach removes the shame that Latour has felt when having to overlook "unfathomable whoppers" such as the virgin birth and eternal life (p.58). Rather than trying to transfer information from the past to the present, Latour argues, the religious should transform themselves from present to past.

Latour uses a running example of a woman asking her husband, "Do you love me?" The question isn't a request for information; if the husband impatiently points to a calendar showing the last time he answered the question, if he cites his previous response, if he plays a recording of that response, he has missed the point and turned his "yes" into a lie. The answer is not information, it's renewal; if he answers "yes," it's a new answer each time, one that transforms him and renews their relationship.

In this understanding of religion, Latour says, we read the sacred texts not longitudinally but vertically. Think of the narrative as scrolling left to right. Rather than following it as it scrolls, we cut from top to bottom, finding tags, ruptures, reactions, incomprehensions, cautions, recognitions, and envoys (p.113)—the renewal events that we then apply to our own lives, renewing our own applications and our own relationships with others. God is love; love depends on the lovers' speech (p.140).

Rejoicing is an earnest book. Latour deplores what his generation did to religion and wants to restore it as a way to unite and renew the relationships in which we find ourselves. And as I think about it, the vision of religion that he sketches seems akin to that of the corn-religions described in The Golden Bough, with their focus on seasonal renewal and concomitant social renewal.

But Latour has inserted a little twist in here that you may have caught—I caught it early on.

In Latour's other work, he describes how people practice science, technology, law, politics, and so forth. He watches people, follows the transformations, and compares those to the stories that people tell about what they did. This careful descriptive work underpins the theoretical explanations that he provides.

But in Rejoicing, he prescribes how people should practice religion. He describes sacred texts to some extent, but according to his narrative, religion has been captured by Double-Click Communication. Its practice is wrong—according to Latour. From where does he get his description, and how is it authoritative? Can he do something similar to what he did in Laboratory Life, following the practice of renewal and then examining how the religious describe it in contrasting terms? Perhaps—but he doesn't. Does Rejoicing tell us something new about the practice of religion—or does it just tell us the liturgy that Latour recommends?