Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 20

Journal of the American Academy of Religion, LII/3


W. RICHARD COMSTOCK A. Definitions Augustine's famous observation about time applies with equal force to religion; if not asked, we know what it is; if asked, we do not know. In the case of religion, the problem does not lie in its alleged ineffability, as if it were something beyond the capacity of language to describe. The fact is that we manage to say many significant things about religion, some of which may even happen to be true. What eludes us is a definition of the crucial term characterizing our discourse. But if we cannot say with authority what religion is, how can we be sure that we know what we are talking about? There is no want of proposals as to how religion might be defined. It has been described as the sense of the sacred; as ultimate concern; as loyalty to the Good, the love of Man, allegiance to the Gods. It has been said that it is what we do in our solitude; but also what we do to maintain society; that it is about limit-situations; but also about everyday life. It has been called resignation, but also hope; release from this world, but also a way of living in this world more effectively. Some claim it is an encounter with the Wholly Other; others that it is the crucial meeting with one's own Self. The list of possibilities seems endless; yet scholars in the field of religion cannot reach even tentative agreement as to the candidate that might provide an authoritative definition of the term that names their field. Is this a scandal? Does it indicate that religious studies may be a pseudo-discipline possessing neither definition, method, nor subject matter distinctive enough to warrant inclusion in the curriculum of a modern university? The suggestion has been made. However, if apodictic certainty about definitions is required to ensure the viability of an area of study, there is no discipline in the university that will not be found wanting. The dilemmas involved in defining time and religion pertain
W. Richard Comstock is a member of the Department of Religious Studies at the Unlverilty of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of The Study of Religion and Primitive Religions and of numerous articles in the fields of theology and philosophy of religion.


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

equally to history, art, literature, language, sociology and anthropology. Competent historians cannot agree on the definition of "history"; "What is literature?" is a crucial question discussed by contemporary critics (Hernadi). Even those working in the more exact disciplines of the natural sciences explain the nature of the scientific method in different ways and disagree among themselves as to the nature and scope of their enterprise. The problem faced by the religious scholar in respect to the definition of his field is not unique; all humanistic disciplines as well as the natural sciences are embroiled in the same difficulty. But if exact definitions of the various intellectual disciplines are so elusive, it would seem to suggest that the problem does not lie in what is to be defined, but in an inadequate grasp of what a definition is supposed to accomplish. We know that a poorly framed question inevitably produces a confused response and that anything viewed through a distorted lens reveals the same distortion. So the difficulty of defining religion is not caused by some mysterious aspect of the subject matter eluding words, or an intractable complexity that defies analysis. It is rather the untenable understanding of definition that has made every conceivable response appear inadequate. The root of the difficulty lies in the assumption that a definition is supposed to designate the distinctive feature through which the thing defined is what it is. This notion was given its definitive statement by Aristotle and is still defended by some philosophers at the present time. However, the linguistic turn of contemporary philosophy has subjected it to a critique and in general replaced it with a more functional approach to definition (Robinson). Locke's distinction between nominal and real definitions has been an important factor in this change. In general, philosophers now tend to hold that definitions are nominal affairs having to do with the meaning of words, not with the essences of things. An attempt is made here to explore further certain implications in the notion of nominal definitions. It may be felt by some readers that this task has been done and that most scholars in religious studies have ah'eady grasped the point at issue. This is only partly so. One purpose of this paper is to show that a more thorough-going appropriation of the transition from real to nominal definitions is still needed. A second purpose is to provide an approach to nominal definitions that will meet the specific needs of religious studies. It is a serious mistake to assume that a full understanding of what is involved in nominal definitions has already been worked out. On the contrary, perhaps the most important work remains to be done. In the article on rdefinition" in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Raziel Abelson has observed: ". . . paradoxically, no problems of knowledge are less settled than those of definitions, and no subject is more in need of a fresh approach. Definition plays a crucial role in every field of inquiry, yet there are few if any

Comstock: Toward Open Definitions


philosophical questions about definition (what sort of thing it is, what standards it should satisfy, what kind of knowledge, if any, it conveys) on which logicians and philosophers agree. In view of the scope of the disagreement concerning it, an extensive re-examination is justified" (314). The discussion that follows will pursue some intriguing connections between nominal definitions and recent discussions about open texts that unexpectedly illuminate a way in which nominal definitions might function more effectively in religious studies. B. Real Definitions Let us begin with a recent definition of religion that will serve as a test case through which to clarify the issues involved in definition and to provide some evidence for the position taken in this paper. Our concern is not with the adequacy of the content of the proposal but only with how it functions as a definition. However, the two aspects are connected. We shall find that in determining what this particular definition does, we have also gained insight into why many scholars have found it so effective. In an influential article, Clifford Geertz offers the following definition: " . . . a religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing those conceptions with such an aura of f actuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic" (1966:4). This definition is constituted by a single sentence of some complexity and length. The independent clause is succinct and to the point, but it is qualified by a plethora of dependent clauses and phrases that extend and amplify the initial statement in all sorts of unexpected ways. However, these clarifications do not appear to be sufficient. Most of Ceertz's article is composed of a set of commentaries on each syntactic part of his intricate sentence. His definition is, in fact, a brief text that appears to require a number of other texts for the adequate communication of its intent. From a traditional point of view this is hardly satisfactory. The classical notion is that a good definition should state the essence of the thing defined in a few words devoid of extraneous references or metaphoric ambiguities. But Ceertz's proposal is a small essay imbedded in a set of larger essays without which it cannot be fully understood. It is true that if we consider only the main clause, "Religion is a system of symbols," we do have a succinct definition of the kind usually expected, but it cannot be said that it has succeeded in designating the essential feature that determines what religion is and distinguishes it from what is not religion. Nor do the subordinate clauses help. All cultural forms science, philosophy, social ideologies, political discourse, etc.produce


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

conceptions of a general order clothed with an aura of factuality that establish powerful moods and motivations in men and women. Even the representations of art and literature have an "aura of factuality" about them, though they make no ontological claims. The proposal would seem to have little to commend it when taken as an essential definition. Ceertz does not, however, claim that his definition specifies an essence, but only that it provides "a useful orientation, or reorientation of thought" that can develop and control "a novel line of inquiry" (4). Geertz goes on to indicate "the line of inquiry" that he has in mind. He first observes that social anthropology has devoted a major amount of its attention to the way in which the connections between religious symbol systems and "social-structural and psychological processes" help to maintain the social order. He then suggests that not enough attention has been devoted to "an analysis of the system of meanings embedded in the symbols which make up the religion proper" (42). Geertz's definition of religion is designed, then, to direct the inquiry of his fellow-anthropologists to an area of investigation that he feels has been neglected: not only what religious symbol systems do for society but what they purport to mean to its members. Geertz's definition is not, then, an absolute designation of what religion is in all times and places but a context-determined proposal concerning an aspect of religion that, in the judgment of the author of the definition, is worthy of further investigation. An important question about Geertz's definition still remains unanswered: is his recommendation concerning a line of inquiry to be pursued based on a "real" designation of the particular religion's data to be studied, or is it established through a "nominal" specification of how the term "religion" is used in the course of these investigations? Has Geertz offered us a definition of "religion" or religion? At first, it might seem obvious that a recommendation pertaining to the empirical investigations of societies that exist or have existed within the framework of human history must involve a "real" specification of the religious aspects of those societies. However, a little reflection will reveal that, paradoxical as it may seem, Geertz's proposal concerns the meaning of the term "religion" and not the designation of specific religious data to which the term might in some particular linguistic context or other refer. Geertz's definition cannot possibly be ascertained through reference to empirical data because it is the meaning of his definition that initially determines what counts as such data. For example, how do we know what is meant by the "powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men" that Geertz asserts to be established by religious symbols? The answer will never be found through an introspective survey of the moods and motivations in our own minds or through research by means of personal interviews and written inquiries into the moods and motivations that others have experienced. This cannot help us

Comstock: Toward Open Definitions


because we do not know what counts as a mood or motivation. The meaning that Geertz assigns to these words is not found in our own experience but in the text he has provided to explain his meaning and which in turn refers the reader to Ryle's famous book where the distinction between a mood (an ephemeral feeling) and a motivation (an enduring cast of mind sustained by rituals and other symbolic media) is first initiated and explained. Geertz's proposal is not then an accurate description of specific religions like those of Java to which he has devoted a major portion of his empirical research. In spite of the importance of these studies, the meaning of his definition is found rather in the set of texts that Geertz has provided as the ever-expanding linguistic context through which the term "religion," as he understands it, is clarified and rendered more determinate. Within the framework of the well-known distinction between sense and reference (Lyons, ch. 7), it can be said that Geertz's definition has to do with the sense of the word religion, not with how the word might be used in a statement or proposition to refer to the religious aspects of things. However, it may be that this distinction is not as absolute as some have maintained and that it is vulnerable to the same kind of unsettling critique to which Quine has subjected the analytic/synthetic distinction. It is therefore important to see that the position advanced in this paper does not depend on any particular theory of how statements refer to things. However this complex question is resolved, the proposition that definitions have to do with words and not things remains viable for the reasons advanced above. So far as definitions are concerned, the nominalist is right: the range of possible meanings that a word may assume is derived from the linguistic contexts of which it is a part. A definition represents a proposal that one of these possibilities be deemed the accepted sense within a certain line of discourse. Religion may well be something real and objective; "religion" remains a word that requires a definition. Considerations like these seem to form the basis for a striking observation made recently by Jonathan Smith: If we have understood the archeological and textual record correctly, man has had his entire history in which to imagine deities and modes of interaction with them. But man," more precisely western man, has had only the last few centuries to imagine religion. . . . That is to say, while there is a staggering amount of data, of phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religiousthere is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar's study. It is created for the scholar's analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy, (xi)


. Journal of the American Academy of Religion

The claim that religion is a recent invention is a vivid way of making the point that the word "religion" as now used by scholars has the stipulated meaning they have assigned to it, not one determined by some religious quality inherently present in the data to which the word is supposed to refer. Whether man makes his gods or the gods make man may still be to some a matter of controversy. There can be no doubt that it is the scholar who makes "religion." However, the notion of nominal definitions concerned with words rather than things does not alone settle the matter of essential definitions. It is still possible to transfer the category of essence from the thing signified to the signifier and maintain that the nominal definition of a word has the purpose of establishing its essential meaning. To this problem we now turn. C Essential Definitions Real definitions and essential definitions have been associated since Aristotle's influential discussion of definition as the attempt to specify a thing's essence. It is, however, possible to reject the notion that definitions are descriptions of things and still to hold that a definition cannot be arbitrary since it must designate, if not the essential characteristic of a thing, then the essential meaning of a term. On the basis of Aristotle's analysis, "essence" is taken to be that feature without which a thing would not be what it is. It is "what the thing is said to be in virtue of itself"; it designates "something primary" (Meta: 1029b). It takes only a little linguistic dexterity to transform this formula into the dictum that the definition of a word ought to designate the primary or normative meaning without which the definition will fail to indicate the true sense of the term. Thus Aristotle recommends: "Let a name . . . mean something and have one meaning" (1006b). There is, of course, no difficulty in assigning by stipulation one meaning rather than another to a term; but it is not possible to demonstrate that the one selected is the essential meaning of the term in a way that the rejected options are not. This is so because the notion of a primary or essential feature is unclear. If essential is taken in a loose sense to mean no more than that which is deemed of great importance to the one making the definition, it conforms well enough to the notion that definitions are stipulations made according to the interests of a given linguistic community. However, those who seek the primary or essential meaning of a term are after something more. They want the essential aspect of the meaning in the sense of that which necessarily belongs to it and without which its true or normative sense has not been designated. Although the goal at first appears to be a reasonable one, it turns out that every attempt to specify such an essence exacerbates the very tangle of

Comstock: Toward Open Definitions


hopeless confusions for which it is offered as a solution; and the solution itself proves to be elusive and incapable of realization. The reason for this dilemma is the absence of a norm through which to distinguish essential from nonessential meanings. The usual formulas are not helpful. The claim that the essence is that without which it would not be the meaning that it is amounts to no more than the tautology that if some other meaning than the one deemed essential were selected, it would not be the same meaning as the first, but a different one. Nor is the situation improved by a momentary return to the stance of real definitions. It is true that a particular thing would not be exactly the thing that it is if it lacked the feature singled out as essential. But this is also true of the allegedly nonessential features it possesses. For example, in the classical tradition it is common to define the essential feature of man as his reason. But why is reason deemed essential in a way that other distinctive features are not? Man has a mammalian body, an upright position, an opposable thumb. He makes tools, forms intricate symbol systems, lives in an environment of culture as well as nature, has produced great works of art and devised the scientific method through which to gain reliable knowledge of the world. He is capable of strong emotions and disciplined detachment; he is violent and also affectionate; he laughs and weeps, knows that he must die, smokes tobacco, and, according to at least one observant author, feels a little sad after intercourse. How can we distinguish essential from accidental features in such a description? Should a creature with human thought, an insect's body, a lack of emotions and a penchant for tobacco be deemed a human being? Human society might decide to stipulate that such creatures shall be deemed "human," but the decision would not depend on a norm distinguishing the essence of humanness from its accidents, since none is available. These remarks are not meant to deny that the notion of essence is still relevant to the concerns of many contemporary thinkers. Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty have in different ways proposed significant revisions of the category rather than its unqualified repudiation. More recently, Saul Kripke has startled his colleagues with the unexpected recommendation that features usually thought of as contingent or accidental truths (e.g., Gold has the atomic number 97; Nixon won the presidential election in 1968) should be deemed necessary features without which a particular thing or person would not be (rigidly) identified as the thing or person that it is. However, Kripke's fascinating approach to these categories does not support the conventional distinction between essence and accidents, but amounts to a radical transformation of how it has customarily been understood. Some notion of essence may be defensible, but not the distinction between essence and accident. Yet many scholars in religious studies continue to make use of it. For example, in a conference held at the University of Lancaster in 1972, the


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

viability of Troeltsh's notion of essence as "the germinative principle" was examined in the context of an attempt to use it as a means to characterize religious traditions like Christianity and Buddhism (Pye and Morgan). Unfortunately, the application of Troeltsch's version of essence turned out to be basically dependent on the untenable distinction between essence and accident. For example, Robert Morgan's paper suggests that the essence of Christianity is "Jesus Christ . . . the man from Nazareth . . . apprehended as the revelation of God in the moment of faith" (Pye and Morgan: 65). It is easy enough to show that this theme is central to a great deal of Christian thought; but is it capable of serving as a definition through which the difference between what is and is not Christianity is determined? From a strictly historical point of view are we willing to say that those Christian thinkers who reject Morgan's "dialectical" approach and honor only the man from Nazareth or only the heavenly Christ are not essential Christians? Does not the historical connection of the Unitarians to the Christian past bring them within the field of studies of Christianity even if they now honor only the good, man, or truth? Karel Werner approaches the essence of Buddhism in the same way. He asks: "How do we know when a new interpretation of Buddhist tradition is a valid one?" He decides that a proper answer requires a set of four criteria: liberation, a way of life, transmission of the message to others, responsibility felt towards the world at large. He then shows that these features are present in Hinayana, Mahayana, Tantra, Zen, Pure Land, and certain schools in contemporary Japan. He suggests: "If the proposed set of criteria proves to be workable in these instances, the title question may be considered answered" (Pye and Morgan: 65). But is it? How do we know that an exhaustive list of the essential features has been provided? Is each of the four criteria equally "essential"? Is the stress on responsibility toward the world as crucial as liberation? Is even liberation crucial to Buddhist concern in every instance? Further, are not elements distinguishing Zen from Pure Land and both from Theravada as important as those that all three may have in common? A suspicion is aroused that supposedly descriptive definition of what Buddhism is is in fact a prescription of what the author believes Buddhism ought to be. Werner's sketch of the essence of Buddhism looks very much like an instance of Buddhology, just as Morgan's definition of Christianity appears to be a disguised theology. The furtive presence of the essence-accident distinction can be detected not only in the proposals still offered by scholars but in the critiques of those proposals offered by the dissatisfied reader, including the comments made above on the essays by Morgan and Werner. Objections tend almost inevitably to be of two sorts. The recommendation is faulted because it is not inclusive enough or because it is too inclusive. Thus religion as belief in supernatural beings is declared inadequate because it

Comstock: Toward Open Definitions


does not encompass Buddhism, which, although acknowledging the gods, is deemed to have its "essence" in the quest for the release from suffering through Nirvana. On the other hand, Buddhism would easily conform to the notion of religion as "ultimate concern," but this recommendation seems to err on the side of a comprehensiveness so great that it becomes indeterminate. Since everything from hedonism to political fanaticism can be an instance of ultimate concern, it is difficult to see how this notion can designate the distinctive essence of religion. These objections are valid only so long as it is assumed that a definition must designate an essence. However, if it is agreed that such an approach to definition must be abandoned, then this particular critique of various well-known proposals pertaining to the definition of religion is no longer viable. Recommendations that religion be defined as belief in supernatural beings or as ultimate concern are not deficient because of an alleged failure to specify "an essence." Their merit or lack of merit must rather be judged on the basis of their effectiveness on pursuing the particular goal indicated by the definition in question and the context that clarifies its meaning and intent. This brings us then to the need for a more exact description of the kind of stipulative definitions that might be used in religious studies. D. Open Definitions A case for definitions of religion that are nominal and stipulative has now been presented. Although this is familiar ground, the lack of a thoroughgoing appropriation of the principles involved among scholars in religious studies has made a review of them necessary. We are now ready to move into less known territory through an examination of the possibility of linking the notion of stipulated definitions to concepts of the open text currently discussed by philosophers of language and literary critics. It would seem that a concept of open definitions formed in the light of this debate brings to light four neglected aspects of definition: textuality, contingency, ambiguity, and syntagmatic connections. When these are combined with the nominal and stipulative aspects already considered, a distinctive account of how definitions can function in a way that is useful for the concerns of religious studies will become evident. The notion of the "open text" is derived mainly from recent discussions on the nature of literary language that deem the traditional view dominating European and American literary theory for several centuries to be no longer adequate (Scholes). According to the older approach, a literary work is a closed text whose "meaning" coincides with the immediate sense of the aesthetic vehicles composing it. Since this is so, the norm by which the work is to be interpreted is held to be its own immanent structure without reference. To paraphrase Archibald MacLeish,


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

the function of a literary work is to be itself, not to mean something else. In this vein Murray Krieger observes: "Stubbornly humanistic as I am . . . I want to remain responsive to the promise of the filled and centered word, a signifier replete with an inseparable signified which it has created within itself" (175). It is a matter of some import that a number of impressive thinkers representing very diverse philosophical approaches and orientations reader reception criticism (Wolfgang Iser), speech-act philosophy (John Searles and Mary Louise Pratt), post-structuralism (Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida), hermeneutics (Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer), pragmatism and language philosophy (Richard Rorty)should converge on an approach that undermines the traditional notion of the selfcontained literary work by insisting on the open-textured character of language. Emphasis is placed on a gap between signifier and signified (Saussure) that makes the notion of self-contained statements and the works composed of them untenable. This linguistic break is a result of the fact that signs, whether phonemes or lexemes, have no meaning that inherently belongs to them but only that imposed on them within a semiotic system of differences having its source in human culture rather than nature. Derrida has supplemented Saussure's emphasis on the linguistic gap between sign and meaning with Charles Peirce's triadic scheme of the art of signification in terms of an initial sign meaning a second sign that is clarified through an interpretant also made up of signs (Peirce). The meaning of this interpretant can then be subjected to the same process through yet another interpretant. A signified thus plays a dual role: it is both the signified of the signifier that has elicited it and the signifier of a new stage in the open-ended process of continuous clarification. Signification is in some respects like a room with mirrors on opposing walls; an infinite extension of images is generated by the reflective play between one wall and the other. The example fails, however, to make clear that in the case of the symbolic process, each meaning is not a mere replication of the last, but an extension and revision into continuously different shapes. The process is open-ended both in the sense that it has no end and in the sense that no limits are placed on the transformations of meaning possible in the movement back and forth again and again from signifier to signified. Literary critics like the brilliant Yale contingent (Bloom, de Man, Hartman, and Miller) have used these principles to insist on the openness of the literary text, by which is meant that the signifiers within the work are determined by a signified that does not, as the older tradition maintains, coincide with the original text. Perplexed by an interpretation of any meaning offered us, we can always ask for an intepretation of the interpretation. Once the meaning of a signifier is questioned, that meaning is transformed from signified into a new signifier requiring a further

Comstock: Toward Open Definitions


meaning of its own. But the new interpretation clarifies some uncertainties by introducing others, since the new signs remain ambiguous until they are in turn defined by a further extension of the same process. As J. Hillis Miller puts it: "The hypothesis of a possible heterogeneity in literary texts is more flexible, more open to a given work, than the assumption that a good work of literature is necessarily going to be 'organically unified.' The latter presupposition is one of the major factors inhibiting recognition of the possibly self-subversive complexity of meanings in a given work" (252). The gap between signifier and signified is not overcome in speech as opposed to writing (Derrida). In the first place, the basic paradigm of the linguistic gap is derived from Saussure's account of the arbitrary connection between the signifier as sound image and the signified as conceptual meaning that together comprise the basic unit of human speechthe word. Furthermore, oral statements reveal the same gap between sign and meaning as do written ones. Finally, there are practical and contingent considerations involved in the fact that the oral voice must be rendered in some written semiotic form before it can be studied. The anthropologist may be fortunate enough to listen to the words of a shaman belonging to an oral society, but all that is available for his investigation are the written signs, whether in the form of brief notes or an extended allegedly verbatim account of what has been uttered. This, incidentally, is also true of scientific discourse as well, which is not based on immediate observations but on the symbolic rendering of them in some formal language with a precisely determined code. Religious studies is in the same situation. The content that it studies is not religious experience, rituals, myths, or beliefs, but their written records; not dreams, but a written account of the meaning of those dreams; not the speeches of a figure like Moses, but the written version found in the Bible; not even one's own introspective experiences, but the notes one has taken about them. "Everything is a text." Definitions are a striking instance of this dictum. A definition is nothing more than a brief text initiating an open set of interconnected texts providing the linguistic context through which the sense of the word to be defined receives specification and clarification. We have already seen how Geertz's definition of religion fits this model. By the same token, the most impressive part of the attempt of Morgan and Werner to establish definitions of Christianity and Buddhism are the citations and discussions of the concrete texts: the Platform Sutra of HuiNeng, the Gospels, Udana, Sutta Nipata, Newman's An Essay of the Development of Christianity, etc. But none of these texts offers an essential definition. Thus: "While in Troeltschian terms we may be invited to distinguish what is contrary to the essence (wesenswidrig) the Mahayana seems to say that all items of doctrine are both essential and


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

dispensable, and that any item of doctrine may be contrary to the essence depending on the attitude of the person concerned. To put it more provocatively, the provisional (which indicates the real) may be variously essential, dispensable and harmful, while the provisional and the real are also identical" (Pye). Another important aspect of open definitions is their contingent character. Definitions always begin in the middle of things. They not only initiate a succession of further texts, they are themselves the products of texts that have preceded and initiated them. Every definition is not only a signifier of what follows, it is also the signified of what has preceded. There is no absolute norm to establish why a scholar should decide through his proposed definition to enter into a maze of interdependent texts at one juncture rather than another. In this respect all beginnings are, as Edward Said has observed, arbitrary. From the standpoint of expectations raised by essential definitions, this can be at first troubling. But there is no reason to suppose that the necessary meaning of a word established independently of circumstances would be of any use in the investigation of meanings and data that are in fact contextdependent. For example, when the sacred is treated as a closed definition indicating the essence of religion, the familiar difficulties quickly emerge. The definition lacks specificity and seems to assert a tautology: the sacred isthe sacred, a sui generis phenomenon concerning which words can express only a feeling of wordless wonderl But in that case a definition of religion sought to indicate an avenue for empirical research has been transformed into a mystical exclamation. When treated as a contingent definition, the meaning of "sacred" is sought in the paradigmatic texts that make use of the term. For example, the dated part of Otto's pioneer study of the "holy* is his attempt to establish it as an a priori category. What endures are citations and comments on crucial textsChrysostom, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Bible, Luther, a Quaker book on silent worship, Ruskin, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Robertson, et al.in which contingent but meaningful connections between "sacred" and "religious" are established. An open definition is a process of continuous interrogation rather than a definitive answer provided in advance of the empirical investigation that it initiates. It is a point of departure, not a conclusion. Each text leads to other texts where other aspects of religion besides that indicated by the initiating definition are encountered. For example, it is at first surprising that an anthropologist like Geertz should offer a definition of religion that does not mention ritual. However, a subsequent text makes clear that for Geertz ritual plays a major role in establishing "the long lasting moods and motivations" noted in the definition. Whatever feature is chosen as the starting point, other aspects of religionethics, doctrine, meditationwill inevitably emerge in other texts to which the first is

Comstock: Toward Open Definitions


related. In this way the understanding of religion grows more complex, changes, is possibly transformed into an entirely different emphasis as it proceeds. Investigations that proceed from different starting points, i.e., different initial definitions, will undoubtedly intersect at a point where a particular text becomes relevant to both. The investigations may then move apart to consider other texts according to their diverse goals only to converge yet again when their concerns once more coincide. Gradually the joint effort of scholars with their different starting points produces a variegated account of textual relatedness that constitutes their field of study. Another characteristic of open definitions is their indeterminancy or ambiguity. Unfortunate connotations in the term "indeterminancy" have led many critics to deem that there is an issue dividing those who hold that a statement or text has a determinate meaning and those who hold that it has no meaning at all or meanings that are inchoate and unformed. But there is no important thinker at present who espouses the latter. The real issue is between those who hold that statements have a single meaning that is fully determinate and free of ambiguity and those who hold that because of the linguistic gap, statements will always be in themselves inherently ambiguous (Hirsch and Hans-Georg Gadamer). Ambiguity does not mean vagueness; it rather indicates the capacity of a sentence or text to convey more than one determinate sense simultaneously. For example, the phrase "definition of religion" is ambiguous because it does not itself convey the norm through which to decide whether the prepositional phrase is an objective or subjective genitive. Within the limits of the phrase alone, the choice between the two possibilities is "undecidable." Another text is needed in order to establish a norm on which to base a decision. Thus, the present paper is a text offering reasons for taking it as a subjective genitive ("religion's" verbal definition, not a discourse about religion). However, other ambiguities remain in this paper which require norms that have not been provided. The verbs "to determine" and "to establish," for instance, are used here with great frequency, but without making clear whether they indicate the act of designating objective determinate features already there or of creating those features through the linguistic process that determines them. This ambiguity is left standing because the intent of this paper is to consider how definitions clarify the sense of words and not to deal with the more difficult issues involved in the controversy between linguistic "idealists" and "realists." Although ambiguity pervades all of our statements, this does not preclude the possibility of saying what we mean. It does prevent us from saying only what we mean. The gap between signifier and signified generates an inevitable surplus of sense. We always affirm both more, less, and other than we intended, but in these uncertainties lies the


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

opportunity for the advancement of understanding. Because the linguistic gap allows us to say more than we mean, it is possible to transcend our original state of inadequate awareness toward an understanding of an ever-growing awareness of the rich and often unexpected implications that belong to the symbol systems of our cultural existence. The open-ended character of the process of signification is more like an open horizon than a prison house. It is the basis of an expanding hope, not the boundaries of despair. The last of the characteristics of open definitions to be discussed here is the focus on syntagmatic relations (Jacobson). This is perhaps the least noted and yet the most important feature that distinguishes open definitions from essential ones. Attempts to ascertain the essence of "religion" are based on the assumption that "religion* must indicate a distinctive set of data determined by some feature that all members of the set supposedly possess in common. The rule determining inclusion within the set is based on resemblance to the paradigmatic model. All members of the set are related to each other according to identity, similarity, or likeness based on analogy. The set is an example of what Jacobson calls the - metaphoric pole of signification. One reason for holding on to an essential definition of religion is that without a common feature we remain puzzled as to why such diverse data as ritual, myth, belief, meditation, ethics, mysticism, and the like, have been characterized as "religious" and brought together as the content to be investigated by religious studies. But this bewilderment reflects the mistaken assumption that all relatedness is based on similarity. Jacobson points out that linguistic statements are formed out of a selection of words from the vertical axis of possible metaphoric substitutions that are then related to one another along the horizontal axis of syntagmatic connections. In the latter case the relations are based on contiguity rather than similarity, on metonymic rather than metaphoric connections, as when it is said a lion is a metaphor for the majesty of a king, while the king's crown is a metonym for the same factor. It is fair to say that until recently religious studies has been bewitched by metaphoric relations and has accordingly underestimated the importance of metonymic ones. Perhaps one reason for this is that connections based on identity seem subject to a kind of logical rigor and necessity that the others lack. However, in a statement like "the cat is on the mat," it is the metonymic connection between cat and mat, not the metaphoric substitutions of feline for cat or pad for mat that are crucial. The relation established by "is on" is arbitrary and contingent; yet for that very reason it consititutes the assertive thrust of a statement that is truly informative. Metaphorical relations between words give us verbal facility; metonymic connections add to our knowledge. The function of open definitions of religion is to produce a rich flow

Comstock: Toward Open Definitions


of metonymic connections between texts. In doing so, the definitions are specific enough to establish a definite field of discourse that is the province of religious studies. It is, to be sure, a territory without strict boundaries, but this is a strength rather than a weakness. For example, there is the question of secular ideologies like Maoism and Scientism. Ninian Smart has rightly insisted that a study of religion that does not include them is inadequate; yet essential definitions of religion seem to place them outside the boundaries of what ought to occupy the attention of a scholar in religious studies. An open definition resolves the issue by insisting that there are no absolute limits to the texts that a scholar will use in the process of clarification initiated by his proposal. So called "religious* texts and "secular" texts are equally pertinent to his concerns. There is also the problem of whether "all religions are one." Blake may be allowed to say this in a moment of poetic excitement, but at the present time the religious scholar is not allowed to affirm it in cold prose or to suggest it as serious hypothesis. Within the perspective of the closed text, "religion" is the name of a class comprising particular religions. The task of the scholar is to establish the uniqueness of each tradition, its distinctive center setting it apart from the others. The prime dictum of this approach is, "Each thing is what it is and not another thing." There is, of course, a measure of truth in this emphasis; if we have to choose between "Each thing is the same thing" and "Each thing is not another thing," those who want to think more than feel will probably opt for the latter. But there is a third possibility: "Each thing is what it is through its connections with other things." It possesses an identity of its own (as the closed definition assumes), but this is achieved through the contexts of differences and similarities in which it is set (as the open definition makes clear). The notion of the open text helps to transcend the sterile alternatives between a "common core" transforming all religions into one and the uniqueness of each religion as an ultimate factor precluding any meaningful interaction between them. If the first assumes too much, the second does not assume enough. At the very least the diverse texts of the world's religions are bound together by all sorts of metonymic connection that, while not yielding a common essence, do establish both continuities and disjunctions, similarities and differences. Those who seek for the unity of all religions are presumably hoping to find a center, ultimate ground, or common core, that will establish all particular religious texts as parts of one universal text centered and perfectly self-contained. On the other hand, it is also possible that the connections between religions will in the end still be determined by difference to a greater extent than likeness. Religions will then be related; they will not be one. At present, we simply do not know whether the connections among the religions are determined by a principle of unity or whether they remain in


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

the end a collection of distinct entities possessing at most family resemblances to each other. But it would be a serious misunderstanding of the function of a definition to expect it to provide an answer to this question which can only be obtained, if at all, at the end of the process of exploration. Any open definition of religion sets the scholar on his way. It does not announce for him the end of his search, if there is an end. The process of scientific investigation is not a "closed* movement of thought predetermined in every detail; it is an open enterprise. Already there have been many surprises and there will undoubtedly be many more. E. Open Conclusion The linguistic gap has been used to reformulate the customary way of understanding the function of definition in religious studies. New definitions of religion or tradition have not been proposed, but the understanding of definition as something self-contained has been transformed into the notion of an open process that not only allows but requires connections and clarifications with other texts to achieve specificity. Once the usefulness of this proposal for religious studies is recognized, it becomes clear that what is needed are not new definitions of religion but a greater familiarity on the part of scholars with the notion of the open text and the open definition. But the classical notion of essence dies hard. It is possible to make obeisance to a new paradigm while continuing secretly and not so secretly to serve and advance the old. A period of discussion and investigation within the field will be required before the new model of the "open text" can be appropriated and used effectively. No doubt a major difficulty will be a secret hankering for the false certainty of Egypt on the part of scholars as they approach the promised land of free exploration and creative advance. "Open" definitions will be suspected because they fail to establish the scope and boundaries of religious studies as a discipline. But this lack is in fact a virtue. There is no discipline from art to physics that knows the absolute boundaries of its concern. Sociology, anthropology, psychology have expanded the area of their investigations in all sorts of ways beyond the limits established by the early formulations of their founders. Religious studies will undoubtedly grow, expand, undergo many transformations in the course of its development. An open definition is all that a scholar requires, since he needs to know how to begin, not where he will end. While the notion of a meaning or text that is self-contained in an absolute sense must be rejected, this does not mean that the process of signification is without aspects of temporary closure. Contradictions and ambiguities within the structure of the closed text force it open to the clarifications available from other texts outside. However, these extended interpretations do not annul the original text but

Comstock: Toward Open Definitions


rather establish a more firm identity for it within the nexus of hermeneutical connections in which it is now seen to be embedded. Closed and open texts are not exclusive alternatives but dialectical components that both deny and enhance the original meanings even as they are transcended. To paraphrase a thought of William James, the bird of meaning is in constant flight by means of the verbs of discourse that indicate a process of continuous transformation interrupted by perches on the nouns of discourse that establish points of momentary closure. Texts are closed and open, determinate and indeterminate. Closed definitions are static affairs that support what is already known and can be expected to be known in the future. Open definitions are dynamic instruments that uncover a path leading to regions of unexpected insight. The first is a well-traveled road. The discipline of religious studies would be well-advised to take the second way and prepare itself by methodological reflections of the land suggested in this paper for a creative advance into the unknown.

Abelson, Raziel 1972 Aristotle Meta Bloom, Harold 1973 Derrida, Jacques 1977 Eco, Umberto 1979 Geertz, Clifford 1966 "Definition." The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Reprint edition. Aristotle's Metaphysics. Trans, by Hippocrates G. Apostle. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966. The Anxiety of Influence. London: Oxford Press. Of Grammatology. Trans, by Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. "The Poetics of the Open Work.' In The Role of the Reader. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. "Religion as a Cultural System." In Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, ed. by Michael Bainton. London: Tavistock Publications.

Gould, Eric 1981

Mythical Intentions in Modern Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Hartman, Geoffrey H. 1980 Criticism in the Wilderness. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

What is Literature? Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press. 'Indeterminacy and the Reader's Response.* In Aspects of Narrative, ed. by J. Hillia Miller. New York: Columbia University Press. The Implied Reader. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. "The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles." In Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. by Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc. Semantic Theory. London: Cambridge University Press. Poetics Presence and Illusion. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Deconstructioe Criticism. New York: Columbia University Press. Semantics, I. London: Cambridge University Press. Allegories of Reading. New Haven: Yale University Press. "The Critic as Host." In De-Construction and Criticism. New York: The Seabury Press. The Idea of the Holy. Trans, by John W. Harley. London: Oxford University Press.

Hernadi, Paul, ed.

1978 Hirsch, Jr., E. D. 1967 Iser, Wolfgang 1971 1974 Jakobson, Roman 1971

Kempson, Ruth 1977 Krieger, Murray 1980 Kripke, Saul 1980 Leitch, Vincent 1983 Lyons, John 1977 de Man, Paul 1979 Miller, J. Hillis 1979 Otto, Rudolf 1950 Peirce, Charles 1955

"Logic as Semlotic: The Theory of Signs." In Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. by Justus Buchler. New York: Dover. 1958 "Letters to Lady Welby." In Values of a Universe of Change, ed. by Philip P. Wiener. New York: Doubleday Anchor. Pye, Michael, and Morgan, Robert, eds. 1973 The Cardinal Meaning. The Hague: Mouton.

Comstock: Toward Open Definitions


Quine, Willard Van Onnan 1953 "Two Dogmas of Empiricism." In From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ricoeur, Paul 1981 Robinson, Richard 1959 Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Trans, by John B. Thompson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Definition. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.

Romanes, George D. 1983 Quine and Analytic Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Rorty', Richard 1979 Ryle, Gilbert 1949 Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press. The Concept of Mind. New York: Barnes and Noble.

de Saussure, Ferdinand 1959 Course in General Linguistics. Trans, by Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library. Scholes, Robert 1982 Smart, Ninian 1981 Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982 Semiotics and Interpretation. Press. New Haven: Yale University

Beyond Ideology. Cambridge: Harper and Row. Imagining Religion. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Suleiman, Susan R., and Crosman, Inge 1980 The Reader in the Text. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

A HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH by WflHston Walker Fourth Edition Revised by Richard A. Nonis. David VV.Lotx, Robert T. Handy of Union Theological Seminary
Willtaton Walkers classic one-volume treatment of church history from the first century to the twentieth has been extonstvety revised In light of new historicalresearchand methodotogica] chanoes that have led to discoveries and fresh lnteiptetation of the vartou periods of church history The result Is an updated history which preearvei the tenor ol Walkers original, outstanding text, along with his rate corobinatiQn of directness, competence, and balance. The revise have redesigned and updated the bfbUography, rymMng it an extjemety thorough and valuable source for students. March 1988 660peges dothbound ORIENTAL PHILOSOPHIES Second Edition JohnM.KoUer In this second edition of Rollers comprehensive survey of the history, development, and cental problems of Hindu thought, Buddhist philceophies, and the Chineee systems of Confucianism, Taoism, and Neo-Confudanism, the centrality of philoeophy to daily life in the East is emphasized Special attention Is paid to the sacred texts in each system and to the lives of the philosophers. New to this edition are review questions and a further reading hst at the end of each chapter. March 1986 360pegee papet THE HISTORY OF ANCIENT ISRAEL Michael Grant Michael Orant teDs the story of Ancient Israel from the earliest eattlen in the land of Canaan to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 A.D. An Ideal text to OM Testament uomsea. 1984 317 pages paper THE RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE OF MANKIND Third Edition Nlhian Smart The third edition of Smart* classic survey of the "Hg'"" and secular belief systems of the wodd includes a new section an the native reUgioos of the Americas and the Pacific and updated material on the roHgtnnn of Africa. India, the Far East, and the Near East Smart has also revised and expanded the material on the Muslim experience in light of the recent Islamic renewal, and updated his chapters on humanism and on the contemporary experience of religion. 1984 656 pages paper IS GOD A CREATIONIST? The Religious Case Against Creation Science Edited by Roland Muahat Frye This book presents a history, analysis, and refutation of the creationscience movement in America from the religious point of view. Following a general introduction to the creationist coauoveisy, eleven prominent spokesmen from the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths emphasize the possibility of affirming both religious faith and evolutionary theory. 1983 205peges paper CHRISTIAN CHURCHES OF AMERICAOrigins and Beliefs Revised Edition Mitton V Backman This comprehensive guide to AmericaB Christian faiths devotes a chapter to each of the seventeen major denominations in the U S Beginning with an introduction to religion in America, Backman goes on to describe the history, development and distinguishing beUefs of each denomination. 1S83 278 pages psper For an examination copy, write stating course, enrollment and current text to Dept. SW, Charles Scribners Sons, 597 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 100T7 CHARLES SCRIBNKR'S SONS