In 1976 I began to undertake ethnographic field research in religious folklife, beginning with projects with Rev. John Sherfey and his congregation in Stanley, Virginia, and also with Rev. C. L. Franklin of Detroit, the best-known and most popular of the whooping African American preachers. The Virginia project resulted in a book, Powerhouse for God (University of Texas Press, 1988; 2nd edition, University of Tennessee Press, 2018). The Detroit project resulted in another book, Give Me This Mountain (University of Illinois Press, 1989). When I started I was not concerned so much with sustainability as with making a contribution to knowledge by documenting religious traditions that were little known to scholars. Although I had studied philosophy in college, it was chiefly pragmatism and analytic philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition that I learned, in addition to a general course in the history of philosophy that did not get very far into the 20th century, nor did it include phenomenology. Starting this ethnographic project, I felt familiar with the field research methodologies of ethnomusicology, folklore, and anthropology, but beyond that I wanted to explore how scholars in religious studies approached their subject. Analytic philosophy of religion was congruent with a field calling itself the scientific study of religion, presumably to highlight sociological explanations and distinguish them from theology. I did not find this field helpful; in attempting to explain religion, this analytic scientific approach explained it away.
|Ninian Smart (1927-2001)|
As I recall, it was in the fall of 1977 that I discovered the writings of Ninian Smart on phenomenology of religion. In them I found a more agreeable methodology, one that was compatible with ethnomusicology’s insistence on avoiding ethnocentrism and instead learning to understand the expressions of a culture different from one’s own on its own terms. Smart advocated adopting Husserl’s phenomenological method of epoché in the study of comparative religion. The observer should “bracket” or set aside the truth-claims of the religion under study, suspending both belief and disbelief. Meanwhile, the student of a religious group should try to understand its worldview, doctrine, system of beliefs, practice, and expressions as a system that functioned in its own way and on its own terms. It’s possible that Smart had read Gerardus van der Leeuw’s Phanomenologie der Religion (1933). Van der Leeuw suggested that the student adopt Husserl’s epoché so as to suspend one’s own beliefs about the sacred so as to describe a religion in way consistent and empathetic with the way their adherents understood it.
The implication for ethnographic fieldwork, as I saw it, was that regardless whether the researcher was a member of the religious group under study or not, bracketing was called for in order to achieve the subject position best suited toward documenting the group’s expressive culture while relying on members of that group to explain it. This, I felt, was best done by thinking of my subject position as that of a long-term visitor or guest. Smart was suggesting relativism for he felt that the sacred manifested itself in different ways wherever human life could be found. One of those ways was in the dimension of lived experience, something that I knew resonated deeply in the musical preaching and its affective presence in the churches I was studying. As I learned more about Husserl’s phenomenology, I understood that experience was at the center of its inquiry—how experience was presented to consciousness. I made this one of my chief areas of research inquiry during my fieldwork; that is, I asked the preachers and members of the congregations to tell me about their experiences of the sacred, both in general and in response to musical preaching.
The sacred was manifest in a spiritual presence (the Holy Spirit) not only in inspired preaching but also singing, praying, and testifying (witnessing). Smart had written that each religious tradition had an overarching narrative that explained its worldview and justified its practices. Among the people I was visiting, the Bible provided the overarching narrative; but narrative itself as a speech mode was not confined there. Rather, it was a habitual mode of thinking about, organizing, and expressing experience and its meaning. The church members' narratives of conversion to Christianity were their most important; but they also, habitually, thought of their daily experience as an ongoing story of how God was present in their lives—and their task was to understand its meaning by interpreting the pattern in the narrative as it went along. In addition to their conversion narratives, each preacher also had at the ready the story of how they became preachers—not by deciding on their own as one might decide to become a professor or an entrepreneur, but always because they were called, or inspired, by God. Usually after resisting for some time, they bent to God’s will and gave up whatever else they might have intended to do, in order to go and preach the gospel. These narratives were, foremost, stories of personal experiences of the sacred; and they were the generative centerpieces of religious experience for these preachers and the members of their congregation. And as I puzzled over the meanings and significances of these narratives, I found hermeneutic phenomenology to be the approach that yielded the most satisfying interpretations.
In his article on the history of phenomenology in ethnomusicology, Harris Berger singles me out as a pioneer in this area and points to my book, Powerhouse for God (1988), along with Timothy Rice’s book, May It Fill Your Soul (1994), as the earliest ethnomusicological instance of hermeneutic phenomenology—that is, our “approaches to issues of [meaning and] interpretation in music . . . are grounded in the writings of hermeneutic phenomenologists.” Indeed, I wrote Powerhouse from the standpoint of hermeneutic phenomenology; but it never occurred to me that this was pioneering work. I chose this approach to interpretation because it seemed the most suitable to the experiences described and re-lived in the expression of sacred language. I made my debt to that philosophical tradition and especially to Paul Ricoeur explicit in the Introduction to the book and elsewhere. But it is worth mentioning that before I came to hermeneutic phenomenology while writing the book in the 1980s, I depended on a Husserlian strain of phenomenology while undertaking most of my field research in the 1970s—specifically, as I indicated earlier, the methodology advocated by Ninian Smart, which derived from Husserl’s epoché, or “bracketing.” In other words, whereas hermeneutic phenomenology enabled me to do the work of interpretation, Husserlian phenomenology enabled me to do the prior work of documentation.