Among the twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
—Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
The blackbird in Wallace Stevens’s famous poem is many things at once. It is a living center of perception, a creature that inhabits the earth, an entity swirling through the natural world, an expression of the universal whole, a beautiful melody, a passing shadow, and various other things, depending on the observer’s perspective. Yet in making his point about point of view, Stevens does not argue that the blackbird has no essence. Indeed, he tries to suggest a more profound truth: that the blackbird is something that exists beyond the ways it can be viewed. My intention here to suggest that something similar holds true for religion. Up to a point.
There is nothing new about approaching religion in a perspectival way. Indeed, it is commonplace today to find long lists of the things religion is: It is practice and observance. It is prayer. It is tradition and culture. It is morality and belief and faith—and much else as well. We are routinely enjoined to appreciate the particularities and differences that characterize religious traditions, and there is something useful in this relativizing move. It helps us avoid collapsing rich religious diversity into an abstract and constructed ideal. Nevertheless, it would be false to conclude that religion is nothing more than the many different things that assorted religious traditions do.
I want to suggest that we can proceed toward the kind of balanced perspectivism Stevens champions by examining the various ways scholars narrate the history of religion. I suggest focusing on these narratives because one of the greater challenges in thinking about religion today comes precisely from the multiplicity of approaches to explaining how, and to what effect, religions change. Certainly, we know that religion has somehow evolved from its tribal beginnings through the archaic, axial, and medieval periods. We know how it changed under the pressures of modernity, and we are beginning to speculate about its transformations in the current global age. Yet there is no clear consensus about the dynamics—social, psychological, economic, political, intellectual, cultural—that have driven these changes. Has religion been gradually declining? Has it been “improving”? Do the same dynamics appear again and again and work in the same ways? Have we fallen away from some ideal religious orientation of an earlier time? Or has religion undergone a series of qualitatively neutral changes? Regardless of the story they ultimately adopt, even the most learned observers can and do see religious history in profoundly different ways.
To show what we might learn from these various explanations of religious change—but also to argue how one of them in particular might help us benefit from the insights of the many—I will focus on seven major narrative frameworks that shape the contemporary and largely (but not exclusively) academic discourse on religion. I call these narratives (1) subtraction, (2) renewal, (3) trans-secular, (4) construct, (5) perennial, (6) post-naturalist, and (7) developmental. Each narrative tells us something important about the history of the world’s various religious traditions, even while displaying certain limitations that insights from the other narratives help compensate for. The challenge is to appreciate the deeper complementarity holding these seven narratives together without overlooking their respectively unique insights and features.