Faculty in Focus: Denise Buell, Assistant Professor of Religion

What are you currently researching?

My research is looking at the categories of religiosity and ethnicity in particular and looking especially at what these categories could mean in the period of the early Roman Empire and how people put the terms together. I’m really interested in the way in which early Christians—since Christianity was developing—defined what it was going to mean to be a Christian and how that related to their understanding of the category of religion, the category of ethnicity and the possible meaning of the two because the standard perceived wisdom is that Christianity defined itself over and against ethnic particularity….

There is some truth to the argument that a lot of Christian texts universalized Christianity. It is open to anybody whether you are slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female—that’s a very famous set of three pairs of social categories in the Roman world that…are mentioned in early Christian texts as categories that are now broken down and anybody can be part of this new community. What I’m calling into question is how we interpret those kinds of arguments and to question the legacy also within Christianity of making an argument that this particular form of religiosity has nothing to do with ethnicity.

One of the things that I’ve found is a set of texts that we’ve known about- they’re not brand new texts, not just dug up in the desert-where in different ways Christians actually make arguments about what it means to be a member of the movement that we think of as a religious movement only.

Of course we get into their own presuppositions about what it means to be religious and defining Christianness… using language, that for people in the Roman world would have rung a bell in terms of how you define peoplehood. It’s a kind of ethnic discourse, an ethnic reading used by Christians to define and defend the very essence of the group.

I’m thinking what do we do with this kind of evidence if we have this tradition of interpretation that says Christianity and ethnicity have nothing to do with each other, on the one hand. And then texts that talk about when you become Christian, you’re not a Greek, you’re not a Jew, you’re a Christian, a new race, a third race. Anybody can become a member of this people.

That also messes with our minds in terms of contemporary thoughts about what ethnicity is. You have scholarship that talks about race and ethnicity as something that is, in practice, somewhat fluid. But we tend to think of it as given, something that we have.

It’s tempting to read back onto and into texts a similar understanding of race. Likewise we think of religiosity today as something voluntary, something that you choose to be a member of.

Now we often know in practice that it doesn’t necessarily work that way because you are often raised in a particular tradition. There are some religious traditions, Judaism would be a terrific case of this, where there are a lot of debates about whether being Jewish is being a member of an ethnic group or a cultural group or is it being religious or is it both. There are lots of debates over whether you can talk about secular Judaism, or is Judaism something in between.

In antiquity we have texts that show there is some notion that you can switch ethnicities, so that the notion of ethnicity in antiquity is also somewhat fluid. That people could talk about it in the abstract as somewhat fluid, you could become Greek, you could become Jewish, and Christians, I think, capitalize on this.

You also have the notion that you can become Christian, but Christians take it one step further than their predecessors or their contemporaries by saying that actually everybody really is Christian, that Christians are not only a new group you can join but the original group.

This is where you get the universalizing kind of rhetoric that threatened the particularity of all other groups. Ethnicity then becomes something universal and particular that the Christians mobilize around.

So when I’m asking why would the Christians choose to do this in the development of their movement, it has something to do with the fact that a new movement, especially a religious movement, was very suspect. Any kind of movement, be it a philosophical group, a religious cult, or any group that is perceived to be new, was bad news in antiquity.

Christians also had to reckon with that general bias towards all things new and present persuasive arguments about the coherence of their group.

To be able to claim ultimate antiquity back to the original humans even if their religious practices hadn’t been demonstrated would be more persuasive, making that tie between a religious and an ethnic link would be more persuasive that just having to say “oh yeah, we’re new but we’re good.”

It gives them something other than “believe us, we’re good.” You have other groups—Romans, who are now in control of the empire who are aware some people around the Mediterranean basin are saying, “well you guys also come from dubious roots, you’re a bunch of riff-raff.”

And so at the same time that Christianity developed, they were also developing their own kind of defense or apologetic for Roman groups being good. One of the ways the Romans justified their place in the world was to say, “if you look at our religious rituals, you’ll see that they’re actually very similar to Greek ones.” So the Romans justified themselves as people with reference to their religious ritual and linked them to another people, Greek, that had greater cultural clout—even though they were no longer politically dominant they had cultural capital.

That’s another argument that needs to be stated; it also has precedence in antiquity for a link, an association between religious practices and ethnic groups, so it wouldn’t have been weird to say that the thing that distinguishes a particular people from another or a cultural group from another would be how they worship.

Christians could say it’s our worship that makes us distinct, not necessarily how we dress, where we live, how we vote but our religious practices. It wouldn’t have been bizarre for that to be the central marker claimed to be a measure of your cultural identity, that could have been called ethnicity in antiquity.

How did you get interested in this?

I probably got interested in this in part because of questions of multiculturalism in America, questions of how Christians compare themselves over and against Jews in particular, and the terrible effect that this has historically had in terms of violence and the ways in which in our country in particular race and ethnicity have such a role in the issue of slavery in America. Ethnicity only emerged as a category in early 20th century America trying to distinguish people with something that was different from racial grouping, but even so ethnicity tends to get used often as shorthand for race.

I’m interested in trying to enter into a contemporary use informed by them, but hoping that historical analysis can help to problematize or complicate or make more clear how the assumption for these terms that we use today are really quite historically and culturally specific and therefore not necessarily fixed in stone. And because Christianity and Judaism are very vibrant and living traditions it is also relevant to see the ways in which they have interacted with each other and how their self-conceptionalizations have shifted as well.

How did you get into the study of religion in the first place? Did you

have any particular influences?

Well, the short version is that I read a book my senior year of high school that completely fascinated me, The Gnostic Gospels, a book I continue to assign. In this book [the author] writes about a collection of texts that were discovered in the desert in 1945 and they were texts many of which we never even knew existed and one of which we had only known about by title.

They were texts written by Christians whose version of Christianity didn’t make it and so they were condemned as heretics. Some group of probably monks had collected them and saved them as a kind of sample of bad Christianity and eventually they got stowed in caves in jars where they remained for centuries. When they were found by accident it caused quite a stir as far as how to rethink the origins and development of Christianity.

I just thought that this was fascinating. As a high school student to think that what I was taught, I was raised with a very liberal Protestant background, how amazing to think that also there is an incredible variety from the very beginning.

That was one thing that really grabbed me and then I went to College where I thought I would study either International Policy, which was my main focus at first. Then I took a class with a professor who teaches Christianity and its earliest development and he was so fabulous that I decided I really want to know more about this.