The Perils of Parallel-o-Mania

The impetus for this post came from a conversation that started here. Since the blog administrator won’t publish my response, I wanted to raise the issue in a more general setting. (Personal attacks on the author of that post will not be tolerated in this thread. Anything that encroaches on an ad hominem–or is overtly condescending– will be deleted.)

As religious people we are interested in religious things. This interest, for the most part, extends beyond our own tradition and into larger issues of world wide religiosity. Comparing our tradition with other traditions is a natural part of this interest and interaction. The larger issue underlying this post is how to do “responsible” comparison. As a way of getting into that conversation I want to offer a critique of the kind of comparative studies we (meaning members at large and not necessarily those doing academic work, although the latter sometimes do it as well) all too often engage in.

Sometimes, comparative work is talked about in terms of the 3 M’s: Motive, Material, and Method. What I want to elaborate on here can effectively be termed “an awareness of motive”. The larger implication is that a lack of reflection on one’s motive can often lead to absurd comparative conclusions. 

The dominant motive in LDS comparative discourse is what I would call “inverse Orientalism”. Orientalism, as made famous by Said, is the construction of a fictional (and convenient) “other” used to (re)affirm power relations. In Said’s context, the Western academy (and other inter-related institutions) constructed a notion of the Orient that was everything the West was not. This construct served to bolster perceptions of the Orient as “traditional” rather than “modern”, “emotional” rather than “rational”, and served to justify Western superiority (but also inferiority, in the sense that Western intellectuals often drew on these perceptions as powerful critiques of the ills of Western life–Thoreau, for instance, saw Asia as a place less burdened by modern “conveniences”). Inverse Orientalism is the creation of a fictional other made in one’s own image. Here, rather than an other that is everything we are not, the other is much of what we already are. The attempt to reaffirm a power relation, however, remains the same. So if Orientalism is the creation of “an other”, Inverse Orientalism if the creation of “another”. This notion of Inverse Orientalism is often expressed in the language of “parallels” or, as referred to in the link above, as “finding threads of truth and light in them which lend authenticity, plausibility, and genuineness [to our tradition]“.  

It is important to point out that this motive is not a “bad” motive per se. Indeed, it goes significantly beyond demonizing other religious traditions and denying any relation between us and them. There are also positive results of this motive. Looking for similarities can often foster further interest and curiosity. I cannot say that my own interest in other religious traditions is not in some way related to the similarities I see in my own.

I do think, however, that we should understand the ramifications and limitations of this motive. In other words, there are several problems of leaving this motive unexamined. I want to refer to three here:

1) The comparative enterprise becomes a mere oddity. If the purpose of doing comparison with other religious traditions is to reaffirm what we already believe to be true, why engage in it other than as hobby?

2) It limits learning opportunities. The search for corroborative information by definition excludes anomalies–it eliminates anything that doesn’t fit into the narrative of the primary tradition. This selective editing, then, doesn’t require us to deal with the tougher (and often more fruitful) issues of difference in competing truth claims.

3) People take the fiction as reality. Interpreting another tradition purely in the terms of one’s own, creates an animal that those within the other tradition most likely will not themselves recognize, but those in the host tradition often take as an accurate representation.

I’m interested in hearing everyone’s thoughts, as well as identifying past discussions about “parallel-o-mania” that have occurred in the Bloggernacle.

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23 Comments

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23 responses to “The Perils of Parallel-o-Mania

  1. The Right Trousers

    It’s not just other religions we do this with, it’s the ones we claim in our own past as well. The three degrees of glory get superimposed over Paul’s clarification about the nature of physical resurrection, and we can no longer discern what he really meant. We read about Nephi and his brothers casting lots and don’t realize they expected the Lord to make his will known through randomness. We don’t talk about how the early Saints understood the purpose of sealing ordinances differently than we do.

    I would guess that in these cases, we’re afraid that finding differences will shake our faith. Isn’t truth supposed to be eternal? That may be a partial reason for our doing this with other faith traditions. What if they’ve got some fantastic insight that’s either not known in ours or doesn’t fit? We’ll either avoid finding it or discount it when we do.

    I’ve noticed a similar thing with the Law of Moses. We tend to discount an awful lot of it, and even demonize parts, because it doesn’t seem to fit with our views. Most of us understand a caricature of it that emphasizes tedious observance of superficial acts. However, I’ve recently learned some cool stuff about repentance by trying to see how its practitioners understood guilt and sin offerings.

    There’s great knowledge to be had outside our own faith once we stop being afraid of being enlightened by it.

  2. TT

    I like this idea of “inverse Orientalism.” Did you make it up, or is it a term of art? I ask because it seems that one genre of religious studies books in the post-colonial vein tend to argue that the creation of the category of “religion” in places like China and India and Japan is the result of imposing Western notions into environments which do not mirror Western categorical constructions.

  3. Good post, but we must be careful not to characterize useful comparisons as “parallel-o-mania.” Discretion must be used to determine exactly what may be deduced by comparisons. Sometimes a parallel may imply very much, and other times, it may only be conincidental. This is perhaps a virtue of academic training is to know the difference between the two. In any case, most comparisons, even though they may be “parallel-o-mania” are good for at least raising certain questions such as, “Why does the (apparent) parellel exist? What (if anything) does it imply about the traditions from which it arises?” The way we answer these questions determines our intellectual honesty, not merely the making of comparisons.

  4. TT

    jondh,
    I think that you raise an important point about parallels, but I am curious as to how you would lay out the options of what kinds of parallels are useful. As I see it, there are three basic trends:
    1. The parellel is instructive because of some kind of historically discrete mutual influence. There are bound to be parallels b/t Christianity, Judaism, and ancient Greco-Roman religion, because they belong to a shared cultural context and their was interaction between them.
    2. The parallel is instructive because it reveals something structural about the human mind, the human experience, etc. All religions have some rituals, for instance, because rituals are structurally necessary for religion.
    3. The parallel is instructive because there are only so many variations that are possible. Religion X and Y both believe A about life after death (and not B, C, or D) simply because there are only so many permutations available.
    Are there others that you see? Do you see any problems with any of these?

  5. To add/complement the issues that can arise from unexamined motives and jondh’s remarks on intellectual honesty:

    Unexamined motives can drive uncritical methodologies. One example of this is the collection of large numbers of greater or lesser parallels without regard to their historical or contextual significance and roles. If we then assume that this somehow shows that our own tradition existed before the early 19th century, the results are probably neither educational in any sober sense of the word, nor are they good apologetic.

    Best to do it the hard way…

  6. oudenos

    As a wise professor told me not too long ago, “The problem with these parallels is that they never intersect, that is why they are parallel.” Boy did that simple statement shred what I thought to be a pretty good history of religions type of argument. Obviously parallels have their place in academic inquiry, but yikes, I can’t get those words out of my head!

  7. TT – I don’t think there should be pervasive explanation for parallels in religious or cultural traditions, but rather each parallel should be evaluated in its own context and circumstance. For some parallels, the evidence is overwhelming for a common source (i.e. both Christianity and Judaism use the Old Testament). For others, not so much (some Indian traditions (certainly won’t make the mistake of calling them “religions”!) and Mormonism both believe in existence before birth). For the latter, it may be true that both come from a common revelatory source, but this can hardly be substantiated by evidence.

    So in answer to your question, all three causes for parallelism may be appropriate for a given parallel, provided its plausibility may be established by evidence. #3 is a little odd, since it would be extraordinarily difficult to prove infinite permutations are impossible, but like I said, if it can be established by evidence, why not? In its own setting, it could be extraordinarily instructive.

    Perhaps my point is that to go into a situation with your mind already made up about why parallels exist seems to be exactly the kind of indiscriminate methodolgy you and Smallaxe and Mogget caution against. Best not rule anything out until thorough investigation can be made.

  8. “The problem with these parallels is that they never intersect, that is why they are parallel.”

    I’ve heard that before, but I’ve never really understood it. To me it seems to be just a rhetorical quip. This isn’t geometry after all, and for many, parallels themselves are not really parallel in the geometric sense but themselves imply intersection. Isn’t that what intersections are: common points shared by both?

  9. Smallaxe – Now that i’ve read more of the post to which you are referring, I think you make a good point about taking a tradition on its own terms, and not trying to see it through our lens. That should definitely be the foundation of all academic inquiry. Nevertheless, that need not exclude the kind of comparison the author of the post was trying to make. As long as we try to understand a tradition on its own ground first, what’s wrong with noticing and exploring seeming parallels, as long as relevant evidence is thoroughly explored, and opposing arguments are dealt with, etc. etc. Are you saying that comparing an element of one tradition to a similar or identical element in another is necessarily taking one or the other tradition out of context? I can understand how having a preconceived notion about why some things are the same is unsound methodolgy, but using that notion as a starting point for inquiry is surely not unsound, is it?

  10. smallaxe

    Sorry, but this might be the first in a series of random comments.

    I would guess that in these cases, we’re afraid that finding differences will shake our faith. Isn’t truth supposed to be eternal? That may be a partial reason for our doing this with other faith traditions. What if they’ve got some fantastic insight that’s either not known in ours or doesn’t fit? We’ll either avoid finding it or discount it when we do.

    I think part of it goes back to an assumption of coherency. In other words we tend to begin any investigation (into the past or into other traditions) with the assumption that our system of beliefs is coherent in the sense of being complete or the culmination of past events. In this sense, by definition there’s nothing that can challenge it in any formidable way.

  11. smallaxe

    I like this idea of “inverse Orientalism.” Did you make it up, or is it a term of art?

    I made it up, although I’m sure someone somewhere has already used it, and probably done a much better job with it than I.

    I’m struggling with the issue of how much this is really different than the critiques of early attempts in religious studies (and maybe not so early attempts), which you draw attention to. Do you think we’re doing anything other than repeating the venture of the past 200 years of the history of religions?

  12. smallaxe

    In any case, most comparisons, even though they may be “parallel-o-mania” are good for at least raising certain questions such as, “Why does the (apparent) parellel exist? What (if anything) does it imply about the traditions from which it arises?”

    Jondh, I’ll reply to this comment here, and then your later comments afterwards.

    The problem I wanted to raise here is that the driving force (i.e., motive) behind much of parallel-o-mania does not allow for these kinds of questions to be asked. The parallel exists because we have the same truths that God revealed in previous dispensations. The similarities are the per chance fortune of these other traditions. In other words, they happened to hang on to them throughout the Great Apostacy. These are the assumptions going into the comparative enterprise, so methodologically they are ruled out as questions to pose.

    My intent is not to say that comparative work should not be done. Nor that parallels should be ignored or not taken into account (more on this in another comment), when doing comparative work. Rather, that our motives for comparative work should be made clear, and we should understand the implications of them. They undoubtedly effect the material we choose to work with, and the method we employ in interpreting them. Parallel-o-mania, as pointed out in the post, is not a “bad” thing in and of it self. As long as one realizes the downsides of it (as pointed out in the post), and is prepared to cope with those downside, then engage in it. Personally, however, I find these as rather difficult downsides to overcome.

  13. smallaxe

    Now that i’ve read more of the post to which you are referring, I think you make a good point about taking a tradition on its own terms, and not trying to see it through our lens. That should definitely be the foundation of all academic inquiry. Nevertheless, that need not exclude the kind of comparison the author of the post was trying to make. As long as we try to understand a tradition on its own ground first, what’s wrong with noticing and exploring seeming parallels, as long as relevant evidence is thoroughly explored, and opposing arguments are dealt with, etc. etc.

    IMO nothing is wrong with that, however I don’t think the author of that post necessarily engaged the issue as you explain it here.

    Are you saying that comparing an element of one tradition to a similar or identical element in another is necessarily taking one or the other tradition out of context?

    Well, yes and no. Complete contextualization is obviously impossible, so to some degree we are always de-contextualizing things. However I think the recognition that we are always de-contextualizing puts a large responsibility on us to re-contextualize, or attempt to understand the context of the thing we are studying to a “realistic degree”; and also realize that our answers are tentative in as much as context is lacking. A realistic degree may depend on what we want to do with the material, as well as other practical concerns in terms of our time, abilities, etc.

    I can understand how having a preconceived notion about why some things are the same is unsound methodolgy, but using that notion as a starting point for inquiry is surely not unsound, is it?

    I think it depends on how “thick” that notion is. If it’s not open to being challenged or reformulated, then I would say that such a starting point is unsound.

  14. smallaxe

    Jondh,

    I suppose I should add that if push comes to shove I see every attempt to understand and interpret as comparative rather than the impossibility of comparison.

  15. smallaxe

    As a wise professor told me not too long ago, “The problem with these parallels is that they never intersect, that is why they are parallel.”

    I take it this professor never heard of Non-Euclidean geometry:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-Euclidean_geometry

  16. Howard

    SmallAxe,
    Excellent post!

    Would a simplified summary be; a couscous or unconscious bias on the part of the author that results in comparing without contrasting?

  17. I fully admit to having a couscous bias, particularly with some nice harissa ;)

  18. Howard

    Sounds delicious!

  19. smallaxe

    Would a simplified summary be; a couscous or unconscious bias on the part of the author that results in comparing without contrasting?

    This isn’t really about comparing without contrasting. I think most “comparative” accounts either explicitly handle contrasting as well, or at least account for differences (even if the explanation is that they’ve “fallen away from the truth”). It’s more about examining the implications of our biases and working to make our unconscious “biases”, more conscious.

  20. I think Small Axe’s point in 13 is well made. I think the problem is that there are compelling reasons to think though that temple parallels in the near east tell us something significant. That’s because (1) the temple purports to have some genealogical connection to that era; (2) our western tradition including masonry, hermeticism, etc. traces to that area and era; (3) there were people with the gospel in some form in that place.

    When one moves to China and the surrounding locals things become more tricky because (1) there is no purported revelation of the temple there; (2) it is far more alien to the western tradition; and (3) we don’t know how many had the gospel as we understand it.

    In addition to all this though are what for lack of a better term I’ll call the psychological structuralists. This would include Jung, Campbell, and others. (Roughly the scholarship from the 40′s through the 60′s) These people see the parallels because they believe they reflect some cognitive structure (ignoring for the moment what they considered the mind to be). I’ve long thought Nibley ought be taken in that category both because of the period of his training but also his methodology is similar. While I don’t think these figures are taken that seriously anymore – often due to big methadological problems (decontextualizing) there is something to be said for the stance. That is if there are common cognitive structures in human beings we ought expect those to be reflected in our oral narratives, rituals, etc.

    From and LDS stance though if there is a spirit with some level of a veil of forgetfulness then the notion of this collective unconscious found in the psychological structuralists will manifest itself as a kind of repressed remembrance of a premortal life manifesting itself in human behavior. Now making the move from the general claim to the claim that this structure is significant will be much more problematic. But I think one should be careful here.

    I should also note that while a lot see Nibley’s parallels as evidence a perhaps too naive and optimistic diffusionism I think this more Freudean like element is at least as present. Indeed if you look at his writings on the Manic vs. Sophist you’ll see that provides the philosophical ground for his structuralism and ends up being fairly similar to Freud or Jung with even more of a Platonic thrust. (Hardly uncommon in the structuralism of the era) Even if Nibley ultimately has a different ontology.

  21. I’ve long thought Nibley ought be taken in that category both because of the period of his training but also his methodology is similar. While I don’t think these figures are taken that seriously anymore – often due to big methadological problems (decontextualizing) there is something to be said for the stance. That is if there are common cognitive structures in human beings we ought expect those to be reflected in our oral narratives, rituals, etc.

    It’s been a while since I’ve read any Nibley, but the odd thing is that I’ve never gotten the sense that he was a “psychological structuralist”, as you call it (perhaps I’d go with “cognitive realist”, others such as Edward Slingerland suggest “embodied realist”). Perhaps you, or anyone else, can provide something from Nibley to substantiate this. Coincidentally, my sense is that the kind thinking you refer to going on in the 40s-60s has reemerged in some aspects of cognitive science. I’m thinking here of Pinker, and Lakoff and Johnson (although in radically different ways).

  22. Well I think it undeniable he’s a structuralist. I say he was a psychological structuralist due to his similarity to Eliadi, Campbell and others. Typically the difference is pointed to that Nibley adopts a literalist view of scripture so all information is diffusionist in nature. (i.e. he’s in the diffusionist camp rather than the psychological camp) My view is that the main difference of the diffusionists and psychologists of the era is merely the grounds they see for structural parallels. The methadologies (and methadological mistakes) are largely the same. (IMO – and of course I’m painting with a broad paintbrush)

    What, to me, moves Nibley from the diffusionist camp to the psychologist camp is his writings on the Mantics. Now he is adopting a kind of platonism towards revelation in his conception of the Mantics. But frankly a lot of the psychologists of the era were adopting something similar. The kind of psychological reductionism we take for granted today was just developing then. (Remembers Skinner was just emerging and many of these folks didn’t like the behavioralists )

    Now if you want something more beyond that I don’t have time to do too much research (beyond the reading club on Nibley on the Mantics from a few years back)

    The main counterargument against my move is to argue that Nibley only thought revelation (and thus the Mantic) came within the Church. That is his gnosticism was tied up with LDS conceptions of authority. While I think there is an element of that I think it pretty clear he felt anyone could receive revelation.