The Contemporary Field of Religious Studies in Latin America

Plenary Presentation AAR 2009

The Contemporary Field of Religious Studies in Latin America


As a Religious Studies Scholar from Mexico/Latin America, I have taught, researched and published on issues important to my part of the world.

In permanent interaction with the scholarship produced in the “North” but with methodological and theoretical priorities proper to the part of then world I am part of,  I have come to develop- in conjunction with colleagues from  the same  Latin American background- some particular perspectives that are crucial to our region’s scholarship.

Our work is often grounded in concerns for social justice, and we do not experiment “resentment” – as the abstract to this session seems to invite us to confess – about the so-called invention of the modern field of religious studies by European and American institutions.

Compared to the situation in the North, we are set in a location that is at the same time strikingly other and surprisingly similar. Intellectual colonialism and the literal transfer of analytical frameworks cannot be said to plague our religious studies production in Latin America. To suppose that they do would be to fall prey to a mental frame of binary and  mutually exclusive categories. I grant you that, among us,  there is neither a subservient discipleship nor an absolute rejection but that, between “North” and “us”, what goes on is rather an intertextual relationship.

Some of our methods “fuse” with those of the North, others are “juxtaposed”, and yet others are split from them or in contrast to them. That ,of course, leaves untouched our acknowledgement of the privileges enjoyed by ‘North” academicians who enjoy more publishing opportunities than we do, whose works enjoy a better circulation, become easier  quoted references, get more funding etc.. Belonging to the “North” geopolitical academic circles entails indeed economic benefits and degrees of power that we cannot expect to enjoy, at least not in the same measure.

The production of the scholars linked to the  Asociación Latinoamericana para el Estudio de las Religiones (ALER) gives testimony to the an interconnectedness or  “intertextuality” which, in globalized academic circles, is both  inevitable and healthy.


But we do go our own way.  We redefine categories, refashion methodologies, re-conceptualize subjects of study and priorities. We strive to strengthen South-South dialogues, specially through/with the Caribbean Philosophical Association. At the 53rd International Congress of Americanists , last August in Mexico City we shared ideas and projects and collaborated towards this goal.

I have often felt alien to the internal tensions I have come to witness between and among diverse international and national religious studies associations and organizations.  The North’s intellectual dilemmas and academic fights stay exterior to our scholarly production and trust me that, in Latin America and the Caribbean region, we have our very own internal tensions.

I feel immensely grateful for this invitation to present our “religious studies” endeavors, focus, and perspectives. I will try to illustrate some of our theoretical and methodological issues with a couple of examples from my own work.  I have indeed frequently functioned as a bridge between the North  American Academy of Religious Studies and the above-mentioned Latin American association to which I belong. I have frequent teaching assignments at US Universities, often at a post- graduate level, and I also have much teaching experience in Mexico and in other Latin American countries.

To start, I would like to briefly comment of the IIIrd volume of the Encyclopedia Iberoamericana de Religiones: Religion and Gender (Trotta: Madrid 2004) that I edited some years ago. Authors, fields, denominations, and, methods are as diverse as can be on the intersections between religions and gender.

In the selection of authors and works, I put the emphasis on their relevance for the subject of study, and not on the way it was conceptualized or the method by which it was researched. I insisted on the plurality of voices and multiplicity of approaches. I collected contributions by famous feminist theologians like Ivone Gevara from Brazil, Biblical scholars like Elsa Tamez from Costa Rica, and Mercedes Navarro from Spain, sociologists of religion like Cecilia Mariz, from Brazil  and anthropologists of religion like Marion Aubrée from France. I also included two analytical and testimonial pieces by ordained women pastors. In itself, this collection dedicated to the confluences of gender and religion breaks the binary barriers commonly found in studies of this type and it also smoothly crosses the line between Protestant (historical or evangelical) and Catholic (of diverse sorts), Theology and Religious studies, Biblical analysis and testimonial contemporary religious movements and experiences, ordained women, and the community of believers. This example shows  how some of the constrains regarding how to define “truths” or “religions”, the strain for the search for a universality (we choose pluriversality ) or the subject-object relationships and data reliability are reformulated from our own stand point.   Take this volume as an emblem of how we proceed with our “religious studies” work.

I do not have the time here to be more explicit and detailed. I would like now to introduce you to a proposed contribution to the field of “religious studies” realized in association with the Asociación Latinoamericana para el Estudio de las Religiones and within the CIDECI-Universidad de la Tierra,  in San Cristobal in Chiapas, Mexico.


A Hermeneutics of Orality

After teaching at Harvard Divinity, Drew and Union Theological Seminar, and years as Visiting Professor of Gender in Mesoamerican Religions at the School of Religion, Claremont Graduate University, I felt the NEED and accepted the challenge to develop and systematize a methodology for my area of study. Mesoamerican religions are mainly “oral” traditions. They are also defined as “indigenous” religious traditions. My question to myself was: How could I instrument my students doing research on this field to consider both the dimensions  of orality and that of indigeneity? I was in search,

as Tomoko Mazuzawa, expressed it, of

“…a healthy stockpile of good tools and functional instruments for empirical research and analysis” (Tomoko Masuzawa, quoted in  Marcos, Sylvia ,    in Gerrie Ter Har(ed)Japan….)

I presented my proposal in 2002, at a conference on “Orality” attended by some of the best analytical minds experts of this issue, scholars like Frédérique Appfel, Karen Brown, Jacob Olupona, Diane Bell, Inés Talamantes, June Nash, Barbara Tedlock, among others.

It is grounded in years of dealing with ethnographic methodology and on the direct interaction with the subjects of my field research. For us, religious studies imply the field, the people, the community of believers and their rituals and ceremonies. We do not generally think of a text alone as a matter for research, be it the Bible, the Torah or the Koran.

[For a more complete presentation please see chapter nine of my book Taken from the Lips; Gender and Eros in Mesoamerican Religions, Brill, 2006].

Indigenous religious traditions are mainly oral traditions. Texts, even if they exist, are rarely or not at the core of their belief structure. If we try to systematize religions that are transmitted through oral means with the methods used for systematizing religions rooted in textual traditions, we will distort and misinterpret them. Historical and textual methods presuppose a fixed narrative as a basis for the analysis. Oral traditions are fluid, flexible, and malleable. The subtle shifting and changing of words, metaphors, and meanings easily slip through the “text” cast by historical and textual analysis. Different, and in part radically new methods are needed to capture a tradition that is in continuous change, that is, in process.

Some classical or typical characteristics of oral transmission within indigenous religions that are important to record and decode when doing research are:

–the use of redundancy and repetition as means for the

re-membering of traditions,

— the formulaic structure of songs and stories,

— the power of words and utterances that call reality into   being,

–the indissociability  between myth and history;

–the embodiment, “carnality”, of belief and thought,

–the fluid perceptual dualitites between nature and culture, sacred and profane, life and death, spirit and matter,

— the concept of nature as divine,

— the merging of transcendence and immanence,

— the belief in a bi-directional flow between the realm of the deities and human existence, (sometimes called “reciprocity”)

— metaphors as the selected vehicles for conveying hermetic meanings;

— the implicit rather than explicit articulation of beliefs.


Many of the careful ethnographic methods crucial to the study of orally transmitted indigenous religions must still be elaborated. However, scholars of this field should convince themselves that analytical interpretative strategies sketched here are better suited for grasping the particularities of a religious tradition immersed in a process of change, a tradition that is permanently reconfiguring itself.

My focus is on the description and analysis of the transformations of indigenous religions that do not occur through acculturation or conversion, hybridization, or commodification, but through their own internal metamorphoses and migrations, that is through their own internal processes.

Paradoxical juxtapositions reveal, in the case of Mesoamerican religions, a seamless unity which can only be discovered in the mytho-poetic, metaphoric context of these traditions’ world view and cosmology.

Revisiting the abstract for this session, especially the question whether the “South” can contribute “…innovations of analytic frameworks for the study of religion and new currents

of intellectual creativity that may be  appropriated by (what has come to be called dichotomously,) Western scholarship…”

I will leave the question open to be answered by those of you here, particularly those who have heard of, read, and studied  the, in my opinion, innovative methodological proposals from this region of the world.


Thank you,

Sylvia Marcos

AAR Plenary

“Modern Field of Religious Studies”

Montreal, Canada.

November 9, 2009






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