Epitaph for Clifford Geertz: He helped define religion and culture

Yesterday's Times carried the obituary for Clifford Geertz, noted cultural anthropologist. Among other things, the Times notes that Geertz helped interpret Islamic culture,

Because of political turmoil in Indonesia, Mr. Geertz later turned his attention to Morocco, where he began doing fieldwork in the ancient village of Sefrou in 1963, returning five more times over the course of his career.

Profoundly influenced by his fieldwork there, he honed his comparative and historical approach in “Islam Observed” (1968), which the anthropologist Edmund Leach praised as “a highly insightful comparison between Islam as interpreted by Indonesians and Islam interpreted by Moroccans.”
For years I have used his definition of religion as a starting point for many of my classes. In his article, Religion as a Cultural System, Geertz writes in part:

Without further ado, then, a religion is:

(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
Yes, we do know that many others have come along to critique this formulation. Nonetheless my students and I find it a convenient way to agree on a common point of discourse. Students in our universities come from many shades of religious upbringing, most with only a vague and passing knowledge that their own religion comes out of a cultural system. So by stipulating to the truth of Geertz's definition, we agree to go forward and discuss such things as comparative religions and more recently the cultures of violence that mix together religion and terror.

Geertz was a colorful scholar of the postwar generation. Fortunately he wrote some autobiographical musings which you can read part of online here. I will let him speak a bit and then say nothing else.

It was, in any case, with such an accumulation of proleptic worries and semi-notions that I departed, after less than a year of preparation, and most of that linguistic, to Java in 1952, to locate and describe, perhaps even to go so far as to explain, something called "religion" in a remote and rural subdistrict five hundred miles south-southeast of Jakarta. Again, I have retailed elsewhere the practical difficulties involved in this, which were enormous (I damn near died, for one thing), but largely overcome. The important point, so far as the development of my take on things is concerned, is that field research, far from sorting things out, scrambled them further. What in a Harvard classroom had been a methodological dilemma, a conundrum to puzzle over, was, in a bend-in-the-road Javanese town, trembling in the midst of convulsive change, an immediate predicament, a world to engage. Perplexing as it was, "Life Among the Javans" was rather more than a riddle, and it took rather more than categories and definitions, and rather more also than classroom cleverness and a way with words, to find one's way around in it.

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