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Elements of a Semiotic Theory of Religion

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image of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

This work is a synopsis of an argument for a semiotic approach to theorizing religion. The central argument combines Jonathan Z. Smith's notion of "sacred persistence" as the dynamic relationship between a canon and a hermeneute with the work of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Mikhail Bakhtin. The argument is that religion is a process of on-going semiotic construction and displacement wherein heremeneutes select paradigmatic elements to form syntagmatic combinations. One of the aspects of this process of selection and combination is what Bakhtin refers to as "the speech of the other". Often, though not always, this element of religious semiotica takes the form of an agon, or contest. This work draws upon Foucault and Nietzsche to supplement Smith's and Bakhtin's notion of the production of religious speech/interpretations by further theorizing the concept of the agon. It is argued that this approach is an advance upon both essentialist phenomenological approaches and inductive, explanatory approaches. Religion, it is claimed, is best understood on the model of language, and by means of analogous approaches used in the study of language and language behaviors.


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