Thomas Tweed

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Jonathan Smith is a historian who specializes in religious education, especially Hellenistic and Maori cults, whereas Thomas Tweed is a professor of history and American studies. The study begins by contrasting the theories of two researchers by examining how they define religion from their various points of view. The choice to have various authors clarify fundamental concepts and theories delineates the interior and exterior of a crucial topic like faith. Tweed asserts that philosophers define the fundamental disciplines and tenets of religion in relation to religious theories. As a result, the first section of the essay describes faith from Jonathan Smith's and Thomas Tweed's points of view. Thereafter, the thesis entails a comparison between Tweed’s and Smith’s theories by employing the works of Robert Orsis, Anne Taves and Karen McCarthy Brown.

Tweed’s Definition of Religion

Before providing his definition of religion, Tweed first gives the context of faith and restates previous theories. In Crossings and Swellings by Thomas Tweed, he posits that religious conviction is rich, current and profoundly geographical. His approach is about movement and positioning. Movement is basically the dynamics of religion across time while positioning is the place of theory in relation to the subject. Tweeds definition of religion improves on those contemporary models (approaches by other philosophers) that entail “minimized inter-dependence” (Tweed 77). Tweed uses case studies of Cuban migrants in Miami, Florida. He basically explores the subtleties of religious studies across time. Firstly, the author voices his frustrations with available approaches to religious studies. He based the analysis on three themes namely movement, position and relation. (Tweed 5). The author presents the meaning of religion by explaining that his approach deviates from five other theories namely: deductive, nomological/deductive approach, law-oriented model, constructivist theories and critical philosophy. He describes his approach as pragmatic and, therefore, it links concepts with independent minded realities (Tweed 8). Fundamentally, Thomas Tweed reimagines previous approaches as “itineraries” and, thus, he suggests that his philosophy embodies travels with positioned presentations and proposed routes. For instance, the philosopher reimagines religion as relational and dynamic.

Theoretical reflections inspired by traditions such as Buddhism affirm that all reality is constantly changing. Other Buddhist dogmas such as dependent co-origination and Indra’s Jewel-Net explain creed through interrelatedness of things. For example, the principle of dependent co-origination is described as the inter-becoming and interrelation of factors that sustain flux of human life through birth, death and rebirth. Additionally, Indra’s Jewel-Net emphasizes the idea of “mutual inter-causality” among everything in the cosmos (Tweed 55). On the other hand, Heraclitus breaks out of the mold of contemporary thought by emphasizing on the idea of movement. Echoing Buddhism as well as Heraclitus, Friendrich Nietzche viewed the world as an “in flux” or something that was in a state of “becoming” (Tweed 55). Furthermore, the 19th century James Leuba adopted the evolutionary and dynamic conception of mental life, an ideology that contrasted with Pre-Darwinian static conceptions. In the 20th century, other scholars turned to Mathematics and Physics and they replaced static and essentialist notions with description of how dynamic process works.

Tweed restates the models by carrying out a study on the necessity of defining constitutive terms in theology. Having defended the reason for describing “religions” and after providing the drawbacks of some of the contemporary theories (in the first and second chapter respectively), he presents his definition in the third chapter. Tweed writes, “Religions are confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and superhuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries” (Tweed 54). In this definition, the major orientations are dwelling and crossing. They indicate that faith is about moving across space (i.e. confluence and flows) and, thus, he signals that belief is not only a reified substance but also a complex process (Tweed 59). He uses aquatic and space metaphor in a bid to evade defining spiritual traditions as static and secluded. Tweed also chooses to describe them as “the swirl of transfluvial/erosive currents.” Therefore, both religious and non-religious traditions enhance confluence and flow (Tweed 61). The distinct kind of flow that he envisages is organic-cultural.

Jonathan Z. Smith’s Definition

In comparison to Tweed, Smith defines religion as the power and quest to relate to an individual’s sphere and guaranteeing the belief that a person being matters (Smith 290). Belief creates and discovers limits of human existence. Jonathan Smith used a number of essays in explaining his own theoretical commitments and draws the link between his ideology and those of general education. Thereafter, he engages several traditions that serves to define faith in a larger and broader context. Smith explores the concept of taxonomy and normative turn in religious study. He proclaims that taxonomy and classification of different denominations provide the most productive ways to compare and contrast two cultures or beliefs. Principally, Jonathan proclaims that generalization procedures and re-description are relative to his comparative enterprise. The final essay deploys features of the author’s most recent writings known as the notion of translation.

While providing the definition of religious conviction, Smith states that the subject entails a list of elements. Moreover, he argues that religious ideologies, existing before the 16th , century are not useful in determining the definition of religion in the current world. The reason for this argument is that its etymology in the past is uncertain (Smith 269). Secondly, he notes that faith is not a native group. It is rather a classification enforced by the external world on some native principles or culture. Principally, colonialists were responsible for the connotation of the term and its contents (Smith 270). Thirdly, there is an inherent universality when defining faith and therefore, it’s said to be ubiquitous occurrence. Fourthly, characteristics were constructed during the second order and lastly, it can be classified in the anthropological category and theology. Based on the above varied definitions, the most interesting question would be whether the subject was independent on its own or does it have a subordinate category. He concludes that faith is evidently a subordinate category (Smith 271).

Jonathan Smith’s straightforward argument is that belief is a creation of a scholar’s study. Therefore, faith is only created from data and analytics originating from generalizations and comparisons. In simple terms, he states that there is no such thing as religion (Smith 270). Belief is merely a grouping of cultural features that have been created over time by scholars for the purpose of expounding their studies. For instance, in a bid to further elaborate his school thought, Jonathan compares culture and belief. Many societies may not be able to draw a clear line between their values and what Western researchers called “religion”. For instance, Smith asks the question: Is Hinduism a cultural belief or is it a religion? As the author proclaims, some scholars are likely to interpret Hinduism as a cultural belief while other philosophers may refer to it as a religious practice. Perhaps there is a distinction between faith and native norms but in most cases the two are closely intertwined and thus their distinctions have closely faded. Religious practices could be presented with reference to rituals and cultural topics that could be explained ethnographically in terms of particular people (Smith 270).

Comparison between Tweed and Smith’s Theory using Identified Authors

In Robert Orsi’s Between Heaven and Earth, he focuses on the devout experiences of the mid-20th century Italian American Catholics. The author’s first sentence was the intersection of health and religion. Right away, it is shown how religious figures are incorporated in the context of sickness and disability. He elaborates the concept by relating it with the Inter-link between heaven and earth. He argues that faith is best understood as an interrelation between heaven and earth involving humans and all scared figures (Orsi 2). The writer illuminates his point by focusing on a number of case studies. Orsi emphases on complex psychological, social and cultural issues in the contemporary world. Drawing from his family’s background, he intimately explains Catholicism by training a relative lens on the value of shifting from Geerrtzian emphasis to a culturally formed subject such as religious conviction. Robert basically uses life experience and demonstrates how historians talk about realness of occurrence within certain social words at certain eras (Orsi 12). While he does not theorize systematically, he views his life and the story of his family as a reality of sacred presence and dynamic process of internalization (Orsi 21). The culture of suffering in 20th century American Catholicism is elaborated by the surrounding of disabled devotees. This pain and suffering is described as “ladders to heaven” (Orsi 215). Orsi argues that the religious studies have been organized into distinct sets of moral judgment and values usually more common in scholar ethos than in precept (Orsi 177). Also, he notes that there is no mutual ground between evangelical and post-colonial critique but there are significant convergences (Orsi 204).

Orsi explains that Tweed has compelled urbanists to re-conceptualize the idea of space and place. Tweed uses the Our Lady of Charity Miami as a trans-locational place that transmits lore about the past and the future (Tweed 34). In comparison, Robert demonstrates the idea of time and space by using St. Jude shrine in Chicago. The shrine is referred to by Orsi as an “in-between place or placeless site”. Studies on Catholic immigrants have emphasized on the ways by which certain practices of devotion make territorial claims on churches, shrines or even neighborhoods. Also, both authors employ philosophical and linguistic approaches in studying cultural contexts concerning religious tropes. They examine facets such as religious figures (Mary mother of Jesus and Lady Fatima) in order to effectively put forward their central ideas. The image of the woman is used as an anchor for the discussion. Also, Tweed examines the tropes and metaphors that other theorists have used to define religious-based practices. The author notes that religion is represented in a way that enables observers to focus on certain aspects rather than others.

In two aspects of one life, Tweed uses storytelling as a means to bridge between natural and supernatural claims. Robert Orsi complements Tweed’s analysis because both authors discuss the idea of spatial relations and probe the implication of scholars in religion. For instance, Orsi states that a religious scholar needs to cultivate the ability to ‘stay in an in-between place”. This place requires philosophers to understand religious worlds through life experiences between people and their God/gods. Moreover, both authors argue that religious beliefs are differentiated, interrelated and generative. To validate the above argument made by Orsi, Thomas uses an image of a Latino Woman praying in Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica (Tweed 30). Through this image, Tweed shows how religious spaces are sensually encountered. Simirlaly, Robert describes his hospitalized mother who laid sick clutching her rosary while turning towards a statue of Our Lady Fatima. Within such religious spaces, power is molded by events such as sickness as noted by Robert. Orsi uses his own native belongings to argue about space and network of relationships between heaven and earth. Moreover, movement between socio-cultural worlds enhances the performance of different roles and assumption of distinct identities (Tweed 159). Historians of urban religion such as Tweed adopt counter narrative to previous generations of urban religious history.

In contrast to Tweed’s explanation of religion as a means to bridge humans and supernatural beings, Jonathan Smith’s The Devil in Mr. Jones and Robert Orsis’s chapter on Snakes Alive provide exemplary cases in the context of study of religion. Both writings recount moral aims, scientific ideals and setbacks that are usually contested in intellectual heritages and cultural differences. In Smith’s analysis, he blames the enlightenment legacy as the biggest influences of the secular American university system. Orsi relates creed to the 19th and 20th century American University culture. The real struggle originates from the protracted socio-cultural battles and differences in the various classes and ethnicities. In fact, even before introduction of religious studies into the American university system, there was conflict between Liberal Protestants and Catholics. Just like Smith, Robert Orsis argues that it’s nearly impossible to study faith without establishing a normative hierarchy and relating it to certain cultural origins (Orsis 183). Moreover, the two authors agree that distinguishing faith from culture can be a difficult task. For instance, Orsis proclaims that Christians in the US have been facing intellectual and cultural tension since the onset of the Second World War. Ethics has come to stand for Christianity in the University because of the differences in ideologies in the modern and liberal world. The challenge to compete for students from different denominations has not helped the situation and, therefore, there is more emphasis on moral learning than religious education (Orsi 187). Orsi makes a strong case on the importance of shifting from Geertzian emphasis on the subject of culturally formed religion. His style is premised on taking the experience of a sacred presence in a serious manner and he demonstrates how scholars theorize the interface between psychology and culture. In many names of the “Mother of God”, Orsi discusses the devotional image of Mary using prayer beads, relics and statues. Robert is considered to be a master of local and intimate religious dogma and thus he pulls the reader into the world of pre-Vatican Italian American Catholicism.

Likewise, McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola; A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn compares contrasts the two philosophers. Brown published the book in order to enlighten people on the Vodou religious practices and Haitian culture. Also, she emphasized the role of women in Haitian society and how they have evolved to become much stronger in presence of the practice. In chapter 1, Joseph Bibin tells Manman Marasa in a dream that he had immigrated to Africa to ensure that the family had to stop worrying about his presence (Brown 33). In the following chapter, Azaka (a spirit) reminds the ritual’s followers of the significance of family cohesiveness and their link to their Haitian origin (Brown 37). Later, the Erzils (several female spirits that together provide remarkable accurate portrayal of factors that shape every woman’s life in Haiti) go after Maggie to ensure that she contracts diseases that no doctor had control over and, thus, she eventually agrees to serve the spirits. Later the author reveals that the spirits were content with her good intentions (Brown 221). Essentially, the story provides context of how religion can move through stereotypical ideologies of the future. Brown’s greatest legacy is her ability to explain belief within the historical and cultural context that allows religious ideologies to go beyond stereotypical ideologies that were put forward in the past and transferred to the future. The book seeks to eliminate usual stereotypes established by American media regarding the religious practice and that is why the author chose to use ‘Vodou ’ instead of the Americanized version ‘Vodou ’. The idea is to enlighten people and dissipate the notion that the ritual is a version of dark-magic that revolves around plaguing people and instead, it should be considered as a religious practice. McCarthy studies the healing facets of religion by describing the various ceremonies that were carried-out by Mama Lola during healing. The book attempts to show how religious practices are linked to both good and bad aspects of a human being’s life. For instance, the Vodou was helpful in healing while in other cultures it could be used to harm people.

Tweed makes sense of faith by using Cuban Catholic rituals observed by Cubans in Miami, Florida. His definition of “organic-cultural flows that intensify joy” inspires scholars to interpret on the importance of respecting other people’s faith, particularly refugees and migrants that come to America. He ventures into a journey involving new and relational dynamics in which he refers to as the kinetic of religion (Tweed 6). Just like Brown, Tweed expands the implications of stereotypes by developing it into an ethnographic study. For instance, he focuses on diaspora rituals and their trans-locative and trans-temporal dimensions. Further, he uses the North-Korean migrants and how Christianity appears to be a new culture in their midst, rather than a traditional culture (Tweed 178). Tweed focuses on movement between physical and imagined sites. Thomas finds oscillation to be a characteristic of diaspora religious forms as well as other rituals such as the Vodou . Moreover, both analyses demonstrate how faith is tributary to cultural streams. By doing so, their analyses explain how religion is embedded within certain sets of metaphors that extend towards a wider set of theoretical commitment (Tweed 77). From Tweed’s definition of religion, it is clear that both articles deliver the same message that belief is a confluence of cross-cultural flows. McCarthy defines the book Mama Lola as an ethno-graphic mystical biography. Despite the fact that this book does not follow the traditional biographical chronology, Brown describes Mama Lola’s impoverished childhood in Haiti. Moreover, Tweed agrees that that movement across boundaries is of critical importance when describing the theories. When Mama Lola immigrates to the US, she becomes the priestesses of Vodou Traditions. Mama Lola is both an ethnographic study and an example of ethnographic ex-change. Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling depicts religion as a place and in movement. Therefore, religious belief positions people in the body and in their home. Moreover, he explains that religion uses rituals to mark boundaries.

Apparently, Jonathan Smith discourages the idea of superimposing stereotypes of Catholicism especially on emerging mystery beliefs. Whether ancient or recent, Smith expounds the idea that faith should be explained on its own terms. Some faiths, such as non-Catholic Christians, may have borrowed some attributes of Catholicism and therefore, it seems unreasonable to create a stereotype or criticize these religions (Smith 106). Taves uses Mama Lola to elaborate the same concept of stereotyping as aforementioned by Jonathan Smith. Through her narrative, Brown shows us that Vodou is misunderstood and maligned. The author proclaims that spirits in Haitian cultures are actually interrelated to Catholic Iconography. The book begins with the story of Lola’s great grandfather Joseph Binbib. Thereafter, the text follows matriarchal patterns that are common in daily communication between Mama Lola and the spirits.

Jonathan notes that history of works done by scholars suggest that there is divergence between emergent Christianity and other mystery religions. Variance in belief often resulted in proxy war between denominational super powers. For instance, the earliest attention attributed to similarities between Christianity and upcoming denominations such as Protestants made them paint Roman Catholicism as an authentic proto-Protestant with heathenism (Smith 100). The stereotype is furthered by rationalists and unitarians who consider Paul (in the Bible) as the corrupter of the earlier faith of Jesus the Messiah.

To further distinguish between Tweed and Smith, Taves’s book contains unusual phenomena that create new spiritual paths and religious movements. These occurrences/phenomena provide insight on the foundations of spiritual beliefs and elaborates ways in which other-worldly factors impact on a human being’s daily life. In the research, Taves uses three case studies namely Mormonism, a course in Miracles and Alcoholics anonymous. The cases explain that mystical existence guides the emergence of new spiritual paths (Taves 12). Unseen presence and apparitions are some things that people would find distressing and may seek clinical help while some people would find them helpful. Infrequently, such rare phenomena lead to new mystical paths and at times, such occurrences give rise to religious movements.

Anne Taves elaborates that the AA (Alcoholic Anonymous) movement acknowledged spiritualism, Catholicism and Mysticism in its history (Taves 135). In fact, Smith’s interest in spiritualism was not all different from AA but, despite these sentiments, historians have not been able to show how these topics interrelate. In the third case study titled Anonymous fellowship, the author uses Hellen Schuchman to describe the idea of mysticism. She linked her subway experience with how she heard an internal voice that can attribute to Jesus. Later she documented her visions in an article titled A course in Miracles. Taves believes that Helen’s visions were hardly true but they were useful in creating a public stance which would later bolster AA religious movement. The book is written on a stipulated point of analogy between three case studies that attribute their existence to a founding figure who had unusual Spector guided by emergence of a new spiritual path. Having generated reconstruction of the emergence process of the studies, the author compares and contrasts them. Each of Taves’s cases have a history of unusual phantasm (Taves 248). The common feature about the groups researched on is about their unusual experiences, hearing voices or felt sensations. However, it can be argued that such spiritual visions are quite common within the general population especially in the wake of the death of a close person.

Nonetheless, Tweed elaborates the concept of religion by using distinctive religious practices that move across cross-cultural patterns. Since most religious philosophers avoid generalization, Tweed and Taves agree that religious boundaries are initiated by use of institutions. For instance, immigrants introduced Jewish, Catholic and Orthodox denominations while emerging protestant groups are associated with Mormons and what Tweed refers to as “Of Christ’s”. Taves uses a historical timeline to explain the existence of Mormon belief. Drawing the insights from social sciences, Tweed’s analysis employs distinctive religious norms and the same can be said from Taves’s writings. In the first case study, Anne Taves argues that when Mormons tell the story of their church origins they begin with Joseph Smith’s version written in 1839 (Taves 31). This scripture was canonized in Mormon scripture in what Mormons now refer to as the “first vision”. The 1839 account of the first vision was founded in 1820 in the Manchester Township, Up State New York. Currently, the Mormons refer to the church as under the period “D & C; 3” which means the third revelation. The documentation is done under the canonized Doctrines and Covenants which provide a direct window on the emergence of early Mormonism. Evidence suggests that Joseph Smith (the founder) received the first revelation and the subsequent exposes which John Whitmer transcribed into a manuscript book (Taves 39). In the second chapter, Taves challenges scholars to address the misconceptions and divergences that result from the meaning, history and components of Mormon ideology. Numerous biographies have been written and some scholars agree while others disagree on the history of Mormon faith. In the second case study: Alcoholic Anonymous (AA), the author dates the beginning of AA to fellowship in 10th June 1995; the date that the cofounder of the movement took his last drink. Tweed, in his analysis, argues that very subjective nature of our experiences seem to be conflicting with the dearth of sources. The reason is that “experience or apparition” stressed the role of the viewer and user and social process involved in articulating such experiences.

In comparison to Tweed’s theory, Jonathan Smith in his definition states: “What we study when we study religion is the variety of attempts to map, construct and inhabit such positions of power through the use of myths, ritual and other specters of transformation” (Smith 291). The theory of ritual space is imperative in comparing Tweed and Smith. While Thomas Tweed defines religion as movement across religious and cultural patterns, Smith emphasizes on the placement when interpreting the idea of a ritual or apparition. Like Taves, Smith explains the incompatibility between ritualized and non-ritualized domains of religion. In the first chapter, Taves claims that people need to be flexible and they should be able to accept the various facets of religion. Smith also emphasizes on multidimensionality when interpreting the idea of faith. In essence, the author tests the methods outlined in the formation of many spiritual paths. The analysis by Traves considers this fact as ‘revelatory” (Taves 3). Reliance on path metaphors does not set them apart from other social movements. What sets different rituals apart is the superhuman presence that guides a person towards a certain spiritual path (Taves 291).

Smith argues that Church of Jesus Christ understands itself as a religion founded by a prophet who received revelation and in turn translated the new scriptures. In contrast to Christianity, Taves proclaims that AA (Alcohol Anonymous) and ACIM (A Course in Miracles) are not faiths and their founders were neither. Smith explains that differences in spiritual paths help in creating obscured similarities between Mormonism and other denominations such as Catholicism. Individuals who are dawned by the aforementioned apparitions launch their spiritual paths by interpreting their experiences in different ways and they conceive their paths in different terms (Taves 15).


To conclude, the paper explores the perspectives of Brown, Taves and Orsis while comparing the works of Smith and Tweed. In comparison with Smith, it is important to note the strengths of Tweed’s approach. Firstly, the strong-points of Tweed’s philosophy is that the reader will be awestruck on the extensive array of populations and nationalities incorporated in his analyses. While the author’s theory of philosophy is detailed, its audience is likely to be captivated by the numerous facets discussed by various scholars. He marks the boundaries of ‘religions’, and not ‘religion’. Another comparison of Thomas Tweed’s to Smith’s research is the centrality of geographical concepts. Moreover, he explains belief by citing the works of renowned scholars such as Freud, Kaufman, Durkheim, Eliade, among others. To add on, the philosopher moves from historical analysis by the aforementioned authors and utilizes spatial concepts by linking topographical principles such as networks, movement, vibrancy and travel as narrated by Nietzsche, Serres, Bergson, Clifford, Carte, Certeau, among others (Tweed 79). Not only does he criticize cotemporary theories, but also he defines religion with relation to geography. Essentially, he concludes that both religious beliefs and geography are interlinked and inseparable. In contrast, Smith solidifies religious beliefs by explaining it through space and time using a process known as re-description. He identifies shared rudiments and analogous patterns of interaction between elements. Hence, the author is able to identify points of conceptual comparison between distinct religious theories and traditions. Their similarities is that they employed works of a number of authors and they both deeply described the concept of space. Furthermore, both of them used the writings by Durkheim about foundations of religious study.

Works Cited

Brown, Karen M. C, and Claudine Michel. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. University of California Press, 2010.

Orsi, Robert A.Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them. Princeton University Press, 2006.

Smith, Jonathan Z.Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. The University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Taves, Ann.Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths. Princeton University Press, 2016. Print.

Tweed, Thomas A.Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion. Harvard University Press, 2006.

April 13, 2023

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