By Gregory Shushan
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Additional info for Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations: Universalism, Constructivism and Near-Death Experience
Of course, agnosticism in itself is a ‘stance’, and one consistent with my personal cultural ‘baggage’: a quietly theologically-unconcerned secular-Jewish father, and a vehemently ex-Catholic mother vacillating between atheism and pantheism, intent upon instilling in her children a relativistic respect for all forms of worship and belief. However, the theoretical/methodological convictions relating to cross-cultural comparison as outlined here do not easily facilitate pushing a particular agenda or forcing a particular conclusion.
In other words, it is an attempt to allow the theory to emerge from the data. As well as being in agreement with J. Z. Smith about the importance of context, I also agree that ‘the “end” of comparison cannot be the act of comparison itself’ (Smith 2000: 239). Ideal comparison is not merely observation and description; it is also analysis and explanation. Arguing, for example, that mystical experiences occur cross-culturally and that reductionist attempts to explain them are largely inadequate (Paper 2004) is in itself unproblematic; though refraining from attempting an alternative explanation is ultimately unsatisfying.
Perhaps the most important lesson postmodernism has taught us is the impossibility of an entirely neutral and value-free scholarship. Pure objectivity is an impossibility, and one’s perspective is limited by his/her cultural/historical context. Notwithstanding, we can still conduct our research in a way which attempts to be as unbiased as possible – particularly those of us who hold no personal religious convictions or allegiances. Anticipating suspicions that I may be a crypto-theologian, I should clarify that I am a confirmed agnostic, presuming neither to believe nor to disbelieve in that which is not known.
Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations: Universalism, Constructivism and Near-Death Experience by Gregory Shushan