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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte


Bagshaw, Hilary B. P.


Religion in the Thought of Mikhail Bakhtin. Reason and Faith.


Farnham u. a.: Ashgate Publishing 2013. XVII, 159 S. = Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies. Geb. £ 60,00. ISBN 978-1-4094-6240-8.


Christoph Schneider

Religion in the Thought of Mikhail Bakhtin is the published version of Hilary Bagshaw’s doctoral thesis, which she completed at the Bakhtin Centre in the University of Sheffield (UK), under the supervision of Professor David Sheperd (Keel University) and Professor Craig Brandist, the current Director of the Centre.
Mikhail Mihailovic Bakhtin (1895–1975) was a Russian thinker who in the last decades gained an eminent position among Western philosophers and literary theorists. B. makes a contribution to the ongoing debate about the place of religion in his thought. The goal of her research is twofold: The first aim is to investigate to what extent Bakhtin’s work is influenced by religion and the Christian tradition; the second aim is to explore how far his ideas can con-tribute to refining the methodology of religious studies. Although these two research projects are both concerned with religion, they are not directly connected with each other.
As far as the first question is concerned, B. steers a middle course between scholars who consider Bakhtin’s references to theological themes as superficial and irrelevant to a fundamentally secular enterprise, and those who see Christian theology as the very centre of his thought. Bakhtin, she argues, was in the first place a philosopher in the tradition of Kant, who clearly distinguished be-tween philosophical discourse about religion and the historically contingent manifestations of revealed religion. She points out that this framework did not allow him to incorporate Christian theol­ogy into his philosophy, and that his engagement with religion was almost exclusively philosophical, rather than theological. However, as the author admits, it is questionable whether Bakhtin consistently followed this methodological paradigm.
B.’s attempt to clarify the relationship between religion and Chris­tian theology on the one hand, and Bakhtin’s philosophy, ethics, aesthetics and literary theory on the other, raises a number of interesting questions. Drawing on other commentators, she argues repeatedly that Bakhtin employs theological language only metaphorically, and that theological ideas merely serve as motifs or structural paradigms in his philosophical discourse (see e. g. 10 f.14.41). Yet one could argue that even these statements imply a much greater porosity between theology and philosophy in Bakhtin’s work than B. allows for. The author sees in Bakhtin’s use of theological motifs in philosophy a kind of intellectualization of Christian theology that needs to be clearly distinguished from confessional theology. This view implies that proper theology is self-referential and narrowly devotional, and that its terminology must remain restricted to the traditional, doctrinal language of the Church. For this reason it is in­capable to encroach on other academic disciplines. But this presupposition becomes questionable if one takes into account that Bakhtin was affiliated with the tradition of Russian Religious Philosophy, which does not accept such a clear-cut boundary between theology and philosophy (and other academic disciplines).
Against the background of this tradition, Bakhtin’s ›metaphor­ical use of theology‹ can be understood as an expression of theol­ogy’s intrinsic relatedness to all spheres of knowledge, and does not need to be seen as an idiosyncratic and secondary ›translation‹ of theological discourse into philosophical, ethical, or aesthetic idiom (cf. 41). What is striking in this respect is that Christian theology and Russian Philosophy are repeatedly mentioned, but – unlike other major influences – not investigated in depth in B.s study. Further research is required to examine which of the many differ­ent movements and schools that influenced Bakhtin is dominant with regard to his criteriological framework.
However, B. convincingly shows that Bakhtin drew inspiration from a large number of philosophical movements, among which figure most prominently neo-Kantianism (Hermann Cohen and Ernst Cassirer), phenomenology (Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler), and life philosophy (Nikolai Iakovlevich Marr). These influ-ences are not entirely new to Bakhtin scholarship, but the author considerably deepens our understanding in what way the writings of these seminal thinkers helped Bakhtin develop his key ideas such as Dialogism, Unfinalizability, Outsideness, his theory of the Secularization of Literature, Parody and Carnival.
An entire chapter is dedicated to the second question discussed in her book, how far Bakhtin’s dialogical theory can further the current debate about methodology in religious studies. Here her main focus is the work of Gavin Flood, Professor of Hindu Studies and Comparative Religion at the University of Oxford. She questions Flood’s thesis that Bakhtin provides a fully-fledged epistemology of dialogism that overcomes Edmund Husserl’s philosophy of con-sciousness. Although B. appreciates Flood’s creative development of Bakhtin’s dialogism and its usefulness for the study of religion, she argues that the Russian thinker remained indebted to phenomen­ology, even after his turn to the sign, language and narrative.
B.’s study is thoroughly researched and advances insight into which intellectual movements and schools informed the development of Bakhtin’s key ideas. But in order to correctly assess the place of religion in his work, an equally thorough investigation of his Christian – particularly Russian Orthodox – influences would have been indispensable.