Smith, Arnold receive book awards for their ‘distinctive originality’ in interpreting religionBy Jennifer Carnig
Divinity School faculty have won two of the three awards given for best books of the year by the American Academy of Religion, an association of some 10,000 scholars devoted to the academic study of religion.
The Awards for Excellence in Religion, among the most esteemed honors given to scholars of religion, have been presented this year to Jonathan Smith, the Robert O. Anderson Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities and the Divinity School, and Dan Arnold, Assistant Professor of the Philosophy of Religion in the Divinity School, as well as Daniel Boyarin at the University of California, Berkeley.
The awards recognize new scholarly publications that make significant contributions to the study of religion, honoring books “of distinctive originality, intelligence, creativity and importance, books that affect decisively how religion is examined, understood and interpreted.”
Smith is a historian of religion whose research has focused on such wide-ranging subjects as ritual theory, Hellenistic religions, 19th-century Maori cults and the notorious events of Jonestown, Guyana. His book Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion (2004) was honored in the AAR category for Analytical-Descriptive Studies by a jury of four scholars from Harvard University, Swarthmore College and Reed College.
Smith’s collection “stands head-and-shoulders above other books nominated” for the prize, the panel noted. Smith wrote the essays over the past 20 years, with the bulk of them being written during the last five. The panel lauded them as “beautifully written, always engaging” and “important for the study of religion generally.” Many of the essays “are or will soon be classics in the field, work with which anyone interested in comparative and theoretical work in the study of religion must contend.”
Arnold, a scholar of Indian and Buddhist philosophies, earned his doctorate at the University in 2002. Buddhists, Brahmins and Belief: Epistemology in South Asian Philosophy of Religion (2005), selected by the AAR for the category of Constructive-Reflective Studies, is his first book, which includes research he conducted for his dissertation. A jury of three scholars from Georgetown University, Occidental College and Harvard University selected Arnold’s book from a crowded field for its “exceptionally sophisticated style, conception and scholarly approach.” The jury noted that Arnold’s work “provides a careful and thoughtful reading” of three trajectories of philosophy in India, and that while the conversations between the three are “intricate and complex É Arnold adjudicates their contradictory claims in a masterful way.” The book “reminds us that our most timely conversations often have counterparts in religions and cultures seemingly far afield from our own,” the citation noted.
The awards will be presented at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting Saturday, Nov. 18, in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1909, American Academy of Religion is a learned society and professional association of scholars who teach in colleges, universities, seminaries and schools throughout North America and abroad.