The study of religion is a divided world. I write after returning from the 2014 American Academy of Religion (AAR) Conference. This event has left me with a question: what, properly speaking, is the academic or scholarly study of religion as a scientific discipline with a place in the contemporary academy (university)?
A few events have brought this issue, a well-rehearsed one in the field, to my attention now.
Scene one: A panel discussion on different approaches to the study of Interreligious Dialogue had speakers from theology, peace building, and sociology. One argument aired was that only the third, the sociological, was properly speaking scholarly. Four reasons typify at least one aspect of this variety of argument:
- Scholarly discourse does not repeat practitioner/ devotee language but critiques and examines it.
- Theological, or ‘insider’/ devotional/ activist/ practitioner approaches are subjects of study for scholars, and so not actual scholarship even if well thought through.
- Scholarship cannot endorse a particular position, but must remain entirely divorced from any activism, or preference – it only examines, never prescribes or advocates. Its object of study is the discourse that promotes advocacy.
- For the study of religion to be a respected part of the contemporary academy it must entirely and utterly cut itself off from any theological or insider approaches, language, or thought. This may, as an intellectual activity, have itself (e.g. in a seminary) but is not part of scholarship in the study of religion.
Scene two: During a panel on Pagan Studies, some well-known scholars in area observed that they were not only scholars studying the phenomenon, but also believers and advocates: they are (in their own words) ‘Pagan theologians’. In the work various critics of the theological needing to be divorced from religious studies it is clear that the ‘enemy’ often identified is Christianity. But, when Buddhists research/ teach Buddhism, Hindus research/ teach Hinduism, Muslims research/teach Islam (and this is the one that normally excites the media), Pagans research/ teach Paganism is what is going on also illicit ‘theological’ activity?Something not properly part of the scholarly study of religion? When does someone start being a theologian and stop being a ‘scholar’ of the study of religion?
Our third scene is actually a few scenes: a Christian theologian expounded on the great Kashmiri Shaivite (Hindu) theologian/ philosopher Abhinavagupta arguing for constructive Christian theology; another scholar stated that they found a panel on Interreligious Studies the only ‘living’ session they’d attended, because it related academic thinking to actual practise in the world; the exhibition hall of the AAR Conference contained books from publishers which it may be argued actually propound a specific sectarian form of evangelical theology rather than objective and neutral scholarship.
Common to all of these events are different constructions of what it means to be a ‘scholar’, to belong to the academy, and to partake in the academic study of religion.
I don’t intend to give you an answer here, but I will ask you a few questions:
- If scholars work in public, secular universities do they have a duty to abide by the study of things acceptable within the public space, which means that any adherence of religious identity is always left at the door?
- To be arbiters of ideas, should scholars stand back from making judgements? As homeowners or citizens we may like a certain kind of world; however, as scholars should we just seek to study different discourses, not promote one vision over another.
- Is the promotion of a neutral, secular, or unbiased public space or academy itself not already an advocacy of a particular set of interests? Why do we adopt this one over others?
- If we all come to study with our own agendas and biases (even if we are reflexive) why do we presume that certain biases are worse or better, acceptable or not? Can we argue for some biases as more scholarly or allowable?
This blog can also be found on the University of Winchester Theology, Religion, and Philosophy blog here: http://trswinchester.wordpress.com/