What is Religious Studies?: A Primer for the Perplexed Theologian (Part 1)

I found out last Friday that I passed my first qualifying exam. It was very exciting news since I was certain that I would have to revise it or even that I had possibly failed it–typical anxieties for a first exam, I think. The exam was in theory and method in religious studies and covered about 350 years of history (though only about 120 of that can truly be called “religious studies.”) Mine explored three major areas: the history of the relationship between “religion,” “secularity,” and “theology” (from Spinoza to today), the continued and perhaps renewed importance of Max Weber in the field, and a consideration of the concept “religious experience” as it has been both employed and contested in the field. These three areas, however, are centered around one central theme which my dissertation will hopefully address: what is the proper orientation toward the relationship between ideas and material conditions in the study of religions and what are the political implications for a range of orientations?

I want to offer a brief reflection on what I found as I prepared for the exam. Part of the aim of this reflection, however, is to also introduce the more theologically/philosophically oriented to what I see as the basic problems in religious studies–which are typically not problems in theology/philosophical theology especially those modes which are more continentally and critical-theoretically oriented. My perspective is that of a theologian, which automatically disqualifies me in some RS circles, though I would add the caveat that I’m originally trained in literary/critical theory and not theology–though that perhaps only further disqualifies me for some! All that is to say that my interests are not strictly nor even mostly confessional. They are, more broadly, philosophical and political. Still, it would be disingenuous to not point out that up until the last couple years, I’ve mostly been interested in ideas.

Notice that my question above, however, is not strictly one about the relationship of ideas to the material conditions in which they circulate, but one’s orientation toward that relationship. In other words, I’m interested in scholars and how scholars engage the field, what their theories and methodologies, their underlying epistemic assumptions and frameworks look like. When we talk about theories and methods in religious studies, with a few important exceptions, we’re often talking about scholars themselves in addition to the concepts and categories we employ.

The common story told is something along these lines: The academic study of religion began with the attempt to offer non-confessionally committed explanations of religion as a human phenomenon. This included the explanation of origins, the evolution of religions, etc. These explanations were almost always reductive (e.g. Religious behavior/belief is not about ontologically real spiritual objects (like gods or spirits) but something else: an intellectual explanation of individual experience (Tylor), a function of economy (Marx), maintenance of the societal bond (Durkheim), neurosis (Freud), etc.)

These modes became unseated beginning in the 1930s (though perhaps truly beginning with James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and/or Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, 1917) when scholars began to take the claims of religious adherents at face value, study their texts “seriously,” and create taxonomies of religious phenomena–beliefs, practices, and concepts. The phenomenology of religion, as it has been called, was only interested in religious belief/behavior/experience as such, taking the existence of religion as a sui generis given (Van der Leeuw, 1933, Eliade, 1957). The argument, from Eliade for example, was that the reduction of religion to something else didn’t really get at the heart of what religion actually was ontologically. Reductive explanations didn’t care about the meaning of religious ideas for religious adherents–only their function or dis-function in the societies in which they were produced.

This is where the story will maybe become unrecognizable, even comical, to theologians because once the reaction against the phenomenology of religion begins in the 1970s, theology becomes equated with what I’ve described above. It’s not that critics of the phenomenology of religion think phenomenology of religion is exactly what theologians do; rather, it is taken to be a kind of “theologizing” about religion, a discourse that is, like theology, committed to religion as sui generis, irreducible, and special. Thus, the call to completely dig out the deep roots of “theology” from the discipline began.

This is not entirely unfair. We can see that even in the early attempts to critique the phenomenology of religion (in the 1960s), there is still an essentializing, “theological” tendency. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, for example, in The Meaning and End of Religion, criticizes the use of the noun “religion” as a universal category, explicating its linguistic development from the middle ages, but then turns around and argues for the employment of the adjective “religious” instead, claiming that it gets at a more pure, basic understanding of what we mean when we say “religion.” And, of course, theology has operated and continues to operate with some kind of sui generis, essential understanding of religion, even if it is not always articulated. But not all theology does. Not all theology is beholden to institutional authority, or any formal authority for that matter (more on this in the next post.)

Thus, we get in the 80s, 90s, and 00s cries for religious studies to return to its rigorously empirical roots, minus the attempts at evolutionary, originary, universalizing, and systematizing explanations of “religious” beliefs and practices. There are far too many threads within this trend to detail here, but it suffices to say that the broad claim is the study of religion done from “the inside” (whether that be phenomenology of religion or theology) is not rigorously self-critical enough (the way science is in theory) to be able to participate in the academic conversation. The concern, from Russell McCutcheon for example, is that while the rest of the academy has long ago separated itself from its Protestant roots in the US, a nefarious Protestant element remains in religious studies, preventing the field from being taken seriously (also the argument of Timothy Fitzgerald, Donald Wiebe, Robert Segal, and more), or worse yet, making the field accomplice to the hegemonic imperialism of Western Christianity (Tomoko Masuzawa.)

Segal provides a helpful distinction for getting inside of what is going on here. In his short essay, “Diagnosing Religion” (1998), Segal makes two major points: (1) There are two major types of approaches to religion: hermeneutics and epistemology and (2) Epistemology is the superior type. In hermeneutics, the scholar and the practitioner are in different places in that the religion of the practitioner is sacrosanct. The orientation of the scholar is one of misunderstanding seeking understanding. The scholar presumes that the practitioner has the best theories regarding his or her own practice. With epistemology, Segal claims, the scholar and practitioner are on a level playing field. Religion is simply an instance of anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc. open to the same analysis and criticisms as any other object which falls under these scholarly pursuits. Segal represents the epistemological approach as a doctor/patient relationship. It is the doctor who has the requisite theories to understand what is happening with the patient. What the patient thinks is of absolutely no consequence because the patient can only be a source of data and never of theory.

I think this metaphor most accurately describes the strictly empiricist, “scientistic” mode of religious studies in the field today–though it is a truly horrific way of depicting the relationship between scholar and interlocutor.

Setting his ghastly, imperialist metaphor aside for a moment, I want to note the structure of his pairing in this argument. Segal claims that the scholar and the adherent are in two different places in the hermeneutical approach specifically because the former must treat the claims of the latter (including theology) as sacrosanct. The scholar is an eager listener who does not dare criticize what he does not understand. Segal then attempts to shift the relation of the scholar/adherent by normativizing the relation under the epistemic approach. However, he still subversively maintains an epistemological and theoretical distance between the pair. In other words, Segal is assuming knowledge is a particular kind of production, science (really a scientism), which is itself the normative, level ground on which all understandings of being-in-the-world are judged. It is in that sense that Segal is claiming to close the gap between adherent and scholar; nothing is sacrosanct in the light of the scientific method. It is here that the gap slips in through the back door. Once both adherent and scholar are placed on the “normative/natural” ground of empiricist epistemology it becomes immediately clear, according to Segal, that the religious adherent does not have the proper theoretical-empiricist apparatus with which to rigorously understand her own being-in-the-world. Thus the gap is maintained but what is sacrosanct is reversed. It is the scholar whose claims the adherent must be subject to without question. The adherent doesn’t have to understand–unless she wants her claims to knowledge to be taken seriously.

In the next post, I will address one more turn in religious studies, namely the critique of “the secular” leveled by Talal Asad, and then raise the question of the bizarre relationship between cultural theory and religious studies in the 15 years or so, which will shed some more light on the estranged relationship between RS and theology.

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One thought on “What is Religious Studies?: A Primer for the Perplexed Theologian (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: What is Religious Studies?: A Guide for the Perplexed Theologian (Part 2) | fluxofthought

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