What is Religious Studies?: A Primer for the Perplexed Theologian (Part 2)

It’s taken me a while to get this second post together primarily because the account I want to give is still a little difficult to get straight in my mind despite all that studying I did for my first qualifying exam (or maybe because of it?) The reason it’s difficult, I think, is because I’m wanting to employ a sort of hybrid language in order to highlight a point of difference between the very two discourses I want to bring together but also use that language to clear some space for theological discourse within religious studies. We can call these first two cultural studies on the one hand and something like “religious studies social science” on the other, the latter being far more ambiguous than the former. One of the primary differences, I think, lies in each discourse’s orientation toward a specific project: human emancipation. One tends to take this project as its banner, while the other, though not seeing anything necessarily wrong with that project, resists the sort of “judgment” that must flow from it.

Thus we have disciplines within “cultural studies” such as gender studies, critical race studies, etc., which are more than willing to call on the carpet those discourses of oppression which perpetuate systems of injustice, and hold the individuals and communities which utilize them for their own benefit accountable for those crimes (even if only abstractly.) On the other hand we have “mainstream” social science, an intellectual environment which is able to foster and sustain projects which examine the KKK or neo-Nazi communities without passing any “professional” judgment. That’s not to say that these aren’t contentious interlocutors within sociology or anthropology, but the fact that these sorts of projects can happen at all highlights the strain within these disciplines to maintain the sort of “ethical neutrality” that the social sciences hold dear as a means of certifying their methodology as “scientific.” Religious studies sits at the crossroads of the humanities, the social sciences, and, whether it likes it or not, theology (though these borders are probably more like a flood plain) and that fact provides ample opportunity to think about what these differences mean in the study of religions, especially at a key moment in that study’s history.

In the first post, I gave a brief account of two major strands of theory and method in the history of religious studies. One of the most important interventions in this history is the 1993 publication of Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion. Prior to Asad, engagement with what we call “critical theory,” “cultural studies,” or “postcolonialism” had largely remained outside the purview of religious studies, generally speaking. Scholars in the 70s and 80s were raising important, perhaps even “postmodern,” questions about the categories employed in religious studies and about the category “religion” itself, engaging in what could perhaps be classified as a “deconstruction” or a “new historical” assessment of the field but without appeal to any of the texts or figures that were underpinning the similar moves being made in other humanities fields (most notably literature.) It wasn’t until Asad that the field strongly embraced a continental philosophical figure (Foucault) as having something significant to contribute.

Russell McCutcheon notes as much in his 2000 review of Asad’s text writing that Asad really is the first significant figure to write a text belonging to the field of religious studies that engages with what McCutcheon simply calls “postmodernity.” He writes that it should be obvious why Foucault’s thought lends itself so well to the study of religion, particularly because the questions in religious studies had, in recent decades, shifted from the categories of religion themselves, to the scholarly discourse engaging these categories. Indeed McCutcheon’s own work (Manufacturing Religion, 1994) as well as the earlier work of J.Z. Smith (Map Is Not Territory, 1978; Imagining Religion, 1982) had set out to rigorously interrogate the ways that scholars take not only “religion” for granted in scholarship but every category employed, including the names of the major religions and analytical categories such as “experience,” “ritual,” or “sacred” and fashion them into monolithic “givens” which set the parameters of the field.

Referring to any methodology which could be classified as phenomenology of religion, theology, etc., McCutcheon goes on to write:

For scholars committed to the belief that religion, to whatever extent, somehow transcends human knowledge and historical causes, this Foucaultian insight on the utterly taxonomic and highly contested nature of all epistemological claims is troubling.

However, at the beginning of the review, McCutcheon makes the off-hand remark that even though religious studies had yet to see a continental figure enter into the theoretical discussion, another related discipline had been engaging with “postmodern” thought for quite some time already: theology. Though we can’t hold McCutcheon to explaining himself in a book review, it seems odd that he would so casually throw out those two sentences so close to each other (i.e. in the opening paragraph of a 1,000 word book review.) At the risk of reading too much into this, one explanation might revolve around what exactly is troubling about Foucault’s analysis of discourses of power and to whom. In other words, Foucault’s analysis is only troubling to those who have been engaged in a particular discourse, all the while assuming it was universally normative and natural (i.e. the default way of being in the world) or those who think one must identify a natural way of being in the world as a foundation for both knowledge and ethics. If one were to accept that all discourses involve sets of power relations, then to engage provisionally in a particular discourse is not troubling but simply what one must do. That move, arguably, weakens the notion of “power” itself in some problematic ways that both dissolve the meaning of power all together and can potentially allow destructive, domineering discourses to hang around under the guise of “provisionality”–but that’s an argument for another post! My point is that there are theologies which acknowledge the genealogical critique and embrace it as an attempt to disempower theology as a method of doing theology. It is true that for many theologians, Foucault’s, but especially Asad’s, critique is not just troubling but devastating. But given McCutcheon’s seeming awareness that at least some strands of theology have been engaged with the world of theory in which Foucault’s work circulates, surely Asad’s work can’t be troubling for theology in toto.

Furthermore, it’s clear McCutcheon sees Asad’s critique as a welcome ally in in his quest to establish a new reductive-naturalistic methodology in religious studies. Though in Manufacturing Religion McCutcheon is pretty insistent that he is not proposing a dogmatic reductivism, his dogmatic rejection of anything resembling theology (in his mind) seems like fertile ground for Foucaultian critique and, I think, highlights the tension between social science and cultural studies I described at the beginning. Indeed, Asad’s publication of Formations of the Secular (2003) makes McCutcheon’s proposed alliance even more unlikely, since Asad argues that “the secular,” like “religion,” is not a natural category, but has a discursive history, complete with its own politics and ideologies. That’s not to say that McCutcheon himself was or is blind to this or that his own methodological position is completely demolished by this revelation. But the contested nature of all epistemological claims means all and therefore applies to any natural-scientific discourse McCutcheon and his cadre proposes.

A professor in a theory and methods seminar said once that while Asad’s observation about the secular is important, it actually doesn’t get us anywhere new. In other words, it’s a completely deconstructive move (in the general sense) that doesn’t propose any constructive way forward. It’s a problematizing of the way things were done. I’m inclined to agree if all we are committing ourselves to with his claims is the fact that discourses involve relations of power, often times asymmetrical ones. The nagging persistence of theology in the background of the history of religious studies highlights another issue with Asadian genealogy.

An oft cited assertion of Asad’s is one he makes in the introduction to Genealogies, claiming that oppressed peoples do not make their own history; it is instead fashioned for them by their colonial oppressors. He writes, “Even the inmates of a concentration camp are able, in this sense, to live by their own cultural logic [by their own internal relations of power]. But one may be forgiven for doubting that they are therefore ‘making their own history.'” This point is certainly not without merit. We may cite more than dozens of examples where the history of an entire people is written for them. However, not all situations are that extreme (Asad notes that the concentration camp example is extreme.) Sometimes the colonized do exercise agency, and if we were to follow Asad strictly on his rejection of that claim, I would wager we would, upon closer examination of a particular situation, come to see that the genealogical method is sometimes too blunt an analytical tool.

For the last year, I’ve raved to anyone who would listen about Jason Josephson’s The Invention of Religion in Japan, which is a stunning example of the claim that the colonized exercise agency in determining categories like religion and writing the history of how those categories come to be. They do so according to their own internal politics and for their own non-colonial-influenced reasons. Josephson’s account is deeply complex and difficult, weaving together hundreds of years of religious and political history, folk spirituality, and intermittent contact with the West. To be clear–Josephson’s account is a kind of genealogy. However, its goal is to explicate the asymmetries of power circulating internally to the colonized (the Japanese.) To return to theology for a moment, I often wonder what Asadian genealogy can make of liberation, black, feminist, or queer theologies? Should we read any of those figures and conclude they don’t have historical agency but are merely operating according to and writing in the hand of their oppressors? Obviously, these theologies make very good use of Foucault to expose discourses of power from within theology itself, but for the purpose of doing theology differently. In other words, they are interested in maintaining a discourse which proponents of Asadian genealogy have written off as oppressive in toto without recognizing that internal to the discourse are those seeking to destabilize for explicitly emancipatory reasons.

I don’t want to rule out the possibility that some “theologies of emancipation” are perhaps still unwittingly in service to an oppressive theological discourse (though I very seriously doubt it)–but that’s sort of the point here. In other words, genealogical accounts are vital, but they are only one aspect of a more complex picture which also includes the ideas, practices, and material-historical-social-economic conditions of both the colonizer and the colonized and may even be willing to eschew such a dichotomy if it doesn’t prove useful. Working out a methodology that can adequately address this complexity without attempting to reduce it to any one functional or phenomenological-symbolic explanation is, I think, an important place for religious studies to go.

On Pedagogy and The Historical Critical Method

Last semester, I was enrolled in an introductory level class in the New Testament. Or at least, it’s entitled “New Testament” officially. The professor tended to think of the class more as a foray into “Early Christian Studies”, but whatever. It was a class about early Christian scriptures. Interestingly enough, the first half of the class was devoted to an introduction to the various critical approaches to reading texts in the field of Biblical Studies. The broadening of the subject material was a better use of our time, since introductory classes focused solely around a single text seem to lose momentum around the 10th week of class anyways, both the professor and the students.

One of the easily discernible themes of the class, even from the first week of class, was the implicit emphasis on the rise and fall of historical-critical approaches to the text. That is to say, the class and professor note the benefits and heritage of historical criticism, but ultimately it seems as if that paradigm has outlived its usefulness as the main approach to the text. Instead, other approaches, such as post-colonial, feminist, queer, and emancipatory approaches have come to the forefront as the rightful inheritors of the throne in Biblical Studies. I don’t want to be misunderstood as lamenting the downfall of historical-critical approaches to text; in fact, I’m glad that historical criticism is being replaced by other discourses. But what seems ironic to me is that, despite the downfall of the historical critical approach as a hermeneutic, historical criticism has remained the primary approach in the pedagogical dimensions of theological education.

Despite talking about how outdated and misguided historical criticism of religious texts is regarding its goals and self-definition, historical criticism is retained in its pedagogical form as the way to teach a student about other forms of approaching the text. Whenever a reading of an essay or a book is presented that is (I use “is” purposefully here) misguided, the method for correcting one’s reading is to get a wider picture of what it was that the author was trying to do. I used “is” because the common reception of odd readings of texts is either a disingenuous exclamation of the originality of the reading, which masks resentment at the disruptive reading, or the reading is genuinely considered wrong and in need of correction. The historical critical method may have been displaced by other reading strategies but the historical critical method still remains the only pedagogical approach to teaching I have ever experienced in theological education. Essentially, these two approaches to a disruptive reading reveal what formal education is actually about: production. The only efficient means of producing students is through the pedagogical simplicity of the historical critical method.

Furthermore, other approaches to texts are put forward as the “replacements” for the old, outdated modes of thinking. Not to say that all modes of approaching the text are equal, but to posit a feminist perspective as a replacement for the historical-critical method seems to imply that feminism is the new historical criticism. It seems reminiscent of an infomercial or a damage control advertising campaign: Feminism is the new, shiny, and better version of our old approaches; the ones that gave you ugly side effects! Or to put it in terms of feminisms, when white feminism continues to expect from black women to remain subservient to the singular struggle of white women in the world, the radical content of feminist hermeneutics seem to be destroyed, or at least subverted, by the reemergence of the historical critical method, i.e. the reemergence of the white Western experience of reality as the kernel of truth to which the student must tend.

So why? Why does the historical critical approach stick around in our pedagogical methods? How can one think that using the historical critical method pedagogically will not affect the results produced by these students? Why is the “cure” presented as just a subtly new form of the old approaches?

In Joel’s previous post, he writes two sentences that seem to lay out a general groundwork for the commodification of thought. First, “Art in the truest sense is that which directly confronts the ideologies of the society in which it is produced”, which highlights the confrontation of the landscape of ideology and production with truly political and subversive hermeneutics. Secondly, “even the most radical ideas and aesthetic objects which may incite important political mobilization will and have become reified (i.e. made consumable, Erfahrung become Erlibnis) and stripped of their political power.” To continue on, the project of confronting becomes itself a justification for a beneficial method of consumption. Controlling the modes of consumption is the function of retaining the historical critical method in theological pedagogy.
To rephrase, one can see why the political and confrontational power of liberation hermeneutics must be corralled within a general system and purpose in education—without strict boundaries on the limits of confrontation and the exact amount of political autonomy to be found in theological education, the production of theological education cannot function efficiently enough to maintain necessary maintenance of the ideology that promotes proper consumption.

A non-historical critical method of teaching, what does it look like? Does it function on a personal level? An institutional level? A community level? Can it avoid the pitfalls of theological absorption of other disciplines and then the subsequent rejection and abandoning of other academic projects and disciplines? Honestly, I can’t even really imagine what it looks like. But whatever it is, one can assume that the production of “properly” trained individuals for controlling and dispensing consumption practices, both confessional and academic, will itself be abandoned.

Edit: A little bit of clarification about my use of the “historical critical method” term in response to a comment about differentiating between exegetical methods and hermeneutical frameworks:

Interestingly enough, that distinction was part of the course methodology and something I completely forgot to mention in this post. More or less, the “historical-critical” motif should actually function as a symbol for the wider array of hermeneutical frameworks that accompanied the rise and most influential point of the historical critical method. So, the colonial, patriarchal, eurocentric attitudes that accompanied the historical critical method as an accident of history is the true content of critique in this post, i.e. how those frameworks contribute to corralling other foreign hermeneutical frameworks through the tradition of how the historical critical method has dealt with texts thus far.

So, I worked with the example of the disconnect between white feminism and black feminism. Even though both share the same, at least nominally, hermeneutical framework, some white feminists are unable to understand that white feminism is not *the* replacement for the hermeneutical frameworks of the past but *a* part of the replacement of history’s more kyriarchal frameworks. While the exegetical method itself isn’t biased (maybe?), the synthesis of the totalizing dominance-centered frameworks with the exegetical method produces a similar stance at the pedagogical level that kyriarchal frameworks holds towards the experience of reality held by marginalized groups, e.g. women, blacks, disabled, etc. That is, the attitudes of those who pioneered the exegetical method are carried over as part of educational management.

I really should have defined that distinction a bit better (read: should have at least mentioned it explicitly once). But i definitely agree that conflating exegetical methods and hermeneutical frameworks isn’t helpful for looking at the situation.

Apocalyptic Utopia: Hope, Resurrection, and the Church that need not survive

In his highly praised and influential study of the notion of apocalyptic in antiquity, Christopher Rowland maintains that “apocalyptic is more than a matter of eschatology.”[1] I want to affirm this, but not in the way in which Rowland intended. It seems to me that apocalyptic is more than how eschatology has typically been thought. Apocalyptic is, as J. Louis Martyn explains, “the birth of a new way of knowing both present and future.”[2] Apocalyptic is an expectancy of God’s action of crucifying this evil age and resurrecting it with the new creation. To think apocalyptic is to think the gospel’s proclamation of God’s power, in Christ, breaking into the present. I propose here, that to think apocalyptic is to necessarily think utopia, and to think these together is not primarily to think at all but to live and work for liberation.[3]

Gustavo Gutiérrez in his groundbreaking work A Theology of Liberation contends that commitment to God’s liberating work in history ––the creation of a just society––is one that lives in abandoned confidence to the future. “This commitment is an act open to whatever comes.”[4] In hopes of living into and working for a new society and a new humanity, Gutiérrez proposes that one must live not in remembrance but in critical analysis of the present in orientation towards the future.[5] A turn to the future is necessarily linked to an urgent and critical questioning of the established order in its “historical contemporaneity” because only those benefiting from the present desire to uphold it.[6] Those being crushed by the ‘historical contemporaneity’ find hope in the future only by way of a subversion of the present.

This shift to the future, this eschatological problem, is, according to Gutiérrez, “a renewal of the theology of hope.”[7] Hope is a political reality; hope is a turn to the future that, as already addressed above, subverts the established order. Hope is an expectation of the future; it is a “not-yet” projected into the future as one works for transformation of the present in expectancy of the future.[8] In other words, to hope is to wait in active expectation of God’s apocalyptic action.

We hope in the promise of resurrection, for the resurrected Christ is humanity’s future. The promise of resurrection is a criticism of all that is because it is an undoing of the present order. This hope in the death and resurrection of Christ as our future is one that must be rooted in historical praxis for it is our “perilous and hopeful present.”[9] To hope is to abandon any grasping of the future, for in hoping one receives the future as a gift. Hope is an active waiting of the future in the present; “true generosity towards the future consists in giving everything to the present.”[10] To hope, to be open to the God who comes in Jesus Christ, is to be liberated from history while utterly immersed in it.

By utopia, I mean to use it in the way in which Gutiérrez has elucidated. The term utopia is used by Gutiérrez to further illuminate what he means by an historical initiative to create a new society and a new humanity. But it is not the concept of utopia that leads peoples to work for liberation, according to Gutiérrez; rather, the utopian vision comes from people who experience the underbelly of history, those who are being crushed by the powers and whose only hope is revolutionary liberation. Utopia “is characterized by its relationship to present historical reality.”[11] Utopia is a movement into future that is “not-yet” but is to be achieved––it is not as a restoration of “lost paradise.”[12] Moreover, it is not merely a reforming of the current and established order; instead, utopia is a complete upheaval and rejection of the prevailing system. In the utopian vision, the present evil age is to be completely struck at its root in movement towards a new future. “…utopia is revolutionary and not reformist.”[13] If utopia does not result in historical, concrete praxis, it is an abstraction of reality, according to Gutiérrez. Utopia is a transformation of what exists by way of an “emergence of a new social consciousness and new relationships among persons.”[14] And it is only the poor who can proclaim such a utopia.

In short, to think apocalyptic is to think of abandoned living to God’s open future irrupting in history. To think of apocalyptic is to think of hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ; a hope that subverts the present in its active waiting of a future that is not yet. It is a hope that throws itself on the crucified and resurrected Christ; that is, throws itself on the grace that “crucifies nature in order to bring new life out of nothing.”[15] Finally, to think apocalyptic is to think utopia, that is, the revolutionizing and liberation of history by way of this active hope in the resurrected and crucified Christ.

I want to conclude with some reflection on what it might look like for the Church to be revolutionized by apocalyptic utopia. I have found that even with thinkers like Gutiérrez who propose this radical utopian (and, I argue, apocalyptic) vision, do not often apply such claims to the Church. Often these thinkers desire to “uncenter” the Church as the exclusive place of salvation (this questioning of the ecclesiocentrality of the Church is something very important it seems to me), however, I wonder if it is enough to merely “uncenter” the Church? If the Church is complicit in the oppressive social system, and, even further, helps perpetuate the dominant ideology of the prevailing social system that crushes the poor, is “uncentering” enough? Gutiérrez proposes that to address this problem the Church to cast its lots with the poor for a more just society. However, I question whether a more just society can be created if the institutions that oppress the poor––which the Church is involved in––are not first toppled? Moreover, could it not be that the Church––as complicit in the prevailing social system and dominant ideology–– needs to collapse, too? If Gutiérrez maintains, as he does in regard to the powers that be, that oppression needs to be struck at the root, and if the utopian vision of revolution over reformation were applied to the Church, would the Church really need to survive?

I want to agree with much of what thinkers like Gutiérrez propose in regards to the Church, I affirm that the Church is to turn to the world (I might even say that Church only ever occurs as sent into the world); and I affirm that the Church is to cast its lot with poor. However, what troubles me about thinkers like Gutiérrez is that they are unwilling to denounce the Church as it is complicit in the present structure and the current power it wields. Instead, they take the current location of the Church as given, and rather than question it, they propose that the Church use such power to influence others on behalf of the poor. Can the Church cast its lot with the poor, that is, intermingle its body with the crucified bodies in its midst, without first striking the root of its own power with revolutionary praxis? It seems to me that the Church need not survive. I mean this in two ways. First, it seems to me that the Church, as it is complicit in the present system, needs to collapse like every other oppressive power. Secondly, if the Church does not live for itself, and is to cast its lot with the oppressed, then the Church is to be continually crucified. If the Church abandons its life to God for the world, then the Church, it seems to me, could never survive.


[1] Martinus C. De Doer, “Paul, Theologian of God’s Apcalypse.”

[2] J. Louis Martyn, “Apocalyptic Antinomies in the Letter to the Galatians.”

[3] “The dialectical aspect of the issue requires thought-passion—not to want to understand it but to understand what it means to break in this way with the understanding and thinking and immanence, in order then to lose the last foothold of immanence, the eternity behind, and to exist, situated at the edge of existence, by virtue of the absurd.” Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 569.

[4] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, 121.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 122.

[7] Ibid., 123.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 124.

[10] Ibid., 125.

[11] Gutiérrez, 135.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 136.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Peter Kline, “Queer Theory and Apocalyptic: The Upbuidling That Lies in the Thought That in Relation to God We Are Always in the Wrong.”