No Theology in Religious Studies!
In the comments on a recent post a commenter asked, seemingly with incredulity, “In your view should all theological discussion take place outside of the academy?” Yes! Of course, yes! I thought this would come as no surprise: a neo-Marxist doesn’t think theology is rigorously academic.
I’ve exposed only bits and pieces of my view here and there, so I thought I would summarize in one place my (present) views on this matter.
- There is, of course, no “neutral” or “disinterested” approach to the study of religion (or anything, for that matter); all human activity is interested. So I don’t think we can build a case against theology in the academy by making a distinction between normative theological discourse on the one hand and neutral scientific research on the other.
- There is however a distinction to be made between discourses that advance agendas through mystification and discourses that do not do so (or try not to do so). Appeals to divine authority mystify, appeals to human nature mystify, appeals to racial purity mystify, and so on.
- I think that most of those who want to defend the place of theology are exceptionalists: they would probably criticize and reject as un-academic research into the study of fairies, the creation of astrological charts, feng shui, ideological defenses of Hindutva (the proposed essence of the Hindu-Indian nation), and so on, but then they go on to except their own mystifying discourse from the list. I’m quite serious about this: I could probably write an “academic” dissertation proposing a theology of the Old Testament, but I doubt I would be allowed to write a theology of Baal and Asherah. Double standards like this should be rooted out—not by permitting all of it but by excluding all of it.
- Since my focus is on mystification, I do not think that “talk about gods” is the sine qua non of what I want to kick out. There are a few forms of theology, like death-of-god theology and some “postmodern” theologies, that, because they are atheist in nature despite their talk about gods, may or may not mystify in the way that traditional theologies do. Jack Caputo wrote a book called What Would Jesus Deconstruct. I skimmed a chapter or two, and I couldn’t tell if it mystifies or not. To some extent it has to because it presumes that Jesus is an authoritative figure and that we should listen to what he would have to say—and in doing so reproduces by naturalizing the cultural authority of Jesus. On the other hand, when he treats the topic of Jesus and homosexuality, Caputo is (rightly) rather blunt: his position is that Jesus was a 1st century Palestinian, and that all 1st century Palestenians were heteronormative. Basically, he suggests that Jesus was no doubt provincial about this matter—which makes this a case of demystification. So I’m on the fence about this sort of stuff.
- Note that it doesn’t follow from this that we can’t talk about theology in religious studies. On the contrary, we should be studying what theologians produce—but that theology is not something to which we should contribute; it is something to be explained.
- Last, note that this doesn’t mean that there aren’t elements of mystification in all discourses. I’m sure I’m guilty of it. However, the difference is that I invite myself to be called on it so I can correct it.
So, all of you theologians out there (or anyone, really) who think there is a place for discourses of mystification in the academy: I’d love to see a case for the inclusion of mystifying discourses that isn’t exceptionalist. That’s the bare minimum of a starting point for me to take your argument seriously.