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No Theology in Religious Studies!

August 18, 2009

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. larry c wilson permalink
    August 18, 2009 12:21 pm

    Religion does not exist separate from a theology.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 18, 2009 12:54 pm

    This seems like a silly thing to say, and unrelated to the point I was arguing. If the implication is that we can’t study religion without writing theology, you’re wrong. I can study Nazism without being anti-Semitic, just as I can study religion without supporting or advancing theology.

  3. August 18, 2009 3:17 pm

    I largely agree with what you are saying about Religious Studies in a University setting seeking to explain religious practices rather than mystify them, though I also think that scholars can write for and serve religious communities (or secular ones) outside of the classroom. My only question would be if theological approaches could be considered valid the same way other reader-centered and ideological approaches that explicitly take the perspective of the scholar as a starting point are valid academic approaches (postcolonial, marxist, feminist, postmodern, queer theory, etc.)?

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 18, 2009 4:21 pm

    Hi Mike! Yes, I agree that scholars can and do step outside of their academic role and take on other roles—all the while using their academic expertise and authority. However, on my view once they do so their activities may (depending on the circumstances) cease to be “academic” in the sense I’m giving the term.

    About the second part of your comment: I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking. Are you suggesting that something like queer theory is ideological and advances a political agenda, and that theology could be an academic approach in the same way?

    If this is what your asking, then my response is as follows: I’m all for political stakes entering academia (I don’t understand how they could not!). However, once they take on mystification as a means of advancing an agenda, then they cease to be academic in the way I’m proposing. A queer theory scholar showing how heteronormativity functions to reproduce undeserved social privilege is great; but to go on to throw out slogans appealing to inherent human rights would cross a line that I don’t think should be crossed. Most of what is called theological seems to not just be normative (which is not in itself bad) but also appeals to (and thereby naturalizes) religious authorities. I think that is over the line.

    Does that make sense? Or have I even understood your question? :)

  5. larry c wilson permalink
    August 18, 2009 4:46 pm

    If there is no theology there is no religion.

  6. August 18, 2009 6:54 pm

    Thanks for the helpful response and it is my own fault for the lack of clarity in the question as I am still wrestling with these issues having one foot in theological contexts and the other in a Religious Studies department. I can agree that Religious Studies is primary about description and explanation, while particular value judgments (theological, political, ideological) are more of the nature of secondary reflections that try to integrate knowledge into one’s total worldview.

  7. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 18, 2009 8:00 pm

    Hey Mike: I’d recommend never apologizing for asking questions or for saying something that might require clarification—most of us in the academy are experts at not making sense, myself included! Speak with authority! Not because you have authority, but because the rest of us bastards speak with authority, and you’ll never keep up with us if you don’t pretend like we do :)

    But with respect to the substance of your comment: I think that value judgments ARE okay in the academy (as long as they carry the appropriate caveats), but I think value judgments are different from claims that reproduce or mystify religious authorities. These seem to me to be separate matters …

  8. roland permalink
    August 18, 2009 11:25 pm

    But all this raises the question as to whether an atheist can be a theologian / practise theology.

  9. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 19, 2009 7:34 am

    Roland, I suppose it hangs on your definition of theology. I know several atheists who write what they call theology. Would you argue with their use of that term?

  10. Dr. Jim permalink
    August 20, 2009 11:57 am

    Thanks for the great post, I think we agree on a lot. Your accent on mystification and the subjectivity of all commentators of religion are apt, but I think I might side a bit more on possibility of consciously adapting a (relatively) neutral stance.

    Of course, it cannot be done perfectly or completely, but in practical terms, it is worthwhile asking students when dealing with their own tradition in the classroom to try to see it as if it were someone else’s religion. At least, it seems to work alright in many instances. The level of mystification of aspects of their own faith in essays and so forth tends to go down.

    You are, of course, exactly right on the issue of exceptionalism. It is an inherent part of institutions like the Society of Biblical Literature. Its affiliation with denominational and theological groups is hardly helpful to the advancement of biblical scholarship as a secular discipline. The more mainstream a religion or denomination in the West, the more likely that it will be treated very differently by academics than the treatment smaller or newer religious groups recieve.

    Believing scholars often comment on the differences between the Church and the Academy, but it seems to me that sometimes their view of the “Academy” is a far more oriented toward the Church than to the world of secular scholarship.

  11. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 20, 2009 12:11 pm

    Hi Jim! Thanks for the comment. I fully agree with your claim that we can achieve a type of neutrality—I certainly try to get my students to see things from a perspective outside their own tradition, rather than permit them to approach the content from the evaluative frame they had before coming into my class.

    I would would say that the frame I try to get them to adopt is still, of course, not neutral—the evaluative frame I make them adopt for the purposes of my course only makes sense given an implicit commitment to bringing into relief relations of oppression or domination, which is certainly NOT neutral.

    This IS neutral in the sense that I require students to ask the same critical questions of all traditions, i.e., I try to prevent any kind of exceptionalism.

    This post would have been more clear if I had distinguished between different types of neutrality and normativity.

  12. Dr. Jim permalink
    August 20, 2009 1:54 pm

    I fully agree that a “professionally agnostic” position (as KL Noll puts it) or “see it as some else’s religion does not amount to a neutrality in many respects, but as you say it does level the playing field for learning about a variety of traditions and understanding how they developed and how they construct various worlds of meaning, power relations, etc.
    I really think biblical studies needs to mover closer to religious studies. In many ways, the situation is not bad: there has been an awful lot of work on the penteteuchal ritual laws in the light of ritual theory and from what I’ve seen of it, it is as good a scholarship as you will find anywhere. In terms of myth theory, however, there is still a lot of vestiges of “Historical Israel’s historical consciousness” floating around. I’ve just started a new project that I hope will result in book in a few years on myth theory and the prophetic literature.

    Emphasizing the value of comparative analyses in religious and biblical study is probably one way of shifting away from the prevalence of theology in the study of the so-called “Western” traditions. If my department here in Lethbridge was big enough to have the curriculum I want, then my Introduction to the Hebrew Bible class would not only have my basic biblical literacy course as a prerequisite, but a course on World Religions or Comparative Religion, too.

    I’m glad I found your blog. Its nice to read online stuff from people who really understand secular religious studies.


  1. Kurt Noll on Religious Studies versus Theology « The Dunedin School

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