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Theology in the curriculum of a secular Religious Studies department.

The title comes at Jeff Stout's instigation: it would not have been mine. (1)

Both title and paper betray a certain self-importance. When I arrived at the University of Virginia in 1993, culture wars--now a decade behind us (or again perhaps not)--divided my department. Hired by 13 to 12, according to an all-too-informative colleague, I would be the volleyball. Scholars of religion know that legends and originary traumas both exaggerate: this time the number of reported votes exceeded the number of members. In that climate we heard that we should "decide" (some verb!) what Religious Studies might be--and do so by holding extra, Friday faculty meetings (what a good idea!). We heard of course as many views as voices, and usually more. There if not here anything I said might be used against me--a sign that people prefer to interrogate the formulas used, that they have entered a realm of power and fear, or at least the narcissism of small differences. Observers of the sexuality debates will see tedious similarities. In any case, publicly I observed that the meeting had been called on short notice and that the Friday belonged to a Greensboro weekend (where my partner teaches, and now I). Privately I muttered, "you started it, you work it out." Before a meeting I couldn't avoid, I asked a colleague in anthropology (about whom more later) whether it would help to sacrifice a chicken. No, he said, you have to take a tenured head.

The best things I've learned from colleagues--and I have learned a great deal--have been not about method but about how to teach particular bits of concrete content. Anselm's shortest atonement theory--8 pages. A Reader's Digest version of The Elementary Forms, suitable for a majors' seminar--20 pages. An account of Mary Douglas on grid and group--clearer than ever. Richard Rorty once said that an academic department is a pragmatic arrangement for reading together the books in the library. A teaching semester, likewise, arranges to read together the books on reserve. I'll take a good abridgment over a method today. Call it Wahrheit und Abkuerzung. The place of theology in the curriculum? In the fewest excellent pages.

In John Wilson's 1973 volume The Study of Religion in Colleges and Universities, (2)
 the primary issue was whether theology per se, or the constellation
 of related inquiries should form the template for the study of
 religion. A secondary form of the question was whether in attending
 to theology the department did not carry the burden of acknowledging
 the vast range of "theological enterprises." Of course adequately
 "representing" their range was out of the question. So there was
 never a hostile environment, but several critical questions which
 still obtain. (3)

Wilson's recollection is free of the identity politics that divided some departments. But "naturalist" and "transcendentalist" (in Princeton lingo: substitute your own local terms) can serve as identity descriptions to project and create parties and memberships--if not at Princeton, then in the imaginations of employers and jobseekers elsewhere, eager to infer motives of those they know chiefly from the interview or the faculty meeting. The shorthand of identity sometimes re-inscribes the confessionalist politics of vulgar neo-orthodoxy, whereby religious studies becomes an identity rather than a discipline, objectivity a confession rather than a skill.

I hope what follows can un-ask certain polarizing questions of typecasting or identity politics. "Naturalist or transcendentalist" (your own lingo here) is as bad as "straight or gay," in my view. Both alternatives attempt to detect whether a scholar belongs to "us" or "them." Both cast the first as explainers and the second as explananda. Naturalists try to explain transcendentalists, straight people try to explain gay people. If in religion we seek to explain Paul, should we in English seek to explain Shakespeare? As Jeff Stout once wrote in a broader context, you might have good reasons for doing both. But if you limited a department to explanation, you'd have to found another one to do interpretation. We ask many questions in the humanities because "our texts are interesting in more ways than one. The only alternative would be to have texts that weren't." The real question is what skills we can marshal for ad hoc purposes close to the ground. Better to treat objectivity and empathy as concrete disciplines that effective teachers practice to familiarize the alien and alienate the familiar. Which to deploy is itself a question of acquired skill, one of prudence and tact. (4) Scholars can overcome typecasting when they spend a semester co-teaching a common class, where they develop a common set of texts and a common need to reach students, where their differences of approach can galvanize instead of divide.

I used to teach modern Christian thought in a public university department with a graduate program founded about the time John Wilson's volume appeared on the study of religion. The odd thing was not that Virginia used the "th"-word in the rubrics of their graduate program--rubrics change, and I myself might have voted for a different set--but that in practice it trained students in a mode of reflection you might call "theology," that is unlikely to float free of its past. The odd thing is something hard to imagine when Religious Studies was distinguishing itself from divinity: by 1995, one of the best theology programs in the US (if the National Research Council could say so) had moved into Arts and Sciences. (5) How was that possible? How could a Religious Studies program in Christian thought neither re-inscribe a divinity curriculum, nor any longer play at identity politics? How could it transcend the tension between theology and religious studies?

Now I help myself to a generous but not Pickwickian definition of terms. I then answer three sets of objections: from Religious Studies about theology, from theology about Religious Studies, and a pox on both houses from studies of colonialism. Finally I mention a research program in which theology and religious studies have better things to do with their guilty pasts and their common skills than snipe at one another.

A religion is a set of community practices. Some practices are physical, like crossing oneself, taking the Eucharist, and offering sanctuary to fugitives ... even those from faculty meetings. Some practices are also intellectual--which is not to say non-physical--like giving rationales for other practices to those who ask, encouraging lines of further questioning, carrying on conversation with others. The only excuse for distinguishing intellectual from non-intellectual practices is better to bind them together. Many religious communities have well-developed, indigenous, higher-order metapractices, Christianity among them. As an anthropologist, you're interested in higher-order, critical, native models. You may find such models helpful or misleading, but the account that a community gives of itself belongs to your data. It comes with the gift of a good informant, one with skills of knowledge, judgment, observation, and relative distance.

"Native" is Geertz's term. In Religious Studies we're right to suspect it. Sometimes good informants are native; more often hybrid. You value their skills, not their parentage. I'll speak not of "native" models but of "socialized" or "naturalized" ones, since ideas are rarely autochthonous and often nomadic. What does "naturalized" mean? A variety of things, but one kind of naturalization paper is a Ph.D. Peer review of books and articles habituates that naturalization. Religious Studies encourages dual or multiple naturalizations and often requires them.

Christianity is a religion with highly developed practices of teaching, evaluation, self-criticism, and reform. Its self-reflection is naturalized enough to have a name, as do its naturalized practitioners. Critical models naturalized in Christianity are called theologies, their teachers theologians--those are the naturalized terms. A student of religion needs to know about those naturalized models--many rooted elsewhere--and talk to those informants. The best informants like the best anthropologists have skills at crossing boundaries and assimilating other skills to those already habituated. Informants and ethnographers share skills.

Self-critical practices are constructed differently in other religions and go under different names. The term "theology," for example, is naturalized from Greek religion, where it referred to exegesis of Homer. (6)

Consider Peter Metcalf's lovely book about former headhunters: A Borneo Journey into Death: Berawan Eschatology through its Rituals. (7) When one of their own has died, the Berawan need to create immediate community for the departed-or did until the British stopped them. To render their former practice intelligible, Metcalf explicates second burial after the bones are clean, in naturalized Berawan terms, of the tales they sing, the genealogies they rehearse. Some informants excel at articulating their practices. It's those people Metcalf finds most helpful. He might have found them most obscurantist. But there's no avoiding them. They occupy too prominent a place in the culture's functioning.

In a way, they seek the same thing he does: they seek to understand. Both the anthropology professor and the Berawan teacher start with some practices and explicate them in terms of others. (8) The naturalized Christian understanding of what the Berawan and the anthropologist seek is thoroughly Anselmian. Both engage in a project of "faith" seeking understanding. That does not mean that the anthropologist or the Berawan "has" faith in the vulgar Protestant sense. It means they practice certain skills in order to understand: "Credo ut intelligam." It says little about their commitment, except that each has enough to seek understanding. It's logically possible that either or both might use their understanding to undermine the community. Berawans, for example, come under pressure to stop telling the old tales not from the anthropologist but from evangelical Berawan groups naturalized near the coasts. Metcalf, the anthropologist, has done more than any living Berawan to preserve the stories told him. (9) I liked Borneo Journey into Death--in praise the author might be displeased to receive--because it was theologically musical. It had Fingerspitzengefuehl.

On this model, Religious Studies has not only a place for theology--among other disciplines--but a need for it. The boundary between already and not yet naturalized opens and shifts; the skills of anthropologist and theologian overlap. Pragmatism rather than ideology should determine what you call that in the study of religion. "Theology" gains from being the naturalized term, signaling that UVA competed for Ph.D. students with other programs that used it. "Modern Religious Thought" values transitional, hybrid, or not-yet-naturalized speakers: Joseph Conrad learned English in adulthood; the best English grammar was written by a Dane. "Theology" suffers in recalling more oppressive uses of the term, while "Modern Religious Thought" suffers in divorcing thought from practice, or modernity from its roots, putting Descartes before the source. But how Christians evaluate, criticize, and seek to extend their practices matters to all students of the humanities, from English to politics, history to anthropology.

Objections to that account arise from both Religious Studies and theology.

The objection from Religious Studies concerns power relations and patterns of familiarity. Teaching rationales naturalized in Christianity is different from teaching those naturalized in Berawan religion. The differences are not really methodological, but contingent, political, historical. Christianity has dominated Western culture for 2,000 years. Even today, however much certain Christians may claim for themselves the status of martyrs and cultivate the politics of resentment, there are few political programs Christian groups could not put through, if only they agreed among themselves. Fortunately or not, Christians agree among themselves no more than other groups. But the danger of hegemony persists. No one is putting the moral code of the Berawan in granite before an Alabama courthouse. Jobseekers in theology who fail to see the enormous power in the study of Christianity show willful naivete and thus bad faith. That the 19th C. study of religion is largely critique of Christianity, and that it gave rise to the library that students of religion form themselves upon, cannot be said about other religions, even if post-colonial studies complicates the generalization. Religious Studies is right to fear theology, because theology remains the most politically powerful subfield in the English-speaking academy where Religious Studies prevails. When Religious Studies exercises suspicion of the naturalized rationales of the Christian community, it merely sticks to its last. Those were the traditions that the hermeneutics of suspicion was trained on. Those were the traditions that the hermeneutics of suspicion was invented to suspect. How indeed could it be otherwise?

Religious Studies cannot give up its critique of Christian power, unless Christianity becomes powerless. But for that reason the critique makes better sense as pragmatic than ideological. The greater Christian power, the more students of humanities need to understand how Christians think and act. The danger persists that students of Christianity will use their power badly: but to banish the study of Christian rational practices from the study of religion gains only a short-term advantage. Now that Religious Studies departments have distinguished themselves from divinity schools, they can no longer afford to abandon the study of Christian intellectual and liturgical practice to the latter.

Since theology is a practice, there is no better way of learning it than by practice. That goes especially for graduate programs. Other departments of a university call such a practice "composition." Music appreciation and Greek for reading knowledge are for undergrads. Professors must know how to practice what they teach. In graduate school, music professors took courses in musical composition, even if they are not now composers. Classics professors took courses in Greek composition, even if they do not now compose Greek--or because they now teach grammar, edit texts, or comment on Homer. (Indeed, if they write about Homer they're entitled to call themselves theologians in the Attic sense of the term.) Can a classics department with a graduate program really hire someone to teach Greek, who has never composed a Greek sentence? Can a music department really hire someone to teach music history, who has never written counterpoint? Religious Studies cannot finally dispense with theology.

There is of course a mirror-image worry on the part of Christian theology. Is not the anthropological study of religion a Trojan horse? It claims to study God only as constructed by human groups. The account of theology offered above insists that it can be practiced by anthropologists rather than believers--or that anthropologists and believers hold theological practices in common. Theology is a skill that can be taught, gained by practice rather than conversion. Well, we could do worse than to turn to Aquinas here.

The first question of the Summa distinguishes two kinds of theology, one that belongs to human disciplines, and another that belongs to sacred teaching, a practice or discipline habituated by God. Jesus Christ is the real form of the teaching that has its inseparable mental aspect in the human heart of the believer that Christ indwells or the Spirit habituates. Aquinas devotes the Summa to sacred teaching as God's discipline. So the question arises early in the Summa what kind of skill one needs to practice sacred teaching. It would seem, Aquinas begins, that to practice the discipline of God one needs the wisdom of the Spirit. But that is the false seeming of an objection Aquinas rejects:
 [T]here are two modes of ... wisdom. For how someone judges depends,
 in one way, on ... inclination, as when she has the habit of virtue,
 she judges rightly about things to be done according to that virtue,
 to the extent that she is inclined to them.... In another way, it
 depends on ... knowledge: as when one instructed in a moral science
 can judge about acts of a virtue, even if she does not have the
 virtue.... [T]he first way of judging ... pertains to the wisdom
 called the gift of the Spirit ... But the second way of judging
 pertains to this teaching, since it is had by study, even though its
 principles are had from revelation. (I.1.6 ad 3).

The existence of sacred doctrine depends on revelation. But not teaching it. Similarly the existence of anthropology depends on communities, but not its classroom study. To teach sacred doctrine or anthropology you need the wisdom gained by study. You do not need native identity.

For Aquinas, Aristotelian first principles are all undeduced sources of light from things: birds, frogs, drama, politics. First principles are, in a word, small-r revelations, sources of light and wonder. Learning from Christian revelation is not different in kind from learning from biological revelations: both proceed by observation through the senses. Sacred doctrine does not differ from those other disciplines, according to Aquinas, in proceeding from a revelation. Rather, revelation with a capital R makes it science par excellence (ST 1.1.2). It cannot require a teacher to be in a state of grace (I.1.6 ad 3)--Aquinas denies that one could have certainty about that (I-II.112.5). But it does require practice.

Even if one had a private revelation, Aquinas--like students of mysticism elsewhere--would suspect it. His article on rapture, de raptu, finds that revelations taking a human being out of the body produce nothing stably linguistic enough to communicate--or deny (II-II.175.4 esp. ad 3). So private revelations don't function in sacred doctrine; it has its disciplined character simply by proceeding from first principles, like ornithology (I.1.2). (10)

Sacred doctrine itself enjoys a privileged character, in that its principles descend from God. But its practitioners do not. God denies them that privilege in this life. Sacred doctrine in this life is a language lacking native speakers, because those who possess its first principles as their own include only God and the blessed in heaven. (11) Like a head-hunter, God has to kill them for that. Like anthropologists, these practitioners work only as outsiders being naturalized into another (in this case, heavenly) community, their practice maintained only by a "few" and always with "an admixture of many errors" (1.1.1). They study sacred doctrine in just the way that they would study other religious practices-with respect and humility, with virtues, that is, of faith, hope, and charity, with justice and prudence, forebearance, temperance, and courage. They study it with interpreters' virtues. (12) But those do not distinguish their study of this religion from others. If an interpreter received from the Spirit of the Christians a supernatural infusion of charity, that would tend to increase the justice of her interpretations also of Buddhism.

In the final analysis, Christian theology cannot dispense with Religious Studies, because it holds that God became a human being and practiced religion. The trouble is that it often also held that God became a human being to launch a critique of religion, and that critique became fratricidal in effect.

A final complaint therefore joins theology with Religious Studies, this time from colonial studies. Religious Studies is not alone in criticizing religion. It first learned its critique from an earlier critique of religion within Christian theology. Several chapters in Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger show, in passing or in detail, that Scots Calvinist anthropologists regularly continued anti-Catholic theological arguments by anthropological means. Magic was bad because it reminded them of Catholic sacramentalism; texts were good because they reminded them of Protestant scripturalism. My student Jay Carter's book Race: A Theological Account, in press at OUP, will remind us that the German Lutheran who wrote Religion Within the Bounds also wrote a racist Anthropology, so that Kant's theory of religion went hand-in-hand with Christian anti-Judaism. Both Christian theology and Religious Studies pursue critiques of religion that arose in part out of anti-Judaism, or out of anti-Catholicism on the pattern of anti-Judaism. Both Christian theology and Religious Studies have anti-Judaism in their past. Both have significant resources for self-criticism in their ideals. Does either have repentance in its future?

In 1996 David Chidester's Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa appeared. (13) Briefly, indigenous people over the frontier of British control were said to have "no religion." Once the frontier moved inland, the same people were discovered to have religion after all. Those who had no religion were not quite human, and could thus be conquered. Those who had religion were credulous, and could thus be governed. The study of religion in Southern Africa emerged as a managerial, bureaucratic device for social control. Theology and Religious Studies have that too in common. They both have colonialism-Constantinianism in their past. They both have self-criticism among their ideals. Does either have empire--again--in its future?

Let me mention a research program to give Religious Studies and theology something more profitable to do than defer hiring and deny graduate students effective instruction. In the Scottish Enlightenment, two disciplines succeeded Protestant theological critique of Catholics. An impulse to purify the study of religion of everything that was a people or a church, that took up space in the world, led to the philosophy of religion, as in David Hume. A corresponding impulse to explain away certain concrete features of religious community led to a sociology of religion in Robertson Smith. Both sides would have agreed that there is no church of theism, whether because theism could do without community, or because community explained theism away. For its own integrity, Religious Studies must seek the divide between thought and practice in the ambivalence of Protestantism toward alternative strategies of purification and explanation. For its own integrity, Christian theology must acknowledge Religious Studies as not a rival but a development of its own critical faculties. Christian theology and Religious Studies have undergone sibling differentiation. Such differentiation focuses research in Antiquity on Jews and Christians; why not also in modernity?

Those possibilities do not call for more method. They call for more formation and tact, for scholarly virtues. What to practice in the classroom, for example, depends on circumstance and tact. (As Jeff Stout has quoted Camus, Quand on n'a pas de caractere, il faut bien se donner une methode. (14)) I don't mean to sound pious, I mean to identify good practices of scholarship--which fortunately coincide rather than conflict. If we were asking about rival commitments we could justify a politics of struggle. But we're asking about common commitments to humility. Both theologians, on christological grounds, and anthropologists, on grounds of method, are committed to practice not self-importance but humility, certainly not the narcissism of their differences. Theologians should count divinity not a thing to be grasped, but take the form of a (civil) servant. Anthropologists seek to understand as if within. Sometimes theology will need to speak up for itself, or bureaucratic students of religion will want to outlaw the taking of heads. But neither will succeed without humility before the communities they study. In this practice they coincide, in the virtue to repair their common vice.

Humility means that students of religion ought to avoid universal claims, not only because they are a power-play of colonialism, but also because they perpetuate a bad form of Christian theology, one that ignores or seeks to eradicate the particular, which it identified with Jews, in favor of a universal that emerged only as they abstracted and expropriated a particular god, the God of Israel. In becoming anthropologists, Christian theologians ought to have imitated the God who in the Logos, as they claim, became anthropos. For that reason Gregory of Nazianzus denies, as too static, that that God's deity requires infinity in extent. Unlike a British colonialist, the God of Nazianzen does not push out or erase a frontier, but crosses it. (15) That God crosses a frontier to learn as a human being, to become naturalized as one of the others. Likewise that God promises Abraham that by him all the nations will be blessings to one another. Christian theologians, therefore, if they imitate God's anthropology, ought to reject theories universal in extent in favor of practices dynamic in crossing frontiers for naturalization among others. Anthropologists, unless they wish to perpetuate a theological mistake, ought to do the same thing.


1. For a conference called "Reflecting on Religion" in honor of John Wilson at Princeton University, October 25, 2003. The essay is to appear in a volume of that title to be edited by Jeffrey Stout. I read other versions to Religious Studies departments at Rice and Florida State. Thanks to Jeff Stout, John Wilson, Jeff Kripal, Bill Parsons, John Kelsay, and Amanda Poterfield for comments.

2. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970.

3. Personal correspondence.

4. Jeffrey Stout, "What Is the Meaning of a Text?" New Literary History 13 (1982):1-12; here, p. 8.

5. Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States: Continuity and Change (Washington, D.C.: National Research Council, 1995).

6. Ferdinand Kattenbusch, Die Entstehung einer Christlichen Theologie: Zur Geschichte der Ausdrucke theologia, theologein, theologos, Libelli 69 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1962).

7. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

8. Cf. Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum, trans. Ian W. Robertson (Richmond, Va.: John Knox, 1960), pp. 66-72.

9. In a second book, Where Are You, Spirits: Style and Theme in Berawan Prayer (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989).

10. As interpreted by Michel Corbin, Le Chemin de la theologie chez Thomas d'Aquin (Paris: Beauchesne, 1974), pp. 717-18. This formulation also depends on Terrence Irwin, Aristotle's First Principles (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 7.

11. See Eugene F. Rogers, Jr., Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth (Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 1995), pp. 17-70.

12. Eugene F. Rogers, Jr., "How the Virtues of an Interpreter Presuppose and Perfect Hermeneutics: The Case of Thomas Aquinas," The Journal of Religion 76 (1996): 64-81.

13. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.

14. Ethics After Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents (Boston: Beacon, 1988), p. 296.

15. Fifth Theological Oration.
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Author:Rogers, Eugene F., Jr.
Publication:Cross Currents
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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