Religious Studies and Theology: Living in Both Worlds

[This post was originally published 08/2009]

Chris Heard over at Higgaion posted an interesting discussion of Kurt Noll’s article, “The Ethics of Being a Theologian,” over at the Chronicle of Higher Education web site. While I agree with Chris that Kurt’s article is full of unsubstantiated “truth claims,” I still recognize the distinction between religious studies and theology.  While my sympathies with Noll could be because he is a fellow Canadian and my perception is that Canadians draw the distinction between religious studies and theology more sharply than those in the USA, the fact is that I try to live in both worlds and tend to eschew the combative and dualistic nature of the “Religious Studies vs. Theology” debate.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the distinction between religious Studies and theology is a matter of some debate.   Since the end of the nineteenth century, the discipline of Religious Studies has typically been understood to be the value-neutral and objective study of religions, while Theology is the confessional or particularistic study of one religion (See Donald Wiebe, “The Politics of Religious Studies,” CSSR Bulletin 27 [November 1998]: 95-98, where he argues forcefully for this distinction. Wiebe has long been a Canadian proponent for the continuing role of the academic study of religion within the context of a public university, by which he means the value-free study of religion free from any religious or confessional goals).

The distinction between Religious Studies and Theology played an important part in the establishment of Religious Studies departments in a number of universities in Europe and North America – though significantly not all educational institutions thought that the distinction was necessary.  While this distinction is certainly characteristic of Canadian public universities, there are a number of institutions in Europe and North America that have combined departments of Religion and Theology (and that is what we attempted to do at the now defunct Taylor University College).

This traditional demarcation has also been challenged on some fronts in light of the postmodern recognition that there is no real objective, value-neutral study of religion (or any other subject for that matter). While I wholeheartedly agree with this recognition, that does not mean there is no distinction between religious studies and theology — it just means that any claims to be “objective”or “neutral”  should be dismissed. We all engage our disciplines from our horizon with all of our own prejudices and presuppositions.  What it means, however,  is that the differences between the disciplines are only the rules agreed upon by those working within them. And each discipline works out different rules of engagement.   (For an interesting discussion of postmodern theories of religious studies, see the interaction between Garrett Green, “Challenging the Religious Studies Canon: Karl Barth’s Theory of Religion,” Journal of Religion 75 [1995]: 473-86; Russell T. McCutcheon, “My Theory of the Brontosaurus”: Postmodernism and ‘Theory’ of Religion,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 26 [1997]: 3-23, and William E. Arnal, “What if I Don’t Want to Play Tennis?: A Rejoinder to Russell McCutcheon on Postmodernism and Theory of Religion,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 27 [1998]: 61-68;  see also McCutcheon’s response, “Returning the Volley to William E. Arnal” on pp. 67-68 of the same issue).  In practice, Religious Studies in the Canadian public university context tends to be the study of religion which does not privilege one religious discourse above another (notice I didn’t say “scientific” study of religion, since I find those that throw around the term “scientific” do so with prejudice against anything not deemed “scientific”).  Theology, on the other hand, is typically defined as the study of one religion from a confessional standpoint. Thus the insider/outsider demarcation remains.

It is also possible to make a distinction between the academic disciplines of theology and biblical studies. On one level theology is a discipline distinct from biblical studies.  Christian Theology, as one recent work defined it, is “an ongoing, second-order, contextual discipline that engages in critical and constructive reflection on the faith, life, and practices of the Christian community” (Stan Grenz and John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism. Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2001) p. 16).   As such, “Christian Theology” seems to me to be a normative insider job rather than purely descriptive discipline. Biblical studies, on the other hand, is an inclusive, multifaceted discipline that centers on the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and Christian New Testament and that includes scholars from a variety of different religious and methodological perspectives. That being said, there are a large number of biblical scholars — indeed an entire a sub-discipline of biblical studies — who are also confessional and theological in their approach. That is, they are not only interested in describing the message of the Apostle Paul, they also want to engage the question of how Paul’s message may be relevant to the community of faith today.

In the light of the above distinctions, much of what I do would fall under the rubric of theology.  I teach at a confessional institution from a confessional perspective, and one of my educational goals is to encourage students to critically reflect on their own religious tradition and integrate this faith with all aspects of their lives.  That being said, I chaff at Kurt’s characterization that I “do not advance knowledge” but only “practice and defend religion.” My classes, while taught from a confessional perspective, are not the sort of indoctrination or apologetics that Kurt seems to think they must be. My teaching incorporates a broad methodological perspective that seeks to take account of a variety of critical and ideological approaches representative of the broader religious studies/biblical studies guild.  Perhaps the difference is that I don’t stop there. I seek to interact with and explore how this broader perspective relates to the theological interpretation of scripture for the community of faith. So I am not sure that the relationship between “religious studies” and “theology” is an “either/or” relationship. I prefer to view it as a “both/and” relationship where the theological task is seen as “going beyond” the methods and questions of religious studies to include the personal faith integrative task as well. For what it’s worth, lately  I find that I am far more interested in the latter issues than the former.

Either way, no matter where you stand on the debate, Peter Donovan makes an excellent point when he notes that

the scientific study of religion can ill afford to insulate itself from the thinking of others interested in the same subject-matter, merely because they may hold very different views about theory and method (Peter Donovan, “Neutrality in Religious Studies,” in The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion. A Reader [ed., Russell T. McCutcheon; New York: Cassell, 1999], p. 245).

I would add that the theological study of religion can ill afford to insulate itself from those who take a religious studies approach as well!  What is perhaps most important for any approach to the study of religion is that the approach is academic and methodologically sound and rigorous. And I happen to think, contra Kurt Noll, that this is possible for both scholars of religious studies and theologians!

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9 Responses to Religious Studies and Theology: Living in Both Worlds

  1. Jim Linville says:

    Tyler, I read Noll’s piece too, and I’m pretty disappointed with it, and I have very different perspective on things than you do. I really got miffed at his juxtaposition between religion scholars and “theologians”, as if there could be no believers who are doing biblical studies

    I don’t think Noll did the secular study of religion much good here, and his bringing up Dawkins was just silly. In the God Delusion, Dawkins is totally dismissive of any kind of serious religious studies, thinking it a waste of time. I’m certainly no theologian, but I’m pretty dismissive of Dawkins as a commentator on religion.

    I’m working through my own response to Noll and Dawkins, and it is good to read your thoughts on the matter.

    Best wishes,
    jim linville

  2. Hey Jim,nice to hear from you!

    Yeah, I wasn’t that impressed either. A lot of rhetoric and stereotypes that really missed the mark, IMHO. Whlie I recognize that you and I differ on a number of things in terms of method, there would also be a lot of common ground between us. Or to use a different metaphor, while our final destination may be quite a bit different, we share the same road for much of the journey. If find inflamatory pieces such as Noll, Dawkins, Hitchens, Avalos, and even Lemche’s work when on this topic to be less than adequate academically.

  3. Jim Linville says:

    No kidding. I’m a pretty staunch atheist activist, especially when it comes to literalists, creationists and so forth, and I’m kind of rude and crude, but for Pete’s sake, scholars should not be censorship boards.

    I wonder what would please Noll or Avalos, a “rating” system like they have for movies or before TV shows?
    “Caution this work of intellectual engagement with the Bible was produced by a person who failed the Dawkins test for authentic religion scholarship. It therefore contains theology. Readers discretion is advised.”

    If people have to pass an atheist test or pledge loyalty to Dawkins before before being counted as a potential teacher, then the world is just to darn crazy for me and I want off.

    I hope to have my bit on Noll (part 2 of a 4 bit series) posted today. Davies and Avalos next week sometime.

    Hope all is well at your new digs.
    Best wishes,

  4. Jim Linville says:

    Anyway, that last comment came out a lot stronger than I wanted it to. Dawkins just bugs the heck out of me and I kind of just projected it onto Noll. I don’t really believe that Noll would want a scholarly censorship board: my apologies.

    Never write comments before you have your first cup of coffee in the morning.

  5. I wonder if we could say theology also has a “normative” element to it, in that, at least in its mainstream manifestations, involves direct application to human predicament, individual calling, and so on.

    There is also some animosity between, say “comparative religion” schools of thought which tend to be secular, and theology. Perhaps substantive differences can be gleaned by listening in on the bickering.

  6. Mike Koke says:

    Great post Tyler and I have tried to follow up on some of the discussion about this. Another interesting article on this question is by William Arnal, “A Parting of the Ways? Scholarly Identities and a Peculiar Species of Ancient Mediterranean Religion” in Identity & Interaction in the Ancient Mediterranean: Jews, Christians and Others Essays in Honour of Stephen G. Wilson, which argues for a “parting of the ways” between a hermeneutical approach in a confessional institution or seminary and a Religious Studies approach in a secular University.

  7. d. miller says:

    Thanks for the excellent post, Tyler. I added a short comment on my blog about the puzzling way Noll subordinates the humanities and social sciences to the natural sciences.
    d. miller

  8. Hey guys,

    Just got back from a weekend getaway… great discussion. I think that you have hit the nail on the head, Joshua, although even those who are not working from a theological perspective also (I hope) try to see some sort of enduring value in studying whatever they are studying. Otherwise why bother!

    I am looking forward to reading your post Miller, especially since you mention Gadamer in the title!

    And Mike… thanks for the heads up re: the article by Arnal.

  9. There are a lot religion in the world it is good that departments on the Religious in a number of universities in Europe and North America

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