[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 : 473-86; Russell T. McCutcheon, “My Theory of the Brontosaurus”: Postmodernism and ‘Theory’ of Religion,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 26 : 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 : 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!