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Theology vs Religious Studies

I teach in a "religious studies" department not a "theology" department. What we call ourselves is a contentious issue for some of my colleagues. It's unlikely to get any less contentious given the kind of piece published recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education. You can read the piece here, but be forewarned, it is likely to raise your blood pressure. Here's a sample:

In sum, the religion researcher is related to the theologian as the biologist is related to the frog in her lab. Theologians try to invigorate their own religion, perpetuate it, expound it, defend it, or explain its relationship to other religions. Religion researchers select sample religions, slice them open, and poke around inside, which tends to "kill" the religion, or at least to kill the romantic or magical aspects of the religion and focus instead on how that religion actually works.Little wonder that many academicsand Richard Dawkins is merely the most vocal among themdismiss the discipline of theology as "talk about nothing." A number of theologians have taken issue with Dawkins, but all of them seem to miss his central point, which is that talk about a god is, necessarily, talk that never advances knowledge. Regardless of one's opinion of him, Dawkins has done academe a great service by providing a quick way to identify a theologian in our midst. If you are uncertain with whom you are speaking, just inject the name of Richard Dawkins into the conversation. The theologian will be dismissive of him; the religion researcher will not.


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Mm. That's disturbing--and an unnecessarily antagonistic way of presenting the relationship between the two.I think theologians and many legal scholars are very much the same. Both take an internal point of view (HLA Hart) toward the tradition of which they are a part. Legal scholars are trying to advance the system of law, taking responsibilities for it as a member of the community to which they belong. Political scientists, however, tend to assess and describe the law--not advocate changes within it.But that doesn't mean a political scientist can't be law-respecting American--or that a scholar of religious studies, using the methods of religious studies, can't be a believer. It's just that the jobs are different.

I wonder what the author of the Higher Ed. piece would think of Timothy Fitzgerald who argues in his book "The Ideology of Religious Studies" that "Religion" as a category is a colonial construct with no analytical value because it doesn't actually identify any "thing" in the "real world." If the neurobiologist can study mystical mental states and the sociologist can study the community forming power of ritual and the psychologist can study drives toward belief and the philosopher can study the coherence of metaphysical arguments and the historian can study the development and migration of ideas, people, and movements, then why do we need the scholar of religion? It's telling that the author never actually tries to define "Religion."

I don't even know where to begin. As one who thinks that the religious studies/theology distinction is very overdrawn, I can only hope that the Chronicle gets slammed for this. After reading the two paragraphs you present, I am going to heed your warning about reading more. I do not wish to start my day off dwelling on the fact that journal like the Chronicle could publish such a piece.Richard Dawkins has done the academy a arse.

One might be tempted to point out that as often as not, Theology is less the study of God than it is the study of our relationship to Him.It was also my impression that Catholicism, at least, held very little of the "magical" or "romantic" dear, and that it in fact knows "the way it works" quite self-consciously. After all, we still make distinctions between the symbols & rites and what those same indicators of religion are pointing towards.But then, who has time for subtlety or considerate thinking in the public forum?

I was amused and slightly startled to come across an oblique reference to theology reading Stephen Jay Gould's remark that exobiology (the study of life elsewhere in the universe) is "that other great subject without a subject matter."I also was interested to learn this years ago when I took several courses in Jewish history in college.

Professor Saul Lieberman, the great Talmud scholar of the Jewish Theological Seminary . . . said that several years earlier, some students asked to have a course here in which they could study kabbalistic texts. He had told them that it was not possible, but if they wished they could have a course on the history of kabbalah. For at a university, Lieberman said, "it is forbidden to have a course in nonsense. But the history of nonsense, that is scholarship."

That is not to say that I think theology is nonsense, by the way.Richard Dawkins has done the academy a favormy arse.I haven't read Dawkins' book on atheism, and I am willing to assume it is not a very good book based on what people say. But have there been any well received books on atheism? Surely it's not the case that a book advocating atheism is necessarily pointless and stupid, even to people who start with the assumption that it is wrong.

David,I think Nietzsche was the best atheist, and he was a pretty good theologian too!

David: My favorite book affirming atheism actually pretends to affirm God's existence: David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. I also like using a book titled God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist by William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.

Eric and Joe,Thanks for the recommendations. Joe: I am shopping on for my Kindle and just bought the two books you recommended. Eric: Can you recommend something specific by Nietzsche?

The author of the article is perhaps more of a disciple of Dawkins, Harris, et al. than he realizes. I think he set forth some useful distinctions between religious studies and theology, though I don't know enough about either as intellectual disciplines to know how clear cut such distinctions might be. As a proud professor of religious studies, he disparages inquiry about truth-claims in his discipline, yet he makes a glaring one himself: "The god of the Bible is the sum total of the words in the text and has no independent existence." I was also intrigued by Paul's comment that what his academic department at JCU, a Jesuit university, calls itself "is a contentious issue for some of my colleagues." I attended a Jesuit university, many moons ago, at a time when "religious studies" was not in use (or at least I don't rememebr hearing the phrase), and courses pertaining to religious subjects were taught by the faculty in the department of theology. We had a professor of Judaic studies, for example, but he (a rabbi) was stiill part of the theology department. After reading Paul's post, I checked the web to see if my alma mater still has a department of theology. At some point since my graduation, the department was apparently renamed the department of religious studies. There is one Jesuit in the department, a former Jesuit/priest, and about a half dozen lay professors. In addition to a professor teaching Judaic studies, there are now professors specializing in Islamic studies, Asiatic religions, and alternative religious experiences. There is even a professor with an endowed chair in "Catholic Studies" (!) at this Catholic university, and I estimate that the course offerings are perhaps 40% specific to Catholicism. I have absolutely no problem with courses about other religious traditions. I've lived in countries where Christianity is very much not the dominant religion, and as citizens of the world and as Christians we should know more about other religious beliefs. However, and my research is admittedly cursory, I can't help thinking that there has been a diminution in the Catholic/Christian theological emphasis at my alma mater if the former department of theology is any indication.

I think there is a lot of fear--on the part of believers--and maybe, hope, on the part of non-believers that "religious studies" will make you lose your faith. As was suggested, above, it may depend upon what, exactly, your faith is. If you're a biblical literalalist, you may have trouble with source criticism. But for Catholics, it ought not be a problem. Moreover, sometimes, the "external" perspective offered by folks in religious studies can be helpful to theologians working on issues. Mary Douglas's anthropological studies on purity and danger, boundaries, etc.,, can be very helpful in thinking through questions on questions like cloning, sexuality, etc.Douglas, by the way, was a practicing Catholic.

One reason that name is contentious is that many see Religious Studies and Theology in something like the light that the author of the Chronicle piece does. Then a lot is at stake, on both sides. In the case of my department, I don't think there is any real disagreement about what we do as a department, but there is concern about what we are perceived to be doing from the outside. From the outside, the designation may make a difference.

I have always been under the impression that "Theology" was a study that attempted toanalyze the nature of the Diety. And in that regard "attempt" is the best word that I know to use."Religious studies" I have thought was an orchestra of studies that investigated thehuman initiatives in responding/connecting to that Diety.With this mindset, I have believed that 'theology' was the abstract approach and thatreligious studies were the pragmatic "how to".Is this understanding of mine out of the ballpark?

As the Psalmist writes, "The fool says in his heart, 'there is no God.'"

David,I would suggest "Twilight of the Idols" and "The AntiChrist" from Nietzsche. For a more contemporary discussion of the "God Debate" that speaks to Dawkins and Hitchens specifically, I would suggest Terry Eagleton's recent book, "Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate." I heard him deliver this set of lectures at Yale two years ago, and they were very accessable, entertaining, and incisive. Also, Commonweal recently published an excerpt from Eagleton's book.

I would suggest Twilight of the Idols and The AntiChrist from Nietzsche.Eric,Thanks. I just got them both on my Kindle for 99 cents each. The Kindle is great for older works (if available) and things in the public domain. I recently read Treasure Island, which I had never read before, because I thought it would be fun to read something free. Amazon will zap to you free of charge a lot of the classics. I already have Eagleton's book in an old fashioned print edition. I am enjoying the Kindle, but I am not ready to say I don't prefer real, physical books.

Perhaps it doesnt matter much whether its called a department of theology or a department of religious studies. Clearly, there is a lot of remedial work to be done among college students attending at least some Catholic universities.Last month at the America blog a contributor provided excerpts from answers/papers he had received from undergraduate students during his seven years as a professor of theology at two Catholic universities.A sample:Lukes gospel tells of shepherds who come to worship a babe. In the Greek language of the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as the haggis or Word of God. Mary Magdalene was the first to see the woman Christ. Women were whitenesses of the death of Jesus. Jesus always tells people that he is the sun of God. Jesus amazed people, starting with his emasculate conception. The passion of Christ is a dramatic, griping story. The New Testament ends with the reformation, and allows the writers to see into heaven. The Bible should not be rewritten because it is apart of the Christian Tradition.The link to the entire post, captioned Theology According to Student Bloopers, is below. While humorous, the excerpts are also sad, in part because re-formulating a students grasp of theological concepts at the college level seems a daunting task to me. I taught high school math for a time. Pre-Calculus during junior year of high school was not the best time to correct essential knowledge and skill gaps in a students math education. It could be done, but it required a highly motivated student who was willing to work hard to essentially relearn many of the principles of mathematics. There were some students who were willing to undertake such a task, invariably because they saw math as important to their future goals. I have to wonder, however, whether remedial theology would be as high on many students agendas.

It is certainly possible to study religion as a phenomenon historically, culturally, sociologically, psychologically... Theology, I think, is a term best reserved for the systematic attempt to find grounds for and, so far as possible, to achieve a deeper understanding of one's own religious beliefs and those of one's religious community. From that point of view theology is always specifically related to set of shared religious beliefs. An atheist, having no religious beliefs, will have no theology.

If you are going to be condescending, you cannot afford to be stupid. A frog? Really? Doesn't the writer regard religions as myths? But if they are myths, then the kind of theologian the writer despises is, among other things, a kind of mythmaker. In that case, the better analogy is the relationship between the poet and the literary critic. But that analogy would give believers too much dignity, whereas the whole point of this rant is to suggest that faith is incompatible with intellectual dignity.

Just can't pass on this moment - Mr. Lauritzen, you could hire Fr. Fessio (hear he is available) and he can repeat his Univ. of San Francisco experience. His "brilliant, orthodox" approach (as described by one commentor) would solve your dilemma.

If you are going to be condescending, you cannot afford to be stupid. A frog? Really? . . . . But that analogy would give believers too much dignity, whereas the whole point of this rant is to suggest that faith is incompatible with intellectual dignity.Matthew,Ken Lovasik posted above: As the Psalmist writes, The fool says in his heart, there is no God.It's interesting how hopping mad those poor fool seems to make people, though. And I bet they don't like being called fools, either.

Yes, David, when we frogs get mad, we get hopping mad. But really I don't think the psalmist's line has much to do with my comment. Atheism doesn't make me mad. It's people who make stupid arguments on the way to calling others stupid who make me mad. And, by the way, is it true that all theologians are dismissive of Richard Dawkins while all "religion researchers" aren't? I'd have thought that all honest researchers would be appalled by Dawkins's muddled historical judgments -- and that religion researchers in particular would be appalled by his failure to take account of important sociological and anthropological differences among religions. For him, the only interesting difference between religions is that some are more lethal than others. On the other hand, I'd have thought most good theologians take atheism very seriously indeed. A theology that simply brushes past all doubt is not very durable.Religious reseachers study people devoted to God. Nietzsche studied people devoted to research. He preferred frogs.

" From that point of view theology is always specifically related to set of shared religious beliefs. An atheist, having no religious beliefs, will have no theology."This is one of the major questions in the study of religion, faced by virtually everyone who ever attempts to study religion, as opposed to theology. Is Buddhism a religion? is the usual form of this question. There is no God, yet it has a variety of beliefs, behaviors and other elements that would in every other circumstance be called a religion.If atheism is any way a meaningful statement, then the person has a theology. Even if it consists only of the statement "There is no God", there are beliefs about God = theology. If the person goes farther and says what"God" means in that sentence, then there may be as much of a theology as in many other religions. And if there are any claims about how one knows there is no God, there is a highly advanced philosophical theology.If I have not read Dawkins on religion, though I believe I read some of his earlier works.

oops. clicked submit accidentally, as I was going to correct that last statement.My impression of Dawkins is that he does not know enough about religion to be able to identify theology. Accordingly, he espouses his own theology in a jingoistic fashion, as if it were a reflection of the One Truth. It has been a while, so I should not say much more than that. I am just trying to say that his problem is not his theology, with which I disagree, but his insufficient understanding of religion, particularly as it applies to his own beliefs about and behavior towards God.

This can be a very useful discussion. There is a lot to learn, I suggest, for all of us. As Cathy has stated above the Catholic need not be threatened by religiogus studies. It is the perception that it is a threat that is the source of the culture wars which causes so much distraction.Rigid theologians complicate the issue by not availing themselves of the solid data coming out of religious studies. There are enormous benefits in a solid religious studies program. As others have noted above the charlatans can usually be seen for their exploitive actions. On both sides of the spectrum. Here is where "in medio stat virtus" (virtue is in the middle way) applies. We should stop giving too much authority to either side of the spectrum.

As the rabbinic aphorism goes, there are no Jewish atheists, just Jews mad at God.Richard Dawkins is mad at God. Let him work his way through his process. I leave him with his journey confident that it will some day be revealed to him.In the meantime theology concerns itself with the interpretation of how the Divine is revealed in a particular tradition, religious studies remains largely the systematic study of the sociological manifestation of the a community who understands itself as being in reception of a revealed truth or one which has not been revealed but has been intuited and articulated by the enlightened one. (e.g. Buddha)

If you say "there is no God" that is not even a minimalist theology. The proposition does not make any reference to an entity. It says "there is nothing that satisfies the description(s) that theists have in mind when the use the word "God".

"That is not to say that I think theology is nonsense, by the way."Any element of Theology that is not grounded in The Truth is nonsense.

Obviously, the Chronicle notion of theology by consensus here is poorly informed.I think it draws(like Dawkins et al.) on a view of religion that is deeply fundamentalist,Thanks to Bill for the bloopers; i wish the author would have told us what year of theology he was teaching, were there any prerecs, and whether his students who contributed were even Catholic.Still, it's true that students come less informed about their faith than we of our generation who had many more Catholic education opportunities and religious teachers. I also think that the ecumenical movement gave further impetus to stiudies of other faiths as well.On the other hand, just recently, I read some curial bishop complaining about Catholics being too informed and spreading "confusion" or "dissent - favorite words of those committed to positive orthodoxy.So what do we want frrom theology students:-better knowledge of the faith?-Better knowledge of facts about the faith only?-Better indoctrination into CCC?And maybe it would be good to ask (lay) theology majors what possibilities await them?NCR today recalls the talk of Fr. Tilley at the CTSA about the impasses in the Church today abd a link to the text of his talk.The tension, in many quarters stiil, between hierachy and theologian continues apace and the Obama/ND/ and broad theologian support for Fr. Jenkins underscores the issue of how much theology is related to real study or to an apologetic to buttress the current state of the magisterial holding.I think Fr. Tilley sees the result of this to some degree in drift among informed Catholics.So what is it we want from our theolgians and theologians to be? That, I submit, is the serious question, not the Chronicle's take -a staw man in effect.So what do we want for our theologians or theology students to be?

I just want to add that I was deeply impressed by Fr. Tilley's talk.I think his underscoring of those who use comceptual phrases (including "truth") as part of one game and consign to other games those who do not accepot thier definition of the concept is a real point of divide.He also underscores the importance of real dialogue, not sleight of hand (as some do by changing the subject -have we seen that?) and particularly scores CDF for shurtting down dialogue on critical Christological iddues where finding the right expression (for him, as i read him, a continuing process rather than mere repetition or transliteration) of classic formulae.Finally, in the long run, he thinks the value of theology is if it is performative - that is, enhances the living of the Gospel especially towards the poor.His description of the theologian's work is far removed from the easy Chronicle description, but problenmatic in a church of "impasses" he describes.

"I think his underscoring of those who use comceptual phrases (including "truth") as part of one game and consign to other games those who do not accepot thier definition of the concept is a real point of divide."Your first false assumption is to refer to "truth" as a concept. When Jesus said, "I am The Life, The Truth, and The Way, His desire was to unite us, not send us off into several different directions. :-)

It's Fr. Tilley's statement. not my false assumption.The false assumption is that you know the full answer .That's why there's impasse.

When Jesus said, I am The Life, The Truth, and The Way, His desire was to unite us, not send us off into several different directions. :-) Nancy,It is ""I am the way and the truth and the life." The correct order is important. Please stop misquoting Jesus.

How so, David?

P.S., David, keep in mind, if Christ is not The Life, The Truth, and The Way, simultaneously, when He said, "Follow Me", where would you go? :-)

At the end of " A Pilgeim in a Pilgrim Church", Bishop Weakland observes what I saw in my lifetime: how we moved (as part of Roman centralization) from an era of thological sophistication in discussing the relative merit of certiain Church holdings to a demand for absolute loyalty to the magisterium (infallible or not) under JPII( or, as Nancy might say, the truth from the beginning.)I beleive everyone here is a sincere follower of Christ, but the role of the theologian and an intelligent discussion of the topic -especially in this time of "impasses" - strikes me as not only useful but necessary (but also not happening.)

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