A Reflection on the Academic Study of Religion
John Ehrett’s recent essay, “Why Millennial College Students Should Study Theology,” argues against the dominant paradigm of contemporary academic liberal arts departments. He argues that “contemporary academic society overwhelmingly filters social phenomena through three primary lenses: race, gender, and class.” This filter gives the liberal arts student a framework for “discern[ing] the hidden reasons for action underlying conduct,” which inevitably fall into the racist/sexist/classist “conceptual trifecta.”
In my experience, this was the dominant paradigm at my undergraduate university’s religious studies department. The dominant lens through which religion was studied was the claim that “religion is a social construction,” with the corresponding claim that “religion can (and should) be constructed otherwise.” If we want the social order to look differently, then we will reveal a religion’s social-constructedness at the very point it undermines our views of equality and justice. How a religion treats issues of race, gender, and class are thus of paramount importance, as they are seen as the key sites at which the ethics of justice and fairness are displayed. Religious studies, like all academic disciplines that adopt the race/gender/class conceptual trifecta, is a deeply normative exercise, engaged in for the purposes of deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction.
One such example of the department’s deconstructionist methodology was experienced in a class on “ritual theory.” The class adopted a wide interpretation of the terms “religion” and “ritual,” seeking to analyze everything from the Lord’s Supper, chants at sports games, and walking across a stage to receive a diploma. The real draw to this class was not the esoteric writings of ritual theorists, but the classroom conversations and professorial pontifications deconstructing daily rituals. Handshakes between men express the power of the male in society over and against the female, brand names on expensive clothing proclaim the distinctiveness of one’s social class, the architecture and acoustics of a cathedral constrict the body into silence, etc. The class engendered a deep skepticism, without a counterbalancing appreciation, of the rituals of both everyday life and the numinous.
Another example of the department’s deconstructionist methodology was a class on feminist hermeneutics of the New Testament. Through other courses in the university and the department, nearly every student in the class already had a working knowledge of feminist theory, but not of the Bible. Indeed, one could take the class without having ever taken a standard “Introduction to the Bible” course. This made for complex conversations about how texts can be used to undermine the agency and flourishing of women, but not for insight about the historical backdrop or narrative of the Bible itself. Liberationist perspectives, though certainly important to read and engage with in a class on feminist interpretation, were studied exclusively, implicitly arguing that all conservative readings of the text could not be considered feminist. This encouraged an easy dismissal of how many present and historical Jews and Christians have wrestled with the text, in favor of the academic consensus of deconstruction/reconstruction.
The twin problems of this paradigm, a narrow fixation on deconstruction and a lack of learning basic knowledge about the world’s religions, could be solved by Ehrett’s proposals. An expanded core curriculum, either within the religious studies department or outside of it, would provide a foundational level of knowledge about a particular religious tradition. One could not, for example, take a class on “Islam and Gender” without first taking a course or two seriously engaging with Islam and the Qur’an. A more serious engagement with theology, suppressed by rigid distinctions between the divinity school and religious studies departments, would allow the student to enter into the rich internal logic(s) of a particular religious tradition. (Though expressed “in house” amongst fellow Christians, this is exactly the sort of work we do here at Conciliar Post.)
An expanded core curriculum and a serious engagement with theology, done well, would result in a number of benefits. First, we would be more sympathetic and understanding of the lived experiences of believers and practitioners. Simply learning to be “critical” does not engender an appreciation for complexity. Second, as Ehrett argued in his article, we would actually have better critiques as a result. A fuller understanding of the background, understood holistically in terms of history, sociology, and theology, of a religious tradition would enable our analyses of race, gender, and class to be more incisive and intelligible. Third, deconstruction/reconstruction may not be seen as the supreme goal of studying religion. We may study religion for other ends, such as discerning truth vs. falsehood, or appreciating the virtues a certain religion promotes and exhibits, or understanding the conceptual complexity of an intellectual tradition, or humbly learning facts about a religion’s history and current practice. If these changes were implemented, students and professors would be better off for it.