The Relationship between Theology and Religious Studies

Our interview this week features Chris speaking to Professor Donald Wiebe from the Faculty of Divinity at Trinity College in the University of Toronto on the relationship between Theology and Religious Studies.

Out of necessity this interview was not recorded on our normal equipment, and we apologise for the poorer quality of the sound this week. You can also listen to this podcast on iTunes, and subscribe to receive our weekly interviews.

The relationship between Theology and Religious Studies  is not a simple one. David Ford writes that at its broadest, theology is thinking about questions raised by and about religions (2000:3). These questions are largely directed towards notions of transcendence (typically gods), incorporate doctrinal issues and are “essentially a second-order activity arising from ‘faith’ and interpreting faith” (Whaling, 1999:228-229). Essentially, theology is thinking about religion from within religion – although when most people refer to “Theology”, what they mean is “Christian Theology”.

It is generally accepted – at least as far as most academics are concerned – that there is a distinct difference between religious studies and theology. This is succinctly summarised by Ninian Smart’s statement that “historical and structural enquiries, such as sociology, phenomenology, etc., […] are the proper province of [the study of] Religion, and the use of such materials for Expressive ends […is] the doing of Theology” (in Wiebe, 1999:55).

As you shall see from this interview, however, things are much more complicated, and Professor Wiebe is particularly qualified to present his own take on the relationship between these two distinct disciplines. His primary areas of research interest are philosophy of the social sciences, epistemology, philosophy of religion, the history of the academic and scientific study of religion, and method and theory in the study of religion. He is the author of a number of books, including Religion and Truth: Towards and Alternative Paradigm for the Study of Religion (1981), The Irony of Theology and the Nature of Religious Thought (1991), and, of particular relevance to this interview, The Politics of Religious Studies: The Continuing Conflict with Theology in the Academy (1999). In 1985 Professor Wiebe, with Luther H. Martin and E. Thomas Lawson, founded the North American Association for the Study of Religion, which became affiliated to the IAHR in 1990; he twice served as President of that Association (1986-87, 1991-92).

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions‘ Annual Conference in Budapest in September 2011, where Professor Wiebe also presented a particularly relevant paper with his colleague Luther H. Martin, entitled “Religious Studies as a Scientific Discipline: The Persistence of a Delusion”. Out of necessity it was not recorded on our normal equipment, and we apologise for the poorer quality of the sound this week.

Jonathan Z Smith: “[R]eligion is an inextricably human phenomenon. […] Religious studies are [therefore] most appropriately described in relation to the Humanities and the Human Sciences, in relation to Anthropology rather than Theology. What we study when we study religion is one mode of constructing worlds of meaning, worlds within which men find themselves and in which they choose to dwell.” (1978, Map is Not Territory, 290)


Ford, David F., 2000 [1999]. Theology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whaling, Frank, 1999. “Theological Approaches” in Peter Connoly (ed.), Approaches to the Study of Religion. London: Cassell, pp. 226-274.

Wiebe, Donald, 1999. The Politics of Religious Studies: The Continuing Conflict with Theology in the Academy. New York: St Martin’s Press.

4 replies
  1. Avatar
    Ruth-Anne Avruskin says:

    While I don’t necessarily agree with Donald Wiebe’s hypothesis that we are hardwired to detect agency, I felt that he did bring up the issue of keeping ones religious affiliations out of their scientific study of religion is HARD WORK. Bracketing is never easy for me, as I always want to relate new information to my own experience. I think Wiebe was very blunt, and this was necessary to convey the important of “pure” academic study of religion. Thank you for another interesting podcast.

  2. Avatar
    Christine says:

    If religious studies departments throughout the world were to adopt Wiebe’s model of a bottomless void separating religious studies and theology, their faculty rolls would certainly shrink. Although some people, such as Wiebe, seem to be capable of keeping their personal beliefs and their university research separate, I don’t believe most people can do this, nor do I believe they should be expected to do so. If one ascribes to Paul Tillich’s theory that religion can be described as a person’s “ultimate concern”, expecting a person to keep something as life encompassing as an academic career completely separate from their ultimate concern is difficult and potentially harmful. I find it difficult to believe that a person’s life work is in no way motivated by their faith. I fear that if a person was not able to be explicit about the role of their faith in their work, both to themselves and to the greater academic community, the effects of their faith would be implicit throughout their work. Rather than identifying an obvious “last chapter syndrome”, each author’s corpus would need a thorough exegesis to examine whether their faith affected their work.

    One tack that could be taken would be for religious practitioners to study only the traditions of others. For example, Christians could study non-theistic Buddhism and non-theistic Buddhists could study Christianity. Unfortunately, I am not sure that even this type of disciplinary boundary would prevent faith from affecting scholarship. The problem I have is that the type of methodological atheism first proposed by Peter Berger and advocated by Wiebe is just as ideologically based as faith based approaches to religion. It’s one thing to “bracket out” the truth claims of a religion and study its human created aspects. It’s an entirely different beast to completely ignore the potential for supernatural agency and attempt to “explain” religion. This method presupposes its conclusions just as strongly as faith based approaches. When we decide before we conduct any research that all aspects of religion can be described in purely human terms, we’re making just as many assumptions as a theist who presupposes the existence of God.

    Christine Pugh

    Wilfrid Laurier University

  3. Avatar
    Sarah M. says:

    Well this is certainly a bleak assessment of the field of religious studies. Religious studies departments are still fairly new, and their purported failure thus far to fully differentiate themselves from their theological origins does not mean that the project should be jettisoned entirely. While it is not unreasonable to ask that scholars of religion try to ‘bracket’ their personal beliefs and achieve some measure of objectivity, it seems that in a field that relies to some extent on textual analysis of religious literature and empathetic understanding of religious adherents, a strict separation of theology from ‘religious studies’ may be unachievable and unproductive. That being said, this argument opens up an important debate about the nature of religious studies and could potentially add dynamism to the field by making space for new disciplines and methodologies.

  4. Avatar
    Sheldon Kent says:

    I don’t think that Donald Wiebe actually painted that bleak of a picture for the study of religion. He certainly highlighted some of the issues that I have personally encountered while conducting my own research, in that people often confuse what I am doing as a scholar of religious studies with that of a theologian. I tend to find that misconception much more frustrating than the issue of bringing theology into the study of religion itself.

    In my own research, however, I tend to prefer an ethnographic approach to my research, which I have found has helped with the issue of trying to ‘bracket’ my own personal beliefs when studying a particular religion, as I am simply attempting to portray the beliefs of others.


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