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What is Right With Pagan Studies?

Ethan Doyle White’s interview with the RSP is a fascinating follow-on to Teemu Taira’s. While Taira seeks a new paradigm of religious studies that does not require definition of “religion,” White has repeatedly expressed frustration with the inability of Pagan studies to define “Paganism,” writing that the “problem with Pagan Studies hinges on its inability to coherently explain precisely what ‘contemporary Paganism’ is. The field of Pagan Studies has gone on for two decades, all the while managing to circumnavigate this contentious issue, but I do not believe that it can do so indefinitely, considering the great importance this question has for the very existence of the field” (2012). How is it that the future of religious studies hinges on ceasing to define “religion,” while the future of Pagan studies hangs on starting to define “Paganism?”

It is tempting to say that this curious contradiction has arisen because Pagan studies is disproportionately staffed by practicing Pagans (Davidsen, 194–5) who would benefit tremendously from a definition, since constructing the object of their study—which causes so much anxiety in religious studies—is precisely their objective. This is the concern that prompted Markus Altena Davidsen (2012) to call for stricter efforts to corral Pagan studies back into methodological line with religious studies.

I applauded White’s response to Davidsen for taking what he describes in the interview as a “balanced, mixed view,” recognizing the validity of dual insider/outsider status in anthropological methodology and noting that “there are independent [openly Pagan] scholars … who have written excellent, balanced historical and biographical accounts… To derogatorily label them ‘religionists’ and accuse them of being too favorable to Paganism, as the Davidsen approach would lead us to do, would be doing scholarship a real disservice” (2012). I think White is absolutely right, but stops too short, for when he writes that he “cannot accept … the accusation that those who adhere to a particular religious belief are intrinsically unable to analyse that belief critically,” (ibid.) he, in a certain measure, reinforces Davidsen’s basic claim that the only valid approach to the study of a religion is a detached critical naturalism. In short, his response to Davidsen is to affirm that religious practitioners can be objective, too.

It is this notion of detached, naturalistic criticism that needs to be criticized, however. I would pay good money to see Davidsen walk into a women’s studies department and declare that its work can only be carried out by men, because women bring too many “insider concerns and perspectives,” or inform a queer studies faculty that queer instructors should be replaced by straight ones, because it is academically unseemly to have them “actively promoting the sexual orientations in question.” I would pay an equal sum, however, to see White defend the same departments on the grounds that they can certainly set aside their identities and, as it were, pretend to be straight cis people long enough to do “balanced” scholarship.

If this strikes us as a ridiculous example, that is because no other field in the humanities is held to the same requirements of detached objectivity demanded in religious studies. No one raises an eyebrow when an accomplished painter teaches art history, or even when a former head of state assumes a post in political science. Far from a compromise of objectivity, this is seen as a valuable leveraging of applied expertise. For all our talk of religion being a human endeavor, we are unaccountably unaccustomed to thinking of it as one; we treat it as an abstract phenomenon that can be subjected to a passably “objective” study, like thermodynamics or photosynthesis. Human endeavors, however, are humanistic—to be elaborated as practices rather than dissected as occurrences. The attempt to engage religious studies as a science ends Davidsen up in the absurd position of objecting to appointing recognized experts as teachers—as though being a successful novelist might compromise one’s integrity as an English professor (although we might be equally leery of letting them drone on about their own work).

Recognizing this absurdity, White refuses to see the “religionists” drummed out, but remains sympathetic to Davidsen’s broader concerns about Pagan worldview creeping into academic description. I find this concern misplaced, however, because the purity of observation and description to which an “insider” account is contrasted has only ever been a faux objectivity. Colonialist scholars took as their standard what most educated Europeans believed, and then proceeded to judge “primitive religions” against Christianity. Can we honestly claim to be different when Davidsen, in the very opening of his critique (p. 183) asks “how we might do better in promoting a naturalist and theoretically oriented approach to studying religion?” Once again, our field is simply using the majority belief of educated Europeans, which is now naturalism, as the obvious yardstick of human judgement. If anyone doubts this, let him once watch the faces of a conference audience when a presenter says that his work in religion builds on Gramsci, and then when another says that her work builds on Guénon.

Pagans often, as White notes in the interview, claim continuities with ancient peoples and kinship with indigenous ones. Perhaps the most credible of these claims is to a worldview that rejects the separation of the sacred and the secular. To insist upon that separation by disallowing methodologies and epistemologies rooted in religious belief, either in the very strong terms of Davidsen or in the much softer terms of White, is, in practice, a colonialist imposition, which, when carried out in a key space of Paganism’s own self-definition (as Pagan studies has de facto become), amounts to an erasure of identity. When White says that we “need to stop accepting Pagan ideas of what Paganism actually is, because they are often idealized and not always analytically useful to those of us who are scholars,” I cannot help but hear an echo of the old assertions that we need to stop accepting, say, Indian ideas of what Indian religion is, because we have the true model of religiosity. For all our pretensions otherwise, we still have an orthodoxy made up of educated European beliefs that invalidates its opponents by depriving them of the terms to name themselves or to articulate their own experience.

Maybe Pagan Studies isn’t infiltrated by religionists, like Davidsen alleges, or overburdened with theological elements that need to be “shaken off,” as White suggests, but instead maybe our whole academic enterprise in the study of religion is, as Russell McCutcheon recently suggested, too big a tent, as the domination of our schools of theology by the Abrahamic religions forces a growing non-Abrahamic theological scholarship to seek refuge in secular departments not designed to accommodate it. The peculiarities of Pagan studies, then, might call our attention to the need of a department to house the emerging discipline of trans-religious theology—a department that could perform the functions of a school of theology ecumenically, providing discursive space for a passionate elaboration of religion as a human endeavor, instead of trying to dispassionately dissect it as a social phenomenon. There the “religionists” would be kept at a distance that Davidsen may find acceptable, their work clearly demarcated from that of the naturalistic, social scientific scholarship that he believes to be the only path forward. White, however, would still be able to find just down the hall those “religionist” scholars whose contributions he values for bringing into the academy the experiences of those who have lived what he aims to study (this is the “deep pluralism” called for by Ezzy [2015]). Pagan scholars, for their part, would have discursive space to continue their work of self-representation and theological exploration, which Panin (2015) suggests might be an unavoidable development out of Pagan studies anyway and, in the same stroke, we would open our theological discussion not just to Pagans, but also to Hindus, Buddhists, and many others who have been marginalized in the Abrahamic spaces in which theology has been academically acceptable hitherto, enriching religious studies by deepening and broadening its most important academic partner in dialogue.

Maybe Pagan studies isn’t broken. Maybe it’s a manifesto.

References

Davidsen, Markus Altena. “What is Wrong with Pagan Studies?” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 24 (2012): 183–99.

Ezzy, Douglas. “Pagan Studies: In Defense of Pluralism,” Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 16.2 (2015): 135–49.

Panin, Stanislav. “Discussions on Pagan Theology in the Academia and in the Pagan Community,” Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 6.3 (2015).

White, Ethan Doyle. “In Defence of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen’s Critique,” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 14.1 (2012): 5–21.

 

 

Making Space for the Better Book

A number of years ago I attended a keynote lecture during a national religious studies conference at which an esteemed professor declared in exasperated tones; “What Have They Done To My Buddhism?!” The tension in the room, rising during his overtly confessional presentation, reached a silent crescendo at this exclamation. Even I, as a (very) junior scholar of religion, could tell that this respected elder of the establishment had touched something of a nerve with many in attendance. This was an avowedly Academic Study of Religions conference, being put on by the relatively newly formed Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion, which proclaims its non-confessional credentials proudly and upfront.

It was in this environment, studying for both my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and History, and later a Masters in Politics, which I was introduced to Islamic Studies, within the Study of Religions department at University College Cork. I am glad to say that Aaron Hughes’ assessment of the current state of the discipline in the North American context was not my experience in Ireland. To a fairly large extent, it has not been my experience since moving across the small sea to pursue a PhD at the Chester Centre for Islamic Studies (CCIS), within a Theology and Religious Studies department, in the University of Chester.

I have sympathy with some of what Hughes has to say, both in this interview and in his most recently published book Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception. Despite this instinctive sympathy, I feel a level of discomfort with his argumentation. I’m left feeling much the same way I felt in that conference centre during the professor’s claim of offense at what was being done to ‘his Buddhism’. In both cases, an acknowledgement of limitations inherent in our singular perspectives is somewhat lacking. Thomas Tweed draws on Donna Haraway to argue that “self-conscious positioning, not pretenses to universality or detachment, is the condition for making knowledge claims” (Tweed, 2002, 257). While Hughes does go to lengths to explain the position from which he embarks on his academic career in the introduction to Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this self-reflection on the complexity of identity is not really carried through the work, nor is it evident in the interview under discussion. In both the interview, and in the most recent book, Hughes points to an issue of names which struck me as odd. In the interview, Hughes alludes to undergraduate students who contact him to thank him for ‘showing another way’ to approach the study of Islam. He assumes a Muslim identity for these students on account of their Muslim or Arabic sounding names. Again, in the book, names are mentioned when Hughes argues that we can assume Talal Asad has a “personal narrative grounded in postcolonial dislocation” (Hughes, 2015, 53), while theorists with names like Lincoln, Smith, McCutcheon, and we might infer Hughes, may be ‘safely ignored’ due to their names “and not for the force of their criticism” (Hughes, 2015, 53). I found myself thinking, are people surprised when I speak and they hear an Irish rather than German accent (my grandfather originated from Leipzig, bringing his German name with him)? Will my German surname impact on my academic career in anyway which I have not yet envisioned? Should I be focusing on more philosophical avenues to make better use of this name?

As a non-Muslim scholar, working on Islam within the discipline of Religious Studies, actively doing what I would consider (or strive to be) critical scholarship, I can also understand where Hughes is coming from in his concern for the privileging of certain ‘insider’ voices over others. I would have more sympathy if this view was expressed as discomfort with the elevation of specific insiders over others; both insiders who do not conform to a specific type, and outsiders with a more critical approach. It weighs on my mind, particularly when attending conferences with a more direct Islamic Studies slant and a high level of practitioner participation. Will my voice be heard in such a setting? If I raise a more critical point, will my position as a white male result in people in the room, either consciously or sub-consciously, downgrading the importance or value of what it is I have to say? I honestly do not think that this is the case. Attending events hosted by the Muslims in Britain Research Network – a group which actively encourages practitioner involvement in academic study – in recent years, I have never felt that my contribution has been devalued by my positionality. If it was the case that my contribution to any academic discussion was not as appreciated as I may like it to be, I could think of many more reasons for this being the case than my obvious affliction of being a white male, an argument Hughes appears happy to make (Hughes, 2015, 19). We must keep in mind that this discussion is not taking place in a vacuum. As Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj so eloquently argued in a recent piece for the online magazine Media Diversified, being a Muslim in 2016 is to be under constant media bombardment and societal suspicion. It is only right that we ‘white males’ should take time to question our assumptions and identities when engaging in a critical study of Islam(s) and/or Muslim peoples and societal structures.

Again, I can recognise, and sympathise, with some of Hughes arguments regarding the danger of confessional, non-critical scholarship pushing out critical scholars from the academy. If this danger truly does exist, I do not see it being lessened by recourse to an oppositional push back against, and attempting to exclude confessional voices from scholarship. When Hughes argues in the interview that taking a critical approach to our area of study may impact on the possibility of gaining tenured positions or opportunities for career advancement for young scholars, I cannot help but wonder if this also works in the opposite direction. By taking an individual’s theology seriously, does a scholar attempting to do critical work in some way jeopardise their own future career prospects? Will this short blog piece jeopardise my future chances in some American institutions? A real issue alluded to by a friend and colleague with whom I discussed the piece.

It is evident that Hughes is in agreement Russell McCutcheon’s argument that there is a problem of “theology being seen as an academically legitimate pursuit within the study of religion”. In Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this argument comes across in Hughes incredulity that a university press would publish what he considers to be “theology masquerading as scholarship” (Hughes, 2015, 66). But despite my own background in the non-confessional discipline of Religious Studies, I see much value in engaging seriously with scholars of Theology in academic discourse. If we wish to study Islam(s) seriously, be that through a study of early Islamic communities in Europe, converts to Islam in North America, or generational dynamics within transnational Shia networks, we must take seriously the religious understandings of the people who constitute those areas of life.

Much of the interview was taken up with a discussion of the recent controversy around the election of Vice President of the American Academy of Religion[1], and the publication by that same body of a bullet point code of ‘responsible research practices’. Hughes repeatedly remarks that this code is made up of little more than a collection of 25 cent words, with little to offer by way of substance and no real critical reflection. Reading through the document, one can perhaps see his point. It is a call to ‘do no harm’, essentially, an urging to be respectful of fellow academics and recognition that scholarship may be conducted “both from within and outside communities of belief and practice”[2]

A recent debate in print, between the renowned scholar of Islamic Studies Bruce Lawrence, and two academics who were in receipt of a highly critical review from him, provides an example of the danger which Hughes is speaking about as regards a single position dominating the academic space, through a monopolisation of review panels and interview boards. It also, I think provides an example of what the AAR may be referring to when urging scholars to “engage in critical and constructive debate”. In their response to Lawrence’s critique of their work, the academics explicitly call out the “’new orthodoxy’ in Islamic studies” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107), which they argue is particularly prevalent in “fashionable US academic circles” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107). I have not read the book concerned, so cannot comment on the validity of their claim, or the relative fairness of the offending review, but what is clear is that there exists in the United States at the very least a problem of perception; there is the perception that critical scholarship will not get a fair hearing, and there is a perception that theological or confessional scholarship is incapable of being fair. This is disastrous for academic work.

The big tent, which Hughes argues is unsustainable, should be made to hold. We are the ones who can hold it together. Like any large community, we will not always agree with one another, we may often actively and vehemently disagree, and this is healthy. In order to keep the conversation going, and perhaps more importantly, to keep things interesting and keep pushing our own thoughts to new places, we must be willing to engage with those we do not naturally agree with. While the AAR guidelines may be problematic in their broad brush approach, and they certainly lack the nuance we might expect from academic discussion, the intention of fostering civility should be appreciated. Without this holding together of the big tent, if we continue to faction and engage in increasingly partisan conversations, where will the ‘better book’ Hughes is calling for come from?

References

  • Hughes, Aaron (2015), Islamic Identities and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception, Equinox, Sheffield
  • Lawrence, Bruce B. (April, 2015), Tracking Iranian Cosmopolitan Options – At Home and Abroad: A Review Essay of Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Spheres of Belonging and Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism: At Home and in the World, SCTIW Review
  • Mirsepassi, Ali,&Fernee, Tadd (2015), ‘Defending the Current Academic Orthodoxy in Islamic Studies: A Response to Bruce Lawrence’, Sociology of Islam3 Issue 3-4, pp.107-124
  • Tweed, Thomas A. (2002), ‘On Moving Across: Translocative Religion and the Interpreter’s Position’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol.70 No.2, pp.253-277

[1] essentially President elect due to the way that system works

[2] http://rsn.aarweb.org/responsible-research-practices-statement-standards-professional-conduct-aar-members

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 16 February 2016

Calls for papers

Journal: Open Theology

Special issue: Alternative Religiosities in the Soviet Union and the Communist

East-Central Europe: Formations, Resistances and Manifestations

Deadline: June 30, 2016

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Special issue: Religion and Belief in the Public Sphere of Eastern Europe

Deadline: February 28, 2016

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Conference: ISASR: Religion and Revolution

June 16–17, 2016

University College Cork, Ireland

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May 20–22, 2016

Salisbury, UK

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May 21, 2016

University of Cambridge, UK

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Workshop on Gender, Religion and Family Violence

September 13–14, 2016

New Brunswick, Canada

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Conference: Historical Re-Enactment, Contemporary Paganism and Fantasy-Based Movements

May 20–21, 2016

Kaunas, Lithuania

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June 3, 2016

University of Stirling, UK

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Conference: Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

April 15–17, 2016

Cardiff University, UK

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April 6–8, 2016

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Three PhD studentships

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 2 February 2016

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Calls for papers

7th Queering Paradigms Conference

June 11–12, 2016

Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

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Undergraduate conference: “Faith and Power”

August 4–7, 2016

Central European University, Hungary

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Law and Religion Scholars Network

Cardiff University, UK

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Sacred stuff: Material culture and the geography of religion

August 30–September 2, 2016

London, UK

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Religion, literature and culture: Lines in sand

September 9–11, 2016

University of Glasgow, UK

Deadline: April 18, 2016

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Historical Re-Enactment, Contemporary Paganism and Fantasy-Based Movements

May 20–21, 2016

Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania

Deadline: March 21, 2016

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Islam and Peaceful Relations

April 5, 2016

Coventry University, UK

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Postgraduate Conference on Religion and Theology: “Perfection”

March 11–12, 2016

University of Bristol, UK

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Time and Myth: The Temporal and the Eternal

May 26–28, 2016

Masaryk University, Czech Republic

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Fetish Boots and Running Shoes: Indecent Theology Today into Tomorrow

July 8, 2016

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November 19–22, 2016

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June 24, 2016

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Inform seminar: New Religious Radicalisms

May 21, 2016

London School of Economics, UK

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Arbeitskreis interdisdisziplinäre Hexenforschung

February 18–20, 2016

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Research Methods in the Study of Religion

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University of Leipzig, Germany

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Visiting Fellowship

Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

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Case Western Research University, OH, United States

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Antioch University, OH, USA

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Columbia University, NY, USA

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Psychology of Religion at Its Best…and Less Best

There were a number of excellent talks at the (deep breath) American Psychological Association Division 36 Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 2015 Mid-Year Conference hosted by Brigham Young University (BYU) at the Marriott Conference Center in Provo, Utah, United States on March 20th and 21st (exhale). In particular, the second keynote address by Dr. Frank Fincham, Director of the Florida State University Family Institute was an excellent model of how research in the psychology of religion and spirituality can have practical use in designing psychological interventions in addition to the acquisition of knowledge. His and his collaborators’ work involved the psychological impacts of partner-directed prayer on the romantic relationships of religious believers, specifically how prayer can bolster relationship quality by increasing the forgiveness ability of the praying partner. Over a series of carefully framed studies he described the process they used to look at the broad effects of partner directed prayer on relationships. After narrowing their focus, they found that increased cooperative behavior was the primary mediator of the effect of prayer on forgiveness. They used these findings to construct and validate a prayer-focused marriage therapy intervention within an African-American, religious population. Throughout his talk, he was careful to make it clear that these studies were done with, and only apply to, religious believers and that the possibility of comparable mechanisms for nonbeliever couples still need to be researched.

Dr. Julie Exline’s Laboratory at Case Western Reserve University: Alex Uzdavines, Julie Exline, Valencia Harriott, Steffany Homolka, Nick Stauner, and Josh Wilt.

At least for my part, this was greatly appreciated. As someone who studies religious nonbelievers (not to mention being one), it can chafe reading or watching a presentation on research which has broadly sweeping conclusions about the benefits of religious belief which go far beyond what the data allow. Often this research implicitly (sometimes explicitly) assumes that the audience is religious themselves and that the research can be generalized to nonbelievers by just flipping the direction of the results. It was refreshing to have religious-oriented research presented in a manner that both framed the results within the context of the beliefs of the people who participated in the research and explicitly acknowledged that the conclusions drawn could not be applied to nonbelievers without further study.

Dr. Fincham’s focus on measurable psychological mechanisms contrasted sharply with the major themes from symposium presented by a number of scholars from BYU the previous day. The presenters answered the title of the symposium, chaired by Shannon Starks, “Does Psychology’s Naturalism Hamper Understanding of Religious Phenomena?” with a resounding “Yes!” Ms. Starks spoke first and her presentation outlined how widely used introductory psychology texts take a strictly naturalistic stance and often reject supernatural hypotheses for psychological phenomena just as resoundingly. Dr. Jeffery S. Reber presented the second talk and gave a number of examples of psychological theories that grew out of the work of famous theologians. However, when the writers most responsible for bringing these theories into psychology (sometimes the theologian themself!) translated them, all references to a god/gods, the divine, or the supernatural were removed.

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman, APA Div. 36 President Dr. Kevin Ladd, and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr. Melanie Nyhof

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman with Dr. Kevin Ladd and Dr. Melanie Nyhof enjoying the post conference Sundance tour.

The third talk, presented by Dr. Edwinn E. Gantt, built upon the first two presentations but shifted focus examining how psychological research often misses the supernatural reality of an individual’s lived experience, while the majority of researchers hunt for naturalistic mechanisms. He argued that since people qualitatively experience the supernatural as real, psychology is doing a disservice to human experience by saying that the supernatural is just a figment of explainable mechanisms. Finally, Dr. Brent D. Slife discussed a story from his clinical internship where he specifically focused on naturalistic therapeutic approaches at the behest of his supervisor. Over time he began to feel ashamed of how this cognitive-behavioral approach shifted his clients’ focus away from her spirituality and to thoughts and behaviors that seemed to reduce her suffering. In fact, Dr. Slife argued that by focusing on the reduction of suffering, psychologists are doing a disservice to religious clients because God might intend for them to suffer and reducing this risks moving their client away from God’s wishes. This is understandable only as long as a therapist discusses their naturalistic orientation with their client and the client still chooses to continue therapy. Conversely, a religious therapist should discuss their beliefs and intent to bring these beliefs into therapy ahead of time so that if the client does not wish to participate in religious therapy they can find a new therapist.

There were two major themes gleaned from this symposium. The first was one of “religious deletion” which seemed to operate similarly within the psychological community to how “bisexual deletion” works in both gay and straight communities. Aspects of identity, thought, or experience which don’t fit within the dominant culture of the community are either ignored or dismissed as not real, as religious/supernatural ideas and experience are dismissed within the psychological community – according to the speakers (and many other psychologists of religion I have spoken with). Requiring that psychological theories (or psychologists themselves) be stripped of their religious background in order to be taken seriously within the field does a disservice to everyone involved. While the current extent of the anti-religious nature of psychology is open to study, it does seem to be present and working towards a more theologically inclusive field might be a benefit to those who study the psychology of religion and spirituality, regardless of whether or not they are religious themselves.

The second major theme was more questionable, however. The idea that consideration of the supernatural is off-limits to psychological study pervaded all the presentations, with the exception of Dr. Reber’s. Well, off-limits to “naturalistic psychology,” anyways. Ms. Starks even went so far as criticizing studies that looked at Extra Sensory Perception and dreams that could predict future events. Rather than raising any methodological critiques, she simply implied that because the researchers operated within a naturalistic framework the studies were a priori invalid. Despite saying that the supernatural exists and that it impacts the natural world of which psychological processes are a part, the speakers refused to actually discuss any methodology that could be used to study either the supernatural itself or how it impacts naturalistic psychology, even after being directly asked to go into this by a few audience questions. In doing so, the impression I was left with was that it wasn’t psychology’s job to try and peek behind the “wizard’s curtain” of religious experience and if naturalistic scientists can’t prove the non-existence of the supernatural, they should simply acknowledge that it is real since many people experience it as real. The fact that some of us actively experience the supernatural to be imaginary and very much not-real can be safely ignored in the interest of privileging religious experience.

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

The implication that Christianity was the religious experience that should be privileged above all others within the field was made painfully clear during the dinner hosted by BYU. In three events (a Christian prayer; a campus ministry capella group which hoped to convert non-Christian division members; and the final dinner talk in which the speaker railed against non-Christian psychologists throughout the twentieth century, non-Christian moral principles in general, and drug use in Europe, which is a clear, unambiguous indicator of a lack of religious belief in a region) there was a very clear message that non-Christians were not welcome. This was actually news to me, as I have been involved with Division 36 since 2012 and this was the third divisional mid-year conference I’d spoken at. Unfortunately, it was the first time I’d felt deeply unwelcome as an Atheist member of the division. Despite the committee organizing the conference making it clear to BYU that this was not a religious conference, the organizers at BYU ignored this and appeared to go out of their way to make the events they did have control over as hostile to non-Christians as possible, while still maintaining a facade of inclusivity.

Overall, this conference highlighted both the good and bad aspects of our sub-field. The keynote from Dr. Fincham and the symposium lead by Ms. Starks displayed the strides being made towards the rigorous study of the impacts religious and spiritual practices may have on psychological functioning and the arguments we need to have within the field to define the border areas of the natural and supernatural for the purpose of further study. Unfortunately, the sectarian aspects of BYU’s dinner events aimed exclusively towards the Christian attendees showed that we still have a long path ahead. For my part, I’m going to continue going to these mid-year conferences and advocating that those of us who study the psychology of (and/or are) religious/spiritual nonbelievers or non-Christians attend as well.

Why should we keep paying attention to Otto?

 

Is it necessary, helpful even, to only study religion if you are not religious? Does the secular scholar of, say Hinduism, stand to be a better scholar than another with the same training but who happens to personally be Hindu? Does having a personal involvement in the group that one is studying assist one in understanding Otto’s numinous?

 

 

Why should we keep paying attention to Otto?

By Chris Duncan

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 14th November, 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Robert Orsi on Rudolf Otto (12 November 2012).

In this interview with Robert Orsi, Religious Studies Professor from Northwestern University, Jonathon and Dr. Orsi discuss the seemingly evergreen writer Rudolf Otto. After a brief discussion over Otto’s more well-known ideas of the numinous and mysterium tremendum the two hit on an intriguing line of talk, one that I have been mulling over in the back of my mind for several months now without really ever noticing it much: as scholars of religion, should we ourselves be religious? Further, if we should be religious, should we be practitioners of the groups that we study? Naturally, I am restricting my definition of “we” to mean those who are non-theologians; perhaps scientists of religion would be apt also.

I have always personally held the position that no scholar of religion could honestly use that title if they were themselves religious. Maybe because specifically, the secular, non-biased scholarship was, to my eye, more brutally honest or willing to discuss the positives in addition to the negatives of particular religious traditions rather than  trying to explain away the negatives. However, recently and unknowingly I may have been changing my mind. For, could someone who studies humans not also be human; must someone who studies Germans not have any form of German connections? Or, as I am beginning to think, does having a personal zeal and insider understanding of a religious tradition make one a more suitable observer/scholar?

The argument over whether religious studies should be either theological or secular study has been an on-going process for decades now, with secular study having held the upper hand for the majority of that time. With the boom of the natural sciences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came the separation of those who study religion in order to actively participate within it, and those who study religion for non-theological purposes. In 1963, the National Association of Bible Instructors changed its name to the American Academy of Religion, and since then there has continued a steady march towards secular, non-religious scholarly study of religions. However, in the journal of this same organization, the September 2012 edition, Donald Wiebe and Luther Martin lament that though platitudes of secular, unbiased study are tossed about in public, in execution, university programs, particularly American programs, “all reveal a continuing influence of theology on the field [of religious studies] worldwide.” So, what is one to do? Is it necessary, helpful even, to only study religion if you are not religious? Does the secular scholar of, say Hinduism, stand to be a better scholar than another with the same training but who happens to personally be Hindu? Does having a personal involvement in the group that one is studying assist one in understanding Otto’s numinous?

No to the first two, but to the last; maybe.

Undeniably there must be some form of separation from observer and the object of observation but rather than have an argument over the theological or secular study of religion, perhaps scholars should be focused on a more narrow question: why does our field consider that a scholar must be Richard Dawkins-like in order to study religion? Is it not possible to study, say American Pentecostals, from an extremely in-depth, personal platform without considering this to be theology? So long as the scholar is clear about bracketing their personal ties to their subject, there should be no problem with a devout Muslim teaching courses on Islam, indeed who would be better to write a chapter on Islam than a Muslim? Perhaps our beloved field should be less concerned with labeling scholars and worrying what their personal influences MIGHT be and stick to examining the output of scholars. By continuing this internal struggle over how best to regulate the study of religion, scholars are willingly allowing our field to crumble and be overtaken by Anthropology and the Cognitive Sciences. In short, a house divided falls entirely; so let us allow theologians to preach, independently we scientists of religion can continue to write and to teach and then we can critique the finished product rather than becoming manic, wondering how to best defend ourselves from the bullies who want our funding. If religious studies is on par with the other sciences (which I believe it is) why do we not simply allow our work to speak for itself and stop being so scared of our colleagues’ possible ulterior motives? Rather than continue to debate whether Otto wrote theology or secular, scientific works on religion, let’s simply use what he wrote in the most useful manner that we can muster.

 

 

Reference:

Martin, Luther H., & Wiebe, Donald. (2012). Religious Studies as a Scientific Discipline: The Persistence of a Delusion. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 3, 587.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

 

About the Author:

Chris Duncan is currently in the final year of the undergrad Religious Studies program at Arizona State University, with an emphasis on Hinduism. He will be moving into the  Graduate program in the same field next year.

Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?

If you have been listening to the podcast for the past couple of weeks, you will be aware that we are about to go on a brief hiatus until September, to give our listeners some time to catch up, and to give Chris and David a chance to catch up on some of their other commitments. The website will still be releasing content on a less regular basis, and we have at least one more roundtable discussion for your delectation over the coming weeks. We will also be re-releasing our ‘editors favourites’ from the first batch of podcasts – so there will still be plenty of material to keep you occupied. However, before we ‘leave you’ we wanted to go out with a bang, and it is therefore with pleasure that we present the second of our compilation episodes.

As with the first of our compilation episodes (What is the Future of Religious Studies?), every time David, Chris and Jonathan have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: ‘Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?’ The result is this compilation of differing opinions and interpretations of key terms from eight top scholars from a variety of disciplines – sociology, psychology, religious studies, theology – on how academics should position themselves in relation to the groups and individuals that they study.

However, we decided to push things one step further with this one. The inspiration for this episode came from one of Russell McCutcheon’s works which we had encountered through the undergraduate Religious Studies programme at the University of Edinburgh, entitled ‘Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion‘. We thought it would be an excellent idea to invite Russell to respond to the opinions of the other scholars in this podcast, and are very grateful that not only was he happy to be involved, but he sent a ten minute response recording. Enjoy.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, and others’ are still on our ‘to-do’ list, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation. We apologise for the UK-centric nature of these recordings… that’s just what happened in this instance.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

Whether you stick with us over the break, or come back to us in September, we can assure you that we have another great lineup in store. Future podcasts include interviews with David Morgan (Duke University), Kim Knott (Lancaster University), Robert Orsi (Northwestern University), Gordon Lynch (University of Kent), Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity University College), J Gordon Melton (Baylor University), Brian Victoria (Antioch University) and more…

Please keep telling people about us… if you are a lecturer, please consider incorporating this material into your courses… and please keep supporting us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for listening!

In Saecula Saeculorum: Reflecting on the Age/Aeon in light of the Cappadocian Fathers

In Saecula Saeculorum: Reflecting on the Age/Aeon in light of the Cappadocian Fathers

By Mario Baghos, St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College and University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 23 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Tariq Modood on the Crisis of European Secularism (28 May 2012).

Introduction

Drawing on my own research and interdisciplinary interests, the following response to Professor Tariq Modood’s podcast entitled ‘The Crisis of European Secularism’ will consist in a summary of his main thesis, followed by a statement of the challenge I seek to address, namely the anthropocentrism inherent in (some forms of) contemporary secularism; particularly its neglect of religion/God and the cosmos.  This will be followed by an etymological analysis of the word ‘secular,’ which is analogous with the age/aeon, especially as it was envisaged by the Cappadocian fathers of the early Church, Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian (or, ‘Nazianzus’). It is hoped that their holistic vision of the age, one in which God and the cosmos were in fact included, can inspire further reflection on the way we experience our ‘age.’

Summary, and Addressing the ‘Crisis’

David Robertson’s insightful interview with Professor Tariq Modood unfolds within the parameters of a very pertinent debate, namely, the relationship between secular nations or states and religious institutions; where secularism, in a broad sense, has to do with separation of these two spheres. Professor Modood distinguishes between three types of secularism that, historically, have conditioned the relationship between governments and religious establishments since the Enlightenment. These can be described as ‘soft,’ ‘strict,’ and ‘moderate,’ the latter implying that organised religion and political authority can be partners, albeit in a limited sense (i.e. whilst retaining their mutual autonomy). According to him, it is the ‘strict’ form of secularism – an outcome of the French concept of laïcité – that is unfortunately prevailing in British society at a time when a new religious pluralism is beginning to emerge with immigration by Muslim minorities. Indeed, Professor Modood is genuinely concerned with positing a framework (i.e. through moderate secularism), where British authorities and Muslim clerics can work together without compromising the secularism of the former and the religious convictions/way of life of the latter. Whilst appreciating the significance of Modood’s presentation, I am reluctant to comment on it further, insofar as I do not feel sufficiently equipped with the knowledge pertaining to the secular policies of our modern governments, nor the intricacies of immigration. However, Modood’s nuanced description of various secularisms does offer the opportunity to engage the ‘crisis’ in relation to my own research interests; for whilst the professor has pertinently observed their implications for the relationship between politics and religious/ethnic minorities, I will be presupposing that the general mentality (or, metanarrative) behind secularism can be both anthropocentric and reductionist, insofar as its promotion of a-religiosity (on a political level) and preoccupation for the interests of human beings precludes an appreciation for the ways in which the ‘age’ has been interpreted by ancient and traditional societies, wherein God and the cosmos were intimately bound with the human endeavour or history. As pretexts for this anthropocentrism, the increasing neglect of God and religion in public affairs (the latter pointed to by Modood with reference to the ‘strict’ model), Mircea Eliade’s characterisation of modern ‘man’ [or, people] as only existing “insofar as he makes himself, within history [i.e. apart from cosmos]” (2005: xxiii), as well as the scientifically proven and very obvious degradation to the planet since the Industrial Revolution in the name of our own progress, will have to suffice for such a short piece. But before moving forward I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Modood for drawing my attention to some very important and sensitive issues, apart from which I would have remained rather ignorant.

Scope and Definitions

As mentioned, I intend to begin with an etymological analysis. Presupposing that words or definitions are indicative of the mentalities that produce them, I will address the concept of the ‘age’ or aeon as implied by the secondary meaning of the Latin term saeculum, wherefrom the word ‘secular’ is derived. I am aware of the difficulties inherent in undertaking an etymological analysis without extensively considering the different ways in which the notion of secularism and its cognates (such as ‘secularisation,’ ‘secularity’) have been employed across a range of interpretive disciplines (the history of religion, the sociology of religion, the field of geo-politics, to name a few). Nevertheless, having recently explored the historical development and use of some of these definitions as set out both in Modood’s presentation and in the works of N. J. Demerath and Judith Fox, I believe that my approach is legitimated by etymological analyses of the words ‘culture’ (Demerath 2007: 71) and ‘secular’ (Fox 2005: 292) undertaken by the latter in order to demonstrate their respective theses. Of particular relevance is Fox’s demonstration that the derivation of this term, coming from “the same etymological root (L. saeculum) as the French word siecle, meaning ‘century’ or ‘age,’” is also evident in “the astronomical use of the word secular to talk about processes of change over long periods of time” (Fox: 292). Perhaps unintentionally hinting at the longue durée of the Annales school of historiography (Le Goff 1992: xxi-xxii), this astronomical definition is important, for it can be interpreted as pointing to a relationship between the Latin saeculum and the Greek aeon (αἰῶν); the latter being a more flexible term which can mean either a long period of time or eternity depending on the context. To this end, the Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum, included in my title, is the Vulgate translation of the New Testament phrase “into the ages of ages” (εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων/eis toūs aiōnas tōn aiōnōn) which is commonly mistranslated as the eternity of God, but in fact relates to a doxological (and hence, existential) appraisal of his sovereign presence and providential activity throughout both the present age and the eschatological ages to come (Cf. Gal 1:5, Eph 3:21, Phil 4:20, 1 Tim 1:17, 2 Tim 4:18, Heb 13:21, 1 Pet 4:11, Rev 1:18, 4:9, 10, 5:13, 7:12, 11:15, 22:5). Usually preceded by an invocation of the Holy Trinity, this doxological phrase commonly prefigured many prayers and hymns of the Christianity of the late antique and medieval periods, resounding today in its major branches, Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. So, as my title suggests, I will address the concept of the ‘age’ or aeon as implied by the secondary meaning of the Latin term saeculum as a long period of time (here to be understood as the duration of the cosmos), evoking the existential dimension of the Christian tradition with its antecedents in the scriptures and exemplified in material which is of immediate relevance to (and an outcome of) my own research, namely, the writings of the fourth century Cappadocian fathers Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian. I will show that their conception of the age or aeon is one in which God and the cosmos are included, which, I will argue, stands in stark contradistinction to our anthropocentric and reductionist interpretations of secularism.

The Cappadocians on the Age/Aeon

The Basilian concept of the ‘age’ is associated with two other aspects of his thinking, namely, his exegetical approach to the scriptures – more particularly Genesis (i.e. protology) – and his eschatological vision; where the eschaton, the ‘last things’ of the historical continuum traditionally described as “Christ’s final judgment of humanity, the resurrection of the dead and the final ‘transformation of the cosmos’” (Baghos: 2010: 86) were envisaged as anticipated in the here and now in an ecclesial context. Concerning the former, which is expounded at length in his Hexaēmeron (or, Homilies on the Six Days of Creation), he notes that scripture [i.e. Gen 1:5] “calls the first day of creation ‘one day’ – ἡμέρα μία [heméra mía] – instead of the ‘first’ – πρώτη ἡμέρα [prótē heméra] – in a succession of days” (Baghos: 89). The Cappadocian allegorically interprets this ‘one’ day (heméra mía) as symbolising a totality that recapitulates within itself all of creation history from beginning to end as metaphorically represented by the creation narrative. He does this by suggesting that the very structure of the week of Genesis, which is paradigmatic for the duration of time we experience (i.e. all subsequent ‘weeks’), constitutes an image or approximation of eternity in its cyclical rotation. Hence, both the ‘one’ day and its consecutive ‘reiterations’ point to the aforementioned recapitulation of history which he also describes as the age/aeon (αἰῶν), which does not simply refer to the human endeavour undertaken for its own sake; but to the origin, rhythms and purpose of the entire created cosmos, consisting of both the “heavenly and earthly, human and biological, astronomical and mineral” (Costache 2010: 22), which he elucidates throughout the treatise. So, for this traditional thinker, there could be no separation between the notion of the age and the cosmic purpose that contained within itself the human endeavour (Costache: 23), thereby leaving no room for the sort of anthropocentrism characterising contemporary secularism(s). St Basil also refers to “the ages of ages” mentioned in the scriptures (see above), stating that, since they are not enumerated in a sequence (as the six days of creation in Genesis) they do not refer to ‘ages.’ Instead, they pertain to “differences of conditions and of various circumstances” (Hexaēmeron 2.8, at 35. PG 29, 49D-52A) that pertain to this very age designated by the ‘one’ day, the age or aeon, and also the ‘eighth day’ that occurs outside the week of time and hence our temporal experience. Days ‘one’ and ‘eight,’ inhering within the same aeon, not only point to the inextricable relationship between protology and eschatology in the saint’s thinking, but also to the fact that those aspects relating to the ‘last things’ mentioned above can be experienced in any epoch, thereby prefiguring the profoundly existential already/not yet of the eschaton put forward by contemporary scholarship; that although God’s kingdom has ‘already’ been established in the Church (with the advent of Christ), it is ‘not yet’ consummated – and won’t be until the second coming (Baghos: 85). In his On the Holy Spirit, St Basil highlights this ecclesial dimension by affirming that days ‘one’ and ‘eight’ coincide on a Sunday, which in Greek is literally the ‘Lord’s day’ – or Κυριακή (Kyriakē) – the principal day on which the Eucharistic liturgy was and still is celebrated (Baghos: 85). Herein lies the existential significance of the age for this Church father. For him, the ecclesial rhythms, but especially the liturgy, recapitulate God’s providential activity throughout the entire age understood cosmically; what has happened, is happening, and will happen is summed up within the Sunday, the ‘one’ day of creation, through which believers are able to have an immediate foretaste of the ‘eighth’ day, i.e. the eschatological life to come.

St Gregory the Theologian’s vision of the age/aeon is as holistic as that of his friend and peer, St Basil. At the beginning of the twenty-fifth chapter of his Fifth Theological Oration, he states that “there have been two transformations of life manifested out of the entire age [τοῦ παντὸς αἰῶνος/toū pantōs aiōnos]” (Fifth Theological Oration 25, at 136. PG 36, 160D). I have written elsewhere that this all-encompassing approach, resonating with Basil’s conception of the age, “attempts to give a comprehensive account of the historical drama and the persons and events that it includes” (Baghos 2011: 24). In other words, the Cappadocian’s perception was akin to what we today call a metanarrative, which, he went on to affirm, unfolded between the two covenants of the Old and New Testaments, which he also described as “earthquakes” marking two important existential changes in disposition of God’s people; from the pagan idols to the Mosaic Law, and from the Law to the Christian Gospel (Baghos: 24-25). For the Theologian, these two changes were analogously marked by the disclosure of God as Trinity; the first covenant proclaimed the Father, the second the Son, whilst also giving believers “a glimpse of the Spirit’s Godhead” (Fifth Theological Oration, 26, at 137; PG 36, 161C) before his revelation to the apostles and the ecclesial community. Here, we encounter a conception of the age/aeon that far from being interpreted anthropocentrically, is instead concerned with God’s self-disclosure that unfolds in stages proportionate to the capacity of human beings to receive it (Baghos 2011: 29). That this self-disclosure is again profoundly existential is exemplified by the saint’s insistence that the Spirit dwelt within the apostles, and his understanding of the eschatological experience as constituting the “third and final earthquake that will translate the cosmos into an unshaken, unmoved mode of being” (Baghos 2011: 31). And it is precisely here that the cosmic dimension of Gregory’s vision of the age is exhibited; for this eschatological rumination, when compared intertextually with chapters 11-13 of his Oration 38, denotes that whilst the historical continuum moves from one ‘covenantal earthquake’ to the next, it is in fact marked on either end (i.e. alpha and omega) by the Demiurge Logos (i.e. Christ), who, in his pre-incarnate existence created the spiritual and material worlds (Baghos: 30-31). For Gregory it is to this same Logos, now incarnate as Christ Jesus, towards which history, and hence the age, is oriented; thereby precluding the anthropocentric model in light of the inevitable teleological encounter of the universe and all it contains with God the Son.

Concluding Remarks

In an environment where secularism is often interpreted as a prerogative in human self-governance and even our perception and experience of the world, it is perhaps intriguing – if not often disquieting – to be confronted with how representative figures from other epochs, usually considered more religious than our own, viewed their own age and all it contained. Whilst there are many forms of secularism, such as those pointed out by professor Modood in his podcast, what I have been concerned with in this piece is to offer an alternative, holistic vision of the concept of the age/aeon based on the writings of two figures from fourth century Christianity. Whilst some might decry this diachronic, and in fact interdisciplinary approach, I am finding that it has become a staple of my own research, insofar as I am genuinely convinced that the religious perceptions and mentalities from any context can offer insights into contemporary situations, not the least secularism. In the beginning of this response I mentioned the fact that secularism can be, in a general sense, characterised by an anthropocentrism that is manifested in a neglect of God and religion in public affairs, as well as an a-cosmicism that has had an immediate effect on our environment. I then undertook an etymological analysis of the term ‘secular,’ in order to legitimate its use with reference to the age or aeon. This led me to a brief exploration of the conception of the ‘age’ in two representative figures of early Christianity, namely the Cappadocians Basil and Gregory. In the former, I identified the relationship between the age and the cosmic rhythms, outlining their existential dimension that is facilitated by the Eucharistic liturgy, wherein the entire salvific economy (or, God’s presence in the age) is anticipated with a foretaste of the future eschaton. In the latter, I observed a metanarrational vision of history (or the age) whereby God gradually discloses himself through the ‘covenantal earthquakes’; a vision which is not without its cosmic significance insofar as the age is marked by Christ’s presence on either end as creator and consummator. That the vision of these two saints is not without contemporary relevance is testified by their veneration, especially amongst Eastern Orthodox Christians, who moreover continue to refer to them with epithets established by tradition (‘the Great,’ ‘Theologian’) and to celebrate liturgies ostensibly written by them. It is perhaps worth pondering the ramifications of secularism on these Christians, both as it increases in popularity in their native countries and as they migrate abroad. As a final note, in focusing on these specifically Christian figures I did not mean to preclude the perception and experience of other religious traditions. On the contrary, it is hoped that their holistic perception and experience of the ‘age’ as one in which God and the cosmos are included will provide a meaningful alternative to our modern experience of it as interpreted from the viewpoint of various secularisms, which I have posited can be anthropocentric, and hence reductionist, in nature.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

 

Mario Baghos is Associate Lecturer in Patristic Studies and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Redfern, Sydney. He is a PhD candidate in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. His research interests include the city of Constantinople, patristic eschatology, and the history of religions and mentalities.

 

References

Baghos, Mario (2010) ‘St Basil’s Eschatological Vision: Aspects of the Recapitulation of History and the Eighth Day’ Phronema 25, 85-103.

Baghos, Mario (2011) ‘The Meaning of History: Insights from St Gregory the Theologian’s Existential Metanarrative’ Colloquium 43:1, 17-38.

Costache, Doru (2010) ‘Christian Worldview: Understandings from St Basil the Great’ Phronema 25, 21-56.

Demerath III, N.J. (2007) ‘Secularization and Sacralization Deconstructed and Reconstructed’ in James A. Beckford and N.J. Demerath II (eds.) The Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Religion. London: Sage Publications, 57-79.

Eliade Mircea (2005) The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History, trans. W.R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fox, Judith (2005) ‘Secularization’ in John R. Hinnells (ed.) The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. Oxon: Routledge, 291-305.

Harrison, Nonna Verna (trans.) (2008) Festal Orations: Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, in Popular Patristics Series 36, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood NY: SVS Press.

Hildebrand, Stephen (trans.) (2011) St Basil the Great: On the Holy Spirit, in Popular Patristics Series 42, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Le Goff, Jacques (1992): History and Memory, trans. S. Rendall and E. Claman. New York: Columbia University Press.

Way, Agnes Clare (trans.) (2003) St Basil: Exegetical Homilies, The Fathers of the Church Series, vol. 46. Washington D.C: The Catholic University of American Press.

Williams, Frederick (trans.) (2002) St Gregory of Nazianzus: On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and the Two Letters to Cledonius, Popular Patristics Series 23, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

The Merits of Hybrid Theology

The Merits of Hybrid Theology

By Gemma Gall, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Donald Wiebe on the relationship between Religious Studies and Theology (6 February 2012).

The work of Donald Wiebe is not entirely alien to me; indeed, I have found myself agreeing with his response to phenomenology. However, on the question of the relationship between theology and religious studies, Wiebe’s visit to Edinburgh in 2010 found our opinions to be very divergent.

Wiebe begins his interview by admitting that it may not be possible to clearly delineate religious studies and theology, an admirable concession which seems to lull the listener into the false belief that he is promulgating an understanding of the ‘dichotomy’ which understands the malleable nature of both academic disciplines and the relationship between them. Unfortunately, he undermines this moment of resisting reductionism by his refusal to acknowledge development in the concepts of theology.

The reasoning which Wiebe gives for this is flawed: despite his recognition of the changing nature of theology, he continues to base his understanding of this relationship in the Christian tradition of God talk. His dismissal of ‘hybrid theology’ without any assessment of what this entails (and instead indulging in biased rhetoric) is one of the main failings of his summary of the theology-religious studies situation. Very few, if any, religious studies scholars would claim that religious studies should engage in studies in which they practice God talk. Surely this is simply theology? Similarly, ‘religious studies’ which do not engage with hybrid theology, the understandings of ‘god(s)’, ‘religion’, ‘supernatural’, or whatever element the group being studied claim to be the underpinning of their group, is surely just a ‘scientific’ study of the group. Of course it is necessary for there to be anthropological, sociological etc studies, but it is also necessary to consider how theology – in its hybrid sense – impacts upon practice.

As an example of how knowledge of the theology of the group studied aids understanding, I demonstrate how I have used theology. My own studies specialise in Islam with a particular focus on gender issues, which demands an understanding of the relationship between, for example, politics, economics, spatial theory, power relations and Holy texts (with the interpretation thereof) for an issue such as veiling. Refusing to engage in studying the revelation of the ‘hijab verses’ in the Qur’an, as well as their interpretation, leads to a confused and inferior study.

This dichotomy, Wiebe argues, may even prevent scholars of religion who are themselves religious from a non-biased study. According to cognitive theory, evolutionary psychology has developed to protect the ‘supernatural instinct’ which is employed when one can’t understand something. This is “hard-wired” to protect agency, thus preventing many of those with a faith of their own from bracketing it out; therefore endangering the scientific nature of their studies. Indeed, Wiebe claims that many scholars with a religious position of their own will not undertake the ‘hard work’ to retain a vigorously scientific study. These claims are predicated on an understanding of faith as a singularly correct entity. I find it hard to believe that there are many serious religious studies scholars who hold this position; it is antithetical to the aims of the discipline. I agree with Wiebe that scholars should not invoke their own beliefs in their studies; after all, that would not be a study of the group being undertaken but instead of one’s own beliefs. However, I feel that it is impossible to bracket all aspects of one’s own faith position;  that the holding of forms of belief may even benefit a scholar’s attempts to understand how another’s faith impacts upon their life.

The notion that our inability to prove or disprove the notion of God means that we should not invoke such a concept is highly problematic. Firstly, if the concepts of God(s), supernatural or other variants, continue to impact upon how a community functions, then the study again fails to fully account for the context.

Perhaps Wiebe’s determined view of non-theological approaches to the study of religion fails because it is fundamentally based on a notion of explaining religion. This is not what religious studies should purport to do; we provide theories and data detailing what people practice and believe, we do not explain ‘religion’. If this were possible, surely the interminable debates on definitions of religion would be complete?

Ultimately, Wiebe fails to recognise that whilst there may be methodological differences between the disciplines, there is a certain amount of interdependency between the two. Religious Studies without theology fails not only to adequately study the phenomena it purports to, but it fails to justify its existence a separate discipline. The good historians and philologists of whom Wiebe speaks are just that; they are not scholars of religious studies. Similarly, theology undertaken from one’s own faith position is simply practice of belief, as Wiebe himself claims; it has no place in academia. However, theology does not have to take this form. To use Wiebe’s own terminology, ‘hybrid theology’, where a non-biased and non-personal methodology is employed, offers an alternative. If Wiebe is serious in his claim that theology has a place as an object of analysis in academia, then surely he must reconsider his own views in order to see this as a ‘third way’ between a purely ‘scientific’ study of religion and the ‘God talk’ of Christian theology.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Gemma Gall graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA in Religious Studies in 2010, and is currently continuing her studies at Edinburgh with an MSc by Research in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. She specialises in Gender and Islam.

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)

References:

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.

Podcasts

What is Right With Pagan Studies?

Ethan Doyle White’s interview with the RSP is a fascinating follow-on to Teemu Taira’s. While Taira seeks a new paradigm of religious studies that does not require definition of “religion,” White has repeatedly expressed frustration with the inability of Pagan studies to define “Paganism,” writing that the “problem with Pagan Studies hinges on its inability to coherently explain precisely what ‘contemporary Paganism’ is. The field of Pagan Studies has gone on for two decades, all the while managing to circumnavigate this contentious issue, but I do not believe that it can do so indefinitely, considering the great importance this question has for the very existence of the field” (2012). How is it that the future of religious studies hinges on ceasing to define “religion,” while the future of Pagan studies hangs on starting to define “Paganism?”

It is tempting to say that this curious contradiction has arisen because Pagan studies is disproportionately staffed by practicing Pagans (Davidsen, 194–5) who would benefit tremendously from a definition, since constructing the object of their study—which causes so much anxiety in religious studies—is precisely their objective. This is the concern that prompted Markus Altena Davidsen (2012) to call for stricter efforts to corral Pagan studies back into methodological line with religious studies.

I applauded White’s response to Davidsen for taking what he describes in the interview as a “balanced, mixed view,” recognizing the validity of dual insider/outsider status in anthropological methodology and noting that “there are independent [openly Pagan] scholars … who have written excellent, balanced historical and biographical accounts… To derogatorily label them ‘religionists’ and accuse them of being too favorable to Paganism, as the Davidsen approach would lead us to do, would be doing scholarship a real disservice” (2012). I think White is absolutely right, but stops too short, for when he writes that he “cannot accept … the accusation that those who adhere to a particular religious belief are intrinsically unable to analyse that belief critically,” (ibid.) he, in a certain measure, reinforces Davidsen’s basic claim that the only valid approach to the study of a religion is a detached critical naturalism. In short, his response to Davidsen is to affirm that religious practitioners can be objective, too.

It is this notion of detached, naturalistic criticism that needs to be criticized, however. I would pay good money to see Davidsen walk into a women’s studies department and declare that its work can only be carried out by men, because women bring too many “insider concerns and perspectives,” or inform a queer studies faculty that queer instructors should be replaced by straight ones, because it is academically unseemly to have them “actively promoting the sexual orientations in question.” I would pay an equal sum, however, to see White defend the same departments on the grounds that they can certainly set aside their identities and, as it were, pretend to be straight cis people long enough to do “balanced” scholarship.

If this strikes us as a ridiculous example, that is because no other field in the humanities is held to the same requirements of detached objectivity demanded in religious studies. No one raises an eyebrow when an accomplished painter teaches art history, or even when a former head of state assumes a post in political science. Far from a compromise of objectivity, this is seen as a valuable leveraging of applied expertise. For all our talk of religion being a human endeavor, we are unaccountably unaccustomed to thinking of it as one; we treat it as an abstract phenomenon that can be subjected to a passably “objective” study, like thermodynamics or photosynthesis. Human endeavors, however, are humanistic—to be elaborated as practices rather than dissected as occurrences. The attempt to engage religious studies as a science ends Davidsen up in the absurd position of objecting to appointing recognized experts as teachers—as though being a successful novelist might compromise one’s integrity as an English professor (although we might be equally leery of letting them drone on about their own work).

Recognizing this absurdity, White refuses to see the “religionists” drummed out, but remains sympathetic to Davidsen’s broader concerns about Pagan worldview creeping into academic description. I find this concern misplaced, however, because the purity of observation and description to which an “insider” account is contrasted has only ever been a faux objectivity. Colonialist scholars took as their standard what most educated Europeans believed, and then proceeded to judge “primitive religions” against Christianity. Can we honestly claim to be different when Davidsen, in the very opening of his critique (p. 183) asks “how we might do better in promoting a naturalist and theoretically oriented approach to studying religion?” Once again, our field is simply using the majority belief of educated Europeans, which is now naturalism, as the obvious yardstick of human judgement. If anyone doubts this, let him once watch the faces of a conference audience when a presenter says that his work in religion builds on Gramsci, and then when another says that her work builds on Guénon.

Pagans often, as White notes in the interview, claim continuities with ancient peoples and kinship with indigenous ones. Perhaps the most credible of these claims is to a worldview that rejects the separation of the sacred and the secular. To insist upon that separation by disallowing methodologies and epistemologies rooted in religious belief, either in the very strong terms of Davidsen or in the much softer terms of White, is, in practice, a colonialist imposition, which, when carried out in a key space of Paganism’s own self-definition (as Pagan studies has de facto become), amounts to an erasure of identity. When White says that we “need to stop accepting Pagan ideas of what Paganism actually is, because they are often idealized and not always analytically useful to those of us who are scholars,” I cannot help but hear an echo of the old assertions that we need to stop accepting, say, Indian ideas of what Indian religion is, because we have the true model of religiosity. For all our pretensions otherwise, we still have an orthodoxy made up of educated European beliefs that invalidates its opponents by depriving them of the terms to name themselves or to articulate their own experience.

Maybe Pagan Studies isn’t infiltrated by religionists, like Davidsen alleges, or overburdened with theological elements that need to be “shaken off,” as White suggests, but instead maybe our whole academic enterprise in the study of religion is, as Russell McCutcheon recently suggested, too big a tent, as the domination of our schools of theology by the Abrahamic religions forces a growing non-Abrahamic theological scholarship to seek refuge in secular departments not designed to accommodate it. The peculiarities of Pagan studies, then, might call our attention to the need of a department to house the emerging discipline of trans-religious theology—a department that could perform the functions of a school of theology ecumenically, providing discursive space for a passionate elaboration of religion as a human endeavor, instead of trying to dispassionately dissect it as a social phenomenon. There the “religionists” would be kept at a distance that Davidsen may find acceptable, their work clearly demarcated from that of the naturalistic, social scientific scholarship that he believes to be the only path forward. White, however, would still be able to find just down the hall those “religionist” scholars whose contributions he values for bringing into the academy the experiences of those who have lived what he aims to study (this is the “deep pluralism” called for by Ezzy [2015]). Pagan scholars, for their part, would have discursive space to continue their work of self-representation and theological exploration, which Panin (2015) suggests might be an unavoidable development out of Pagan studies anyway and, in the same stroke, we would open our theological discussion not just to Pagans, but also to Hindus, Buddhists, and many others who have been marginalized in the Abrahamic spaces in which theology has been academically acceptable hitherto, enriching religious studies by deepening and broadening its most important academic partner in dialogue.

Maybe Pagan studies isn’t broken. Maybe it’s a manifesto.

References

Davidsen, Markus Altena. “What is Wrong with Pagan Studies?” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 24 (2012): 183–99.

Ezzy, Douglas. “Pagan Studies: In Defense of Pluralism,” Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 16.2 (2015): 135–49.

Panin, Stanislav. “Discussions on Pagan Theology in the Academia and in the Pagan Community,” Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 6.3 (2015).

White, Ethan Doyle. “In Defence of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen’s Critique,” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 14.1 (2012): 5–21.

 

 

Making Space for the Better Book

A number of years ago I attended a keynote lecture during a national religious studies conference at which an esteemed professor declared in exasperated tones; “What Have They Done To My Buddhism?!” The tension in the room, rising during his overtly confessional presentation, reached a silent crescendo at this exclamation. Even I, as a (very) junior scholar of religion, could tell that this respected elder of the establishment had touched something of a nerve with many in attendance. This was an avowedly Academic Study of Religions conference, being put on by the relatively newly formed Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion, which proclaims its non-confessional credentials proudly and upfront.

It was in this environment, studying for both my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and History, and later a Masters in Politics, which I was introduced to Islamic Studies, within the Study of Religions department at University College Cork. I am glad to say that Aaron Hughes’ assessment of the current state of the discipline in the North American context was not my experience in Ireland. To a fairly large extent, it has not been my experience since moving across the small sea to pursue a PhD at the Chester Centre for Islamic Studies (CCIS), within a Theology and Religious Studies department, in the University of Chester.

I have sympathy with some of what Hughes has to say, both in this interview and in his most recently published book Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception. Despite this instinctive sympathy, I feel a level of discomfort with his argumentation. I’m left feeling much the same way I felt in that conference centre during the professor’s claim of offense at what was being done to ‘his Buddhism’. In both cases, an acknowledgement of limitations inherent in our singular perspectives is somewhat lacking. Thomas Tweed draws on Donna Haraway to argue that “self-conscious positioning, not pretenses to universality or detachment, is the condition for making knowledge claims” (Tweed, 2002, 257). While Hughes does go to lengths to explain the position from which he embarks on his academic career in the introduction to Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this self-reflection on the complexity of identity is not really carried through the work, nor is it evident in the interview under discussion. In both the interview, and in the most recent book, Hughes points to an issue of names which struck me as odd. In the interview, Hughes alludes to undergraduate students who contact him to thank him for ‘showing another way’ to approach the study of Islam. He assumes a Muslim identity for these students on account of their Muslim or Arabic sounding names. Again, in the book, names are mentioned when Hughes argues that we can assume Talal Asad has a “personal narrative grounded in postcolonial dislocation” (Hughes, 2015, 53), while theorists with names like Lincoln, Smith, McCutcheon, and we might infer Hughes, may be ‘safely ignored’ due to their names “and not for the force of their criticism” (Hughes, 2015, 53). I found myself thinking, are people surprised when I speak and they hear an Irish rather than German accent (my grandfather originated from Leipzig, bringing his German name with him)? Will my German surname impact on my academic career in anyway which I have not yet envisioned? Should I be focusing on more philosophical avenues to make better use of this name?

As a non-Muslim scholar, working on Islam within the discipline of Religious Studies, actively doing what I would consider (or strive to be) critical scholarship, I can also understand where Hughes is coming from in his concern for the privileging of certain ‘insider’ voices over others. I would have more sympathy if this view was expressed as discomfort with the elevation of specific insiders over others; both insiders who do not conform to a specific type, and outsiders with a more critical approach. It weighs on my mind, particularly when attending conferences with a more direct Islamic Studies slant and a high level of practitioner participation. Will my voice be heard in such a setting? If I raise a more critical point, will my position as a white male result in people in the room, either consciously or sub-consciously, downgrading the importance or value of what it is I have to say? I honestly do not think that this is the case. Attending events hosted by the Muslims in Britain Research Network – a group which actively encourages practitioner involvement in academic study – in recent years, I have never felt that my contribution has been devalued by my positionality. If it was the case that my contribution to any academic discussion was not as appreciated as I may like it to be, I could think of many more reasons for this being the case than my obvious affliction of being a white male, an argument Hughes appears happy to make (Hughes, 2015, 19). We must keep in mind that this discussion is not taking place in a vacuum. As Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj so eloquently argued in a recent piece for the online magazine Media Diversified, being a Muslim in 2016 is to be under constant media bombardment and societal suspicion. It is only right that we ‘white males’ should take time to question our assumptions and identities when engaging in a critical study of Islam(s) and/or Muslim peoples and societal structures.

Again, I can recognise, and sympathise, with some of Hughes arguments regarding the danger of confessional, non-critical scholarship pushing out critical scholars from the academy. If this danger truly does exist, I do not see it being lessened by recourse to an oppositional push back against, and attempting to exclude confessional voices from scholarship. When Hughes argues in the interview that taking a critical approach to our area of study may impact on the possibility of gaining tenured positions or opportunities for career advancement for young scholars, I cannot help but wonder if this also works in the opposite direction. By taking an individual’s theology seriously, does a scholar attempting to do critical work in some way jeopardise their own future career prospects? Will this short blog piece jeopardise my future chances in some American institutions? A real issue alluded to by a friend and colleague with whom I discussed the piece.

It is evident that Hughes is in agreement Russell McCutcheon’s argument that there is a problem of “theology being seen as an academically legitimate pursuit within the study of religion”. In Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this argument comes across in Hughes incredulity that a university press would publish what he considers to be “theology masquerading as scholarship” (Hughes, 2015, 66). But despite my own background in the non-confessional discipline of Religious Studies, I see much value in engaging seriously with scholars of Theology in academic discourse. If we wish to study Islam(s) seriously, be that through a study of early Islamic communities in Europe, converts to Islam in North America, or generational dynamics within transnational Shia networks, we must take seriously the religious understandings of the people who constitute those areas of life.

Much of the interview was taken up with a discussion of the recent controversy around the election of Vice President of the American Academy of Religion[1], and the publication by that same body of a bullet point code of ‘responsible research practices’. Hughes repeatedly remarks that this code is made up of little more than a collection of 25 cent words, with little to offer by way of substance and no real critical reflection. Reading through the document, one can perhaps see his point. It is a call to ‘do no harm’, essentially, an urging to be respectful of fellow academics and recognition that scholarship may be conducted “both from within and outside communities of belief and practice”[2]

A recent debate in print, between the renowned scholar of Islamic Studies Bruce Lawrence, and two academics who were in receipt of a highly critical review from him, provides an example of the danger which Hughes is speaking about as regards a single position dominating the academic space, through a monopolisation of review panels and interview boards. It also, I think provides an example of what the AAR may be referring to when urging scholars to “engage in critical and constructive debate”. In their response to Lawrence’s critique of their work, the academics explicitly call out the “’new orthodoxy’ in Islamic studies” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107), which they argue is particularly prevalent in “fashionable US academic circles” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107). I have not read the book concerned, so cannot comment on the validity of their claim, or the relative fairness of the offending review, but what is clear is that there exists in the United States at the very least a problem of perception; there is the perception that critical scholarship will not get a fair hearing, and there is a perception that theological or confessional scholarship is incapable of being fair. This is disastrous for academic work.

The big tent, which Hughes argues is unsustainable, should be made to hold. We are the ones who can hold it together. Like any large community, we will not always agree with one another, we may often actively and vehemently disagree, and this is healthy. In order to keep the conversation going, and perhaps more importantly, to keep things interesting and keep pushing our own thoughts to new places, we must be willing to engage with those we do not naturally agree with. While the AAR guidelines may be problematic in their broad brush approach, and they certainly lack the nuance we might expect from academic discussion, the intention of fostering civility should be appreciated. Without this holding together of the big tent, if we continue to faction and engage in increasingly partisan conversations, where will the ‘better book’ Hughes is calling for come from?

References

  • Hughes, Aaron (2015), Islamic Identities and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception, Equinox, Sheffield
  • Lawrence, Bruce B. (April, 2015), Tracking Iranian Cosmopolitan Options – At Home and Abroad: A Review Essay of Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Spheres of Belonging and Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism: At Home and in the World, SCTIW Review
  • Mirsepassi, Ali,&Fernee, Tadd (2015), ‘Defending the Current Academic Orthodoxy in Islamic Studies: A Response to Bruce Lawrence’, Sociology of Islam3 Issue 3-4, pp.107-124
  • Tweed, Thomas A. (2002), ‘On Moving Across: Translocative Religion and the Interpreter’s Position’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol.70 No.2, pp.253-277

[1] essentially President elect due to the way that system works

[2] http://rsn.aarweb.org/responsible-research-practices-statement-standards-professional-conduct-aar-members

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 16 February 2016

Calls for papers

Journal: Open Theology

Special issue: Alternative Religiosities in the Soviet Union and the Communist

East-Central Europe: Formations, Resistances and Manifestations

Deadline: June 30, 2016

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Journal: Culture and Society: Journal of Social Research

Special issue: Religion and Belief in the Public Sphere of Eastern Europe

Deadline: February 28, 2016

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Conference: ISASR: Religion and Revolution

June 16–17, 2016

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: February 19, 2016

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Conference: Implicit Religion

May 20–22, 2016

Salisbury, UK

Deadline: February 26, 2016

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Conference: Reconsidering Religious Radicalism

May 21, 2016

University of Cambridge, UK

Deadline: March 11, 2016

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Workshop on Gender, Religion and Family Violence

September 13–14, 2016

New Brunswick, Canada

Deadline: April 1, 2016

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Conference: Historical Re-Enactment, Contemporary Paganism and Fantasy-Based Movements

May 20–21, 2016

Kaunas, Lithuania

Deadline: March 21, 2016

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Conference: Border Crossings: Exploring the ‘visible’ and the ‘invisible’ in the humanities

June 3, 2016

University of Stirling, UK

Deadline: March 20, 2016

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Events

Conference: Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

April 15–17, 2016

Cardiff University, UK

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Conference: Landscape and Myth in North-Western Europe

April 6–8, 2016

Munich, Germany

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Jobs

Three PhD studentships

Lunds universitet, Sweden

Deadline: March 1, 2016

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Tenure-track position in American Church History

Catholic University of America, DC, USA

Deadline: March 7, 2016

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Sabbatical replacement: Buddhist Traditions and Asian Religions

Vanderbilt University, TN, USA

Deadline: April 28, 2016

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PhD studentship

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: March 7, 2016

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Instructor: Sanskrit and Buddhist Studies

Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages

Deadline: May 8, 2016

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Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship in East Asian Religions

Washington University in St. Louis, USA

Deadline: March 16, 2016

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 2 February 2016

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

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Calls for papers

7th Queering Paradigms Conference

June 11–12, 2016

Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

Deadline: April 4, 2016

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Undergraduate conference: “Faith and Power”

August 4–7, 2016

Central European University, Hungary

Deadline: April 1, 2016

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Law and Religion Scholars Network

Cardiff University, UK

Deadline: February 29, 2016

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Sacred stuff: Material culture and the geography of religion

August 30–September 2, 2016

London, UK

Deadline: February 8, 2016

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Religion, literature and culture: Lines in sand

September 9–11, 2016

University of Glasgow, UK

Deadline: April 18, 2016

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Historical Re-Enactment, Contemporary Paganism and Fantasy-Based Movements

May 20–21, 2016

Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania

Deadline: March 21, 2016

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Islam and Peaceful Relations

April 5, 2016

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 15, 2016

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Postgraduate Conference on Religion and Theology: “Perfection”

March 11–12, 2016

University of Bristol, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

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Time and Myth: The Temporal and the Eternal

May 26–28, 2016

Masaryk University, Czech Republic

Deadline: March 15, 2016

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Fetish Boots and Running Shoes: Indecent Theology Today into Tomorrow

July 8, 2016

University of Winchester, UK

Deadline: March 7, 2016

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AAR 2016: Religion and Public Schools: International Perspectives Group

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

Deadline: March 1, 2016

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Fieldwork: Doing Ethnographic Research

June 24, 2016

Birmingham City University, UK

Deadline: March 25, 2016

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Events

Inform seminar: New Religious Radicalisms

May 21, 2016

London School of Economics, UK

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Arbeitskreis interdisdisziplinäre Hexenforschung

February 18–20, 2016

Stuttgart-Hohenheim, Germany

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Research Methods in the Study of Religion

University of Kent, UK

Deadline: February 5, 2016

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Jobs

2 PhD positions in sociology project: “Postsecular Conflicts”

University of Innsbruck, Austria

Deadline: February 15, 2016

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3 PhD studentships

Coventry University, UK

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PhD position: “Multiple Secularities: Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities”

University of Leipzig, Germany

Deadline: February 5, 2016

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PhD studentship: Cognitive Science of Religion

Belfast, UK; Aarhus, Denmark

Deadline: April 29, 2016

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Visiting Fellowship

Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

Deadline: March 31, 2016

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Associate Professor, Full Professor: Jewish History/Studies

Case Western Research University, OH, United States

Deadline: March 1, 2016

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Postdoctoral fellowship

University of Pennsylvania, USA

Deadline: February 15, 2016

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Instructor: Buddhist Studies

Antioch University, OH, USA

Deadline: April 15, 2016

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Postdoctoral Fellowship: Chinese Buddhism

Columbia University, NY, USA

Deadline: April 20, 2016

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Psychology of Religion at Its Best…and Less Best

There were a number of excellent talks at the (deep breath) American Psychological Association Division 36 Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 2015 Mid-Year Conference hosted by Brigham Young University (BYU) at the Marriott Conference Center in Provo, Utah, United States on March 20th and 21st (exhale). In particular, the second keynote address by Dr. Frank Fincham, Director of the Florida State University Family Institute was an excellent model of how research in the psychology of religion and spirituality can have practical use in designing psychological interventions in addition to the acquisition of knowledge. His and his collaborators’ work involved the psychological impacts of partner-directed prayer on the romantic relationships of religious believers, specifically how prayer can bolster relationship quality by increasing the forgiveness ability of the praying partner. Over a series of carefully framed studies he described the process they used to look at the broad effects of partner directed prayer on relationships. After narrowing their focus, they found that increased cooperative behavior was the primary mediator of the effect of prayer on forgiveness. They used these findings to construct and validate a prayer-focused marriage therapy intervention within an African-American, religious population. Throughout his talk, he was careful to make it clear that these studies were done with, and only apply to, religious believers and that the possibility of comparable mechanisms for nonbeliever couples still need to be researched.

Dr. Julie Exline’s Laboratory at Case Western Reserve University: Alex Uzdavines, Julie Exline, Valencia Harriott, Steffany Homolka, Nick Stauner, and Josh Wilt.

At least for my part, this was greatly appreciated. As someone who studies religious nonbelievers (not to mention being one), it can chafe reading or watching a presentation on research which has broadly sweeping conclusions about the benefits of religious belief which go far beyond what the data allow. Often this research implicitly (sometimes explicitly) assumes that the audience is religious themselves and that the research can be generalized to nonbelievers by just flipping the direction of the results. It was refreshing to have religious-oriented research presented in a manner that both framed the results within the context of the beliefs of the people who participated in the research and explicitly acknowledged that the conclusions drawn could not be applied to nonbelievers without further study.

Dr. Fincham’s focus on measurable psychological mechanisms contrasted sharply with the major themes from symposium presented by a number of scholars from BYU the previous day. The presenters answered the title of the symposium, chaired by Shannon Starks, “Does Psychology’s Naturalism Hamper Understanding of Religious Phenomena?” with a resounding “Yes!” Ms. Starks spoke first and her presentation outlined how widely used introductory psychology texts take a strictly naturalistic stance and often reject supernatural hypotheses for psychological phenomena just as resoundingly. Dr. Jeffery S. Reber presented the second talk and gave a number of examples of psychological theories that grew out of the work of famous theologians. However, when the writers most responsible for bringing these theories into psychology (sometimes the theologian themself!) translated them, all references to a god/gods, the divine, or the supernatural were removed.

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman, APA Div. 36 President Dr. Kevin Ladd, and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr. Melanie Nyhof

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman with Dr. Kevin Ladd and Dr. Melanie Nyhof enjoying the post conference Sundance tour.

The third talk, presented by Dr. Edwinn E. Gantt, built upon the first two presentations but shifted focus examining how psychological research often misses the supernatural reality of an individual’s lived experience, while the majority of researchers hunt for naturalistic mechanisms. He argued that since people qualitatively experience the supernatural as real, psychology is doing a disservice to human experience by saying that the supernatural is just a figment of explainable mechanisms. Finally, Dr. Brent D. Slife discussed a story from his clinical internship where he specifically focused on naturalistic therapeutic approaches at the behest of his supervisor. Over time he began to feel ashamed of how this cognitive-behavioral approach shifted his clients’ focus away from her spirituality and to thoughts and behaviors that seemed to reduce her suffering. In fact, Dr. Slife argued that by focusing on the reduction of suffering, psychologists are doing a disservice to religious clients because God might intend for them to suffer and reducing this risks moving their client away from God’s wishes. This is understandable only as long as a therapist discusses their naturalistic orientation with their client and the client still chooses to continue therapy. Conversely, a religious therapist should discuss their beliefs and intent to bring these beliefs into therapy ahead of time so that if the client does not wish to participate in religious therapy they can find a new therapist.

There were two major themes gleaned from this symposium. The first was one of “religious deletion” which seemed to operate similarly within the psychological community to how “bisexual deletion” works in both gay and straight communities. Aspects of identity, thought, or experience which don’t fit within the dominant culture of the community are either ignored or dismissed as not real, as religious/supernatural ideas and experience are dismissed within the psychological community – according to the speakers (and many other psychologists of religion I have spoken with). Requiring that psychological theories (or psychologists themselves) be stripped of their religious background in order to be taken seriously within the field does a disservice to everyone involved. While the current extent of the anti-religious nature of psychology is open to study, it does seem to be present and working towards a more theologically inclusive field might be a benefit to those who study the psychology of religion and spirituality, regardless of whether or not they are religious themselves.

The second major theme was more questionable, however. The idea that consideration of the supernatural is off-limits to psychological study pervaded all the presentations, with the exception of Dr. Reber’s. Well, off-limits to “naturalistic psychology,” anyways. Ms. Starks even went so far as criticizing studies that looked at Extra Sensory Perception and dreams that could predict future events. Rather than raising any methodological critiques, she simply implied that because the researchers operated within a naturalistic framework the studies were a priori invalid. Despite saying that the supernatural exists and that it impacts the natural world of which psychological processes are a part, the speakers refused to actually discuss any methodology that could be used to study either the supernatural itself or how it impacts naturalistic psychology, even after being directly asked to go into this by a few audience questions. In doing so, the impression I was left with was that it wasn’t psychology’s job to try and peek behind the “wizard’s curtain” of religious experience and if naturalistic scientists can’t prove the non-existence of the supernatural, they should simply acknowledge that it is real since many people experience it as real. The fact that some of us actively experience the supernatural to be imaginary and very much not-real can be safely ignored in the interest of privileging religious experience.

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

The implication that Christianity was the religious experience that should be privileged above all others within the field was made painfully clear during the dinner hosted by BYU. In three events (a Christian prayer; a campus ministry capella group which hoped to convert non-Christian division members; and the final dinner talk in which the speaker railed against non-Christian psychologists throughout the twentieth century, non-Christian moral principles in general, and drug use in Europe, which is a clear, unambiguous indicator of a lack of religious belief in a region) there was a very clear message that non-Christians were not welcome. This was actually news to me, as I have been involved with Division 36 since 2012 and this was the third divisional mid-year conference I’d spoken at. Unfortunately, it was the first time I’d felt deeply unwelcome as an Atheist member of the division. Despite the committee organizing the conference making it clear to BYU that this was not a religious conference, the organizers at BYU ignored this and appeared to go out of their way to make the events they did have control over as hostile to non-Christians as possible, while still maintaining a facade of inclusivity.

Overall, this conference highlighted both the good and bad aspects of our sub-field. The keynote from Dr. Fincham and the symposium lead by Ms. Starks displayed the strides being made towards the rigorous study of the impacts religious and spiritual practices may have on psychological functioning and the arguments we need to have within the field to define the border areas of the natural and supernatural for the purpose of further study. Unfortunately, the sectarian aspects of BYU’s dinner events aimed exclusively towards the Christian attendees showed that we still have a long path ahead. For my part, I’m going to continue going to these mid-year conferences and advocating that those of us who study the psychology of (and/or are) religious/spiritual nonbelievers or non-Christians attend as well.

Why should we keep paying attention to Otto?

 

Is it necessary, helpful even, to only study religion if you are not religious? Does the secular scholar of, say Hinduism, stand to be a better scholar than another with the same training but who happens to personally be Hindu? Does having a personal involvement in the group that one is studying assist one in understanding Otto’s numinous?

 

 

Why should we keep paying attention to Otto?

By Chris Duncan

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 14th November, 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Robert Orsi on Rudolf Otto (12 November 2012).

In this interview with Robert Orsi, Religious Studies Professor from Northwestern University, Jonathon and Dr. Orsi discuss the seemingly evergreen writer Rudolf Otto. After a brief discussion over Otto’s more well-known ideas of the numinous and mysterium tremendum the two hit on an intriguing line of talk, one that I have been mulling over in the back of my mind for several months now without really ever noticing it much: as scholars of religion, should we ourselves be religious? Further, if we should be religious, should we be practitioners of the groups that we study? Naturally, I am restricting my definition of “we” to mean those who are non-theologians; perhaps scientists of religion would be apt also.

I have always personally held the position that no scholar of religion could honestly use that title if they were themselves religious. Maybe because specifically, the secular, non-biased scholarship was, to my eye, more brutally honest or willing to discuss the positives in addition to the negatives of particular religious traditions rather than  trying to explain away the negatives. However, recently and unknowingly I may have been changing my mind. For, could someone who studies humans not also be human; must someone who studies Germans not have any form of German connections? Or, as I am beginning to think, does having a personal zeal and insider understanding of a religious tradition make one a more suitable observer/scholar?

The argument over whether religious studies should be either theological or secular study has been an on-going process for decades now, with secular study having held the upper hand for the majority of that time. With the boom of the natural sciences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came the separation of those who study religion in order to actively participate within it, and those who study religion for non-theological purposes. In 1963, the National Association of Bible Instructors changed its name to the American Academy of Religion, and since then there has continued a steady march towards secular, non-religious scholarly study of religions. However, in the journal of this same organization, the September 2012 edition, Donald Wiebe and Luther Martin lament that though platitudes of secular, unbiased study are tossed about in public, in execution, university programs, particularly American programs, “all reveal a continuing influence of theology on the field [of religious studies] worldwide.” So, what is one to do? Is it necessary, helpful even, to only study religion if you are not religious? Does the secular scholar of, say Hinduism, stand to be a better scholar than another with the same training but who happens to personally be Hindu? Does having a personal involvement in the group that one is studying assist one in understanding Otto’s numinous?

No to the first two, but to the last; maybe.

Undeniably there must be some form of separation from observer and the object of observation but rather than have an argument over the theological or secular study of religion, perhaps scholars should be focused on a more narrow question: why does our field consider that a scholar must be Richard Dawkins-like in order to study religion? Is it not possible to study, say American Pentecostals, from an extremely in-depth, personal platform without considering this to be theology? So long as the scholar is clear about bracketing their personal ties to their subject, there should be no problem with a devout Muslim teaching courses on Islam, indeed who would be better to write a chapter on Islam than a Muslim? Perhaps our beloved field should be less concerned with labeling scholars and worrying what their personal influences MIGHT be and stick to examining the output of scholars. By continuing this internal struggle over how best to regulate the study of religion, scholars are willingly allowing our field to crumble and be overtaken by Anthropology and the Cognitive Sciences. In short, a house divided falls entirely; so let us allow theologians to preach, independently we scientists of religion can continue to write and to teach and then we can critique the finished product rather than becoming manic, wondering how to best defend ourselves from the bullies who want our funding. If religious studies is on par with the other sciences (which I believe it is) why do we not simply allow our work to speak for itself and stop being so scared of our colleagues’ possible ulterior motives? Rather than continue to debate whether Otto wrote theology or secular, scientific works on religion, let’s simply use what he wrote in the most useful manner that we can muster.

 

 

Reference:

Martin, Luther H., & Wiebe, Donald. (2012). Religious Studies as a Scientific Discipline: The Persistence of a Delusion. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 3, 587.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

 

About the Author:

Chris Duncan is currently in the final year of the undergrad Religious Studies program at Arizona State University, with an emphasis on Hinduism. He will be moving into the  Graduate program in the same field next year.

Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?

If you have been listening to the podcast for the past couple of weeks, you will be aware that we are about to go on a brief hiatus until September, to give our listeners some time to catch up, and to give Chris and David a chance to catch up on some of their other commitments. The website will still be releasing content on a less regular basis, and we have at least one more roundtable discussion for your delectation over the coming weeks. We will also be re-releasing our ‘editors favourites’ from the first batch of podcasts – so there will still be plenty of material to keep you occupied. However, before we ‘leave you’ we wanted to go out with a bang, and it is therefore with pleasure that we present the second of our compilation episodes.

As with the first of our compilation episodes (What is the Future of Religious Studies?), every time David, Chris and Jonathan have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: ‘Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?’ The result is this compilation of differing opinions and interpretations of key terms from eight top scholars from a variety of disciplines – sociology, psychology, religious studies, theology – on how academics should position themselves in relation to the groups and individuals that they study.

However, we decided to push things one step further with this one. The inspiration for this episode came from one of Russell McCutcheon’s works which we had encountered through the undergraduate Religious Studies programme at the University of Edinburgh, entitled ‘Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion‘. We thought it would be an excellent idea to invite Russell to respond to the opinions of the other scholars in this podcast, and are very grateful that not only was he happy to be involved, but he sent a ten minute response recording. Enjoy.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, and others’ are still on our ‘to-do’ list, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation. We apologise for the UK-centric nature of these recordings… that’s just what happened in this instance.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

Whether you stick with us over the break, or come back to us in September, we can assure you that we have another great lineup in store. Future podcasts include interviews with David Morgan (Duke University), Kim Knott (Lancaster University), Robert Orsi (Northwestern University), Gordon Lynch (University of Kent), Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity University College), J Gordon Melton (Baylor University), Brian Victoria (Antioch University) and more…

Please keep telling people about us… if you are a lecturer, please consider incorporating this material into your courses… and please keep supporting us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for listening!

In Saecula Saeculorum: Reflecting on the Age/Aeon in light of the Cappadocian Fathers

In Saecula Saeculorum: Reflecting on the Age/Aeon in light of the Cappadocian Fathers

By Mario Baghos, St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College and University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 23 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Tariq Modood on the Crisis of European Secularism (28 May 2012).

Introduction

Drawing on my own research and interdisciplinary interests, the following response to Professor Tariq Modood’s podcast entitled ‘The Crisis of European Secularism’ will consist in a summary of his main thesis, followed by a statement of the challenge I seek to address, namely the anthropocentrism inherent in (some forms of) contemporary secularism; particularly its neglect of religion/God and the cosmos.  This will be followed by an etymological analysis of the word ‘secular,’ which is analogous with the age/aeon, especially as it was envisaged by the Cappadocian fathers of the early Church, Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian (or, ‘Nazianzus’). It is hoped that their holistic vision of the age, one in which God and the cosmos were in fact included, can inspire further reflection on the way we experience our ‘age.’

Summary, and Addressing the ‘Crisis’

David Robertson’s insightful interview with Professor Tariq Modood unfolds within the parameters of a very pertinent debate, namely, the relationship between secular nations or states and religious institutions; where secularism, in a broad sense, has to do with separation of these two spheres. Professor Modood distinguishes between three types of secularism that, historically, have conditioned the relationship between governments and religious establishments since the Enlightenment. These can be described as ‘soft,’ ‘strict,’ and ‘moderate,’ the latter implying that organised religion and political authority can be partners, albeit in a limited sense (i.e. whilst retaining their mutual autonomy). According to him, it is the ‘strict’ form of secularism – an outcome of the French concept of laïcité – that is unfortunately prevailing in British society at a time when a new religious pluralism is beginning to emerge with immigration by Muslim minorities. Indeed, Professor Modood is genuinely concerned with positing a framework (i.e. through moderate secularism), where British authorities and Muslim clerics can work together without compromising the secularism of the former and the religious convictions/way of life of the latter. Whilst appreciating the significance of Modood’s presentation, I am reluctant to comment on it further, insofar as I do not feel sufficiently equipped with the knowledge pertaining to the secular policies of our modern governments, nor the intricacies of immigration. However, Modood’s nuanced description of various secularisms does offer the opportunity to engage the ‘crisis’ in relation to my own research interests; for whilst the professor has pertinently observed their implications for the relationship between politics and religious/ethnic minorities, I will be presupposing that the general mentality (or, metanarrative) behind secularism can be both anthropocentric and reductionist, insofar as its promotion of a-religiosity (on a political level) and preoccupation for the interests of human beings precludes an appreciation for the ways in which the ‘age’ has been interpreted by ancient and traditional societies, wherein God and the cosmos were intimately bound with the human endeavour or history. As pretexts for this anthropocentrism, the increasing neglect of God and religion in public affairs (the latter pointed to by Modood with reference to the ‘strict’ model), Mircea Eliade’s characterisation of modern ‘man’ [or, people] as only existing “insofar as he makes himself, within history [i.e. apart from cosmos]” (2005: xxiii), as well as the scientifically proven and very obvious degradation to the planet since the Industrial Revolution in the name of our own progress, will have to suffice for such a short piece. But before moving forward I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Modood for drawing my attention to some very important and sensitive issues, apart from which I would have remained rather ignorant.

Scope and Definitions

As mentioned, I intend to begin with an etymological analysis. Presupposing that words or definitions are indicative of the mentalities that produce them, I will address the concept of the ‘age’ or aeon as implied by the secondary meaning of the Latin term saeculum, wherefrom the word ‘secular’ is derived. I am aware of the difficulties inherent in undertaking an etymological analysis without extensively considering the different ways in which the notion of secularism and its cognates (such as ‘secularisation,’ ‘secularity’) have been employed across a range of interpretive disciplines (the history of religion, the sociology of religion, the field of geo-politics, to name a few). Nevertheless, having recently explored the historical development and use of some of these definitions as set out both in Modood’s presentation and in the works of N. J. Demerath and Judith Fox, I believe that my approach is legitimated by etymological analyses of the words ‘culture’ (Demerath 2007: 71) and ‘secular’ (Fox 2005: 292) undertaken by the latter in order to demonstrate their respective theses. Of particular relevance is Fox’s demonstration that the derivation of this term, coming from “the same etymological root (L. saeculum) as the French word siecle, meaning ‘century’ or ‘age,’” is also evident in “the astronomical use of the word secular to talk about processes of change over long periods of time” (Fox: 292). Perhaps unintentionally hinting at the longue durée of the Annales school of historiography (Le Goff 1992: xxi-xxii), this astronomical definition is important, for it can be interpreted as pointing to a relationship between the Latin saeculum and the Greek aeon (αἰῶν); the latter being a more flexible term which can mean either a long period of time or eternity depending on the context. To this end, the Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum, included in my title, is the Vulgate translation of the New Testament phrase “into the ages of ages” (εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων/eis toūs aiōnas tōn aiōnōn) which is commonly mistranslated as the eternity of God, but in fact relates to a doxological (and hence, existential) appraisal of his sovereign presence and providential activity throughout both the present age and the eschatological ages to come (Cf. Gal 1:5, Eph 3:21, Phil 4:20, 1 Tim 1:17, 2 Tim 4:18, Heb 13:21, 1 Pet 4:11, Rev 1:18, 4:9, 10, 5:13, 7:12, 11:15, 22:5). Usually preceded by an invocation of the Holy Trinity, this doxological phrase commonly prefigured many prayers and hymns of the Christianity of the late antique and medieval periods, resounding today in its major branches, Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. So, as my title suggests, I will address the concept of the ‘age’ or aeon as implied by the secondary meaning of the Latin term saeculum as a long period of time (here to be understood as the duration of the cosmos), evoking the existential dimension of the Christian tradition with its antecedents in the scriptures and exemplified in material which is of immediate relevance to (and an outcome of) my own research, namely, the writings of the fourth century Cappadocian fathers Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian. I will show that their conception of the age or aeon is one in which God and the cosmos are included, which, I will argue, stands in stark contradistinction to our anthropocentric and reductionist interpretations of secularism.

The Cappadocians on the Age/Aeon

The Basilian concept of the ‘age’ is associated with two other aspects of his thinking, namely, his exegetical approach to the scriptures – more particularly Genesis (i.e. protology) – and his eschatological vision; where the eschaton, the ‘last things’ of the historical continuum traditionally described as “Christ’s final judgment of humanity, the resurrection of the dead and the final ‘transformation of the cosmos’” (Baghos: 2010: 86) were envisaged as anticipated in the here and now in an ecclesial context. Concerning the former, which is expounded at length in his Hexaēmeron (or, Homilies on the Six Days of Creation), he notes that scripture [i.e. Gen 1:5] “calls the first day of creation ‘one day’ – ἡμέρα μία [heméra mía] – instead of the ‘first’ – πρώτη ἡμέρα [prótē heméra] – in a succession of days” (Baghos: 89). The Cappadocian allegorically interprets this ‘one’ day (heméra mía) as symbolising a totality that recapitulates within itself all of creation history from beginning to end as metaphorically represented by the creation narrative. He does this by suggesting that the very structure of the week of Genesis, which is paradigmatic for the duration of time we experience (i.e. all subsequent ‘weeks’), constitutes an image or approximation of eternity in its cyclical rotation. Hence, both the ‘one’ day and its consecutive ‘reiterations’ point to the aforementioned recapitulation of history which he also describes as the age/aeon (αἰῶν), which does not simply refer to the human endeavour undertaken for its own sake; but to the origin, rhythms and purpose of the entire created cosmos, consisting of both the “heavenly and earthly, human and biological, astronomical and mineral” (Costache 2010: 22), which he elucidates throughout the treatise. So, for this traditional thinker, there could be no separation between the notion of the age and the cosmic purpose that contained within itself the human endeavour (Costache: 23), thereby leaving no room for the sort of anthropocentrism characterising contemporary secularism(s). St Basil also refers to “the ages of ages” mentioned in the scriptures (see above), stating that, since they are not enumerated in a sequence (as the six days of creation in Genesis) they do not refer to ‘ages.’ Instead, they pertain to “differences of conditions and of various circumstances” (Hexaēmeron 2.8, at 35. PG 29, 49D-52A) that pertain to this very age designated by the ‘one’ day, the age or aeon, and also the ‘eighth day’ that occurs outside the week of time and hence our temporal experience. Days ‘one’ and ‘eight,’ inhering within the same aeon, not only point to the inextricable relationship between protology and eschatology in the saint’s thinking, but also to the fact that those aspects relating to the ‘last things’ mentioned above can be experienced in any epoch, thereby prefiguring the profoundly existential already/not yet of the eschaton put forward by contemporary scholarship; that although God’s kingdom has ‘already’ been established in the Church (with the advent of Christ), it is ‘not yet’ consummated – and won’t be until the second coming (Baghos: 85). In his On the Holy Spirit, St Basil highlights this ecclesial dimension by affirming that days ‘one’ and ‘eight’ coincide on a Sunday, which in Greek is literally the ‘Lord’s day’ – or Κυριακή (Kyriakē) – the principal day on which the Eucharistic liturgy was and still is celebrated (Baghos: 85). Herein lies the existential significance of the age for this Church father. For him, the ecclesial rhythms, but especially the liturgy, recapitulate God’s providential activity throughout the entire age understood cosmically; what has happened, is happening, and will happen is summed up within the Sunday, the ‘one’ day of creation, through which believers are able to have an immediate foretaste of the ‘eighth’ day, i.e. the eschatological life to come.

St Gregory the Theologian’s vision of the age/aeon is as holistic as that of his friend and peer, St Basil. At the beginning of the twenty-fifth chapter of his Fifth Theological Oration, he states that “there have been two transformations of life manifested out of the entire age [τοῦ παντὸς αἰῶνος/toū pantōs aiōnos]” (Fifth Theological Oration 25, at 136. PG 36, 160D). I have written elsewhere that this all-encompassing approach, resonating with Basil’s conception of the age, “attempts to give a comprehensive account of the historical drama and the persons and events that it includes” (Baghos 2011: 24). In other words, the Cappadocian’s perception was akin to what we today call a metanarrative, which, he went on to affirm, unfolded between the two covenants of the Old and New Testaments, which he also described as “earthquakes” marking two important existential changes in disposition of God’s people; from the pagan idols to the Mosaic Law, and from the Law to the Christian Gospel (Baghos: 24-25). For the Theologian, these two changes were analogously marked by the disclosure of God as Trinity; the first covenant proclaimed the Father, the second the Son, whilst also giving believers “a glimpse of the Spirit’s Godhead” (Fifth Theological Oration, 26, at 137; PG 36, 161C) before his revelation to the apostles and the ecclesial community. Here, we encounter a conception of the age/aeon that far from being interpreted anthropocentrically, is instead concerned with God’s self-disclosure that unfolds in stages proportionate to the capacity of human beings to receive it (Baghos 2011: 29). That this self-disclosure is again profoundly existential is exemplified by the saint’s insistence that the Spirit dwelt within the apostles, and his understanding of the eschatological experience as constituting the “third and final earthquake that will translate the cosmos into an unshaken, unmoved mode of being” (Baghos 2011: 31). And it is precisely here that the cosmic dimension of Gregory’s vision of the age is exhibited; for this eschatological rumination, when compared intertextually with chapters 11-13 of his Oration 38, denotes that whilst the historical continuum moves from one ‘covenantal earthquake’ to the next, it is in fact marked on either end (i.e. alpha and omega) by the Demiurge Logos (i.e. Christ), who, in his pre-incarnate existence created the spiritual and material worlds (Baghos: 30-31). For Gregory it is to this same Logos, now incarnate as Christ Jesus, towards which history, and hence the age, is oriented; thereby precluding the anthropocentric model in light of the inevitable teleological encounter of the universe and all it contains with God the Son.

Concluding Remarks

In an environment where secularism is often interpreted as a prerogative in human self-governance and even our perception and experience of the world, it is perhaps intriguing – if not often disquieting – to be confronted with how representative figures from other epochs, usually considered more religious than our own, viewed their own age and all it contained. Whilst there are many forms of secularism, such as those pointed out by professor Modood in his podcast, what I have been concerned with in this piece is to offer an alternative, holistic vision of the concept of the age/aeon based on the writings of two figures from fourth century Christianity. Whilst some might decry this diachronic, and in fact interdisciplinary approach, I am finding that it has become a staple of my own research, insofar as I am genuinely convinced that the religious perceptions and mentalities from any context can offer insights into contemporary situations, not the least secularism. In the beginning of this response I mentioned the fact that secularism can be, in a general sense, characterised by an anthropocentrism that is manifested in a neglect of God and religion in public affairs, as well as an a-cosmicism that has had an immediate effect on our environment. I then undertook an etymological analysis of the term ‘secular,’ in order to legitimate its use with reference to the age or aeon. This led me to a brief exploration of the conception of the ‘age’ in two representative figures of early Christianity, namely the Cappadocians Basil and Gregory. In the former, I identified the relationship between the age and the cosmic rhythms, outlining their existential dimension that is facilitated by the Eucharistic liturgy, wherein the entire salvific economy (or, God’s presence in the age) is anticipated with a foretaste of the future eschaton. In the latter, I observed a metanarrational vision of history (or the age) whereby God gradually discloses himself through the ‘covenantal earthquakes’; a vision which is not without its cosmic significance insofar as the age is marked by Christ’s presence on either end as creator and consummator. That the vision of these two saints is not without contemporary relevance is testified by their veneration, especially amongst Eastern Orthodox Christians, who moreover continue to refer to them with epithets established by tradition (‘the Great,’ ‘Theologian’) and to celebrate liturgies ostensibly written by them. It is perhaps worth pondering the ramifications of secularism on these Christians, both as it increases in popularity in their native countries and as they migrate abroad. As a final note, in focusing on these specifically Christian figures I did not mean to preclude the perception and experience of other religious traditions. On the contrary, it is hoped that their holistic perception and experience of the ‘age’ as one in which God and the cosmos are included will provide a meaningful alternative to our modern experience of it as interpreted from the viewpoint of various secularisms, which I have posited can be anthropocentric, and hence reductionist, in nature.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

 

Mario Baghos is Associate Lecturer in Patristic Studies and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Redfern, Sydney. He is a PhD candidate in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. His research interests include the city of Constantinople, patristic eschatology, and the history of religions and mentalities.

 

References

Baghos, Mario (2010) ‘St Basil’s Eschatological Vision: Aspects of the Recapitulation of History and the Eighth Day’ Phronema 25, 85-103.

Baghos, Mario (2011) ‘The Meaning of History: Insights from St Gregory the Theologian’s Existential Metanarrative’ Colloquium 43:1, 17-38.

Costache, Doru (2010) ‘Christian Worldview: Understandings from St Basil the Great’ Phronema 25, 21-56.

Demerath III, N.J. (2007) ‘Secularization and Sacralization Deconstructed and Reconstructed’ in James A. Beckford and N.J. Demerath II (eds.) The Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Religion. London: Sage Publications, 57-79.

Eliade Mircea (2005) The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History, trans. W.R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fox, Judith (2005) ‘Secularization’ in John R. Hinnells (ed.) The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. Oxon: Routledge, 291-305.

Harrison, Nonna Verna (trans.) (2008) Festal Orations: Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, in Popular Patristics Series 36, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood NY: SVS Press.

Hildebrand, Stephen (trans.) (2011) St Basil the Great: On the Holy Spirit, in Popular Patristics Series 42, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Le Goff, Jacques (1992): History and Memory, trans. S. Rendall and E. Claman. New York: Columbia University Press.

Way, Agnes Clare (trans.) (2003) St Basil: Exegetical Homilies, The Fathers of the Church Series, vol. 46. Washington D.C: The Catholic University of American Press.

Williams, Frederick (trans.) (2002) St Gregory of Nazianzus: On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and the Two Letters to Cledonius, Popular Patristics Series 23, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

The Merits of Hybrid Theology

The Merits of Hybrid Theology

By Gemma Gall, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Donald Wiebe on the relationship between Religious Studies and Theology (6 February 2012).

The work of Donald Wiebe is not entirely alien to me; indeed, I have found myself agreeing with his response to phenomenology. However, on the question of the relationship between theology and religious studies, Wiebe’s visit to Edinburgh in 2010 found our opinions to be very divergent.

Wiebe begins his interview by admitting that it may not be possible to clearly delineate religious studies and theology, an admirable concession which seems to lull the listener into the false belief that he is promulgating an understanding of the ‘dichotomy’ which understands the malleable nature of both academic disciplines and the relationship between them. Unfortunately, he undermines this moment of resisting reductionism by his refusal to acknowledge development in the concepts of theology.

The reasoning which Wiebe gives for this is flawed: despite his recognition of the changing nature of theology, he continues to base his understanding of this relationship in the Christian tradition of God talk. His dismissal of ‘hybrid theology’ without any assessment of what this entails (and instead indulging in biased rhetoric) is one of the main failings of his summary of the theology-religious studies situation. Very few, if any, religious studies scholars would claim that religious studies should engage in studies in which they practice God talk. Surely this is simply theology? Similarly, ‘religious studies’ which do not engage with hybrid theology, the understandings of ‘god(s)’, ‘religion’, ‘supernatural’, or whatever element the group being studied claim to be the underpinning of their group, is surely just a ‘scientific’ study of the group. Of course it is necessary for there to be anthropological, sociological etc studies, but it is also necessary to consider how theology – in its hybrid sense – impacts upon practice.

As an example of how knowledge of the theology of the group studied aids understanding, I demonstrate how I have used theology. My own studies specialise in Islam with a particular focus on gender issues, which demands an understanding of the relationship between, for example, politics, economics, spatial theory, power relations and Holy texts (with the interpretation thereof) for an issue such as veiling. Refusing to engage in studying the revelation of the ‘hijab verses’ in the Qur’an, as well as their interpretation, leads to a confused and inferior study.

This dichotomy, Wiebe argues, may even prevent scholars of religion who are themselves religious from a non-biased study. According to cognitive theory, evolutionary psychology has developed to protect the ‘supernatural instinct’ which is employed when one can’t understand something. This is “hard-wired” to protect agency, thus preventing many of those with a faith of their own from bracketing it out; therefore endangering the scientific nature of their studies. Indeed, Wiebe claims that many scholars with a religious position of their own will not undertake the ‘hard work’ to retain a vigorously scientific study. These claims are predicated on an understanding of faith as a singularly correct entity. I find it hard to believe that there are many serious religious studies scholars who hold this position; it is antithetical to the aims of the discipline. I agree with Wiebe that scholars should not invoke their own beliefs in their studies; after all, that would not be a study of the group being undertaken but instead of one’s own beliefs. However, I feel that it is impossible to bracket all aspects of one’s own faith position;  that the holding of forms of belief may even benefit a scholar’s attempts to understand how another’s faith impacts upon their life.

The notion that our inability to prove or disprove the notion of God means that we should not invoke such a concept is highly problematic. Firstly, if the concepts of God(s), supernatural or other variants, continue to impact upon how a community functions, then the study again fails to fully account for the context.

Perhaps Wiebe’s determined view of non-theological approaches to the study of religion fails because it is fundamentally based on a notion of explaining religion. This is not what religious studies should purport to do; we provide theories and data detailing what people practice and believe, we do not explain ‘religion’. If this were possible, surely the interminable debates on definitions of religion would be complete?

Ultimately, Wiebe fails to recognise that whilst there may be methodological differences between the disciplines, there is a certain amount of interdependency between the two. Religious Studies without theology fails not only to adequately study the phenomena it purports to, but it fails to justify its existence a separate discipline. The good historians and philologists of whom Wiebe speaks are just that; they are not scholars of religious studies. Similarly, theology undertaken from one’s own faith position is simply practice of belief, as Wiebe himself claims; it has no place in academia. However, theology does not have to take this form. To use Wiebe’s own terminology, ‘hybrid theology’, where a non-biased and non-personal methodology is employed, offers an alternative. If Wiebe is serious in his claim that theology has a place as an object of analysis in academia, then surely he must reconsider his own views in order to see this as a ‘third way’ between a purely ‘scientific’ study of religion and the ‘God talk’ of Christian theology.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Gemma Gall graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA in Religious Studies in 2010, and is currently continuing her studies at Edinburgh with an MSc by Research in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. She specialises in Gender and Islam.

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)

References:

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.