Trajectories in Men's Studies in Religion: Theories, Methodologies, and Issues

Article excerpt

This essay, which introduces a panel presentation made in the Men's Studies in Religion Group of the American Academy of Religion (November, 1997), sketches a brief history of the group and describes it purposes, goals, and interdisciplinary character. In addition, the author identifies themes that have emerged in the group's work and areas demanding further investigation.

The following three essays were originally given as presentations for a panel for the Men's Studies in Religion Group (MSRG) at the 1997 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). In this introduction, I want to put these offerings in the context of the ongoing work of the MSRG and indicate what the panelists were asked to address.

The Men's Studies in Religion Program Unit was organized in 1990 in order to apply the critical perspectives of the interdisciplinary area of the new, or anti-sexist, men's studies to the study of religion. As readers of this journal well know, men's studies, with roots in the social sciences, developed in the late 1970s and 1980s, responding to the challenge of feminist studies to explore and seek to understand human experience as it is lived by gendered beings. By the late 1980s, scholars developed new critical theories and research strategies pursued in such bodies as the American Psychological Association, the British Sociological Association, and the Modern Languages Association. By 1991, approximately four hundred courses were being taught in North American institutions of higher education that had men's studies perspectives and materials as a major component. However, very little work was being done to apply these new perspectives to the study of religion.

The initiators of the MSRG were convinced that feminist scholarship had clearly demonstrated that an adequate understanding of religious practices and symbols must include gender (i.e., the cultural experience of being male or female) as a category of analysis. Within the AAR several groups (e.g., the Women and Religion Section, the Lesbian-Feminist Issues in Religion, and the Womanist Approaches to Religion and Society groups) had been contributing to the understanding of the ways in which religious symbols and practices shape, challenge, and transform women's roles and the ways women understand, appropriate, and change religious symbols and practices. However, while a growing number of AAR program units studied men's spiritual and religious lives, very few of these groups supported a sustained inquiry into what religious beliefs and practices entail for men as men. MSRG was begun to provide a forum for investigating both: how men's gender identities shape the religions men create and practice and how religions construct and shape men's gender identities.

It was the belief of many in the group that men's studies, because of its deep sympathy to the work of women's studies scholars, is also crucial to the goals of many of those scholars. Without a thorough and succinct investigation of masculinities and masculine experiences in all their complexity under patriarchy and a study of alternatives to patriarchy, many participants believed, the effort of feminist/mujerista/womanist scholars of religion would remain only partially successful in bringing forth a sophisticated model of the construction of gender and in understanding its impact on religion. Due to the unit's interdisciplinary outlook and its commitment to a full representation of the constituency of the AAR, the MSRG provides a vital and necessary scholarly forum toward that understanding. In fact, the MSRG is the only such forum in North America and, perhaps, the world where the formal academic study of men is focused on religious matters.

The leadership of the MSRG began with a strong commitment to interdisciplinary work and to critical theory related to issues of class, race, sexual orientation, and ecology. Included among the disciplinary areas that have been represented by participants in the unit's work are historical studies, social ethics, constructive and deconstructive theology/thealogy, psychology of religion, sociology of religion, biblical studies, and the visual arts. …