Magazine article Cross Currents

Theology in the Curriculum of a Secular Religious Studies Department

Magazine article Cross Currents

Theology in the Curriculum of a Secular Religious Studies Department

Article excerpt

The title comes at Jeff Stout's instigation: it would not have been mine. (1)

Both title and paper betray a certain self-importance. When I arrived at the University of Virginia in 1993, culture wars--now a decade behind us (or again perhaps not)--divided my department. Hired by 13 to 12, according to an all-too-informative colleague, I would be the volleyball. Scholars of religion know that legends and originary traumas both exaggerate: this time the number of reported votes exceeded the number of members. In that climate we heard that we should "decide" (some verb!) what Religious Studies might be--and do so by holding extra, Friday faculty meetings (what a good idea!). We heard of course as many views as voices, and usually more. There if not here anything I said might be used against me--a sign that people prefer to interrogate the formulas used, that they have entered a realm of power and fear, or at least the narcissism of small differences. Observers of the sexuality debates will see tedious similarities. In any case, publicly I observed that the meeting had been called on short notice and that the Friday belonged to a Greensboro weekend (where my partner teaches, and now I). Privately I muttered, "you started it, you work it out." Before a meeting I couldn't avoid, I asked a colleague in anthropology (about whom more later) whether it would help to sacrifice a chicken. No, he said, you have to take a tenured head.

The best things I've learned from colleagues--and I have learned a great deal--have been not about method but about how to teach particular bits of concrete content. Anselm's shortest atonement theory--8 pages. A Reader's Digest version of The Elementary Forms, suitable for a majors' seminar--20 pages. An account of Mary Douglas on grid and group--clearer than ever. Richard Rorty once said that an academic department is a pragmatic arrangement for reading together the books in the library. A teaching semester, likewise, arranges to read together the books on reserve. I'll take a good abridgment over a method today. Call it Wahrheit und Abkuerzung. The place of theology in the curriculum? In the fewest excellent pages.

In John Wilson's 1973 volume The Study of Religion in Colleges and Universities, (2)

    the primary issue was whether theology per se, or the constellation
    of related inquiries should form the template for the study of
    religion. A secondary form of the question was whether in attending
    to theology the department did not carry the burden of acknowledging
    the vast range of "theological enterprises." Of course adequately
    "representing" their range was out of the question. So there was
    never a hostile environment, but several critical questions which
    still obtain. (3)

Wilson's recollection is free of the identity politics that divided some departments. But "naturalist" and "transcendentalist" (in Princeton lingo: substitute your own local terms) can serve as identity descriptions to project and create parties and memberships--if not at Princeton, then in the imaginations of employers and jobseekers elsewhere, eager to infer motives of those they know chiefly from the interview or the faculty meeting. The shorthand of identity sometimes re-inscribes the confessionalist politics of vulgar neo-orthodoxy, whereby religious studies becomes an identity rather than a discipline, objectivity a confession rather than a skill.

I hope what follows can un-ask certain polarizing questions of typecasting or identity politics. "Naturalist or transcendentalist" (your own lingo here) is as bad as "straight or gay," in my view. Both alternatives attempt to detect whether a scholar belongs to "us" or "them." Both cast the first as explainers and the second as explananda. Naturalists try to explain transcendentalists, straight people try to explain gay people. If in religion we seek to explain Paul, should we in English seek to explain Shakespeare? …

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