Friday, October 16, 2015

It's Not the Size of the Tent; It's How It's Constructed

By Finbarr Curtis

Elections are in the air.  Alongside the far more colorful contests for the American presidency, the American Academy of Religion put forth David P. Gushee and R. Kendall Soulen as candidates for the vice presidency of the organization.  While lacking controversy of Trumpic proportions, the AAR did face criticism here and here from scholars who noted that the two candidates both advocate for more theological reflection in the study of religion.  In his statement, Gushee expresses concern that the "AAR is seen as not particularly hospitable to, say, confessional or constructive theology, or more conservative religious viewpoints."
Gushee and Soulen reopen some old debates in religious studies and appeal to American senses of fair play and inclusion.  In their view, the AAR should be a big tent that includes lots of different perspectives.  I am not persuaded that their tent building requires any changes in organizational direction, however, because it strikes me that the AAR is a big tent right now.  Ironically, this means that everyone feels excluded.  Evangelical theologians lament that secular approaches to religious studies have squeezed out faith while critical theorists see Christian theological categories everywhere.

I am a big tent kind of guy and am comfortable with people studying something they call religion from perspectives other than my own.  I am less comfortable with the language of inhospitality as well as the suggestion that religious studies keeps people out when it identifies methodological principles that make it possible to study religion.

One reason I am skeptical of charges of exclusion is that I already work in a big tent.  It's called the classroom.  At a regional state school in a part of the Deep South that considers the AAR's hometown of Atlanta to be Yankee territory, I teach classes in which a majority of my students identify as evangelical Christians.  I often exchange friendly waves when I run into them at the ubiquitous Bible Study sessions that make up our college town's coffee shop culture.

Part of why I get along with my students is that they understand that I am not trying to convert them to a more enlightened theological perspective.  I suggest instead that the college course in which they are enrolled will be more productive if they play along with an intellectual exercise in which we ask some possibly unfamiliar questions about what they know as religion.  We can broaden our range of questions if we consider what would happen when we think about religion the way we think about any other subject matter.  I tell students that the purpose of our intellectual exercise is not to demonstrate that religious studies courses teach the Truth whereas what they talk about in Bible study is false.  Rather, religious studies asks a different set of disciplinary questions, and that learning to ask disciplined questions is not a unique feature of the study of religion but is the reason that they are in school.  Learning how to work within academic disciplines teaches students habits of scholarly rigor that can help them to be precise when they talk about the various ways that human beings go about being human.

Asking students to suspend their personal investments in religion in order to think about scholarly questions might sound like naive objectivity, but I am not claiming that we need to find some ontologically disinterested position in order to perceive objective reality.  When we teach we often employ pragmatic pedagogical tactics that we could deconstruct if we made them the subject of scholarly criticism.  So this is what we do.  I ask students to consider our courses as data in the study of religion.  We ask questions like: Why are we reading what we're reading?  Why do we make distinctions between religious studies and Bible study?   What kinds of assumptions and questions do scholars from different disciplines make when they study religion?  Why study anything at all?

One thing I ask students to think about is what people are saying when they make general claims about religion.  An example we might consider could be candidate Soulen's analogy between the AAR and "religion itself":
Like religion itself, the AAR is a precious and fragile mixture of body, mind, and spirit.  It is worth cultivating for its own sake, and for the light it can offer in difficult times.
When you study religion you notice that people often invoke general religiosity when they mean something more specific.  A way to illustrate this is to examine how this same statement works if we substituted "religion itself" with a particular example from the various and sundry phenomena classified as religion.  I wonder how many AAR members would subscribe to the following statement:
Like the Westboro Baptist Church, the AAR is a precious and fragile mixture of body, mind, and spirit.  It is worth cultivating for its own sake, and for the light it can offer in difficult times.
Or instead of substituting groups, we could suggest religious practices.  We could swap out "religion itself" with, say, Wendy Doniger's description of religious censorship:
Like the "vilification of my books by a narrow band of narrow-minded Hindus," the AAR is a precious and fragile mixture of body, mind, and spirit.  It is worth cultivating for its own sake, and for the light it can offer in difficult times.
Of course, fundamentalist churches and religious censorship are not the sorts of things that Gushee and Soulen want the AAR to include.  When Gushee says he wants the AAR to be more hospitable to "more conservative religious viewpoints," he doesn't mean too conservative.  Calls for a bigger tent that includes theologians, then, are analytically coherent only if we realize that they are actually calling for a restricted view of what counts as religion.  In other words, in order to expand the tent you have to shrink it.

My concern isn't that such proposals shrink the tent.  My worry is that people are not even aware that they are engaged in tent shrinking projects because they have not developed sustained habits of reflection upon how and why tents are constructed.  Where theological liberals run into problems is when they see tents constructed in their image and on their terms and with their own admissions policies as somehow inclusive of everyone.

Fortunately, this is where religious studies can come in handy.  Instead of producing good religion, we can help students to think more carefully and precisely about how religion is produced.

1 comment: