Theology’s Difficult Position

To thrive in today’s academy, the discipline needs to make some new distinctions.

By Bryan L. Wagoner

The study of religion in general—and of some subdisciplines within religious studies in particular—has been accused by many in the North American academy, implicitly and explicitly, of subjectivism and adherence to uncritical standards or special criteria of truth. Some have called for religion’s exclusion from the academy, or its absorption into other departments, or its reorganization as “area studies.” Theology, once the crown jewel of the study of religion, has increasingly found itself in a stalemate, circumscribed from without as either a peripheral academic-science exercise or a confessional method of subjective spiritual enrichment.

Miroslav Volf has argued with great insight that theology, once the queen of the “sciences” (Wissenschaften: “disciplines”), now finds itself without its throne, wondering what happened. Volf points out theology’s dilemma today and as it faces the future: “[T]he presumed queen of sciences has grown old and feeble, unable to see that what she thinks is her throne is just an ordinary chair, uncertain about what her territories are, and confused about how to rule in the realms she thinks are hers, seeking advice from a quarrelsome chorus of counselors each of whom thinks himself the king, and ending up with a divided, even schizophrenic mind.”1

If theology is to have a future in the academy, that future, Volf writes, lies with a theology that “must now descend from the throne on which she enjoyed hushed attentiveness and enter the marketplace in which many clamoring voices vie for attention.” Yet many theologians continue to practice theology as they were trained, ignoring this challenge and thereby perpetuating certain misconceptions about theology.

There are manifold challenges facing theology as it “descends from the throne” and “enters the marketplace,” wherein it must distinguish and even re-legitimate itself. One deeply problematic example that could be remedied by theologians themselves comes to the fore immediately. Even among religious studies scholars, there is an alarming frequency of tacit equations of “theology” with “uncritical” or “confessional,” and the further equation of “theological” with “subjective,” “a-rational,” or “tautologous.” All too often, circular or tautologous arguments that start from personal beliefs or presuppositions are explicitly referred to as “theological” arguments, even by students and scholars within the study of religion. Some of the blame for this misconception surely lies with theologians who have not yet taken Volf’s admonition seriously. As it enters the marketplace of ideas in the academy, theology needs to distinguish, first and foremost to colleagues within religious studies, between at least two different types of theology, which will be sketched out below.

Religious studies scholars such as Donald Wiebe have repeatedly claimed a “re-theologization”2 of religious studies at every corner, insofar as religious studies has not had the “nerve” to pro-claim independence from its theological heritage. Theology is for him, in fact, ultimately inimical to religious studies, and its expulsion from the university to seminaries will preserve religious studies’ objectivity and its place in the academy. What Wiebe fails to consider, so far as I am aware, is that what he diagnoses as a “failure of nerve” in religious studies’ inability to free itself from theology is actually a sign of the inextricability of and similarity be-tween the two supposedly disparate fields.

While personal interest may draw students to the study of religion (or theology), the subject of religion (or theology) is not and cannot be  those personal beliefs.

The ongoing tension between religious studies and theology is the more focused aim of this essay, but this tension is almost directly analogous to the tension between the academy or the university and the study of religion in general. The assessment and exploratory proposal articulated here deliberately focuses on the narrower question of the interaction between religious studies and theology. It is readily acknowledged that the schema suggested here does not address the specific set of questions and challenges facing university-based divinity schools today. Hopefully some of the more specific questions facing divinity schools and seminaries will be elucidated by this exploration, but they will not be directly addressed here. The thesis explicated here is provisional; I merely claim the exigency of the need to renew this discussion. Toward that end, the argument developed here maintains that in religious studies and theology, as in other disciplines, while personal interest may draw students to the study of religion (or theology), the subject of religion (or theology) is not and cannot be those personal beliefs.


From Plato to Cicero, great thinkers of classical Western civilization assumed both the necessity and the universality of “religion.” The assertion of religion’s universality, however, sometimes assumes certain metaphysically normative claims that are difficult to substantiate. Although religion is most often thought to have to do with a God or with the gods, any such definition is insufficient from the start: such assertions axiomatically exclude dialogue with self-described atheists as well as organized religious traditions that do not have a central deity, such as Buddhism. Western definitions and categories have historically distorted Eastern religions in the attempt to conform all religious phenomena within a singular category. Some have therefore suggested that “religions” are distinguishable by their referent to a transcendent reality, theistic or not. Others describe religion as a creative activity that fulfills a sociological and cultural need to pro-vide explanation for the inexplicable—suffering, death, etc.

Max Weber argues that humans axiomatically make meaning out of the world around them, and this provides clues about religion. Similarly, Peter Berger’s broad methodological conception of religion understands the “world-creating” and “world-sustaining” orientation of religion in the social production of meaning.3 While “meaning” is a fluid and often arbitrary category, a synthetic Weberian-Bergerian understanding of “religion” is potentially useful as an orienting referent: “religion” is rooted in a framework of “meaning-making” and “meaning-sustaining,” as an integral (though not necessarily universal) act of humanity vis-à-vis the awareness of death. Humans are not only aware that death is the limit experience before which and in sight of which individual and communal identities are formed, but humanity generally perceives death to be a problem.

Such meaning-making or imaginative possibilities can be theistic or nontheistic (Sikhism, Pentecostalism, or Red Sox Nation-like civic religion); this of course only defers any content to the word “religion,” but it situates the distinct contribution of “religion” within the academy as that synthetic discipline that explores and analyzes the self-descriptions, internal rules, and logic of meaning-makers who individually or communally posit or experience some type of transcendence. Such a structural definition, however, often leads toward a pluralistic and universal conception of “religion,” contextually and culturally differentiated, which nevertheless refers to something elemental or universal in human nature. As articulated by John Hick, this posits a single noumenal real”4 behind all religious phenomena.


One means of obviating the perceived need for a universal definition of “religion” has been offered by George Lindbeck, who refers to the understanding of religion as a universal human experience as an “experiential-expressive” model.5 Seeking to overcome problems inherent in this model’s universalizing abstractions, Lindbeck’s thesis, rooted in his interpretation of twentieth-century advances in the philosophy of language, is described as “cultural-linguistic.” Focusing on the practices and beliefs of concrete religious groups undercuts the need to posit a universal category of religion. Lindbeck’s preferred “cultural-linguistic” model suggests that religion functions more like a culture or a shared language, for which beliefs and doctrines provide the “grammar.” The distinction between the essence of a religion, an unknowable abstraction, and its cultural function as a system of symbols helpfully orients the study of religion to the latter: an examination of the function of the culture and language of “religious” groups, without positing religion as a universal category.

A further challenge to the pluralist framework of a posited universal “real” comes from S. Mark Heim, who pointedly notes, “Respect for a faith tradition that does not ex-tend to its actual aims and practices is a frail force.”6 Pluralistic theories of religion typically propose a plurality of means to a singular, if ineffable end. Heim’s suggestion is simultaneously more radical and more traditional: he argues that it should be possible to think not only of a plurality of religious (meaning-making) means, but also of a plurality of religious (meaning-sustaining) ends. This frees one to acknowledge, for example, that the Christian goal of the resurrection of the body is a genuinely distinct goal from the Buddhist path seeking to attain nirvana, just as the hope of Red Sox Nation for another World Series championship represents a quite distinct function and meaning structure. There is no Religion behind the religions; the many paths are not ascending the same mountain; religious goals are genuinely distinct; and any presumption of a single noumenal “real” is unhelpful for the study of religion. “Religion” is nevertheless a useful abstraction, and a healthy polyphony of voices concerning the polyvalence of “religion” seems far preferable to the alternative.

One likely source of the English word “religion” is the Latin religo—to bind—reflecting that “other” to which persons bind themselves, or to or by which persons experience themselves bound. Another etymological option for the word “religion” comes from Cicero’s use of the Latin relego—to gather together again, or to re-peat. The notion of repetition perhaps implies or evokes the generally accepted view of the ritual nature characterizing many religions. Synthesizing these two possible etymologies, “religion” is here tentatively defined as: the binding many humans experience or will experience vis-à-vis a force they cannot control, and the deliberate, communal repetition of actions that reinforce such frameworks.


Often associated exclusively with the Christian tradition, theology is generally concerned with theos, God, or the gods, and how they interact with humanity. Does that mean that theology must presuppose or accept the existence of the gods, or that one must participate in a tradition in order to reflect on it theologically? The regnant assumption even within many religious studies departments today seems to be that, however it is defined, theology remains limited to a subspecies of the study of Christianity. Yet nearly 90 years ago, in his definition of theology, Weber referred to “Hinduist theology” without hesitation. Scholars are increasingly offering courses in “Islamic Theology” or “Twentieth-Century Jewish Theology,” to cite two current courses offered at Harvard. By contrast, it is interesting to note that the American Academy of Religion’s current “research interest survey” for members exclusively equates theology with Christianity; for example, there is no way on the questionnaire to identify one’s interest in Islam and theology.

It should be readily admitted that “theology” has for centuries been a Western construct, associated almost exclusively with Christianity, and further that the majority of theologians through-out previous centuries have in some sense identified themselves with the religious groups they studied; more accurately, most theologians in the past have perceived their scholarship to be in the service of their faith tradition. This is no longer universally the case: one need not be a member of a religious group in order to function responsibly as a theologian concerned with that group, and in fact, many scholars who teach theology are not practitioners. Thus, it is entirely plausible for an individual who self-identifies as a Christian to function as an Islamic theologian by profession.

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza identifies and critiques three common paradigms for understanding the relationship between theology and religious studies: subjective faith versus objective knowledge, epistemic privilege versus scientific neutrality, and committed advocacy versus disinterested impartiality.7 Fiorenza’s paradigms will roughly orient the central sections of this argument. Even beyond these helpful paradigms, perhaps a more fundamental concern underlying the suspicion of theology, and often of religious studies, is the presumption that any study of religion axiomatically deals with subjective faith or an uncritical epistemic privileging of metaphysically normative claims. While some types of theology may involve explicitly metaphysical or normative claims, this is rarely true in university-based theology; yet even many religious studies scholars are unclear about the possibility of distinct “types” of theology, further complicating this tension.

Weber argues in his 1918 essay “Science as a Vocation” that reason, even with the aid of the natural and social sciences, is incapable of answering fundamental questions of value. Challenging the notion that any scholarship can be free of presuppositions, Weber delineates two crucial rationales governing “science” that academic study itself cannot substantiate. First, every discipline “presupposes that the rules of logic and method are valid,” and, second, “that what is yielded by scientific work is important in the sense that it is ‘worth being known.’ ”8 This second criterion, concerning the value of the subject, is particularly problematic in that it cannot be objectively justified by “scientific” means. The presumption of the value of any discipline “can only be interpreted with reference to its ultimate meaning, which we must reject or accept according to our ultimate position towards life.” Thus, all disciplines require a presupposition of their subject in order to analyze it; the study of jurisprudence, for example, must presuppose the existence of the law, just as religious studies must presuppose (at least) something called “religion.” Weber’s admonition concerns the personal responsibility of the scholar to recognize the difference between explicating facts and “answering questions of value.”


The quest for objectivity is noble, and insofar as it can be attained honestly, recognizing all that the interpreter brings to the task, it is to be lauded. But the value a scholar necessarily imbues her or his field with offers a challenge to all scholars to re-imagine established canons of objectivity and neutrality. Those who insist on claiming the objectivity of their scholarship and disinterested knowledge or neutrality for them-selves as scholars would do well to consider Friedrich Nietzsche’s challenge; he writes with usual candor: “Indeed, one goes so far as to assume that anyone who is totally disinterested in a particular moment of the past is the one who must be called upon to portray it. This is the way in which philologists and Greeks often relate to each other: with total disinterest—and this is what is then called ‘objectivity!’ ”9

Clifford Geertz labels the view that cultural (or religious) phenomena could or should be analyzed like mathematics or formal logic the “cognitivist fallacy.” This view refuses to acknowledge that “what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to.”10

Given the inevitable gap between facts and values, choice is crucial; “facts” have value only insofar as individuals choose to imbue them with values, and this act of value-giving (or, meaning-making and meaning-sustaining) is fundamental to human autonomy. Meaning is not something independent that can be provided externally, apart from interpretation, and everyone must take responsibility for the meaning or value they give to facts in their ordering or construction of the world around them.

Hans-Georg Gadamer offers a valuable hermeneutical distinction between meaning and significance, arguing that the textual scholarship must address both. If meaning refers to the historical and linguistic analysis of texts or facts, then significance represents the import—the “so what?” of those facts for the academy and society. Yet religious studies departments uniquely often seem to eschew questions of significance beyond historical and linguistic analysis. While most disciplines readily pursue questions of the significance of texts, Fiorenza argues:

“[T]he opposite appears true in many religious studies departments. Only there is it allegedly advocated that one can only correctly read [religious texts] if one reads [them] merely as historical sources without discussing the religious, moral, and truth claims that these texts raise. Otherwise one does not belong in the university. In short, only if one follows a practice contrary to that in other university departments does one belong in a university.”11

As interpreters of sacred texts and narratives and expositors of enduring communities of practice, scholars of religion would seem to have a greater obligation to the texts and communities they research than merely articulating the facts. The challenge is addressing the significance of those facts without “answering questions of value.”


Returning to Weber, personal belief is neither a marker of objectivity nor of its absence, yet his position can be pushed further here. The professor of economics who is a committed Marxist is thought to be perfectly capable of fulfilling her institutional function as a scholar and teacher insofar as she maintains the integrity to recognize the difference between presentation and pontification. Women’s studies is, quite rightly, an interested, engaged discipline characterized not only by exposition and advocacy, but also by its trenchant critiques of the lacunae in the patriarchal system so long accepted as the norm. The political theorist’s advocacy of her social and political leanings rarely causes concern, provided the scholar acknowledges her values. But advocacy in religious studies often raises eyebrows, even when it is nonsectarian.

Naturally there is a delicate balance required. This is almost universal within the academy and is not unique to theology, or religious studies, or even to the humanities in general. Even the Hippocratic Oath, symbolizing the consummation of medical education, represents a culturally constructed value that cannot be defended solely on rational grounds, and that in some cases results in doctors directly denying the wishes of patients who are suffering. In the field of religion, Weber offers an example of the presumed conflict between professional obligation and personal belief when a scholar of church history lectures on the “miraculous”—this can be done just as well by a believing Catholic as by an agnostic or atheist if the Catholic recognizes her responsibility to present the known facts concerning claims about the miraculous, including the “inconvenient facts.”12 Similarly, other “confessional” beliefs such as the Trinity or reincarnation can be presented and explored both by the “insider” and “outsider.”

It should be emphasized that scholars need not necessarily be advocates for their fields. In some disciplines, such as pure mathematics perhaps, the primary sense in which any advocacy is present may be identical with Weber’s second criterion of science: the value of a discipline (pure mathematics) cannot objectively be justified by “scientific” means alone and requires the personal value decision of the scholar. Yet the Dostoevsky scholar’s advocacy of the merits of Dostoevsky’s thought and literary style, for example, unlike advocacy in religious studies, is generally perceived to be a benefit rather than a bane, both in the classroom and in scholarly writing.

Ronald Thiemann insightfully articulates the perceived difference between the advocacy of the Dostoevsky scholar and the advocacy of the Buddhist scholar for the Pali Canon:

“The transformative power of texts and traditions is not unique to the study of religion. . . .The crucial difference lies in the fact that many religious traditions have extant communities of practice within which the fictive possibilities of a text can become realized13 (emphasis added).

Thiemann’s comments get to the heart of the fear that many have concerning religion. The Dostoevsky scholar has no traditions or practices into which she can immerse herself, unlike the scholar of Buddhism, and this is perhaps the crucial reason that advocacy in religious studies elicits concern. Yet for the feminist theorist, or the environmental ethicist, among others, there are analogous communities and patterns of practice that exhibit similar life-transformative power. Surely it makes little sense to re-strict these disciplines to nonpractitioners or to challenge scholars solely on the basis of their participation in such a community. Adherence to the standards and norms of the academy and a respect for the difference between presentation and proselytization, between advocacy and inappropriate uses of power, can provide a regulative structure for all disciplines.

Surrendering the affectation of personal neutrality vis-à-vis one’s personal location as a scholar need not imply that one can-not be objective in a critically responsible sense with respect to colleagues and students. Although the presentation of any subject in the university should always strive to adhere to highest standards of objectivity possible, the scholar can never be “neutral” or “disinterested” qua scholar in any meaningful sense, though this in no way suggests the absence of standards. Far from undermining the academic enterprise, such an honest admission by the scholar can help re-ground legitimate norms and standards of scholarship and distinguish illusory claims of neutrality from the genuine pursuit of open and honest presentation and argumentation within a given field.


Theology, in Weber’s terminology, is actually closer to what we now mean by religious studies. Weber writes that theology (or religion in general) “represents an intellectual rationalization of the possession of sacred values. No science is absolutely free from presuppositions, and no science can prove its fundamental value to the man who rejects these presuppositions. Every theology, however, adds a few specific presuppositions for its work and thus for the justification of its existence. Their meaning and scope vary. Every theology, including for instance Hinduist theology, presupposes that the world must have a meaning, and the question is how to interpret this meaning so that it is intellectually conceivable.”14

Weber acknowledges that theology (religion) is a “science,” but he also asserts that many theologies are not content with this more basic goal of interpreting meaning, insisting instead on “rev-elations which must be believed in.” Weber suggests that “. . .these presuppositions lie beyond the limits of ‘science.’ They do not rep-resent ‘knowledge,’ in the usual sense, but rather a ‘possession.’ ” This latter type of theology is characterized by an “intellectual sacrifice” that demarcates the prophet from the professor. While the latter phrase is rather condescending, Weber importantly ac-knowledges two distinct types of theology in this 1918 essay; an acknowledgement many in the academy and even in religious studies have yet to make.

I want to use Weber’s paradigm in order to suggest at least two distinct, yet occasionally overlapping, types of theology—a theology 1 and a theology 2. Theology in Weber’s broadest sense is the collective task of religious studies: presupposing the existence of an acknowledged abstraction, i.e., “that the world must have a meaning,” in order to get at the question of how one interprets the meaning (making and sustaining) of religious communities’ organizing patterns and paradigms. Analogous to Weber’s broadest sense of theology is what I will label theology 1; it refers to that which in contemporary terms is the function of academic theology in the university, namely, a critically engaged philosophical examination and interpretation of that meaning through the excavation of the logic of beliefs and practices.

Clearly there is also a secondary distinction for Weber, which he depicts as something to be “believed in,” a “possession” rather than genuine “knowledge.” Avoiding Weber’s disdain, I will label this secondary type theology 2. The task of theology 2, put more positively, is the explication of sacra doctrina for the enrichment and edification of a particular confessional group, oriented by the guidelines, norms, and creeds of that faith tradition. Clearly this latter type of theology has been the overwhelming example of theology historically. While theology 1 retains an integral function within the study of religion and the university, the explicitly confessional nature of theology 2 appears to be more problematic in the university setting and perhaps should be acknowledged and appreciated for what it is and practiced at institutions whose mission includes the formation, enrichment, and training of persons for service within a particular religious group.

I take theology in general to be a type of responsible advocacy, engaged in critical reflection on the internal logic and external ramifications of that  logic within religious traditions.

I take theology in general to be a type of responsible advocacy, engaged in critical reflection on the internal logic and external ramifications of that logic within religious traditions. Theology 1 is methodologically akin to philosophy, and is almost always found on the periphery of both the academy and institutional religions, offering critiques and challenges, utilizing the language of religious groups, but not necessarily bound to or by the religious group it studies. Theology 1 is also perhaps analogous to (religious) intellectual history. In the study of psychoanalysis or critical theory, for example, the rules of academic engagement require a tacit acceptance of certain basic ideas in order to engage the authors and conversations. For constructive analysis, understanding, or dialogue to take place, one must acknowledge that the ideas of psychoanalysis or critical theory exist within a posited framework that has a defensible intellectual position requiring explication and discussion. Theology 1 must similarly grant that individuals and communities who claim to have had experiences of a “transcendent other” do so within a posited, yet intellectually defensible, framework. Only then can the theologian engage those individuals and communities and begin to study and reflect upon their belief structures. Granting the experience of a “transcendent other” or structurally bracketing the question of the existence of a divine being, even while presupposing it for a given inquiry or dialogue, theology 1 enters into the conceptual framework of religious thinkers and communities in order to explicate them.


Theology 1 is methodologically liberal by definition; it is open to any legitimate line of reasoning or critique grounded by some aspect of the text or tradition in question. On the other hand, it is the prerogative, if not the obligation, of ecclesial seminaries and other practitioners of theology 2 to limit not only their methodology, but also the content of their subject and inquiry by a distinctly normative standard: scripture, tradition, creeds, etc. Neither is “better” than the other, but there are important distinctions between the two, and both theology 1 and theology 2 fulfill a distinctive function oriented by different methodological assumptions. While the two are distinct, and articulating distinct types of theology is crucial for university-based theologians and their colleagues in religious studies, profound and deeply engrained points of convergence remain between the two.

Let me now reiterate a claim made above: While personal interest may draw students to the study of religion, the subject of religion is not and cannot be those personal beliefs. The exploration of this claim will illuminate the difference between academic theology in a university setting and theology 2 in a seminary or similar setting. A university-based theologian who is not restricted by confessional requirements or obligations will seek to uphold this distinction, refusing to allow any theological exchange to turn to or revolve around the personal beliefs of any participant as the subject of the discussion.

Should one’s personal beliefs become the subject of theological discussion outside the context of a confessional environment in which some basic unity of beliefs can be assumed, genuine dialogue would seem to be almost impossible axiomatically. In a pluralistic setting where one’s personal and communal beliefs are not necessarily shared, debating certain issues may take on a whole new significance, because to honestly consider and be willing to accept another’s argument that stands against one’s personally held belief could result in calling into question one’s own beliefs, beliefs that serve to ground one’s conceptions of God, self, and world. The suggestion is not that some can handle the challenge to their beliefs and others cannot, but that personal beliefs have no place as the subject of theological reflection in theology 1. In this setting, theological dialogue is most fruitful when only interpretations and ideas are at stake and open to debate and emendation, rather than core beliefs.

A confessional institution, on the other hand, has the prerogative, if not the responsibility, to provide space for discussion within the parameters of a basic level of shared belief, and one’s personal or creedal beliefs can be tested constructively within such a context. This bifurcation between theology 1 and theology 2  should in no way be understood as connoting any value judgment as to which method is more legitimate, nor is it meant to imply that the methodological pluralism of university-based theology is in any way “better” than confessional training at a seminary, or vice versa. While the distinction may verge on hyperbole here, I suggest we do a disservice to both types of theology by refusing to articulate and continually renegotiate these distinctions. Theology has done a relatively poor job of attempting to articulate some of these differences, as is evidenced by the common misunderstanding of distinct types and methodologies within theology, and the misuse of terminology (theological equals tautological) by colleagues within religious studies. Culpability surely rests at least as much with theologians, many of whom are still reticent to enter the “marketplace” of ideas.


A tentative definition of religion was offered earlier, informed by possible etymologies of the word: “the binding many humans experience or will vis-à-vis a force they cannot control, and the deliberate, communal repetition of actions which reinforce such frameworks.” At this point a tentative definition of theology based on this earlier definition can be proffered. Theology is critical and constructive engagement through reflection on the historical realities and truth claims of communities that experience or will a “binding” vis-à-vis a force they cannot control, and the repetition of actions that reinforce such frameworks, but theology is not necessarily bound by those realities or truth claims.

Theology differs from other specializations within the study of religion in several important ways that cannot be explored here. But make no mistake: theology is not identical with other disciplines in religious studies or within the academy at large; theology has a unique critical and constructive contribution to offer the academy and, at times, to communities of faith.

Honest engagement between religious traditions can engender not only the interpretative tasks most scholars already pursue, but also an ultimately constructive task as well.

Honest engagement with and between religious traditions can engender not only the explanatory and interpretative tasks most scholars already pursue, but also a critical and ultimately constructive task as well, naming and unmasking distortions and hidden power dynamics inherent in religions. The challenge of balancing a responsible advocacy for lived religious traditions and critical engagement with the thought of that tradition is what I am advocating for theology 1.

A significant facet of the challenge to both religious studies and theology in recent years has been an increasing awareness of the power dynamics inherent in all knowledge. Important has been the debate over the function of narrative and history: Who gets to tell the story? Who is authorized to write history? It seems painfully obvious that, until recently, history has always been the story told by the victorious. Claims of objectivity within the history of religions and confidence in the “facts” it recounts can fail to provide the necessary critical voice and thereby reify oppressive structures. For example, any historical or theological study of Tibetan Buddhism that obscures the violence permeating Tibet’s history in favor of fostering the illusion of a peaceful Shangri-La high in the Himalayas should be called into question. Any account of twentieth-century American religion that does not take critical aim at the oppression of women and minorities, including the specific role of religion in continuing to deny women and minorities equality, should be called into question.

I maintain that it is the responsibility of scholars, as well as academic administrators, to provide space for these and similar questions to be raised. This cannot be done on purely “objective” or disinterested grounds, however, as if the scholar were not already profoundly situated in a thick context. While the commitment to universal human rights and the cessation of all forms of oppression may be in vogue in universities, such commitments remain ideological presuppositions that cannot easily be substantiated on their own terms. In my opinion, scholars of religion and other disciplines should freely acknowledge such commitments and, if they so choose, mine the available religious or cultural resources in the attempt to find common ground on which conversations about equality and justice can take place, both within religious studies and in conversation with others in the university, in colloquia, in journals, and in the public sphere. The common ground sought to foster critical, comparative dialogue between religions could only aid in this conversation.


Nietzsche offered some “untimely observations” in 1873 that seem eerily prescient for the future of religious studies: “A religion, for example that is supposed to be trans-formed under the rule of pure justice into historical knowledge, a religion that is supposed to be understood scientifically through and through, will be destroyed as soon as it reaches this goal. The reason for this is that every historical audit always brings to life so much falsehood, coarseness, inhumanity, absurdity, and violence that the pious atmosphere of illusion. . .vanishes.”15

I want to make two concluding points based on Nietzsche’s remarks. One is obvious: religion has not, contrary to Nietzsche’s predictions, vanished. Second, and more important, the pertinacity of religion provides fertile ground for scholars of religion to explore the perseverance and resurgence of religion as a dimension of human culture, oriented toward the purposes of life and the construction of a better world. The effect of religious studies certainly can be to “destroy” religion, as Nietzsche notes, or it can be to “study what service or disservice religion and religious history—as all history—has for the totality of life,” as Francis Fiorenza puts it.16

Perhaps it is a “theological” assumption, but I submit that the academy in general, and perhaps religious studies in particular, should seek less to cloister itself in order to fortify territory than to recognize instead the significance of the ideas and sacred texts it is entrusted with and to use them in the service of society at large. Our words theory and theoretical do not etymologically connote dispassionate objectivity—theoreo in Greek can mean engaged reflection, in the sense of standing back and observing in wonder. Has the academy (religious studies?) lost its ability to stand back in awe of its subject? Why are so few willing, with Paul Ricoeur, to stand back after having analyzed and deconstructed their subject, and marvel with a “second naïveté” at a subject that still transcends us both as scholars and as human beings?

Perhaps the perceived or real impasse lies not between the academy and religious studies, but between factions within the study of religion. The perceived disparity between religious and theological studies is only the oldest of these contests. The only possible pharmakon in my opinion lies in sustained, systematic dialogue and a renewed openness to listening to and learning from and with colleagues within religious studies and with colleagues in the broader university. The ongoing challenge facing religious studies, equally challenging all of its subdisciplines, is that the discipline must constantly steer between the Scylla of reductionism and the Charybdis of theoretical abstraction, navigating between the twin perils of historicism and dogmatism.


  1. Miroslav Volf, “Introduction: A Queen and a Beggar: Challenges and Prospects of Theology,” in The Future of Theology: Essays in Honor of Jürgen Moltmann, ed. Miroslav Volf et. al. (William B. Eerdmans, 1996), x.
  2. Donald Wiebe, The Irony of Theology and the Nature of Religious Thought (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991), 231.
  3. Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Doubleday, 1967), chaps. 1-2.
  4. John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (Yale University Press, 1989), 11, 236-240.
  5. George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Westminster Press, 1984), 31-3.
  6. S. Mark Heim, Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion (Orbis Books, 1995), 123.
  7. Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, “Theological and Religious Studies: The Contest of the Faculties,” in Shifting Boundaries: Contextual Approaches to the Structure of Theological Education, ed. Barbara G. Wheeler and Edward Farley (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 119-149.
  8. Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. and ed. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (Routledge, 1991), 143.
  9. Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Utility and Liability of History for Life,” in Unfashionable Observations, vol. II, trans. Richard T. Gray (Stanford University Press, 1995), 128.
  10. Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretative Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (Basic Books, 1973), 9.
  11. Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, “Theology and the University,” Bulletin of the Council of Societies for the Study of Religion 22:2 (April 1993), 36.
  12. Weber, 147.
  13. Ronald F. Thiemann, “The Future of an Illusion: An Inquiry into the Contrast Between Theological and Religious Studies,” Theological Education 26:2, Spring 1990, 80.
  14. Weber, 153.
  15. Nietzsche, 131.
  16. Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, “Theology and the University,” 36.

Bryan L. Wagoner is a PhD candidate in the Study  of Religion, focusing on Christian theology and critical social theory in the modern West. He is working primarily with HDS Professors Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, Ronald Thiemann, and Sarah Coakley.

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