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I mentioned the other day that there’s some fuzziness in the distinctions between ‘theology’ and ‘religious studies’, and I wanted to just put up a quick clarification before I get around to (hopefully) concluding the series of posts I’ve been writing on issues that arise between me and the church.

I’ll take this article as a baseline. It’s by the chair of the Religious Studies department at Brandon University, MB, and a quick Google search tells me that, while he has a UK publisher, he’s been educated exclusively in North America. So the distinction he draws between Theology and Religious Studies is, in one way, a bit more institutionally entrenched for him than it is for me. That being said, while I find some of his invective against theologians problematic, I generally agree with his assessment: theology is practised by people with a vested interest in the religion which they study, while religious studies tends towards a more descriptive, anthropological ethos. At least, I recognise this as one legitimate model of the divide.

It is, however, a model which neglects to take into account things like disciplinary and institutional history, and the power structures which such history generates. In North America, most universities are fairly young (19th century and later); while a number of religiously affiliated schools did begin with a mission to train ministers for their denomination, most departments–especially those in public universities–do not have quite the same history as do most of the oldest institutions in Europe. On this side of the ocean, most of the oldest universities began as centres for the study of theology (or theology and law, or, perhaps, theology, law, and medicine).[1] Over the years, different disciplines developed and were absorbed into the university structure, but the idea that theology was somehow central to what the university does, what the university is, remained entrenched at the back of everyone’s minds for a very, very long time–down to the present day, in fact. Religious Studies is, like universities on the other side of the ocean, very young; while it has roots going back to the 18th and 19th centuries, it didn’t really coalesce into a distinct discipline until the early 20th century. So, while on the American side, Religious Studies developed more-or-less along with the university system (although, as Noll points out, there is still some confusion about exactly where the boundaries of the discipline lie), on the European side, it’s a very strange–and very late–interloper.[2]

In other words, ‘Theology’ is, in some places, a privileged discourse, a label which causes work to be taken more seriously than it otherwise might be. There are decided benefits, then, to being able to put that label on a piece of writing.

There’s another distinction between ‘Theology’ and ‘Religious Studies’ that I alluded to briefly in my last post, and that is this: historically, theology has not been the study of any religious system by and for adherents to that system, but, rather, the study of Christianity by and for Christians. This heritage, combined with the subtle but still very real privileging of theology over religious studies, produces a subtle but very real exclusion of non-Christians from serious academic discourse about religion. This is beginning to change, but slowly, and at the moment my experience has been that the burden falls more on the non-Christian to adapt to the dominant discourse (i.e., to present their work using the language associated with theology).

This puts me in a slightly awkward situation. I study religion as a cultural system (a classic Religious Studies methodology), but I do so in a European university, where the dominant discourse is theological. I study both Judaism and Christianity, and, yes, my study of Judaism is often–though certainly not always–caught up in my own religious outlook.[3] But, interestingly, it is the work I do on Christianity that is most recognisable to other members of my department as ‘Real Theology’, and the work I do on Judaism that tends to get shrugged off as ‘just Religious Studies’.

So. That’s why I mostly ignore the distinction between the two and call what I do ‘the academic study of religion.’ Because, sometimes, the boundaries create more problems than they solve.

[1] I’m glossing a lot of material on the development of universities as we know them today; if you’re interested in reading up on this a bit more, I’d suggest starting with Julie Thompson Klein’s Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice. Kathryn Tanner’s Theories of Culture is also helpful, and both of those contain bibliographies that will point to further reading.

[2] See Walter H. Capps, Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline, or Tomoko Masuzawa’s Invention of World Religions.

[3] No, contrary to Noll, I don’t find anything inherently dishonest or unethical about this–I would find it more dishonest to try to pretend that I don’t have any personal stake in the work.