Theological Studies and Religious Studies
Theological Studies and Religious Studies

The widely recognized QS survey of world universities ranks schools as a whole, but it also ranks them in forty-six subject areas. One of these subject areas is called “theology, divinity, and religious studies.”

But, wait! Aren’t theology and religious studies two different subject areas? They certainly are at the University of Toronto. But the universities that QS ranks highest in this area — Harvard, Oxford, Durham, Cambridge, Boston, Yale — join theology and religious studies in the same department.

So do these subjects belong together?  Or are they quite different?

The question is a conundrum.

What does theology do?
Historically, theology is a very old subject area, and religious studies is a very recent one. As soon as there were universities in Europe, in the twelfth century, there were faculties of Christian theology. Teachers and students studied the sources of Christian authority, and a lot of Aristotle. They disagreed a lot. Christian theological studies in its modern form, as a critical research discipline that distinguishes the fields of Biblical interpretation, doctrine, and history, and that does professional training as well, is often traced to the University of Berlin, after 1810.

Of course Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others also engage in discourse about God. At the University of Toronto, a Centre for Jewish Studies was organized in 2008, and an Institute of Islamic Studies developed in 2014. Similarly to Christian theological studies, they typically work as “faith traditions seeking understanding,” critically reflecting on their thought and practice more as insiders than as outsiders. And in Toronto, at least, we all learn from one another.

What does religious studies do?
Religious studies, for its part, emerged in the 1960s as a multi-disciplinary way of understanding the cross-cultural social and human reality of religions. Its pre-history dates to 1873 when an Orientalist in Germany coined the term Religionswissenschaft, “science of religion,” for his research. In theory, religious studies scholars are methodologically uncommitted to any particular religion. Martin Marty of the University of Chicago quipped that they tend to display a “more-secular-than-thou” attitude.

Ninian Smart of the University of Lancaster was the great apostle of departments of religious studies in the 1960s and 1970s. He served as a consultant at the founding of many of them, including at the University of Toronto. He distinguished the “descriptive” approach of religious studies from the “normative” approach of theological studies. But later Smart dismissed his earlier view as “purist”. Normative questions naturally emerge in enquiring minds, he said.

Not all religious studies scholars aspire to a detached perspective, though. Anthropologists of religion, for instance, usually try to enter imaginatively into people’s mind-sets and world-views in the cultures they study, often as participant observers in religious activity. Some have edged over the unmarked boundary from outsider to insider. For instance, Paul Stoller, living with the Songhay people in Niger, made a sacrifice to a local god, botched the ritual, and subsequently experienced serious mysterious physical ailments which challenged his scholarly agnosticism.

Challenges to the claim of neutrality
Can anyone have a value-free, objective purchase on truth? The “post-modern” turn in scholarship has answered no. Each of us is ‘situated’ by our gender, social standing, economic class, ethnicity, philosophical premises…. Bourgeois white men won’t ever be able to understand black culture, Indigeneity, and the victimization of women in the same way as people who have lived the experience. On the contrary, the dismaying fact is that generations of white male scholars, presuming to be scientific about it, have sponsored theories to support racism, colonialism, and sexism. Tomoko Masuzawa of the University of Michigan thinks that the study of world religions itself is, genealogically, a western colonialist project.

At first sight the advantage of religious studies over theology is that it’s easier to prove the existence of religions than the existence of God. But is it? How do we know a “religion” when we see one? Wilfrid Cantwell Smith, who ended his illustrious career at Trinity College, Toronto, argued that “religion” wasn’t a universal category, but a recent European construct. The late Frits Staal, a distinguished scholar of Hinduism, complained of the modern European-American prejudice that “the Christian, especially Protestant, idea of religion is universally valid.” Jonathan Z. Smith of the University of Chicago proposed that “religion has no independent existence apart from the academy.” Religious studies departments are created for reasons of university politics, he said, but their way of slicing up the pie of knowledge is otherwise random.

Moving ahead
David Ford of Cambridge University has called the academy to move beyond the disjunction between “confessional theology and neutral religious studies”. In our own situation at TST, where religious studies is a University department and theological studies is administered by a consortium of independent affiliate schools, this disjunction is institutionally entrenched. And that’s not all bad; a consortium of schools is guaranteed to hire faculty members more diversely than a single department.

I don’t mean that theological studies and religious studies are isolated from each other in our Toronto situation. We have many interchange, overlaps, and mutual sympathies. But sometimes we can practice territoriality and stereotyping. I’ve seen it.

What’s our future? In order to climb the QS rankings and make the University of Toronto one of the world’s top ten centres for “theology, divinity, and religious studies,” we’ll look for more conversations and collaboration between theological studies and religious studies, as well as Jewish studies and Islamic studies and other kinds of studies. I find that prospect inspiring and exciting.

~ Alan L. Hayes