“Ethics of Being a Theologian”: Chronicle of Higher Education

29 07 2009

Regular readers know that Favorite Daughter has declared a double major, in creative writing and in religious studies. She also has declared herself an atheist.

The distinction that I have drawn between theology and religious study is not merely academic but ethical. . . Academic theologians’ pronouncements give the public a false sense that theology represents an advance in human knowledge. Recent embarrassments, like the rising influence of intelligent-design “science,” demonstrate that claims made by theologians have consequences. Theologians must take a hard look in the mirror and ask if they can live with those consequences.

Theologians’ failure to meet their ethical obligations is particularly significant with respect to the Bible and other sacred writings. The field of biblical studies includes a great many religion researchers but remains dominated by theologians whose pronouncements about the Bible routinely lead the less informed astray.

Not infrequently, theological concepts are packaged as the conclusions of historical research. The problem is not merely that biblical characters like Moses or Jesus are presented to the public as figures of history on the slimmest of evidence, but, more insidiously, that biblical claims about human obligation to a god are presented as though they are supported by some kind of evidence.

Theologians who do not think of themselves as unethical nevertheless sell their pew-sitting laity a bill of goods. The failure of theologians to remind the members of their churches and synagogues that the Bible is an anthology of ancient literature composed by ancient people in an ancient culture has consequences.

The laity are entitled to know that any god described in a biblical text is an ancient god, a byproduct of the ancient culture that produced the text. The god of the Bible is the sum total of the words in the text and has no independent existence. It would be reasonable to begin every theological discussion with the disclaimer “the god described in this sacred text is fictional, and any resemblance to an actual god is purely coincidental.”

This is not an outsider’s dismissive opinion, but the reality, and theologians have an ethical obligation to teach that truth even if they also want to believe and teach, as is their right, that a god exists. . .



10 responses

30 07 2009
Luke Holzmann

I enjoyed reading the article… and I enjoyed the comments that followed even more [smile]. Interesting stuff.


30 07 2009

Hi Luke, because of you, I went back and read all the comments! 🙂

Then I noticed a similar piece from 10 years ago, not sure if you’ll be able to see the whole thing if you’re not a Chronicle subscriber but it’s worth a try:
The Hidden Discipline of Religious Studies by Richard Wentz.

And here’s a very generous excerpt just in case:

I have spent half a lifetime waiting for my fellow academics, intellectuals, the news media, and the general public to comprehend and accept the discipline I study and teach. But it remains a hidden discipline, misunderstood by many, including academics. Most people assume — often mistakenly — that they already know what religious studies is, and almost nobody seems to care to know more.

On airplanes, I tell my seatmate that I’m a university professor. “Oh, what do you teach?” “Religious studies,” I say. “Do you teach just one religion?” Often, I avoid trying to explain, just saying that I teach history or philosophy (my apologies to the grand protectors of those venerable professions). A colleague at another university tells his inquisitors that he teaches “world-views.” The conversation immediately becomes open and animated, he tells me.

I go to a meeting at the faculty club with professors from other departments and hear the facetious comment about the rest of the university’s counting on the prayers of the religious-studies faculty to get us out of “the mess” we’re in (whatever “mess” that may be). I counter that we do not teach, practice, or advocate religion in religious studies, and I am faced with vacant stares.

Recently, A.S.U. Insight, a newspaper for faculty and staff members, ran a story announcing a prestigious annual lecture, to be given by Martin E. Marty, one of the foremost historians of American religion; the headline identified him as a “theologian.” Now, of course, it is possible to be both a theologian and a religious-studies scholar, just as it is possible to be both a political scientist and a Marxist philosopher. However, Marty was giving our lecture because he was a historian of religion.

Every time our department sends a press release to a newspaper, the item appears in Saturday’s religion section. News from our department has to do with the role of religion in the public domain, not the advocacy or practice of religion (which I assume is the concern of religion sections). The discipline of religious studies seeks to understand American social and cultural life, and I always tell my students that the purpose of the course they are beginning with me is not “religious”; it is academic, like any other scholarly discipline.

The discipline of religious studies is relatively new to the academy. Its roots may be found in the research of language and literature scholars dating back to the 18th century, and in the scholarship of Sir James George Fraser and the progenitors of modern anthropology — work that took seriously the study of religious phenomena and culture. While many private liberal-arts colleges and universities in the early 20th century had departments of religion, the nature of those departments changed significantly with the emergence of religious studies in public colleges and universities, beginning in the 1960s.

At the public institutions, religious studies was based on a recognition of the pluralism of the United States and of the weakening of Protestant cultural hegemony during what was sometimes referred to as the “post-Christian era” or the age of “secular America” and the “death of God.”

Observe the contours of this hidden discipline, and you’ll learn first that religious studies investigates the nature of religious traditions. The modern world (1500 onward) has fashioned a concern with categories — containers of ideas and practices that shape the way people live, and that make for convenient study. So we study Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and other religions to understand the kinds of worlds in which people live.

But religious studies also takes seriously the fact that, prior to the compartmentalization of knowledge in the second half of the 19th century, all knowledge was considered an integral whole. It was basically philosophical — having to do with the inquiry into the meaning of things. Inquiry into the workings of nature was natural philosophy, the study of behavior was moral philosophy, and so on. The basis for all of that — what gave ultimate order and meaning — was religion.

The compartmentalization of knowledge has reduced the substance of knowledge to single disciplines — biology, psychology, and the like. Religious studies seeks to raise again the questions of order and meaning; it is not satisfied with what the sociologist or anthropologist or even the historian says about something called “religion.”

Instead, it is concerned with how cultures are shaped, with what it means to be human in particular ways. The religious-studies scholar remembers that religious perception is integral: that it has something to tell us about sociology, psychology, perhaps even physics.

[JJ’s note: POWER OF STORY! No wonder FavD and I are so fascinated!]

In the 1960s, the National Association of Biblical Instructors, a professional organization of religion professors and theological-seminary faculty members, became the American Academy of Religion, recognizing the new pluralism and the new critical scholarship.

Much of the growth came at the burgeoning public colleges and universities, which is why you find distinguished faculties in religious studies at state institutions in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and other states.

Unfortunately, American higher education tends to develop in a haphazard manner. Accordingly, some private secondary schools and colleges and universities have renamed their old “religion courses,” turning them into “religious studies” while keeping them focused on the devout study of a particular tradition.

This situation serves only to obscure the reality that religious studies is the critical study of religious phenomena in diverse contexts, and that to neglect the insights of religious studies leads to a failure in understanding society and culture. . .

30 07 2009
Luke Holzmann

JJ, thanks for posting that (since I couldn’t get to it as you suspected).

I think I’m going to blog about this today, but let me note here that this fascinates me because I totally see the frustration, which I hadn’t even known about before. Granted, that was because I was immersed in the “other side” where the frustration is all about the “totally secular ‘scholar'” who is trying to diminish the truth and power of Christianity rather than the “[sheesh] I’m looking at other factors that are driving these religions; I’m not a religious person” issue [smile]. Fascinating!

Even so, I agree with the commenters who pointed out that his blanket rejection of the existence of God is highly suspect and, I would suggest, worthy of it’s own disclaimer to keep things “ethical” [smile].


30 07 2009

I see you got to it already, good!
Ethics, God and Debate

I agree with you that the intellectual integrity issue is one for all scholars, not just some. The whole endeavor of inquiry and enlightenment depends on it.

One thing though — I’m not sure you actually disagree with what the professor wrote about the biblical god being fictional. (Maybe because I don’t think of fiction as lesser and see much truth in it, more than in the news sometimes!)

Our words can get in our way. I didn’t think he was saying “God” is fictional but that this character in the stories of those books called god, taken from nothing more than those stories, is fictional. And btw different in the Old and the New books, even. Character development, classic literature!

Let’s see, maybe the way Shakespeare fictionalized different kings and queens in his plays? (Young Son is doing Richard the Third this weekend.) The Richard the Third character as he lives in Shakespeare’s play gives life to some powerful truths that are meaningful and timeless to those of us who read and study it, but it is also true that it’s fiction, a way to tell human truths by creating and treating THAT Richard the Third as a literary device, to reach and teach real people even though not itself a real person.

The real one doesn’t make the fictional one better or worse or more or less “real” apart from the book. There really was a real Richard as well, while there are other fictional Shakespeare characters who don’t have a “real” counterpart — but you can’t tell by the plays alone and within the play it doesn’t matter. (Scholars should help us keep them straight though.)

See also When Praying to Gods Makes Hard-Nosed Business Sense

Firing Stephen Foster, Promoting Uncle Ben

30 07 2009

Narrative. Power of Story. Maybe we should call it that instead of fictional and it would seem more understandably true? Surely there’s no problem with even the most fundamentalist Christian acknowledging his God is infinitely more than any series of narratives a human mind can comprehend?

31 07 2009

(crossposted from the discussion of Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley meeting with the President to revolve their differences)

Mr. Gates later told The New York Times: “When he’s not arresting you, Sergeant Crowley is a really likable guy.”

Let’s think more about this, it is profound Power of Story!

Luke and I have been toying with the difference between the fictional lower-case character god who populates bible stories and sermons, and THE God outside of the best storytelling and most learned man’s understanding, the tree falling in the forest even though no human is there to hear, the “real” God to Rule Them All.

So I was in that mindset when I read the comment by Professor Gates about Sgt Crowley. What he’s saying is that it was two different guys! It struck me that like our heroes and villains and even our gods, we’re all fictional characters in someone else’s telling and reading, with endless imperfectly drawn variations, sometimes more or less fully dimensional and historically accurate but never Reality itself.

The person we fall in love with is a fiction of our own creation, and that character changes in our own mind, sometimes to the point that we literally and honestly say years later, “That’s a different person!” — no matter how closely a particular version at a particular time comports with Reality, it’s still incomplete and an interpretation. Heck, we’re even fictional characters in our own memories of ourselves!

Stephen Colbert did a funny bit the other night about Tim Geithner, holding two pictures of him and introducing them as two different guys who were in opposition to each other: The Regulator Tim Geithner in suit and tie, running the mortgage bailout and Regular Guy Tim Geithner in a plaid shirt, who can’t sell his own house due to the mortgage bailout. Which was the “real” guy Geithner — neither, right? But they were two fictional versions that each had much truth in Reality.

31 07 2009
Luke Holzmann

Interesting thoughts, JJ!

I am hesitant to fully jump in and agree that the “god” of the Bible is merely a narrative using the power of story to show us glimpses of God… mostly because I believe the Bible is more than just a bit of good literature (though, it is that as well [smile]). But, I’m perfectly fine agreeing with C.S. Lewis when he said something to the effect of: Christianity is a myth–it just so happens to be a myth that is true [smile].

And so, yes, I completely agree that we will never be able to contain all of God in our literature–and so there is just big glimpses of Him in the Bible–that doesn’t mean that the Bible is a fiction about and apart from God. It is a narrative–especially in some parts–and we must read it carefully and with humility. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is like Shakespeare’s King Richard. To stick with the literary simile: The Bible is more like God’s “biography”/history/letters and less like a play embellishing Him.

…I think that’s fair… hmm… yes?


31 07 2009

Well, let’s see if I can further clarify my own meaning in my own mind (you are good for helping me do that!) — there’s not just one “god” character contained in the books of the bible; there are many. And from our reading, each of us will literally create in our own minds a unique character that we take to be God. These characters will not all be the same, in fact much the opposite — each will be unique. And incomplete. And although full of truth and poetry and passion, at best fictional rather than truly “history” or science as we know Reality to be in the third millennium (and some versions will be downright dangerous and/or demented and harmful to living creatures unfortunately, when taken as Real and acted upon out of the book in the Real World.)

21 09 2009
Science Fiction — and Anti-science Fiction? « Cocking A Snook!

[…] of Higher Education: Not infrequently, theological concepts are packaged as the conclusions of historical research. The problem is not merely that biblical characters like Moses or Jesus are presented to the public […]

13 06 2011
Ethics, God, and Debate | Sonlight Blog

[…] JJ […]

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