By Philip L. Tite
I recently received the Fall/Winter issue of McGill News, the alumni magazine for McGill University. Although I normally don’t find much in the McGill News of interest (usually I find articles on business or technological advances, athletic accomplishments, or stunning tales of the “1%” of McGill graduates, usually with the typical subtext for the rest of us to make significant financial donations to the university), this time I did not immediate drop the magazine into the recycle bin. Instead, my attention was caught by an article entitled “In Defence of Religion” by Mark Reynolds. A lovely picture of Arvind Sharma, who is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion in the Faculty of Religious Studies and a noted scholar in the phenomenology of religion, takes up about 1/6th of the page. Stunned that McGill’s religious studies program would have a full article on it, especially with a focus on one of the professors that I knew from my days as a doctoral student at McGill, I read through the article with great interest.
Since the violent events of 9/11, the article observes, religion has come under attack in popular perceptions. Fueled by media coverage, Reynolds claims that “the mainstream consensus has come to define religion by its most extreme and violent adherents.” Thus, religion has become a problem. Sharma is presented as resisting this very tendency to dismiss religion as a social ill. However, Sharma, at least as presented in this article, does not wish to articulate a more accurate social and ideological description of various religious traditions (i.e., to correct errors in the data collection), nor does he call for explanatory analysis of both those traditions and the ideological processes at work in the emergence and perpetuation of the “mainstream consensus” (i.e., to make sense of those data sets). Rather Sharma has a “faith in religion’s ability to inspire our better natures” due to the “positive potential of religion” to make the world a better place. To this end, he helped organize the Global Conference on World Religions After 9/11 held in 2006. This very well attended conference included such key speakers as Deepak Chopra, Steven Katz, Gregory Baum, Tariq Ramadan, and even the Dalai Lama.
The Conference set forth three resolutions to try to improve the role of religion in international affairs: (1) “that, whenever in the world there are religious schools (seminary, or yeshiva, or madrasah, etc) they should teach a course on world religions” (evoking the claim that education leads to moral and peaceful progress in society); (2) “that violating the sanctity of the scriptures of any religion amounts to violating the sanctity of the scriptures of all religions” (which takes on new meaning in light of the Florida Qur’an burning); and (3) “finally, that the religions of the world should come together to formulate a Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World’s Religions” (situating the entire Conference within an inter-faith dialogue that articulates a humanistic “core” in all religions).
This article raised serious issues for me as a scholar of religion, especially as this is a public presentation of one of the leading program for religious studies in Canada. Specifically, I had to ask myself: Is this what our job as scholars – as public intellectuals – should be? This article represents an understanding of religious studies that is grounded in the value of the “caretaking” of traditions (to evoke Russell McCutcheon apt terminology). As a discipline, religious studies holds value in that its practitioners (scholars as researchers and teachers) and resources (institutional) only hold value (or primarily hold value) when they are engaged in protecting insider concerns, defending the very integrity of a religious tradition. Couched within this discourse is the place of inter-faith dialogue, an area of work that has gain a solid footing within the discipline.
All of this shifts our academic focus away from understanding and explaining social phenomena, toward a discursive game of claiming moral authority (as scholars) to (1) tell those we label “religious” how they should be religious, and (2) to authoritatively safeguard those very traditions as essentially beneficial to humankind (and thus to delegitimize other, non-beneficial acts, individuals, or social groups as not authentically religious). The former is a prescriptive move (rather than a descriptive move with subsequent theorization of the constructed data sets) that is founded upon the universalizing and essentializing premise of the later. Often a humanistic ethic underlies arguments in favor of the inclusion of the study of religion in the modern university (as if that were the only way to justify our existence).
Although I do agree that the academic study of religion – like other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences – can contribute to broader public dialogues over cultural issues, I am not convinced that the approach articulated in this article is really helpful. McCutcheon has offered (in my opinion) a definitive and devastating attack on scholars adopting the role of “caretaker” of religions (in his classic article “A Default of Critical Intelligence?” published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion in 1997; also his book, Religion and the Domestication of Dissent). Other scholars have further articulated various problems with the phenomenological approach to comparative religious studies, especially when such approaches lead to transhistorical, normative truth claims. For myself, I think that religious studies scholars can offer something far more useful to public discourse than simply re-stating, prescriptively correcting, and defending insider truth claims (especially when scholars articulate an “authentic” version of a given tradition).
As highly trained cultural critics engaged in redescribing insider truth claims and methodologically delimited theorization of those data sets we have constructed, we are in a place qua scholars to elucidate those ideological processes that are at play within cultural and social interactions, interactions that result in discursive “normative” scripts being played out. What economic, social, and geopolitical forces are at work between competing claims to a commonsense, normative worldview? What rhetorical acts are utilized in both legitimization and delegitimization of those posited worldviews? Are we as scholars culpable in such discursive engagements (what are our ideological blinders)? Answering such questions (and empowering students to struggle with such questions, even if that means they disagree with us) strikes me as a more valuable and unique contribution to public discourse. It is in this task of asking questions, detecting ideological processes, and testing answers that the scholar of religion can function as a public intellectual; not, however, as a public intellectual whose function or concern is to “protect” or “further” a specific social body, political agenda, or nation state (in this sense I’m following Bertrand Russell’s philosophy of education), but in better understanding those very mechanisms of social formation.
So are we defenders of religion? Is this our job as scholars of religion? For myself, I don’t think it is useful for us to don our scholarship as if we were medieval knights in shining armor rushing into high castle towers in order to rescue the poor damsel in distress, the beautifully adorned maiden called World Religions. Rather than living in fairytale conceptions of our role, I think we are better off trying to make sense of our world with the intellectual tools of scholarship.