Critical Questions Series: Craig Martin

The Critical Questions Series is a new feature with the Bulletin, where a variety of scholars address controversial issues within the field of religious studies. Today’s response is from Craig Martin, assistant professor at St. Thomas Aquinas College.

It is well known, at least amongst insiders, that the study of religion is internally divided in many ways. One of these divisions includes what we might term confessional versus non-confessional approaches to “religion” (e.g., as a form of practice, as an object of study, etc.). What is your sense of how this tension plays out and what it might suggest, positively or negatively, for the discipline as a whole?

While I find the terms “confessional” and “nonconfessional” to be a bit crude, they are nevertheless useful shorthand for something more specific. When I use the term “nonconfessional,” I employ it to denote approaches with a commitment to 1) methodological naturalism, 2) reflexivity about the taxa or grids of classification we use, 3) historicizing—and therefore denaturalizing—both the taxa and the data under consideration, 4) resisting the subordination of scholarly standards to social or political agendas.

I chafe at those approaches I might loosely identify as “confessional” insofar as they lack one or more of the four things above. Some confessional scholars make overt or covert supernaturalist claims, some of them lack any awareness of the normative baggage their taxa carry, and some of them tend to naturalize or reify their own practices of classification or the things they classify.

The fourth is more complicated. By no means do I want to suggest that authentic scholarship should be “objective,” if by “objective” we mean “disinterested.” On the contrary, as someone greatly influenced by Marx, Nietzsche, the American pragmatists, and Foucault, I think power relations are constitutive of knowledge, that claims about the world do something, and all knowledge advances or retards social agendas (whether implicitly or explicitly). As a teacher and a scholar, my primary goals are to demonstrate that societies are never set up in ways that serve everyone’s interests equally, and, second, to identify who benefits and who does not and how disproportionate social structures are legitimated and maintained. My interest in feminist theory, queer theory, or capitalism stems from my sympathies for those who are dominated.

However, I do not think that social or political agendas should “wag the dog” of scholarship, so to speak. Scholarship at its best conforms to academic standards of argumentation, methodological naturalism, reflexivity, and historicization. When social or political agendas override these academic standards, something is awry.

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14 Responses to Critical Questions Series: Craig Martin

  1. Randi Warne says:

    What are the social or political agendas attached to academic standards? It’s an old complaint, I know, but its problems are still not remedied, and frankly, probably won’t be,,given the players and those who increasingly hold the cards in the university game. What should be done?

  2. Amod Lele says:

    Two questions here:

    First, what, specifically, counts as a “social or political agenda”? The Texas Republican Party will tell you that the promotion of critical thinking – which includes the goals of argumentation and reflexivity – is its own sort of political agenda, and one which they oppose. At a certain level, I think they’re right about that much. Methodological naturalism is inextricably intertwined with a different but related political agenda.

    Second, what counts as “overriding” or “subordination”? Given that you do not assert scholarship should be “disinterested”, do you then acknowledge that social and political agendas of some description have a role to play in scholarship? If so, what is it?

  3. Randi, I suspect those politics tied to academic standards are often implicit rather than explicit, and often unrecognized (or misrecognized). I imagine we only ever have a vague understanding of what *some* of them are …

  4. Amod, I’ll try to address both your questions here at once. Yes, academics and academic standards are social and political, in at least two ways: 1) political concerns drive our research (I’m interested in patriarchy because I’m a feminist) and 2) as an academic I’m committed to certain social and political norms related to my place within the academy (i.e., there are institutional politics and disciplinary politics that both constrain and make my work possible).

    However, despite that, there are certain standards for “the way we do things in the academy” that are often seen to be overriding. 2+2=4, not 5, unless we reorganize the rules of the game. No amount of making 2+2 turn into 5 for a political agenda will be accepted (unless we hid what we’re doing). So, for instance, manipulating statistical data to return the results that are favorable to our political project will be seen as malfeasance (and potentially an offense for which one could be fired from a tenured position, even). In the social sciences and humanities (man, I hate those terms—we’ve got to come up with better!), the standards are more complex, and fuzzier at the edges I imagine. However, despite this, it’s clear that arguing that “race is a social construction” is something that passes our *current* academic standards in a way that “negroes, as the descendants of Ham, deserve to be enslaved” does not. It’s clear that “race is a social construction” is political, but it doesn’t break academic standards like the latter (also political) statement would.

    Does that clarify or muddy the waters here?

    • Amod Lele says:

      Perhaps it clarifies one tributary but the waters downstream remain muddy, if we’re going to work with that metaphor.

      I agree that there are certain standards which are often seen to override most social and political commitments in academia, and probably should be so seen in most cases. But that still leaves most of the key questions unanswered: especially, what are those standards, who decides what they are, who should decide what they are, and how do and should they do so?

      So far, in particular, I am not sure you have said anything that a Christian theologian who understands her work as confessional would necessarily disagree with in a characterization of her study. So I am not sure why anything you’ve said should be classified as nonconfessional, as opposed to a more general academic standard that embraces both confessional and nonconfessional academic study. Nor does it seem to me that anything you’ve said necessarily involves “drawing lines between study and what we study”, as you recently put it on Facebook.

      • I’m guessing that the theologian’s work would be hung not on “academic standards” but on one or more of the other three criteria I posed above, right?

        Now, someone like William Cavanaugh—he’s a theologian, but his recent Myth of Religious Violence I think would pass the criteria I’ve posed above (he abides by academic standards, the work is naturalist and reflexive in it’s approach, etc.). But I wouldn’t have a problem with that. It’s a sharp work, imo (even if his agenda is very much not my agenda).

        Who decides what these standards are? We do, right, within the tradition in which we’re situated. I tried to signal that with the “that’s the way we do things around here in the academy” comment. I’m not sure this question is very radical. If you’re pressing me to say that all such decisions are situated, well yeah, so what?

        But let me press you back: are you really pushing for a position where all these decisions are so relative that no such distinctions are serviceable, workable, or useful? That for all practical purposes, the white papers of the FRC are no different from Judith Butler?

  5. Amod Lele says:

    No, I’m not trying to push for a position where these decisions are relative; as I said above, I agree that certain standards should be seen as overriding social and political commitments in most cases. The question that’s still not answered there is which standards these are. Some of them seem relatively trivial – as, for example, not insisting that 2+2=5 (unless perhaps you were doing very advanced work in the philosophy of mathematics, in which case such a claim would come with a whole bunch of serious caveats that would thereby bring it in line with other standards). But those aren’t why I’m pushing on the concept of standards. Rather, in closing the post you claim: “Scholarship at its best conforms to academic standards of argumentation, methodological naturalism, reflexivity, and historicization. When social or political agendas override these academic standards, something is awry.” This suggests that there’s not much to be gained by saying that the theologian’s work is “hung not on ‘academic standards’ but on one or more of the other three criteria…” because, in your estimation, “academic standards” folds right back into those other three criteria, indeed are identified with it. And I think that’s where a lot of the meat of this discussion lies.

    In that light I might add that indeed the concept of reflexivity seems to me quite opposed to the idea of “drawing lines between study and what we study” – in that being properly reflexive about the concepts we use in our study involves making that study an object of our study.

    I haven’t read Cavanaugh’s work, but just going on your description of it, I see some major further questions. It sounds like it passes your four criteria. But then does Cavanaugh’s work count as “confessional”? If it does, your definition of “nonconfessional” in terms of the four criteria above seems incoherent, since we’ve just found a work that is nonconfessional in all four ways but is nevertheless classified as confessional. But if it doesn’t, it also raises the question of how appropriate the term “nonconfessional” can be, when our categories identify a self-described work of Christian theology as “nonconfessional”; that seems to stretch the term so far from conventional usage as to be confusing and unhelpful.

  6. Amod, no I’m not equating academic standards of argumentation with the other three things on the list (although they might overlap to some extent). Saying that 2+2=4 has little to do with historicization or reflexivity. As you point out, 2+2=4 is not a great example. A better example would be, perhaps, avoiding what philosophers call logical fallacies. By “academic standards of argumentation,” I’m talking about that kind of thing—avoid circular argumentation, false generalizations, etc. I’ve read enough Derrida to be willing to call these into question from time to time, but they nevertheless have a great deal of inertia in the academy, which is not going away any time soon.

    I would say that Cavanaugh’s Myth of Religious Violence is not, in fact, confessional on the basis of how I’m using the terms in this post. Cavanaugh says, in an interview I did with him I think, that intentionally wrote this book with an academic audience broader than theologians, so he stuck to an approach that was explicitly non-confessional (apart from maybe 3 or 4 parenthetical comments in the book). So, while his agenda is probably at odds with my own, the standards he abides by in the work make it non-confessional in nature.

  7. Amod Lele says:

    OK, Cavanaugh’s book is probably also not a great example here, then, in that he’s explicitly not treating it as work of theology. But it seems to me that some works of theology do seem to pass most of your description: certainly reflexivity and historicization are very common in much recent theology. Some would even seem to me to be methodologically naturalistic – Bultmann comes to mind. If so, then are we’ back to the point where theology is labelled as nonconfessional?

    I think I misread the last sentence of the post because it was grammatically ambiguous: it sounded like “academic standards of” applied to the following list of four items, rather than solely to “argumentation”. No need to dwell on the grammar, but there’s still something important in that sentence as you’ve explained it. With the wording about “scholarship at its best”, it seems pretty clear that you’re trying to assert that nonconfessional scholarship is not merely different from confessional scholarship, but better. If that’s so, then the point about methodological naturalism, especially, is highly controversial and needs to be argued. Perhaps first of all, it needs to be defined. There was an exchange between Griffin, Preus and Segal in JAAR a few years back which was precisely over the topic of naturalism and really didn’t seem to get very far – but Griffin was at least helpful about pointing out that there are at least eight different things “naturalism” could mean.

    And again, none of this is necessarily tied to any distinction between “study / our views” and “the views of those we study”. My views are not JZ Smith’s, and that matters when I teach him; my views are not Kierkegaard’s, and that matters when I teach him. But it is a separate issue to say that Kierkegaard is a supernaturalist and Smith is not.

    • I don’t know Bultmann that well, but I do know that some of the work of people like Jeff Robbins and Clayton Crockett are probably borderline cases. They identify their work as theological, but it would probably pass my criteria for being “nonconfessional.” But such borderline cases don’t particularly bother me.

      Sure, to take this all the way down, I’d have to define and defend naturalism. I’m not interested in doing that today, but if I were writing a book on this, yeah that would be part of the order of the day (and I think I could do so).

      About us vs. those we study: absolutely! I study other scholars in my own work. We do this every time we criticize other scholars’ work. But there’s still a difference that I think can feasibly be made between “we” scholars and “those we study” *who are advancing confessional agendas*, and whose work does not meet the standards scholars set for themselves.

      • Amod Lele says:

        Yeah, fair enough, defining naturalism is its own project and a half. I’ll just make it clear that unless and until we pin that down, I will not accept the claim that naturalism should have a place among the standards that scholars set for themselves. By many definitions of naturalism, I think it should not.

        And I think that’s probably where we may also wrap up the distinction between us and “those we study”. The relevant distinction is not between studier and studied (since I think we’ve agreed those roles overlap greatly; a really good studier will rightly get studied). Rather, it’s between those who meet scholarly standards and those who do not. Once we accept the existence of scholarly standards (which we both have done), the distinction between those who meet them and those who don’t becomes very significant. But the question of what those standards are will determine who falls on which side of that distinction. And I suspect that that is where we’re most likely to disagree – especially to the extent that naturalism is up for consideration as one such standard.

        • Okay, so we agree there are standards to be met, but might bicker (or even vehemently disagree) about what shape they should have?

          Can you say more about your beef with naturalism (whatever versions of it you don’t like)? Of course, maybe that’s a discussion for another day …

          • Amod Lele says:

            Yeah, I think I might demur from talking naturalism at this point – just because I think we’ve reached a nice point to pause for the moment. We do indeed agree that there are standards to be met, but may well disagree about what those standards are and should be.

  8. Randi Warne says:

    This is exactly the kind of exploration I was looking for. I look forward to hearing more, and reflecting upon what has been said thus far.

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