by Aaron W. Hughes and Randi R. Warne
A worrying trend is gaining momentum in the academic study of religion. There appears to us to be an increasing tendency toward filling professorial vacancies with individuals with PhDs in area studies (e.g., Jewish Studies, Islamic Studies, East Asian Studies, South Asian Studies). We say “worrying” due to the changes in academic climate and intellectual agenda this development potentially carries with it. Specifically, we are concerned that the focus on textual and largely premodern forms of “religious tradition” that characterizes area studies means that individuals within departments, and increasingly departments writ large, will boundary their data in such a way that the “meta-questions” and critical discourses that characterize much of current intellectual discussion, intentionally or not, will be discouraged or overshadowed, much as Christian studies (theology) overshadowed the field in years past.
The result, we fear, will be the gradual diminution and eventual death of the field of Religious Studies. Please be assured that we do not advocate a return to the heyday of phenomenology with its concomitant claims of the “irreducibility of the sacred.” We are deeply concerned, however, with the history and problematics underlying the creation of “Religious Studies” itself. Rather than defer to the false inclusivity of area studies, we would like to encourage a collective rethinking of what the discipline of Religious Studies is and, by extension, what its future should be.
To examine some of these issues, let us begin with a couple of anecdotes that we believe are illustrative of the problem.
When Hughes was hired at the University of Calgary in 2001 he was expected, even though he had a PhD in Religious Studies with a specialty in Islam, to be the exact replacement of his predecessor who had a PhD in Islamic Studies (i.e, area studies, not religious studies) from McGill. Although he knew enough Arabic to read texts (slowly!), he was expected to teach a four-semester sequence in classical Arabic. He found this very difficult for a number of reasons – he was not an Arabist (nor had he ever, despite the later claims of his colleagues, styled himself as one); and he had many native speakers in his class who knew Arabic much, much better than he did but claimed that they had very little knowledge of classical grammar, though he suspected that they just wanted an easy A. One thing he was not expected to teach, or supposed to even be interested in, was theory and method in the field. An Islamicist interested in theory and method – heaven forbid! He envisaged himself as a religionist, yet his colleagues in the department saw him as an Arabist or as an Islamicist. These radically divergent expectations – on how he was to succeed personally amongst his coworkers in a department (who would vote on his tenure case) and professionally amongst his colleagues in the larger field (with whom he would establish his bona fides and reputation) – on a young, pre-tenure faculty member were extremely difficult. Of about 15 or so faculty members in that department (he no longer works there), roughly half received doctorates from fields outside of Religious Studies. And, despite the fact that the department has seen some turnover in recent years, that percentage of non-religious studies doctorates to religious studies doctorates among the full-time faculty remains.
Warne’s challenges as a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Religion in its inaugural year were somewhat different, though with similar practical results. In keeping with the times, she brought to Toronto a thorough exposure to Neo-orthodox theology, psychology of religion a la Alan Watts and Esalen, and a complete drenching in Eliade. That her primary interests were counter/sub cultures and 19th c. questions of faith and atheism was indicative of the composition of Religious Studies departments at the time. Toronto was not an improvement. Eager to prove its scholarly seriousness to a skeptical Dean, the program emphasized languages and conventional configurations of “traditions.” Much could be said about those years, but two anecdotes will have to suffice: wanting to study Marxism as a religion, she was shuffled off to a few of the theological colleges to do the Social Gospel and Liberation Theology.
Her graduate comprehensive exams reflected the suspicion in which her analytical interests were held: five four hour exams in History of Christianity; Judaism since the Enlightenment; Philosophy of Religion; Social-Scientific Studies of Religion; and Religion in Canada. The Centre’s coordinator helpfully offered the option of doing a comp. in the social sciences (Freud, Jung, Erikson, Weber, Durkheim and Marx) as a substitute for the language exams in Latin, Hebrew and Greek that might be reasonably expected of a student of Christian tradition. The end result of three degrees in Religious Studies (BA Religion and Literature; MA Philosophy of Religion; Ph.D. Religion and Culture) was a candidate allegedly unemployable in Religious Studies due to being a “generalist.”
Tales of woe abound, and we will not belabor them here. Our concern with the constitution of authorities (i.e. tenured faculty) in Religious Studies is nonetheless genuine. Religionists cannot just write the turn to Area Studies as the idiosyncracies of a particular department or departments. A quick examination of, for example, those departments in Canada with PhD programs in Religious Studies – at the University of British Columbia, the University of Alberta, the University of Manitoba, McGill University, the University of Toronto, and the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University – reveals something remarkably similar. This will have, if it has not had already, major repercussions on how Religious Studies is thought about and taught on Canadian campuses. It will, moreover, have major effects on the makeup of graduate education in the discipline, and hence the character of its continuation.
We would like to raise some questions for reflection and further conversation. First, why have departments of Religious Studies if they are to function solely as an institutional canopy for disciplines in which the category of “religion” is NOT rigorously interrogated? Presumably, that highly contested subject matter is still of some interest and worth. (As an aside, it is useful to note a veritable explosion of North American scholarly interest in Religion and Culture, evident in conferences, scholarly literature and popular culture venues.) Yet, despite this growing interest, Religious Studies will frequently hire someone with a PhD in area studies (because it is wrongly assumed that they must know the “area” in question better than someone trained in Religious Studies). The opposite scenario – an area studies department hiring someone with a doctorate in Religious Studies – is rare indeed.
Why should we hire a historian as opposed to a religionist to fill a vacant position? Why should we hire someone with a PhD in Islamic Studies in a position for a specialist in Islam in a department of Religious Studies? We might well ask how such individuals will contribute to the general intellectual vigour and identity of the field at the department level, and to the international conversation about the academic study of religion. If there is to be a serious engagement with religion as a social and cultural construction, what is the point in hiring those whose training is primarily textual and philological, and who have had very little if no exposure to the critical theories and methods associated with the academic study of religion? We submit that if we are to engage primarily the problematic of “religion” as our object of study we collectively need to rethink our hiring priorities.
Second, if we insist on training graduate students in our departments of religious studies, but then when it comes to hiring decisions choose to hire someone from area studies, what kind of message does this send? One practical effect is to train a permanent underclass to teach introductory and other widely subscribed undergraduate classes, while reserving secure positions for persons with training in another discipline altogether. Another is to require graduate students engaged in critical discourses in religion to choose perforce their advisor and examining committee from a pool of area studies specialists. If, and when, this is the case, such specialists may well see theoretical questions as actually getting in the way of textual analysis.
The conservative treatment of “traditions” thus comes in the back door and reasserts its pre-eminence. We need to look closely at the politics and processes by and through which a new generation of scholars is being prepared. We are not doing our graduate students any favors if they wish to be employable as full and respected participants in Religious Studies if the departments in which they are supposedly receiving their training neither values it nor teaches it.
Aaron Hughes is professor of Religion, Jewish Studies, Islam, and Method and Theory in the department of Religion and Classics at the University of Rochester. Professor Hughes’s books include: The Texture of the Divine (Indiana University Press, 2003), Jewish Philosophy A-Z (Palgrave, 2006), The Art of Dialogue in Jewish Philosophy (Indiana University Press, 2007), Situating Islam (Equinox Publishing, 2007), The Invention of Jewish Identity (Indiana University Press, 2010), Defining Judaism: A Reader (Equinox Publishing, 2010), Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (Oxford UP, 2012), and the forthcoming The Study of Judaism: Identity, Authenticity, Scholarship (SUNY Press, 2013), and Rethinking Jewish Philosophy: Beyond Particularity and Universality (Oxford UP, 2014).
Randi R. Warne Randi R. Warne is a professor of Religion and Culture in the Department of Philosphy/Religious Studies At Mount St. Vincent University, Halifax. She is also a founding member of MSVU’s Cultural Studies program, one of the three free-standing Cultural Studies programs in Canada. Her research interests include religion and culture, gender theory, and the politics of knowledge. Recent publications include “‘Gender’; Making the Gender-Critical Turn” and a two volume co-edited work New Approaches to the Study of Religion (with Armin Geertz and Peter Antes), published by Walter deGruyter.