Critical Questions Series 1: Summary


by Matt Sheedy

In this first installment of the Critical Question Series, six scholars of religion were asked to respond to the following question:

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?

Kicking off the series, Craig Martin observed that the term “non-confessional,” while perhaps a little “crude,” indicates:

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.

“Confessional” approaches, by contrast, can be said to lack an awareness of the kind of normative assumptions that are being used in our acts of classification. For Martin, the problem is not one of finding any “objective” or “disinterested” ground for scholarship, a position that he rejects given his own interest in approaches like feminist theory, but of adhering to the above standards and not letting political agendas override these broader academic aims.

In this response, Clayton Crockett argues that the tensions between “confessional” and “non-confessional” approaches are unavoidable and that reflexivity about ethical commitments, be they religious, political, secularist, etc., is what is most important. For Crockett, the study of religion should include a critical and self-reflective theology “because something like a theology always accompanies something like religion as a lining.”

Crockett’s interest in this question is tied to his own critique of confessional institutions, especially in the United States, where the more empirical and social scientific aspects of religious studies are often lacking. Regardless of one’s position or institutional setting, what is crucial for Crockett is having the “freedom and the resources” to explore these diverse approaches and to interrogate them critically.

As a self-described “theologian of sorts” Jeffrey Robbins stresses the importance of recognizing the historical privileging of Christian and Protestant norms within the study of religion—a legacy, he argues, that justifies a certain “detheologizing” of the field. At the same time, he highlights what he sees as the danger in purging theology from religious studies altogether since, for him, the former offers an important mode of reflexivity when it is done as a “non-confessional interrogative theology.” Such a position is one that is aware of its own “lack” (e.g., that is it no longer the “Queen of the Sciences”), but can nonetheless offer religious studies a “dose of humility” in its ability to “think across confessions in a non-confessional way” and thereby give a framework to that which remains obscure for those not dealing in these questions.

Kenneth MacKendrick begins his reflection by critically assessing the question itself, asking, “What counts as confessional and non-confessional? What sense can we make of these rubrics in theory, in practice?” MacKendrick simplifies the distinction by noting that while there may be a political tension there is not much of a theoretical one since “confessional” approaches–if we are to understand them as beginning with “religious assumptions”–are not “scholarly” in the sense that they belong to a closed and self-referential system that is therefore distinct from what most scholars of religion would recognize as a form of academic inquiry. The real tensions, then, would seem to lie between different non-confessional approaches to the study of religion.

Marsha Aileen Hewitt pulls no punches when noting that “[t]he question itself is inherently competitive, dichotomous and antagonistic.” For Hewitt, such controversies, whether they are framed as confessional/non-confessional or theological vs. scientific studies of religion do not serve us well when they entrench “institutional camps and scholarly identities,” rather than highlight the more important question of theoretical critique.

Our task as scholars rather should be to pose destabilizing questions that allow us to see the ideologies and material interests embedded within religious discourses, which includes a commitment to self-critique. In the end, both confessional and non-confessional approaches “contain ideological commitments and value orientations that need to be addressed.”

Richard Amesbury looks to interrogate the distinction between religious studies and theology, noting the common bias in favour of the former as the bearer of a neutral and more critical tradition. He rejects the notion of a “non-confessional” position that claims neutrality, noting the contextual nature of all thinking and the pull of normative commitments, despite our best efforts to avoid them.

He cautions those who might take up the banner of “non-religious” scholarship while ignoring the role of their own political or philosophical commitments, as with those who unknowingly uphold the “secular” and “religious” divide as an unquestioned part of the liberal imagination. In short, Amesbury is concerned with the tendency of some religion scholars to critique what they deem to be “confessional” while placing a protective barrier against a more critical look at their own commitments. The crux for Amesbury, it would seem, is to move away from such labels along with the assumption that theology can only exist as “data” and not also as a (potential) form of critique in and of itself.


Pulling it all together, the first thing to point out is that terms like “confessional” and “non-confessional” are anything but self-evident for the scholars surveyed here. They can be variously read as dichotomous and antagonistic, a useful but problematic stand-in term that needs to be unpacked or one that can resonates differently in different institutional settings, be they seminaries, divinity schools or departments of religion. Needless to say, perspectives on this question could be extended exponentially, especially given the un-even representation of women and scholars of non-Western backgrounds and locations in this particular survey.

Given the “dichotomous” nature of this question, it was my intention to include perspectives from both non-theologians as well as those with some background in theology. In all cases, however, these scholars share a critical theoretical background that ensures that they are speaking a similar language.

All seemed to agree on the importance, in their own way, of the four points laid out by Craig Martin to open the Series, though the question of the relationship between scholarship and “politics”—a term in itself that could be suggestive of a certain “confession”—resonated differently given the kind of professional experiences and challenges that they face in their own sub-disciplines, institutions and in relation to the various “camps” that they have had to content with—a reality that is sometimes necessitated as much by chance as it is by choice.

This variety of suggestions urging us to rethink the relationship between “confessional” and “non-confessional” scholarship along with the divisions between “theology” and “religious studies” offers some stimulating food for thought amongst a group that shares much in common. Without controversy, I think that all would agree with Clayton Crockett’s sentiment that the “freedom and resources” to explore these questions is of the highest order of importance.

In the next round of the Critical Questions Series we will take a closer look at the tensions between religion and politics, and how scholars grapple with the line between their own personal values and professional commitments.

This entry was posted in Craig Martin, Critical Questions Series, Kenneth G. MacKendrick, Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *