This is part of an on-going Series with the Bulletin, where Critical Questions are posed to a variety of scholars on the same topic. Other posts in this series can be found here.
Clayton Crockett is an associate professor and director of the religious studies program at the University of Central Arkansas. His research interests include continental philosophy, postmodern theology, Gilles Deluze, psychoanalytic theory, and religion and politics. He is the author of Radical Political Theology: Religion and Politics After Liberalism and co-author of Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism with Jeffery W. Robbins.
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
I am less interested in the conflict between confessional and non-confessional approaches to religion on the part of individuals and particular studies. The study of religion cannot fully escape this tension as a whole, and it cannot banish so-called confessional approaches to the discipline. We need to be reflexive about our ethical commitments, and these might be more explicitly religious, but they may also be social, political, economic, secularist, etc. Furthermore, I think that the academic study of religion needs to include the study of theology, in critical and self-critical ways, because something like a theology always accompanies something like religion as a lining. And what we call religion is always implicated in epistemological and political discourses that are complex and over-determined, such that scholars of religion cannot claim a purity or innocence from these questions.
I am more concerned about and critical of confessional institutions, and how they shape the study of religion in North America, but especially the United States. The problem with the religious and education history of the US is that most elite academic institutions are connected with a divinity school or a seminary, and in many cases the theoretical component of the academic study of religion is relegated to these confessional spaces, while departments of religious studies pursue more empirical and social scientific studies that are conceived alternatively as both complementary and antagonistic in relation to the divinity schools. This is the Protestant seminary model, from which the World Religions curriculum importantly breaks. But the curriculum of World Religions, in emancipating itself from the Protestant seminary model, gives up important philosophical and theoretical tools in its default adoption of social scientific or historical methodological perspectives, and it is also implicated in colonialist agendas and practices, as Tomoko Masuzawa points out in The Invention of World Religions. Roman Catholic institutions do not suffer from the same kind of split, and may offer more holistic approaches to the study of religion, but these institutions operate under kind of authority to the Church as a whole to a greater or lesser extent. Furthermore, recently these Roman Catholic institutions are being pressured to identify themselves more explicitly and exclusively as Catholic, for many reasons, and this pressure is being felt most powerfully in departments of religion and theology.
We need academic institutional spaces not to enforce a rigid secularism on scholars, but to support and sustain critical engagements with and of religion in diverse and pluralistic ways. So long as religion is important enough to merit academic study, we will live with the tension between confessional and non-confessional modes of study and practice, but we require the freedom and the resources to pursue these diverse modes in critical and self-critical ways.