Critical Questions Series: Jeffrey W. Robbins

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 and here.

Jeffrey Robbins is an assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Lebanon Valley College. His research interests include continental philosophy of religion, philosophical theology and religion and culture. His recent books include, Radical Democracy and Political Theology, and Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism with Clayton Crockett. He is also co-editor (with Clayton Crockett) of The Davis Group Series on “Contemporary Religious Thought.”

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?

As something of a theologian of sorts, I can nevertheless agree to at least three of the four markers of a “non-confessional” approach to the study of religion as suggested by Craig Martin in the first blog post to this critical questions series.  And I could even accept the fourth that insists on “resisting the subordination of scholarly standards to social or political agendas” so long as it is qualified in the way Craig goes on to do in the remainder of his post.

What I hope this basic agreement should make clear is that this distinction between confessional versus non-confessional approaches to religion is not the same as the distinction between theology and the academic study of religion.  Of course, there are many confessional theologies and confessional theologians.  It has been well documented how this approach to religion has been constitutive and casts a long shadow over the field of religion.  Along with it has come a certain privileging of Christian—and even more specifically, Protestant—norms.  It is with this legacy in mind that I am perfectly willing to accept that the making—and even more, the legitimizing—of Religious Studies has required a deliberate effort at detheologizing the field of study.

At the same time, what must be understood is that when the academic field of Religious Studies is entirely purged of theology, it not only has established itself as non-confessional enterprise, but it also runs the risk of cutting itself off from one of its most longstanding modes of reflexivity.  What I have in mind here is not the history and appropriateness of confessional theologies, but of the repeated occurrences and present prospect of a non-confessional theology.  This would be an interrogative theology that takes questioning as its primary mode for the ultimate purpose of greater understanding.

Many might still wonder: why must this mode of interrogative thought still go by the name of theology?  My first answer to that is that it need not.  The non-confessional academic theology I advocate does not claim for itself the exclusive rights of reflexivity.  With that caveat in mind, I come to my second answer—namely, the virtue of an interrogative theology, and one reason for its continue value within the academic study of religion, is that it is ever mindful of its own lack.  It seeks understanding, not comprehension.

In this way, there is a certain irony to the future of theology within the academic study of religion.  If theology once was established as the Queen of the Sciences and if Religious Studies was once born as a covert theology demonstrating the superiority of one religion over another, then theology’s role today is a different one.  Or not just a different one, but precisely the opposite: the viability and value of a non-confessional interrogative theology for Religious Studies today is that it provides Religious Studies with its very own dose of humility.  By virtue of a theological interrogation, we can still think across confessions in a non-confessional way.  And while so doing, we can remain not only mindful of, but give a name to, that which we do not know.

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