So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Matt Sheedy

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In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link

I Think I’m Done With Comparative Religions

by Matt Sheedy

My parents were in town last week for a visit and stayed at a bed and breakfast not far from where I live. On their last morning they convinced the proprietor of the B&B to have me over for breakfast, which we shared with two other couples, one from China and the other from Red Deer, Alberta. After some light banter the man from Red Deer asked me what I do for a living, to which I promptly replied, “I’m a scholar of comparative religions.”

I had not been asked this question in some time and was a little caught off guard, opting for an old default term that I had used in the past in the place of “religious studies” or the “study of religion,” which I’ve found most people mistake for theology. The modifier “comparative” seemed, at the very least, to signal something other than Christian apologetics or, as I used to get during my Master’s days, that I was training to become a priest. While the term “comparative religions” is loaded and largely passé for many scholars in the field (though Eric Sharpe’s text of that name is still worth reading), I had still assumed, evidently (if unreflectively), that it would suffice as a stand-in description for a curious outsider to mark my boundary as “other-than-theology.”

In an attempt to relate to my work the man from Red Deer asked me if I was familiar with the writings of C.S. Lewis, of whom he was a fan. This did not strike me as unusual given the popularity of Lewis among both children and adults, though the familiar turn to a Christian apologist did not give me confidence that my self-description as a scholar of comparative religions had done that work that I had hoped it would do. He then asked me if I had heard of Ravi Zacharias (I said I was vaguely familiar), and went on to discuss his work on “comparative religions” with such books as Jesus Among Other Gods, The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus Talks with Buddha, and The Price and the Prophet: Jesus Talks with Mohammad.

I looked up The Price and the Prophet when I retuned home latter that day and found the following description:

Nothing is more centerstage at this time in world history than the place of religion – its use and abuse. What is Islam? What is the Christian faith? Are these on a collision course? Listen in on a conversation between two young men – one a devout Muslim and the other at a crossroads as he faces the claims of Jesus Christ. Enter into the debate as heart and mind intertwine with the deepest themes of faith and truth. … Can we see the difference and learn to live peaceably with these differences? Read this book as part of the Great Conversations series by Ravi Zacharias as he tackles this sensitive theme in The Prophet and the Prince. It could change the way you think about God and the nature of Truth.

That same evening I was finishing up Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa (2015) by Thomas A. Lewis, which ends by offering a critique of Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World (2011). Commenting on the problem of “comparative religions” Lewis writes:

Beyond legitimating certain notions of continuity with origins, conceiving of religions as even roughly cohesive wholes in this manner easily obscures important differences within these traditions. This problem comes out clearly in a work such as Prothero’s God Is Not One. For all Prothero’s attention to differences within traditions, these are clearly subordinated to the differences between the eight different “rival religions” that are presented as the basic alternatives. Yet the point about the occlusion of differences within traditions still lingers in more sophisticated and subtle work in the field (134-35).

Lewis goes on to talk about a similar dynamic at work in the Comparative Religious Ideas Project, which brought together a number of scholars at a series of conferences from 1995 to 1999, and produced three volumes, The Human ConditionUltimate Realities, and Religious Truth. Discussing these themes, Lewis continues:

Each of these scholars focuses on a particular period or even text of a given tradition, and the project is explicit about acknowledging differences and diversity within religious traditions. Despite making these qualifications, the project holds onto the rubrics of distinct religions to structure the project. They identify these traditions as “Buddhism, Chinese religion, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.” … They define these religious traditions in terms of canonical texts and “motifs,” arguing that despite the internal diversity, these traditions “form around and take their initial identity from these core texts and motifs in such a way that all subsequent developments in each tradition have to come to terms with them.” All Hindus have to come to terms with the Vedas; all Buddhists must somehow engage the Buddha’s teachings and canonical accounts of his life; all Muslims relate to the Qur’an as authoritative; and so forth (135).

In the context of my conversation with the man from Red Deer, what struck me about Lewis’s remarks (Thomas A. not C.S.) was how similar the apologetics of Zacharias was to both Prothero and the Comparative Religious Ideas Project. Granted, the latter do not attempt to legitimate their claims theologically, as advocates of a particular tradition, though they are all led by a concern with reconciling “differences” through favorable comparison in the interest of cooperation and in the service of inter-faith dialogue.

One obvious problem with this model, as Lewis nicely states a few pages later, is that it “reinscribes the notion that relevant differences within Christianity—or Islam, or Buddhism—are less significant than the commonalities” (136). While we could certainly take Lewis’s point further, his basic argument is that the method of comparison in these and related studies begins with the default assumption of some common essence within various identified religions—each of which share certain “truths,” “ultimate realities” and views on the “human condition” that are deemed similar at their core, and where differences can serve as an object lesson for others to learn from (e.g., how to be more “biocentric” like Indigenous people).

While my encounter with the man from Red Deer is anecdotal and by no means a representative sample of perceptions of those from outside of the discipline, it reminded me of how fraught “comparative religions” is as a description of the field, especially for those of us who aim to work with critical methods and theories and to push beyond regnant paradigms. It also reminded me how the term functions as a sign-symbol within a particular economy of meaning, signalling for many (it would appear) other popular “comparativists” in our shared social worlds–e.g., Ravi Zaharias, Deepak Chopra, or the following link (teaser!), which came up fourth when I googled “comparative religion.”

I am not sure what a useful term might be for explaining to outsiders what it is that I/we do, though one thing is for certain: I think I’m done with comparative religions.

Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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2 Responses to So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Matt Sheedy

  1. Randi Warne says:

    I never did “get” comparative religion as a useful category. I first encountered as an undergrad in the 70s (it was a requirement for the RELS major ‘the “he who knows only one religion knows none” line, while Joseph Campbell was being taught alongside.) Then at U of T, we were all required to not only do “traditions,” Will Oxtoby insisted they be grounded in original languages – so if I wanted to do 19th c. EuroNorthamerican religious issues, I needed to become fluent in my Biblical languages first. I got around that one (I “did women” – a language in itself, I presume) – but they still wouldn’t let me do Marxism as a religion. ; ) So my resistance to World Religions meant that I had to sit more comprehensive exams than anyone else: 5 four hour long exams: Christianity; Judaism since the Enlightenment; Philosophy of Religion; Social Scientific Studies of Religion (Freud, Jung, Eriksson, Weber, Marx, and Durkheim). That’s what you get for bucking the system.

  2. Randi Warne says:

    Oh yes, and my thesis area, Religion in Canada. I did exceptionally well in all of them, apparently – only to be labelled later (for the market, when this was anathema) as “a generalist”. See “bucking the system” above. So now I co-founded and have developed and led a very successful Cultural Studies program in my university, and also now serve as the Graduate Coordinator of Women and Gender Studies. And I didn’t die. Done.

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