So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: James Dennis LoRusso

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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

by James Dennis LoRusso

No. I am neither a priest nor have I ever considered entering some form of professional ministry. In fact, most of my friends and family will probably tell you that I am wholly irreligious. While I did suffer from a few sporadic bouts of “spiritual seeking” during my twenties, the closest I ever came to taking religion “seriously” was a fleeting fascination with monasticism after a high school field trip to Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Georgia when I was fourteen. Yet, rather than a devotion to Catholic teaching or belief, the holy orders likely appealed to me because it suited my introverted disposition and seemed a feasible escape route from an awkward adolescence. It was never a serious consideration and within a few days, I had put the idea to rest.

No. I am not a priest, but I do find religion a topic of inquiry worthy of pursuit professionally. Yet, like many others, I am routinely confused with priests, ministers, theologians, or some other properly “religious” pursuit. As I recall, these experiences began almost immediately upon my entry to graduate school. Coworkers, extended family, or just about anyone inquiring about my line of work could threaten with some iteration of “Oh, are you planning on entering the ministry?”

The question came from faces that expressed a number of reactions, from shock and bewilderment to genuine curiosity and excitement. However, I have to admit that during these early moments of my graduate studies I was neither surprised nor troubled by the question. It was a sensible mistake that anyone could make, including myself. After all, at some point in our lives we were all outsiders who somehow came to embrace our profession. Because I was an undergraduate history major, my only exposure to religious studies was the single course on “Philosophy of Religion” in which I enrolled during my senior year, and several years of life and work would intervene between this singular experience and my ultimate decision to pursue an advanced degree in the field. My point is that, upon entering graduate school, even I was somewhat unsure about the assumptions of the profession. Perhaps I still am.

Whereas I once thought little about these moments of misrecognition, they have come to play an increasingly important role practically. For instance, I have developed and experimented with numerous strategies for responding to the question, and even avoiding it altogether. When conducting fieldwork with evangelical business people, I find that overtly introducing myself as a “secular historian of American religion” leaves little room for ambiguity, even if the label exclusively (and incorrectly) associates me with the discipline of history. During other encounters with outsiders, I might even refer to myself with the utterly sanitized moniker of “researcher,” through which I might circumvent the disciplinary discussion completely and simply describe the general focus of my “research.” Such tactical avoidance helps me to deal with the discomfort I experience with the religious question.

The fact is that, as Matthew Baldwin so aptly noted, the academic study of religion remains relatively obscure and it should not surprise us that people regularly confuse us with our data. Yet it is also true that our exchanges with outsiders are more diverse. I can recall numerous instances where my interlocutors never broached the religious question or indicated they mistook me for a theologian. Occasionally, outsiders will even correct me from assuming that they don’t understand the distinction.

Given the wide range of actual experience that I suspect we have as scholars and students of religion, these misrecognitions reveal more than the assumptions of outsiders (although I do find it interesting how, almost exclusively in my anecdotal experience, “religion” seems to function as a signifier for “Christian” forms of religious leadership—minister, pastor, priest, theologian, etc.). It also exposes how we imagine ourselves and contours of our professional identity. Certainly, most of us have heard of or have read the mythic history of our intellectual origins. In the nineteenth century, so the story goes, Max Müller advocated for a religionswissenschaft, a proper “science of religion,” taking the first steps towards the field of Religious Studies. Notably, at least according to the myth, it was his break-away from theology that made Mueller’s contribution so novel, and consequently (and this is the mythic part) continues to justify the academic study of religion today. (I like Eric Sharpe’s somewhat dated but effective rendering of the tale in Comparative Religion: A History)

Where we locate this line informs how we imagine our field. Some of us consider even the whiff of normativity, the hint of assumed privilege, or implied ethical assessment to be a deviation into the theological and a transgression of our professional boundaries. Others of us view religious authorities as distinct, yet legitimate conversation partners. Regardless of where you might fall on this spectrum, both extremes nonetheless rely on the persistence of an arbitrary boundary between “scholar” and “priest.”

As I stated above, these misrecognitions initially troubled me little, but now I have undergone socialization into a community that leans on these differences. Although it may aspire to a world where outsiders no longer think of us as religious, I suspect we need these opportunities (such as this series of blog posts), not to educate but to reinforce the integrity, from time to time, of who we are. Today, when an outsider remarks, “so, you’re not a priest,” I have learned to experience discomfort, to practice surprise, and offer a rehearsed response because these actions perform necessary identity work. In the end, the “priest” question demonstrates how the distinction between theology and religious studies is more than a vestige of our genesis as a field; it remains integral to our very possibility.

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