by Tenzan Eaghll
When I went for my first academic interview in a religious studies department after completing my PhD, the first question I was asked by the hiring committee was “what is the difference between religious studies and theology.” This is a pretty basic question in our field, nothing tricky here, and I suppose I was asked it because the interviewers wanted to make sure I understood this simple distinction—and to make sure I wasn’t a covert theologian masquerading as an academic. My response was fairly conventional—at least for readers of this blog—as I said that whereas theology is concerned with the truth of religion and truth claims made by particular religions, religious studies is concerned with what people do with “religion,” how it is used to describe, cut up, and frame the world around us, presently and historically.
Now, I think the answer I gave in my interview is a pretty handy way to define religious studies and distinguish it from theology off the cuff, and it also works well when someone asks about your job in a non-academic setting, as it is fairly straight forward and easy to understand. However, another way I like to answer this question when I have more time is by pointing out how theologians often try to safeguard some particular truth claim, or aspect of religion, apart from critical analysis, whereas religious studies scholars are willing to historicize everything—to smash all the idols, so to speak. This is a more complex way of answering the same question I was asked in the interview, but I like it because it allows me to address many of the metaphysical presuppositions that a theological approach to the study of religion conceals. Moreover, it has the added benefit of pointing out that part of what we do is critique the privileging of religion as a special—or sacred—domain of inquiry.
I learned this latter way of distinguishing theology from religious studies from Jacques Derrida, who pointed out in various publications how religion is often associated with a discourse on salvation that attempts to set something “holy” apart from the everyday world of communication. According to Derrida, one common theological trope is the appeal to something “unscathed” from the alterity of the finite world—something cut-out or held in distinction from life and death. In fact, he suggested that this is how religious adherents attempt to protect and indemnify religion from the contingency of history—by setting the truth of religion apart from the movement of the world. Interestingly, this is actually one way to define the word “Sacred,” which comes from the Latin sacrere, and means “to make sacred, consecrate; hold sacred, immortalize; set apart, dedicate.”
All of the theological tropes in our field can be summarized by this move, which attempts to locate some space of excess above the living, some absolute value that is exemplary and to which humanity has some special access. It is for this reason that being able to adequately distinguish between religious studies and theology is so important, because this theological trope is often used to indemnify man, reason, God, etc., from that which is material, historical, technological, and irredeemably finite. Rather than analyzing what people do with religion and contextualizing truth claims, it is a means of guaranteeing some special place for human understanding independent of the messy world of animals, bodies, communication, politics, and death.
Another reason I particularly like this way of distinguishing religious studies from theology is because it also helps identify some of the other crypto-theological remainders that get snuck into some of the distinctions and categories we use in the field. After all, it can become kind of easy to identify religious studies from theology if all we are looking for is a distinction between theological truth claims and an analysis of religion as a historical concept. If all we do is point out the etymology of theology—the Greek words, theos (god) and logia (study)—and try to distinguish the “study of the gods” from the study of the uses and abuses of “religion,” we do little to dispel many of the covert ways that theological assumptions gets smuggled into the definitions of Christianity, Islam, Shintoism, sacrifice, myth, belief, truth, etc. As anyone who has read a lot of religious studies literature knows, sometimes a scholar with a somewhat historical and critical approach to religion can catch you off guard by the way they sneak covert theological assumptions into their work, such as the idea that religious traditions are really about peace, despite all the bloody genealogies that make up their history. Or, alternatively, with the claim that figures like Jesus, Mohammed, and the Buddha are the bearers of religious truth, and that everything that follows them is a poor derivation from the norm they established.
For example, watch this interview with the French historian of philosophy, phenomenologist, and Roman Catholic theologian, Jean-Luc Marion. On the surface, what is theological about this interview is that Marion privileges Christianity as the bearer of absolute truth. I mean, he literally says at one point that he thinks Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, is completely true—a blatant theological position. However, he also says a couple things that even some world religion textbooks will suggest, such as the idea that religious truth is independent of the “corruption” endemic to its institutions, or that a figure like Jesus was the first Christian, exposing how certain theologian tropes play a covert role in our understanding of history and culture:
Notice how he presents the real source of Christianity as a prior truth given by the revelation of Jesus, “the boss”? He is not implicating Christianity in history and noting how it is a historical creation, but presenting it as something special that is cut out from the movement of time and unaffected by the alterity of the finite world. This is perhaps best exemplified by his statement that Jesus was the first and only true Christian, and his suggestion that all later believers and saints are a derivation from this norm. What gets defined as religion here is a very sacred force that is independent of history and is able to heal the world with its power―a force that is able to indemnify life from its own contingency. Marion’s claim that Christianity is the source of the “arts,” “philosophy,” “political improvement,” “science,” “eroticism,” and even “happiness,” is an outgrowth of this claim. Marion is not merely suggesting that Christian texts and figures influence Western thought—a perfectly acceptable claim that historians make all the time—but that it is the prior source of revelation that is responsible for all the good in Western history. To take Derrida’s definition as our guide, we might say that Marion is defining Christianity as something “unscathed,” something cut-out (held in distinction) from the messy world of animals, bodies, communication, politics, and death.
Of course, Marion is a somewhat easy target because his positions are so blatantly theological, but many similar examples could easily be drawn from the work of Ninian Smart, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, or Mircea Eliade to prove the same point. There is a tendency to smuggle theological tropes into the study of religion and claim that it is the bearer of something special that is responsible for all that is good in the world, from Smart’s attempt to use religion to create an ethic of tolerance, Eliade’s essentialization of myth to study hierophany, or Smith’s universalization of faith as a means to define religion beyond abstract formulations. What is common to all these approaches is the attempt to define religion by appealing to some special domain of inquiry.
It is for this reason that I think distinguishing religious studies from theology is not simply a matter of noting the difference between the truth claims of the former and the critical power of the latter. Rather, it is also necessary to identify the theological tropes that are often used to infuse notions of peace, truth, goodness, and culture with a quality that is held in distinction from history. Sometimes, spotting these crypto-theological claims can be easy, as it often is in Marion’s work, but they can also take a more covert form.
Tenzan Eaghll completed his doctoral research at the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, 2016. He is currently a Lecturer at the College of Religious Studies at Mahidol University, Thailand. His research focuses on the intersection of continental philosophy and method and theory in the study of religion, with a special focus on contemporary French thought.