So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Adam J. Powell


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 Adam J. Powell

No, I am not a priest. I’m not a vicar, preacher, pastor, minister, or even a theologian. I am not paid to believe and, despite the admittedly confusing titles of higher education, I am not one who ‘professes’ religion as a vocation. For the laity, this is often puzzling. As Russell McCutcheon’s previous contribution to this series already noted, on these things many of us can agree – and commiserate. However, and following on from McCutcheon in this as well, it is important to mention that my deepest professional frustrations concerning the academic study of religion have so far come from colleagues rather than either the ill-informed layperson or the uninformed undergraduate. What is more, this is not simply because my status as an early career scholar necessitates that I am beholden to more senior colleagues at every turn and, thus, find my pursuits in their hands in way that would never be true for the laity.

In the following paragraphs, then, I want to expand McCutcheon’s notion of colleagues as ‘outsiders’ by highlighting the tacit, rather than the overtly condescending, questions from colleagues. In offering a bit of my personal experience, I hope to explore briefly both the ambiguities and the inclusivity of religious studies as they paradoxically engender regrettable instances of misunderstanding and line-drawing as well as the (arguably beautiful) ‘big ideas’ that can cause the confusion in the first place. In a sense, I want to take a moment to discuss the implied question of what it is that I do/study/research as it emerges in dealings with editors, conference chairs, etc.

In my experience, however brief it has been, many ‘gatekeepers’ have seemed relatively inflexible in their conceptualisations of the field of religious inquiry. However, to some extent, we are all products of a system of higher education which has witnessed systematic, if artificial, disciplinary divisions and the rather inevitable subsequent over-specialisation in each area. Religious studies may see itself as a product of mid-20th century debates concerning religion’s cultural import and the ‘family resemblances’ linking both the phenomenon and the methodological tools necessary to study it (sc., Ninian Smart’s efforts), but it has deeper roots that extend back centuries. Arguably, one ‘family resemblance’ that unifies those roots is anxiety over the value, relevance, and veridical nature of the humanities and social sciences. In my estimation, the same tensions felt by German philosophers 200 years ago as they hoped to justify philosophy’s existence through epistemological debate remain quite palpable among scholars of religion today who hope to cleave off the ‘dead limbs’ they believe they have identified within the guild.

This tension, indeed, seems apparent in our somewhat inconsistent veneration of interdisciplinarity, a value that suddenly emerges with vigour when we spitefully argue for the significance of our work on grant applications. More importantly, a similar strain is noticeable when one’s research areas and competencies span multiple sub-disciplines – for the very question of a field’s purpose or identity assumes a singular answer. By the same token, otherwise laudable adjectives/concepts like ‘expert’ or ‘specialist’ can seem natural claims to authority and, therefore, socio-cultural impact, but they also generate circumscribed notions of legitimacy and scholarship which have as their sine qua non one single phenomenon or approach. After all, to be a generalist is to forgo specialisation, right? It appears to me that our struggle to navigate the trends and pressures of 21st-century life (e.g., the corporate university model, the information age, globalization, etc.) has either numbed us to this disciplinary dissection or convinced us it has not gone far enough.

Yet, I cannot ignore that the body of my scholarly endeavour is comprised of numerous parts: Mormon studies, theories of religion, social anthropology, cognitive science, the history of social science, all combined with a small early dabbling in patristics (of all things!). In other words, I have one foot in sociological theory and the other in studies of Mormonism; I have a hand in cultural anthropology and the other in the cognitive science of religion. I do not want to be split down the middle and, when submitting articles to journals or proposals to conference committees, my reluctance to do so has sometimes been misunderstood. Responses have included everything from outright rejection due to a claimed ‘lack of data’ to positive acceptances in which the term ‘sociology’ was changed to ‘cultural anthropology’ for the same reason: ‘a lack of data’ (data is tricky in religious studies, I admit).

Please note that I am not bemoaning the peer-review process or suggesting that I am any more troubled by critical feedback than the next academic writer. What I am underscoring is that much of what counts as upholding standards of a sub-discipline or remaining faithful to the stated objectives of a publication can be justifiably rearticulated as indomitable hindrances to cross-disciplinary aims. In an age when American presidential campaigns confound ‘experts’ and British referendums catch ‘specialists’ entirely off guard, our academic dismemberment could be lamentable. If, for example, it was de rigueur for political scientists to be conversant in identity theory or sociologists to have some familiarity with theological debates, how might the humanities and social sciences be positioned to impact current events? No, no one person can know it all. Yes, as a collective we have been burned by grand theories born of imperialist attitudes and nurtured by misguided evolutionary frameworks. Sometimes it is wise to amputate an infected extremity. As it turns out, however, the pain can be unbearable when you are forced to sever your own healthy limbs whilst your colleagues watch on.

So, what does all of this mean about what I ‘do’? That isn’t easy to answer when asked by a layperson. But it is likewise nearly impossible to describe concisely what it is that I ‘study’ or ‘research’ when asked by a fellow academic. This is not only because of the ever-swelling number of entanglements (debates, idioms, narratives, power plays, histories, etc.) threatening to rise up and grab ankles with a downward tug every time I engage in conversation with another scholar of religion, but the question is also problematic because – whilst it implicitly acknowledges a variety of possible answers – my research outputs and forms of dissemination are very diverse even if they are united by a smaller number of theoretical concerns. Stated differently, it is sometimes tempting to clarify if one is being asked about what they research or why they research what they research. Either way, thus far possessing broad interests and theoretical pursuits has meant coping with a sort of intellectual homelessness – particularly in the context of institutional differences on each side of the Atlantic. It has meant facing equal amounts of bemusement from those who saw ‘theoretical’ but were hoping for ‘meta-theoretical’ and from those who saw ‘theology’ but were hoping for ‘the truth’. Regrettably, it has meant near indignation – again in equal parts – from those who saw ‘Mormonism’ but hoped it did not mean ‘I am a Mormon’ and those who saw ‘Mormonism’ but hoped it did mean ‘I am a Mormon’.

Luckily, what I study is not what I do. What I do is ask questions of the human experience – past and present – in hopes of rendering our conceptions of ourselves that much more robust. Unlike McCutcheon, I am able to list one primary religious group: Mormons. Like McCutcheon, I am primarily exercised by theoretical questions. That these questions concern everything from traditional western religious beliefs to the role of human cognition in the frequency and nature of auditory hallucinations means that I am engaged in the academic study of religion as it is currently, if amorphously, manifest.

In the end, of course I support ongoing debates over the state of religious studies, arguments concerning for instance its methodological inclusivity in the face of 21st-century burdens on higher education. What I do not support is the contrived segmentation of disciplines (and sub-disciplines) which has left those who resisted the surgeon’s knife hamstrung nonetheless and which, perhaps worse, has positioned colleagues as outsiders to one another.

So if you ask, I may say that I embody our discipline’s inherent anxieties in the service of realising its potentials…or something like that. What do you do?

Adam J. Powell is a COFUND International Junior Research Fellow in the Department of Theology & Religion at Durham University in the UK. He was previously and assistant professor of religious studies at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina and has published on Mormonism, the theology of Irenaeus, and the sociological identity theory of Hans Mol. His newest book Hans Mol and the Sociology of Religion is due in early 2017 with Routledge.

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