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


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.

Posted in Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Who Gets Thrown Under the Bus


Note: this post originally appeared on the Culture on the Edge blog.

by Steven Ramey

The Daily Show’s recent sketch about Waris Ahluwalia and the problematic assumptions that those who wear turbans and identify as Sikhs continually face illustrates quite well the challenge of describing various communities. The segment highlights the efforts of some self-identified Sikhs to engage the broader public with information about their community and practices.

Perhaps the most powerful element in the segment is the refusal of the participants to emphasize that Muslims constitute the real threat, not them. This refusal draws on the issue of over-generalization that many raise when people identified as Muslims are treated as a danger. Ahluwalia directly asserts that such a move to throw Muslims “under the bus” is not how he was raised, an effective way to highlight the generosity of the teachings that he associates with Sikhism. The turban reminds him to “treat humanity with care and kindness,” thus resignifying the turban as a positive physical symbol.

That positive image of the turban and Sikh ideals presents a normative statement about what Sikhism teaches. Like any normative statement, this assertion can differentiate proper Sikhs from those who are not proper. Such normative assertions makes sense from people who identify with a community and therefore participate in the construction and definition of that community. Groups continually negotiate who fits and who does not; that is simply a factor of maintaining a defined group, as Fredrik Barth argued almost fifty years ago.

Such a constructive assertion, though, is different from efforts of people who do not identify with a particular group to describe that group. If we take seriously the segment’s assertions to avoid over-generalizations and to refrain from throwing groups “under the bus,” descriptions of another group should avoid legitimizing particular normative statements from members of that group, as those normative statements are invariably contested. Normative statements presented as descriptions are common in the descriptions that scholars of religions make. For example, the notion that wearing the turban is a part of Sikh practice, which several people in the segment make, is a reasonable normative statement, but it, along with other elements like the highly visible uncut hair and beard, is also fiercely contested. Some who self-identify as Sikhs see all of these elements as requirements for a devout Sikh, while others see them as optional, based on different interpretations of events attributed to the tenth Sikh guru in 1699.

Repeating such normative statements as if they are straightforward descriptions of a community effectively throws under the bus those who interpret the boundaries of their group differently. Such assertions marginalize some in ways that are similar to the discrimination that those who wear turbans often face in the United States. For example, assertions that Sikhism is an independent religion and that the Adi Granth (the text that many self-identified Sikhs consider their living guru) is exclusively a Sikh text are common, even dominant descriptions of Sikhism, but these assertions are actually contested. Some who identify as Sindhi Hindus revere the Adi Granth as a Hindu text. These contested understandings of the Adi Granth have created conflicts at times over control of copies of the Adi Granth and centers that house a copy of it (although often people who identify with each group have developed cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships).

When it comes to throwing a community under the bus, too often scholars and others have, intentionally or not, repeated community efforts to construct their own boundaries as if they are simple, uncontested descriptions, thus throwing others under the bus. Taking seriously the ideals presented in this segment requires greater effort (the right thing is not easy, as the segment asserts) to acknowledge the contestation in various efforts to define clearly who is a good Sikh, Christian, Hindu, etc. Otherwise, the descriptions become part of the problem.

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For the Good or the Guild? Scholars Respond to Kate Daley-Bailey: Helen Ramirez


In this series, a number of scholars respond to Kate Daley-Bailey’s provocative essay, “For  the Good or the ‘Guild’: An Open Letter to the American Academy of Religion,” which appears in the most recent issue of the Bulletin journal, Vol 44, No. 4 (2015). The essay can be found here, with an abstract reading as follows: This letter/essay addresses some of the critiques and recommendations I have for the American Academic of Religion regarding its treatment of adjunct concerns. I recommend the American Academy of Religion reassess its values and priorities and ask that the organization decide if it is a nonprofit organization or a guild. Subsequently, I recommend the American Academy of Religion discontinue its obfuscation of data on adjunct existence in the field, readjust its membership dues and conferences fees with the monetary plight of its underemployed or unemployed members in mind, and avoid marginalizing or patronizing those members who find themselves within the cycle of contingent employment.

The Snakes and Ladders of Academia

by Helen Ramirez

Kate Daley-Bailey argues in her article on contingency that the AAR’s policies on membership demonstrate that it remains an old time guild presenting a cover of inclusivity when in fact the association keeps its elitist status secure by limiting entryway into its inner court by asserting a membership cost from the most disenfranchised within Academia. The AAR’s scaled membership and conference costs don’t make it easier for contract faculty. Many of us are struggling with book and technology acquisition to keep us current in our fields against health care, shelter, and food necessities with incomes that position us on the brink of poverty. So a membership and a conference are out of reach and yet we’re told we need to keep ourselves visible and active by presenting at conferences and building relationships with people on the inside of these associations to gain admittance into the hallowed halls of academia. It’s a game of Snakes and Ladders.

The interlocking layers of precarity in the university these days, force us to climb over each other at every level of power. Those of us in the Arts spend lots of time defending our right to exist in an economic climate designed to control education. Departments and programs are mandated by administrations to develop a “brand” to sell their wares to the customer base who happen to be potential students by enticing them with claims of a secure, edgy and well paying job awaiting them on graduation should they register as majors. Departments in their branding efforts search for the research production areas that read “innovative” in a bid to convince purchasers that they have more than knowledge to offer, they have the knowledge base that will place students in the highest income bracket on graduation. Once the new direction is identified, curriculums are refashioned by eliminating the old and inventing new ones to sell the department as the most “progressive” and advanced in the current market place. The courses that Contract Faculty once relied on for their own economic survival disappear. The result of this economic mess is that departments and programs compete against one another, each clawing against the other for administrative anointment. The Faculty of Arts gazes both longingly and disdainfully at the Faculty of Business and Economics, yearning to experience what seems to be the unending flow of monies in that direction but resenting it at the same time.

In the midst of all of this image manufacturing, Contract Faculty are forced to join the marketing game. As Contract Faculty we know we have to sell ourselves to the university, to our former professors, to our students, to our associations and to our departments. The approval we work hard at earning is done in the hope that it will land us a secure job. But the approval game is fraught with conflicting messages and false promises.

The game of course begins with the requisite school processes. We get the degrees at the right school, we prove we have the skills to research, to publish and to serve on committees. We dedicate ourselves to the world of networking. From the start of our graduate schooling, we forge relationships with our advisory committees hoping that we’ll be blessed as a star in the department to land us the requisite funding and references to move to the next level of competition. Upon graduation, we’re aware we must gleefully accept any job and then move to ingratiate ourselves by agreeing to take on more tasks in departments without pay. We believe erroneously that if we make ourselves indispensable to departments that have allotted us a one course contract that once they see how much we’re wiling to do that we’re securely in place for the next permanent job when the department is finally given one by administrations. We’re wrong. Collegiality is falsely developed. Departments are better able to survive off our volunteer work and new tenure track positions are used to up their selling status to a new customer base.

From every direction we’ve been given the message that if we comply to these unwritten codes of cultural production, we’ll be admitted into the sanctity of the ivory tower. Of course if we aren’t, we’re handed all kinds of subtle stings that the blame for this exclusion rests with us as failed producers of knowledge. Neoliberalism, greedy administrators and politicians are referred to but because some of the guilt for our subordinate status sits with regular faculty who haven’t used their privilege effectively, the blame is directed at us as failed students and substandard “wanna be” academics. Regular faculty will not collectively assume any guilt for what they preserve for themselves regardless of the cost to us. This is strange considering that our degrees are the result of having done the work well enough for those who are at some level critiquing our failed production and having had their own status upped because of our performance as their students.

As we gather our wares to get the job we sign on to our associations. We present our research, we network and we sell ourselves in the hopes that we’ll be the star performer who gains the coveted but rare tenure track job. We position ourselves against each other. With each move we make to be noticed our debt load deepens.

We network inside keeping up contacts with former teachers and introducing ourselves to those doing work similar to our own. We want our names known. And while we’re told repeatedly how appalling the status of contract workers is those same people aren’t raising their fists in defence of us as a collective unit. There are no movements within associations holding members accountable for their silence and no associations using their influence to force universities to halt our labour exploitation.

Dishonesty rests at the base of this entire process. False tales of spending and debts control how discussions are framed in the university as a whole and within associations, faculties and departments as well. Students are spoken about often and their needs are addressed, but rarely is there a pause by administrations or regular faculty to commit to a different economic and political ideology that reconfigures the landscape so that Contract Faculty in the thousands are no longer foraging the grasslands for food and shelter. And yet we as Contract Faculty have made it possible for universities to prosper. We have done the marketing for them. Our presence as undergraduates and then as graduates has secured the status of those who taught us and the institutions that can use us as examples of their achievement. We are the reason that many argue for expansion of their graduate programs. On their behalf we sell the university to our students who are hoping that that piece of paper at the end of their stay will give them the life they have been sold.

Too often the accountability question is levelled solely in the direction of governments and administrations saving the rest of us from having to see our part in the maintenance of this economic mess. Rather than fight for a more democratic system, we mostly choose to climb over each other modelling a long history in Academia to sacrifice the other for personal victory.

Helen Ramirez holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Toronto, and teaches in a field that is deeply threatened with extinction, Women and Gender Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. As a feminist academic she examines the workings of gendered labour exploitation and violence, which means she not fighting off multiple offers for employment in Academia.

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Feeling Rules and the Construction of Sacred Space


by Adam Miller

I don’t often think in terms of affect, but I’ve talked enough with Danae Faulk to be mildly familiar with the perspective/vocabulary. (Donovan Schaefer has also given me much to think with in this regard, though I wrote what follows before reading his book.) In fact, while she and I were both at Missouri, we talked about affect theory to the extent that we together sketched out (literally: chalkboards, Lincoln-esque charts, and all) a Durkheimian rehabilitation of Eliade’s irrupting Sacred. I wouldn’t dare attempt to put flesh on this old skeleton here…instead, what I’d like to do is explore for a moment the relationship between feeling rules and sacred space.

In our many conversations about affect theory, Danae made frequent reference to Arlie Russell Hochschild’s 1979 article “Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure.” I have yet to read the entire article, but together with what I recall from prior discussions, the abstract (below) provides a workable framework for affect-amateurs like myself.

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 9.09.16 AM

The key points here are: (1) “Emotion…can be and often is subject to acts of management. The individual often works on inducing or inhibiting feelings so as to render them ‘appropriate’ to a situation,” and (2) “Feeling rules are seen as the side of ideology that deals with emotion and feeling.” In other words, one way ideologies operate in the world is prescribing how people ought to feel in certain circumstances. Though they pretend to be, these rules are not based on anything inherent in the world; rather, they imbue situations with value of one kind or another. In this context, I want to make the case that feeling rules are one of the means by which human beings actively constitute specific places as sacred.

One example of this can be found in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, which details the events surrounding the Buddha’s death. Attending to the Buddha during his final hours, Ānanda laments that he and his fellow monastic brethren will no longer be able to spend the rainy season with him, a tradition they had upheld for many years. To this, the Buddha replies:

Ānanda, there are four places the sight of which should arouse emotion in the faithful. Which are they? “Here the Tathāgata was born” is the first. “Here the Tathāgata attained supreme enlightenment” is the second. “Here the Tathāgata set in motion the Wheel of Dharma” is the third. “Here the Tathāgata attained the Nibbāna-element without remainder” is the fourth. And, Ānanda, the faithful monks and nuns, male and female lay-followers will visit those places. And any who die while making the pilgrimage to these shrines with a devout heart will, at the breaking-up of the body after death, be reborn in a heavenly world.

The Buddha tells Ānanda that proper buddhist subjects ought to feel a certain way in four places. Each is perfectly capable of producing the proper emotions (and more!) by virtue of what happened there. The onus is on the individual to feel them. Given the context, these emotions are presumably meant to equal/replace/mirror the good vibes one would have felt hanging out with the Buddha during the rainy season.

Those of an Eliadean bent might interpret this excerpt as depicting some residuals of the Sacred’s irruption into the profane world. But in light of Hochschild’s framework we see the excerpt as working to privilege certain places over others by telling people already interpellated as buddhist subjects to feel as though they’re in the Buddha’s presence when they go there. In the event that one of these places doesn’t “arouse emotion,” it’s no fault of the place. That person just needs to learn how to feel.

Adam T. Miller is a PhD student in History of Religions at the University of Chicago, an online instructor for Central Methodist University, Editorial Assistant for History of Religions, and Associate Editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. Typically operating within socio-rhetorical theoretical frameworks and employing philological, discourse-analytic, and historical methods, his research interests tend to be all over the place. He plans to specialize in the history and literature of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India (going into Vajrayāna and Tibet, as well), but has written on and maintains a strong interest in such topics as Swami Vivekananda and Death Grips.

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What’s in a name, a name rearranged? Part 2


by Stacie A. Swain

Note: Note: This post originally appeared on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog. For part one, see here.

Words matter.[i] When I began to understand deconstruction as a method, I felt like I no longer knew how to speak (I’m still figuring it out). In this sense, I see pedagogy as teaching one not simply how (and not what!) to think but also how to write and speak. I understand critical religion pedagogies as teaching one how to speak and write in ways that are more conscious of the social dimensions (context and implications) of what one reproduces through discursive citation (of concepts and sources). Even then, as my supervisor is fond of saying, “if it’s difficult to step out of the box, it’s even more difficult to keep from falling back into it!”

The discourse on religion coming from a critical theory of religion or a critical religious perspective as offered in the editorials, appears to (or prefers to) remain within the ‘religion’ box without questioning how it came to be or whether it really ‘is.’ The claims made in the Critical Research on Religion pieces under discussion cite and enact ‘religion’ in a performative sense, bringing it into being and reproducing it, manifesting constructions and constructing manifestations. Using the term ‘enacts’ perhaps applies to all scholarship, if to differing degrees: “‘enactment’ can, in general, be understood as a less conscious and willed dimension of reproducing social and political categories.”[ii]

However, as Russell McCutcheon points out in his Theses on Professionalization, “teaching and research are complementary activities, inasmuch as teaching, somewhat like publication, constitutes the dissemination of information gained by means of prior research.” Additionally, “The performative… is always pedagogical, and the pedagogical is always political.”[iii] Scholarship by its very nature performs or enacts a pedagogical performance that doesn’t simply stop at the end of the page.

The CRR editorial asks, “Is it time to find new ways to unmask the processes through which we position our own intellectual tasks?” Absolutely (sort of). For the most part, that’s what scholars who deconstruct and historicize the category and the study of religion aim to do, whether for their own purposes or for the intellectual satisfaction of taking things apart – that would depend on the scholar and the project, and similar scrutiny may certainly be applied to their work. Deconstructing ‘religion’ only to reconstruct it over again but ‘better’ would defeat the purpose of “unmasking” the processes through which ‘religion’ comes to be constituted as an object of study and critique in the first place.

One caveat, ending on the “unmasking” metaphor: I rather doubt that there is something really real, reachable, and readable under the mask, either within scholarship or with respect to that which scholars claim to study – something to be taken prima facie or at face value. The assumption that there are forms of religion, religions, the religious, research, scholarship, and pedagogy that should be taken at face value that can be “unmasked” is perhaps one of the fallacies of constant (re)construction built upon on ambiguous conceptual categories. There will always be cracks in the foundation – unknown, unacknowledged, unrealized, perspectives and interests, waiting in the wings to (re)construct again (and again, and again).

Deconstruction can be used to take ‘religion’ apart not only to rearrange the social features that contribute to the constitution of religion, but also to question how it is that those features came to ‘be’ and to be arranged in the first place. Critical (religion) pedagogies in the study of religion destabilize the ‘givens’ of the field in order to offer new perspectives. Fostering an awareness of the perspectives and aims of a particular approach teaches students not simply to parrot one approach or another, but to evaluate each for the work that it does both on and off the page.


[i] Anecdote: As an early, avid reader who often read words before ever speaking them, words, word usage, and wordplay has always fascinated me. As a young adult, I paid a large chunk of cash to become certified as an ESL instructor. I ended up never using it, at first due to circumstance but afterwards because teaching someone how to communicate seemed like a loaded responsibility. I try to still bring that awareness into my own work and pedagogy.

[ii]Ahmed, “Interview with Judith Butler,” 2.

[iii]Denzin, Lincoln, and Smith, Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, xi.

Posted in Pedagogy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

For the Good or the Guild? Scholars Respond to Kate Daley-Bailey: Jason Sager


In this series, a number of scholars respond to Kate Daley-Bailey’s provocative essay, “For  the Good or the ‘Guild’: An Open Letter to the American Academy of Religion,” which appears in the most recent issue of the Bulletin journal, Vol 44, No. 4 (2015). The essay can be found here, with an abstract reading as follows: This letter/essay addresses some of the critiques and recommendations I have for the American Academic of Religion regarding its treatment of adjunct concerns. I recommend the American Academy of Religion reassess its values and priorities and ask that the organization decide if it is a nonprofit organization or a guild. Subsequently, I recommend the American Academy of Religion discontinue its obfuscation of data on adjunct existence in the field, readjust its membership dues and conferences fees with the monetary plight of its underemployed or unemployed members in mind, and avoid marginalizing or patronizing those members who find themselves within the cycle of contingent employment.

How the modern university may go the way of the monasteries

by Jason Sager

Kate Daly-Bailey’s comparison of the American Academy of Religion to late medieval guilds draws attention to the way in which scholarly societies such as the AAR exclude adjunct faculty who lack the financial support and resources from participating fully within the academic community. I found this comparison striking as a former adjunct faculty who taught the history of medieval and early modern Europe because of the similarities of the guild system and the modern university. Just as with scholarly societies, university administrators have put in place a system that prioritizes the economic performance of the university over the quality of education provided by the army of underpaid adjunct faculty and have sought to protect the economic interests of the institution over the priorities of adjunct faculty.

The consequences shifting the prime mission of the university from pursuing academic excellence to focusing on generating are far reaching. In a conversation with a friend and former colleague, who also is an adjunct faculty member at Laurier University, we discussed some of these consequences and what they may mean for the future of the university.

Our conversation was sparkling and intellectually engaging. As the evening wore on, the conversation turned to the subject of the fate of the institutional university. Much of what we discussed has been explored in minute detail in different forums (Stefan Collini’s articles in the London Review of Books on the conditions universities in the UK face are harrowing and worth the read). However, my friend made a point that I found to be quite insightful.

Years ago during a conversation with his former PhD advisor, he had mentioned some of the growing realities of the modern university. After listening, the PhD advisor responded by comparing the modern university to medieval monasteries on the eve of their collapse during the Reformation of the 16th century.

As a historian of early modern Europe who slummed in the medieval era, I think that such a comparison makes considerable sense. Even at the dawn of the Reformation – which helped see off a millennia of old culture throughout northern Europe – there was little sense that the monastic enterprise would come to an end. Of course complaints and social trends had begun to undermine the privileged position that monastic movement enjoyed throughout medieval Europe. While there had always been complaints about monastic laxity or abbatial abuses, the orders were too powerful and too protected to be really concerned that they would truly ever be displaced. Furthermore, after an existence of nearly 1,000 years, it is difficult to conceive that things would change so drastically.

And yet change came, and the monasteries were displaced. In England, when Henry VIII turned his cannons on the religious orders during the Dissolution of the Monasteries – leaving little more than the haunting ruins that now dot the Yorkshire landscape – he demolished more than the Gothic religious heritage of England; he tore down the religious and intellectual structures that had supported the monasteries and convents, forever altering England’s religious landscape. However, the initial stages were less dramatic than that. In 1535, Thomas Cromwell led a commission to determine the spiritual state of England’s monasteries. There was no question as to the outcome of the investigation. Reporting their findings in 1536, Cromwell and his agents presented a picture of a monastic world dominated by loose morals, gluttonous monks, illiterate abbots and centres of blasphemy – an image mostly of Cromwell’s imagination. No matter. Within a few years, England’s monastic heritage crumbled under Henry’s onslaught.

In Germany, where the Lutheran Reformation took hold, monasteries were closed down and many of their inhabitants were married off or left to their own devices, events that anticipated developments in Revolutionary France nearly 300 years later. Even the regions of Europe where Catholicism maintained its primacy, the popularity of cloistered monasticism also waned in popularity.

So what does this have to do with the modern state of the university? Quite a bit, I think. First of all, today’s university can trace its origins to the monastic and cathedral schools of the late 11th and early 12th centuries. Hence, monasteries and universities share a long-standing common tradition even as the university evolved over time. Throughout this evolution, universities for the most part maintained their basic structure and function for nearly 800 years. And like the monks did in 1500, we have assumed that the university would continue forever. Yet, as with the monasteries then, so too the universities are now under threat of disappearing.

To be fair, universities are not being bombarded with cannonade, but something more insidious is at play. For the past 30 to 40 years the raison d’etre of the university has come under attack in the guise of criticism of the value of the liberal arts and humanities. Disciplines such as History, English, Literary Studies and Art History are considered irrelevant to labour market demands of the 21st century. As a result, colleges of Arts throughout the Anglo-Saxon world have been on the defensive, attempting to mount a defense of our existence by emphasizing “skills” such subjects provide.

The relevance of the humanities has been further eroded by the emphasis put on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, again with the claim that graduates need to be ready for the jobs of the future. There is nothing wrong with the idea in principle and the more money available for the sciences should be welcomed. But that funding has come at the expense of the humanities. For example, at Laurier, a multi-million-dollar state-of-the-art building has been built to house the School of Business and Economics and the Department of Mathematics while the Faculty of Arts will end up being housed in the outdated and worn out hand-me-downs.

And just like the monasteries, universities have become complacent and failed to recognize our dependency on the good-will of the society in which they operate. While there were many defenders of the old monastic world, the fact is for a greater number of people, the monasteries had outlasted their value. Anyone who doesn’t think that that is happening now only needs to read the comment section of any local paper to see how unsupported universities are by the general public.


With massive increases in university enrollment in the 1950s and 1960s, we assumed that our work was done. This was something the late Jane Jacobs understood. The overturning of progressive victories achieved during the post-war period happened largely because we assumed the value and social benefits of those accomplishments – whether publically funded roads, or the strengthening of the social safety net – would be self-evident to all, and require little effort on our part to constantly remind the larger public of their value.

Instead, we need to consistently fight these battles. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 US Presidential campaign was the first warning that progressive policies–often informed by the liberal arts–would be seen as frivolous luxuries, or even worse, dangerous. The Reagan-Thatcher decade was the warm-up act for what was to come in the subsequent 25 years.

Of course, other challenges to the existence of the university come from the same developments that have disrupted other sectors of the economy. The rise of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and advances in technology bring with them many exciting opportunities. (Imagine the possibility of inexpensive virtual reality technology to recreate a historical event that students could experience.) They also bring dangers. MOOCs have provided more people more opportunities to engage in continual learning, but they have exerted downward pressure on wages of university instructors as well, for example.

This is no cri de coeur, but rather a sobering acknowledgment that we might be witnessing the end of the university as we know it. Knowing the profound challenges facing the university might mean that we can avoid the fate of the monasteries. By facing up to those challenges, we can still preserve the mission of the university while adapting to cultural, technological – and political forces that will always be with us.

Dr. Jason Sager is a former adjunct faculty at Laurier University, Ontario Canada.  His research interests are the cultural and religious history of early modern France.  He co-hosts which is a blog dedicated to all aspects of history and issues concerning the state of the university system.

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What’s in a name, a name rearranged? Part 1


Note: This post originally appeared on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.

by Stacie A. Swain

Recently I wrote a response to an editorial in Critical Research on Religion (CRR).The editorial debates a ‘critical religion’ versus a ‘critical theory of religion’ approach. An earlier piece briefly mentioned in the editorial (and in my post) asks, “Can a religious approach be critical?” and the answer from the CRR editorial board, in short, is “yes.” I’d like to muse on these thoughts a little more by pointing out that we now have three word combinations to consider when we think of what a ‘critical’ approach may entail with respect to ‘religion’:

1) A critical religion approach

2) A critical theory of religion

3) A critical religious approach

What distinguishes the first from the latter two is the contention that, as Willi Braun states, “religion does not exist; all that exists for our study are people who do things that we [or they] classify as “religious.”[i] In contrast, the latter two take for granted that there is something identifiable called ‘religion’ and that one can have the quality of being ‘religious.’ Here we have two claims (similarly named, but rearranged), presuming that #3 above is subsumed within #2. The two claims in question regard:

a) theory that is critical of what gets classified as ‘religion’ asan object of study;


b) a critical theory ofan object of study classified as ‘religion.’

The pedagogical implications of the two approaches in question can be elucidated by considering not only such wordplay, but also the aims that they claim to work towards and how they do so. The aims of CRR state that, “our goal is not to be pro-religion or anti-religion but to understand religions in both their positive and negative manifestations.”[ii] The authors of the editorial, “suggest a more social scientific construction of the category of religion… It need not have one agreed upon universal definition, since we think such a definition is impossible, but may contain multiple definitions (after all, words have more than one meaning) derived from some common characteristics of the world’s religions.”[iii]

When thinking about teaching this approach, it would entail defining the “category of religion” according to “the world’s religions” (i.e. defining religion by referring to religions).This is, to borrow a nice turn of phrase from Tomoko Masuzawa, “intricately intrareferential.”[iv] If one invokes ‘religion’ enough then it will (seem to) appear, much like the phantasm of ‘Bloody Mary’might as one stares into the bathroom mirror; then, you study what has been invoked as if ‘it’ has always been there, and even though you’re alone in the room, as if you had nothing to do with placing ‘it’ there and naming ‘it.’ From this I gather that a critical theory of religion entails a critical approach to something given to be already and always existing, origins mystified in the processes of construction.

The editorial in question particularly critiques critical religion as having a solely deconstructive approach. To reiterate a quote that appeared in my last post: “scholarship only becomes critical when it uses values to critique sets of social actors and their particular interests… the critique needs to have a goal. It must not only deconstruct but it must construct something better beyond it.”[v]A critical theory of religion then, can perhaps be described as constructive criticism – this approach claims to construct something called religion in a ‘better’ way, using criticism to build upwards upon a foundational concept called ‘religion.’ For if it is a “positive manifestation” then it is to be praised, and if it is a “negative manifestation,” then it is to be improved. This is done according to the “values” quoted above.

The above requires the admission that what has been constructed and classified (or classified and constructed) as ‘religion,’ has been constructed badly in the first place and continues to be. This is where the question of “values” and a progressive narrative comes in – one must have a pre-established notion of ‘good religion’ and ‘bad religion’ if one is to reconstruct it. But good or bad according to whom and in what context? In a pedagogy of a critical theory of religion, does one teach values to students, values beyond those of responsible and rigorous scholarship? Is there a line separating pedagogy from personal and/or institutional ideologies? If not, is there some mechanism in place to ensure full disclosure of that ideology and the potential interests it may serve, or serve to disguise?

In contrast and speaking generally, a critical religion approach is critical of the category of religion and those forms of scholarship that uncritically perpetuate narratives of the good, the bad, and the ugly ‘religion.’[vi]A deconstructive pedagogy might include examining the productive power of these (loaded) narratives in order to draw attention to construction, context, aims, and social implications. In the Twitterverse, it appears that undergraduate students in Alabama are doing just this with respect to ideology and the media. One student concludes a report on the exclusionary politics of news media: “Recognizing how a narrative is being built is an important facet of learning to deconstruct. Through deconstruction, we take nothing on face value, and contemplate why and how things are being represented.”

Thus, what are the implications of the way that CRR represents a critical theory of religion? What are some other representations of a ‘critical’ approach? For example, there’s Matt Sheedy’s recent take over at the Bulletin: “The critical scholar does not merely cast judgments based on an affective and political aversion to the group or practice in question, but attempts to make what seems strange familiar and poses questions rather than providing concrete answers or value judgments.” I would add that the ‘familiar’ be made strange, as well.

Stacie Swain is a Master’s student in the Religious Studies department at the University of Ottawa, focusing on critical religion, discourse analysis, and contemporary religion and culture. She is interested in analyzing the use of such categories in politics and law, particularly as operationalized in the context of interactions with the state. Her MA research focuses on the politics of the category of religion in reference to Indigenous peoples in Canada. Her supervisor in Ottawa is Naomi Goldenberg


[i]This is in “Introducing Religion,” in Introducing Religion: Essays in Honor of Jonathan Z. Smith, unfortunately I only have an electronic copy of the chapter in question at the moment, and don’t know the page number in the book.

[ii]Goldstein, King, and Boyarin, “Critical Theory of Religion vs. Critical Religion,” 4.


[iv]Speaking of both religion and culture, Masuzawa, “Culture,” 82.

[v]Goldstein, King, and Boyarin, “Critical Theory of Religion vs. Critical Religion,” 6.

[vi] For a more thorough discussion of what ‘critical religion’ is or isn’t according to specific scholars, consult the sources within the editorials discussed.

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