Immodest Proposals, Unquestioned Answers

By Ian Brown

In a recent and provocative essay entitled, “An Immodest Proposal for Biblical Studies,” James Crossley notes,

Biblical Studies has not really generated unique methods and ought rather to be conceived as a field of study which utilizes methods from different disciples.

Crossley is here addressing an issue specific to biblical studies, but he raises an argument with which those of us who study religion are all too familiar: that we have no methods distinct to the study of religion and our approach is (or at least should be) primarily interdisciplinary in nature. Crossley suggests, for example, that students be trained in the use and influence (as opposed to origins) of the Bible, and argues that students trained in this way will “be more qualified to engage with colleagues in other disciplines and fields than experts in source-critical analysis of the Pentateuch or the Synopic Problem” (167).

While I am in agreement with this statement, I wonder at what point am I okay with biblical scholarship that does not engage with or is unaware of the basic tenets of historical criticism? Perhaps this is the petty complaint of a student who spent the two full years of his undergrad learning about and internalizing historical criticism. But perhaps there is more to it? I would extend my self-examining question to the study of religion more generally by asking: at what point am I okay with scholarship on religion that does not engage with or is not aware of the historic and especially current debates in the study of religion? Is it too much to ask that one working or writing on “religion” be familiar with the contributions and critiques made by Jonathan Z. Smith, Bruce Lincoln, Talal Asad, Tomoko Masuzawa, or Russell McCutcheon? Or for that matter, Weber, Durkheim, Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss, or Geertz?

I thought I had an answer to this question, but the more I pondered my initial answer the more I realized that I was forgetting the lessons I learned from J.Z Smith; namely, that there is no inherent data for religion nor is there anything that must be taught. So, while I loose sleep tonight wrestling with my own normative notion of just what the study of religion is, I extend my question to you: at what point are you okay with scholarship on religion that does not engage with, or is not aware of the historic, and especially current debates in the study of religion?

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3 Responses to Immodest Proposals, Unquestioned Answers

  1. James Crossley says:

    Thanks Ian. And before I start, I have no real answer…

    I would just clarify the following: ‘an argument with which those of us who study religion are all too familiar: that students be trained in the use and influence (as opposed to origins) of the Bible, and argues that students trained in this way will’.
    I wouldn’t put historical criticism or reception in opposition in the sense of what should be studied. I guess use and influence would be more helpful to those subjects that post date (say) the third century but historical criticism could be more helpful to (say) classics and ancient history etc.

    As for your question – ‘at what point are you okay with scholarship on religion that does not engage with, or is not aware of the historic, and especially current debates in the study of religion?’ – well, that’s not so easy! While not liking the idea of imposing what can and can’t be studied, I do have a problem with assumptions which have been challenged elsewhere in the field or discipline which have not be acknowledged (inevitable that this will always be). To take one example, some of the arguments about the idea of ‘religion’ being ‘hard-wired’ or part of human evolution might be interesting but when it carries on as if we actually know sufficiently what this religion thing is then there’s a massive problem with the whole project, right?

    That’s not a very good answer, I know.

    • Ian Brown says:

      James, re: your point of clarification, I agree, historical criticism and the study of reception need not be placed in mutual opposition to one another. That being said, the courses here at the University of Toronto that focus on what I think you describe as reception (Anthropology of Christianity, for ex) are not necessarily concerned with historical critical issues, nor should they be. This ties to my overall question, and I agree it is very difficult to imagine an answer.

      Re: your second point, I could not agree more. My question was very informed by the 2010 IAHR which featured a number of keynote addresses from cognitive psychologists and evolutionary biologists doing more or less exactly what you just described: arguing for the cognitive or evolutionary origin of “religion” while assuming we all know what “religion” is.

  2. Hi Ian and James, thanks so much for opening this discussion. In reading James’s work (which I really enjoy reading and I’m learning a great deal from), a similar concern struck me: at what point does historical criticism necessarily gives way to other, theoretically driven methods of analysis, especially those methods centered on reception and critical theory approaches? Under the “postmodern gaze” does our work collapse into semantically situated moments of self-reflexivity, or can the historian, source critic, form critic, and social historian continue to offer valuable contributions to the field? Must it be a dichotomy, an either/or choice? Indeed, does my framing the situation in such a way tell us something about our own contextual or ideological “moment in time”? Personally, I don’t think it has to be an either/or, especially when it comes to nurturing interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary work. The key seems to figure out what analytic questions are being asked and, with those questions in mind, what methods and theories are most helpful within those heuristic moments of study. What research questions ends up driving our study will likely affect with whom we can fruitfully engage in dialogue. When I worked on the Frampton mosaics a few years ago, I found redaction criticism and narrative theories very helpful – indeed, I was trying to bridge text analysis and material culture/archaeological work. At the level of disciplinary critique, i.e., the meta-level of studying the study of something, is where I think James’s work makes it’s greatest and most provocative contribution. Here we are forced to re-think our presuppositions, our ideologies, and to caution ourselves about the certainty of our methods and conclusions. And perhaps it is with that interdisciplinary, broader “m & t” disposition, that we can best engage such reflexity even as we continue to engage our historical-critical work. The tension still exists, but perhaps that’s a good thing?

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