It is well known, at least amongst insiders, that the study of religion is internally divided in many ways. One of these divisions includes what we might term confessional versus non-confessional approaches to religion (e.g., as a form of practice, as an object of study, etc.). What is your sense of how this tension plays out and what it might suggest, positively or negatively, for the discipline as a whole?
There is a lot of ambiguity in the question. How do we adjudicate inside and outside? What counts as confessional and non-confessional? What sense can we make of these rubrics in theory, in practice? What are we talking about when we talk about religion in this way? I’m also skeptical about references to a “discipline as a whole.” It’s a rhetorical fiction. The disciplines entwined with the study of religion can’t be singularized as a single “academy” and even a brief survey will yield eclectic findings: professional and non-professional writers, journalists and academics; exegetical theological works alongside magisterial epics of comparative mythology; inspirationalist literature and secular naturalism… It is an endgame to pass judgement on these things before getting into the details – and certainly we may find that these categories do not serve us well.
Nonetheless, many of us have on occasion offered up the distinction between confession and non-confessional approaches to the study of religion as shorthand for the distinction between theology and the study of religion. While I’m more familiar with one than the other, I’d have to say that from a certain vantage point there isn’t much tension. There’s a political tension but not much of a theoretical tension. What are typically called “confessional” approaches to the study of religion simply aren’t approaches to the study of religion at all. Much hinges on what we mean by “confessional.” If we substitute “normative commitments” for “confessional approaches” then this won’t make any sense – so I take “confessional” to mean an approach to the study of religion that begins with religious assumptions (an idea itself that requires unpacking, since it is rarely apparent how religious assumptions are distinct from metaphysical assumptions, for example). If the point can be pressed into abstraction, I would argue that “religious approaches” belong in a different class of practices than “scholarly approaches.” Any domain specific analysis that is circumscribed by an infrastructure of non-relevant experiences subject to the approval and mediation of authorities whose power resides in an exclusive and more or less private cultic praxis is a far cry from the normal conduct of what most of us typically call academic inquiry. In this view there can only be relevant tensions within and between non-confessional approaches to the study of religion.
Kenneth MacKendrick is an associate professor in the Department of Religion, University of Manitoba. His teaching interests include cognitive theory of religion, contemporary Christianity (fundamentalism and charismatic movements, secularization), evil in world religions, method and theory in the study of religion, and rituals of death and mourning. His current research focuses on the relation between cognition, imagination, and religion. Recent publications include “Evil in the Age of World Religions” (forthcoming), “We have an Imaginary Friend in Jesus” (2012), “The Challenge of Postmetaphysical Thinking and the Nature of Religious Thought” (2010), and “Chuck Palahniuk and the New Journalism Revolution” (2009).