Critical Questions Series: Kenneth G. MacKendrick

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This is part of an on-going series with the Bulletin, where critical questions are posed to a variety of scholars on the same topic. Other posts in this series can be found herehere and here.

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).

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2 Responses to Critical Questions Series: Kenneth G. MacKendrick

  1. Randi Warne says:

    Thought provoking and useful. I’ll be chewing on this for awhile, I think, but in the meantime some thoughts: This position seems to advocate an open-endedness to academic study that some intellectual work in religion (often described as “theology” or “confessional”, despite the overtly Christian resonances of that stance) does not support (echoing a common conflation of “religion” and “Christianity”, with the latter being the former’s determinative example). Questions raised for me centre around ideology (what if we don’t know what are assumptions are, normalizing that which could be otherwise understood?). Science falls under this rubric, it seems to me. Another question has to do with external, cultic authority, and reflection and analysis within the boundaries it sets? Different languages impose different rules and support different conceptual ranges and possibilities. (What does analytic philosophy look like in Chinese, for example?).How ought private experiences shared by some people, but without a central disciplinary authority, be placed in this framework? (what is orthodox atheism, for example, or normative feminism?) I offer these as points of genuine query and possible discussion, not as contestation.

    • Kenneth MacKendrick says:

      Randi, Thanks for the comments, questions, and implicit contestation(s). How about I pick up on one piece of your thread: normative feminism. Following Seyla Benhabib I see feminist inquiry as having two analytically distinct parts: explanatory diagnostic criticism (historical-scientific-analytic inquiry) and an anticipatory-utopian critique (normative). The former aims at understanding patriarchy or fraternal regimes, for example, and the latter aims to change them. There is a logical distinction between the two modalities of criticism, one is primarily theoretical and analytic and the other political-practical. I would guess that a thorough analysis of large sections of scholarly work (esp. work that does not include gender analysis) could conceivable show it to be comparable to “confessional” approaches in that it is rooted in various cults of masculinity. The concept of ideology and the critique of ideology could serve us well as a means of unpacking how and why networks of authority propagate and conceal themselves while still at the same time creating visible cues for participation. My main point, then, is not so much about the difference between theology and the (ideally, non-ideological) study of religion but between ritualized or restricted forms of communication and expression and more or less open-ended or discursive forms of expression and argumentation. I’ve found Maurice Bloch and J. Habermas to be helpful for making these kind of distinctions…. (noting, of course, that what appears to be open-ended could, in retrospect, be identified as the prison of a particular political economy or some other form of systemic distortion in perception, cognitive organization).

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