Critical Questions Series: Marsha Aileen Hewitt


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 here, 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?

In order to answer this question, I will to step back from it and think about its underlying  premises: confessional vs. non-confessional approaches to the study of religion, either/or.  The question itself is inherently competitive, dichotomous and antagonistic. It both presumes and implies that one or other approach is better suited to, or, as the postmodernists might say, ‘commensurate with’ its object of study. One version of this question surfaces in the ongoing controversy around the theological vs. academic or ‘scientific’ study of religion. There might be considerable merit for the study of religion by resolving this antagonistic split in favour of one or other scholarly orientation. I do not think so, because such efforts miss the point(s) of scholarly inquiry.

The controversies raging within our field over confessional vs. non-confessional, theological vs. ‘scientific’ studies of religion, or the even more aggressively debated efforts around definitions of religion do not well serve scholarly inquiry into this human phenomenon. They may serve to establish institutional camps and scholarly identities, but they offer little if any insight into the more important question of theoretical critique: what is it, and how may it serve our scholarly inquiries? Over a hundred and fifty years ago Marx defined it as a ‘ruthless criticism of everything existing’ that fears neither its own conclusions nor conflict with the ‘the powers that be’. I think this is a very sound basis, better than most, for theoretical critique that is relevant to every discipline within the academy, especially religion. As I have discussed elsewhere, I think this is generally what Bruce Lincoln has in mind in his ‘Theses on Method’. For him scholarly work is about probing beneath the surface of things, including its putative object of inquiry as well as itself. As scholars of religion, I agree that our task is to pose ‘destabilizing’ and  ‘irreverent’ questions that penetrate the ideological bases and material interests hidden within the diversity of religious discourses. Our commitment to the project of critical inquiry in itself must also include self-critique, that is, an ongoing, sustained critique of the scholarly methods and conceptual tools deployed in our investigations of religion/religions. We are, after all, products of the world that shaped our minds and we can never achieve full self transparency.

A critical theory of anything is fully aware that it too is ideologically compromised, but this can be acknowledged and addressed without apology or cynicism. That our minds are products of the environment that shaped them does not preclude the possibility of sound critique. As critical theorists of religion we need not spend as much time as many of us do fretting over the ways in which our particular perspectives are implicated in the reproduction of power. We know that. There is no theory on earth that isn’t tainted in this way. Rather, we need to get on with our work in the spirit of ‘ruthless’ critique in spite of its inherent difficulties and contradictions. It should go without saying, but perhaps bears repeating nonetheless, that theoretical critique of this kind can only ever be partial, temporary and compromised by its own ideological and material interests.

The issue then of ‘confessional’ vs. ‘non-confessional’ approaches to the study of religion in a way is meaningless because both contain ideological commitments and value orientations that need to be addressed. Or, maybe we are all ‘confessionalists’ of a kind. Perhaps my own scholarly orientation that looks to thinkers such as Hume, Feuerbach, Marx and Freud in the formulation of a critical theory of religion could be described as ‘confessional’. It doesn’t much matter.  Let’s rather interrogate the question itself. Whose or what interests does either approach, confessional or non-confessional, serve? Why do we need to conceptualize our work in the study of religion as anything other than a ‘ruthlessly’ critical enterprise directed toward the difficult task of attempting to explain a dimension of human mental and social production in its infinitely diverse cultural and historical contexts?

Marsha Aileen Hewitt is Professor of Social Ethics and Religion at Trinity College, and graduate faculty in the Department of Religion in the University of Toronto. She is currently writing a book on Freud’s critique of religion, to be published by Acumen (formerly Equinox) Press.

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One Response to Critical Questions Series: Marsha Aileen Hewitt

  1. Karen Zoppa says:

    Is it okay – what the “post-modernists” might say?
    Otherwise – feeling chastened – if that was just a statement of factual observation with no hidden snipe intended – as a scholar who might be accused of “post-modernism,’ I am unclear about what you are saying. I am uncertain of the context of the comment about the amount of time spent on As critical theorists of religion we need not spend as much time as many of us do “fretting over the ways in which our particular perspectives are implicated in the reproduction of power. ”
    The confusion arises from not understanding what you mean by “confessional” versus “non-confessional.” If the writer would expand upon the terms “confessional” and “non-confessional” and the ways in which they have been and can be approached, the intention would be clearer.
    But most of all – while I hail your call for the demonstration of deep self-critical awareness, it is vital to be clear about the differences yielded from a “confessional” versus “non- confessional” point of view. The former has a different audience and purpose than the latter.

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