Critical Questions Series: Richard Amesbury


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 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?

The distinction between “confessional” and “non-confessional” approaches to the study of religion strikes me as more than a little obscure, but I assume that it represents an attempt to drive a methodological wedge between theology and religious studies. (Interestingly, these categories appear to have been borrowed from theology, where they are used quite differently). Religious studies, on this construal, is to be preferred over theology because its methods are neutral, critical, and public, whereas theology’s are biased, dogmatic, and parochial. Unlike the theologian, the scholar of religion is beholden to no community, institution, or creed.

But setting aside the caricature of theology implied by such a contrast, I would suggest that claims to be “non-confessional,” like claims to neutrality and objectivity, ought to arouse suspicion. Thinking is inherently contextual, and while our “confessions” may differ, we are never in a position as scholars to have transcended normative commitments altogether. Of course, it belongs to the meaning of “bias” that other people’s biases are easier to spot than one’s own, and the illusion that one’s scholarship is free-standing or disinterested may be particularly powerful for those of us in positions of comparative epistemic privilege, just as those of us who talk like people on t.v. do are inclined to think we don’t have accents.

Indeed, the fact that it seems to arise primarily in reference to religion suggests that rhetoric about the importance of “non-confessional” scholarship may be a peculiarity precisely of the context in which religious studies scholars themselves operate. Partly, I suspect, this rhetoric is boundary-marking behavior, designed to legitimate the field of religious studies within the larger academy. This is somewhat ironic, given that within much of the rest of the humanities and social sciences, claims to universality and neutrality (the sort of thing gestured at, without quite saying so, by talk of “non-confessional scholarship”) are themselves increasingly held in disrepute (which of course doesn’t mean that theology is back in vogue).

But I would argue that there is something else going on here as well, something involving the very concept of “religion.” What the conceit of “non-confessional” scholarship allows us to do is to get in view religion as a distinctive subject matter worthy of critical study. Religion is distinguished against a secular background by its “confessional” character, whereas analogous “non-religious” commitments on the part of the scholar — political, economic, philosophical — are naturalized and rendered largely invisible. Again, there is an irony here: even as many “religion scholars” are coming to question the socially constructed distinction between “the secular” and “the religious,” they often remain so deeply enmeshed in the larger liberal imaginary that gives rise to this distinction that they continue to locate themselves academically in ways that reinscribe it — that is to say, firmly on the “secular” side of the assumed divide.

However unconscious, these rhetorical moves are not innocent. An unfortunate consequence of making them is that “religion” as subject matter for scholarship is seen as if behind an interrogation chamber’s two-way mirror: “confessional” thinkers belong to this subject matter and, as such, constitute appropriate objects of study and critique, but they are not allowed to interrogate the religion scholar — often enough, a Westerner — in return. What appears at first to be a commitment on the religion scholar’s part to ideological critique and demystification functions in practice as a protective strategy that allows the scholar’s own commitments to remain both unconfessed and unexamined. According to this model, “we” religion scholars can speak authoritatively to “them,” but what they say about us — part of their “confession” — is of interest only as data.

To be sure, there are important differences between reasoning that aims at understanding, on the one hand, and self-serving justifications motivated by non-rational inducements, on the other; between conclusions grounded in reasons and sheer assertions; between scholarship that is reflexive and fallibilist and “scholarship” that is, well, not really scholarship at all; between biology and “creation science.” Much more could fruitfully be said about how we might characterize serious scholarship, but I submit that in this task the distinction between “confessional” and “non-confessional” approaches to the study of religion is more misleading than helpful.

Richard Amesbury is Professor of Theological Ethics and Director of the Institute for Social Ethics at the University of Zurich.

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