Critics or Caretakers? It’s All in the Mapping

By Philip L. Tite

I recently watched a podcast produced by the Religious Studies Project on the topic of whether a scholar should be a critic or a caretaker of religious traditions. The roundtable was comprised of several notable UK scholars (Grace Davie, Steven Sutcliffe, Eileen Barker, Linda Woodhead, Timothy Fitzgerald, Lois Lee, Joylon Mitchell, and Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi), each offering a different perspective on what has become an ongoing debate in the field especially since Russell McCutcheon’s 1997 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion on the role of the public intellectual as well as his book, Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2001).

What struck me as I listened to this podcast was the way the participants defined and used the key terms (“critic” and “caretaker”). They were given freedom to explore the terms as they wished, which gave a series of different and at times contending understandings of the terms being used. In his response, Russell McCutcheon noted this discontinuity with his own use of these terms in his scholarship. In an academic discussion on Facebook, an important question was raised by Randi Warne (Mount Saint Vincent University), specifically she rightly raised a question about the authoritative voice taken in claiming in scholarly discourse to declare what should be a normative use of language in scholarly debates. For myself, I had assumed that the respondents were working with or in response to McCutcheon’s work, but I think that the point raised about a progressive subtext in scholarship in an important one to raise.

There is certainly an irony in the scholarly rhetoric raised in theoretical (as well as theological or confessional) circles in the study of religion, especially perhaps among those scholars (including myself) who challenge the place of normative discourse in academic scholarship. Such a normative – “this is how we should be scholars” – certainly is present in such debates, while evoking a subtext of progressivism in scholarship. There is certainly a progressive rhetoric at work in McCutcheon’s work (as well as the work of others). I recognize this tendency, even if I agree with the direction we are encouraged to follow. Indeed, I’ve noticed this as a subtext in a lot of method and theory discussions. What is the correct way to be a scholar? Who takes on the moral authority to make that very call? Does taking on such moral authority result in the realignment (perhaps misalignment) of the various players invoked within the debate, re-situating them within new and perhaps alien narrative maps? And finally does this claim to normative discourse result in a prescriptive approach by theorists, thereby rendering them, in their own way, “caretakers” (though of a discipline rather than a religious tradition) by advocating the ideal of being “culture critics”? Such narrative maps, as we learn from the social psychology camp of Rom Harré and Luk van Langenhove’s “positioning theory” (Positioning Theory: Moral Contexts of Intentional Action [Oxford: Blackwell, 1999]), intersect the discursive positioning of interlocutors by those claiming moral authority to do so. These narratives shape and direct, while giving a “commonsense” solidity to those very discursive moves. Of course, as positioning theorists have noted such discursive positioning can be contested, thereby evoking new, contending narrative maps within an ongoing communicative interaction.

That observation on the progressive ideology underlying much of what I read in religious studies scholarship, has been a quandary for me for several years now, especially as I generally see myself agreeing with the theoretical camp that advocates being “culture critics” rather than “caretakers” of religious traditions. Of course, this type of progressivism or advocacy for the normative within the discipline is neither limited to just method and theory circles nor to theologians. We all do it. Indeed, it seems to be a necessary fiction for us as scholars to be scholars, to continue doing scholarly work, to justify our very existence if not to our funding bodies then certainly to ourselves and our colleagues. We are taught early on to be “progressive” in our scholarship. When a student sits down to write a thesis (regardless of the degree level, but especially with a doctoral thesis) we are told that our work must make “a significant contribution to knowledge”. We need to “advance” a discussion, make an “important contribution” to whatever field or subfield we are in. We need to “fill a gap” in scholarship or “correct” errors in past scholarship or to “advance” a “better understanding/explanation” of something. In other words, we are to make progress in knowledge making. And perhaps we do. We certainly think that we do. I know that I like to think that my scholarship adds something to the field that wasn’t there before, something that is better than what preceded it. And perhaps that is the real point – it’s “real”, it’s “normative”, it’s “progress” because we think it is.

The topic of progress is central to our discipline’s identity and sense of worth, including our internal conflicts over what should and should not constitute scholarship. Although I will continue – perhaps I have no choice but to continue – to produce scholarship that tries to advance a discussion or add something better to my area of study, I also take a step back once in a while and realize that what we do as scholars (and as teachers) is really just a game. An important game for sure, but certainly a game of contending claims to normative status. I realize that in 50 years or less, future scholars will look back on our time and evaluate our scholarship as contextualized, myopic, and in need of correction. Future academics in need of producing doctoral theses, attaining tenure (or whatever passes for tenure then), and building an intellectual legacy, will likely engage in another, continuing round of progressive and normative rhetoric. I think it is inevitable.

Inevitable perhaps, but not necessarily a bad thing – if I may evoke an “ought” to complement my premonition of a future “is”. Every game needs rules, goals, etc – i.e., every game needs a set of boundaries (as fictional or contrived as they may be) in order for the game to be played effectively (and indeed to determine if the game is being played effectively). Academic disciplines are no different (and not just religious studies, but also anthropology, sociology, literature studies, history, classics, and the various so-called hard sciences). The field of religious studies, I think, should be engaged in debating normative positions for defining the field, even if those normative positions include being non-normative when relating to our data. We define what it means to “be academic” what it means to be “fringe” or “transgressive” within a field. We determine if we are being misrepresented (e.g., in the media), if an “applied” dimension to our field has slipped into apologetics or caretaking. And we contend those narrative maps, we challenge those claiming moral authority to define those maps, and we then do the same thing by presenting other maps. There are multiple “we’s” in such discursive contestation, and it is such multiplicity that is either the vitality of our discipline or the most dangerous threat to an already unstable field of study. It’s all in the mapping.

Author Bio: Philip Tite is co-editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from McGill University (2005) and is currently an affiliate lecturer at the University of Washington in Seattle WA, USA. His most recent book is The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolarly and Rhetorical Analysis (TENTS, 7; Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012).

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