On the Nature and Ends of Critique in the Study of Religion: Part One


Edited by Craig Martin

Recently Critical Research in Religion (CRR) posted an editorial titled “How Can Mainstream Approaches Become More Critical,” written by editors Warren S. Goldstein, Roland Boer, Rebekka King, and Jonathan Boyarin. The editorial identified four sites where critique could be more critical: religious studies, theology, biblical criticism, and sociology of religion. They outline strengths and weaknesses of present forms of criticism at these sites, and suggest ways we could, as scholars, push the existing boundaries. Why be more critical? They emphasize the role of scholarship in improving the human condition: “At this moment of potentially renewed energy, we believe that an increased familiarity with critical theory broadly speaking could be mobilized more fully to refine and describe the study of religion as a matter of scholarship in the service of human interest” (5).

The editorial was shared widely on Facebook, and an extensive exchange took place on my own Facebook wall, largely between one of CRR’s editors, Warren S. Goldstein and Russell McCutcheon. I found the discussion interesting and revealing of a number of fault lines between different critical approaches in our field, so with the permission of those who commented, I excerpted and edited (primarily for clarity) the discussion for publication here.

Notably, this discussion has already generated responses. Roland Boer responds to the thread on his blog with a post titled “The Implicit Imperialism of the ‘Critical Religion’ Approach,” and Matthew Baldwin responds with “Parsing Boer’s Concept of Religious Studies.”

The contributors to the discussion include myself Craig Martin (St. Thomas Aquinas College) Matthew Baldwin (Mars Hill University), Warren S. Goldstein (Harvard University), Russell McCutcheon (University of Alabama), Per Smith, and Ian Wilson (University of Alberta).


Russell McCutcheon: The closing lines of the editorial read: “In each religious tradition, there is an invaluable content, which through criticism calls for redemption.” I really don’t understand what this is saying. Correction, I know all too well what this is saying.

Warren S. Goldstein: So which is it: you understand or you don’t understand?

RM: “Correction” suggests I do, all too well. Why even get involved in the game of what is or isn’t valuable? What ’are you trying to redeem? Why not just study social processes without trying to’ save humanity, your object of study, or whatever it is you want to save, rescue, or deliver?

WSG: Excuse the use of the term “redemption”—just playing on the contradictions. To the point—are you suggesting that religion has no content that is worth preserving?

RM: It has tons of content worth preserving—all the people we study think so. And it also has tons of content worth pitching out the window—or so another group of people think, no? But the question is why limit the study of religion to playing that game, by those normative rules—the game of figuring out what’s more valuable? Why not historicize or theorize that whole framework by studying it rather than taking sides in the value debate?

WSG: Because it is the values which enable us to strive for a more “just,” “egalitarian,” “free,” “democratic,” etc., society. Without them, we would be amoral and slip into a worse state of affairs. For many, things are bad enough now. The point is to make them better. As stated in the editorial, value neutrality is fine for understanding, but we are political and aim for higher ground. Sound familiar?

RM: And this is where I think this approach is highly problematic, for your sense of “freedom” or “justice” or “worse” or “higher ground” is no more grounded or authoritative than anyone else’s (it’s reflective of self-interest and, inasmuch as I share your interests, I’ll nod affirmatively, I guess, but if not…). But if this approach is admitted to the game of the academy, then any number of other no less troublesome positions are (rightly) going to want admission too—and benefit from all the perks that come with it. So no, that’s not the game that I’m paying qua scholar and not how I’ve used the word critique over the years.

WSG: I’m not claiming objectivity. Of course it is subjective. But how do you engage in critique without a set of values (whatever they are)? How do you “evaluate” social conditions? Are you in favor of value neutrality?

RM: I’ve written much about this very topic over the years, and I can’t rehash all of it here, but it seems to me the objectivity/neutrality debate is long over with. But that doesn’t mean that anything goes, and it also doesn’t mean we get sucked into a groundless rabbit hole either. Just because the rules of English aren’t woven into the fabric of reality doesn’t mean we can’t talk to each other, or type, like we are now. And it also doesn’t mean that “hat” ends up signifying anything and everything. This objectivity, truth, value, neutrality-talk seems to be a debate 20 or 30 years old.

WSG: The debate itself may be over but I think that, at least in sociology of religion, “value neutrality” pervades the entire sub-discipline. At least from my perspective, no one wants to say anything negative about those they are studying. On the contrary, too many are far too sympathetic.

RM: And that’s a problem—I’m in complete agreement. But I don’t think the solution is criticisms but critique, if by critique one means a rigorous historicization of such things as subjectivity, normative claims, etc., as carried out within the disciplinary parameters within which we work.

WSG: But how do you do so without using values? You still haven’t answered the question. Can you spell it out in a few sentences?

RM: I use tons of values in my work: don’t copy, return your books to the library on time, cite your sources, don’t split infinitives, listen carefully to people when you intend to describe what they’re saying/doing, shake their hand and say hello with a smile when you meet them for the first time, spend time on Facebook talking with colleagues, etc. Tons of values. I’m not trying to be silly here. But—and here’s the kicker, right?—none are grounded in the existential fabric of the universe. None float free of my subject position within a specific situation. None have authority beyond a specific setting. They’re all grounded within the institutional parameters of the profession that has credentialed me as an authority on a very specific/narrow range of things. (As a landowner I work with other values, as a son yet others.) I don’t know anything, qua scholar of religion, about justice-in-the-raw. As a citizen or a brother or a husband or son, etc., I may have all sorts of views on that, but as a scholar it would be a classic example of the fallacy of misplaced authority, I would argue (and that’s the key part—”I would argue”—I have to persuade you, give evidence, show implications, and not just assert or claim it) to listen to me going on, in a normative manner, about freedom or justice. So the values I work with are authorized not by my insights into the human condition but by my social group and the place I occupy in it. No reason you should wish to respect those values but inasmuch as you want to play along (be a student in my class, work with me as a colleague, etc.), my guess is that we will mostly give assent to those values and use them inasmuch as we’re within this institution that “values” books and debate and writing, etc.

WSG: I have no disagreement with you here—that values are socially situated and not objective. But I still maintain that it is impossible to engage in critique without them. Otherwise, we just engage in mere description. But to take this a step further, can some values become universal—or at least move in that direction? That is, is it possible to build consensus around them?

RM: If values are socially situated then the question is not whether some values can go in the direction of universality but whether some social situations (that ground those values) can go in the direction of hegemony. As for consensus, my use of the term hegemony indicates that I don’t think it’s really about consensus but, instead, subjectivity…

WSG: But values (like equality) can also be counter-hegemonic—that is, they can be continually extended (“revalued,” to use Nietzsche’s term). One also needs to consider when values come into conflict with each other (like economic freedom vs. economic equality). Behind this are conflicting actors with different interests.

RM: Agreed. Successful hegemonies are always managing and domesticating (or trying to) the competitors that inevitably comprise them—not always successfully, of course. So instead of working to achieve justice, as a scholar, I’m interested in historicizing it and so studying competing or even contradictory discourses on justice and the competing or even contradictory social worlds each legitimize—as well as the techniques used to paper over the competitions and contradictions, leading us to think/act as if we can just talk about justice as some real, tangible, settled thing.

WSG: So, you are deconstructing in this case justice and thereby engaging in a critique of the concept itself. But driving this is in fact another value—“the quest for truth,” as we stated in the editorial. Is it possible to get away from it? In this respect, there is a certain paradox in what you are doing.

RM: I’m not questing for truth. Honestly. No irony. I’m deploying a set of institutionally-relevant methods to talk about things I find curious, in hopes it has utility for others who may happen to share the curiosity. Truth isn’t the game I’m playing.

WSG: –Is “scientific truth” an actual reflection of the processes you describe?

RM: “Accuracy of description” is equivalent to “agreement on the conditions of the descriptive exercise itself.” So “truth” is equal to “the reproduction of truth conditions.”

WSG: It sounds value laden to me. It is a question of bringing it to the surface—of making it conscious.

RM: As I said above, sure, I have tons of values as a scholar or university professor, but they’re all institution-specific, none of universal or existential import.

WSG: I agreed with you there. But maybe I am a romantic hoping that somewhat of a consensus can be built around a certain set of values that drive forward progressive social change.

RM: That sounds like Habermas.

WSG: Yes, except I think he is too utopian in this respect. I take conflict for granted but just hope that those in the rearguard will slowly wither away.

Per Smith: The laundry list of “values” Russell produced above are not values, but behavioral rules—those rules among them that are in fact “institutional” could be considered norms (but not values). Values transcend specific rules of behavior by definition. Associating norms with values can answer the “why” questions that inevitably come up when valueless norms are named (though I’m not arguing that values are the only answer or even the best answer). So why does Russell return his books on time? Why does he shake hands? Why does he listen? Why does he cite his sources? Are there values, values that transcend the individual rules, tied up in the answers to those questions? I’d wager there are, at least for some of them. Besides, if there weren’t any values hiding in those answers, some might be lead to believe that the Russell described above is in fact no more than an academic algorithm.

RM: I’m quite happy, Per, to reduce what I see as overly ambitious transcendental value language to humdrum laundry lists of institutional norms. That’s what I was getting at. And Warren, it sounds to me like you want your historical cake and utopian icing too—there’s conflict but ultimately not really?

WSG: Yes, that sounds delicious. Chocolate cake with Vanilla frosting—the type one might find in Colorado. What shall we call it? But to the point—haven’t those turning points in history always been marked by acute conflict and aren’t these conflicts always expressed in ideological terms, which are based on opposing sets of values that have material interests underlying them? At least in terms of the forces of progress, haven’t the values that have guided them often been somewhat utopian? Perhaps it is just a motivational thing, but unless people have a vision of something better, they have no incentive.

RM: And by “progress” you mean?

WSG: Progress can be measured against specific values and these values (concepts) can be operationalized (e.g. freedom, equality, justice, democracy, etc.). This type of political, social, and economic progress is not linear. Since the process is contested, it is marked by movements and counter-movements, advances as well as reversals.

RM: The interesting thing is that we all critique late nineteenth century rhetorics of progress—it’s a rhetorical term of no analytic use to me, to be honest. Change is one thing, progress—loaded as it is with ahistorical teleology—is something entirely different to me.

WSG: As much as people complain about capitalism today (and it still has its downside), when you read about the conditions that Engels describes in his book about Manchester in the 1840s, they are deplorable: child labor, no factory regulations or housing codes, extreme pollution, etc. When the Left Hegelians were writing in Germany at the same time, there was an absolute monarchy and censorship. Or think about where you live—in the heart of the deep South. At one time there was slavery, then sharecropping and segregation. Even though many African-Americans are still part of the underclass, hasn’t there been progress in their overall conditions—the right to vote, economic opportunity, etc? Yes, it does sound somewhat teleological, and the progress has not been linear, but it has been there. I am not utopian where I think that ideals can ever be completely realized. But it is these values that have guided collective action which have enabled progress to be made.

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