When We Forget Our Roots


by Aaron Hughes

I have been asked to respond to Rachel Fulton Brown’s piece at the University of Chicago Divinity’s School Sightings. I’ll leave it to others to adjudicate her political leanings or apparent support for Milo Yiannopoulos’ cross-country speaking tour of university campuses. I thought that I would rather respond in my capacity as a scholar of religion who also happens to be trained in medieval studies. However my understanding of the academic study of religion, not to mention the Middle Ages, departs rather radically from hers.

I was rather struck by Brown’s suggestion that “culture’s wellspring is religion.” This locution strikes me as rather odd. Not only does it raise the age-old “chicken and egg” dichotomy, it would imply that religion gives birth to culture as opposed to vice versa. I am not at all sure that this is sustainable. She offers no support for her claims, but instead echoes a discourse with its roots stretching back at least to Schleiermacher via the usual suspects like Eliade and Otto. In so doing, Brown ignores all of us who work to document the social construction of religion and identity, not to mention the triangulation between religion, power, and ideology. I would like to think that the majority of students at the Divinity School, who I assume are raised on a steady diet of Durkheim, Weber, Marx…(J. Z.) Smith, Lincoln & co., had finally put the old canard that religion is somehow distinct from the political or the social to bed. Apparently not.

But Brown is not a scholar of religion. Instead she writes as a persecuted minority, as someone who, in her own words, is afraid to mention her faith or suggest that it affects her work as a scholar. However, in making these claims, she seems to show little or no awareness that the field of religious studies is built upon the corpses of those invested in such debates. There is an entire body of literature—much of it produced in the Divinity School itself—that she either ignores or is, at the very least, unaware of. While she certainly says nothing new that any decent scholar of religion should be able to contextualize, what is truly surprising is the rather strange end to which she directs her venom.

Brown further opines that “this denial of religion as the basis of culture is the source of the violence we are now witnessing, both on campuses and across America at large.” I note that with this statement she selectively leaves out the legal separation of Church and State in the U.S. and what this has meant for non-Christian minorities. Unless, of course, she wants to see that separation torn asunder, which she may well. Or, perhaps more accurately, it seems that she wants to keep the protections afforded by the majoritarian religion that she perceives to be under threat from secular society on the one hand and minority religious traditions (read: Jewish and Islamic) on the other.

Brown then provides us with the founding statement of Harvard: “Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3.”

While I follow the rather bad argument up to this point, I missed altogether the jump from the importance of a good religious (read: Christian) education to “why American college students and faculty find Milo’s talks so threatening.” If we knew that “God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life,” presumably we know that Milo’s speech was what…religious and not political? I’m lost.

And then we get to old insider/outsider debate. Instead of religion, we professors peddle the pablum of “multiculturalism; race, class, gender; the purportedly secular ideals of socialism and Marxism.” This ostensibly is what conditions us feeble-minded academics to resist the appeal of hate-speech and prevents us from the possibility of conversion, and of opening our hearts and minds to such speech.

I would, quite honestly, have expected more from a publication produced at the Divinity School. But, maybe it is a test. Maybe it is meant to show readers what happens when we forget what the critical study of religion can and should do? Maybe it is meant to show graduate students that there is a clear line behind the rather bad theological argument that Brown espouses and the critical study of religion? Then again, maybe it is meant to show what happens when we forget the discourses that got us from there to here?

Let me end by saying that, like Prof. Brown, I, too, am a medievalist. My Middle Ages, however, are not those of the dominant and hegemonic Christian West, but the much more uncertain and unstable Middles Ages of the Jews. Those of us who work with medieval Jewish texts, especially those produced within the orbit of Christendom, know well the consequences of hateful speech motivated by political gain and legitimated through an intricate type of sublimation.

Aaron W. Hughes holds the Philip S. Bernstein Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Rochester. Professor Hughes’s books include:  The Texture of the Divine (Indiana University Press, 2003), Jewish Philosophy A-Z (Palgrave, 2006), The Art of Dialogue in Jewish Philosophy (Indiana University Press, 2007), Situating Islam (Equinox Publishing, 2007), The Invention of Jewish Identity (Indiana University Press, 2010), Defining Judaism: A Reader (Equinox Publishing, 2010), Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (Oxford UP, 2012), The Study of Judaism: Identity, Authenticity, Scholarship (SUNY Press, 2013), Rethinking Jewish Philosophy: Beyond Particularity and Universality (Oxford UP, 2014), and Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception (Equinox Publishing, 2015). 

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