So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do to Outsiders: Stacie Swain


In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars to talk about how they describe what they do to outsiders by sharing a story or two, and reflect on how this has affected their identity as scholars of religion. For other posts in this series, follow the link.

by Stacie Swain

When I began writing this piece, I was on a plane ride back to Ottawa for the 2nd year of my MA in the study of religion, after travelling for two and a half months for both studious and non-studious reasons. Constantly switching contexts requires constant acts of identification, description, and explanation – who you are, where you come from, what you do, why you’re there, how you got there, where you were before, and so on.

On this particular flight, I was seated in between two strangers; and, as so many others in this series have noted that they themselves do, I was staring at my laptop, headphones on, hoping that neither of the nice seeming middle-aged ladies to either side asked me what I was doing, writing, or studying. My antisocial tendencies in this case mostly sourced from explanation-exhaustion, in that I was simply tired of the ‘elevator pitch’ that I could recite by rote at this point, sometimes given in layperson’s terms and sometimes not, and the conversations that often (but not always) tread (or trudge) a relatively predictable path.

Of course, as other posts in this series have also pointed out, the extent to which I identify, describe, and explain myself depends upon who they are, where we are, whether or not I feel like talking about it, and the persistence of the person(s) in question. My default reply is my thesis topic flavour of the month, and often (especially if they have that confused face) I qualify the short explanation with a nod to the fact that I don’t study theology, and instead come at things from more of a social sciences kind of perspective.

#notallscholarsofreligion pull this explanatory maneuver of course, but there is a certain amount of baggage (normative assumptions) that we pick up off of the baggage claim when we identify as scholars of religion. Perhaps the issue is even more confused, as some have suggested, by the variety of names for our field – for example, that I’m in a department of ‘Religious’ Studies, and therefore perhaps my studies are performed from a religious perspective.

A case in point of the impression that I, and others, often wish to avoid is encapsulated in this Buzzfeed list, “29 Things All Divinity School Students Will Understand.” Now, I may be in a department of Religious Studies, but I’m not at a Divinity school. I’ll admit that I’m not even entirely sure what they are, but I know that lots of top universities have them – Harvard, Duke, Yale, and Oxford, to name a few. Pop culture as it may be, this Buzzfeed post serves as data in that it identifies and reinforces a boundary between those within divinity schools and those outside of them, a form of inclusion and exclusion based upon those who ‘get it’ and those who don’t.

Even though I’m not attending a divinity school (perhaps I just don’t get it), I can see that the post is demonstrative of the overlap and ambiguity over what those studying religion do or wish to become. Namely, while the tone of the post is overtly Christian and theological (i.e. #8 the Bible is “the text,” #12 “We’re doing God’s work”), you might have noticed that #7 almost literally asks the same question that this series in the Bulletin does: so, you’re not studying religion in a post-secondary institution in order to become a priest/minister/nun/monk, etc.? For my reaction upon seeing elements of this list that cross-apply to me (i.e. #14, a tropical AAR/SBL location) and particularly #7, please refer to the face-palming Jesus statue that serves as the header image for this series.

My point here, however, is not to replay debates within the field regarding the covert and overt theological agendas with which scholars in departments of religion sometimes jostle for space. Nor do I wish to contribute to the debate over which forms of scholarship the AAR should include or exclude (for that see the other Bulletin series, ‘Revolutionary Love: Scholars Respond to the AAR’s 2016 Conference Theme’).

Instead, the Buzzfeed post I cite reinforces what Russell McCutcheon discusses in a recent contribution. While this series asks us how we explain what we do to “outsiders,” McCutcheon draws our attention to how we explain what we do to our colleagues. This brings up the question, just who is an outsider and what makes a colleague’? Where are these boundaries and who gets to draw them?

This question brings to mind a situation I found myself in at this past spring’s Eastern Regional AAR meeting in Pittsburgh. At lunch one day, my co-diner identified himself as a ‘critical theologian.’ As you may have adduced from some of my earlier remarks, I position myself far, far, away – perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum, if there is one – from theological approaches within the study of religion. But, as you do, we both gave a version of our elevator pitches, though perhaps adjusted as per the context and according to our understanding of what the other person could and would understand. If we had wished to be provocative (as we all surely sometimes do?), perhaps the version would have included what we thought the other wouldn’t understand or agree with.

To my surprise, or perhaps less surprising given that we were both relatively civil social beings regulated by a conference etiquette, we were able to have a good conversation upon some common ground, even if I can’t remember now what exactly it was. We became Facebook friends, and sometimes their posts make me feel as though I’m peeking into another world, one that I cultivate both a border and a distance from within my own work and how I identify as a scholar of religion.

What then of Ivy League Divinity schools, outsiders, and colleagues? This issue, that of how departments that claim to study religion identify, describe, and explain themselves, is particularly pertinent as I browse various universities’ doctoral programs. For while I think that I’m looking for a context that might suit me – or where and how I situate myself as a scholar of religion – in reality I’m also attempting to determine which department I might suit. In other words, where might I be an outsider versus where might I speak the right language? And how much am I willing to reconstruct what I think I do contingently upon context?

Using a language metaphor for approaches within the study of religion has occupied my mind lately, likely in part due to my summer attendance of a workshop at the Arctic University of Trømso in Norway on ‘Translations: indigenous, religion, tradition, culture.’ Excuse the convoluted phrasing, but what are else are we doing when we describe what we do to whomever we see as outsiders, but performing an act of translation or interpretation of our ‘academese,’ our learned jargon, into layperson’s or alternative terms?

Perhaps I’m also influenced by the fact that I’ve been thinking ahead to the NAASR meeting in San Antonio this year, and trying to think about description, interpretation, comparison, and explanation, not simply as methods but as social procedures, or practices, that constitute our everyday lives – including those parts of our lives in which we become ‘scholars of religion’ in an active, agential sense, such as in the situations that this series aims to address.

NAASR’s program asks that we examine the above four terms as, “key tools that all scholars of religion surely employ, regardless their approach to the study of religion.” This description shows a particular interpretation of ‘method’ as tools we use, but the terms chosen are equally operative in the constitution of our ‘selves’ as scholars of religion. This series, for example, operates largely according to a logic of comparison and need for explanation that is predicated upon a boundary not unlike that in the Buzzfeed list previously cited. (See what I did there?)

To conclude, one might ask – how do we explain ourselves to ‘outsiders’ when our own ‘insider’ status is contestable and contingent? Well, we might select one of the aforementioned tools, those tools that we (theoretically, or according to a particular theory) put to work upon those whom we study, and apply them to ourselves. We might thus consider how we become constituted as scholars of religion – not only as and to ourselves, but also for those to whom we answer the call: “Hey you!” and the ensuing query, “What do you do?”

Stacie Swain is an MA student in the Religious Studies department at the University of Ottawa. She’s interested in how language and language-use impact social and political engagement, particularly when ‘religion’ and similarly problematic concepts do work within hegemonic discourses in reference to minority groups.

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