by Randi Rashkover

In 1997 the following reflections were published by a well known Harvard University professor:

The right to religious liberty is not best understood as a particular case of a more general right to individual autonomy. Assimilating religious liberty to a general right to choose one's own values misdescribes the nature of religious conviction . . . Construing all religious convictions as products of choice may miss the role that religion plays in the lives of those for whom the observance of religious duties is a constitutive end, essential to their good and indispensable to their identity.1

Not long after, another well known professor from Johns Hopkins wrote these reflections:

For secular believers religion is safely relegated to the private realm only because secularists also contend that there is an independent way of reaching authoritative public agreements without recourse to the diverse religious faiths of citizens. The problem is that different secular sects nominate different instruments to fill this role . . . This failure to agree on the authoritative mode of public discourse expresses below the threshold of secular attention the persistent connection between belief, embodiment and practice . . . they pretend to identify a forum entirely above faith through which to regulate diverse faiths.2

At first, one might assume that the two professors held positions in theology departments or divinity schools given that the quotes take faith as prima facie valid. It should be surprising to note that they were written by two well respected political theorists, Michael Sandel and William Connolly. What do we make of the fact that secular political theorists are re-calibrating the place and meaning of religious life in the public square? In brief, it means that old fears around the parochialization of theology voiced as they were by noteworthy religious thinkers such as David Tracy are a thing of the past. The battle between religious studies and theology in the university is over and theology has won. Like it or not, religion has been invited into the public square. The invitation however goes out not to a religion domesticated by universal categories of psychological, social or neurological experience. Rather, the invitation extends to "religions" registered as hermeneutically complex and variegated forms of life for which as Graham Ward has put it, "there is no view from nowhere."3 We must on the one hand realize, as William James argued, that religious experiences "have the right to be absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come"4 and we must on the other hand recognize beyond James that these experiences and their commitments can and will be made public by those for whom they are authoritative.

The role of religion in politics links directly to how it is studied in the university. There appears for example to be a direct correlation between the rise of religious studies contra theology and the culture wars that following Stephen Carter, we can trace back to the post-civil rights era of the 1980's and 1990's during which the role of religion in the public square becomes singularly identified with politically conservative positions on issues like abortion and homosexuality. While Immanuel Kant had already argued to separate theology from the liberal arts, it seems the opposition by religious studies scholars against the place of theology in the university reached its height in America just around the time the religious right began asserting itself politically. As Stephen Carter has noted, "religion has always been in the public square."5 American history is marked by the testimony of great theo-political and—more often than not—liberal voices such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, John Howard Yoder and Abraham Joshua Heschel. However, Carter argues, "since the 1970's, liberals have been shedding religious rhetoric like a useless second skin .. ."6 It is no coincidence, I believe, that it also in the post-civil rights era that one begins to see a shift within religion departments from the theological and philosophical to the supposedly more neutral approaches of history and anthropology. If I am right to notice this link, it also helps to explain the apparent correlation between the turn towards de-secularization in political thought and the growing number of religion scholars who, like Jonathan Z. Smith, recognize the end of what has traditionally been identified as 'religious studies'. Smith writes, "Not only is the putative distinction naďve and political, it is also anachronistic. It speaks out of a period when ... the ideology of the human sciences were chiefly governed by the goal of achieving 'objectivity' or 'value-free' knowledge."7

If like its counterpart, secularism, 'religious studies' has gone by the wayside, does this mean that theology recoups its medieval role as the 'queen of the sciences' or assumes an altogether more modest role as the most useful technique for studying religion or some other third alternative? The essays in this issue elegantly survey this question and present two primary positions. On the one hand, the essays from Eugene Rogers, Nick Adams and Amir Hussain argue in favor of theology's pedagogical value for the university. According to Eugene Rogers, "Theology is a skill that can be taught, gained by practice rather than conversion."(p. 174) If one cannot conceive music departments without composition courses, one should not be able to conceive of religion departments without theologians. Likewise, reviewing his experience teaching a course in Christian art at Dartmouth, Nick Adams notes the educational difference between British and American students around theological matters. While Adams tells us the former "already have some prior background in Christian church history and Christian theology and doctrine. . ." the latter suffered considerable confusion "regarding phrases like 'eschatological vision', 'trinitarian resistance to visualisation', 'two natures of Christ', 'apophatic reserve', 'suffering servant', not to mention words like 'sin', 'grace', 'redemption'". (p. 224) That this is not merely a Christian perspective is evident by Amir Hussain's account of the place of Islamic theology in the classroom. He writes that

[many of the] students in my introduction to Islam course self-identify as Muslims and many of them state that they are taking the course to learn more about their religion. With this, the easy dichotomy of religious studies versus theology becomes not so easy any more. The Muslim students are learning about Islam, but since it is their own tradition, it has a personal impact on many of them. They may have no other place to learn about their own tradition. (p. 161)

Theology's presence need not ruffle the feathers of the liberal university. Religion, as Stephen Carter said, has always been in the public sphere and Rogers, Adams and Hussein are likewise arguing that theology has always been a key method of inquiry in the university—only now, we are in a better position to be explicit about its place.

On the other hand, David Burrell, Gavin Flood and Martin Kavka present profiles of theology that do not simply add and stir theology into the current university structure but challenge contemporary conceptions of the university by way of theology's increased role. In his essay, David Burrell calls into question the hegemony of the Weberian model of the university "which gave to university pursuits a quasi-religious character"(p. 155) such that theology, seen as a competitor, was inevitably excluded from the university disciplines. According to Burrell, however, the Weberian model of the university neglects the fideist character of all inquiry. A recognition of the faith premises at work in rational inquiry challenges universities to see themselves and their relationship to their institutional contexts differently. In his essay Gavin Flood profiles the benefits of theology as the self-articulation of traditions for comparative religious studies, a field thus far largely dominated by the methodologies of the science of religion. Flood's argument rests on his appreciation for the unique and multiple modes of reasoning implicit within religious traditions and their texts and the capacity for comparative work that arises from inter-religious dialogue rooted herein. Finally, Martin Kavka's essay presents a view of theology that challenges both the current model of university life and traditional views of theology. Drawing his portrait of theology from Franz Rosenzweig, Kavka links theology to a hermeneutics of nostalgia wherein the desire for social recognition meets the 'unlimited' of sacred texts as performed in the seminar room. On the one hand, to read religious texts is to engage in a religious performance. On the other hand, Kavka writes that "[this] analysis of the seminar room could apply to any seminar, say on The Federalist Papers, or Augustine's Confessions, or James Joyce's Ulysses—any text that we approach with the hope that it will introduce us to a way of life that will enhance our relationship with the world and with others." (p. 191) Neither theology nor the university emerge unchanged.

The essays stand in some tension with one another and generate a range of important concerns surrounding the character of theology in the university. For example, if theology returns to the university, less delimited than its predecessor 'religious studies,' how does its presence add to, shape and/or challenge current studies in politics, philosophy and economics? Is theology, when all is said and done, still a fundamentally confessional enterprise that announces the depth reality of a given tradition or is theology an exercise in social conversation? If the former, can the university as it is currently organized, easily make room for theology—is it as easy as 'add and stir'? If the latter, how does theology in a university setting relate on the one hand to confessional models and on the other hand to the language and performance of congregational religious life? No doubt these are difficult questions. The essays in this issue offer a vibrant display of some possible responses.


1. Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1997, p. xii.

2. William Connolly, Pluralism (Durham: Duke University Press), 2005, p. 59.

3. Graham Ward, "The Future of Religion", Journal of the American Academy of Religion, v.74, n.1, March 2006, p.181.

4. William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, in Philosophy of Religion, ed. Peterson, Hasker (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2001, p. 16.

5.  Stephen Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (NY: Doubleday), 1993, p. 100.

6. Carter, Culture of Disbelief, p. 58.

7. Jonathon Smith, cited in Religious Studies, Theology, and the University: Conflicting Maps, Changing Terrain, ed. Linell E. Cady, Delwin Brown (Albany: SUNY Press), 2002, p. 4.

Copyright of CrossCurrents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.
Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2006, Vol. 56,  No 2.