Committing the Study of Religion in Public

First-rate scholars need to adopt styles and intentions to reach publics. This was Marty’s 1988 presidential address to the American Academy of Religion.


On October 7, 1822, the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, while helping invent the modem public university, dealt with some unfinished business. The Visitors chose to relegate the study of divinity to the periphery of that new kind of university. They called their plan for ministerial and theological satellites a proposal for “Schools on the Confines.” Four years before that, in a document called the Rockfish Gap Report, founder Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues had already taken up the subject of curricular religion within the Confines. They wrote: “We have proposed no professor of divinity” to teach theology, apologetics, or scripture, because these subjects, in their phrase, were “held to be inevitably sectarian” (Healey: 217, 219).

The study of religion theoretically survived. The Visitors, however, rendered it harmless and almost invisible by delegating its subjects to the professors of ethics and ancient languages. The pioneering Virginia pattern became a model for most later public and secular private institutions of higher learning in North America. The founders held ambiguous attitudes toward the public. They thought of citizens as religious, but they saw their religion as sectarian and therefore contentious and obscurantist. Thus the religious public became and has generally remained a problem for the public academy.

Let me introduce the concept of the public here with a dictionary-based pedantry and an interest in precision. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, public means “pertaining to the people of a country or a locality,” as well as something “done or made by or on behalf of the community as a whole.” Whenever scholars commit the study of religion in public, as I shall speak of them doing, they would have it “used, enjoyed, shared, or competed for, by all persons legally or properly qualified” by their place or citizenship.

The public thus conceived includes two other spheres, the academy and what we shall call the ecclesia, as in “ecclesiastical.” The ecclesia in this essay represents the community made up of communities of religious belief and behavior. Originally, the ecclesia was the convocation of Athenian citizens and, later, the church. Derivatively and analogously, it here refers to cognates which are coded with words like synagogue, mosque, shrine, and their correlate communities. Where is this powerful ecclesia to be seen on the academic map? In the course of the Nineteenth Century, as North Americans dealt with the developing public academy, they increasingly pushed the divinity interests of the ecclesia to that new place “on the confines” of the university. Fatefully, curiously, and unnecessarily, they only allowed for but then usually neglected the study of religion or they failed to comprehend what to do with it “within the confines.” Thus a somewhat confused academy, while exiling divinity, also edged the study of religion into temporary but still prolonged exile.


The Return of Religion to the Curriculum

After a half century of partly aborted moves, the study of religion returned to the North American colleges and universities around the middle of the Twentieth Century through heroic efforts by our often unacknowledged antecedents. Thereafter, John H. Hick, commenting on an observation by John Herman Randall, Jr., specified the scope of their subject. In at least the Western higher academy, he noted, “the word ‘religion’ (or ‘faith’ used virtually as a synonym) has largely come to replace the word ‘God.’ ” This meant, Hick went on, that “a shift has taken place from the term ‘God’ as the head of a certain group of words and locutions to the term ‘religion’ as the new head of the same linguistic family.” In this transit, added Hick, “in contexts in which formerly questions were raised and debated concerning God, God’s existence, attributes, purposes, and deeds, the corresponding questions today typically concern religion, its nature, function, forms, and pragmatic value” (Hick:85).

Of course, the term “religion” as an academic subject can create many conceptual problems. Historians of religion often observe, as does Jonathan Z. Smith, that “the term ‘religion’ is not an empirical category. It is a second-order abstraction. … It is impossible to ‘do it’ or ‘believe it'” (Smith: 233). In the common sense usages of North American publics, however, religion can turn out to be concrete and empirical in at least two important senses. As long ago as 1919 H.L. Mencken noted the secure place among what he classified as “theological and ecclesiastical Americanisms” the phrase “to get (or experience) religion” (Mencken: 189, 243, 770). And at least in some parts of the United States people sang “Give Me That Old-Time Religion.” Thus they indeed could “do it” and “believe it” and even “have” it.

A century ago some North American scholars did set out to restore to curricula the old category of religion which the Jeffersonians and their heirs had so vaguely endorsed. The professors again began to make religion visible and even obtrusive but they had to adopt apologetic and defensive styles while doing so. Here is my historian’s observation, which has to suffice for the first half of a thesis. Those who first made the case for the return of curricular religion directed their rationales almost exclusively at critics within the confines of the academy, making few references to the larger public and its interests. These academic apologists meanwhile experienced difficulty establishing themselves at some distance from the ecclesial institutions which still monopolized religious energies in the public sphere. They have been uneasy with ecclesial elements in the public ever since.

Robert Shepard has shown that in the first half century of Religionswissenschaft in North America, most of the students were ministers or missionaries. The graduates who sought careers as teachers of the history or comparison of religion found no academic outlets. For decades only a half dozen universities, most of them private, undertook doctoral programs and these produced hardly more than a half dozen Ph.D.’s. Even these few comprised a glut. Thus the University of Chicago’s first dissertation writer, Edmund Buckley, who in 1894 wrote on “Japanese Phallicism,” found no academic appointment. Buckley eventually taught ethnology, art, and religion in Kraemer, Indiana, at a sanitarium called Mudlavia (Shepard: 107-10). Second was Elizabeth Laetitia Moon, who in 1899 wrote on the Algonquins. She came to be the Socialist candidate for governor of Iowa (Shepard: 111-13). At the University of Pennsylvania, the great Morris Jastrow’s first Ph.D. in the History of Religion, James J. Watson, in 1912 wrote on “The Religion of the Negro.” Watson also found no college at which to teach and became proprietor of the East Albany Warehouse Company in Georgia (Shepard: 65). For a half century the vast majority of students in courses and the rare doctoral achievers went into the pastorate.

With the ecclesia blocking their development on one front and the academy frustrating them on another, few scholars found time, energy, or motive to be attentive to the public context of their work. Their bibliographical references to the public beyond the academy, down to the recent past, were as extremely rare as the arguments directed to the academy were rich and compelling. Here comes the other half of the ) thesis: that minority of scholars who committed the study of religion in public and thus showed themselves to be attentive beyond the Confines have brought special vitalities to the study of religion, and their heirs promise to bring even more. Circumstances of time, space, choice, and charity keep me from supporting this thesis by citing their proper names. Instead I will outline their job description. In any case, we begin by noting that according to the conventional wisdom this company of scholars also took some risks during ventures into the public sphere.

My notion of “committing the study of religion in public” carries two meanings. To commit means first “to do, perform, or perpetrate (especially something bad or wrong).” The second dictionary definition then turns positive: to commit is “to place in trust or charge,” as when one makes an act of commitment. Both meanings are comprehensible only against the historical background of the North American public academy—and privately-sponsored non-sectarian colleges are also “public”—as it came to be godless and curricularly almost religionless. A brief accounting will help make clear how and why rationales for the study of religion within campus confines became so necessary.


The Godly Rendered the Academy Godless and Religionless

The Canadian instance is as instructive as that of the United States, In mid-nineteenth-century Canada, some godly leaders worked sectarianly for a time to retain divinity in the public universities. In 1846, the beleaguered if themselves also pious trustees of McGill University at Montreal reacted to their sectarian aggressions. They fired a cleric who was principal and, like the Jeffersonians in the United States, appointed no professor of divinity, instead hiring a lawyer to head the school. They asked him immediately to produce a charter that would be unburdened by the pro-religion clauses, meanwhile recalling that founder James McGill had wanted Christianity taught. But his will stated that this teaching must feature no “single or conclusive form” of the faith.) By 1848 the weary charterers were conclusive about one fact. The question concerning religious and ecclesiastical principles at McGill, they said, must for the present “rest in a state of indecision” (Walsh:192). There it remained for a century until a more secular Canada permitted the creation of a faculty of divinity and authorized the study of religion as well.

Similarly, at Toronto it was the godly who rendered their university godless. During the thirty-five years after a partition bill of 1843, pious but jealous Methodists and Presbyterians thwarted Anglican efforts to privilege Anglican divinity there. Bishop John Strachan petitioned against them. He complained that their bill would place

all forms of error on an equity with truth, by patronizing equally within the same institution an unlimited number of sects, whose doctrines are absolutely irreconcilable: a principle in its nature atheistical, and so monstrous in its consequences that if successfully carried out, it would utterly destroy all that is pure and holy in morals and religion, and lead to greater corruption than anything adopted during the madness of the French Revolution.

The University of Toronto Act of 1849 prohibited religious tests for participation in the school and forbade the teaching of theology in its curriculum. Strachan thus lost out. As a result of efforts by the godly themselves, there was to be no faculty of divinity in that strategic school.

It was the godly who wanted to keep things curricularly both godless and religionless. In a controversy during 1906, powerful Toronto lawyer Samuel Hume Blake, a strong evangelical, made public his reminder that “the university was established and is maintained for teaching secular subjects only.” Professors, he insisted, were to teach the humanities there “in such a way that the very varied religious convictions of its supporters shall suffer no hurt.” Faculty must keep their religious convictions to themselves. Blake and his fellow believers wanted Toronto to remain what the Christian Guardian formally called a “Godless University.” Therefore, they forbade even the teaching of the Bible in the Semitic Language Department. Thus once again the crusade of the godly carried over against the study of religion. Let it be noted, however, that subsequently, in province after province and in academy after academy, the churches gained at least temporary victories by winning tax support for their denominational colleges, as their cousins to the south in the United States could not do (Walsh: 193-96; Moir:29; Norman: 178).

In the United States, the godly founders of godless public colleges and universities were often the same people who drafted the godless its federal Constitution. Some of them were favorable to the study of religion. For example, Benjamin Franklin thought that church sponsorship on of the academy led only to confusion and conflict. In his proposed non-sectarian Academy of Philadelphia Franklin tried to fend off the sects without excluding religion as such. In 1749, in his Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania he proposed what he termed a “most useful” and “most ornamental” curriculum. Evidently hoping to placate theistic backers and colleagues who still favored divinity, and also because he believed in the cause, Franklin wanted to retain religion even as he excluded divinity. He located the subject in the humanities, especially in history, which, said the author, would “afford frequent Opportunities of showing the Necessity of a Publick Religion, from its usefulness to the Publick. . .” (Jorgenson and Mott:203).

In Virginia, Jefferson’s younger colleague James Madison anticipated that the godless university would suffer from what he called the public’s “imputation of irreligious tendencies, if not designs.” But that outcome he thought would be a lesser evil than academic sectarian infighting. Madison, when he selected books for the public institution’s library, decided that the “moral and metaphysical part” of the religion library was necessary on campus, while what he designated the “doctrinal and controversial part” belonged at the Schools on the Confines (Brant:652). These patterns which were originally set for public academies in the early Nineteenth Century were only intensified when the specialized universities of the later Nineteenth Century emerged. There divinity on the confines and religion within the confines, as we have seen, both languished. The academy and the ecclesia went separate ways and expressed independent interests.

Differing approaches to sacred texts were at issue in this conflict between two domains. Thus when scholars study texts within the ecclesia, often with rigor and true expertise, they may concentrate on structure, form, and narrative, but they also know that such texts make special claims upon them and upon members of their community. They even resonate in special ways in the minds of individuals in the public, people who feel the force of their revelations or stipulations. Such claims and resonances are not at issue here. But the academy at least owes the ecclesia, as part of the supporting and surrounding public, recognition that its communities helped produce and preserve regard for the texts which scholars who were confined to the academy study often in isolation and from some distance.


The Apologetic Habit in Defense of Academic Religion

In the academy, scholars made virtues of isolation and distance from ecclesial communities in order to demonstrate their at-homeness in communities devoted to reason and science. They spoke in the apologetic mode of those who would defend the integrity of the religious disciplines that they were establishing. Many felt obliged to effect what I call a “more secular than thou,” or “more positivist than thou” stance in respect to non-religious colleagues during this self-conscious stage. Thus the scholars of religion thought they might commend themselves efficiently to colleagues, Boards of Trustees, and deans. Fearing that the public might try to smuggle God in in the plain brown wrappers of religion, they often became arbitrarily confined and remote from that part of the public.

While that distancing went on, critics rose to claim that the academy and the scholars of religion within it, while appearing to be religionless, cunningly or unwittingly generated their own religious ethos and ideology. Typical of such enduring discernments-turned-polemical is a recent ecclesial critique of purported academic religion. John E. Benson railed against scholars in the public academy whom he named ” “Rudderless Relativists’ of today’s American civil religion.” (This charge is at least a refreshing change from accusations that the scholars are unAmerican, incivil, or irreligious.) Benson charged that “the American Academy of Religion has become the institutional expression of this no-name public religion of our land, stealing loyalty away from the traditional churches.” Hundreds of American Academy of Religion scholars of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam will be interested to learn that their subject is the religion of “our land,” and hundreds more who are faithful to the specific religious communities will find themselves to be ‘plural belongers.’ Why and how the student of religion must steal loyalty from the church any more than the political scientist must steal loyalty from the precincts or politics in general is less clear.

The scholars who overly apologize to the academy and who overlook the public, including its ecclesiae, often fail to acknowledge how the various elements in the public not only teach but also provide constituencies for the academic study of religion. Massive if impressionistic evidence is convincing: without the enduring activities of religious communities that stimulate curiosities and concerns, the study of religion in the academy could as well occur in generous sized phone booths instead of, as now, in large classrooms and lecture halls. If the Buddhism and Hinduism or Christianity or the “anti-” side representing reaction to each of these, did not haunt, bewilder, or tantalize them, few students would care about studies of religion. Of course, it is true that, so long as students and professors derive from and adhere to these overlapping constituencies, there can well be some conflicts of loyalties. All scholarship carries with it the risk that students may change as they pursue their inquiries. Some of them may even “get religion,” including ” “the old-time religion,” while studying no-name as well as all-name \ religion.


Handling with Care the Concept of the Public Context

To commit the study of religion in public does not mean neglecting the academy, but it does mean not letting such study be bounded only by concerns that are connected with defense and apology aimed only at the university. The classic description of what happens when there is a confinement to merely academic culture was that of Simone Well. She claimed that “culture—as we know it—is an instrument manipulated by teachers for manufacturing more teachers, who, in turn, will manufacture still more teachers” (Weil:68).

Scholars of religion share a danger confronting humanities teachers in all the liberal arts. If they lack all social justifications and unless they turn out Ph.D.s, which William F. May called “the functional equivalent of immortality in academic life,” he says that they would have to “accept their fate, akin to that of mules and Shakers—those who cannot reproduce their own kind” (May: 286). Academics who do commit the study of religion in the spheres of the public, on the other hand, can enhance humanistic study and can quite possibly also develop some modes of service to elements of the public.

At this point it is necessary to move with care. The concept of the public has limits. It would be foolish to announce its presence or promise with a tone of breathlessness that goes with true discovery. The public we always have with us, and many scholars have consistently kept it in view. They are themselves part of the public. The public is also not one big reified entity. Nor is it to be a savior of scholarship, a censor of the scholar, a great slouching beast awaiting analysis, or some single thing to be damned. By nature and definition the public is made up of many contradictory subpublics, which are often contending and confusing aggregates. The public is not always right, as the populists who attack the academy would have it. The public also should not provide these religious populists the lure of a mystique which suggests that it represents the “real world” to counter the academic “unreal world.” Both academy and public represent overlapping worlds which are as real or unreal as each other.

The university is public; its components are themselves publics or parts of other publics. The religion students themselves represent these publics in all their dazzling and bewildering variety, and they will do so more and more in our ever more diverse North America. Professors who used to complain of or delight in the presence of fundamentalists alongside agnostics in the same classrooms, each year find ever more heirs of more living traditions because Asians, Africans, and immigrants from everywhere add to the classroom mix and curricular concentrations.

It is not necessary to justify a concern for the public on simply pragmatic grounds. In verbal connections such as “public humanities” and “public history,” linkages that in other contexts I am eager to defend, the adjective “public” means something quite different from what “the study of religion in public” here means. Thus Robert Kelly admits or urges that “in its simplest meaning public history refers to the employment of historians and the historical method outside of academia” (Kelly: 16).

However sympathetic to the employment needs of humanistic scholars all humane scholars are and must be—and 1 for one would not trust those who are not—the expression of such empathy would confuse the argument here. Nor is this the place to address in detail the burden of younger scholars who sometimes feel forced to publish academically burdened writings in order to avoid charges of being superficial and popularistic public-pleasers. Committing the study of religion in public does not demand or here permit focus on any of the cognate concepts which would confuse the study of religion with concepts like publicity, public relations, publicism, or publication. Our present concern is astringently and deliciously intellectual. I will take up seven issues that accompany the claim that committing the study of religion in public has fresh intellectual promise.


Must Attention to the Academy, Public, and Ecclesia Be Terminally Distracting?

The first concern for the scholar is distraction. The worries are familiar: life is too short for one to take up the academy, the public, and as the ecclesia in endless and wearying sequence. Work is too confusing if the scholar keeps too many zones of influence in view. It is said in the academy as in some religions, that one cannot serve two masters. The persons who seek to satisfy the political interests of the public whole and the academic parts will fail, such a scholar is told. One needs a measure of bravado to respond; such response demands the spirit of Great Britain’s Jimmy Maxton, “A man who can’t ride two bloody horses at once has no right to a job in the bloody circus” (Crick: 138). But the academy is not, or is not quite, a circus. So the issue must come down to an honest effort at being attentive to more than one sphere.

The problem, of course, is a real one. How combine technical and specialized scholarship with the broader concerns of publics whose members are likely to be technical about subjects or specialties which do not always match those of that scholar? William James in his chapter on “Attention” is of help here. First, James recognized the need to rule out or minimize distractions. He insisted: “My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest experience is an utter chaos.” Interest alone, James noted, gives “intelligible perspective.” He reminds that “everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence.” The opposite is the French distraction and the German Zerstreutheit, which have to be the enemies of scholarship.

If attention eliminates distraction, it still allows for at least bifocal awareness. James asks, appropriately for our agenda: “How many ideas or things can we attend to at once,” meaning “how many entirely disconnected systems or processes of conception can go on simultaneously?” His answer is, “not easily more than one, unless the processes are very habitual; but then two, or even three, without very much oscillation of the attention (emphasis added).”

Attention, as James outlined it, makes a person: “a) perceive; b) conceive; c) distinguish; d) remember”; and “it also e) shortens ‘reaction-time.'” His key words are “the processes are very habitual.” In the present case, the scholar habitually may incorporate “academy” and “public” and deal with them reflexively as well as reflectively (James: 380-82, 401, 386).

In 1945, Alfred Schutz elaborated on James. Schutz developed the concept of “multiple realities” as objects of attention. He drew on James’s notion that a ” ‘world’ . . . whilst it is attended to, is real after its own fashion….” Biographer Helmut R. Wagner compressed Schutz’s highly technical arguments. Thus Schutz spoke of the simultaneous attractions of various “provinces of meaning” (Wagner:90). In the present case, we think of the study of religion being focused on the province of the academy while also finding the focusing scholar attentive to selective elements of a province called the public.


Is There a Danger Lest Religion Become Relevant?

The second issue connected with committing the study of religion in public has to do with the suspect category of relevance. Keeping the public in mind can distract scholars and tempt them to inappropriate modes of expression. Schutz is helpful here with his special understanding of relevance, which means something very different from what it would mean if academic life were moved only by public relations concerns. Schutz described four regions relating to relevance.

First is the immediate one within our reach, primary relevance—in our case, the academy with its concerns and habits. Second, there are “other fields not open to our domination but mediately connected with the zone of primary relevance”—in our application, the ecclesia and the public. In that field, Schutz said, one must “be acquainted with the possibilities, the chances, and the risks [these regions] may contain with reference to our chief interest.” Third, there are zones which for the time being have no such connection. Thus academic study of religion, for example, and at least “for the time being,” can bracket the public as irrelevant. Finally, there may exist that which is “absolutely irrelevant” to one’s practical purposes.

Schutz recognized that the primary zone of relevance was never pure, as in the notion of “pure” scholarship, nor isolated as in some academic research. Instead, this zone was what he called an “element within a hierarchical system, or even a plurality of systems,” or plans. Thus, Schutz illustrates: “The interests I have in the same situation as a father, a citizen, a member of my church or of my profession, may not only be different but even incompatible with one another,” so a person must constantly be alert and make choices. Even what was at one moment dismissed as the “absolutely irrelevant” could suddenly change status and come into the crucial zones.

On these lines, Schutz made a very valuable distinction between what he called the “system of intrinsic, and the system of imposed, relevances.” The intrinsic relevances in every case are the outcomes of our chosen interests. But none of us is a center of spontaneity alone. Schutz adds: “Imposed upon us as relevant are situations and events which are not connected with interests chosen by us,” and which “do not originate in acts of our discretion,” but which we have to take up “just as they are.” To apply all this to our central argument: positioning one’s self so that attentiveness to the public might help change the way the academic scholar perceives, conceives, distinguishes, and remembers, can enliven the study of religion in the future. The public, including its members of the ecclesia, constantly emit religious signals and make demands which challenge the scholar (Schutz:112-14).


What Will Happen to Pure Scholarship?

The third concern has to do with scholarly expression when it is mindful of the public. Whenever the college or university has become a confinement, or when its primary and intrinsic relevances monopolize the study of religion, many scholars in the academy will be suspicious of those who “commit” and thus “perpetrate” the study of religion also in ^ public. For a second time I draw on William F. May’s cogent essay. He writes: “Some scholars in the liberal arts disdain the attempt to justify themselves to a wider audience.” They do so in defense of an aristocratic humanities culture and in rejection of social utilitarianism. “This disdain has a point,” May said. “It reminds us in a relentlessly utilitarian age that the most important goods are internal rather than external ^ to a practice.” On those terms, fearing corruption, he says, some professors have “prized the intellectual life for its own sake and guarded their own purity by disdaining secondary outcomes, including those of social utility.”

In the Jamesian and Schutzian modes, however, there are good reasons to argue that one can be devoted to two or three zones of relevance. In the present argument, there will then be more attentiveness to religious expression, for the sake of better acts of conceiving, perceiving, distinguishing, and remembering the subjects of religion. The social utility of scholarship and the benefits of attentiveness to the public are incidental, though, as May said, we should remember that “the classical tradition hardly severed the liberal arts completely from all considerations of social utility.” Such social utility protected that humanistic tradition from the threat of what he called “privatistic self-indulgence, which a society will not long see fit to support out of common treasure.”

Scholars of religion pursue their work first of all with a passion for its intrinsic relevance. Their study could not long survive or achieve quality if the humanities would have to begin with a justification beyond that of the pure love of learning and its objects. Few of us would or could give a societal justification for most of our research or for many of our teaching topics in a world of specialization. Study the book of Abstracts of an American Academy of Religion meeting and you will find that the curiosities of scholars will lead where they will. Without such an aspect we would quickly grow dispirited and intellectually stale.

Humanistic scholarship in the academy is born of single-focused passion, one that to be sure can lead to the forgetting of other concerns. In a portrait of the treasonous British intellectual Sir Anthony Blunt (“Damn the man,” ends the essay), George Steiner shows how the perfection-minded humanist may not always be humane and may sometimes seem barely human. To do this, Steiner first must celebrate the obsessive devotion of the scholar and then bring up his dark side.

The absolute scholar is in fact a rather uncanny being. He is instinct with Nietzsche’s finding that to be interested in something, to be totally interested in it, is a libidinal thrust more powerful than love or hatred, more tenacious than faith or friendship—not infrequently, indeed, more compelling than personal life itself. . . . The point of strangeness is this: the conventional repute, the material or financial worth, the sensory attraction, the utility of the object of such interest is utterly irrelevant. . . . The scholar absolute, the mandarin, is a creature cancerous with the blank ‘holiness of the minute particular’ (William Blake’s tag). He is, when in the grip of his pursuit, monomaniacally disinterested in the possible usefulness of his findings, in the good fortune or honour that they may bring him, in whether or not any but one or two other men or women on the earth care for, can even begin to understand or evaluate, what he is after. This disinterestedness is the dignity of his mania.

There can be problems:

[The disinterestedness] can extend to more troubling zones. The archivist, the monographer, the antiquarian, the specialist consumed by fires of esoteric fascination may be indifferent also to the distracting claims of social justice, of familial affection, of political awareness, and of run-of- the mill humanity. The world out there is the formless, boorish impediment that keeps him from the philosopher’s stone, or it may even be the enemy, mocking, frustrating the wild primacy of his addiction. (Steiner: 197-98)

Yet scholars absolute in the humanistic study of religion consistently hold and may by rights keep their places undisturbed. There is no good reason to insist that all scholars fit a mold which calls them to be attentive to both the academy and the public.

When scholars do commit the study of religion in public, however, they are well poised to irritate self-sequestered humanists and thus might enliven humanities in general. They remind some of their colleagues of the presence “out there” of religion’s terrifying, beguiling phenomena, entities that were supposed to be long dead but which now around the world may threaten life and limb or promise salvation or healing. Scholars of religion whose inquiries fall outside the zones of what (topically) secularized university colleagues think of as intrinsically relevant can help impose relevances on these colleagues, potentially disrupting any cocktail party or dinner conversation. They do so by bringing to mind ways in which religion is expressed in the public world. Religion therefore does have a distinctive, jarring, and therefore promising place in the humanities. Humanists study sacred texts. As we have already noted, they keep finding that constituencies in the public care, they really care in the ecclesiae, about those texts, because these give foundation to their communities, are believed to express ultimate truths, or open the imagination of believers to transcendent orders of being.

The rationales for the study of religion simply as an academic field often quicken responses by antireligious colleagues or by those suspicious of the academic study of religion because these responders have often themselves been on pilgrimage from childhood faiths which they long before had come to perceive as antihumanistic. In the eyes of such colleagues, the study of religion was simply irrelevant or out of place except “on the confines” of the academy, because religion was itself thus irrelevant and out of bounds. Many things in the spiritual environment are undergoing change, however, and these changes render the defensiveness and apology less necessary and perhaps less effective today, if one keeps the contemporary public context also in view as a sphere of attention.


What Will the Public Bring to the Interaction?

The intellectual focus, in the fourth issue, shifts away from having the scholar cater to the public. Such catering might help produce on campus constituencies which can lead to the presence of more clients, courses, curricular space, or funding for the study of religion. Of course, provosts and chancellors and deans and other archangels of academia pay and must pay attention to such things as constituencies for courses and disciplines. But for the present purpose the only satisfying case has to do with the scholarly transaction itself. That transaction begins with tentative outreach from the academy but does not imply that the academy has a set of answers simply to propagate to the public. The study of religion, because it can intersect with a public which includes both passionately antireligious and strenuously ecclesial constituencies, stands as good a chance as any of the other humanistic disciplines to find fresh and urgent topics and perspectives.

To illustrate, as each of us could: from across a spectrum of almost unlimited and equally urgent possibilities, I shall choose two areas which have given me occasion to observe some of the foremost scholars in our fields in public interaction as they set out to enliven academic study while poising themselves to serve some publics.

On one hand, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has involved me with a “public policy” agenda in the form of a five-year Fundamentalist Project. This study of fundamentalisms around the world clearly issued from a zone of imposed relevance which happened to match an intrinsic one of mine: the writing of a history of some kinds of fundamentalism, whether the American Academy had beckoned or not. The collaborative international, imerreligious inquiry is entirely scholarly; it follows academic models. It is a dependent project; there would have been no scholars available had the American Academy of Arts and Sciences relied on the public apart from the university to prepare and support them. While all along there were “out there” many independent and isolated experts on fundamentalist-like movements, the Western academy in isolation by and large had failed to foresee, perceive, or account for the surprising set of religious forces which erupted in our time. People were voting, dying, loving, ruling, laughing, and threatening in the name of fundamentalisms, so the academy had to take notice. It is ever more clear that such movements offer meaning and solace, or promise the kingdoms to their adherents. They may also bring political disruption, sometimes terrorism, and even the threat of World War III to everyone else.

It is the collective activity of our Project scholars of religion that results from attentiveness to the public. This activity moves scholars partly beyond the confines of the academy, toward confrontation with contemporaries who draw life from those very same ancient texts which might otherwise have seemed inert and archaic. The cynic could even say that academics have been the last members of the public to recognize the power of modern fundamentalisms. Be that as it may, it is belated attentiveness to the public that inspires these scholars in their acts of conceiving, perceiving, distinguishing, and remembering.

At the opposite extreme of topics which imposed relevance on me, another also demonstrates the public point. The Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith, and Ethics asked me to bring an historian’s eye to a kind of leadership in their international, interreligious inquiry. Again, that Center is entirely dependent upon clinicians and scholars who were produced by and have been enduringly at home in the of academy.

The college and university had long housed any number of isolated scholars, and they could produce small convergences of experts on various campuses. There they could try to penetrate our black holes of ignorance on the universe of these expanding subjects. They were experts on traditions, resources, and on the philosophical rationales for pursuing religious meanings and ethics in the contexts of illness and health. Yet in centers like this new one, academic scholars of religion find new motives and means to confront people who in crisis may ask, for example, not about Aristotle’s views on non-maleficence, but, “Will what my doctor advises match my conscience?” or “What does my rabbi think?” or “What does God say?” or “What does my family want?” Such encounters with publics force new perceptions, conceptions, distinctions, and rememberings on the academic scholars who take their risks in such a public arena. Could we have foreseen, perceived, or begun to account for such dimensions or religious understandings brought by the public had we remained only at home in the academy? In my own case, these conversations with publics in these situations and with expert colleagues from the academy have forced revisions in fundamental ways that I pursue religious history, and even press a fresh and different set of topics.


Is the Direction of Energies All From the Public?

Our fifth concern has to do with initiative taken by the academy in setting the agenda and determining approaches. Emphatically I stress: attentiveness to the public will not and dare not establish a hierarchy of disciplines or topics in the study of religion. People who deal with the immediate world are not necessarily more relevant than those who treat texts and contexts from far away or long ago. Contemporary texts do not possess more intrinsic relevance than ancient ones. Whoever has trouble believing that can test it quickly by reading certain messages in bottles to the academy from shores where ancient sacred texts still define and give life to communities in the public. People will fight more readily over Qur’an or Hadith, over Hindu scriptures, Buddhist interpretations, and “the fundamentals” in Christian scriptures than over anything that takes root in the mind of someone today. Thus feminist scholars upset the public and effect more change when they deal with ancient sacred texts to which contemporary communities attend than when they deal with contemporary expressions. Possibilities for illustration are numberless.

I have stressed the receptive and responsive sides of academic contact with the public more than the active and expressive aspects. Of course, the main contribution of teachers to society is the act of teaching in society, through the written and spoken word. But rather than concentrate on what the academy knows and could impart, I have stressed a dialectic based upon what it can be attentive to in complex publics. Throughout, there has been a concern here for a reciprocal relation in between publics and academicians on rhetorical lines which followed these described by Dominick La Capra. “Rhetoric,” he says, “involves a dialogical understanding of discourse and of ‘truth’ itself in contrast to a monological idea of a unified authorial voice providing an ideally exhaustive and definitive (total) account of a fully mastered object of knowledge.”

The historian or literary critic thus enters into a “conversational” exchange with the past and with other inquirers seeking an understanding of it. This conversation can go on theoretically in isolation in the library. Yet, says LaCapra, it takes on special life when the historian is involved, as he says, “in argument and even polemic—both with others and within the self—over approaches to understanding that are bound up with institutional and political issues” (La Capra:36). Those who embody or inhabit institutional and political or (ecclesial forms) in the public tend to force new readings of texts or disclosures in them.

Many of the important rereadings in our time were born of responses to representations by causes and caucuses in the public. One thinks of those resulting from contacts with a representation by agents of the Third World, oppressed peoples, women, racial minorities, political and religious extremists, or the poor. It is a mistake to think of any one of these agents of revisions and revisionings as by itself constituting the public. Those academics who represent loyalty to only one of the constituencies in isolation from others act sectarianly. When these subpublics are taken together, however, they help create the larger public. Thus they produce disturbing yet potentially creative instabilities in the humanistic study of religion.


Must We Hide Some Approaches from Public View?

A sixth area of concern develops when one speaks, as I just have, of instabilities. Any advocate for the public role of humanities, including the study of religion in recent decades, must notice many approaches to humanistic study which, when they impose their systems of relevance, threaten to undercut the whole concentration on those publics which are shaped in part by humanities texts. It could indeed make all of them become “absolutely irrelevant.” One must ask what happens to conversations about texts in a time when textual integrity, or the integrity of the human subject dealing with texts, is itself radically questioned. Such questioning goes on in scores of papers delivered at American Academy of Religion meetings. Some literary critics say that even the decentering and then the death of the object, God, could not be as devastating as the loss of the subject, the human. Yet that human subject may very well get relocated, diminished, or negated, in some current approaches to the humanities. The question arises: should one let the public in on the stir? It seems mandarin and condescending to suggest that what the scholars talk about when they use approaches beginning with prefixes like “post-” or “de-” is too technical, too obscure, too arcane, or too threatening to let word get out about what might be happening to concepts of texts.

Some humanists see the current approaches to be nothing more than fads, imported French crazes which will soon devour each other. Patient academics, such critics predict, will outlive the current fashions. Therefore most students of religion can place them at once in Schutz’s fourth zone, and see them as “absolute irrelevancies.” Others account for them as academic adjustments that were made previously when scholars lost touch with the public world. Thus Eugene Goodheart has written of deconstruction’s view that “language is an impersonal machine of displacements and substitutions to which the subject is irrelevant. …” It renders “problematic the relationship between discourse and reality and the coherence of discourse itself.” Sometimes, says Goodheart, its effort represents introversion: “unable to remake society, the ideological reader remakes the text. Reading becomes a surrogate revolutionary activity” (Goodheart: 10, 8).

Dominic LaCapra, though himself not unfriendly to the history of such critical schools, almost in resignation used Montaigne for an epigraph: “Il y a plus affaire a interpréter les interprétations qu’à interpréter les choses.” [There is more to do about interpreting interpretations than about interpreting things.] LaCapra showed how hard it is to keep up with such movements by citing a list of options prepared by Jonathan Culler. All of them, I note, would be somehow relevant to the study of religion. Culler enumerated “structuralism, reader-response criticism, deconstruction, Marxist criticism, pluralism, feminist criticism, semiotics, psychoanalytic criticism, hermeneutics, antithetical criticism, Rezeptionsaesthetik.” La Capra sighed that at some point the list-reader gets an unsettling glimpse of the infinite that Kant called the “mathematical sublime.” He himself added spin-off groups like “poststructural jansenists (insistent on the paradoxical purity of Derridean philosophy), stylistic convulsionnaires, shizoanalysts, libido boosters, assorted gnostics, and Nietzschean flash-dancers” (La Capra:95-7). To those whose concern with their own chosen intrinsic relevances leads them to dismiss all such approaches, one must say that any number of these still impose relevances of their own sorts in the study of religion. Now, it could turn out that one or another of the contemporary movements will finally establish itself, as no previous school has done, to the point that we shall some day convince ourselves that we have seen the loss or death of meaningful discourse and the human subject, the reader of religious texts. Still and again, in connection with the debates over such a school we say: the acts of perceiving, conceiving, distinguishing, and, one hopes, remembering, belong on the campus in encounter with the public spheres where the stakes are highest. The arguments would not well be restricted to the academic confines where “to-do about interpreting interpretations” can so easily and conveniently overtake “interpreting things.” The study of religion is an excellent place to see that.


What Is the Characteristic Activity of the “Public” Academic?

The final concern leads one to ask: if scholars in the study of religion focus attentiveness on the texts by which publics live and then on the public itself, with its bewildering mix of religions and non-religions and anti-religions, then will they be more ready than before to move on from intra-academic defenses and apologies which are no longer as productive or necessary as they once were?

Academic intellectuals relate to their publics chiefly as teachers. One teaches: but in what genre? It is at this point that we can talk about the published expression of the teacher in the public zones. Writes May: “The two social vectors for writing are up (in the thesis, the article, and the monograph), or down (in the textbook or the potboiler). Teachers have lost contact with the earlier humanistic tradition of the essay, in which one attempts to write out to an audience of intelligent inquirers” (May: 295). When people teach or write “out” or as I like to say, “over” to publics, they both give and receive. This is as true in teaching and writing on religion as on any other set of subjects.

The public at large, as we all know, has not waited around demanding the notice of academic scholars of religion. It will, willy nilly, be served by non-academic “public intellectuals” of repute or by manipulative amateurs of disrepute. Academic scholars of religion, of course, may often go about their work unnoticed and unnoticeable among the celebrities and shamans, the gurus and hucksters, the saints and heroines, who deal directly with publics. If so, such scholars’ roles will seem analogous to Dylan Thomas’s familiar self-description of the poet. In his “craft or sullen art exercised in the still night” while “lovers lie abed,” the poet, Thomas said, writes “not for ambition or bread.” The poet writes only

… for the lovers, their arms

Round the griefs of the ages,

Who pay no praise or wages

Nor heed my craft or art. (Wilhams:560)

If there has been true conversation between academics and the public, which includes the ecclesiae, with people who love and pray and fight and grieve over the texts we academics study, then the issues of ambition and bread, of praise and wages, will be edged toward Alfred Schutz’s third or fourth zones. That is, they may become either “relatively,” “for the time being,” or, less likely, “absolutely irrelevant.” Meanwhile those who pursue the craft or sullen art of committing the study of religion in the academy and the public will henceforth be less sullen, more free to address the “multiple realities” which beckon in our exciting and expanding fields of inquiry.



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