The Modes of Being, Doing, Teaching, and Discovering

Marty’s November 1995 report to the Joint Meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Association of Theological Schools attempts to reconceive what many perceive to be a conceptual chasm separating believing communities from the academy. Published by the Association of Theological Schools in 1996.


The Questions about “The Modes”

“How can one–indeed, can one–be a person of religious faith and then deal faithfully as a scholar with religious faiths in contexts whose preconditions favor a faith-less or faith-neutral approach?” Or, conversely: “How can one–indeed, can one–be a person of non-religious faith and then deal fairly as a scholar with a field of inquiry whose subjects are to be studied in contexts which assume some measure of empathy for their religious faith?”

Ever since the modern study of religion began to develop in the Western worlds, serious practitioners and theorists of its disciplines have asked questions like these. They have provided varieties of often clashing answers to both. To many historians, such questions may themselves sound dated. They can often reflect a rather narrow sphere of scholarly experience and reflection. That sphere conditions teachers and writers in the academy to be reflexively dependent upon concepts that appeared and experiences that occurred among men in a particular place and time: Europe and America in the early afterbeams of the Enlightenment. This conditioning further exhibits the heritage of scholarly traditions that came to be privileged in specific institutions invented in that particular time and place: academies that have come to us as “theological schools” and “religious studies departments” of colleges and universities.

To move from the habitual and reflexive to the critical and reflective zone: today such questions as those with which we began have to be broadened to include the experience of women and of scholars in more than the Western European and North American academic settings. The current agenda calls for more listening than before to academics who display a global awareness, one colored by alertness to religious pluralism everywhere. So the scope of the questions has come to be enlarged during the past half century. That scope is likely now to include issues like these:

“How can and does one practice Zen, as some do, and then teach world religions disinterestedly?”

“How can and does one fairly teach ‘the evolution of monotheism’ on Friday afternoon and then at sundown, moved by religious commitment, with integrity observe shabbat and respond positively to the recitation of the Shema?”

For those in professional education:

“How can and does one with appropriate finesse and passion prepare people for the practice of the priesthood, and concurrently, with principle, teach a class that dispassionately and thus critically appraises the church authority that legitimates the priesthood?”

Organizationally, that theme can be enlarged to reflect the penumbra of questions like this:

“How can and does one protect the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature from ideological taint when, within them, both the research and professional concerns of The Association of Theological Schools are also represented?” And vice versa.

On a wider screen:

“How can one ‘be’ a convinced atheist and teach congruently with a-theist viewpoints while consistently keeping some sort of covenant with students to deal fairly with their theisms?”

Or, for the sophisticates who employ wide definitions of religion:

“How can teachers fairly discriminate, as some do, against the beliefs of those who are committed to historic faiths such as Islam, Judaism, or Christianity, when these teachers are themselves committed to ‘isms’ that can and often do take on mythical, metaphysical, spiritual, and at least quasi-religious characteristics?” These ‘isms’ might include, for beginnings, integral environmentalism, Marxism, gnosticism, or Enlightenment rationalism{1}.

Sometimes the questions reflect the structures of authority and scholarship within specified religious traditions and are more the business of the faiths themselves than the academy. Thus:

“How can one be fairly classified an ‘Islamic modernist’ for ‘neutrally’ teaching comparative religion while one is at the same time in intention and with integrity an orthodox Muslim?”

Or, the pattern of questions can suggest pluralist settings that challenge old monopolies, hegemonies, and privileges. Thus:

“How can one impartially teach in religious studies settings, where Christianity is seen as a religion among the religions and then, again with integrity, show partiality to Christian faith by commending its truth to a congregation in the college chapel?”

One could easily heap more “how’s” atop those eight samples, but they together suggest some central and consistent issues in the scholarly enterprise of both theology and religious studies. Whoever attends religious studies or theological scholarly society gatherings, or whoever reads literature relating to the interests of these, will recognize the imports and importances of these questions and their analogues.

On the Possibility and Value of Disinterestedness

One theme running throughout the explorations has to do with fairness. To address it let me advance at once a familiar if now often underused and sometimes discredited term. For this academic context, the word was resurrected by critic Louis Menand at a conference in June 1995, on “Advocacy,” sponsored by fifteen national academic organizations. These included the Modern Language Association and the American Association of University Professors. The word is “disinterest” (not “uninterest”), the term implied in the questions above by words such as “fair,” “dispassionate,” “critical,” “impartial,” “nonideological,” and “uncommitted.” Menand, in ironic manner and reactive tones, said and wrote for the members of the scholarly community:

You should argue your views in a spirit of skepticism and self-questioning. There’s an unspeakably reactionary word for [such an] intellectual and pedagogical stance. . . . It’s called disinterestedness.

The critical pedagogue conducts his class in the spirit of disinterestedness for the same reason the wretched liberal refusenik does: because to do otherwise isn’t just bad pedagogy: it’s bad advocacy.

Menand elaborated:

Of course, the standpoint of disinterestedness is, like any other standpoint, a social construction; but it is one of society’s better constructions. Disinterestedness doesn’t mean an absence of strongly held views, or a willingness to give equal weight to every view. Disinterestedness means that one’s views have been arrived at uncoerced–or as uncoerced as possible–by anything but the requirement of honesty.

It’s because of our disinterestedness that we can have debates about the political implications of our teaching, or about the possibility of objectivity, or about the relativity of cultural values, or about race or gender bias in the forms of knowledge.{2}

In such a proposal, disinterestedness does not mean absence of passion; good teaching and research and writing in religious studies are often impassioned. The point in citing Menand is also not to isolate and elevate his praise for the virtues of disinterestedness but to take off from there and thus to ask: if disinterestedness and interestedness are to coexist within the same persons and also, in a way, to be encouraged in institutions (such as theological schools, religious studies departments, and professional societies serving interests of both), how do or how can they thus creatively coexist? The issue of disinterestedness serves to frame numbers of other questions.

On Bringing Reflective Approaches to Bear

Whoever comes upon the terrain where such issues as these are debated at once confronts a variety of anomalies, some of which demand notice here. Thus: in this third of the century, many in the academy have become alert to the ways that subjects in all humanistic fields show how rootages in racial, ethnic, gendered, esthetic, class, and . ideological contexts of people color their rational commitments. Yet often very little of this awareness is put to work when religious or antireligious, theological or antitheological rootages, commitments, and contexts are themselves being appraised.

Despite the widespread acceptance of postmodern definitions of our disciplines and enterprises, many still uncritically and reflexively employ differentiations born of and tied to modern, especially the already mentioned Enlightenment-engendered, practices. These differentiations reflect the only selectively questioned assumption that particular forms of secular-rationalist views assure an attainable and cherishable “objectivity.” This objectivity then gets posed as a norm over against all other kinds of approaches to religious inquiry.

To illustrate, anecdotally but not trivially: Some who collect bits of the folklore of American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature conventions tell of informal exemplifications of these issues. For example, there are tales about typical situations such as the encounter with the Kiwanian from Keokuk who shares a convention hotel elevator with AAR conventioneers. He squints at the badges worn by fellow passengers and asks: “The American Academy of Religion–what religion is that? What religion are you?” In this kind of telling, one of those that I call “more-secular-than-thou” members of the Academy fire back: “Oh, no, we’re not religious at all, because we study religion.” Such a response can be a valid claim in the form of an authentic confession of faith or nonfaith, but, I hope to show, it is largely irrelevant to religious studies.

On the other hand, it is just as easy to find anecdotes illustrating polemical dismissal of the religiously uncommitted or the antireligious scholars. These may come from the mouths of confessional theologians in different kinds of academies such as theological schools.

One more: Despite opportunities that scholars in our fields do have to put their academic disinterestedness to work, many fail to close ranks within the relatively tiny part of the academic enterprises that incorporates religious and theological studies. Thereupon they “divide the camp,” to the bewilderment of bystanders, while contributing to the continued opaque misunderstandings of the uninterested public, and the diminishing of our academic potential to create interest in that public.

That “we” do these I am not here going to document at any kind of length, believing that their evidences are manifold and that energy should instead be put to addressing what is implied by the “how” questions above with which we began.

Category Mistakes and Homogenization

In one sentence: my response can be considered to be one version of an address to the issue of ignoratio elenchi, “category mistakes.” Many of what appear to me to be our confusions result from such mistakes. Such kinds of categorical errors, says Robert Grant,

would have been committed if, for example, a scientist claimed some special ‘scientific’ authority for his political convictions; if one were to endorse or reject Darwin (say) purely on ethical grounds; or if (like Basil Fawlty) one were to ‘punish’ one’s motor-car for breaking down by flogging it with a branch. {3}

My exposition on these pages will deal with the issue of ignoratio elenchi in our parts of the academies. It will employ various concepts connected with modes of experience. These in due course we will begin to define and apply. To provide a framework for that subsequent endeavor, let me first pose some situations.

Setting the Stage

Here is an elaboration of an incident at a private university. In order to throw scholarly light on the Catholic mass, a professor invited in to one of his classes some departmental colleagues and asked them to play some roles. They posed as Max Weber and Karl Marx to give voice to economic interpretations, plus Sigmund Freud and Emile Durkheim to provide psychological and symbolic approaches to the sacramental ritual and its meanings.

All went well, and the class found the experiment illuminating, but at its conclusion one student asked: “Wouldn’t it have been nice to have someone up there who believed in the Catholic mass?” The professor answered: “We did have two who do believe in it.”

It goes without hardly the need for saying that the two professors were effectively illustrating the phenomenological method. They were here bracketing their presuppositions in order to fulfill their assigned perspectival roles. But one might fairly turn the question around with a “what if” question: What if it were assumed, and what if one acted on the assumption, that a professor who was a practicing Catholic and who shared the faith of the billion people who believed in the sacrament, could shed some distinctive light on the study of it? There are, after all, varieties of critical understandings of this within Catholicism, many as of them rich in philosophical implications.

The four perspectives that were represented, legitimately I think we would all say, are themselves not merely rational outlooks based on empirical certifications; they are full-blown philosophies of history. The academy that puts such a premium on secular rationalism also includes many who do readily resort to such partly mythic, not simply empirical, and often quasi-metaphysical elements. Why then the particular discrimination, if such it was (as we, opposed to indifference, neglect, or the absence of imagination) in this case in respect to Catholic viewpoints?

There may be good reasons to be cautious about introducing such viewpoints, but we have to ask whether these reasons have all been thought through carefully. Thus it might be advanced that religious practice is to be discriminated against because it may sometimes rely on “eschatological verification,” a form of verification not available among those who are alive in the academy.

Or at other times, as in the Catholic sacramental case, there may be hesitancy or rejection because the sacramental claims are finally grounded in references to transcendent objects or subjects. Then the question is in place: do all those putatively non-religious commitments that are licit and familiar in the academy (e.g., integral Marxism or Freudianism) themselves avoid the problems associated with other, shall we call them ordinary, religions? I think not, and current skepticism about the very ground of outlooks such as Marxism and Freudianism is evidence of the ways their metaphysical or mythical bases are being exposed today, yet without evident harm to their privileged status in much of the academy. We have to examine both cultural prejudice against religion and religious prejudice against cultural approaches that take on a religious cast.

If one has trouble answering with assurance the question in the previous paragraphs, it should be helpful to think about or to rethink the modes of experience and inquiry themselves, in the hope of having a fresh run at the issues.

Now, the second staged scene could be a theological school or any other academic place where religious belief, behavior, or professional preparation is honored. These are by no means homogeneous sites, and they cannot all be painted with the same brush or appraised with the same conceptual tools, though some who dismiss them as locales for academic study of religion do so. A scanning of the roster of The Association of Theological Schools suggests such diversity. The eye falls on names like Howard University, the Pontifical College Josephinum, Union Theological Seminary, Interdenominational Theological Seminary, Vancouver School of Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Harvard Divinity School. One could add to this some non-member analogues such as the Naropa Institute, Jewish Theological Seminary, Unification Theological Seminary, Islamic schools, the Maharishi International University, or church-related and other college religious or theology departments and programs.

In the better of such institutions there can be programs wherein some of the scholars engage sophisticatedly in “religious studies.” Their inquiries may include reference to the social milieux and cultural contexts of professed faiths and to attempts by believers in such faiths to relate positively to the “other,” which means to those who do not share that faith. Picture four representatives on stage appraising a topic. Picture someone then asking: what if in this environment Weberian, Marxist, Durkheimian, or Freudian world-views were to be represented? Quite likely, at many such schools, someone could honestly answer: “Two (or more) of them are.” At some theological schools, and by no means not only the liberal ecumenical and university-related ones, certain scholars are likely to be far more explicit about such formally nonreligious but still quasi-religious commitments than would the Catholics on the other panel have been in respect to their own faith presuppositions. How to make sense of this?

These two are formal and exaggerated cases. They are stereotypes or what Max Weber might call ideal-type situations. Most of us live our lives in much messier situations and contexts, with more blurred lines of distinction, more shifting roles, and while employing more complex modes than those pictured here. But it helps to pose issues dramatically in order to throw light on the quotidian situations that one would more readily expect to encounter on a tour of colleges and theological schools.

What are not the issues; what are the issues?

At this point we clear the slate of issues that may be legitimate in other contexts but would clutter the scene here. For example, this is not the place to evaluate the relative qualifications of faculty and students, or the fiscal and other resources at the diverse sets of institutions that represent alternative approaches to religious, theological, and professional study. Other scholars are of course free to argue about the relative inferiority or superiority of the settings and personnel they favor, and about the contributions of these both to the academic disciplines and the larger culture.

I am, secondly, simply going to pass over a near-miss theme which was implied earlier: whether there is truly neutral ground for completely objective, utterly disinterested theological and religious studies. The concept of pure objectivity has been so consistently and effectively questioned in our half-century that I leave to others the task of trying to resurrect or defend it. This bracketing of one issue does not mean, at least for me, that scholars should or must turn their backs on reason, however understood, including on “secular rationality.” It simply questions the uncritical employment or unquestioned hegemony of such kinds of reasoning within the academy.

That leaves for now four issues in their institutional frameworks:

First, whether the approaches ordinarily associated with the theological school necessarily bias the research and teaching and thus taint the religious studies enterprise.

Second, and conversely, whether the characteristic and prevalent religious studies approaches necessarily distort the religions being studied and taught and thus whether their employment harms the academic enterprise.

The third issue: whether something of the central assumptions of scholars on either side of this contextual polarity in practice are or can effectively be represented in the settings and personnel of the other side.

Finally, if they are or can thus be represented, how should academics conceive and appraise the situation and, on the basis of such appraisals, how improve the scholarly work and teaching and the health of the now often divided enterprise?


We pose a thesis: that an individual, a community of scholars, or an institutional complex such as a department or a school, can with integrity and coherence approach theology and religious studies through any number of modes. They can do this without demonstrating intellectual schizophrenia and while avoiding double-talk, double-mindedness, contradiction, or compartmentalization, and in doing so they can therefore enrich the whole enterprise.

Models and Modes

Some would situate in the context of modernity in its now passing condition the many questions we here introduced to pose an issue. Once upon a time, they would argue, the bifurcations and stresses implied in our questions were not present or were not intense. This is sometimes presumed to have been the case especially in homogeneous societies such as theocracies, where the dominant powers of state and religious institutions also set all the terms for all forms of what we would now call theological exposition or religious studies. The many demands and threats of modernity, according to such argument, led or even forced modern people to express contrarieties in all their doings.

Poet Paul Valéry typically thought it was a distinctive feature of the modern situation that the same person needed and could put to work a variety of modes of experience and expression. In Valéry’s version, the issues concerning the conception and sustenance of the self are seen as having become more problematic than I would see them necessarily to be. But the poet’s testimony, while not philosophically precise, remains to the point:

Everyone today who is more or less informed of the works in critical analysis that have renewed the foundations of science, elucidated the properties of language, the origins of the forms and institutions of social life, understands that every notion, principle, or truth as one used to say, is subject to review, revision, recasting; that every action is conventional, that every law, written or as otherwise, is no more than approximate.

Everyone tacitly agrees that the man in question in constitutional or civil law, the pawn in political speculations and maneuvers–the citizen, the voter, the candidate, the common man–is perhaps not quite the same as the man defined by contemporary biology, psychology, or even psychiatry. A strange contrast is the result, a curious split, in our judgment. We look on the same individual as both responsible and irresponsible; we sometimes consider him irresponsible and treat him as responsible, depending on which of these fictions we adopt at the moment, whether we are in a juridical or an objective frame, of mind. In the same way, we find that in many minds faith coexists with atheism, anarchy of feeling with doctrinal views. Most of us have several different opinions on the same subject, and these may easily alternate in our judgments within a single hour, depending on the stimulus of the moment.

These are sure signs of a critical phase–that is, a kind of inner disorder defined by coexisting contradictions in our ideas and inconsistencies in our actions. Our minds, then, are full of tendencies and thoughts that are unaware of each other; and if a civilization’s age is to be measured by the number of contradictions it contains, by the number of incompatible customs and beliefs to be found in it, all modifying each other, or by the multiplicity of philosophies and systems of aesthetics that coexist and cohabit in the same heads, it must be agreed that our civilization is one of the most ancient. Do we not constantly find several religions, several races, several political parties represented in one family . . . and in one individual a whole armory of latent discord?

A modern man, and this is what makes him modern, lives on familiar terms with many contraries waiting in the penumbra of his mind and coming by turns on the stage. That is not all. We seldom notice these inner contradictions, or the coexisting antagonisms around us, and only rarely does it occur to us that they have not always been there.

. . . I have dwelt on this characteristic, for I have seen in it the very essence of modernity. {4}

Having cited such testimony, rather than identifying further with the poet addressing modernity, I want to describe the academic case by reference to the contribution of three very different thinkers. They are here used illustratively and are not to be seen as exhausting the options. They represent three very different contexts and concepts of philosophy: pragmatism (William James); phenomenology (Alfred Schutz); idealism (Michael Oakeshott). Since the third of these provided the term “modes” as used in the title of this article, and since he is the only one who devoted himself at book length to the topic, he will receive most notice. This essay can be read as a meditation on a theme of Oakeshott and an application of it to the subject of religious and theological studies.

I adduce the three–one can think of numbers more who might serve well–in part to suggest that one need not be an adherent of one or another of their philosophical approaches to make the modal case. Therefore, one need not turn to pragmatism, phenomenology, or idealism, or rest the case on the presuppositions of such philosophies or any combinations of them alone. Each thinker turns out to have been depicting the “modal” human situation and possibility in ways that most of us can rather easily test in observation, including, in most cases, in scrutiny of our own selves.

First, William James, who chose to discuss the topics of interest and disinterest by reference to what he speaks of as attentivenesses and in what he calls subuniverses (in a section of a chapter called “The Many Worlds”). James says that the subuniverses of any human’s interest are sustainable through attentivenesses, and then spells out some of these worlds. I anticipate that most scholars in religious studies, theological fields, and professional training for religious colonies, will feel at home with them all:

  1. The world of sense, of physical ‘things’ . . .
  2. The world of science, or of physical things as the learned conceive them . . .
  3. The world of ideal relations, or abstract truths believed or believable by all, . . .
  4. The world of ‘idols of the tribe,’ illusions or prejudices common to the race. All educated people recognize these as forming one subuniverse . . .
  5. The various supernatural worlds, the Christian heaven and hell, the world of the Hindu mythology, etc. . . . Each of these is a consistent system, with definite relations among its own parts . . . (e.g., Neptune’s trident has no status in Christian heaven, etc.)
  6. The various worlds of individual opinion, as numerous as men are.
  7. The worlds of sheer madness and vagary, also indefinitely numerous . . .

Every object we think of gets at last referred to one world or another of this or of some similar list. . . .

James draws all these together:

Propositions concerning the different worlds are made from ‘different points of view’; and in this more or less chaotic state the consciousness of most thinkers remains to the end. Each world whilst it is attended to is real after its own fashion; only the reality lapses with the attention.

And the thinker sorts them out, says James:

Each thinker, however, has dominant habits of attention; and these practically elect from among the various worlds some one to be for him the world of ultimate realities. {5}

To apply this: the scholar in religious studies can be attentive in the midst of such study whilst the “world” of such studies is being attended to, but she can also give expression to faith or personal theological exposition whilst its world is being attended to–without turning duplicitous, hypocritical, or schizophrenic. The keys are the concepts of attention, attending to, being attentive to, and, of course, “whilst.”

Next one can associate these experiments and applications with the more recent constructs proposed by Alfred Schutz. He makes reference to psychologist James and from that point of reference shifts from the concepts of “the many worlds” and “subuniverses” to which one is attentive, to “provinces of meaning”:

The ingenious theory of William James has, of course, to be detached from its psychological setting and analyzed for its many implications. . . . We prefer to speak of finite provinces of meaning upon which we bestow the accent of reality, instead of subuniverses as does William James. By this change of terminology we emphasize that it is the meaning of our experiences, and not the ontological structure of the objects, which constitutes reality. Each province of meaning–the paramount world of real objects and events into which we can gear by our actions, the world of imaginings and phantasms, such as the play world of the child, the world of the insane, but also the world of art, the world of dreams, the world of scientific contemplation–has its particular cognitive style. It is this particular style of a set of our experiences which constitutes them as a finite province of meaning. All experiences within each of these worlds are, with respect to this cognitive style, consistent in themselves and compatible with one another (although not compatible with the meaning of everyday life). Moreover, each of these finite provinces of meaning is, among other things, characterized by a specific tension of consciousness (from full awakeness in the reality of every day life to sleep in the world of dreams), by a specific time-perspective, by a specific form of experiencing oneself, and, finally, by a specific form of sociality.

As readily as William James, Alfred Schutz honored the various worlds or “provinces of meaning”:

All these worlds–the world of dreams, of imageries and phantasms, especially the world of art, the world of religious experience, the world of scientific contemplation, the play world of the child, and the world of the insane–are finite provinces of meaning. This means that (a) all of them have a peculiar cognitive style (although not that of the world of working with the natural attitude); (b) all experiences within each of these worlds are, with respect to this cognitive style, consistent in themselves and compatible with one another (although not compatible with the meaning of everyday life); (c) each of these finite provinces of meaning may receive a specific accent of reality (although not the reality accent of the world of working). {6}

In this instance, the world of disinterested study of religion in the academy represents a “finite province of meaning” as does the world of interested study connected with the exposition of theology or with the experience of faith. These are “consistent in themselves and compatible with one another.” Each has and demands “a peculiar cognitive style.”

Now, third, for the long elaboration of a proposal by a very original philosopher, Michael Oakeshott. He set forth the theme that matches the concept of “attentiveness” in James. But he went on to work out sophisticated implications for academic disciplines and the living of life. Oakeshott was an idealist, which I may not be, and a Tory, which I am not. Employment of his approach might suggest to other non-idealists or non-Tories that the concept of modes of experience is not tied to or justifiable by only one philosophy. If such scholars are anti-idealist or anti-Tory–the latter of these positions being, I believe, irrelevant here–they might be able to overcome their distaste for his philosophical and political contexts by reference to a line of Alfred North Whitehead: “Great ideas enter into reality with evil associates and with disgusting alliances. But the greatness remains . . . .” {7}

Oakeshott (1985) provided a condensation of his own plot in his summary on the cover of the paperback reprint of his precocious and decisive book Experience and Its Modes, first published in 1933:

Its theme is Modality: human experience recognized as a variety of independent, self-consistent worlds of discourse, each the invention of human intelligence, but each also to be understood as abstract and an arrest in human experience. The theme is pursued in a consideration of the practical, the historical and the scientific modes of understanding. [Back cover]. {8}

He elaborates at once, “‘Experience’ stands for the concrete whole which analysis divides into ‘experiencing’ and ‘what is experienced.'” [9] For Oakeshott, of course, ‘experience’ is everywhere a world of ideas. [41] He could say that “the world of experience is the real world; there is no reality outside experience.” To apply some of this to our present topic: this experience includes the stuff of religious studies and practice, including theology.

Experience, of course, is “single and a whole,” but “it is possible, in some measure, to break up this concrete totality.” [70] Oakeshott argues, I believe convincingly, that one does not appropriate experience whole but sees it constantly undergoing what he calls “modification” in the form of “arrests in experience”–a very important and regularly cited term in his argument about the modes.

These arrests, because they are necessarily partial and abstract are in some ways to be called “defective,” but their defectiveness is unavoidable in the experience of all experiencers. Now: a mode of experience is not a separable part of reality, but the whole from a limited standpoint. It is not an island in the sea of experience, but a limited view of the totality of experience. [71]

These modes are not separate psychological faculties. They are also not the same as “compartments,” as in the case of “compartmentalization,” a charge made against or choice made by some (e.g., religious fundamentalists in the academy) who separate faith and science when engaging in various studies and theological inquiry. [72] In religious studies, as in Oakeshott’s overall reach, we can instead consider “the character of certain highly developed modes of experience.”

To move expeditiously toward the academic: these “main arrests or modifications in experience” could be infinite in number. But Oakeshott deemed three or four to be most important. [84] He termed them the Historical, Scientific, and Practical, and later added the Poetic. These are without much doubt most relevant to religious studies and theology. Oakeshott in this part of his own exposition expressed concern, as do those in religious studies and theology on occasion, about the problem of

confusion, ignoratio elenchi, . . . itself the most fatal of all errors, [that] occurs whenever argument or inference passes from one world of experience to another, from what is abstracted from one principle to what is abstracted from another, [etc.] [5]

Oakeshott’s quest is for coherence within a mode, and that quest is necessarily also ours in respect to religious studies theology, and issues of faith as they bear on interestednes––and disinterest. The enemy of coherence is always “irrelevance or ignoratio elenchi.”[5] There is, writes Oakeshott

no direct relationship between any two of these modes of experience, for each abstract world of ideas is a specific organization of the whole of experience, exclusive of every other organization. Consequently, it is impossible to pass in argument from any one of these worlds of ideas to any other without involving ourselves in a confusion. The fallacy inherent in any such attempt is in the nature of ignoratio elenchi. And the result of all such attempts is the most subtle and insidious of all forms of error–irrelevance. This, in an extreme example, seems clear enough. That what is arithmetically true is morally neither true nor false, but merely irrelevant, appears obvious. [75—76]

Later he would say that

a reference to date or place in scientific argument is just one more example of the ignoratio elenchi inherent in every passage from the world of history to that of science. What is true or false for the one world is neither true nor false for the other, but meaningless and beside the point. [349]

The application to religious studies and practice, to theology and professional preparation of ministers, should be obvious:

[Thus] to carry a practical attitude into the world of science or history, or to carry a scientific or an historical attitude into the world of practice, must, in every case, turn what is significant into nonsense, turn what is valuable into something worthless by dragging it into the wrong market: and this, I take it, is the essential character of ignoratio elenchi. [311]

In a famous summary passage Oakeshott added words relevant to our modes of pursuing religion and theological studies:

Each world . . . is a homogeneous whole which can neither recognize nor admit anything disruptive of its homogeneity; and ex hypothesi what belongs to one such world would necessarily disrupt the homogeneity of every other. Between these worlds, then, there can be neither dispute nor agreement, they are wholly irrelevant to one another. . . . An idea cannot serve two worlds. [36] . . . Who serves two masters, serves none; and a way of thinking which confesses allegiance to two different modes of thought cannot avoid ignoratio elenchi at every step. [339]

Now for the three or four “arrests in experience,” which have direct bearings on religious and theological study, professions, and faith.

a. The scientific mode. This is least relevant to the present inquiry; it would be most appropriate in the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, where social scientific approaches are preferred. (Oakeshott’s scientia is not the same as that implied by the German term Religionswissenschaft.) Historian and fellow idealist philosopher R. G. Collingwood condensed this mode to a Latin phrase in one sentence: “Science is the world sub specie quantitatis: its differentia is the attempt to organize the world of experience as a system of measurements.” (Let it be said that critics found Oakeshott’s treatment of this mode least satisfying, but that, as we might say, is relatively irrelevant here.) {9}

Thus conservative Catholics credibly protest again appeals based on ignoratio elenchi when reformers urge the Pope to change Catholic teaching, e.g., on birth centrol simply to make it congruent with what opinion polls and survey research turn up about practices by Catholic couples. In terms of the modes of experience, there may be good grounds for reform and change, but it is a category mistake to confuse the modes of science and practice. Oakeshott:

. . . practical, moral and religious beliefs must submit themselves not to the criticism of science, but to that of life. And a science which ventured to take a hand in organizing the world of religious beliefs would be a science which had ceased to be scientific without becoming anything else. ‘It is better,’ as Epicurus said, ‘to follow the myths of the gods than to become slave to scientific truth.’ [315]

b. The historical mode. This is more regularly relevant in religious studies on the models of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature, though neither of these associations or societies does rule out or does need to rule out the scientific mode whenever its particular “arrest in experience” is appropriate and when it can be used coherently. Yet Religionsgeschichte and Religionswissenschaft quite regularly do relate to the historical mode of or arrest in experience. In the general sense, an impressive portion of our enterprise is explicitly historic or is pursued with reference to historical dimensions.

Collingwood again summarizes: “History is the world sub specie praeteritorum: its differentia is the attempt to organize the whole world of experience in the form of the past.” [fn.] In his discussion of history as it bears on religion, Oakeshott issues an a propos criticism that is forgotten, or misused by compartmentalizers:

Religion, it is said, can be understood only by the religious man; science by the scientist, art by the artist and history by the historian. It is, nevertheless, wholly misleading. . . . We may leave religious questions to religious men, the problems of science to the scientist, history to the historian; it is the business of each of these to organize and make coherent his own world of experience; but to suppose that the nature of history is an historical question, or that the character of religion is a question upon which a religious man, as such, is specially qualified to advise us, would involve (to say the least) unwarranted assumptions about the character of these worlds. [87—88]

Interesting as it would be to me as a historian here to argue with Oakeshott’s idealist views of history, suffice it to say for present purposes that he sounds attuned to the world and to methods often called postmodern: “History is the historian’s experience. It is ‘made’ by nobody save the historian; to write history is the only way of making it.” History, in other words, is not the past but a told or written construction of ideas about the past based on traces left in the present. [99] History, further, “is the organization of the totality of experience sub specie praeteritorum.” [111] One may aspire to accuracy, fairness, and disinterestedness, but the result will never be simply “objective.” Oakeshott, himself a practicing Christian, was properly “modal” when he discussed “arrests in experience” in respect to history and belief in God:

‘God in history’ is . . . a contradiction, a meaningless phrase. Wherever else God is, he is not in history, for if he were there would no longer be any history. Where in history he is taken to be a cause, nothing has been said and nothing remains to be said. . . . An event without a cause (other than God) is not in any sense an historical event. [127]

In sum, the historical, like the scientific mode, is “defective” and incomplete, but not incoherent or irrelevant. One must take care to restrict inquiry in this mode to what is seen as experience sub specie praeteritorum, lest there be ignoratio elenchi, a category mistake.

c. The practical mode. This will turn out to have the most bearing on religious commitment in religious studies, along with theological interpretation and contributions by the academy to the practice and profession of ministry in and through religious institutions. We begin by hearing Collingwood again, summarizing: “Practice is the world sub specie voluntatis: the world as a system of acts, each modifying ‘what is’ so as to bring it into harmony with what ought to be.” [fn.] Practice is also thus “a defective mode of experience, an abstract world of ideas” within the totality of experience. Let it be noticed that in this mode one would indeed locate religious belief, practice, professions and preparation for them, action in the world, and even most theology.

“What distinguishes practical activity from all other worlds of experience is that in it the alteration of existence is undertaken,” [256] Oakeshott elaborates. The lover, the religious mystic, the evangelist, the suicide, the devotionalist, or even the religious quietist, he says, is involved with “the change or maintenance of existence” and thus in this mode of practice finds “the activity inseparable from the conduct of life and from the necessity of which no living man can relieve himself.” [257]

The differentia of practice, we read, relates to the implication of “a felt discrepancy between ‘what is’ and what we desire shall be, [and] implies the idea of ‘to be’ which is ‘not yet.'” [259] The application of this idea to issues of faith, commitment, interest, and theological confession, is immediately apparent. Add to this ethics. In a later essay Oakeshott also saw the practical mode as arresting experience of the world sub specie moris, which means conceiving images of approval and disapproval. [Rationalism in Politics 501]. Thus,

religion . . . is practical experience pressed to its conclusion; in it all subordinate attempts to establish the harmony, unity or coherence of the world of practical experience–attempts such as politics and morality constitute–are swallowed up and superseded. Religious truths are those which attempt to satisfy the furthest claims and largest needs of practical life. . . . If religion has anything to do with the conduct of life, then the ideas of religion–ideas such as those of deity, of salvation and of immortality–are practical ideas and belong to the world of practice. And an idea which serves this world can serve no other. [309-310]

This also means that religion, to be practically and morally effective, has to be seen as philosophically “defective,” an “arrest in experience,” and not as experience itself. At the same time, ideas associated with the scientific or historical modes are irrelevant to the practical mode; introducing them would be ignoratio elenchi.

d. The poetic mode. This mode was later introduced as an illustration by Oakeshott and is also relevant to religious studies and theology, but we can treat it only briefly, being more interested in the modal principle than in detailing its elaborations. One might say that the poetic mode is the “arrest in experience” sub specie imaginationis. Here the scholar of religion or theology incorporates contemplation, the Greek theoria, the self “sensing, perceiving, feeling, desiring, thinking, believing, contemplating, supposing, knowing, preferring, approving, laughing, crying, dancing, loving, singing, making hay, devising mathematical demonstrations, and so on.” [Rationalism 496]. These elements of such a mode are obviously relevant to religion and often to religious studies and practice, but we shall not dwell on them. It is likely, however, that this “arrest in experience” will receive a more prominent place in curricula in the future, as the academy probes further the ties between religion and music, dance, theater, and the arts.

e. Philosophy: not a mode. Oakeshott in a manner some might regard as expressing the superbia against he often railed, but which was to him as an idealist natural, argued that philosophy did not represent a “mode,” an “arrest in experience,” because it aspired to relate to the whole of experience and to criticize the “defective” modes. One of Oakeshott’s expositors, Josiah Lee Auspitz, pointed to some implications of the philosopher’s view of philosophy at this point. “The impulsion of philosophy is to see experience without reservation or arrest, without presupposition or postulates, without limit or category” {11}. Philosophy is critical; it exposes the partiality and abstractness of the several modes of experience. The philosopher refines practice and criticizes incoherences in the defective modes because they are abstract and partial. [347]

Fortunately, however, Oakeshott does not overstep by advertising the virtues of philosophy. He does not ever celebrate them. To fall into philosophy, as all of us may do intermittently, is not to provide professional or worldly satisfaction.

Philosophy is born an outcast, useless to men of a business and troublesome to men of pleasure. . . . To turn philosophy into a way of life is at once to have abandoned life and philosophy. Philosophy is not the enhancement of life, it is the denial of life. [355]

This distancing of philosophy in one aspect, as in “philosophy of life,” need not mean for us rejection of its critical potential in religious studies and theology. As “practiced,” it is usually subsumed under Oakeshott’s “practical” mode, viewing experience sub specie voluntatis.

What These Modes Mean

As arrests in experience, as already noted, the modes do not imply or allow for the static “compartmentalization” of spheres or topics, as when, say, a fundamentalist in any religion or a pure secularist “boxes” matters of faith and of science or history, as if experience were not a whole bug were made up of partial separable bits.

The arrests do permit, indeed, they charter, an approach to religious studies that gives “religious studies” scholars no credible rationale for a priori lowering theology in religious studies departments, or lowering religious studies within status hierarchies in theological schools.

Similarly, just as the use of the modes does not support old-style faculty psychology or compartmentalization, so it does not assure that the critical student of religion, whether following scientific, historical, practical, or poetic modes, will not “lose her faith.” It happens every day. Nor does it assure that study following one or another of the modes might not lead to the acquiring or confirming of faith; it happens many days. But it is a category mistake, the haunting ignoratio elenchi, to mix up these modes while going about the business of studying, thinking, being doing.

What Is the Point of It All?

Why use James’s “various worlds,” “habits of attention,” and “subuniverses” in religious studies? Why introduce Schutz’s “finite provinces of meaning,” “particular cognitive styles,” and “multiple realities” into academic theological spheres? Why correlate these with and all but collapse them into Oakeshott’s “modes of experience” and then make use of them in both religious studies and theological inquiry?

Certainly this full-length illustration does not exhaust the possibilities for relating religiously committed approaches to other kinds of commitments or to disinterested study. Nor does it lead to seeing the presence of faith or nonfaith in others as mere personal idiosyncrasies, always and only irrelevant to the larger work of scholars.

Instead, the use of the modal approach suggests one way that scholars may and do relate their commitments to their academic work. It cannot explain the mystery of faith, alternative convictions, or their absence. But it can be used to criticize the inherited reflexive approach to objectivity inherited from the Enlightenment period and still lingering in some circles in religious studies and theological schools. It can help expose the variety of interests and clarify the nature of disinterestedness in studies.

Communities of scholars should then see a decline in the amount of suspicion they now put to work to disturb academic community. The “modes of experience” approach will help each better to understand the “other,” who is now often alienated or scorned. There is no reason to picture scholars agreeing with each other as the result of the fact that one set of them has been converted or the other defeated in argument. But the grounds for argument would be better understood, confusions would be dispelled, and partisans would be able to refine the arguments which today too often are based on misrepresentation of the other, misconceptions of how they go about their work, or misapplication of principles determining who is in and who is out, who belongs and who does not. Across inherited boundaries, henceforth, more kinds of scholars might be found sharing “habits of attention,” “provinces of meaning,” and “modes of experience” instead of ruling out that “other” who may well deserve a place at the academic tables.


  1. It may be expected that I include one personal word, a condensation of autobiography in the second person singular. It takes the form of a question that relates to reasons why I may have been selected as an articulator in this present forum: “How can you for a third of a century enjoy teaching on the graduate level in a social scientific history department, a humanities history of culture committee, a divinity school that combines humanistic religious studies with theology and professional school interests? How do this in classes, seminars, and colloquies in which students from all three are always present–and also daylight as an oft time religious believer, however weak, and moonlight as a sometime homilist, albeit even more weak?”
  2. Lingua Franca, July/August, 1995.
  3. Grant, Robert, Thinkers of Our Time: Oakeshott (London: Claridge, 1990), 40.
  4. Valéry, Paul, History and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), 9f.
  5. James, William, Principles of Psychology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), II, 921–23.
  6. Schutz, Alfred, On Phenomenology and Social Relations (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1970), 252, 255.
  7. Whitehead, Alfred North, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Mentor, 1955), 26.
  8. Because of the frequency of references to two works of Oakeshott, I cite pages differently than in all the other cases; ordinarily numbers in brackets will refer to Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1933) but in several instances I shall cite Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (London: Methuen, 1962) by using the single word Rationalism before the bracketed page number.
  9. Collingwood, R.G., In The Cambridge Mind: Ninety Years of the Cambridge Review 1879–1969 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969), 133.
  10. Auspitz, Josiah Lee, Political Theory (August 1976): 264–65.
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