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Cross disciplinary religious thought lacking

Cross disciplinary religious thought lacking

Speaking from personal experience, there’s a great deal of commentary about religion made by scholars who don’t have any. While the lack of any personal faith doesn’t necessarily disqualify someone from having an opinion, most commonly negative, about how people of faith should comport themselves; in most other fields, the lack of personal experience with the subject would make it much harder for a person’s views to be taken seriously.

Michael Marten, reflecting on his experience reading philosophers critiquing Musicology, and Musicologists using philosophical trends to illuminate their writing, writes:

The musicologists at the conference are interested in philosophy. They read major figures such as Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and so on, and they read the secondary literature too… at least enough to gain perspective on the principal debates… In the main, however, philosophers who are interested in music… do not read musicology. If they did, then their frequently catastrophic failures of definition and unwillingness to engage with – or even conceive of – political, economic, cultural, and historical context for the music, composers (where there are any), performers, listeners, and critics who jointly make up the world we call ‘music’ would show up to them as glaringly as an elementary error in a syllogism. The short form: there will never be meaningful exchange between philosophy and musicology while philosophers fail to read anything as obvious as the major writings of Richard Taruskin.

That I can do no more than acknowledge knowing Taruskin is a musicologist limits any further comment I might make on Harper-Scott’s argument about musicologists and philosophers. However, as I asked in a comment on his blog, why is it that some disciplines seem to be more interdisciplinary than others? After all, the experience he describes is far from unique. I want to develop my relatively unformed comment a little in this article.

Many of us working in the field of ‘religion’ depend upon a variety of other disciplines – such as political science, philosophy, history, linguistics, phenomenology and more – to help us understand the phenomena we are dealing with. Consequently, numerous scholars who are not directly involved in ‘religion’ as a discipline inform the work that I (and many other colleagues) pursue.

He then goes on to write about the trend of specialization in academic research and the unwillingness of so many scholars to personally engage fields outside their primary studies. He sees it as a broad problem, but one that is particularly an issue when the questions being researched are primarily, or have a large component of, religious thinking.


I suspect this is perhaps part of the issue for many who see themselves outwith the discipline of religion: a lack of personal engagement with religion – however defined – means they regard themselves as ‘secular’ without ever really thinking about what that term means (in other words, they ‘don’t believe in god’ and therefore they must be ‘secular’). In this kind of thinking, ‘secular’ is the mainstream and ‘religion’ is seen as an optional but largely irrelevant add-on.

From such a starting point there is no reason to think an understanding of religion might have a substantial bearing on political science, history, economics etc. Perhaps this stems from a mistaken understanding that there is ‘a universal definition of religion’ that can be compartmentalised away, failing to recognise historical contingencies and discursive constructions arising from and impacting upon politics, history, economics and so on (as Talal Asad would perhaps argue).

Do read the whole essay. And then, if you have any ideas about how to rectify this situation, share them here – or better, get to work. The growing problem of academics talking past one another is becoming more and more of an issue at a time when creative constructive thinking lacking.


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In explaining why the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom is important, Michael Sandel rejects the narrow libertarian argument as inadequate and affirms the value of religious conviction for the commonwealth. Sandel cites the great contributions that people of faith have made to the pursuit of justice in America.

Bill Carroll

I think there are a host of good theologians who engage in this kind of conversation. David Tracy is probably the widest ranging one.

Marshall Scott

This is certainly an issue in practical theology, if you will, as well. Chaplains are informed by the works of physicians, nurses, and others who write about spirituality and caring for patients and families. However, the physicians and nurses and others rarely read the works of chaplains. In this case, it is not because they have no experience and feel themselves therefore “objective.” Rather, it is because they have experience, and feel that something they learn in their own experience is generalizable. Moreover, they are convicted, by and large, that they are supportive of addressing patients’ and families’ spiritual issues; and yet they don’t consult the work of chaplains as practical theologians, or of pastoral theologians in the academy.

Now, they don’t read each other’s literature, either; that is, doctors don’t read nurses, and nurses don’t read social workers (although most folks ready doctors’ works). I have encouraged chaplains to read this literature, and then to actively engage it, through our own work or through letters to editors.

Marshall Scott

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