Monday, March 21, 2011

Do Religion Scholars Solve Problems?

The following is a recent email exchange between me and S.'s dad. I had sent him the intro to my thesis after he inquired about its accessibility to the educated layperson. I asked him specifically to comment on its readability, and any other general reactions he might have. He sent this response:

I just read the introduction. It sounds very interesting, but left me wondering (since I know nothing of your field) - given that there are no facts in the scientific sense of the word around religion, is this in a sense a Talmudic argument where you quote the sources and draw your conclusions? This isn't a criticism, but a real question - in my field, a purely opinion piece, even well cited, isn't a thesis if it doesn't provide a new method for solving a problem (or even explaining a problem), but I guess a solution isn't part of your field?

This question was an unanticipated result of having someone outside my field read my work. Within our own disciplines--and even our broader fields, as I think this is true of the humanities in general--we tend to assume that, while a layperson may need jargon defined and may lack the grounding to understand more complex arguments, the basic gist of "just what it is that we do in religious studies/philosophy/etc." ought to be fairly self-evident.

I sent the following response:

As you correctly note, in my field there aren't necessarily discrete "problems" and "solutions" in the same clear-cut sense that there are in yours-- though there are facts about the texts we examine: one cannot accurately say, for example, that the shema is a duotheistic creed. And it is true that in some sense my field is purely composed of opinion pieces, though we attempt to make them consistent and logically plausible.

Nevertheless, I think that many of us in religious studies are concerned with real world problems-- how, for instance, ought a member of x tradition act in y situation? How can a Christian and a Muslim engage in a peaceful and mutually respectful dialogue that does not glibly elide real particularities of tradition and differences of belief? Or, as I think the base problem my thesis attempts to engage may be reduced to: how can a religious legal system which mainly bases itself upon received tradition engage constructively and justly with modern scientific knowledge, such that it may best serve those who subscribe to it?

I want to interject here to clarify that the question "What is it that religious studies does" is something of a misnomer, because there are multiple subdisciplines of religious studies. Someone who is mainly a text (e.g, Hebrew Bible) scholar is going to be asking completely different questions and have a mostly different toolbox in terms of secondary literature, languages, historical knowledge, etc., than someone who is mainly a theologian, though the questions and toolkit one scholar brings to the table will often be of great help to the work of the other.

Even in the less "applied" parts of religious studies, there are problems and solutions: one biblical verse, say, poses an interpretive problem that throws off the interpretation of its larger text. Is there a way to understand it, whether by translation or historical context or what have you, that it makes more sense in context, or is the reader to conclude that her interpretation of the larger text is mistaken? Alternately, is she to conlcude that the verse does not belong in this text at all and was inserted by a later redactor who found the message of the larger text problematic? And what are the implications of all these possible solutions for those who believe in this text-- or for those who study the time of the text's origin, or the history of the tradition?

Ultimately, if one buys the arguments of various epistemologists, all disciplines basically involve the action of the mind (reason) upon input of some sort (data)-- whether that be sense (empirical) data, received tradtion, revelation, or internally generated data. This is as true of the sciences as it is of the humanities. The difference between the two is that, since the sciences work with sense data which can be independently verified and in which variables can be controlled and isolated, these disciplines can work with a greater degree of certainty and specificity. In Kantian terms, the sciences deal with judgments of experience-- that is, anyone, given the same tools and conditions, will experience an object in the same way and such that they will come to the same conclusion.

The data those of us in religious studies work with mainly involves what Kant would call judgments of perception-- the experience of the object will be different from person to person. We deal with the vagarities of belief and emotion; of experiences that cannot be objectively verified; with moral questions that, because the belief in a supernatural other is involved, cannot be put in purely utilitarian terms. So clearly, we can't work in terms of "problem x requires solution y, due to factors l, m, and n." This doesn't mean, however, that we don't think in terms of problems and solutions-- we simply accept (if we are intellectually honest and respectful of other people; seeing them, warts and all, as equal human subjects) that many times these solutions will be messy and imperfect (not that science doesn't deal with messy and imperfect, but this is our baseline!)

I think that ultimately what a scholar of religion does is to process in some way the data of human belief. Neurologists and psychologists approach it from a scientific perspective as a physical phenomenon. We apporach it from a non-scientific perspective as a cultural and often (though not always-- I have known my fair share of atheist and agnostic religion majors!) as a divine or supernatural phenomenon. For us this data includes sacred texts, sacred art, food, ritual practices, ritual objects, personal testimonies, etc.

As far as solving problems is concerned, I suspect most people accept that religion is a major factor in a number of human problems, if for no other reason than it is an integral part of human life. The argument can be made, of course, that the solution is to remove religion from human life. This is a legitimate contention, but one which I think betrays a shallow understanding of history and culture, not to mention causality; furthermore, I think that for better or for worse religion will not disappear from human society any time soon. A more pragmatic approach, and one that I think the best religion scholars take, is to understand how religion functions in society. If we do that, it will be far easier and more effective to work within diverse religious traditions to ameliorate problems that are directly related to them.

And, for that matter, problems that aren't. Decades out, the American Civil Rights movement remains one of the most powerful testimonies to the ability of a religious movement to create positive social change. (My friend Kelly has done academic work related to this.) Understanding just how religion worked in such a context may prove an invaluable blueprint toward solving other issues-- issues of justice and freedom-- that cut across all divisions of culture, ethnicity, and belief.

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