Inside Higher Ed’s “Case for Religious Studies”

Yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed made a good Case for Religious Studies:

“If the only people who understand Christianity are Christian, or Islam are Muslims, or Hinduism are Hindus, we are condemned to a world of misunderstanding, conflict and sectarianism. If we cede understanding of religious ideas to religious individuals, we lose the capacity to comprehend the motivations behind the thoughts and actions of anyone beyond our own religious tradition… For those aspiring to leadership in the 21st century, knowledge of the religions of the world from a nonconfessional perspective is not a luxury but a necessity. Study of the variety of religious traditions around the world makes it abundantly clear that different people operate under different assumptions about the way the world works. To understand their actions, we must also understand their motivations.”

By whatever laws of serendipity obtain, on the same day I ran parallels between popular perceptions of crusaders and Pharisees. In the medieval and ancient periods, arguably none have been more misunderstood in terms of beliefs and motivations.

In discussing this and the Inside Higher Ed piece with someone else, I speculated two reasons why people are predisposed to accept patently false things about religious groups or religious phenomena. One is that people tend not to take the field of religious studies seriously like they do other fields. Sometimes you can’t blame them. When an evangelical like Tom Wright argues to wide acclaim that Jesus’ resurrection happened as a historical event, it’s rather strange to see this happen in a professional field. Historians usually don’t make ontological claims about supernatural events, even if they personally believe them. While any historian can be bias-blind for any number of reasons, I think it’s fair to say that biblical scholars get a disproportionate number of free passes with their intruding ideological commitments. That casts a shadow on the field, and probably suggests in the minds of many that the experts can be taken with a pound of salt.

A second reason, I think, has to with our collective moral outrage against organized religion, especially Christianity. If Jesus married Mary Magdalene along with other wild DaVinci Code elements (and it’s astonishing how many intelligent people believe this stuff), then that sticks it to the mother church where it hurts. If Pharisees were cold legalists, then they’re a timeless foil for spiritual supremacists. If crusaders were offensive boors, they represent all that’s wrong with western Christianity, not to mention western foreign policy, and serve as a foil for a fictionally benign Islam. While evangelicals use religious studies as an apologetic playground, our liberal theologians dig for nuggets, including false gold, to fire at the orthodox and western powers.

I have nothing personal at stake in defending Jesus’ prophetic celibacy, Pharisaism, or medieval crusading. (The values implied by all of these are alien to my libertine secular pacifism.) I want to understand the beliefs and motives of anyone, past and present, on their own terms, as reliably as possible, for reasons explained by the Inside Higher Ed. We can’t understand people without understanding what drives them; we can’t fix problems that are falsely diagnosed; and we certainly can’t build bridges without seeing clearly what’s on the other side.

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