What should they know of England, who only England know?

Image of Chinese characters and English word
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One of the best things that ever happened to my English was learning Latin. That’s not because there’s anything special about Latin. It’s just that, until I learnt Latin (and a few other languages) I’d never had to think about how English works. Because it was my mother tongue, I took it for granted. Because I didn’t fully understand that there were other ways of stringing thoughts together, I had no real mastery of my own. 

As many of our readers will know, Theology at the University of Auckland is developing a programme of courses in Religious Studies. This has been in planning since 2008, but it’s only begun to take shape since the review of the BA degree at the University of Auckland recommended the inclusion of Religious Studies as a major. We’re still waiting to see what form the new programme will finally take, but we’ve been offering a paper on Islam since 2012 and one on Religion in New Zealand since earlier this semester.

Since I’ve started working on the programme, I’ve met two criticisms that seem at first to come from opposite points of view, but are actually different versions of the same argument.

One is from the “insiders,” theologians working within the Christian tradition who feel that a move to Religious Studies somehow devalues Theology. If you’ll indulge a tendentious metaphor, they’re like people at a wine-tasting evening who find they’ve been gatecrashed by a group of opinionated beer drinkers and whisky aficionados.

Women at a wine-tasting
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The other criticism comes from the professional “outsiders” – the university crowd who think insiders should be kept well away from the study of religion (and preferably the university). They can accept Religious Studies (often grudgingly), but only if they can be assured it will be studied from the splendidly neutral vantage point they feel sure they occupy. Again, it’s as if the wine-tasting evening has been invaded by a party of tee-totalers, who insist that only they can appreciate wine objectively (though in fact they’d really rather not).

Prohibitionists tipping liquor from a barrel

I have two responses to these criticisms. The first is pragmatic: the hermetic seal between insider and outsider is now routinely violated in the real world.  It may breach your methodological purity code, but at international academic conferences and some of the world’s leading universities, the two approaches to the study of religions (i.e. Theology and Religious Studies) are in regular conversation – often in the same departments or administrative units. 

Secondly, though your maiden cheek blush and chaste scholarly heart flutter at the very thought, these encounters between religious insiders and outsiders can be intellectually productive.

In my own field a century ago you used to study either “Protestant” or “Catholic” Church History. The idea that a Protestant might have something useful to say to Catholics about their own history, or vice versa, was virtually unthinkable. But, despite what my colleagues in History sometimes appear to believe, Church History in universities is no longer just a recitation of doctrinal history and denominational particulars for students in training for the ministry. The history of Christianity – like every other sub-discipline in Theology – draws on the full range of methodologies deployed elsewhere in the university. Moreover it’s written, read and debated by insiders and outsiders promiscuously. 

I’m aware that this may be taken as a concession that Church History – like the rest of Theology – is really just about epiphenomena. In other words, it was never really more than a disguised story about “real” forces like economics or the human subconscious. But if that’s true then Religious Studies is likewise nothing more than the pursuit of anthropology, economics or sociology by other means. In fact the same totalising rigor could be applied to any discipline in the university. If everything is finally psychology, scientific method, or the elusive relationship between sign and signified, then so be it. But the university that emerges from this intellectual purity is a diminished place.

Again in my own field I can think of “insider” histories – ones that adhere to received standards of historical scholarship, but are shaped by the author’s religious background – that have had a significant impact on the field beyond “Church History” in the strict sense.

One is Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars, which challenged complacent Whiggish accounts of the English Reformation as a kind of inevitability. What 19th and 20th century scholars saw as the oppressive world of late mediaeval Catholicism may actually have been quite popular. Thus when “liberation” came in the form of the Protestant Reformation, many had to have it forced on them from above. 

Another is Brad Gregory’s Salvation at Stake. This makes the claim (scarcely imaginable in the polite confines of the Arts tea-room) that 16th century people did consciously, willingly and even cheerfully embrace martyrdom for their religious beliefs. If that’s an imaginative leap we’re unable to make in 21st century New Zealand, then I suspect we have little chance of understanding what motivates many members of our own society, let alone further afield in the world.

It goes without saying that neither of these books has been uncontroversial – no decent work of scholarship ever is. But in both cases, the insights of scholars working from within a religious tradition has significantly shaped the way in which history is done by historians who don’t share their assumptions. On the other hand, it’s also true that the history written by Duffy and Gregory would have been the poorer if it hadn’t been part of a broader scholarly debate, and instead stayed mired the denominational trench-warfare that dominated the writing of Christian history until the middle of the 20th century.

To insist that there’s only one way of coming at a subject is to be an intellectual monoglot. That applies to the theologian, to the Religious Studies purist, as well as to the delicate individuals who wish that they didn’t have to trouble their minds with the nasty business of religion at all.  

To be able to imagine things from someone else’s vantage point seems to belong to the very essence of the Humanities. And even if you are a theological totalitarian, who bridles at being forced to think outside your discipline, remember that Thomas Aquinas, a man who believed that Theology was the Queen of Sciences, nevertheless stayed deeply engaged with Judaism, Islam and Aristotle. I would argue that his theology was all the better for it.

Benozzo Gozzoli,  (b. ca. 1420, Firenze, d. 1497, Pistoia) The Triumph of Saint Thomas
Benozzo Gozzoli, (b. ca. 1420, Firenze, d. 1497, Pistoia) The Triumph of Saint Thomas, 1471, Musée du Louvre, Paris.


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