The new issue of Critical Research on Religion is generating a good deal of debate, or at least the editorial is on the journal’s facebook page. The editorial is called ‘How Can Mainstream Approaches Become More Critical’ and was written by Warren Goldstein, Jonathan Boyarin, Rebekka King and me. We deal with studies in religion, theology, biblical criticism and sociology of religion. Here we develop a little further a key feature of the journal, which is that critical means not only careful ‘scientific’ analysis and self-criticism of the scholar (and discipline), but also discernment. On the second sense, we draw from the Greek kritikos, in which one discerns what is beneficial and harmful, or – as we interpret it – between what leads to human and natural flourishing and what does not. Some of the new ‘critical religion’ people seem to have taken exception to the second use of the term ‘critical’.
But I have been thinking a little more about this ‘critical religion’ approach, beyond the obvious turf war dimension, in which it attempts to sniff out yet another theological corpse beneath the floorboards or perhaps a ‘theo-sympathetic’ understanding of religion. I cannot help being reminded of the efforts by the nomothetic disciplines such as neoclassical economics, sociology and political science in the early twentieth century to divest themselves of ethical concerns, values and political agenda – so as not to be involved in any project that might improve the world even a little. They sought new homes, away from the arts and moral philosophy and among mathematics, physics and applied sciences. They saw themselves as doing no more than applying techniques, and thereby felt that they had become ‘professional’ and ‘scientific’. But the politics was not so much banished as redirected, so as to provide policy directions for the status quo under liberal democracies. I like Wallerstein’s observation on this process: such disciplines (and I would include the ‘critical religion’ approach here) take the form of university disciplines in which the ‘Western’ world studies itself, explaining its own functioning, the better to control what is happening. Obviously, there is something rather conservative about this, even forming the basis of a new kind of imperialism.
I am also somewhat bemused that such an approach seeks to remove religious concerns from the analysis of history, society, politics and economics – precisely when those disciplines have become acutely aware of the importance of religion. Practitioners in those areas are actively exploring religious questions and seeking the assistance of specialists in religion. Why? They divested their own approaches of religion some time ago, but now realise it was a mistake and often do not have the requisite skills to deal with it. On this matter, a ‘critical religion’ approach seems both unhelpful and somewhat behind the times, for it is trying to do to the study of religion what these disciplines did to themselves some decades ago.