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.

I declare war to the death on dominant nation chauvinism. I shall eat it with all my healthy teeth as soon as I get rid of this accursed bad tooth.

Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 33, p. 372.

Lenin spent a good deal of time in Finland (which he loved), Sweden (where the socialists had their conferences from time to time) and Denmark (where he spoke on occasion). Not that he was so fond of the latter place:

Who says that in our day there is no trade in human beings? There is quite a brisk trade. Denmark is selling to America for so many millions (not yet agreed upon) three islands, all populated, of course.

In addition, a specific feature of Danish imperialism is the superprofits it obtains from its monopolistically advantageous position in the meat and dairy produce market: using cheap maritime transport, she supplies the world’s biggest market, London. As a result, the Danish bourgeoisie and the rich Danish peasants (bourgeois of the purest type, in spite of the fables of the Russian Narodniks) have become “prosperous” satellites of the British imperialist bourgeoisie, sharing their particularly easy and particularly fat profits.

Why so negative? Denmark was the Scandinavian empire par excellence, so much so that Lenin finds the talk at the time of a Danish identity or need to guard the state a bit of a joke. May well apply to its restrictive and xenophobic policies these days:

The masses of the Danish people passed through the bourgeois liberation movement long ago. More than 96 per cent of the population are Danes. This alone proves what a crude bourgeois deception is the talk of the Danish bourgeoisie about an “independent national state” being the task of the day! This is being said in the twentieth century by the bourgeoisie and the monarchists of Denmark, who possess colonies with a population nearly equal to the number of Danes in Germany.

Collected Works, vol 23, p. 135