Is There a Place for Theology in Academia?

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Most of America’s private colleges and universities long ago undid the close ties they had at birth to Protestant denominations. Although "the trappings of Christian institutions" were maintained into the 20th century, political scientist Isaac Kramnick and historian R. Laurence Moore, both of Cornell University, note in Academe (Nov.–Dec. 1996), "one by one the things that had upheld their Christian mission vanished. Ministers disappeared from the rosters of faculty and administrators. Compulsory chapel and prayer services fell into disuse and were then abandoned. Committed study of religion retreated to divinity schools that were increasingly isolated from the central concerns of major universities." Now, a move is afoot to drive theology out of academia entirely.

The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) has been pushing for more than a decade for a dramatic redefinition of religious studies—one "that would likely put out of business most of the 1,236 undergraduate theology and religion programs at U.S. colleges and universities—or else marginalize those programs to the point of irrelevance," writes Charlotte Allen, a contributing editor of Lingua Franca (Nov. 1996).

The 50 or so dues-paying members of NAASR and their allies would shift the study of religion out of the humanities and into the social sciences, Allen says. They want to make "the methodological atheism of the natural rigueur for religion professors as well." Explains Donald Wiebe, an NAASR board member who teaches at Toronto’s Trinity College, "There’s the academic study of religion, and there’s the religious study of religion—we believe in the academic study of religion."

Critics accuse Wiebe and his NAASR colleagues of "reductionism." Their stand, says Luke Timothy Johnson, a professor of New Testament studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta, "reduces the religious impulse to the interplay of political power or a social movement.... It’s like someone who’s tone-deaf trying to explain music." The NAASR, Allen notes, "is a tiny David to [the] Goliath" of the 8,000-member American Academy of Religion (AAR), the leading trade organization and learned society for religion scholars. However, the NAASR and its allies recently won a major victory. In its 1995 evaluation of researchdoctorate programs at U.S. universities, the Washington-based National Research Council included religion for the first time— and, taking the NAASR line, excluded schools, such as New York City’s famed Union Theological Seminary, that do not offer Ph.D.’s in religious studies, as opposed to doctorates in theology. A council staffer maintains that a doctor of ministry degree reflects professional training more than academic research. Barbara DeConcini, executive director of the AAR and a professor of religion and culture at Emory, however, disagrees. "There’s no gap between theology and research. It’s like a dissertation on Immanuel Kant that might consist of speculative reflection on ideas within Kant’s philosophy. Humanistic research is in large part interpretation."

Theology deserves a place in the academic curriculum just as much as feminism or Afro-American studies do, William Scott Green, a professor of religion and Judaic studies at the University of Rochester, argues in Academe. Theology "is a religion’s version of what secular ideologies call theory.... If we can have feminism in the classroom, we can have religion and theology there too."

"In one form or another," Green says, "the problem of God is virtually coextensive with Western intellectual life, and there is a rich and elaborate tradition of rigorous academic thinking about the possibility, plausibility, and meaning of divinity." What a sad comment it would be if universities were to decide that such "serious and persistent" questions were beneath their consideration.



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