How can the critical study of religion contribute, neither as a reductive “explanation” for “their” beliefs, nor as the inculcation of “our” religious doctrines, but as a critical engagement for the religious believer? Are the religious and the secular necessarily antagonistic? To say that the secular study of religion has some important theological and ethical implications is not to suggest that it does so primarily, or even necessarily. Rather, it is embedded in the same kind of project of the humanities in general, to understand the human condition. Max Mueller (not the one of JI guest-blogging fame) famously said of religion, “if you know one, you know none.” Such a course of study suggests that to understand one’s own religion, one must also understand another, and vice versa. The critical study of religion constitutes a sympathetic understanding of religious phenomena of all kinds. This approach challenges both the ardent believer and the ardent secularist. It presents an alternative for thinking about religion entirely differently.
Contrary to popular representation, the study of religion is not a “neutral” activity, but is rather embedded in a set of assumptions, presuppositions, and values, particularly those of the modern academy. Yet, these values cannot be dismissed as arbitrary, or even as necessarily antagonistic. There are two values in particular that I find especially helpful. First, if the study of religion is invested in sincerity, making the religious other more human (including the “good” and the “bad” of religion and of humanness), it should also make its practitioners more humane. Such an approach is neither confessional nor resolutely “secular,” but occupies a third way, in between both. As Robert Orsi puts it, “It is willing to make one’s own self-conceptions vulnerable to the radically destabilizing possibilities of a genuine encounter with an unfamiliar way of life” (Between Heaven and Earth, 198).
Second, the critical study of religion requires that one interrogate the values and assumptions of the study itself. This, I suggest, is the most important value, not only for the scholarly practitioner but also for the religious practitioner. The need and ability to question, interrogate, consider, reevaluate, and sympathetically understand is ideally not antagonistic to religion. These practices should not only be essential to the critical study of religion from without, but also within our religious communities.
Both the values of sincerity and critical thinking discussed here are explicitly moral reflections on the encounter with the religious, the study of religion, and, ideally, the way that one learns to critically practice his or her own religion. In this way, the critical study of religion is important not only so that its practitioners can understand “them,” but so that we can be better at being us by practicing sincerity and analysis.