I finally got around to reading K.L. Noll's Chronicle article on the difference between religious study and theology (thanks to my colleague Chris for posting a link to it on Facebook). I know that several others have evaluated this piece recently, but I'm still mulling over Noll for myself and will perhaps respond more fully later once I've read the thorough critiques by Chris Heard and Tyler Williams. I have to admit that on first read, I'm very sympathetic to Noll's characterization of the difference between religious studies and theology. (I've posted before on the issue. Here. And on the related issue of apologetics vs. critical Bible scholarship.) While I continue to ponder the implications of Noll's article, here are a few excerpts that caught my attention.
My encounter with that professor reflects a problem endemic to academe. Most people do not understand what religious study really is. Professors of religion are often confused with, or assumed to be allies of, professors of theology. The reason for the confusion is no secret. All too often, even at public universities, the religion department is peopled by theologians, and many of those theologians refuse to make the distinction that I am about to make.
. . .
Theology also views itself as an academic discipline, but it does not attempt to advance knowledge. Rather, theologians practice and defend religion. Theology is a set of words about a god; therefore, while theology is one of many objects of investigation for a religion researcher, it is the substance of the scholarship produced by a theologian.
There is nothing wrong with the practice and defense of religion, but it is not the study of religion. The best theologians are scholars who have immersed themselves in many of the same academic disciplines favored by religion researchers. Like good religion research, good theology is generated by the application of sound reasoning to empirical evidence. But there is a crucial difference. The religion researcher evaluates that evidence from within a tradition of secular, academic "wisdom." The theologian evaluates the same evidence from within a tradition of sacred, esoteric "wisdom." The distinction is not trivial and ought to be recognized and honored by religion researchers and theologians alike.
. . .
In other words, the theologian maintains that there exists an irreducible element in religious ritual that we religion researchers cannot hope to comprehend. I expect every theologian to believe this and will never argue with theologians about it.