Friday, August 14, 2009

Noll's Ethics of Being a Theologian

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.

I was surprised when I read the comments to this article at the Chronicle. Maybe I followed him because I'm sympathetic to his reasoning, but the reactions were defensive and apologetic. I shouldn't have been surprised. My own posts on the subject garnered a similar reaction - objectivity is impossible, you're just as biased as we are, etc.

Lately, I've been wrestling with this issue - separating my approach to the Bible into professional and confessional categories and carefully trying to keep them apart. Perhaps Joel Willitts is right that it's more important to keep them together, realizing we can't separate the scholar from the scholarship.


  1. I think the separation between Theology and Religious Studies is overstated. When he says, "[Theology] does not attempt to advance knowledge. Rather, theologians practice and defend religion," I think he is misunderstanding theology. Traditionally, theology has always tried to advance knowledge, even since ancient times. (I have to thank my wife for this observation.) The Talmud tried to advance knowledge of Oral Torah, the Cappadocian Fathers tried to advance knowledge of the Trinity and Christology.

    Further, that theologians are just there to "practice and defend religion" is also inaccurate, in my opinion. Is the prophetic critique of religion more "theology" or "religious studies"?

    In short, I don't agree with his characterisation of theology. There is a deeper undercurrent in this article, in that the author wants to separate religious studies starkly from theology. Just as it seems that theology is doing some of the things that religious studies is doing, I think the reverse can be shown, as well. For example, I think that religious studies often "practices and defends" religious studies. The author says that "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.'" So the difference is just that the theologian words from "esoteric" wisdom, as opposed to "academic" wisdom of religious studies. I don't see the inherent difference between these two "wisdoms." For starters, I personally think that academic wisdom is more esoteric than sacred wisdom.

    So how am I not a theologian when I go into class? I work with the theological presuppositions of the academy ("secular") rather than traditional presuppositions ("religious," "Jewish," "Christian").

    One question I still have is, what is the difference between "secular" assumptions and non-traditional religious assumptions?

  2. Hello Douglas

    I wrote something about it, agreeing on some issues and disagreed on others, the relationships between "religious studies" and "theology." Got a hook in your text and Konll read in the light's reflection of Max Weber, in view of "review and synthesis."

    Part I

    Part II