Review of Fields of Faith: Theology and Religious Studies for the Twenty-first Century, ed. David Ford, Ben Quash and Janet Martin Soskice, 2005. 230 pages.

Lindsay Cleveland
Baylor University

David Ford, Ben Quash and Janet Martin Soskice have compiled a rich diversity of essays engaging the nature of the academic study of Theology and Religious Studies, as well as possibilities for its future. The book, which gathers authors from a variety of institutional contexts where Theology and Religious Studies are envisaged and pursued, fills a void within scholarship by putting various perspectives into conversation. What unfolds is a constructive debate with potential to sharpen and enhance efforts to shape the fields for a fruitful future.

The book is divided in two parts. The first offers accounts of the fields and suggestions for their future. The second is said to “perform” the interaction of Theology and Religious Studies through topical essays concerning God, love, scripture, worship, argument, reconciliation, friendship and justice. Where relevant, many of these topical studies include considerations for promoting the common good. The book concludes with a response based upon the discussions of an editor, a contributor and a participant in the consultation from which the book emerged.

In the Introduction, David Ford specifies the aim of the book: “to conceptualise, exemplify and reflect upon the study of theology and religions, with a special concern for the interaction of two dimensions of the field that are often separated institutionally” (xiii). Ford’s discussion of the “field” of study of theology and the religions in contrast to the book’s title, Fields of Faith, reflects the debate internal to the book between those who seek to maintain a strong distinction between the study of theology and the religions and those who advocate a future in which the two are sufficiently interconnected so as to constitute two dimensions of a single field. Ford maintains, “the overall intention is not to propose a general framework for the field that might be universally applied. It is rather an attempt to articulate and debate the wisdom that has been learnt in particular traditions, institutions and conversations under specific historical influences and constraints” (xv).

The concluding Response by Nicholas Adams, Oliver Davies, and Ben Quash serves as a response both to the authors and the readers of the book, to whom the respondents acknowledge a dual responsibility. The respondents identify themes that emerge throughout the essays and respond to possible challenges from readers. They identify as the dominant theme throughout the essays the view that “Religious Studies and Theology alike are engaged in a common pursuit of good descriptions of reality; descriptions of which genealogies are a crucial part; descriptions that do justice to the depth and complexity of what they describe; descriptions that pay attention, acknowledge resistances and take seriously material that is unassimilable to ‘high theory'” (211-12).

While the concern for the interaction of Theology and Religious Studies as two distinct though interrelated fields seems to be supported by the majority of the contributors, there are dissenters to such a view. There are also more at least apparent disagreements than recognized in the concluding response. Such apparent disagreements invite further consideration and clarification of the relevant views to determine whether these are genuine disagreements. The respondents’ failure to acknowledge and directly engage those authors who depart from the dominant view of the fields results in a mischaracterization of the conversation that develops within the book. I seek to remedy that void in this essay by identifying and analyzing some apparent disagreements that emerge in the book.

In one of the most interesting essays within the collection, Denys Turner offers an account of Theology that supports such a focus on the illumination of controversial issues. Turner contends that what is needed is a more intellectually coherent account of Theology’s presence in the university. Turner offers such an account, defending the view that Theology is inherently argumentativa. He says Theology is “argument between traditions of truth-claims in contestation over the truths they make claim to” (35). Turner characterizes theologians as “those who occupy the common territory of theological disagreement…those who know how to disagree about God” (34). Turner maintains that the recognition of genuine disagreement about God is neither obvious nor easy. Thus, the theologian’s task is to distinguish genuine difference from diversity and then to argue about competing truth-claims.

Turner notes that the academic ideology of alterity threatens the theologian’s task. The ideology of alterity identifies all difference as heterogeneity and so excludes, as theoretically impossible, genuine disagreements between faith traditions. Against this Turner calls for careful distinguishing between types of difference: between the exclusively and non-exclusively distinct, and within the latter between simple distinction and heterogeneity. He urges theologians to distinguish between profitable and unprofitable theological disagreements, between difference and diversity among faith traditions, and between beliefs in mutual exclusion of one another and simple heterogeneity of belief. Turner’s conception of what it is to be a theologian includes atheists, who also make claims about God. Turner suggests that an increase in intellectual vigor and rigor on the part of both confessional theologians and atheists would be mutually beneficial.

Let us now attempt to perform Turner’s account of argument, involving the identification of genuine difference, by seeking to illuminate what appear to be points of disagreement between authors in the book. Perhaps the clearest disagreement is between Turner and Julius Lipner, neither of whose essays is directly engaged in the book’s Introduction or Response. Turner defends a conception of the field of Theology including confessing theists and atheists alike, while he denies that ‘Religious Studies’ refers to a unique discipline. In contrast, Lipner defends a conception of ‘descriptive theology’ as a sub-focus of the field of Religion, while he denies that confessional theology has a place in the secular university. I will now explain in more detail Turner’s and Lipner’s views of Theology and Religious Studies, contrasting them with other views defended in the book, with the aim of clarifying points of genuine agreement and disagreement.

Turner denies the usefulness of analyzing faith traditions as religions. He sympathizes with “the view that anything you could possibly value a religion for is liable to be lost in its characterization as a ‘religion’ and that anything valuable lies in its specificness, and that it would be the first duty of ecumenical sensitivity to acknowledge that all major faith traditions seek to occupy the common territory of ultimacy, and therefore, at least at some point, are bound to contend over that territory” (xv). Given this, Turner boldly claims, “faith traditions are either concerned with the discernment and proclamation of truths demonstrably ultimate, or else they deserve nothing better than to be ‘explained’, and if possible to be ‘explained away’ as human forms of idolatry” (31). Turner fails to explain what he means by “truths demonstrably ultimate.” We might guess he means truths concerning such things as the source, purpose and goal of the cosmos, and of living beings, especially humans; not only whether God exists but also what difference it makes for human life; how we can know of and speak truthfully about God. We might also charitably assume that by ‘proclamation’ Turner means communication in both word and deed by all members of a faith tradition.

Turner’s concluding remarks threaten to undermine one of his earlier claims. Concerning theological questions, he says “insofar … as they are demonstrably ultimate, they press upon us an unknowability about things, a sense of the world as mystery” (38). This claim threatens to undermine Turner’s critique of the contemporary assumption that “the more ultimate your questions are, the less possible it is to determine the truth of competing answers” (31). One way to make the two remarks consistent is to suppose Turner assumes a distinction that one of his teachers, St. Thomas Aquinas, makes between knowledge and comprehension. Aquinas maintains that whereas humans can gain genuine affirmative knowledge of God’s essence in this life, we will never comprehend or fully grasp God’s essence. As a result, all knowledge of God remains shrouded in mystery. Turner concludes that the place of theology in the university is parallel to that of science. Whereas science ought to give rise to an ultimate kind of astonishment concerning how the world is, theology ought to do so concerning that the world is.

While most of the authors express agreement with Turner that faith traditions ought to be studied in their specificity and that there is no such thing as a completely neutral study of faith traditions, few so characterize faith traditions or religions as contending, in at least some respects, over a common territory. Several authors emphasize, instead, the pragmatic function of the work of theologians or scholars of religion. Nicholas Adams argues that the purpose of theological argument is both to legitimate practices and beliefs as well as to aid learning how to live. Gavin Flood argues that “Religious Studies can be understood in terms of corrective reading and that such corrective reading has two referents: a reflexive, corrective reading of its own tradition, especially Phenomenology, and corrective reading of primary traditions or the objects of its inquiry, which is implicitly or explicitly a reading across traditions” (61). Flood seeks to correct the characteristic Religious Studies understanding of phenomenology as the suspension of subjectivity. Relying on the work of Peter Ochs, Flood distinguishes between ‘plain sense’ and ‘interpreted sense’. Whereas the plain sense is the reading of a text in its own context, the interpreted sense is the corrective or pragmatic reading in which a community of readers discerns new meanings relevant to their context. As such, corrective or pragmatic reading is tradition and community specific. Because, Flood maintains, Religious Studies is inherently comparative, pragmatic reading for Religious Studies must be implicitly comparative. Wary of past forms of comparison that sought to show the superiority or equality of one religion to others, or to show that diverse religions point to a common truth, Flood defends a dialogical, language and communication centered kind of comparison. Considering only Flood’s essay in this book, it is unclear whether his proposal for comparing religions would involve the identification of competing truth claims.

Turner denies that there is anything distinctive about the field called ‘Religious Studies’. Dismissing as both intellectually and morally indefensible the practice in UK universities of calling a course ‘Religious Studies’ if it concerns a faith tradition other than Christianity, Turner sees no unique inquiry that would distinguish ‘Religious Studies’ from other academic fields. He claims, “‘Religious Studies’ people ask only the same sorts of questions that anthropologists, or psychologists, or historians, or sociologists ask, as it happens about religions, whatever we decide they are” (37). In contrast, theologians ask distinctive questions such as Leibniz’s question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Often, such questions arise out of creedal commitment and in relation to an ecclesial community. He claims that whereas ‘Religious Studies’ is a theoretical discipline defined by its object, i.e. the religions of the world, Theology is a “study of something else, say God, or of how to talk about God … And it is the study of God in the Latin sense, with passion—for to ‘study’ theology in the primary sense of the expression is to do theology” (26). Turner deems incoherent the combination of the two in ‘Departments of Theology and Religious Studies’ and the claim to study them both.

While Turner is the only author who directly denies the distinctiveness of Religious Studies, few authors offer an account of the distinctiveness of the field. Others seem to implicitly collapse the distinction between Theology and Religious Studies. For example, Buckley calls for the retrieval of a theological understanding of religion, wherein the scientific study of religion does not simply disclose something about human culture but also about God. He suggests that by dispensing with the modern notion of religion as a genus under which fall various mutually exclusive species, contemporary theologians might learn from other religions truths about God that are consistent with and so deepen their own faith.

Of those authors who do propose some kind of account of the distinctiveness of Religious Studies from Theology or other fields, it seems that their various views of the distinction between Theology and Religious Studies may amount to a distinction without a difference. I will discuss Julius Lipner’s, Peter Ochs’ and Sarah Coakley’s accounts in turn.

Lipner argues that descriptive theology, but not performative theology, may be pursued in secular universities, but only as a sub-focus of Religious Studies. Lipner distinguishes two senses of the use of the term ‘theology’: (i) a performative sense wherein theologizing is done from the perspective of faith commitment, and (ii) a descriptive (or phenomenological or egalitarian) sense wherein theologizing is done from the stance of the critical observer. Lipner qualifies that “the ‘descriptive’ of the scholar is not free from a form of perspectival transformation of the content of the object described” (102n16). Granting that no description is completely free of evaluation in this sense, Lipner maintains that only the confessional theologian can make overt evaluative judgments. The prescriptive theologian can suggest alternative stances to those who share her confessional tradition and “bring the contemporary insights of the social scientific study of language to bear on the way meaning is changed and transmitted across religio-cultural boundaries” (97). But the descriptive theologian may not. She is limited to exposing and testing the coherence of theological presuppositions, and to other forms of critique.

Such descriptive theology, Lipner says, “may be studied in the secular context only as an aspect of the study of religion, not as a project evaluatively privileged on the basis of commitment to a particular faith” (93). Lipner acknowledges that his account weakens the distinction between theology and the study of religion since he characterizes the descriptive study of theology “as a special focus of the study of religion” (94). He further characterized descriptive theology as “a phenomenological inquiry into quidditative aspects of a particular religious tradition from the point of view of that tradition’s understanding and expression of the nature of ultimate reality and its relationship to the world” (94). If this is descriptive theology, and descriptive theology is only one sub-focus of Religious Studies, one wonders what those aspects of the study of religion not included in descriptive theology would consist in. Since Lipner does not tell us, we are left without a clear distinction between descriptive theology and Religious Studies.

Lipner is unique among the authors in excluding prescriptive or confessional theology from secular universities. But those authors who wish to maintain a distinction between confessional theology and Religious Studies are not much clearer than Lipner about what the distinction consists in. In the book’s Introduction, Ford only indirectly engages Lipner’s essay, saying, “Lipner’s questions about religious studies, descriptive theology and performative theology are strikingly addressed by Ochs” in his discussion of Jewish scriptural study and the University of Virginia’s model for religious and theological studies, as well as in his rules for the peaceful co-existence of Theology and Religious Studies (xiv). While Ochs does offer a model for the comparative study of faith traditions, he does not address Lipner’s more fundamental concern that Religious Studies in a secular university be free from the evaluative bias of religious practitioners. Lipner’s concern seems to be that such an evaluative perspective is insufficiently critical. But why think this is necessarily the case and why think only an observer can be sufficiently critical? Most of the authors in the book would seem to want to challenge the dichotomy between dispassionate description and normative evaluation assumed by such claims, regarding it as a false assumption of a mostly dead modernist understanding of the requirements for the academic study of religion.

Ochs offers an account of theological and religious studies in terms of the reading of texts in scriptural traditions. Relying on the work of David Weiss Halivni, Ochs proposes that Theology and Religious Studies both include plain-sense study of texts as well as imaginative reflection that goes beyond the limits of plain-sense studies to incorporate “depth historiography”, such as inductive and typological study. Ochs’ aim is to foster a model that “avoids the intellectual reductionism of strictly plain-sense studies of scripture as well as the religious reductionism of orthodox theologies that eschew the plain-sense sciences altogether” (117). He notes that the model he advocates is also applicable to the comparative study of non-textual religious practices.

Ochs maintains that Theology and Religious Studies “would differ in the potential (but not immediate) uses of this reflection. Theology might offer its reflections as potential (or conceivable) contributions to the life of some set of religious communities, but abstracted as yet from any actual contribution of this kind. Religious Studies might offer its reflections independently of any such use, or as potential contributions to the prosecution of some other field of academic inquiry (semiotics, anthropology, history, and so on)” (115). But if the difference between Theology and Religious Studies lies only in the application of the same kinds of reflection, and if such application is not identified with the field itself nor as a necessary characteristic thereof, then it is not clear that Ochs is genuinely differentiating the two. Ochs also distinguishes between “depth historiography” and “community specific theology work,” insisting that “the latter belongs outside the academy, within communities that test the practical efficacy of depth historiographic claims,” which are appropriately introduced in the academy (115). It seems that the sort of application of reflections to religious communities that Ochs deems characteristic of Theology would count as such community specific theology work that Ochs claims belongs outside the academy. This further problematizes Ochs’ account of the distinction between Theology and Religious Studies.

Sarah Coakley shares Turner’s confidence in the possibility (within the university) of rational argumentation over theological issues, including competing truth claims. However, she departs from Turner in her cautioning against a hasty dissolution of the traditional distinction between Theology and religious studies in the United Kingdom. Recognizing that the traditional distinction between Theology and religious studies was the result of a now largely rejected Enlightenment notion of religion, Coakley worries that a rush to reintegrate the two realms of study “could have the unintended effect of subsuming one into the other (46).” What is most likely in the UK, she thinks, is the “swallowing up of ‘Religious Studies’ under the aegis of ‘Theology,'” through a retrenchment into an uncontested Anglicanism or Scottish Presbyterianism, involving the suppression of other faith traditions as well as the methodologies of thick descriptions of religion that enable feminist and gender studies (44).

Coakley supports her concern by citing the negative consequences of the North American dissolution of the traditional distinction between Theology and religious studies. Whereas the British temptation is, according to Coakley, to subsume religious studies into Theology, the American experience has been to subsume Theology into religious studies. The problematic consequences of the American dissolution she identifies include the suspicion of metaphysical claims, the pervasive assumption that pluralistic toleration requires the abandonment of absolutist claims, and the characterization of religious beliefs and doctrines as merely hermeneutical perspectives. All of these problematic views, she notes, are supported by some form of philosophical pragmatism.

Coakley claims that these consequences of the distinctive American dissolution of the distinction threaten a distinctly British dissolution of the distinction. She says, “if we want to keep questions of ‘God’, ‘truth’ and metaphysical ultimacy robustly in play in our theological discourses, we also need to defend in some form the traditional distinction between ‘religious studies’ and ‘theology’ (48).” But Coakley is not only unclear as to why the traditional distinction would safeguard such questions in the UK, she is also unclear about the relationship between the dissolution of the traditional distinction and the suppression of such questions in North America. Coakley also claims that when the dialectic between religion and Theology is suppressed, the methodologies of feminist and gender studies also seem to be suppressed. However, Coakley fails to support this claim. She criticizes the American experience not for suppressing feminist work, but for fostering feminist work that is impoverished due to philosophical and theological errors. While Coakley is right that gender studies developed in a context of institutional separation of Theology and religious studies, it is unclear that there is something necessary about this separation for the survival of gender studies.

Coakley’s discussion of the problematic effects of the American dissolution of the religion/Theology distinction and of the development of feminist and gender studies out of the dialectic between religion and Theology is valuable insofar as it remains the warning she introduces it as against a too hasty integration of religion and Theology. But insofar as Coakley makes stronger claims implying that there is something necessary about the religion/Theology distinction for guarding against the suppression of metaphysical and absolutist claims and of feminist and gender studies, Coakley’s case is dubious and unsupported.

Another reason Coakley gives for maintaining the religion/Theology distinction is to promote the interaction of Christian theology with other faith traditions. Though this reason seems to assume the view Turner challenges, namely that if the subject matter concerns a non-Christian faith then it is called religious studies, it is plausible that Coakley does not advocate such a view but worries that, with the dominance of Christianity in the UK, the dissolution of the religion/theology distinction would result in the suppression of the study of non-Christian faiths. It remains unclear what Coakley takes to be the distinction between religious studies and Theology. She opposes the notion that the distinction is between dispassion and commitment. Given her concern of losing the lived dimension of faith traditions and the dialectic with non-Christian faith traditions, we might assume she thinks religious studies is characterized by the comparative analysis of faith traditions, including both their doctrine and lived realities. Her opposition to a sharp dichotomy between belief and practice challenges a distinction between Theology as analysis of belief and religious studies as analysis of practice.

In the book’s Introduction, Ford says, “Through these chapters elements that are often ascribed in binary fashion either to Theology or to religious studies are found to be mutually inextricable. The artificiality and even destructiveness of separating the two is especially clear when the large, deep questions are tackled and there is a need to draw on all relevant resources to do justice to them (xv).” I hope to have shown that this and other characterizations of the fields are ambiguous concerning the significance of the distinction between Theology and Religious Studies. Turner’s and Coakley’s essays taken together are suggestive of a constructive way forward for discussions concerning the future of the fields. Such discussions could clarify whether there is a substantive difference underlying the distinction between the fields by focusing on the identification of the positive and negative consequences of the Theology/Religious Studies distinction as well as the desirable and undesirable features of the study of faith traditions or religions. These discussions should also consider whether maintaining a Theology/Religious Studies distinction is necessary or significantly useful for preserving relevant goods or avoiding relevant ills. If so, such discussions should aim to clarify in what the difference between the two fields consists now and for the future. My criticisms aside, the book has the potential to advance this discussion through its combination of various perspectives on and approaches concerning the nature of the study of theology and the religions. The conversation that results from the compilation of these essays into a single volume is illuminating and instructive for those engaged in the practice or formation of the academic study of Theology and Religious Studies.