Out of Bounds

red-cardThe blokes (that’s the right word, no?) over at The Religious Studies Project posted a link earlier today to an article entitled “The Case Against Mix-and-Match Spirituality” — an article, summarizing a recent session at The Aspen Ideas Festival, that nicely demonstrates how easily (and often) scholars adopt a stance from within the groups they happen to study, thereby taking sides in what are, in fact, local disputes, instead of studying how group members themselves make judgment calls on who is or who is not out of bounds.

For example, Molly Worthen, a history professor at the University of North Carolina (Chapenl Hill), is quoted as saying the following:

“Call me old fashioned, but yes, I would say, to be a good Catholic you have to believe in God,” she said. “There’s a problem with the hyper-individualization of Millennial religion. The advantage of an institution is that it forces you into conversation with people you might not agree with. It forces you to grapple with a tradition that includes hard ideas. It forces you to have, for at least part of your life, a respect for authority that inculcates the sense that you have something to learn, that you’re not reinventing the wheel, but that millennia have come before you. The structure of institutions, for all their evils, facilitates that. And we may be losing that.”

There is so very much to comment on in this one quote alone (like the untheorized, commonsense notion of an individual as somehow opposed to or apart from institutions, instead of seeing the former as a product of the latter, thus making the issue all about a conflicts among competing institutions, one of this she is clearly supporting), but suffice it to just note that, like so many other scholars, we see here the treatment of tradition as if it is a stable object, instead of seeing her own judgment itself as being among the means by which this thing tradition is continually constituted and policed.

For here we see the scholar playing the role of referee, making calls on what counts as (in this case) legitimately Catholic or not, instead of studying these very processes themselves.

The scholar as referee strikes me as a role far outside our scholarly expertise — every game needs a ref, of course, but I don’t think scholars are either players or referees when it comes to who is or who is not a Catholic. Instead, scholars play the game of academia, which has its own arena, rules, and procedures, of course — one of which is to keep out of the games other people devise and play and, instead, just try to figure out how and why they play them as they do.

So, should you be tempted — as so many scholars are — to make pronouncements on who is really Muslim, who is properly Buddhist, the authentic nature of Hinduism, or what’s rightly considered Catholic, then I think you’ve just earned your own red card for you’re not just old fashioned but you’re way out of bounds as a scholar.