The Rising Tide of Theory

Iliff School of Theology is looking for a new colleague in what they term Religion and Social Justice (find the ad here). Two words in that ad stood out for me:

Desired Strengths: The ideal candidate will possess in-depth expertise in some aspect and/or area of African American studies but also be able to relate their scholarship to broader issues in the study of religion, as well as areas of concern that are central to the school, such as bringing the study of social justice theories and methodologies to bear on contemporary issues, interreligious dialogue, and the diversity of global Christianity…..

These two words stood out because there was a time, not so long ago, when they (or at least the first) were considered dirty words in the field, since they signified naturalistic, explanatory hypotheses that could be tested empirically, concerning religion’s origins and function.

Theory, in the study of religion, thus equaled reductionism (to render religion into some non-religious origin, like class consciousness), and that was a no no for those who were keen only to interpret, understand, or appreciate religion.

But swept along by the rising tide of theory across the humanities and social sciences —  now understood not just as explanatory theorizing but also as a form of critique (think of “postmodern theory”) — that term has been widened considerably over the past twenty years, adapted to suit the tastes of those in whose fields it has landed, to such an extent that now we routinely use the word in ways that have nothing to do with what we once might have meant by it.

Case in point: we now find “theories and methodologies” used in an ad for a job in theology devoted to social justice.

But here’s my concern: when Intelligent Design (ID) advocates — those trying to debunk evolutionary theory and get various sorts of creationist accounts of the world’s origins taught in science classes — term their work “theory,” as we often see in those who engage in what they call “creation science,” people on the political left quickly rally to identify their improper, non-scientific, and thus illegitimate use of the term, seeing it as an inelegant way to smuggle non-theoretical work into the public school. Case in point, consider the Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005) decision in which a U.S. Federal judge made abundantly clear that there was nothing empirically testable (i.e., falsifiable) about their so-called theories, thereby disqualifying certain ways of talking about origins from the high school science classroom.

It is therefore readily apparent to the Court that ID fails to meet the essential ground rules that limit science to testable, natural explanations. (p. 70)

So, my question is: Why does the above use of the word “theory” — just what  a social justice theory, after all? How do you test claims of justice? Whose definition of justice gets to count as a theory? — not attract our same critical scrutiny? Why do we seem to tolerate the expansion of the term “theory” by some groups (those with whom we agree politically, perhaps?) and not others?

Simply put, why has the rising tide of theory only raised some, and not all, boats? And should it have even raised some of those boats?

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