Reason to Be

tcu“As professors in the Department of Religion, we are often asked by prospective students (and their parents) about the ‘Christian’ in Texas Christian University, or the ‘C,’ as they more often put it, in TCU…” So opens an interesting blog post that I think is well worth the read; for it tries to elaborate on the role of the study of religion at private denomination college — specifically, one affiliated with the Disciples of Christ.

A little ways into the post we read:

Like most scholars in our discipline, we share the conviction that the study of religion inevitably prompts, dare we say inspires, undergraduate students to ask Life’s Big Questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? After all, religion is part of the human search for ultimate meaning, which has led students, we hope, to pursue an undergraduate education.

What I find curious here is that, in my experience, they’re right about “most scholars,” for many US scholars of religion working in public universities that, by law, have no denominational affiliation whatsoever, would likely agree with this statement (i.e., the qualifier “ultimate” is still thrown around pretty freely in the field and more than a few academics think religion is about deep issues and Life’s Big Questions [I gather the uppercase is significant, distinguishing merely big questions, like why women consistently earn less than men, from really really BIG questions]). To rephrase: while the convictions that animate this post make perfect sense coming from its particular institutional context — where the study of religion is understandably seen as an opportunity “to encourage students to find a sense of commonality in that search [for meaning],” thereby helping them “to see their own religious commitments or spiritual practices through another’s eyes” — is this the rationale for studying religion in other universities as well?

Simply put: ought the academic study of religion be understood as a form of personal self-examination intended to promote inter-religious understanding? Or is there another reason to study religion, leading toward different effects, especially if you’re attending or working in a public university?

So cruise the web a little and see how Departments in state universities describe their raison d’être and ask if you think it could be rethought and restated — and if so, then how and why?

3 thoughts on “Reason to Be

  1. Russell: thanks for these thoughts on my colleagues’ post.
    And in response to this: “ought the academic study of religion be understood as a form of personal self-examination intended to promote inter-religious understanding? Or is there another reason to study religion, leading toward different effects, especially if you’re attending or working in a public university?”
    There are a slew of reasons to study religion (or “religion”), very much including the ones you regularly foreground. I think promoting self-examination (especially as a subject for critical inquiry) is one of them.

    • I’d not be a supporter of justifying the academic study of religion as a place to figure out how to accept religious pluralism for a slew of reasons. A denominational school might, so long as it is left-leaning, and that’s great for them, but as a field we’re in trouble, I think, if this ranks among the reasons Depts give for their existence.

  2. I agree that our goal (as field and at TCU) should not be to “justify the academic study of religion as a place to figure out how to accept religious pluralism.” I have upset an array of students over the years who thought I was their ally in doing so. However, I am happy that our students frequently end up accepting religious pluralism through the critical academic study of religion, given their uncritical starting points.

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