Religious Studies & Metaphysics

In “The ‘academic naturalization’ of Religious Studies: Intent or pretense?”, Donald Wiebe categorically reminds us that the academic study of religion “achieved academic status as a legitimate scholarly undertaking, housed in its own political structure within the academic and university community, precisely on the basis of a clear demarcation between itself and theology” (Wiebe, 198). For Wiebe however, the study of religion has failed to “restrict its cognitive concerns (…) to the drawing of empirical generalizations about particular religious traditions and about Religion in general, and the formulation of testable hypotheses to account for such generalizations” (Wiebe, 198-199). For Wiebe then, there is no room for metaphysical considerations within the study of religion if such a study is to be considered by any means scientific. A hypothesis that cannot be empirically tested is, for Wiebe, not a hypothesis that is appropriate for consideration within religious studies. But despite Wiebe’s objections, metaphysics have infiltrated the academic study of religion, a fact that, for Wiebe, amounts to a “failure of nerve” within the discipline. As a result, in Wiebe’s view the academic study of religion pretends to be what it is not, and in the process blocks the intention of its original founders (Wiebe, 199).

But for Charles Davis, Wiebe’s position is problematic, since the reductionist skepticism which seems to characterize Wiebe’s approach is, after all, not as cognitively neutral as Wiebe might like to think. In “The immanence of knowledge and the ecstacy of faith,” Charles Davis views the scientific neutrality of the sort aspired to by Wiebe as a “self-deceptive illusion” (Davis, 193), since a genuine neutrality should “prescind from both religious faith and reductionist skepticism” (Davis, 193). For Davis, “knowing is always an affair of a concrete knowing subject, with a particular history, a particular formation, a particular accumulation of experience, a particular habitual knowledge, a particular set of biases” (Davis, 193). For Davis, the impressionable nature of the knowing subject is such that there can in fact be no discernible cognitive neutral zone to house the scientist or the empiricist anywhere between the two extremes of religious faith and reductionist skepticism – implicit in all possible approaches to the study of religion is a specific philosophical stance with respect to religious transcendence. Wiebe’s reductionist skepticism can therefore be viewed as an expression of a particular knowing subject’s disbelief in the ontological validity of religious transcendence.

Wiebe calls for the straight-forward demarcation of religious studies from theology, but in so doing Wiebe fails to consider the evolving nature of theology itself. For Davis, post-Enlightenment theology is still relevant to religious studies insomuch as it has grown out of its earlier foundation on authority. For Davis, “to take one’s stand with the Enlightenment upon reason, not authority, is the regard reason alone as competent to make truth-claims. Authority may establish a context for social collaboration and thus create a tradition. What it cannot do for post-Enlightenment scientific people is to impose belief as true and demand assent” (Davis, 192). For Davis then, the Enlightenment caused a tectonic cognitive shift from authority to reason, a shift so intense and profound that it diminished or altogether eliminated the previously known authoritative power of theology in favor of the illuminating strength of reason. For Davis, to the extent that theology since the Enlightenment has become reasonable, it now constitutes a legitimate philosophic discipline deserving serious consideration within the field of religious studies. As Davis points out, “there is no discernible difference between theology and philosophy of religion,” a discipline that emerged historically “when revealed theology as invoking an authority higher than reason was no longer a viable option to those accepting the Enlightenment autonomy of reason” (Davis, 192). For Davis, modern theology or the philosophy of religion no longer constitute the same kind theology that Wiebe disqualifies as scientifically inept.

While Davis effectively argues for the reconvergence of theology and religious studies, his credibility is somewhat compromised by his unfortunate insistence on the need for the observer of religion to be somehow religiously committed in order to be able to properly fulfill his/her scholarly duties. In Davis’ opinion “we should hardly expect a person closed to religious faith to be a sensitive interpreter of religious data” (Davis, 195). While Davis’ point as it relates to the sensitivity of the observer in matters religious is well taken, by insisting as he does on this particular point he feeds the skepticism of his opponents, and needlessly upsets the delicate balance of his carefully crafted argument. After all, the skeptics will say, if reason is a universal trait that is accessible to everybody, how then are some better positioned than others to deploy its power within the field of religious studies?

Implications of Phenomenology on the Study of Religion

In the introduction to his Dimensions of the Sacred, Ninian Smart explains his methodological use of the term “focus” to describe the phenomenological object of religious practice and experience. Smart prefers to use the term “focus” instead of “the transcendent” or “ultimate reality” because “focus” has more to do with the perspective of the believer and less to do with questions of truth: “For a believer the focus is real, and we can accept this even if we do not want to say that it (or he or she) exists (Smart, 9).” Similarly, Smart distinguishes between “real” and “existent,” once again emphasizing the believer’s perspective: “I thus distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘existent’ as adjectives. The former I use, in this context, to refer to what is phenomenologically real in the experience of the believer. Whether the real in this sense exists is an altogether different question (Smart, 9).”

As implied by these methodological choices, Smart intends to steer clear of any philosophical evaluation of religious truth claims in his approach to the study of religion. Although the question of truth may be a legitimate one to ask, Smart deems this terrain to be an inherently dangerous one for the scientist to explore: “There are academic and institutional dangers here, I do not doubt (Smart, 18).” The often close association between religious studies and theology, and indeed the fact that the religious studies was born out of theology, presents of kind of reputation risk to religious studies insomuch as it could easily be seen as reverting back to theology if it asks too many of the wrong kinds of questions. For Smart, those who insist on avoiding the questions of truth “are often motivated by a suspicion of the way in which (Christian) theology has dominated and perhaps infected the field (Smart, 18).”

For Smart, the study of religion, if it is to be genuinely scientific, must first aim to understand religion from a strictly phenomenological perspective: “The descriptive task has a certain priority: unless we know what it is we are reflecting about, how can we reflect appropriately (Smart, 18)?” While Smart explicitly defines the priority for religious studies as the descriptive task, he implicitly suggests, through his presentation of the seven interrelated dimensions of religion, that this descriptive undertaking is both sizable and complex. Smart’s dimensional methodology seems to imply that scholars of religion will indeed have their hands full simply in dealing with the phenomenological aspects of religion. To the extent these scholars of religion take the descriptive agenda seriously, they may scarcely even be able to find the time to consider other matters at all.

But for Smart, the questions of truth cannot be ultimately avoided. While the body of Smart’s work is exclusively phenomenological, he does see a time and place for the philosophical examination of religious truth claims. Indeed, reflection “about the truth, value and relationship of the world’s worldviews” can be understood as the ultimate objective of religious studies: “It seems inevitable that some reflection will arise out of the study of religions and, more generally, of worldviews (Smart, 18-19).” The phenomenological data gathered by Smart and other scientists can therefore be understood as providing the necessary base for subsequent reflections within the philosophy of religion.

While the value of phenomenological analysis to the study of religion is undeniable, it might be argued than an over-emphasis on phenomenology can amount to reductionism. For instance, Smart adopts the premise in his analysis that secular worldviews such as nationalism are phenomenologically indistinguishable from religion. Thus, the categorical distinction between religion and secular worldviews is merely an artificial one intended to promote the idea of secularism itself: “Because religion is separated from secular worldviews, for instance, it is assumed that East Germany was a secular state; in fact Marxism functioned in that country much as a state religion, as Lutheranism once had (Smart, 2).” But if nationalism is really a form of religion, then what judgment does that imply about the nature of religion itself? If many things outside of what is traditionally understood as religion are deemed phenomenologically equivalent to it, then we are either saying that religion is a lot more prevalent in society than once imagined, or that in fact religion as a distinct category has no ontological meaning.