At the Corner of Religious Studies and Theology

I think that there are, in general, three kinds of public discourse on religion. There is an uncritical form of discourse about religion that one encounters at the popular level, in everyday pop-culture, in the pulpit, and not infrequently in the catechetical classroom, that, whether it is affirming or attacking religion, is doing so from an unexamined position. This is how most people, arguably, still get their picture of religion in ordinary life.

There is also a critical form of discourse about religion that is intentionally non-confessional, what we call religious studies, that is a distinctively post-Enlightenment, rigorously academic discipline in conversation with numerous other disciplines, like anthropology, sociology, economics, political theory and history, literary criticism, Ancient Near Eastern antiquities, Egyptology, Greco-Roman classics, Asian studies, and so forth. This discipline, by virtue of what it is as a discipline, intentionally “brackets the transcendent,” in the language of Ninian Smart, and does not speak to questions of ultimate meaning or truth value, but seeks to provide critical knowledge about religion as a human phenomenon that is non-confessional and as neutral as possible, at least when done correctly. Increasingly, religious studies is a more visible, public-facing discipline, especially in the digital age, both in popular blogs, newsletters, and other traditional websites, but also in podcasts and YouTube channels, like, for example, Religion for Breakfast or Let’s Talk Religion.

Then there is theology, which we could define as the academic discourse of religion from a confessional perspective, and the closely related discipline of the philosophy of religion, both of which seek to evaluate and speculatively propose answers about the ultimate truth value of religion beyond the merely human. Often, if non-specialists acquire more specialized knowledge about religion, it is typically from theologians, who have been doing public-facing work for far longer than critical scholars of religion have, and whose work is imperfectly represented in the official pronouncements of different religious communities, authorized catechetical and homiletical resources, and apologetical discourse. Many theologians are also educated and accredited scholars of religion in the non-confessional sense, and do good, important work in both fields; but many more are untrained and, frankly, uninterested in the kinds of things that scholars of religion do. In their defense, some scholars of religion have a penchant for attacking the legitimacy of theology and philosophy of religion as disciplines, and some, though relatively few—certainly far fewer than those who do so in service of apologetic or pro-confessional interests—weaponize their scholarship in service of anti-religious or anti-theological ends.

As if this landscape weren’t diverse enough, it is also the case that the demands of specialization mean that relatively few people in any particular field are fully conscious of what their colleagues in other specialties are up to. In scholarship of religion, the biblical studies people—represented by the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL)—have their own world of internal discourse, one that is distinct from the catch-all for other disciplines in scholarship of religion, represented by the American Academy of Religion (AAR). Both are further distinct from societies representative of connected disciplines, such as The Classical Association for classicists. Theologians are often distinguished into associations based on their sect or creed, though venues for ecumenical discussion across Christian traditional boundaries do exist, in which Christian theology is done in an intentionally multi-sectarian manner. Yet not all theologians involved in confessional or ecumenical discussion also engage in what Ted Peters calls ecumenic discussion: that is, comparative reading and theology in interreligious dialogue with non-Christian traditions, like Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, indigenous religions, and the like. And even further still, not all theologians are intentionally engaging non-religious and non-theological kinds of discourse, in philosophy, in the sciences, in the arts, in politics, economics, society, and in popular culture.

What this ends up meaning is that the ordinary religious quester, Christian or non-Christian, that wants both critical knowledge of religion as a human phenomenon and intentional wrestling with questions of ultimate meaning across institutional boundaries is at a disadvantage. Scholars of religion, qua scholars of religion, don’t do theology; theologians, qua theologians, don’t do scholarship of religion. Both can be avenues to other disciplines, like classics, or antiquities, or poetry, etc., but neither, in and of themselves, are designed to connect the seeker with an integral and intelligent religious humanism.

A Perennial Digression exists to try and fit this intersectional niche. On the one hand, APD tries to connect the reader with the best in scholarship of religion, academic theology, history, philology, literary criticism, and whatever critical literature or other media analyses exist on a variety of topics. On the other hand, APD intentionally engages in philosophical and theological reflection on those topics that is open, dialectical, ecumenical, and ecumenic in character.

I, the author, compose this dispatch from the perspective of an eclectic Christian who has belonged to multiple Christian communities in the course of my life and who, these days, still identifies as Christian but in a way that is often difficult to square with institutional narratives about the boundaries of what that means. I write as someone whose graduate education encompassed both Religious Studies—primarily with an emphasis in biblical literature, but also spanning South and East Asian traditions, the history of Mediterranean religions, and sociology of religion—and Classics, and who hopes to join the chorus of university-trained educators trying to make the content I learned in grad school available but who also hopes to speak to the reasons that, arguably, most people continue to find those things interesting.

What’s With the Title?

As I have clarified here, A Perennial Digression is not “perennialist” in the ordinary sense of that term. I am not a political or cultural conservative or traditionalist, and I am an avowed pluralist, so I do not believe that all religions and cultures secretly teach the same thing. I do think that we can ask and partly answer meaningful questions about reality’s ultimate continuity that invite syncretistic engagement across traditional boundaries and which suggest that there is a transcendent Unity, Being, Goodness, Truth, Wisdom, Life, and Mind behind everything and to which religious experiences, practices, communities, texts, and doctrines point. The title is, therefore, primarily a joke about my penchant for going off-topic, which is just about the only thing that I could manage to justify keeping a single, consistent blog about.

Please Consider Subscribing

Please consider subscribing of your own good will: $5/month or $30/year, or $50 to be a Founding Member, in which case I will give you special priority in comments and consider requests for special commissions (subject to my discretion). As often as possible, I will post two articles a week—one typically free, one typically behind a paywall. Please also consider subscribing to the YouTube channel: after 1,000 subscribers, I can monetize the videos, which in turn justifies more time spent producing them.

Caveat Lector

Any and all views expressed here are mine, and all views so expressed are either my own or those of my guests, and are in no way affiliated with any institution that I have belonged to past or present. Should they cause offense, my hope is that the reader, not unlike the audience of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, will count them as “[n]o more yielding but a dream” (MSND V.1.419) or, in this case, a digression.

Subscribe to A Perennial Digression

At the intersection of religion, classics, and theology.


David Armstrong 

Full of words and seeking quiet.