I wanted to share remarks shared with me by Craig Martin in response to a suggestion made to me by another friend and colleague on FB that one thing we do in Judaic Studies, as an academic discipline, is prepare students for “moral, emotional, spiritual challenges.” Craig is an SU Religion grad now teaching Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College. Craig is in deep with a group of colleagues who argue that academic Religious Studies is already and always too theological, too steeped in the theological commitments suggested by my friend who wants us to take up these moral, emotional, challenges.
Craig wrote the following, which I cite with his permission:
However, regarding those students interested in preparation for moral, emotional, and spiritual challenges: I hope they go somewhere else than my class. The idea that “religious studies” prepares students for those challenges reinforces the idea that religious studies isn’t really academic, that it’s some sort of existentialist counseling service—and I’m not a counselor. As a professor, I am no more interested in existential naval-gazing than my colleagues in history, sociology, or economics—the “meaning of life” falls outside the scope of my expertise.
In addition, by suggesting that religious studies prepares students for thinking about such things, we do a disservice to those in the field—like myself—who want religious studies to be taken more seriously by scholars in other disciplines who already think we’re all theologians. At my college I keep getting told that we could get more religion majors if we teamed up with the campus ministries program. I need less, not more of that sort of thing. But it won’t change if we continue to send the message that religious studies concerns preparing for spiritual challenges.
It is a rare pleasure when I get to agree with Craig, and to say so in public. It doesn’t happen often, but I’m with him on this one. The pitch I want to make for Judaic Studies, as an academic disciple, has to be cool and pragmatic. In fact, I’m not as closed as Craig is to this squishy spiritual stuff, and understand that, yes, it drives a lot of the work done by scholars of religion. But this stuff can get toxic fast, and it needs to be pursued with genuine critical rigor.
I don’t mind crypto theology and other kinds of existential musing creeping into the discipline, as long as they remain crypto. In response to the comment posted here by my colleague Ed Mooney, who does not shy at all away from the existential question in Religious Studies: I find that the best approach to these matters, the kinds of theological and existential questions and claims that matter in and to the texts and writers we read, is the oblique, unstated, and, at most, understated approach; and a critical approach which means standing at a critical remove. Unlike Craig, though, I’m a committed liberal, a firm believer in the power of a box, and the making of artificial, not hard and fast, but fungible lines of separation between one thing and another.