August 4, 1999
Directions in the Academic Study of Religion
-- Martin E. Marty
"Have you read Luke Timothy Johnson's review in COMMONWEAL?" a friend asked. We hadn't. "Johnson's comment on religious studies in the academy relates to your 'public religion.'" Yes.
Emory University's Johnson reviews Carol Delaney's ABRAHAM ON TRIAL (Princeton) and Regina M. Schwartz's THE CURSE OF CAIN (Chicago) in the July 16 COMMONWEAL and finds their biblical scholarship to be wanting, naive, and ideological for reasons too complex to settle here. Their books he writes, are "of interest less as resources for serious social and religious inquiry than as indicators of troubling tendencies in the academic study of religion today."
Delaney "dislikes monotheism in general: 'Monotheism and monogenesis constitute an integrated and mutually reinforcing system." She writes that "for those of us concerned with dismantling patriarchy, it is important to understand the power of this MOST patriarchal of stories," that of Abraham ready to sacrifice Isaac. Her purpose, she says, "is not to show that religion is essentially or primarily ABOUT abuse. But it is about power and authority, the abuse of which is all too common."
Schwartz hits on something Johnson terms important, "the virus of intolerance that attaches itself to some forms of monotheistic belief," but in Johnson's eyes she distorts the biblical stories. Now, to the academy, where both authors are well-placed (at Stanford and Northwestern). The books indicate first "just how far from living religious traditions many academic students of religion have moved." These two books are "distant and even hostile" and fail to understand how communities actually live with texts.
Second, the authors do not "play fair with the literary complexities of the Bible." "The 'monotheism' of Isaiah is not the same as the 'monotheism' of Joshua, and 'monotheism' of Paul is still something else," writes Johnson. Both authors search for new stories--for example, from nonmonotheistic religions--but cannot point to religions or philosophies that would meet their terms.
Third, the authors "show no depth of knowledge or appreciation for the astonishing history of biblical interpretation that has struggled before them with precisely the problems they have located in the text." They are "perfect representatives of the contemporary world of academic discourse," with "their blithe assumption that religion is nothing more than a social construct and human projection, that God is a symbol infinitely malleable and manipulable, and that all religious discourse is a matter of mapping the play of human politics." Johnson writes that the Bible instead "may be dealing with experiences of a reality inaccessible to social-scientific reduction," and "may indeed be revealing a world both more capacious and gracious than that of academic utopias." Delaney and Schwartz on one hand and Johnson on the other represent poles of interpretation that color academic worlds these years.