Starting in May 2019 I will be publishing a monthly newsletter focusing on recognizing new approaches for teaching and learning about religion in public.
What does Metasacralities offer that U Chicago’s Sightings, the BSR’s Religion Bulletin, the AAR’s Religion News Service, or half a dozen other blogs and podcasts don’t?
The first answer is an unflinching commitment to see contingency and adjunctification of the humanities as a discrete problem for teaching and learning about religion. One immediate consequence is that we can more easily recognize what happens when religion is taught outside of religious studies departments. It may be the case that there are more precariously employed scholars of religion working part-time in departments of Philosophy, Liberal Studies, Liberal Arts, Interdisciplinary Studies, History and elsewhere than there are in departments of Religion, Comparative Religion, or Religious Studies.
The second answer is that our field’s diverse and tenuous position in the humanities often turn discussions of discipline into debates about why our field even exists at all and what good is serves. On the one hand, if we see religious studies as an non-confessional, academic cousin of theology, then we must work around fundamental elements of analysis developed in our field’s colonialist, Christian origins. Some of these, like the world religions paradigm, may be so inescapable that they radically limit the possibilities for presenting our field to beginning students. We have yet to solve such challenges. If, on the other hand, we see our field as divided between humanists and social scientists, then our subdivisions reveal real differences in what we think the purpose of studying religion is and what kinds of knowledge it can produce.
One of the major benefits of seeing our field’s contingent labor and disciplinary diversity is that we are directly contributing to the ongoing erosion of expert authority. Contingent workers often lack protection for progressive academic opinions. They are not positioned to effect departmental change. They cannot sustain relationships with student majors or forge substantial partnerships with advocates for greater religious literacy or critical thinking about religion. Contingency causes emotional and financial stress, but it also severely limits scholarship. One cannot produce new works when one has no stable position, no steady income, and no institutional resources.
Right now I want to become an advocate for radical changes in field and the way it presents it work to other disciplines, our students, and the public. This is not a mere nod to public history’s model of performing one’s discipline in and for the public. I fear that public religion would meet much the same fate as public history–a sub-field misunderstood both by the academy and public. Nevertheless, my growing sense that my personal goals do not align with the broader discipline, makes me hungry to find a space to perform the public work I think the field needs. I believe that interreligious studies–an emerging academic counterpart to the Interfaith movement–is capable of both charting a new course that sees our field with fresh eyes and reasserts our field’s value for the important work we can do.