Theology and the Study of Religion: A Conversation?

This past week, I had the privilege of attending a conversation between Graham Ward and Anne Taves at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion. The dialogue between two prominent scholars, one of theology and the other of religion, revolved around the concept of “normativity” – or whether or not religious studies should contain a central constellation of ideas or moral positions. They were charged with identifying the “epistemic, moral, and aesthetic values that inform their work.”

Both scholars offered beautifully self conscious descriptions of their approaches. Taves advocated for the value of methodological agility, for the capacity to stand in other people’s shoes and inhabit their perspectives which, in her opinion, serves as a foundational element of democratic citizenship. Ward, by contrast, professed his belief in the centrality of integrity: to stating, testing, and constantly challenging your own moral positions. While Ward worried that Taves’s religious studies lacks the tools to define a clear moral vision, Taves expressed her concerns that Ward’s posture remained potentially deficient of tolerance.

The question posed by the moderator, Thomas Tweed, to both Taves and Ward was a simple one: what sorts of conversations can you have? Are you damned to speak past each other or can you actually grapple with each others’ approaches for some productive aim?

I couldn’t help but think about how this debate plays out, more often than not implicitly, in the social scientific study of Jewish education and in the public spheres of Jewish communal discourse. Namely, there are some who see their role as “theological,” using the study of Jews to advance a normative, moral goal for a target population. Then there are others though who try to “inhabit,” to understand how Jews understand how they live Jewish lives. To be sure, the two positions are not mutually exclusive, but in public discussions of American Jewry (see: reactions to the Pew Report or to the Statement on Jewish Vitality), they often seem to be.

Are they? I honestly don’t know. I’m not even sure that the staged conversation was successful, however one might assess such a thing. But what I did find refreshing about it was how much Ward valued methodological agility in his own perspective and how much Taves understood integrity to be essential to her’s. When theology is practiced with humility and when humanistic inquiry is practiced with integrity, the difference between those two postures feels more like one of degree than one of kind.

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