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Religion Scholar Versus Advocate

By: Russell McCutcheon Michael Kessler

August 13, 2013

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Within the field of religious studies, there has long been a tension between being a scholar and being an advocate. Does scholarship demand objectivity that precludes normative judgment and advocacy for issues about social justice? Do scholarly associations, such as the American Academy of Religion, have a role to play in social justice movements? In a new Berkley Forum discussion, Professors Michael Kessler and Russell McCutcheon engage in a conversation about these issues. Taking a critical eye to those who profess objectivity while espousing specific religious beliefs and advocating for specific moral positions, McCutcheon refutes to the idea that his scholarship gives him any authority beyond his academic expertise.


Kessler: In your recent work, especially your book entitled Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion, you are very blunt: the work of scholars is to be critics, not caretakers. Likewise, in a recent article, you state:

“The scholar of religion qua critic has no interest in determining which social formation is right or true or just or best and she does not practice conflict management. Instead, she is an equal opportunity historicizer, taking all claims far more seriously than a caretaker might, for she starts from the position that “justice” and “freedom” and “peace” and “holism” are utterly plastic, rhetorical tools used by virtually all social actors, in countless ways, often in pursuit of directly competing goals.”*

Aren't there ways to address some of these concerns: can't a critical scholar develop a theoretically sophisticated account of these concepts and then engage in empirical material criticism of existing regimes that do not satisfy the conditions of justice and freedom and peace?

McCutcheon: Sure, one can do that—Atalia Omer tries to do just that in her essay. But is she successful? If all we’re doing is generating theoretically sophisticated definitions of justice, or whatever, and then seeing if situations match our definition (i.e., satisfy the conditions), well that’s one thing. But if we think we’re finding the definitive definition and then judging situations based on it…? Only the latter seems worthwhile given the approach I read such authors as Omer adopting. But in my reading, notions like justice or freedom or peace are never theorized or the assumptions that drive their use are never articulated since some “we” seem to already know what we’re talking about. It really is like reading a Platonic dialogue with poor Euthyphro called upon to define what he takes to be a self-evident thing—“What is piety?” Socrates asks, and his first answer: “Doing as I do!” And that’s my problem with such scholarship—it is unreflectively reproducing a social world conducive to the scholar’s contingent, even ad hoc interests.

Now, if such scholarship did articulate and then try to defend the assumptions that drive this or that use of justice, then the notion of a critical caretaker would certainly fall apart, for I think it would become evident pretty quickly that there are all sorts of arguments that are driven by all sorts of assumptions that do not necessarily agree on just what justice or freedom or peace ought to mean. So as soon as one leaves the domain of merely asserting these to arguing for them then I would hazard a guess that, in that moment, one has lost the edge on being a critical caretaker and one is now a social critic. IIf one recognizes that there’s nothing self-evidently just about this or that definition of justice but that it needs argumentation and, at times, coercive violence in order for it to be efficacious, then one is hard-pressed to ignore the utter multiplicity of interests driving the variety of definitions. While as a citizen or a husband or a consumer or a son or a public employee or etc…I may have all sorts of specific interests, as a scholar of religion I think my role is pretty clear here and it is not to decide which way of living or organizing ourselves into groups is the best, most just, or makes most freedom possible.

Kessler: Does objectivity require bracketing any concern for theorized justice and advocacy? Why is the scholar limited, as you say in the article, to "generating critical, scholarly theories about normative discourses?" In the same article, you also insist, “the scholar of religion as critical rhetoric comes not to inform the world of how it ought to work but explains how and why it happens to work as it does?"

McCutcheon: The key to those who wish to argue for social advocacy is to be able to portray their own interests as common sense, and the advocacies of others with whom they disagree as irrelevant, radical, or politicized. They’re playing the boundary management game no less than me—though I’m not trying to conserve some notion of objectivity, but, instead, trying to prompt scholars in my field to identify the professional standards that they think define who we are as scholars of religion, and then to rally others to agree to play by those standards, encouraging people with interests that fall outside them to pursue those interests but without the imprimatur of their Ph.D. propelling their claims to the front of the line.

Frankly, it’s a classic case of misplaced authority. Just as I’m not sure why I should care about a movie star’s political views and pet issues just because they are famous, I’m also not sure I should be interested in listening to someone with a Ph.D. in molecular biology make speculations on the possible motives for the bomb attack at the Boston Marathon. What’s the link between the credentialed expertise and the claim? Sure, the 24 hour cable news cycle wants someone who looks legitimate saying something provocative, but how does that help the profession of the person who is likely unqualified to be making such claims?

When it comes to scholars of religion, especially those operating with an old school notion of religion as deeply personal and deeply meaningful, as linked to transcendental values and the realization of some ideal form of personhood—Eliade, Campbell, etc., not to mention many of the field’s current leading writers—then it is very tempting to see one’s credential in studying ancient texts or ones credential in doing fieldwork in some distant place or ones credential in examining themes in films as a license to make grand statements about the human condition (not to mention justice, freedom, peace, fulfillment). But I don’t buy it. My Ph.D. recognizes and thereby grants me specific authority in a tightly demarcated area of expertise—mine is on the history of our English-speaking field and its relation to social and political issues of the late nineteenth and twentieth century and the methodologies and theories of religion. Although I have opinions on the worldwide field, I’ve got no credentials to make authorized claims about, say, the history of the South Korean field or the study of religion in Japan. For starters, I don’t read either language, so why would someone think that my two cents was somehow worth listening to? What’s more, if my authority does not even extend to these domains, despite them being so obviously close to my own expertise on the history of the English field, then why would I be considered an expert in how all human beings ought to live and organize themselves?

Kessler: How do you respond to a critic of your position who would conclude that you would relegate the scholar to having no role in social transformation?

McCutcheon: I would say that this person hasn’t really read me all that much. I’d also say that he working very hard to ensure that social transformation only names the changes he supports. A similar example might be progressives and conservatives who work hard to use those monikers to name only the things that they support, as if the opposite of a progressive cause is regressive. So there’s social transformation happening all around us, but it seems to me that the authorized sphere in which I do my work is the classroom and in published texts, both of which play by the rules of my profession and, at least in many of our cases in the United States, the rules of the public university.

There is actually all sorts of people working for social transformation—consider the movement to ban gay marriage or get intelligent design taught in public high school science classes. Is that social transformation? What of scholars who uses their doctorates to portray their position on these topics as authoritative, trying to live a life of praxis and put their deeply held beliefs into practice? Is that social transformation? Is that person involved in a legitimate scholarly practice? Would the Berkley Forum invite someone critical of them to elaborate on why he or she thinks people ought not to be using their degrees to legitimize such positions? Likely not, because your readers might likely just know that this is just the wrong sort of social transformation. No?

Kessler: Does the religion scholar have a role in promoting interreligious understanding, clarifying misconceptions about religious communities, ideas, and practices?

McCutcheon: The term “misconceptions” is the issue here—according to whom? There are all sorts of evangelical Christians who say that Roman Catholics are not Christians—I’ve taught many students over the years, in Tennessee, Missouri, and Alabama, who have told me this in all seriousness. Is it my job as a scholar of religion to tell them they’re wrong? If so, then I guess that my job is to authorize a dominant, theological and politically liberal position and normalize it by disciplining these students for their misconceptions? But if my role is to protect orthodoxies, then which one? There are many orthodoxies all competing with one another. The ideologically loaded nature of scholarship that dips into the issue of “clarifying misconceptions” would only be apparent if I adopted those evangelical students’ views (i.e., if I adopted the “wrong” orthodoxy); but if I adopt the “correct” orthodoxy then I’m just recounting historical facts I guess.

So I hope my point is obvious: before even asking about whether we have a role to play in interreligious dialogue and mutual understanding, we’ve got to ask to whom are we talking and whose interests are we representing. And voila, we’re back to picking winners and losers. I’d prefer not doing that with the things we study and, instead, study the orthodoxy processes themselves.

For example, I’d prefer not to study Shi’a and Sunni Islam as two real things (like most world religions courses do) but instead study this very distinction itself—its history, the things at stake in the local boundary skirmish over the limits of each. Rather than taking for granted this particular social distinction that is of relevance to specific people for specific reasons and thus the starting point for our work, we could see it as our goal and figure out how the distinction is created and what purposes it serves. Or consider that Protestant/Roman Catholic/Orthodox do not name stable actual realities but, instead, shifting local identity practices (each with multiple internal competing identities vying for power)—we study those identity practices themselves instead of their products, instead of trying to get people to talk to one another and get along. They’ll talk if they want—or not. That’s up to them. So it doesn’t strike me as the scholar of religion’s job to set the terms on which they will supposedly agree or agree to disagree.

Kessler: Prior to the 2012 American Academy of Religion (AAR) annual meetings, a number of prominent religious studies scholars wrote letters to the AAR Board of Directors and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) Council expressing concern about the ability of workers to unionize at the hotel where the AAR meeting was to take place. Included in that letter was the line:

“As members of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, we believe that we have a moral responsibility to promote the just and ethical treatment of workers, and to intervene when powerful individuals or institutions seek to undermine their fundamental rights as workers and as human beings.”

In response, the boards wrote:

“The AAR Board and the SBL Council, sensitive to our mutual respect for the rights, dignity, and worth of all people, which we understand to include the rights of workers to organize into unions, have met together to decide how to proceed. Canceling our contracts with the Hyatt would be financially prohibitive. Nevertheless, we have worked to ensure that all AAR and SBL members have the right to exercise their conscience in reaction to the boycott. We will alert members of the boycott as a part of the process of making hotel reservations. In addition, if members who have already booked sleeping rooms in one of the Hyatt properties wish to change hotels, we will help accommodate that change. (…)

Third, we want you to know that our response to this situation is not limited to contractual and logistical concerns. Indeed, as scholarly societies that foster critical inquiry, we also want to engage important issues like these from intellectual and policy perspectives. With that in mind, we have formed a committee to begin planning a plenary session at the Chicago Annual Meetings that will consider the ways in which academic and religious communities have related to labor movements in North America.”


Do you see any role for the guild in making claims of this sort? Under what conditions might the guild take a stand, if ever?

McCutcheon: No, I don’t actually, and even the AAR/SBL seems ambivalent—forming a committee doesn’t normally bring about much radical social change. As people with specific social and political interests, the letter’s writers believe that they have certain moral responsibilities. But as members of the AAR and SBL I would argue that we all have only professional responsibilities—to cite properly, to not copy someone else’s work, to not falsify research, to treat students and colleagues and the people we study in what our field sees as a proper manner, etc… Again, we see here the wonderfully instructive slippage outlined above, the way in which many members of our field authorize what are actually contestable social and political interests, an authority that seems to take them out of the realm of opinion and contestable/contingent social interest.

Might there be members of the AAR and SBL who think that the backs of unions ought to be broken? Probably. Where is their representation in all this? Or are they just obviously wrong? Is the AAR and SBL leadership not responsible to represent them too? I bet there are many openly Marxist members of the organization who take issue with private ownership and the profit motive. What will the leadership do if they band together and write a letter protesting Oxford University Press’s right to own the intellectual property that we publish in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion? Which moral responsibilities will easily get portrayed as collective professional duties? What’s the AAR/SBL’s stand on child labor or the international sex trade? Lead levels in paint? How to reduce the U.S. trade deficit? The fate of the rain forest?

My point is that in order to be successful, the so-called critical caretaker has to press forward an argument to seek protection within the umbrella afforded by their professional credentials to make claims that extend far beyond their credentialed expertise—claims that are really just one among many others on countless topics that strike people as important and worth their time. The gap between those two domains is sometimes profoundly apparent and yet other times not at all. Ensuring the latter is the task of the good rhetorician. Recognizing the gap and one’s own limits is, I’d say, the mark of a good scholar. Too few say “I don’t know” (hearkening back to Socrates, intentionally) when they’re put in front of the media’s bright lights—I think that a few of us miss the days when professional modesty was a social value that we thought worth pursuing.

I hope that readers understand that I’ve got all sorts of views on peace and justice and freedom and potable water and poverty and private ownership, etc., but I’ve not talked about those issues here since I don’t think that my Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in the academic study of religion, and professional accomplishments—the things that made me, of all people, apparently stand out to be asked to write some things for the Berkley Forum, right?—authorizes me to have some opinion on these that trumps theirs.

*“Can a Critic Be a Caretaker too? Religion, Conflict, and Conflict Transformation.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79/2: 459–496.

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Religion Scholar Versus Advocate