Theology, Religion and Red Violins
On Saturday, February 18th, Seminary of the Southwest hosted the third annual Central Texas Colloquium on Religion conference, where students and professors from SSW, UT, Baylor, and Abilene Christian University gathered to exchange ideas.
While listening to some of these papers, I found myself pondering again the question that the Colloquium always brings up in my mind: what do theological studies and the study of religion have to offer to one another?
At its heart, theological studies is an ancient discipline of faith traditions themselves, within which they think critically about their language, their sacred texts, and the structures, practices, and heritages of their own community. The study of religion is a much “newer” discipline, which is to say one dating from around the 17th century, in which scholars, most often based at universities, ask some of the very same questions, but from an external perspective. Sometimes we cast the distinction in terms of normative language (theological inquiry whose purpose is to establish norms for a religious community) and descriptive language (secular inquiry whose purpose is to understand the dynamics at work within these communities).
By analogy, there is a scene from the film The Red Violin in which two characters are staring with reverent awe at one-of-a-kind Stradivarius. One character says, “All I want to do is pick it up and play it,” and the other character says, “All I want to do is take it apart and see how it works.” In some ways the distinction is the same: theological studies is about playing the instrument of faith, whereas the study of religion is about taking the instrument apart to find out what sorts of vibrations, echoes, and tensions are present within it.
And this is the very reason why the disciplines need to rub against each other from time to time. In his keynote address, UT professor L. Michael White spoke of the need for “an insider’s knowledge with an outsider’s perspective” (though I’m afraid that’s a paraphrase from my sketchy notes). When the scholar of religion loses sight of the fact that faith systems are actual life-ordering practices for living, breathing, human beings—that violins are for making music—she will inevitably be blind to many of the deep connections, aesthetics, and transformational aspects of the faith.
On the other hand, unless “practitioners” of religion—ministers and believers—listen in on the academic conversations, they will move through the world with a certain naiveté that can undermine the very faith they seek to practice. Hearing a paper on Hispanic converts to Islam on the Mexican-American border got me thinking about ways that faith communities are compliant with or resistant to economic forces surrounding them, often with realizing it. Michael White’s comment about “marginal differentiation” (“Ruffles have ridges”) got me thinking about the way that Christian denominations exploit minor distinctions between one another, thus mimicking the advertisements we soak in daily through our various media portholes.
This sort of interdisciplinary inquiry is at the heart of the Central Texas Colloquium on Religion, and one of the reasons I’m proud to be part of it. Many institutions, both theological and secular, are unwilling to cross the divide between theology and religion, worried that such a crossing will undermine faith on the one hand, scholarship on the other. Such hesitation was nowhere to be felt last Saturday on the seminary campus. In this regard, the CTCR represents a group of students and professors from a seminary and a state-funded religion department, eying one another across Dean Keaton Avenue and saying, to quote the late Bernie Mac, “I ain’t scared of you.” One hopes such courage spreads.