This blog has enjoyed good weeks in its past (a relatively young past or is it ‘old’ in internet years?), but few have matched the energy and intellectual verve of the one now coming to an end. I won’t attempt to summarize all the issues raised or parse out the many arguments made, but I would like to reflect on how the nature of these exchanges seem to reflect a point I tried to make in my post last week. I offered the observation that the relatively recent surge in scholarship about American religions–professionally recognized by major award committees as well as book sales–had something to do with the ability of many of these writers to interact as part of the Young Scholars in Religion program run by IUPUI’s Philip Goff. That program does not confer greatness on scholars–there are many excellent books coming from scholars who did not go through that program–and the program is not final word on how to deal with religion as a field or subject of study. But that program seems to have done something.
What it has done has a parallel to what we have witnessed over the last week here. It matters where scholars talk to each other and what they are pushed to address. I wondered in my earlier post whether YSR had offered a physical place in which these young scholars could explore intellectual spaces where a diversity of interpretative strategies were at play. While these well-regarded and award-winning scholars have clearly built their studies on the shoulders of other scholars (they are assigned mentors in the program), they also had a unique chance to make the transition from graduate programs to published scholars in their fields within a cohort. I would guess that for many of us who write for this blog and frequently contribute to it, there is a similar effect. But I want to submit that this effect is not universally pleasant–in should hurt occasionally.
It is about pain that I wish to dwell just for a moment. I want to know what is at stake in the conflict that seems evident between LD Burnett and Christopher Shannon. I ask this not to call on either to account for some remark but to as them to explain further what seems to divide them. It seems to me that what is at stake is the question of authority–where does authority reside in intellectual discourse? How do we characterize validity when scholars offer conclusions? How do we assess the assumptions on which we base our initial questions and investigations? And does the category of “faith” or “religion” make such discussions difficult–painful–in a substantial way?
In Cara Burnidge’s post and the comments that followed, I think we recognized that one important fault line is the role personal faith plays in scholarship. As Michael Altman, Trevor Burrows, and Charlie McCrary suggested, if historians who do religious history have under-theorized the role of religion or faith, we need to consider what studies would look like that take a self-concsious approach to the way personal faith affects the portrayal of public faith? Remarks on the blog over the week have shown the great interest in the need to theorize more concretely about the fields we study, yet has it also indicated that religious historians fail to to do so because there is a basic problem with the idea of intellectual authority?
Perhaps more to point, Chris Shannon writes that he “believes that some things are sacred” and does “not believe that the conventions of the [historical] profession, little over a hundred years old and constructed by people who in certain contexts were quick to deny there there is any essential human nature or timeless truth, deserve such reverence.” To which LD Burnett responds that we can’t keep trying to out historicize each other, for we are not necessarily going to reach some agreement about whether we need to locate universal truth in order to be legitimate scholars. In other words, while we stake claims in a set of beliefs that impose restrictions on us (belief carries authority), we also rely on theory (should it be called liberal and pluralistic?) because it too imposes restrictions on how we act as scholars and in the process of using and debating the theories we apply to our scholarship, a sense of authority emerges that helps us become discerning colleagues. What concerns me as a discerning colleague, though, is whether we are essentially writing against each other’s positions. Do we write to tear down the validity of what we see as opposing normative claims that underpin scholarship?
Shannon and others of the “confessing” historians do not practice faith-based scholarship and Burnett and others of the “theorizing” historians do not dismiss the significance of faith, religion, and the metaphysical. But I wonder, again, if we have a place here at S-USIH to wrestle with the differences of these positions without essentializing them. The posts of the past week felt like an opportunity to push each other on the boundaries of our assumptions. And it seems to me that scholarship on religion makes this struggle more apparent because it pushes scholars to contend with belief in metaphysical norms while writing about the material manifestations and implications of such belief. It need not be just religion that provokes such debate, as Chris Shannon demonstrated in his critique of Robert Self’s history of social policy in the United States since the late 1960s.
Let me conclude with my own dilemma. As I continue to write about Richard John Neuhaus, I am struck with the problem that came up at the 2011 S-USIH conference when I presented on Neuhaus’s changing views on war. I think Bruce Kuklick took exception to my analysis of Neuhaus because Bruce thought I had created and imposed a normative understanding of morality on my subject. I contended that I had assessed Neuhaus’s argument by applying his own normative understanding of morality and tried to illustrate this by using an ongoing debate RJN had had with theologian Stanley Hauerwas. The upshot was, I argued, that Neuhaus had helped give credence to an American civil religion forged through experience with war and that this move seemed to contradict what Neuhaus professed in his conservative reading of a Catholic doctrine of just war.
In presenting this argument, I saw Neuhaus as a character in the culture wars, but one based in Christian thought, rather than one in the secular academy. And because of that, Stan Hauerwas, for example, thought I had gotten Neuhaus right, since he thought Neuhaus had strayed far from the church, and RR Reno thought I had gotten him wrong, since, as Neuhaus’s friend and his successor as editor at First Things, he saw Neuhaus fighting a battle against those who (like Stan) see the church as having a singular and pacifistic position on war.
I am in a debate over how to understand Neuhaus’s proper relationship with the Christian church. It is a relationship I need to contend with but feel inadequate to address because I find it hard to theorize something that seems more theological than theoretical. If I stake a claim, as scholars such as William Cavanaugh or (maybe) Eugene McCarraher do, that neo-conservativism is not compatible with Christianity, then I can conclude that defense of war in the name of a nation is ironic, at best. But if I do not wade into an assessment of Neuhaus’s theology and instead place him within political theory (with the likes of Carl Schmidt), I might mis-characterize the debate that lies at the heart of Neuhaus’s career with his fellow public theologians.
S-USIH seems to be a place that can help someone like me work through problems that are theological but must also be theoretical. I might be creating a problem that need not exist, but I wrestle with having the authority to argue that while it doesn’t much matter if I think Neuhaus was a “bad” Christian, I still need to figure out whether his Christianity was problematic in any way. While clearly Neuhaus entered into debates far from the confines of a particular church–war, social policy, education–it is the theology at the core of his story that made the greatest difference in his narrative.