Alongside recent works by Tyler Roberts (2013), Kevin Schilbrack (2014), and Wesley Wildman (2011), Thomas A. Lewis’s Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa (2015) marshals the resources of the philosophy of religion to think through the intellectual and methodological divisions permeating religious studies.1 What motivates Lewis? In one of his book’s many self-reflexive moments,2 Lewis comments on his own undergraduate and graduate training. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he writes, “the readings, themes, and modes of analysis dominant in required seminars on methods and theories [in the study of religion] were largely philosophical” (1). But a sea change has occurred in religious studies: sociohistorical work now dominates methods and theories courses. On Lewis’s view, then, much of religious studies has committed itself to descriptive scholarship (e.g., history and ethnography), displacing in the process the work done by scholars whose work is explicitly normative (e.g., ethics, philosophy, and theology).
In many senses, the turn toward descriptive methodologies has been salutary. Among other things, scholars have become increasingly attentive to the operations of power, the importance of praxis, and engaged with material culture; moreover, they have “interrogated the historical process through which ‘religion’ has been conceptualized, particularly in the modern West” (2). Consequently, the very category of “religion” and the range of human beliefs and practices that might be called “religious” has been reimagined. So much the better for religious studies. But while committing themselves to such critique, such scholars frequently suffer from a lack of engagement with philosophical thought. Without such engagement, such scholars fail to note that their own work is itself normative. On Lewis’s view, “normativity is pervasive, in history and philosophy as well as religious studies.” Given the pervasiveness of normativity, he adds, “[it] should not be avoided but rather self-consciously acknowledged and defended.” Whereas some scholars may claim that normative work isn’t academic, Lewis holds that “what is crucial to the study of religion’s being academic is a principled willingness to submit all claims to scrutiny and questioning, to insist that no assumptions, doctrines, or authorities are beyond questioning” (8).
In addition to highlighting the pervasiveness of normativity, Lewis engages topics such as comparison (chapters 4 and 5), history (chapter 3), and religious literacy (chapter 5). Through doing so, he aims to explicate and deploy a “programmatic vision of philosophy of religion,” one that thinks together the resources of the descriptive and the normative. On this vision of the philosophy of religion, Lewis writes:
Philosophy of religion should be conceived less in terms of a fixed set of questions than in terms of philosophical modes of analysis of a range of questions and topics generated both by the study of particular religions and by the process of studying religion itself. Philosophy of religion so understood is not only attentive to a range of questions raised by diverse religious traditions but also self-conscious about the category of religion itself—including its history—and the way that this and other categories frame our questions and studies in the first place. (6; emphasis original)
Philosophy matters for the study of religion: scholars need to make explicit and interrogate their own assumptions. And religion matters for the study of philosophy: Lewis calls on scholars to recognize that both they themselves and their subjects and objects of inquiry are situated in and emerge from particular sociohistorical contexts. Through attending to religion, history, and the history of religion, scholars are called to task for the ways in which they are “implicated in the global dominance of particular people and agendas” (65). But thinking the two together may offer a way forward. Both matter for how we think about the methods, terms, and theories we use in the academic study of religion, whether in our sub-disciplinary conversations or across the discipline of religious studies itself; thinking the two together therefore may offer a way to think together the universal and the particular, the necessary and the contingent, the normative and the descriptive.
The contributors to this symposium on Lewis’s book—Matthew Bagger, Travis Cooper, Sonia Hazard, Samuel Kessler, Anne Monius, and Anil Mundra—draw from their respective intellectual concerns and methodological commitments to engage with him. What’s clear—for them and (hopefully) for readers of this symposium—is that normativity proves to be the salient site of debate. But how should normativity be conceived? And does normativity have any place in the academic study of religion? For many critics, explicitly normative work has no place in religious studies. In the debate about whether explicitly normative work belongs in religious studies, Lewis comments:
A crucial background assumption—sometimes stated but often not—is that whereas theologians make normative claims, religious studies scholars should refrain from doing so. Rather, scholars in religious studies should distinguish themselves from theologians precisely by striving for some type of distance, neutrality, or objectivity in relation to their subject matter, where this is understood to entail analysis regarding what is rather than claims about what ought to be. (44)
Underwriting the critics’ view, Lewis notes, is the assumption that “normative claims related to religion cannot be argued about but are fundamentally matters of ‘faith’” (45). But for Lewis, we should understand normative claims and our scholarly engagement with them differently:
Normative claims are inevitable in the study of religion (as in most disciplines). What is important is not to try somehow to exclude normative claims but rather to be willing to offer justification for the norms that we invoke. Participants in the academic study of religion must be willing to bring the norms themselves into debate and subject them to critical inquiry. (45–46)
In highlighting normativity, I hope that readers note not only the ways in which the contributors to this symposium engage Lewis but also ask themselves what sorts of implicit or explicit commitments underwrite their own engagements with him. (I also hope that readers ask themselves further questions apart from this symposium. For example, which books in the study of religion are you reading? Are any of them from a sub-discipline different than your own? Who are and aren’t your conversation partners in the study of religion? Beyond departmental collegiality, when you engage someone from a different sub-discipline, why and on what terms?)
There is much that is exciting and commendable about Lewis’s book. In charting the interrelation between philosophy and religion, Lewis has provided us with a work that is both critical and generous; it simultaneously challenges our own guiding principles while also inviting us into deeper dialogue with scholars across the various sub-disciplines that constitute religious studies.
Lewis, Thomas A. 2015. Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ranganathan, Bharat. 2018. “Description, Prescription, and Value in the Study of Religion.” Religions 9.10 (2018) 1–4.
Roberts, Tyler. 2013. Encountering Religion: Responsibility and Criticism after Secularism. New York: Columbia University Press.
Schilbrack, Kevin. 2014. Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A Manifesto. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Wildman, Wesley. 2011. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future for the Philosophy of Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press.
For a brief overview of these divisions, see Ranganathan 2018.↩
In the book’s conclusion, as only one other example, Lewis writes, “I have sought to provide partial—though always imperfect—justification for the position I am defending by demonstrating how it emerges from the combination of successes and failure of previous moments. I seek to show the view I am defending as a rational way forward in light of where we have been and are” (157).↩