Symposium Introduction

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.

Works Cited

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.

  1. For a brief overview of these divisions, see Ranganathan 2018.

  2. 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).

Anne Monius


What Is “Philosophy” in the Philosophy of Religion?

I accepted the invitation to participate in this Syndicate symposium on Thomas A. Lewis’s recent book, Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa, with a hefty measure of trepidation. By no stretch of even the most vivid imagination would anyone call me a “philosopher of religion,” nor does my intellectual work focus on the Euro-American materials at the center of this study. I work instead in the rich fields of religion and literature in pre-colonial southern India, in a period one might roughly call “medieval,” and am primarily interested in the complex ways in which lengthy poetic narratives and the aesthetic experiences that they generate shape their audiences both religiously and ethically. Like Lewis’s own disclaimer as he turns to works on mid-twentieth-century French theory, W. E. B. Du Bois, and classical Buddhist philosophy in chapter 1, “I cannot speak to how responsibly [this book] engage[s] with the primary or secondary materials or [how it] fit[s] into other contemporary scholarship on other aspects of [his] topic” (30). Unless a community of twelfth-century Tamil-speakers were suddenly to appear miraculously on the horizon, my scholarly work has little to contribute directly to contemporary discussions of religion in the American public square. Yet the seeming chasm between Lewis’s work and my own in no way lessens the provocative value of Why Philosophy Matters. What does this work teach a scholar thinking far afield in terms of both topic and modes of analysis?

Several of the arguments made here for new directions in the philosophy of religion echo similar developments in the field of South Asian religions since the first publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978. In the decades since Said’s devastating critique of colonial-era knowledge production in the service of empire, historians of religion in South Asia have painstakingly deconstructed notions of “Hinduism” and “Buddhism” as monolithic “traditions” (see, for example, Halbfass 1988; Lopez 1995; Inden 2000; Pennington 2005). Implicit in the dismantling of monolithic traditions has been new focus on the dizzying varieties of regional communities, texts, and practices from across South Asia, rendering Stephen Prothero’s approach of basic literacy wholly insufficient to capture such diversity. Lewis’s call to incorporate the lessons of comparative religious ethics into the broader discussion of religious ethics as a whole mirrors similar calls in the study of South Asia to take Sanskrit literary theory seriously as literary theory (Pollock 2006: 567–80) and to incorporate the innovations of Sanskrit logicians into contemporary Euro-American philosophical discussions of logic (see, for example, Ganeri 2001). In a similar vein, Lewis’s contention that “normative claims are inevitable in the study of religion” (45) echoes a growing trend, over the past two decades in the study of South Asian religions, to abandon any pretense that historical or anthropological work can be neutrally descriptive, thus recasting scholarly work as part of ongoing conversations among community members, texts, and the scholar’s own historical and cultural situatedness (see, for example, Ramberg 2014, 1–35; Bloomer 2018, 1–31).

That the impetus to dismantle monolithic “traditions,” to incorporate the work of comparative ethicists in religious ethics more broadly, to attend to the insights generated by historians and anthropologists of religion more carefully, and to take seriously the constructed nature of our shared category, “religion,” comes from a philosopher of religion whose focus lies squarely on the modern Euro-American intellectual tradition is a breath of fresh air to a South Asianist, one sure to spark new ideas and discussions across the broader field of religious studies. One hopes that this “breath” soon grows into a stiff breeze, perhaps even a gale-force wind.

Yet if Why Philosophy Matters is to gain traction beyond philosophy of religion proper, this South Asianist would like to urge the author to think beyond the arguments offered here on at least two fronts, beginning with the fourth chapter on comparative religious ethics (83–118). Lewis duly notes that his call to incorporate the insights of other religious communities initially “with vocabulary and conceptual tools marked by a Western intellectual heritage” (84) is likely to be unsatisfying to scholars working in other religious and cultural contexts, but the problem runs far deeper than that. Fundamental questions about ethics—as basic as “where does thinking about ethics lie?”—remain unanswered, even unasked, in the study of myriad religious communities around the globe. Beginning with foundational Euro-American assumptions—that the discursive practices of ethics are primarily philosophical, for example—led early scholars of India to assume that Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain communities simply possessed no ethical thought, as both literature and śāstra (technical treatise), not philosophy, comprise the primary genres for discussing dharma or ethics. Even if Euro-American questions and categories are to wield no particular authority (112), framing even initial discussions solely in terms of familiar, contemporary categories elides completely any real opportunity for exploring the relationship of aesthetic experience to moral formation, of ritual praxis to ethics, of compatibility of physical substances, of the logic of aucitya or “appropriateness” with which so many discussions of ethics begin in pre-colonial South Asia. If the conversation among religious studies scholars and philosophers of religion is truly to be two-sided, infused with a genuine sense of give-and-take, then more intellectual flexibility must be exercised. What would religious ethics look like if framed, from the ground up, not by Christian materials but by Theravāda Buddhist, Hindu Śaiva, or Sunni Muslim texts and communities of practice? How far would religious ethics and ethicists—both individually and collectively as a field—be willing to bend in the wholly new directions suggested by other religio-cultural milieus?

Early in the discussion of possible futures for comparative religious ethics, Lewis notes that comparative work demands “the abandonment of aspirations to universality,” going on to note that “the point about universality cuts deeper, however: it concerns not simply the conclusions but also the structure of arguments” (86). Not much more is said about what such a shedding of universality in the structure of arguments might mean for the philosophy of religion going forward, but this comment engenders a second cluster of comments for the author. Lewis himself admits that, in planning possible futures for the philosophy of religion, he pays more attention to “religion” than to “philosophy,” primarily defining philosophy in terms of its “modes of analysis,” while urging that such analytic modes take up new topics and expand the historical canon (9). Yet what of philosophy itself? What might it mean for philosophy of religion to interrogate its own presuppositions and constructions of “philosophy,” in addition to incorporating the critical scholarship on “religion” that Lewis invites here? Is philosophy any more a naturally occurring object in the world than religion? What might it mean—for both philosophy of religion and religious studies more broadly—to consider the full variety of discursive and bodily practices that may or may not currently fall under the umbrella of “philosophy”?

The relative clarity with which Lewis describes the current state of affairs in religious studies (and with which he takes issue)—that “theologians make normative claims, [whereas] religious studies scholars should refrain from doing so” (44)—finds no echo in the history of religions in South Asia. Texts and thinkers are labeled “philosophy,” “theology,” or “theory” seemingly on the basis of the predilections of individual scholars. Hindu logicians and Buddhist thinkers of all sorts tend to be labeled “philosophers” (Matilal 1998; Arnold 2005; Garfield 2015), as are Hindu thinkers whose work backgrounds any theistic inclination (Rambachan 1991; Nicholson 2010); those who emphasize any sort of theistic devotion are more likely to be labeled “theologians” (Carman 1974; Clooney 1993). “Theory” is primarily reserved for topics that appear, at first glance, to be about nonreligious topics, such as poetics (Pollock 2001) and ritual (Michaels 2016), despite the deeply religious contexts in which all of the materials above are clearly embedded.

Despite the unsystematic way in which South Asian materials are often labeled, such materials do beg various questions of the natural object that “philosophy” is often assumed to be in our own intellectual context. The first concerns form in relation to content. Where, as noted above, Lewis favors throughout a view of philosophy as particular “modes of analysis” (9), South Asian materials present philosophical modes of analysis expressed in widely varying ways: in commentarial prose on root-texts, in treatises composed entirely in verse, and as sequences in long poetic narratives, to name just a few examples. The seventh-century Buddhist philosopher Dharmakīrti (at the center of Lewis’s discussion of Dan Arnold’s most recent book [36–41]), for example, composed his Pramāṇavārttika entirely in verse (Dharmakīrti 1938); Śāntideva’s eighth-century treatment of the bodhisattva path, the Bodhicaryāvatāra, is both philosophically rich and beautiful poetry (1960), while his Śikṣāsamuccaya provides a prose commentary on twenty-seven short verses (1961). Dense philosophical discussion—often in metrical stanzas—lies embedded in all manner of long narratives, from the epic Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa in Sanskrit to Jain purāṇas (universal histories), Buddhist kāvya (ornate courtly poetry), and stories told in all the regional languages of South Asia. Well into the nineteenth century, philosophical argumentation is couched in wholly narrative forms (see, for example, Allen 2013). How do the different forms that philosophical modes of analysis take in South Asia possibly affect those modes of analysis themselves? Why would a single author—such as Śāntideva, to cite but one example—choose to write one mode of analysis in prose, the other in verse? The limited forms of expression deployed in Euro-American philosophy suggest that content naturally adheres to only one expressive form, one that argues and convinces through the highly structured ordering of evidence in prose. What happens to such a project if the expressive form is poetry, or narrative, or some mixture of both? Does the work of philosophy remain precisely the same?

Building on the questions raised above, further interrogation of the category of “philosophy” itself—as in the case of “religion”—would inevitably yield a wider array of possibilities for relating philosophical modes of analysis and discursive practices to those of religion. While Lewis rightly lauds both Hollywood (30–33) and Arnold (36–41) for placing specific philosophical arguments in wider contexts of political commitment (Hollywood) and intellectual exchange (Arnold), what might happen if we imagine philosophical thinking to be not merely affected by political, social, intellectual, and religious circumstances, but utterly intertwined with such concerns, perhaps even dependent upon sets of ritual practices, bodily disciplines, and intellectual formation gained from other fields of inquiry? This, of course, echoes in part Hadot’s celebrated study of classical Mediterranean “philosophy as a way of life” (1995), but also extends considerably beyond, asking not just how philosophy might best describe and theorize religion, but what role religion might play in the conceptualization of philosophy itself.

Simply put, evidence from South Asian religious communities suggests that philosophical forms of expression and modes of analysis are predicated on lifetimes of ritual and other bodily and mental exercises, and finely attuned (as above) to the larger textual contexts in which they appear. When the Brahmasūtras attributed to Bādarāyaṇa—the root-text whose commentarial traditions generate the three major schools of one of the most influential Hindu philosophical schools, the Vedānta—open with athāto brahma jijñāsa (1887, 1.1.1), “thus the desire to inquire into brahma (the ground of all existence)”—what precisely does the “thus” (athāto) suggest? Different commentators disagree on the precise requirements for the philosophical inquiry that follows, but much is said, in the opening of the most celebrated and influential commentaries, about the cultivation of meditational focus, devotion, ritual comportment, and the like across many lifetimes. The texts that govern South Indian temple life—the Śaivāgamas and the Pāñcarātrasaṃhitās—by definition embed philosophical modes of analysis (jñāna) with discussions of ritual action (kriyā), proper conduct (caryā), and bodily and mental discipline (yoga) (see, for example, Davis 1991: 10). How do those other practices (associated, in contemporary parlance, with “religion” and/or “ethics”) enhance (and/or curtail) the place of philosophy (jñāna) in religious life? Two excellent pieces of recent work (Reich 2016; Williams 2017) demonstrate the complex and profound ways in which literary theorization and tantric philosophy, poetic emotion and theology are inextricably intertwined in the work of medieval intellectuals in Kashmir. What is “philosophy” as a mode of analysis when embedded in, perhaps even dependent upon, other modes of inquiry and expression? How should the scholar of religion—or philosophy—understand the work of a fourteenth-century thinker such as Vedāntadeśika, who composed both dense philosophical work in Sanskrit (Clooney 2008) and poetry in multiple literary languages (Hopkins 2002) as part of a single life-project? Lewis comments that Schellenberg’s work suffers from an “inordinate focus on faith and/or belief . . . lead[ing] to the neglect of practical and material aspects of religion” (22), but what becomes of “philosophy” itself if its inquiry depends upon those very same praxis-oriented and material aspects of religion, if philosophical work can only be undertaken and properly understood in relation to those other forms of bodily and mental practice and expression?

Even if the primary intellectual concerns of Why Philosophy Matters seem rather distant from one’s own, Lewis’s work generates a wide range of provocative questions for any scholar of religion.

Works Cited

Allen, Michael. 2013. “The Ocean of Inquiry: A Neglected Classic of Late Advaita Vedānta.” PhD dissertation, Harvard University.

Arnold, Dan. 2005. Buddhists, Brahmins, and Belief: Epistemology in South Asian Philosophy of Religion. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bādarāyaṇa. 1887. Brahmasūtra. 3 vols. Bombay.

Bloomer, Kristin C. 2018. Possessed by the Virgin: Hinduism, Roman Catholicism, and Marian Possession in South India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Carman, John Braisted. 1974. The Theology of Rāmānuja: An Essay in Interreligious Understanding. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Clooney, Francis X. 1993. Theology after Vedānta: An Experiment in Comparative Theology. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———. 2008. Beyond Compare: St. Francis de Sales and Śrī Vedānta Deśika on Loving Surrender to God. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Davis, Richard H. 1991. Ritual in an Oscillating Universe: Worshiping Śiva in Medieval India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dharmakīrti. 1938. Pramāṇavārttikam. Edited by Rāhula Sāṅkṛtyāyana. Patna: Bihar and Orissa Research Society.

Ganeri, Jonardon. 2001. Philosophy in Classical India: Proper Work of Reason. New York: Routledge.

Garfield, Jay. 2015. Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hadot, Pierre. 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Translated by Michael Chase. New York: Blackwell.

Halbfass, Wilhelm. 1988. India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Hopkins, Steven P. 2002. Singing the Body of God: The Hymns of Vedāntadeśika in Their South Indian Context. New York: Oxford University Press.

Inden, Ronald B. 2000. Imagining India. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lewis, Thomas A. 2015. Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lopez, Donald S., ed. 1995. Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Matilal, Bimal Krishna. 1998. The Character of Logic in India. Edited by Jonardon Ganeri and Heeraman Tiwari. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Michaels, Axel. 2016. Homo Ritualis: Hindu Ritual and Its Significance to Ritual Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nicholson, Andrew J. 2010. Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Pennington, Brian K. 2005. Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians, and Colonial Construction of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pollock, Sheldon. 2001. “The Social Aesthetic and Sanskrit Literary Theory.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 29.1–2: 197–229.

———. 2006. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rambachan, Anantanand. 1991. Accomplishing the Accomplished: The Vedas as a Source of Valid Knowledge in Śaṅkara. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Ramberg, Lucinda. 2014. Given to the Goddess: South Indian Devadasis and the Sexuality of Religion. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Reich, James D. 2016. “Meaning and Appearance: The Theology of Literary Emotions in Medieval Kashmir.” PhD dissertation, Harvard University.

Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.

Śāntideva. 1960. Bodhicaryāvatāra of Śāntideva with the Commentary, Pañjikā, of Prajñākaramti. Edited by P. L. Vaidya. Darbhanga: Mithila Institute.

———. 1961. Śikṣāsamuccaya of Śāntideva. Edited by P. L. Vaidya. Darbhanga: Mithila Institute.

Williams, Ben. 2017. “Abhinavagupta’s Portrait of a Guru: Revelation and Religious Authority in Kashmir.” PhD dissertation, Harvard University.

  • Thomas A. Lewis

    Thomas A. Lewis


    On Where We Begin . . . and How We Move Forward

    One of the central goals of Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa is to foster conversations across the usual boundaries of philosophy of religion in order to illuminate and challenge presuppositions that have often constricted the field. Anne Monius’s thoughtful and thought-provoking response moves the discussion forward in just this way. Much of my response to her, then, consists in an invitation to keep going.

    Amongst the many important issues she raises, one of Monius’s most prominent concerns pertains to my contention that the

    conversation will initially be conducted with vocabulary and conceptual tools marked by a Western intellectual heritage, but it can and should be continually supplemented and expanded through encounters with materials from a wide range of other contexts. (84)

    In my elaboration of that point later in that chapter (see 112–13), I seek to articulate how minimally I mean this privilege. Moreover, I highlight that it derives from being historically situated in academic settings in which more scholars are more extensively shaped by and engaged with materials emerging from broadly Western intellectual traditions. Recognizing that we start somewhere in particular—rather than from an Archimedean point—seems to me vital to figuring out how we move forward.

    Perhaps more importantly, as the second clause in the passage quoted above emphasizes, to say that we start somewhere does not mean that we remain there. Rather, part of what it means to bring religious ethics into shared—though not homogenized—conversations is to move us past this starting point. It is to take the important questions that Monius asks—such as, “Where does thinking about ethics lie?”—and treat them not simply as relevant to the examination of medieval South Asian materials but as likely fruitful in revealing hidden presuppositions operative in the analyses of many “Western” texts. Thus, I maintain that taking our own historical embeddedness seriously entails that broadly conceived religious ethics in the North American academy, for instance, will initially involve a preponderance of vocabulary and conceptual tools that are deeply shaped by Western intellectual traditions. Yet I am also calling for just the kinds of questions that Monius asks as being crucial to moving us beyond that moment. Moreover, it will be vital not simply to ask these questions but to begin answering them, by showing precisely what difference it makes.

    Monius also raises a number of very productive questions around the concept of “philosophy” itself. As she notes, I do not devote the same attention to the history of the conceptualization of “philosophy” that I do to the history of the conceptualization of “religion.” Yet I agree entirely about the value of interrogating the histories and presuppositions latent in deployments of that term. Though I did not pursue the issues in a parallel manner in this book, “philosophy” is no more a natural category than “religion.”1

    Relatedly, when Monius poses questions such as, “What happens to such a project if the expressive form is poetry, or narrative, or some mixture of both? Does the work of philosophy remain precisely the same?” my response is, “Surely not.” I have no stake in suggesting that it does. To the contrary, I hope the questions Monius asks here do not remain rhetorical; they suggest very important research projects that can and should affect philosophy of religion’s course forward. That is precisely the kind of work that my effort to overcome the segregation of comparative work invites.

    One subset of questions that Monius asks in this context, however, merit particular attention. She asks, “What might happen if we imagine philosophical thinking to be not merely affected by political, social, intellectual, and religious circumstances, but utterly intertwined with such concerns, perhaps even dependent upon sets of ritual practices, bodily disciplines, and intellectual formation gained from other fields of inquiry?” (emphasis in original). I focus in particular on the question of the implications of asking whether “philosophical thinking [might be] . . . dependent upon sets of ritual practices [and] bodily disciplines.” As Monius’s reference to the work of Pierre Hadot highlights, these questions are by no means unique to South Asian materials or to philosophy of religion: I would argue that we can also look to Western figures from Benedict to Ignatius to Marx, to name just a few. But the point raised can be seen as having dramatic consequences. Some versions of this position contend that we can only understand—in the relevant sense—a particular philosophical position on the basis of years of formation, both bodily and intellectual—whether in a highly structured religious order or in a particular form of labor. If that is indeed the case, then the limits on what can be accomplished in settings such as classrooms or scholarship aimed at even a broad scholarly audience may be severe. Of course, strong versions of this claim would undermine far more than the specific kinds of engagement that I am recommending; the challenge concerns much of the work that Monius seems to champion just as much as it does my intervention.

    While we need to take these potential implications seriously, I do not think that attention to the significance of bodily practices and intellectual formation need lead us to that view. Though I cannot fully develop the point here, I think that part of what we need are accounts that do justice to intellectual and bodily formation as well as to the power, possibilities, and challenges of communication among people who do not already share the same formation. I suspect that Monius and I share this goal.

    1. I did focus on this point in my paper, “Who Stands at This Crossroads? On Conceptualizing Philosophy,” delivered at the 2017 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.

Sonia Hazard


The Anxiety of Religious Studies

I want to begin by addressing something that Thomas Lewis, in his book Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa, does not, which is that higher education is in crisis. This is a fact so familiar to academics that even bringing it up may elicit a knowing sigh or an eye roll—the reaction depending, perhaps, on the circumstances of the reader. I say it again because one way to approach Lewis’s book is as a response to conditions of academic insecurity. Why Philosophy Matters works, in part, as a justification for his own field of the philosophy of religion, and thus for its survival in a time of scarce resources, when administrators might doubt the need for certain specializations. The threat is not hypothetical: earlier this year the University of Montana announced fifty full-time faculty reductions, only the latest in a wave of discontinued positions across the country. At Brown, Lewis is both a philosopher of religion and also Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, and is no doubt aware of the tactical importance of such justifications.

What makes this book compelling is that instead of responding to insecure conditions with a conservative closing of intellectual ranks, Lewis asks scholars of religious studies to open them up. At its best, the book offers a model of intellectual curiosity beyond specialized fiefdoms, and a vision for how scholars across religious studies could better engage one another. I read Lewis’s book with admiration for his spirit of intra-disciplinarity and his care for our shared future in troubled times.

Philosophy of religion, according to the author, is all too often misunderstood and marginalized by other scholars of religious studies. The reason is that philosophers make explicitly normative claims, meaning evaluative judgments especially about how we should think and act. Opposing normative scholars are those historians, anthropologists, and sociologists of religion who identify as documentarian. Some may be squeamish about normative claims; others wonder why they are allowed to be made in our field at all. While reading, I was reminded of how these rifts around normativity, frequently latent, came to a head in the backlash to the theme of “Revolutionary Love” selected for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in 2016, right around the time Lewis’s book was going to press. Detractors claimed that the implied agenda, in that case a Christian theological one, was inappropriate for a rational and disenchanted scholarly society.

As promised by his title, Lewis’s arguments are directed both from the philosophy of religion toward the larger study of religion, and vice versa. He demonstrates that the philosophy of religion matters for the study of religion because it helps us all recognize and better analyze normative claims. Lewis’s point is that normativity is hardly unique to the philosophy of religion (and the adjacent subfields of theology and ethics). On the contrary, normativity is pervasive and inevitable, present in, for instance, the well-known humanism of the historian Robert Orsi and the liberalism that saturates Martha Nussbaum’s discourse of universal human rights (48–49). Lewis also points out that even the choice of objects of study, and the methods used to study them, demand normative judgments. I recognize this latter form of normativity in my own work. When I describe historical objects—in my case, nineteenth-century religious reading practices, the evangelical publisher the American Tract Society, and book distributors and distribution systems—I construe them in ways that devote special attention to materiality, affect, and power. It could be said that I value these themes normatively. The wager is that such attentions will reveal much that has been overlooked about the everyday experience of being American and being evangelical in the nineteenth century. That such things are worth knowing is another normative claim.

Yet despite normativity’s pervasiveness, according to Lewis, normative claims raise suspicion only when they are religious in content. He traces this suspicion to the assumption (that remains common notwithstanding critiques) that religion is reason’s other, meaning that religious claims are irrational claims, made on faith, that cannot be argued about; this idea was fostered by thinkers such as Rudolph Otto, Mircea Eliade, and William James, who sought to restore religion’s autonomy in the face of Enlightenment critiques, albeit only by reversing the latter’s terms (53ff.). In actuality, according to the author, the only meaningful difference is that philosophers of religion are more skilled at articulating and defending normative commitments. All scholars of religion would benefit by taking a page from the philosophers and subjecting their own tacit judgments to critical inquiry and debate (55).

And vice versa: the study of religion matters for philosophers of religion, too. Lewis proposes that philosophers have a lot to learn from the larger field’s attention to “history,” a major keyword of the book. He laments that history has gone unheeded by philosophers: “This lack of historical consciousness blinds us to our presuppositions and thereby deprives us of some of the most valuable resources for critique” (28). History stands for many things throughout the text, some of which inhabit quite broad senses of that term. (More on this in a minute.) It is in keeping with Lewis’s spirit of turning to history that I risk obviousness by bringing up the crisis in higher education, to suggest a way of historicizing this text itself and the urgency of the author’s interest in synthetic dialogue among the subfields at this moment of precarity.

A concern for synthesis is perhaps to be expected from a scholar who has written two monographs on Hegel. In his conclusion, called “Hegel or Nietzsche?” Lewis displays his Hegelian bona fides. He analyzes these two German thinkers in terms of their respective philosophies of history, then applies them to the history of the philosophy of religion itself, in the aim of understanding the subfield’s past and anticipating its future. Against a Nietzschean view of history after Genealogy of Morals, characterized by accident, agon, and disjuncture, Lewis finds more promising resources in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, with its narrative of forward motion, in which the contradictions of each stage resolve rationally into the next.

I may sound a bit jaded when I say that it seems clear why Hegel is a useful thinker for Lewis’s aims, given the social and economic context: Hegelian dialectics offer a soothing interpretation of our professional difficulties and in a way that seems to flatter all concerned parties. We are in a moment, we are told, in which the philosophy of religion is in the midst of performing a capture of the techniques and sensibilities of history offered by the larger study of religion; meanwhile the study of religion is poised to embrace its repressed normativity, better late than never. This optimistic and progressive position is a tonic for perennial anxieties about the incoherence of religious studies, which have only become amplified of late, as both the value of our work, and the very criteria of value, are up for grabs across the humanities, and careers hang in the balance. Lewis says that despite the epistemological blind spots of the various specializations—whether the historian’s disavowal of normativity or the philosopher’s historical aloofness—soon all will be made well. He wants to preserve, sublate, and synthesize, because he thinks that the puzzle pieces we have are good. Perhaps it is the dean who is speaking when we read that our common task is simply to rearrange them; and then it is the Hegelian who reassures us that this will likely happen.

The danger of posing a synthetic, confident, and programmatic vision of an academic enterprise as heterogeneous as religious studies, is that scholars may not always recognize or affirm how they have been represented, no matter how good-faith the effort. While I greatly admire Lewis’s capacious interests and care for the future of religious studies, I confess to feeling some hesitation about precisely this question of representation.

How Lewis represents history is especially relevant for my own work, and I think he makes a strong case that all forms of scholarly inquiry, including historical inquiry, are constitutive acts that depend on and advance normative claims. Still, I wonder what is lost when Lewis casts historical scholarship in religion in terms of its normativity. His technique of Hegelian capture elevates normativity into an ordering principle that yokes sometimes extremely disparate people, data, and ideas. He interrogates various religion scholars, across the subfields, with strong, ordering questions: What is your norm? How do you justify it? So Orsi is a humanist; Nussbaum a liberal; a critic like Timothy Fitzgerald holds the unmasking of normative ideologies to be itself a normative good (49), and so on. But it seems reductive (to rely on a hackneyed but not inappropriate word) to pluck out Orsi’s humanism, for instance, in a lushly archival book like Between Heaven and Earth (2005), unmoored from the many things, bodies, and contexts that populate his narrative, not to mention the careful historical arguments that Orsi makes about twentieth-century American Catholicism. When we get too normative about normativity, we extricate Orsi’s humanism but leave behind his thick descriptions and historical analyses of prayer cards, home altars, devotions to the Virgin, public processions, cripples and shut-ins. What I mean is that religious history, and its value as something we read and learn from, cannot be adequately summarized in terms of its normative dimensions. Otherwise, why do history at all? If norms are the point, then why should historians not argue about norms directly? Why spend so much time sitting in archives—an elaborate, time-consuming detour into the materials, bodies, and contexts of the past—when the goal is to defend norms that transcend historical particularities? If Lewis is right, then it sure seems like a lot of scholars of religion are taking the long way around.

Hegel’s influence is not incidental to the flattening of history in this book. Lewis tells us that Hegel rejects any “conception of a chasm between concept-laden accounts and some imagined ‘things as they really are’ independent of concepts” (155). Put another way: “Philosophy, for Hegel, is distinguished by the purely conceptual form of thinking (Denken) that presents its objects in their necessary relations with each other. This form of cognition overcomes the arbitrariness of merely given content” (75). On this view, concepts are abstractable from their material manifestations, and since nothing meaningful exceeds concepts, Orsi’s historical attentions to “merely given content” become rather arbitrary. What remains important and interesting in Orsi’s account are the concepts that may be harvested for the use of philosophy, namely Orsi’s norms. The past becomes kind of like an orange that we squeeze for its juice and then throw away the rind. Of course, philosophers are free to read historians however they wish. I only want to note that while a Hegelian reading is one productive way to read outside one’s area, I am not sure that it is the most generous way to read, especially if the concern is for the larger study of religion and not only for the philosophy of religion.

The valorization of normativity, however justifiable for philosophers, might be offset, in a spirit of give-and-take, if Lewis allowed his own subfield to be similarly destabilized by history. Yet the meaning of history in these pages can appear thin from the perspective of a historian. Though in early chapters, the author nods to scholars who emplace ideas in social, cultural, and political contexts, it is hard to shake the suspicion that the main purpose of history in this book is to recover the thought of a select company of philosophers. In his third chapter, “History in the Future of the Philosophy of Religion,” Lewis develops new readings of Schleiermacher and Hegel that center on how each treats religion as a category. You may have to squint to see the “history” advertised by the chapter’s title, though; it is historical mostly in the sense that Schleiermacher and Hegel existed in the past. A card-carrying historian would probably point out that there is virtually no discussion of their social and cultural milieux, networks of intellectual influence, or reception. While the preference for purely conceptual thinking over “merely given content” may not pose a problem for the philosophy of religion per se, nor has a lack of philosophical precision undermined the production of valuable historical scholarship. My confusion mostly arises, then, from the stately invocation of “a turn to history” (63) throughout his text. The most frank way I can put my critique is that, at first blush, Lewis appears to extend intellectual hospitality, professing an interest in synthetic dialogue across religious studies, but then does not quite follow through. More often he assimilates the parts of other subfields that work for philosophy and blows right by the rest.

Theologians have voiced similar concerns. Reviewing the same book in Modern Theology, Natalie Carnes finds issue with the roughshod way Lewis treats her field of theology. Especially troubling for Carnes is how comfortably the author inhabits the role of referee, deciding what counts as legitimate discourse in religious studies, for instance his argument that certain theologians, such as Otto, do not belong. For Lewis rejects Otto’s The Idea of the Holy on the grounds that it describes the numinous as accessible only through felt religious experiences that cannot be fully expressed in language. Lewis insists that this claim—along with any other theological claim that appeals to fixed authorities, revelation, or personal experience—should be disqualified because such claims are, as Rorty put it, “conversation-stoppers” that refuse to submit themselves to inquiry (11, 59–60). Carnes finds this to be a hasty way of approaching a work that has not only been a longtime staple of religious studies theory and method seminars everywhere, but also a productive thesis about which careful readers have managed to say a lot. Carnes also radiates the same tentative, ambivalent feeling that came over me while reading this book. She writes that she, too, was initially gratified by Lewis’s overtures to her subfield, but then something “sits uneasily” as whole figures, ways of thinking, and schools of thought are offloaded.1

My anxiety in this response is partly a reflection of the anxiety of religious studies itself. The field is anxious, first because of larger structures of precarity, as are so many other disciplines and areas of study during this time of crisis in higher education. Compounding this mood are the troubles that come from working in a big tent, which includes scholars trained as historians, philosophers, anthropologists, theologians, sociologists, ethicists, and so on. As Finbarr Curtis has put it: “The AAR is a big tent right now. Ironically, this means that everyone feels excluded.”2 And as if this was not enough, much of the study of religion denounces its own specialness, having long ago rejected so-called sui generis models of religion. At times, it looks like the field’s intellectual coherence stems only from a zombie devotion to resurrecting its central conceptual question (what religion means as a category) again and again. Still, however frustrating the heterogeneity of religious studies may feel in conversation, and however vexed the brooding question at its heart, and to say nothing of the strangeness, excesses, and impossibilities that we cannot help coming across over and over again in our encounters with religious worlds, these are also some of the reasons why I was attracted to this never-boring field in the first place, and why I continue to be excited by it.

Do we need a stunning Hegelian resolution in the study of religion? My sense is that the incommensurabilities among the subfields are productive in themselves. Though we may agree that philosophers, historians, theologians, and other sorts of scholars, all make normative, value-laden claims, there remain enormous differences in the content of the normative claims made, not to mention in the many other kinds of labor that scholars perform beyond articulating and defending norms. Multiplicity is part of our shared settlement in religious studies. In our precarious times, I wonder whether we might rather forward justifications for the study of religion that value diverse subfields precisely because of their differences—including the extent to which we then become capable of reading one another differently, creatively, and in pursuit of ends that may stretch farther apart (and that occasionally and delightfully, but not necessarily, resonate together), rather than being synthesized under a master vision that values some outcomes more than others. If Lewis is right that normativity is inescapable and should be embraced, doing so need not entail making normativity the thing we must all value the most.

  1. Natalie Carnes, review of Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—& Vice Versa, by Thomas A. Lewis, Modern Theology 33.4 (2017) 684.

  2. Finbarr Curtis, “It’s Not the Size of the Tent; It’s How It’s Constructed,” Leviathan and You: A Blog about Big Things (blog), October 16, 2015,

  • Thomas A. Lewis

    Thomas A. Lewis


    Crisis, History, and Heterogeneity

    As I noted in my response to Anne Monius, one of my central goals in writing the book was to foster a conversation across subdisciplines of religious studies that too rarely speak with each other. I am thus particularly grateful for the historian Sonia Hazard’s taking the time to engage the book carefully.

    Hazard calls important attention to the sense of crisis that currently pervades much of the humanities. Although the book predates my position as an associate dean in a graduate school (to which she refers), the latter role has only added to my sense of the importance of being able to articulate and demonstrate the significance of what we, as scholars of religion, do and the contributions that we make. That impulse is more than tactical, however. Rather, I believe that the call for this level of articulacy about what we do and why it matters has intellectual value in itself.

    Hazard’s response also raises a number of points on which I think we are actually much closer than it may initially appear. She worries, for instance, that in my discussions of the normative elements in Orsi’s work I “reductive[ly]” neglect his thick descriptions and extraordinarily rich historical work. But my point is in no sense to say that the normative commitments are all that matter in Orsi’s work. The purpose of these treatments of Nussbaum, Orsi, and Fitzgerald is to highlight that aspect of their work. Just as a scholar who focuses on those aspects of Between Heaven and Earth that illuminate twentieth-century Italian American Catholicism in the Bronx is not saying that those elements of the book are the only ones that are significant, my focus on the normative dimensions of the work should not imply that only these aspects matter. Those are key to the point I am making about Orsi in this chapter, but I agree entirely with Hazard’s claim that “religious history, and its value as something we read and learn from, cannot be adequately summarized in terms of its normative dimension.”

    Hazard also worries that the turn to history for which I call in the third chapter is a very thin history. The charge is understandable. I can present elements of a response here, but Hazard’s point also suggests the importance of an ongoing project. On one hand, my goal in that chapter was to draw attention to a valuable convergence of the study of historical figures in the philosophy of religion and a turn to interrogating the history of the study of religion itself (see 65). In my discussion of the value of Amy Hollywood’s work, I also emphasize her attention to the historical settings of the figures and dynamics she is analyzing (31–33). Admittedly, my attempt to discuss both Schleiermacher and Hegel in a relatively brief chapter means that the concern with their historical contexts is thin in multiple senses. Yet I have tried in some of my other writing on Hegel, particularly Religion, Modernity, and Politics in Hegel, to engage the historical setting more substantially.1 I would even say that one of the important ways in which I distinguish the kind of work I do from that of my own teachers has been precisely this greater attention to historical contextualization.

    On the other hand, I acknowledge that I have much more to do in this regard. I acknowledge that many historians may find my historical contextualization, for instance—even in a book-length treatment—to be thin. Yet to call for recognition of the importance of history in the philosophy of religion is not to call for philosophers of religion to become historians. I have worked to situate intellectual projects in their historical settings not in order to make myself into a historian but precisely because I have found this kind of work to be immensely generative for the philosophical analyses I have sought to develop. Thus, while I certainly have further to go here, my goal is not to collapse the subfields. I seek to learn from them and to do so on an ongoing basis, not to simply “assimilate” them and move on.

    This point brings me to one of Hazard’s final concerns about my work: Drawing on her earlier references to Hegel—and what she sees as an optimistic confidence that “soon all will be made well”—she rejects a vision that involves overcoming the heterogeneity of the subfields of the study of religion. While Hegel is often taken to represent a blind confidence that would steamroll all difference and move quickly to tension-free resolution, that is not my Hegel. I view Hegel as providing far more space for tension and conflict as well as less certainty about the outcome of any particular present conflicts.2

    Beyond the interpretive point about Hegel, however, I think that I Hazard and I are largely in agreement: I share her view that much of the strength of religious studies derives from the diversity of its subfields. Yet I also seek to emphasize that that heterogeneity is only a strength insofar as these subfields engage, rather than ignore or seek to delegitimate, each other. Though she does not use these words, I think this is implicit in her championing of a heterogeneous field. Otherwise, we are not a heterogeneous field but a collection of fields that happen to share a building and an administrator but little more. And, to return to the concern with a “crisis” of the humanities, that is a weak argument for the preservation of a department when others might suggest dissolving the department and dispersing faculty into our most closely aligned disciplines. We can and should appreciate the heterogeneity of religious studies; but it is vital that we do so through engagement, rather than through the preservation of silos.

    1. Thomas A. Lewis, Religion, Modernity, and Politics in Hegel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

    2. For excellent treatments of this point, see Molly Farneth, Hegel’s Social Ethics: Religion, Conflict, and Rituals of Reconciliation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

Samuel J. Kessler


Rabbis & Romans

Normativity and Extra-Communal Conversation; or, An Example in Support of Thomas Lewis

In the second chapter of Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa, Thomas Lewis engages with the question of normativity in the study of religion. According to Lewis, normativity involves “claims—whether made explicit or remaining implicit—regarding the way we ought to act or think” (46). In highlighting normativity, Lewis has two primary concerns. First, that many scholars at the modern university do not realize how often they themselves employ normative claims, while they often criticize others (especially nineteenth-century scholars and contemporary theologians) for peddling only in normative assertions and (externally unquestionable) proofs from faith. In Lewis’s telling, contemporary scholars are willing to criticize the work and normative assumptions of nineteenth-century Religionswissenschaft and its contemporary heirs, seeing it as fundamentally about the imposition of European (Christian) ethics and political power on the rest of the world. But what they fail to understand, he writes, is that regardless of such rhetorical dismissal, much of the work that continues to be done in the modern academic study of religion (work that calls itself neutral, descriptive, or objective) remains, at its base, normative in its values and assumptions. Instead of dismissing wholesale the history of the discipline (or, worse, of any ideas that have some sort of pre-1968 “Western” pedigree), Lewis argues for a recognition of all scholarly normative assumptions, the better to open them to debate, critique, development, and, of course, possible dismissal.

Second, Lewis writes that “religion” (whatever it might be) is often understood only as the opposite to “reason,” the thing that one either falls back upon when “critical” thought has failed or that resists engagement because it makes assertions (like theologians) purely through faith. There are many obvious examples of this form of thinking in the earliest period of religious studies.1 But even contemporary scholarship that, I think, imagines itself as generously engaged with religion can have the unintended effect of continuing to marginalize it, placing religion beyond the realm of active, logical, critical, argumentative discourse.2 Though these scholars would, I believe, all take umbrage at a description of their work as repeating the same marginalization of religion as that done famously by the likes of minds such as Voltaire and Freud, the result is, undeniably, the same. Religion is theorized into a place—be it as pre-evolutionary; about personally-defined experiences; measured by confluences; or meaningful only in relationships—that makes it something unencounterable through analytic, leisurely discussion and debate.

Drawing on the philosophical work of Jeffrey Stout and Alasdair MacIntyre, Lewis argues for a thoughtful, critical understanding of the centrality of normative claims in the study of religion.3

Further, he advises not only a détente with, but perhaps also an embrace of, any form of theological inquiry willing to engage in debate concerning its own normative claims. Through discussing a story from the Jewish tradition, my brief remarks offer support for Lewis’s conclusion that anyone willing to engage in self-reflective and self-critical deliberation on religious or theological ideas is a worthy partner to include in the disciplinary family of religious studies.

The Mishna (a rabbinical text codified around 200 CE) records a normative statement of Jewish theology:

All Israel have a share in the World-to-Come, as it is stated: “And your people are all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever; the shoot of my own planting, the work of my own hands, that I may be glorified” [Isaiah 60:21]. And these [are they] who have no share in the World-to-Come: one who says, “there is no resurrection of the dead [derived] from the Torah;” and [one who says: “the] Torah is not from Heaven;” and an apikoros [one who negates the rabbinic tradition]. (B. Sanhedrin 90a)

The Babylonian Talmud records a series of glosses on this mishna, the opening sections of which are devoted to understanding why those who say “there is no resurrection of the dead from the Torah” are denied a place in the World-to-Come. Why are the Talmudic rabbis having this discussion? Because, since the Torah never specifically says that there is resurrection of the dead, the rabbinic sages must find proofs.4 We can understand the predicament thus: a received tradition has become normative theology, but that received tradition also assumes a particular rational basis for that theology, which in this case appears to be missing, hidden, or at least not immediately recognizable. So the sages must derive, post hoc and in absence of previously recorded discussions as to why this became normative theology in the first place, the possible lines of reasoning that informed the mishna’s statement. Yet not being entirely sure of the one perfect proof, the Talmud provides a series of possibilities. A succession of sages (Rabbi Samuel bar Nachmani in the name of Rabbi Jonathan; Rabbi Yohanan; someone from the school of Rabbi Ishmael; Rabbi Simai; and Rabban Gamliel) therefore provide proofs for the doctrine, mainly by quoting and interpreting various verses from within the biblical corpus.5

Up to this point, this rabbinic discussion seems customarily hermetic: a statement of theological or legal value—squarely within the tradition—is commented upon by others who are also within that same tradition, whether by merit of birth, learning, or socialization. As Alisdair MacIntyre, described by Thomas Lewis, might understand this philosophical discussion, it is reasoning “born by . . . tradition” (57). That is to say, the proofs are legitimated not by an external force of pure reason but through a received tradition of how philosophical evidence is derived within a specified context.6

But then the conversation takes a turn.

The Romans asked Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya: From where [is it derived] that the Holy One, Blessed be He, revives the dead, and [from where is it derived that] He knows what is destined to be? [Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya] said to them: Both of those [are derived] from this verse, as it is stated: “And the Lord said to Moses: Behold, you shall lie with your fathers and arise; this people will go astray [after the foreign gods of the land]” [Deuteronomy 31:16]. [The Romans asked:] But perhaps [the verse should be divided in a different manner, and it should be read: “Behold, you shall lie with your fathers] and this people will arise and go astray.” (B. Sanhedrin 90b)

This is a remarkable shift in the storyline. But before we interrogate further let us understand what has transpired. Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya offers a standard rabbinic reading of the verse from Deuteronomy: “you shall lie with your fathers and arise,” pause, “this people will go astray” (shochev im avoteicha v’kam [pause] ha’am hazeh v’zanah). In this telling, we know that God revives the dead because after you lie with your father (i.e., die) you will arise (i.e., be resurrected). But the text of the Torah is not pointed, that is to say, there are neither vowels nor punctuation marks. The pause is merely interpretive.7 The Romans respond that Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya is perhaps reading the verse incorrectly. Read it thus, they say: “you shall lie with your fathers,” pause, “and this people will arise and go astray”8 (shochev im avoteicha [pause] v’kam ha’am hazeh v’zanah). The Romans have changed nothing from the original, un-pointed Hebrew of Deuteronomy. They have merely changed the spoken emphasis, from avoteicha v’kam (your fathers and arise) to v’kam ha’am hazeh (and this people will arise). But in so doing, they have disconnected the idea that lying with one’s fathers is related to arising and therefore negated Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya’s proof.

Now, let us unpack. This passage introduces an entirely new element into what had been, so far, a fairly conventional rabbinic discussion. Before the entrance of Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya and the Romans, the Talmudic gloss on the mishna’s ruling had been confined to a record of rabbis discoursing with rabbis, Jews talking to Jews. Here, then, come the Romans, and not merely as a foil (though to some degree they are that, too) but as a genuinely interested (and linguistically skilled and knowledgeable) third party. I want to argue that something profound is revealed by this story of a Jew discussing a mishnaic passage with Romans. Other groups, it turns out, are interested in the same questions as the rabbis, in the same theological (philosophical, metaphysical) musings on the nature of being, death, knowledge, and God. The Talmud is not, therefore, merely the written heritage of a hermetic community, discussing questions of only limited and parochial interest. Rather, the rabbis are debating ideas that have broad currency, doing so, certainly, in their own ways, but not out of gnostic secrecy or dogma-driven insularity, but because in their time and place, in their community, that is how philosophical arguments were made.

Let us turn again to Lewis, describing MacIntyre:

One might contend, for instance, that MacIntyre has abandoned—in theory and practice—the goal of making an argument that appeals to more than a limited community sharing a set of practices that are not shared by the modern academy as a whole. There is certainly room for argument. But that is the point: there is room for argument. And the arguments can be made without appealing to transcendent authority and without presupposing “faith.” (58)9

Apply this to the above tale of Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya and the Romans. An argument could perhaps be made that Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya is presupposing a transcendent authority, in this case that of Deuteronomy. But that is not how the story reads. Set aside for the moment that this text is to a great degree pedagogical, written by Jews for others within some sort of set, bounded Jewish community. Let us rather engage with it as it presents itself, as a discussion between Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya and some sort of Roman intelligentsia.10 Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya presents two philosophical propositions: that God revives the dead and that God knows everything that will happen in the future. He then presents a proof for these propositions: a line from Deuteronomy. If this were an argument purely from transcendent authority, from faith, then the conversation would end there. Rabbis one, Romans nil. But the Romans (again, reading the story on its own terms) do not see Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya’s argument as one from “faith.” Instead, they engage with him on the nature and merits of his proofs tout court. Even more surprisingly, they seem to win. For the story has a remarkable ending. Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya does not have a response to the Romans’ alternate reading of Deuteronomy! And not only do the Romans get the final word on this set of proofs for resurrection, but the next line of the text of the Talmud says, “[Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya] said to them: ‘take at least half in your hands, “that [God] knows what is destined to be”’” (nekotu mi’ha palga bidaichu deyodea ma she’atid lihiyot). Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya entirely concedes the point that the verse in Deuteronomy can be read either way, and so it cannot be a proof that resurrection of the dead comes from the Torah. But he wants the Romans to at least agree that God knows the future. He wants to find some mutual theological ground—perhaps to save face, perhaps so as not to end the conversation entirely without gaining some insight into God’s powers.

Lewis again:

The vision of the study of religion that I am proposing does require everyone to be willing to debate—and in doing so to submit to critique and criticism—their normative claims. . . . The simple juxtaposition of theology and religious studies is too often premised on an assumption that religion is fundamentally non-rational. Whether understood as an irrational superstition, as based in feeling and intuition, and/or as an irreducibly personal experience, religion understood in this manner becomes something about which reasoned exchange is impossible. (59, 60–61, emphasis added)

For Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya and the Romans, their discussion about the proofs for resurrection in Deuteronomy is not “religion,” if “religion” is defined as some non-rational, irrational, superstitious, intuitive, personal, faith-based, or whatever other demeaning, degrading, alterity-forming words one wants to apply to their experience of the world. Instead, Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya and the Romans are having what both sides understand to be a reasoned debate, centered on normative claims (there is resurrection, God knows the future) but open to “critique and criticism” from someone outside their usual intellectual cohort.

My concluding point is this: to the contemporary reader it should not matter in the slightest whether one “believes” in resurrection after death to see the merits in this Talmudic story. The normative claims here are merely the content, one possible doctrine among an uncountable number of others. What matters instead are that readers see how both Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya and the Romans were “willing to offer justifications for the norms that [they] invoke” (46).11 I put forth this discussion between a rabbi and the Romans as an ancient demonstration of the way a particular understanding of normative modes of reasoning and critical dialogue can allow for what the Jews call “an argument for the sake of heaven” and Lewis describes as “bringing the norms themselves into debate and subject[ing] them to critical inquiry” (46). At the end of this Talmudic story, our reading of Deuteronomy, regardless of whether one “believes” in the Bible itself, is made just a little better, a little deeper, a little more interesting, because the Romans questioned Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya and because Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya decided to look outside his group and answer their questions. As Lewis writes at the end of his book, “we need to actively pursue, articulate, and critique the contradictions in our own commitments and practices” (160). Sometimes, as in the case of Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya, this means listening to others. Sometimes, as in the case of the Romans, this means engaging in a dialogical entanglement that is distinctly not one’s own. The question that arises from Lewis’s book is about how this all might be done. I, personally, would be eager to see a more vigorously self-reflective and historically-aware theological movement arise in Judaism. Would my co-scholars in Jewish studies? I have no idea. Some would, some wouldn’t. At the moment, no such thing exists, so the point is moot. But the (future) existence of such a theological movement would certainly make the world of ideas, and of modern scholarship on Judaism, a more interesting place.

  1. From 1779: “It is my opinion, I own, replied Demea, that each man feels, in a manner, the truth of religion within his own breast; and from a consciousness of imbecility and misery, rather than from any reasoning, is led to seek protection from that Being, on whom he and all nature is dependent.” David Hume, Principal Writings on Religion including Dialogues concerning Natural Religion and the Natural History of Religion, ed. J. C. A. Gaskin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 95. From 1902: “The essence of religious experiences, the thing by which we finally must judge them, must be an element or quality in them which we can meet nowhere else.” William James, The Variety of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Modern Library, 1902), 45.

  2. Robert Bellah locates religion in the sphere of early human cognition (i.e., pre-rational evolutionary states) and the need for play. See his Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard University Press, 2011.) Anne Taves writes of accessing religious experience through an “ascriptive” election of “special things,” making religion part of individual systems of designated meaning rather than as intellectually-accessible (and therefore debatable) ideas and practices. See her Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). Thomas Tweed writes about religion as “confluences of organic-cultural flows,” again withdrawing religion to the dominion of culturally-determined activity rather than philosophical reason. See his Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 54. And Bruno Latour says that religion “does not speak of things, but from things—entities, agencies, situations, substances, relations, experiences, whatever is the word—which are highly sensitive to the ways in which they are talked about,” a description which by definition excludes the possibility of rational argumentations, for who can seriously argue with “entities, agencies, situations, substances, relations, experiences”? See his On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 101 (italics in original).

  3. A foundational critique of this chapter argues that Lewis retains a Western-centric understanding of normativity. For example, Natalie Carnes, in a recent review of the book, describes those scholars who are entirely unwilling to consider theology as a valuable dialogical partner for religious studies. She writes: “The troubling moments cluster around Lewis’s accounts of normativity and the role of theology in religious studies. It is, from one perspective, a gesture of genuine hospitality that Lewis finds for theology a seat at the table of religious studies. Not all religionists are so ready to forget the way theological and crypto-theological commitments birthed, shaped, and determined the discourse of religious studies and did so in a way that privileged Western Christianity. Some of the recent blowback to the 2016 theme for the American Academy of Religion, ‘Revolutionary Love,’ indicates just how gripped the academy is by anxieties about theology determining the conversations in religious studies.” (Natalie Carnes, review of Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa, by Thomas A. Lewis, Modern Theology 33.4 [2017] 684–86.) As Carnes describes it, the unwillingness to even entertain the discussion Lewis wants to begin seems to miss the point on a number of levels. First, expanding our conceptions of the discourses that count as argument and intellectual engagement are the most basic means by which intellectual communities open themselves to new forms of ideas and histories. Speaking a new language is fundamental to the acceptance of opposing arguments. It is also, at some basic level, disingenuous to say that one specific history “determined the discourse,” when the whole historiography of modern European intellectual life is about chronicling an ever-expanding, continually renegotiated, and often disharmonious conversation about who and what counts as “scientific scholarship.” Second, Lewis’s vision opens critique in both directions, from previously-excluded traditions onto religious studies (i.e., arguments only advance by listening to and engaging with new voices) but also from religious studies toward other forms of knowledge making (i.e., the modern academic study of religion should be able to critique even that which arises outside itself—or everything it does is just mere naval-gazing). Importantly, this give-and-take about what constitutes religious studies can occur as much from within so-called “Western” knowledge systems (the Anabaptists and Greek Byzantine Catholic Church, for example, might rightly feel excluded from any common notion of “Western Christianity”) as from those that arise in a geographic “elsewhere.” Third and finally, this argument seems to be confused about what constitutes “theological or crypto-theological commitments.” Is it saying that only such commitments as arise in a “Western” (read Lutheran Protestant or European-based imperial Catholic [Spain, Italy, France]) context are theologically potent and therefore forbidden? Or that only “Western” arguments are actually even possibly theological in the first place, whereas the world-out-there just has different “philosophical” approaches to knowledge but never “theological” ones? Who is to say that the writings on the history of religion by French Huguenots living in Berlin are more “theological or crypto-theological” than those of a Japanese Confucian living in Manila? And why shouldn’t a Jewish American scholar living in Cincinnati be as capable of engaging with the arguments of a Senegalese Islamic theologian as vice versa? Lewis’s point is that the opening toward normativity is for everyone: Catholic Polish scholars and Catholic Polish theologians; Mayan scholars and Mayan theologians. The simple fact that Religionswissenschaft developed in Central and Western Europe does not de jure detract from its usefulness in understanding the diverse religious experiences of the world, nor does it de facto mean that scholars who fifty or one hundred or two hundred years ago would not have been included in the discussion (this author included) should be excessively wary of contemporary religious studies if they find its methods and focus and forums for intellectual exchange to be stimulating, exciting, and nuanced.

  4. Indeed, the Samaritans, the perpetual foes of the rabbis, who also possess the Pentateuch and derive their theological system from it, find no proof within the Torah of resurrection of the dead. The rabbis engage them (or perhaps some imagined version of them) in debate on this point. (See B. Sanhedrin 90b.)

  5. For a very different reading of this section in Talmud, see Christine E. Hayes, “Displaced Self-Perceptions: The Deployment of Minim and Romans in B. Sanhedrin 90b-91a,” in Religious and Ethnic Communities in Later Roman Palestine, ed. Hayim Lapin (Potomac: University Press of Maryland, 1998), 249–89.

  6. In another famous passage, Rabbi Ishmael (whose “school” was cited above) lays out thirteen hermeneutical principles for deriving meaning from biblical texts—the “tradition” from whence these proofs derive their philosophical legitimation. See the opening lines to the Sifra, the rabbinic midrash halakha on Leviticus, called “Baraita d’Rabbi Yishmael.”

  7. And in this text, all the more so. Sometime these sorts of linguistic discussions involve changing grammar. Not so here.

  8. This can be slightly confusing because of English word-order in translation. The Romans’ new second half of the sentence literally reads “and arise this people and go astray.”

  9. In a similar vein, Eric J. Sharpe writes, “Methodological debates do not, and should not, serve the purpose of trying to impose uniformity of approach on what cannot be other than a highly diverse field. Were we trying to do so, we should be in great risk of heresy trials.” Sharpe, Comparative Religion: A History (London: Duckworth, 2009 [1986]), 316.

  10. Another interesting note: the text, aside from the quoted biblical passage (which is in Hebrew), is written in Aramaic, a common tongue in the ancient Near East. Though not technically the reason for the linguistic shift (modern Talmud scholarship attributes the Aramaic to later Jewish redactors living in Babylonia, where Aramaic remained the language of the Jews even after the Islamic conquest), in a metaphoric sense we might see the Romans in this story as interacting with Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya in a language they mutually understand.

  11. For a similarly-inclined but disparately-argued engagement with the implications of embracing normativity in the study of religion, see Anil Mundra, “Naturalism, Normativity, and the Study of Religion,” Religions 8.10 (2017) 220–33.

  • Thomas A. Lewis

    Thomas A. Lewis


    On Immanent Critique and Senses of “Normative”

    Samuel Kessler’s “Rabbis and Romans” provides an illuminating analysis of a section of the Babylonian Talmud that treats an exchange between Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya and “the Romans.” He treats the encounter as “An Example in Support of Thomas Lewis” and enables us to see this encounter as a vivid, historical example of rational exchange across the boundaries of a tradition. In responding to the piece, I want to take advantage of the occasion it offers to clarify aspects of the position I want to defend.

    The passage on which Kessler focuses concerns the claim that “shochev im avoteicha v’kam ha’am hazeh v’zanah.” In his exchange with the Romans, “Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya offers a standard rabbinic reading of the verse from Deuteronomy: ‘you shall lie with your fathers and arise,’ pause, ‘this people will go astray.’” The Romans respond by challenging the reading of the verse. As Kessler notes, the text was transmitted without indications of the vowels or punctuation.

    According to Kessler, the Romans focus on the indeterminacy of the transmitted text to suggest that the verse could just as well be understood as “Behold, you shall lie with your fathers and this people will arise and go astray.”1

    Though Kessler does not label the challenge this way, the Romans offer an immanent critique of Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya’s reading of the text. They do not—in this exchange—question the text’s authority but offer reasons for rejecting the claim that appeal only to commitments that Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya already holds. Specifically, they focus on the linguistic indeterminacy of the verse that has been taken to warrant the claim. The Romans mount their criticism on these grounds. Moreover, as indicated in the shift in Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya’s stance by the end of the passage, he—and presumably many of his readers—hold themselves accountable to reasons offered by the Romans. Their not being considered part of the tradition is irrelevant to the question of whether their arguments should be taken seriously. Rather, what appears to matter is their being “linguistically skilled and knowledgeable.” The exchange provides an important example of the potential power of immanent criticism as well as its long history in this tradition.

    As important as the exchange is in this respect, however, what Kessler does not bring into view is the question of the authoritative status of Deuteronomy itself. In the debate as treated, the question concerns how to interpret Deuteronomy, not whether Deuteronomy is authoritative. That is in no sense a complaint about this instance of immanent criticism, but it provides occasion to point out a crucial element of what I take participating in the academic study of religion to entail: a willingness, in principle, to subject all one’s commitments to questioning and interrogation. It is not enough to be willing to engage in reason-giving debate on some aspects of one’s commitments. Rather, one has to be willing, in principle, to offer arguments in defense of all of one’s commitments. I repeat “in principle” specifically to signal that human finitude means that we cannot in actuality engage in defending all of our commitments all of the time. What I mean to exclude, however, are claims that certain commitments function as givens in our conversation that cannot be questioned. I thus think we need to be more precise than Kessler is when he glosses my position as, “anyone willing to engage in self-reflective and self-critical deliberation on religious or theological ideas is a worthy partner to include in the disciplinary family of religious studies.” As important as it is, a willingness to debate some of one’s religious or theological ideas is not enough; rather, I am calling for a principled willingness to call into question and hold oneself accountable for offering reasons for one’s commitments. Being willing to debate the interpretation of a given text is not enough; one also has to be willing to debate its authority in the first place.

    Finally, I want to note two moments in Kessler’s text that highlight a sense of “normative” that is importantly distinct from my usual usage of that term. Distinguishing these senses may help us to move past some misunderstandings that frequently cloud discussions around the role of the normative in the study of religion. Early in his response, Kessler writes, “The Mishna . . . records a normative statement of Jewish theology . . .” Later in that paragraph, he writes, in relation to the passage he has just quoted, “A received tradition has become normative theology . . .” At least in the second instance, “normative” here seems to mean authoritative for a particular community. In the first instance, Kessler may be using “normative” in the sense of “authoritative for,” but it is ambiguous.

    My focus on the pervasiveness of normativity has sought to draw attention the presence, wither implicit or explicit, of claims about how we ought to act as well as to the arguments for these claims (see WPMSR, 46–47). We can—and very frequently do—recognize a claim as normative in this sense without taking it to be authoritative for us. I do so, for instance, when I point out claims about how we ought to act that are implicit in particular accounts of gender, even as I argue against and thus challenge any authoritative status for those specific norms. My claim is not that these different senses of “normative” are unrelated, though I cannot elaborate that point here. Moreover, a claim’s being taken to be authoritative for a particular group should not be confused with its being unrevisable or unquestionable; and there is much more to say about different ways in which a norm might or might not be taken to be authoritative in this broad sense. These points for further elaboration notwithstanding, it is important not to conflate my call to recognize the pervasiveness of normativity with a championing of the claims taken as authoritative by particular traditions.

    1. I rely here entirely on Kessler’s versions of the texts and the linguistic issues in play.

Travis Cooper


Normativity Reconsidered

Thomas Lewis’s challenging, misleadingly slim book, Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion & Vice Versa (2015), moves in several directions. But several of Lewis’s most immediate aims are to theorize internecine boundary maintenance strategies in religious studies, describe the current methodological gridlock, and suggest a new way forward in terms of disciplinary interactions.

I focus in this response on the book’s second chapter, “On the Role of Normativity in Religious Studies,” wherein Lewis has in mind the perennial debate about the place of theology in religious studies. After discussing Lewis’s categorization of normativity and revisiting the issue of objectivity, I submit some additional questions about the implications of a normative turn in broader religious studies contexts such as the classroom or in departmental interactions.

The thesis of this chapter of Why Philosophy Matters is that normativity is not the exclusive domain of theological, philosophical, or ethical studies. So-called descriptive, objective, and social-scientific approaches are also imbued with normative commitments. Normativity is ubiquitous. Lewis spends most of the chapter constructing a robust taxonomy of religious studies deliberations, contributing, in short, a provocative classification of normativity. Below, I take the liberty to extrapolate Lewis’s points into eight overlapping categories emerging directly out of his discussion of what he identifies as “representative examples spanning a range of approaches, some of which are among those that seem least likely to be normative” (47).

According to Lewis, normativity guides a number of operations including:

  1. Implicit or explicit claims made on a person.
  2. Predispositions about disciplinary and methodological norms.
  3. Claims about subjects and materials of study.
  4. Claims about human ethical and moral issues.
  5. Generalizing or totalizing descriptions of particular religious practices as universal.
  6. Projecting findings from ethnographic detail and historical specificity to the universal level.
  7. The justification of data for study.
  8. Claims about the underlying nature of reality. (46–50)

I want to be clear about this: Lewis’s taxonomy is compelling. His categorization offers a theoretically-rich analysis of an arena of academic discourse that has tended to think in overly simplistic binaries and un-interrogated assumptions. He expands the concept of normativity far past caricatures that reduce the process to mere “should” or “ought” statements (46, 47). Normativity, in fact, is much more pervasive. According to Lewis’s rendering, religious studies is saturated with explicit and implicit appeals to normative values of various sorts.

But the magic of a well-constructed taxonomy is that while drawing attention to its immediate content it also draws one’s gaze away from factors that may problematize the structure of the proposed categorization. What I mean is that Lewis gives the reader these multiple categories, synthesizing all of the strategies as normatively laden, but then quasi-objectively refrains, himself, from ranking or evaluating the categories. I’d argue that we see even within Lewis’s work a dual strategy that is both descriptivist and normativist in parts. Lewis, in this instance, abstains from evaluating or weighing in on the content of the arguments proposed by the various scholars who exemplify his normative categories, scholars who include Martha Nussbaum, Robert Orsi, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Edward Slingerland. Lewis’s position vis-à-vis these categories remains somewhat obscured as he drives home his primary contention that normativity is inevitable among scholars of all stripes. Paradoxically, Lewis’s neutral stance on these scholars is what permits his claim that normativity is ubiquitous.

One might interpret the taxonomy as collapsing into its own eighth point, in which scholars engage in explanatory reveals in order to explain how things actually are or “what is really going on” (50). Lewis’s focus on instances of normative engagement in which normativity “is least suspected” or “that seem least likely” (47) appears to support this contention. In religious studies, which might be characterized as a social collective constituted by circulating texts, interpersonal dialogue, argumentative contentions, and other discursive interactions, how are things in actuality? How are they really? In reality, Lewis claims, normativity is pervasive and unavoidable in every subdiscipline. With his acute eye for concealed normative strategies, I don’t think Lewis would contest this point.

Thanks to Lewis’s work, one’s understanding of normativity expands. I think most scholars will concede his point that all scholars make normative judgments and evaluations of different sorts. But what may be missing is a more rigorously applied, critical stance-taking with regard to Lewis’s compendium of normative strategies. This paradox also has me hypothesizing about a possibly syntagmatic relationship between objectivity and normativity.

I would like to pose several questions to Lewis. Are all eight strategies, for lack of a better term, equal? Are all forms of normativity doing the same sort of work? Are certain normative strategies more or less useful than others? More or less acceptable in the academy? In the discipline of religious studies? My own position on these questions veers toward the negative. It is one thing, for instance, to make a normative claim about the disciplinary contours of one’s academic collective. But is it not a categorically different process altogether to submit ought or should claims about some specific moral issue? To homologize the processes as the same is misleading.

Lewis, of course, does not shy away in other parts of the book from advancing pointed claims. He knowingly engages in the above taxonomy’s second category that aims to shape in a constructive way the methodological aspects of the scholarly discipline. In particular, Lewis argues that ethicists, theologians, and philosophers are wrongly distinguished from other camps of scholars (e.g., historians or ethnographers of religion). What differentiates these perspectives are explicit reflections by the prior collective and a direction of attentions elsewhere by the latter. Recall that a key thesis of Why Philosophy Matters is that normativity is pervasive across both camps—regardless of whether it is not acknowledged as such.

Later in the chapter Lewis generates several practical proposals about the boundaries of religious studies. His claims, to summarize, aim for expanding religious studies to include theology. Inclusively reimagining religious studies boundaries in a wider sense, Lewis argues that within religious studies scholars are required:

  1. To advance arguments free from appeals to transcendent entities.
  2. To provide clear reasons and rationale to back claims.
  3. To willingly subject normative claims to criticism by the broader group.
  4. To willingly discuss and debate various positions and stances.
  5. To not take for granted, reserve, cordon off, or insulate from criticism any rationale. (58–60)

Scholars of any stripe who meet criteria 1–5 are part of religious studies. And, notably, Lewis issues only one criterion for exclusion. Appeals to the first line’s “transcendent entities,” including the somewhat elusive categories of authority, faith, private revelation, and unique experiences, effectively remove a person from the domain of academic dialogue.

Again, I’m left wondering about the practical operations of normativity and whether what Lewis calls normativity actually necessitates subtle patterns of objectivity within its formations. Lewis’s arena of scholarly discourse, dialogue, and debate, wherein willingly engaged participants submit rationale for their claims with the expectation that these rationale will be challenged from various other standpoints, sounds a lot to me like a vaguely scientific or social scientific community. Similar to Lewis’s discursive community, scientific collectives often organize loosely around a model in which members offer some sort of empirical evidence to support the claims that are advanced. So-called “hard” scientists engage in normative rituals of such a sort when in study designs and published articles they list and account for probable biases, blind points, conflicts of interest, and pre-study hypotheses. It’s not immediately clear to me how entirely different the normative model is from a modified form of quasi-objective empiricism. In both situations, all participants are required to bring reasons and rationale to the table to be questioned, compared, and scrutinized by others. Lewis’s normativity seems to me to share in this sort of intradisciplinary empiricism. Evidence—i.e., rationale—is required for participation.

With regard to this imagined realm of open discourse, and as a second line of inquiry, I found myself wondering about the broader implications of Lewis’s work for other areas of academic life including classrooms, teaching, departmental life, and the role of normativity in these related domains. Because the United States has a somewhat fetishistic historical relationship with the contested virtue of freedom from authoritarian institutions, contestation about positionality and the presence of subjective religiosities in public domains has been especially heated in religious studies discourses. And rightly so. The scholarly consensus is that American religious freedom is a category of power that has been selectively applied for the express purpose of supporting and empowering some (i.e., white, liberal Protestant) religious, sociocultural, and racial institutions over (non-Protestant, non-white, extra-Christian) others (Wenger 2017; Curtis 2016). A “Protestant Secular” hegemony has historically encompassed state formations including the liberal Protestant domain from which the academic study of religion has emerged (McCrary and Wheatley 2016).

Does Lewis’s call for engaging normatively in discourse and offering justification for one’s standpoints and claims provide a way past these issues embedded in the history of religious studies as an institution? Why Philosophy Matters proposes an optimistic step forward, but I’m not entirely convinced it can be effectively realized across the board of possible religious studies contexts.

Let me try to illustrate this point. I’m currently working on a research project focused on the inverse of Lewis’s proposed normative turn, examining religious studies scholars’ ideologies and practices of “neutrality” and “objectivity” in post-Abington v. Schempp (1963) classrooms—thus some of my questions above about the relationship between objectivity and normativity. One clear example that stands out from the data I’ve collected comes from a religious studies scholar informant who identifies as an evangelical Christian. The scholar divulged to me that one of the primary reasons they are able to teach about religion in a public university setting is because Schempp affords for a milieu of objectivity. I bring up this example because by my reading Lewis’s model seems to resist a dominant interpretation of Schempp as structuring public classrooms into neutral, religiously disinterested, and at least idealistically objective domains where people teach about but don’t teach religion.

According to this particular informant, teaching about religion in a fair way in the classroom means that the professor is not required to disclose personal religious affiliation, identity, and background to their students or fellow scholars. To disclose one’s evangelical religiosity and background, the informant worries, would be to discredit themselves both to their non- and, perhaps, anti-evangelical religious studies colleagues as well as to what in this person’s situation are religiously diverse classrooms. For this scholar, striving for at least a modicum of objectivity in the classroom serves as a productive attempt to cultivate inclusiveness and create a setting in which non-Christian others would feel comfortable exploring ideas and analyzing and constructing arguments.

Yet, a relatively neutral space for critically discussing religion is only one agenda for this informant. The above situation also intentionally counters what the informant experiences as an anti-evangelical habitus prevailing among their religious studies colleagues. Here’s where this discussion links back to Lewis’s proposed model: to reveal their normative commitments would be in this scholar’s mind akin to removing themselves from the realm of academic discourse, that is, from being taken seriously as an academic who studies, teaches, and practices religion. In this sort of situation, normative strategies—if we take the informant at their word—shut down rather than open up constructive academic dialogue. Due to the religio-political dispositions and biases of the department, this scholar’s revealing of their cards is from their perspective tantamount to career suicide.

Evangelical identity is only one example. One might hypothesize other situations in which normativity may inhibit rather than facilitate academic productivity. Such circumstances are dependent on regional biases, local mores, particular departmental cultures, religious studies habitus, and faculty makeup across myriad demographic registers. Lewis focuses in his chapter on discursive artifacts produced by scholars of religion, but I’d be interested to hear his thoughts on the normative turn beyond articles, conference panels, and book projects.

To conclude, I’m very appreciative of this provocative, intellectually stimulating, and dialogically productive book. I look forward to engaging with Lewis not only about what I think may be a possible contradiction and necessary tension at the heart of his taxonomy of normativity—i.e., some sort of complex, unexplored link between normative and objective operations—but also about how he sees his project as speaking to these related issues of confessional disclosure, undergraduate classrooms, and religious studies departmental life.

Works Cited

Curtis, Finbarr. 2016. The Production of American Religious Freedom. New York: New York University Press.

Lewis, Thomas A. 2015. Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion-and Vice Versa. New York: Oxford.

McCrary, Charles, and Jeffrey Wheatley. 2016. “The Protestant Secular in the Study of American Religion: Reappraisal and Suggestions.” Religion 47.2: 256–76.

Wenger, Tisa. 2017. Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

  • Thomas A. Lewis

    Thomas A. Lewis


    Normativity and the Classroom

    In his focus on my treatment of normativity, Travis Cooper productively probes the implications of my position for ongoing discussion about the appropriate teaching of religion in settings such as public schools. Thus, while a portion of my response to Cooper concentrates on providing greater clarity regarding my original chapter, I then turn to the concrete challenges raised for teaching about religion in public settings.

    Cooper’s statement that I “aim for expanding religious studies to include theology,” raises a number of important points. It captures my goal of framing “religious studies” or “the academic study of religion” as a broad category that includes within it much work that can be meaningfully understood as “theology.” Thus, I generally do not treat religious studies and theology as alternatives to each other.

    Whether one conceives of my intervention as entailing an expansion of religious studies, however, depends in part on one’s view of the current state of the field. For those who see religious studies as properly excluding all scholarship that includes explicit normative claims, it is a call for expansion. For those who see religious studies as properly excluding all scholarship in which one of the claims being defended involves the existence of some type of divinity, it is a call for expansion. Yet many of those who have responded to the book—e.g., Natalie Carnes’s review, some members of the audience in the panel on the book at the 2016 American Academy of Religion meeting, and others—have taken it to be calling for an inappropriate constriction of the field.1 These responses are concerned that I have excluded too much “theological” work that should be seen as appropriate in the academic study of religion. Keeping both of these sets of responses in view is important: it helps to clarify the battles I am fighting on both sides of the middle position I seek to defend. (My responses to Matthew Bagger and to Sonia Hazard also address these points.)

    At other points, I see Cooper as attributing to chapter 2 greater aspirations to systematicity than I had. In particular, Cooper credits me with developing a taxonomy of forms of normativity. Such a task, however, exceeds my goals in that chapter. Rather than offering a classificatory scheme, I sought to develop the case by working through examples that I thought could be persuasive to those most likely to be skeptical of my claims about the pervasiveness of normativity. As I put it there, “For the present purposes, a few relevant examples will be more helpful than further theorizing of the concept of normativity” (47). Given that I was particularly concerned to appeal to scholars of religion beyond the subfield of philosophy of religion, I saw great value in analyzing examples rather than a more systematic philosophical argument. (As Anil Mundra’s response brings out, however, the strategy I chose also has limitations.) To convert these examples into a taxonomy results in much overlap across the categories, as Cooper notes. For me, that overlap highlights their inadequacies as categories for a taxonomy.

    Cooper also devotes significant attention to the roles of “neutrality” and “objectivity.” A key implication of my project, however, is that the meaning of these terms is by no means self-evident. Moreover, to deploy them without extensive efforts to make them precise often imports presuppositions about “disinterest” and particular conceptions of reason that are themselves deeply contested. At important points in his response, “objective” claims are juxtaposed with normative and/or “subjective” claims. Thus, Cooper seems surprised that the model of reason-giving that I advocate should appear so similar to work in the social and naturalistic sciences, but I see little reason for the surprise he registers (which is not to say that there are no relevant differences).

    The final portion of Cooper’s response fruitfully pushes me to think more about the implications of my view for teaching religion in particular public contexts. In responding to this challenge, I find it most helpful to think in terms of what other considerations ought to come into play in settings such as classrooms. In particular, there are a range of pedagogical considerations that need to be taken into account. For instance, to say that explicit endorsement of particular normative claims is not inappropriate in religious studies does not mean that it is always effective or appropriate to express one’s endorsement of those claims in a classroom. In many contexts, doing so may be pedagogically counterproductive by virtue of distracting students’ attention from the reasoning that should be seen as central to the learning process. Particularly in a broader social context in which students often think of religious commitments as intrinsically unreasoned, it may be a while before students can hear the instructor’s own commitments (whether atheistic, theistic, or other) without focusing exclusively on that point and fearing that it will decisively determine the instructor’s judgment of their work or the material under discussion.

    The pedagogical considerations are both similar and different in many philosophy courses: Thinking of the philosophy professor teaching Elizabeth Anscombe’s work, we can expect that the instructor has a view on Anscombe’s work, likely accepting certain of her arguments and rejecting others. Note that holding judgments on these claims is not generally thought to disqualify the instructor or to automatically render her or him “biased”; these judgments are not inappropriate to hold, as long as the reasons for accepting them are of the appropriate sorts. But it is a further question when and where it will be appropriate for the instructor to reveal to the students her or his own judgments on the issues at stake. The considerations here generally revolve around pedagogical strategies. There may be good reasons for a scholar who has published defenses of Anscombe to avoid immediately bringing these to students’ attention. One reason may be a concern that students will expect the instructor to want to see work supporting her or his own view.

    Broadly speaking, the situation of teaching material that emerges from particular religious traditions and makes explicit normative claims is similar, insofar as the instructor holds herself accountable to an expectation of offering reasons for the positions held. One factor that frequently heightens the pedagogical concerns, however, is that students often enter the classroom, in universities as well as secondary schools, with strong, unexamined assumptions that religion is arational or irrational—that religion is reason’s other. Working with students on how to navigate these presuppositions and consider religion in an academic setting typically takes a good deal of time, and how this process is going typically has a significant impact on what pedagogical strategies will be most effective.

    More broadly, all of this is to suggest that the view I am defending on the legitimate role of normative claims in the study of religion is by no means the only factor relevant in determining precisely how we ought to talk about religion in public settings such as the classroom.

    1. See Natalie Carnes, review of Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa, by Thomas A. Lewis, Modern Theology 33.4 (2017).

Anil Mundra


Why Normativity Matters for Comparison, and Vice Versa—and Why Both Matter for the Study of Religion

Thomas A. Lewis opens his vital attempt to diagnose and repair the mutual estrangement between philosophy and religious studies by tallying some of the ways that each side has contributed to the rift. He rightly notes that the sources and themes of much of so-called “analytical philosophy of religion” in the Anglophone academy “are largely an inheritance from Christian theology” (21), a provincialism that an increasing number of philosophers of religion themselves find unacceptable.1 Meanwhile, critics in religious studies at large have long alleged “that the field remains tainted, that it has not yet escaped the die cast by its largely Protestant theological roots” (43). One would think that progressive, cosmopolitan philosophers of religion might be able to make common cause with influential religious studies genealogists and historians to move past Eurocentric provincialism and implication in histories of colonial domination.

Such an alliance has largely been foreclosed, however, by what Lewis calls a “crucial background assumption” (44) that seems to have won the day among religious studies historians and methodologists: that sections of the field such as theology, philosophy, and religious ethics should be sidelined on the grounds that they are normative, involving “claims—whether made explicit or remaining implicit—regarding the way we ought to act or think” (46). On this view, it seems, imperialism is preserved not primarily in the provincialism that ignores or denigrates the legitimacy of others historically deemed marginal, but rather in the mere presumption to issue prescriptions expecting others’ assent.

Lewis aims to undermine this purported segregation by showing that “normativity is pervasive, in history and philosophy as well as religious studies; normativity should not be avoided but rather self-consciously acknowledged and defended” (8). Since normativity is pervasive, Lewis’s practical enthymeme runs, we cannot hope to purge it. And since we cannot, we ought to stop trying. This is a central move in Lewis’s argument against the exile of philosophy from religious studies: if normativity is inevitable throughout religious studies, we are left without a criterion by which to exclude areas like the philosophy of religion.

In what follows, I will attempt to reconstruct Lewis’s strongest arguments for the pervasiveness of normativity. I will indicate that they are not fully articulated in the section perspicuously entitled “The Inevitability of Normativity,” and that they require the synthesis of resources from various parts of his book that do not initially appear to be integral to this part of his case, especially his chapter on comparative ethics. In doing so, I hope both to bring out the centrality of normativity in Lewis’s expansive effort as well to direct readers’ attention to parts of his treatment that they might have thought not to apply to their own sub-fields, thus illuminating just how far Lewis’s claims and their ramifications extend.

The Inevitability of Normativity?

In his book’s second chapter, “On the Role of Normativity in Religious Studies,” Lewis devotes a section to a series of accounts of scholarly practice meant to demonstrate the inevitability of normativity in the study of religion. According to Lewis, “any time we claim—explicitly or implicitly—that human behavior can be explained in a particular way—as the pursuit of economic interests or cultural capital, for instance—we are making controversial claims about the nature of human existence with important consequences for how we should live” (49). But why does any given explanation of human behavior entail normative claims? How do explanations of behavior—accounts of how and why people are the way they are—get us to the way things should be? We seem to be left here with the hoary question of how to derive an ought from an is.

Lewis seems to suggest that inquiry is to be characterized as normative when it is framed by motivations or “consequences” involving a normative vision of how things should be. Observing that in much critical work on religion, particularly that which appeals to political aims such as liberation from “ideological constructs” propagated in post-colonial capitalist modernity, what is “at stake are practical consequences for billions of people. These are normative judgments, making extensive claims about what ought to be—and what ought not to be” (50). Now, Lewis has already at this point drawn a distinction between “norms for the practice of academic work itself” versus “normative judgments regarding the materials and people [scholars] are studying” (47). Norms that dictate certain kinds of explanations in the service of a project of political freedom, though, would appear to belong to the former type—the norms framing academic inquiry—despite Lewis’s contrary avowal (50). It is rather uncontroversial that all academic inquiry is normative in the sense of being regulated by some norms or other; and so Lewis aptly wants to focus the latter type of normativity, the “more focused claim about normative value judgments of the subjects being studied” (47). And it is not yet clear how the practical consequences of an inquiry (such as political freedom) necessarily specify anything concrete about the judgments that form its content, as required by the normativity thesis that is Lewis’s target. For example, the dissemination of scientific method itself has been framed by robust norms of discourse and practice and has had profound political and ethical consequences—but not because scientific theories necessarily possess normative content regarding their subject matter.

Lewis’s phrasing makes it sound, however, as though any explanation whatsoever possesses normative content. He concludes that “we make normative claims whenever we try to identify ‘what is really going on here.’ To describe an experience as delusional or as transcendent, for instance, is to make a claim about the nature of reality. And such claims are normative in the relevant sense: they concern value judgments about the people and/or objects being studied” (50). But an account of an experience’s relation to reality doesn’t immediately or necessarily seem to be a judgment about its value—one might judge any experience (whether delusional or transcendent) to be good or bad, depending on what values one holds. To conflate an experience’s provenance with its value is a genetic fallacy, which Lewis himself seems to recognize in his concluding thoughts on Nietzsche’s genealogical thrust “to distinguish between the origin and the purpose of a practice” (148). Now, Lewis has also given a compelling rejoinder to this very objection: “Typically, if a belief in a transcendent being or a particular moral code can be shown to be caused by factors that the agent herself cannot recognize as constituting a good reason (such as a genetically based illusion), she should give up the belief. Insofar as I show someone’s reasons to be based on a falsehood, I have thereby argued that she has no reason to act in that way—unless some other justification is given” (52). Still, supporters of the noble lie need not share this ethics of belief, if behaving as if certain falsehoods were true helps us to lead better lives; a Jamesian pragmatist or Durkheimian functionalist might justify a belief not by its veridical origins but by its desirable purposes.2 Showing someone’s beliefs to be false thus has no univocal normative upshot in the form of consequences for conduct; so this cannot be the primary site of the inevitability of normativity.

Indeed, Lewis’s strongest arguments for the inevitability of normativity are not mustered in this part of the book at all. I will now argue, on the basis of other considerations that Lewis introduces in his chapter on comparison, that normativity first and most decisively enters not when considering the consequences of an inquiry, but rather at the stage in which we ask, in Lewis’s words just quoted above, whether “the agent herself cannot recognize [something] as constituting a good reason.” Normativity enters as soon as the scholar imputes reasons to the behavior of the agents under study.

The Inevitability of Comparison

Lewis’s fourth chapter, “Beyond Comparative Religious Ethics,” is by far the longest in his book. This might seem to be a strange placement of emphasis on a subfield that is not even the main protagonist of the story. Comparative religious ethics (CRE) earns this pride of place, I think, because Lewis finds in it crucial desiderata for all of religious studies, arguing that it should no longer be conceived as a distinct subfield and the sole province of the comparative method (84ff.).

Lewis admittedly focuses on how the particular discipline of religious ethics can and should take up the fruits of comparative inquiry; but his considerations are powerful enough to apply to religious studies rather generally. The linchpin of Lewis’s argument is his claim that “all interpretation is comparative” (114): “Any attempt to interpret another—whether from near or far—requires making that object comprehensible to me, either through expressing it in terms I already understand or through enabling me to understand terms (or senses of terms) that I previously could not” (93–94). Any inquiry, then—not only a strictly ethical one—is comparative if it is interpretive.

Of course, acceptance of Lewis’s claim that all interpretation is comparative will depend somewhat on one’s model of interpretation and its scope. But Lewis’s characterization above seems quite minimal and uncontroversial. Indeed, it again appears a bit too minimal: does any act of making any object comprehensible count as comparatively hermeneutical? Lewis’s characterization would again seem to apply to explanations in the physical sciences—making nature comprehensible either in terms we already have or new ones that we must invent and learn—as well as the barest descriptions of, say, a visual field.

Interpretation, though, is classically taken to involve accounts of text; most generally, an interpretation is an account of a semantic object, an object to which meaning can be attributed, such as the verbal behavior of a human agent. This is why interpretation is inherently comparative in a way that bare descriptions and full-fledged explanations such as those in the natural sciences are not: the products of interpretation are new semantic items comparable to the original object data, and some comparison of the two is criterial for hermeneutical success. Although Lewis might earlier have seemed to be announcing the inevitability of normativity in explanation tout court, upon closer inspection he can be seen to have referenced only explanation of humans and their discursive products, which are commensurable with the interpretations produced in (also human) scholarly discourse. And since I have yet to meet a scholar prepared to deny that religion is a discursive product of humans, Lewis’s arguments can safely apply to religious studies in toto (as well as to many other academic fields). Unlike in description of sensory data or explanation of natural phenomena, both comparanda in interpretation are semantic items, and are thus comparable in a strong sense.3

This is where normativity comes rushing back in, because in such a comparison the interpreter is bound to measure her own ideas against what are imagined to be another’s and vice versa. The criteria of fitness are eminently normative, involving notions of how one ought to think and behave if one were to inhabit the meaningful universe of another. If an interpretation of an utterance includes items that its utterer would not in principle find reasonable (to recall Lewis’s words highlighted at the end of the previous section), it is hermeneutically dubious; the judgment of reasonability, though, is ultimately undertaken by the interpreter according to her own norms. Again, to make this case robustly would require laying out a detailed model of interpretation, which Lewis does not give us and I do not have the space for here. I have elsewhere4 shown how the influential models of the preeminent modern Anglophone philosophers of language W. V. O. Quine and Donald Davidson entail that any interpretation of others involves evaluation of their behavior according to the interpreter’s own standards of propriety—of which behavior makes sense under given conditions—which is to say, the interpreter’s normative stance. Continental hermeneuts5 also acknowledge that interpreters always bring their own preconceptions to the hermeneutical act. And even if we reject any of these particular models of interpretation or the project of theorizing it at all, Lewis has given us rather plausible minimal features implying the presence of normative comparison in any interpretative act.

The Avoidability of Imperialism

The exposition thus far shows that inasmuch as the study of religion concerns semantic objects—paradigmatically, the intentional behavior and linguistic products of human agents—it involves interpretation, and therefore comparison according to the interpreter’s normativity. Does this mean that the study of religion is doomed to be an exercise in imperialism, imposing one’s own views of proper behavior upon one’s objects of inquiry? Many scholars would understandably rather jettison the whole interpretive and comparative enterprise than subject the objects of study to a foreign interpreter’s normative stance; some would rather let the objects of inquiry speak in their own voice than allow an external framework to be imposed upon them.

At this juncture, there are a few qualifications to be made about the kind of comparison involved in interpretation. First, despite important critiques of imperialistic universalism preserved in comparativism,6 Lewis rightfully notes that an interpretive normative framework need not and should not be hegemonically totalizing: “Comparison should not presuppose a universal framework for comparison or any sort of basic structure common to all ethical discourses” (87). Second, since much of the comparative study of religion has rightly been indicted with homogenizing and effacing difference in favor of similarity, it is important to note that the comparativism at play in interpretation need not do so: “Broadly speaking, the goals [of much recent work in CRE] have been to conceive of categories of comparison such that they simultaneously appreciate the particularity of the comparanda and allow us to see certain commonalities” (89).

While allowing texts to stand forth in their utter particularity without any impositions by scholarly privilege is an alluring goal, we must wonder how it would be attained: as soon as a scholar does any work beyond literally reproducing the object in question—in which case the scholar is superfluous7—the object is being redescribed, which immediately involves interpretation if it is to be treated and maintained as a semantic object. “Analysis of a text does not happen on its own but rather depends on the scholar’s interpretive skills and her engagement of them” (99). As even postmodern critics of comparativism should be able to agree, “this kind of privilege is inevitable. We do not understand and interpret from an Archimedean standpoint but from where we already stand” (112). Eisegesis, which is to say “reading into” a text one’s own ideas, need not dominate interpretation;8 but there is no obvious line in theory or in practice between eisegesis and exegesis. Lewis pointedly observes that “attempts to understand others ‘on their own terms’” are not only chimerical but “typically occlude the vital function of the categories and preconceptions that the scholar brings to the encounter” (93). The best we can do, then—and the least that we should do—is to be cognizant and critical of the scholar’s own normativity rather than remain in denial about it. This reflexivity, in Lewis’s vision, is what it is to be critical: “not to try somehow to exclude normative claims but rather to be willing to offer justification for the norms that we invoke” (46)—or, what is more pervasive, the ones that we tacitly employ in the simplest acts of making others intelligible to ourselves.

The Study of “Religion” and “Religions”

The considerations above apply not only to terms in translations and interpretations of particular items of discourse, but also to the theoretical deployment of analytical scholarly concepts, such as the very notion “religion,” the modern history of which Lewis takes up in his second chapter. Much scholarly self-scrutiny in recent decades has excavated this and related terms’ imbrication in legacies of Eurocentric colonial domination. But the inevitability of normative comparison in interpretation, and the corollary futility of some attempts to jettison comparison, applies as well here to broad theoretical categories insofar as they are also part of the interpretive enterprise. “This awareness should not lead us to stop using such terms; attempting to do so would leave us speechless. Rather, it demonstrates that we unavoidably make use of terms with complex, power-laden histories of which we are only partially aware. We cannot do without such concepts. What we need is greater self-consciousness and openness to revision in our use of the terms” (128). Their interpretive employment does carry a certain normative weight; but it need not be viewed as entailing their ultimacy, and our final commitment to them. “Holding normative commitments should not be confused with an unwillingness to revise them” (160). Rather, the employment of concepts that are not immediately given by the data is at least partly a product of human intellectual finitude and fallibility; and when that fallibility is fully recognized, so is the revisability of the concepts employed.

This revisability should assuage the anxiety that such analytical categories would function as hegemonic criteria of an object’s legitimacy. Lewis points to promising recent work in the philosophy of religion in which the objects of study themselves are allowed to problematize prevailing philosophical understandings. These “recent Western philosophers do not simply provide the analytical concepts through which ‘others’ are analyzed, such that those from the modern West present a purportedly neutral framework or vocabulary against which the thought of others is implicitly or explicitly measured” (37). Rather, interpretation can seek to incorporate some of the object’s intellectual resources into one’s own discourse.9 The interpreter should thus be prepared to have her own concepts unsettled and even revolutionized at any point in the process.

Indeed, the sheer dichotomy of “own” and “other” is itself increasingly difficult to maintain. For many thinkers in our globalized, highly mobile cosmopolis, “it is no longer adequate to think of their work in terms of their ‘own’ intellectual identities . . . encountering some others” (100) because “encounters are not simply all around us but already within us. If that is the case, then it is all that much clearer that there are no encounters that are not comparative in the relevant sense” (103). In light of the increasing internal multiplicity, ambivalence, and contextualism of contemporary identity,10 it becomes clear that comparison is not a matter of reifying identitarian boundaries and essentializing relations between them; comparison is simply the pervasive way that people must articulate their identities and commitments in the first place.

This complexity of individual identity again has its correlate at the theoretical level of thinking about the individuation of religions, which connects the foregoing to Lewis’s important concluding intervention into matters of religious studies theory and pedagogy. In the final chapter of the body of his book, “Against Religious Literacy,” Lewis counsels the reader that “the rationale provided for defining religious traditions as distinct but coherent entities does not justify their role in organizing a study of accounts of the human condition, ultimate realities, or comparable topics” (136). As students of religion have learned well by now, there is generally as much internal diversity within each putative “religious tradition” as there is between them. In the absence of essentialized identities, we have fewer excuses to silo the study of one religion from another—or, for that matter, the interpreter from the interpreted and the scholar from the object. Each is a node in a complex web of conversations involving an even more complex web of commensurable normative commitments that cannot be expunged, but only either recognized or occluded.

  1. E.g., Kevin Schilbrack, Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A Manifesto (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2014), 10ff.; and Bryan W. Van Norden, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), passim.

  2. Emile Durkheim affirmed the dictum that William James had cited in his own disavowal of the genetic fallacy, namely that “‘a tree is known by its fruits,’ and that fertility is the best proof of what the roots are worth” (The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, translated by Joseph Ward Swain [New York: Free Press, 1965], 465).

  3. In fact, Arindam Chakrabarti and Ralph Weber translate an argument from the eleventh-century Sanskrit poet-philosopher-king Bhoja to the effect that all cognition, even direct sensory perception, is comparative introduction to Comparative Philosophy without Borders [New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016], 3). The argument, though, relies on somewhat contentious assumptions about the conceptuality of perception. However, even if we reject those assumptions, the translators use Bhoja’s argument to usefully bring out how any act of translation involves comparison.

  4. Anil Mundra, “Naturalism, Normativity, and the Study of Religion,” Religions 8.10 (2017) 220.

  5. Most famously, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Seabury, 1975).

  6. E.g., Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions; or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

  7. Introducing Jeffrey Stout’s dictum, “Readings are either creative or superfluous” (“What Is the Meaning of a Text?,” New Literary History 14.1 [1982] 8), Andrew P. Tuck has noted: “There are no interpretations that are not the result of some creative effort on the part of the interpreter” (Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship: On the Western Interpretation of Nāgārjuna [New York: Oxford University Press, 1990], 15).

  8. Matthew Kapstein, “Interpreting Indian Philosophy: Three Parables,” in The Oxford Handbook of Indian Philosophy, ed. Jonardon Ganeri (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 26.

  9. This is what Karl-Otto Apel calls the “recoil of the text” (Analytic Philosophy of Language and the Geisteswissenschaften, Foundations of Language, Supplementary Series 4 [Dordrecht: Dreidel, 1967], 16). This is, in fact, one moment of the famous “hermeneutical circle—which means that we must have always understood in order to understand and that we nevertheless can correct this ‘pre-understanding’ by methodical attempts to understand” (ibid., 10).

  10. See Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, 1st ed. (New York: Norton, 2006), 23ff.

  • Thomas A. Lewis

    Thomas A. Lewis


    Normativity and Imperialism

    Anil Mundra’s response makes me even more appreciative than I already was that he has published his important article “Naturalism, Normativity, and the Study of Religion.”1 In his response to me, Mundra accepts much of my claim about the pervasiveness of normativity but contends that I have not adequately supported the claim in the chapter on that topic. He argues, however, that chapter 4, “Beyond Comparative Religious Ethics,” actually supplies the relevant support needed to defend the claim.

    Beyond the specific points raised, Mundra’s challenges to the elaboration of the argument in chapter 2 bring out an important aspect of the chapter. As I noted in my response to Travis Cooper, chapter 2 works from examples in order to make the case in a manner intended to engage scholars across the study of religion—not just those in philosophy of religion. Another kind of rigorous philosophical argument might have been more appropriate had I been addressing principally the latter audience. Thus, I refer to Putnam and Brandom in footnote 6 on page 47, but I do not discuss them explicitly. Mundra’s “Naturalism, Normativity, and the Study of Religion” is important for developing just this kind of argument in support of a closely related position.

    Against that backdrop, I acknowledge that some of my strongest formulations, in particular, are not fully defended. Mundra usefully identifies points where the argument could be strengthened, but Mundra’s argument is that this does not affect the crucial elements of my position. I also want to push back on two, more specific points in his discussion of chapter 2.

    In his discussion of one section of the chapter, Mundra suggests that the normative claims to which I draw attention in Fitzgerald—involving a commitment to freeing us from dangerous “ideological constructs” as part of combatting destructive political and economic regimes—belong among “the norms of academic work itself” (47), which I have already distinguished from the kinds of normativity for whose ubiquity I am arguing here. Yet Mundra’s contention seems to involve an overly broad understanding of the “norms of academic work itself”; by the latter I mean our norms regarding the use of evidence and sources (To which do we appeal and how? How to we attribute credit to them?), norms regarding the manner in which to elaborate an argument (What forms of writing are considered appropriate?), and so forth. To consider Fitzgerald’s political commitments in this category would be to suggest that those political commitments should be norms for all scholarship, and I think there are significant reasons to reject such a move. My point in drawing on Fitzgerald as an example is to highlight that his normative ethico-political commitments are explicit in the text and do much to frame the project. Moreover, they go well beyond the more minimal norms of scholarship itself that I intended to point to with my original distinction.

    A similar clarification responds to the concerns about the genetic fallacy raised in Mundra’s next paragraph. A claim’s provenance does not necessarily determine its value, whether truth value or value of another sort. On this point, Mundra draws attention to two key sentences from page 52, but I see the final phrase that he quotes as doing more work than he recognizes. There, I note that “insofar as I show someone’s reasons to be based on a falsehood, I have thereby argued that she has no reason to act in that way—unless some other justification is given” (52, emphasis added). Mundra suggests that this caveat is insufficient, in that it would not satisfy some who hold to another ethics of belief. Yet he makes the claim by suggesting other justifications for holding onto the belief, which is just what the final phrase is intended to encompass. I agree with Mundra that we need not decide beforehand that the alternative justification must pertain to its truth tracking. Moral reasons for behaving as if certain falsehoods are true, for instance, are themselves a kind of justification.

    Despite these relatively minor points, I appreciate the manner in which he shows that the account of understanding developed in chapter 4 supports the claims about normativity made in chapter 2.

    I also appreciate Mundra’s attention to concerns about the manner in which this view of the pervasiveness of normativity can be seen as contributing to forms of intellectual imperialism—which themselves have a history of imbrication with political and economic imperialisms. I share Mundra’s position but would emphasize two further points: Mundra notes that the scholar’s own categories and norms come into play “as soon as a scholar does any work beyond literally reproducing the object in question—in which case the scholar is superfluous.” Though Mundra does not seem to mean it this way, one might think the consequence is that we should only publish what we generally refer to as primary texts. But we could not avoid this dynamic by simply publishing primary texts, not only because the questions of which ones are published and how raises many of the same questions, but more fundamentally because the entire dynamic exists in understanding in general. We do not simply generate it when we have “scholars” engaged in the task. It emerges each moment that any reader takes up that primary text and tries to make something of it.

    Second, when we make these claims about the inevitability of making judgments about others, we cannot ignore the roles of power in these dynamics. To take only one dimension of this issue: Inequalities in power often entail that others are not afforded opportunities to challenge our interpretations of them in the manner that they would were the power relations more equal. While that does not imply that we should withhold judgments altogether—or should even aspire to do so—it does provide us with good reasons to make particular efforts to expose ourselves to those challenges, to be particularly suspicious of our own judgments in such cases, and to exercise particular caution in how we act upon these judgments.

    1. Anil Mundra, “Naturalism, Normativity, and the Study of Religion,” Religions 8.10 (2017) 220,

Matthew Bagger


Normativity, Truth and Philosophy of Religion

The opening sentence of Alvin Plantinga’s God, Freedom, and Evil (1974) announces, “This book discusses and exemplifies the philosophy of religion, or philosophical reflection on central themes of religion.” By way of further explanation, the following sentence adds that philosophical reflection “is not much different from just thinking hard” (1). To conceive of philosophy of religion as tantamount to “just thinking hard” about religion has considerable appeal (certainly more appeal than the substance of Plantinga’s philosophy of religion). It encourages broad-mindedness about the topics, methods, and ends of philosophy of religion. Unfortunately, this formulation might suggest that scholars of religion who are not philosophers do not “think hard” about religion. Preconceptions in the study of religion seem at present to run in the other direction. Historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists suspect that it is not, in fact, philosophers, but rather they, who “think hard” about religion. Where once philosophers of religion were the theoretical hub and methodological conscience of religion departments, they now find themselves marginalized.

In Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion and Vice Versa, Tal Lewis explains this fact by observing that in general philosophy of religion has not absorbed the genealogical critiques of the study of religion (and the concept of religion) that have transformed the field. Believing that the current state of affairs redounds to everyone’s detriment, he presents a vision of philosophy of religion in which it both benefits from and contributes to the research paradigms that have marginalized it. To anyone familiar with Tal’s previous work, the thoughtfulness, careful argumentation, and measured clarity of Why Philosophy Matters should come as no surprise. The book offers much to admire. Despite his evident (and well-justified) dissatisfaction with much philosophy of religion, Tal’s assessments are generous and his vision capacious. The exemplars he selects to indicate promising avenues for future philosophy of religion are excellent. His criticism of Stephen Prothero’s approach to “religious literacy” is shrewdly argued and the best I have seen. In what follows, my overall admiration for Why Philosophy Matters should be understood to be implicit. Against this background, I want to highlight reservations I have about Tal’s position, indicate my perplexity about one chapter’s contribution to the book’s argument, and remark briefly on the book’s concluding pages.

My reservations stem from the book’s second chapter, “On the Role of Normativity in Religious Studies.” In this chapter, Tal criticizes the “drive to define religious studies largely through the contrast with theology” and undertakes to “recast” debate about the study of religion’s boundaries so that the opposition “religious studies vs. theology” does not frame it. He identifies and assails two “highly problematic presuppositions” that he believes underpin the opposition (45). Adducing the reasons why scholars of religion (or anything else) cannot (nor should they aspire to) escape normativity, Tal rightly refutes the first—the idea that only theologians (and not religious studies scholars) make normative claims. He correctly concludes that the mere presence of normativity cannot distinguish theology from the study of religion.

If normativity pervades all scholarship, does something else then set theology apart? “Why,” Tal asks, “do explicitly religious thinkers making normative claims raise so much more suspicion about their place in the modern, pluralistic university” than philosophers, who also make normative claims? Here the second “highly problematic presupposition”—the notion that religion is reason’s “Other,” i.e. “that it is not subject to reasoned argument”—comes into play (53). The impulse to “define religious studies largely through the contrast with theology” rests, Tal asserts, on the “hidden” assumption that theological normativity is neither grounded in nor responsive to the force of reasons (54). Correctly noting that this assumption reflects a particular (and contested) strand of post-Enlightenment religious apologetics, Tal argues that the study of religion should not make “a specific theological vision” foundational to its self-conception, even if negatively (55). Deprived of the presuppositions that trigger it, the “drive to define religious studies largely through the contrast with theology” loses its impetus, Tal argues. As a consequence he recommends that the study of religion exclude theology only when the latter makes “conversation-stopping appeals to authorities conceived as unquestionable” (8).

The separatist impulse, as one might term the “drive to define religious studies largely through the contrast with theology,” has (in one form or another) accompanied the study of religion from its several beginnings. The field’s origin stories narrate its declarations of (variously understood) independence from theology. Much of the field’s history consists in conflicts over the meaning, extent, and terms of that independence. Viewed in this historical perspective, Tal’s “expansive” conception of philosophy of religion seems simply to renegotiate the terms of the contrast that defines the study of religion’s independence from theology (7). He enlarges the purview of philosophy of religion to subsume much that practitioners of religious studies currently regard as theology and, rechristening the work of (most) professors of (e.g.) apologetics as philosophy of religion, remaps the frontier.

Tal supplies strikingly little evidence to support his explanation of the suspicion that theology arouses. To describe the assumption that religion is reason’s Other as “hidden” in effect admits that there is little direct evidence to substantiate the explanation. He would have us believe that when students of religion complain about so-called crypto-theologians in their midst, they fall victim to an unexamined essentializing assumption about religion. Whatever currency the assumption may have in the wider culture, I find this explanation extremely implausible in light of the historical and genealogical sophistication that Tal himself describes as having transformed the field. Contrary to what Tal’s thesis might lead one to expect, hostility to “crypto-theology” has, in fact, intensified in tandem with the heightened sophistication.

I suspect the explanation is simpler and more straightforward. The impulse to exclude “explicitly religious thinkers” from the study of religion arises from the persuasion that their religious beliefs are false. Most religious studies scholars would probably not favor such a bald declaration (despite Hans Penner’s [2002] urgings and example), but their practice of explaining phenomena (including religious beliefs) otherwise than by recourse to causes that imply the truth of religious beliefs indicates their attitude. The study of religion excludes theology for the same reason that chemistry excludes alchemy and that astronomy and history exclude astrology (except as an object of study for historians): its distinguishing claims or premises are deemed false and orthogonal to productive research programs. Religious thought has always been excluded from the study of religion (except as an object of study) precisely to the extent that in a given historical context it has appeared clearly false. To the extent that religious thought has seemed a live possibility, it has historically been included in the study of religion. Forty years ago religious studies scholars taught Paul Tillich, alongside Clifford Geertz and Robert Bellah, as a theorist of religion, but generally did not include Evangelical or orthodox Catholic theologians in the roster of theorists. The latter were a bridge too far in terms of credibility. Scholars of religion will still, however, teach Aquinas, for instance, as a theorist of action or of the virtues, if they deem his views on those topics a live option (or instructively false). Scholars of religion who find cognitive science approaches patently absurd tend to exclude it too (except perhaps as a cautionary tale, in the same way that fifteen or twenty years ago many of us taught Mircea Eliade).

Over the past several decades, leading voices in the study of religion have refashioned the terms of its independence from theology. They insist on an unequivocal methodological naturalism. Housed among the humanities or social sciences, the study of religion, they argue, ought to regard religion exclusively “as the emergent social product of the beliefs, desires, and actions of men and women” (Proudfoot 2002, 85) To treat methodological naturalism (construed this way) as a constituent norm of religious studies endows the practice with a shared, defining purpose. Few, I think, would argue with the assertion that the study of religion has made great strides in the period during which it has become more naturalistic. By forging consensus on the goal of religious studies and removing theological roadblocks to inquiry (generally by interrogating assumptions), the field has progressed. Tal does not provide a reason for thinking that his conception, in which “religious studies does not presuppose” the truth or the falsity “of any particular claims—or of some purported ‘religion in general’” would produce better results (7).

To redraw the boundary of religious studies (including philosophy of religion), Tal invokes a criterion according to which students of religion must, if challenged, be “willing to offer an argument or justification” for their norms (55). This meta-norm, however, proves neither necessary nor sufficient for the task. Not every challenge to a norm deserves a response. Challenges require a response only when supported by good reasons that call the norm into question. “A good reason for doubting” a norm, however, “is not the mere fact that we come upon somebody with grounds to reject it. A good reason for us to doubt, and so to raise the question of justification, must be one that is good by our own light, for it must be supported by other beliefs of ours” (Larmore 1996, 63). To compensate for the relativity of reasons, some discursive practices—deliberative democracy, for instance—may comprise more exacting norms. Tal doesn’t explain why religious studies should adopt something like the democratic norms of the public square. By evolutionary biologists’ lights, creationist challenges are not supported by good reasons. Biologists do not reconfigure their discipline’s boundaries to include creation science, and biology departments do not hire creationists, democratic political norms notwithstanding. By religious studies scholars’ lights, theological challenges to methodological naturalism are not supported by good reasons. Why should religious studies reconfigure its boundaries (and faculties?) to include theology?

Tal’s meta-norm also fails as a sufficient condition. In the sixteenth century the Reformation sparked a crisis of intellectual authority. Protestant and Catholic factions differed not only on first order matters of doctrine and practice, but also on the higher order matter of the criteria by which to judge the truth or falsity of propositions about first order matters. Attempting to justify their doxastic norms in response to challenges, Luther, Erasmus, Calvin, and Castellio all “critically probe the nature of argument” and “examine what it means to give good reasons” (9). To regard Luther, Erasmus, Calvin, and Castellio as philosophers of religion (or religious studies scholars), however, one would not only have to set aside the (various) narratives around which the field has long constructed its identity, but also disregard contemporary historiography’s focus on historical discontinuities (148). Willingness to reflect on and argue for norms does not sufficiently define the distinctiveness of religious studies. Its distinctiveness rests, rather, on which norms define the practice. Specifically, methodological naturalism in the service of illuminating the human causes and consequences of religious vocabularies, beliefs, representations, texts, practices, institutions, and communities defines religious studies. This boundary-establishing norm functions to orient inquiry, rather than narrowly restrict it; religious studies scholars, of course, read or teach whatever seems to them suited to fulfilling the field’s defining purpose. Although Plantinga writes with a quite different purpose, I have taught his philosophical theology (as I have taught many other works not readily described as philosophy of religion or religious studies) pursuant to the aims of religious studies. Tal wisely refuses to construe religion as reason’s Other, but there is heuristic value, nevertheless, in viewing theology as religious studies’ Other.

In chapter 4, “Beyond Comparative Religious Ethics,” Tal argues against viewing comparative religious ethics as a “distinct subfield” of religious ethics. Writing as someone who received his graduate training in a university where religious ethics was not treated as a distinct field and who, consequently, feels no temptation to think of comparative religious ethics as a subfield of it, the chapter leaves me with many questions. In the first place I’m not clear on what it means in this context for something to be a subfield. In common academic parlance the norms regulating the term’s application and its consequences of application are too permissive and ill-defined to bear the importance that Tal gives the term. Because he doesn’t regiment the term, I’m not sure what’s at stake practically. Are we to think of a subfield in institutional terms (e.g., degrees, tenure lines, professional societies), or perhaps as a scholarly genre? Tal is ambivalent about using the “rubric” to convene conferences or to focus special issues of a journal thematically because it might marginalize good comparative work, but such uses of the term seem innocuous, especially because the examples of good comparative work he discusses are among the most widely read books in religious studies (110).

Why Philosophy Matters makes a case for the importance of philosophy of religion as a field within religious studies. Chapter 4 leaves me wondering how it relates to the book’s argument. Tal notes that some recent books have blurred the distinction between philosophy of religion and religious ethics, but he doesn’t explain how or why (4). If, on the one hand, Tal thinks that, because of its focus on norms, philosophy of religion should encompass or absorb religious ethics, then why argue that comparative religious ethics should not be a distinct subfield of religious ethics? Why not argue instead that comparative philosophy of religion (whether focused on specifically ethical norms or not) should not be a distinct subfield of philosophy of religion? If, on the other hand, he thinks that religious ethics is distinct from philosophy of religion, why, in a book about philosophy of religion, does he address comparative religious ethics rather than comparative philosophy of religion, which has its own marginalized journals and conferences? If religious ethics is distinct from philosophy of religion, why, moreover, doesn’t he feel the need to make the kind of case for religious ethics that he makes for philosophy of religion? The arguments that Tal raises against conceiving of comparative religious ethics as a distinct subfield of religious ethics can be raised, without any alteration, against conceiving of religious ethics as a distinct field within religious studies (104ff.).

Tal concludes Why Philosophy Matters addressing what I believe to be the major intellectual task facing the humanities and social sciences in our time: reconciling the ubiquity of normativity with the pervasiveness of power. Contemporary anthropologists and historians dismiss philosophers as not “thinking hard” about the generative and ideological effects of power on discourse. Philosophers tend to think that the anthropologists and historians have trapped themselves in the iron cage of power and undermined the normative force of their own analyses. Given the tenacity of the impasse and its fundamental theoretical importance, I only wish Tal had dedicated more than a page and a half of his fine book to explaining how to integrate norms and power in one theoretical paradigm.

Works Cited

Larmore, Charles. 1996. The Morals of Modernity. Cambridge University Press.

Penner, Hans. 2002. “You Don’t Read a Myth for Information.” In Radical Interpretation in Religion, ed. Nancy K. Frankenberry, 153–70. Cambridge University Press.

Plantinga, Alvin. 1977. God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Proudfoot, Wayne. 2002. “Religious Belief and Naturalism.” In Radical Interpretation in Religion, ed. Nancy K. Frankenberry, 78–92. Cambridge University Press.

  • Thomas A. Lewis

    Thomas A. Lewis


    On Methodology, Conclusions, and Exclusions

    Matthew Bagger expresses reservations about my treatment of normativity and its bearing on religious studies and theology, perplexity about the chapter on comparative religious ethics, and a desire to hear more about how to bring together our thinking about the pervasiveness of normativity and of power. The vast majority of his response, however, focuses on the first of these points; for that reason, and because of the importance of the challenge it poses, I will devote most of my attention there. Perhaps we can take up the other points in subsequent exchanges.

    I am deeply grateful for Bagger’s response for several reasons but particularly because it provides such an important contrast to other responses to my account of the appropriate and inappropriate roles for “theology” in religious studies. As noted in my response to Travis Cooper, many who have responded to the book have challenged me for, in their view, inappropriately excluding too much theology from the academic study of religion. Bagger, by contrast, worries that I have been too inclusive.

    In chapter 2, I suggest that a major reason that many scholars are more uncomfortable with normative claims connected to religious traditions than normative claims from philosophical ethics, for instance, lies in hidden assumptions about religion as fundamentally arational or irrational. Bagger doubts this explanation. Instead, he thinks the explanation “is simpler and more straightforward. The impulse to exclude ‘explicitly religious thinkers’ from the study of religion arises from the persuasion that their religious beliefs are false.” For Bagger, theology—and religious beliefs and claims more generally—are to the study of religion what alchemy and astrology are to chemistry and astronomy, respectively: unworthy of inclusion because their “claims or premises are deemed false and orthogonal to productive research programs.” Scholars of religion ought to exclude theologians from our midst because “we” (a point to which I return) are sufficiently confident that they are wrong that we do not need to engage their arguments; the latter do not offer sufficient reasons for us to call our own positions into question.

    This conviction that religious belief is no longer a live possibility appears to motivate what Bagger labels “an unequivocal methodological naturalism.” Much turns, however, on how we ought to understand this “methodological naturalism.” Bagger offers only a very brief account: it is the view that “the study of religion . . . ought to regard religion exclusively ‘as the emergent social product of the beliefs, desires, and actions of men and women’ (Proudfoot 2002, 85).”

    Without more explanation, however, it remains unclear precisely how the substantive claim that “religious beliefs are false” relates to a particular methodology. One might, for instance, conceive of methodological naturalism in terms of the kinds of evidence or argument to which one should appeal in scholarship; yet Bagger seems concerned not simply with these methodological considerations but with the conclusions reached. Turning to Proudfoot’s text only amplifies this sense: in the passage from which Bagger quotes, Proudfoot is not offering an account of methodological naturalism but summarizing beliefs toward which he thinks the developments across the humanities and social sciences over the course of the twentieth century have led us.1 Ultimately, Bagger’s conviction that only one set of conclusions is plausible enough to be taken seriously today—rather than a particular methodology—seems to be the crux of the matter.

    My position seeks to establish broad constraints on the kinds of argument offered: I demand a willingness to call claims into question and not to allow particular texts, authorities, or experiences to stand as authoritative without further arguments for their justification. But I resist establishing boundaries by saying that some conclusions to the arguments are acceptable and others are not.

    To be sure, I agree with some arguments and not others. As I try to emphasize in the book chapter, at issue here is not the question of what positions we share but what positions we think are legitimately part of the field. On this point, Bagger’s brief mention of cognitive science of religion may be telling. In discussing works that can no longer be considered part of the field of religious studies, he writes that “scholars of religion who find cognitive science approaches patently absurd tend to exclude it too (except perhaps as a cautionary tale, in the same way that fifteen or twenty years ago many of us taught Mircea Eliade).” While we may have good reasons to focus on what we see as live options in designing our syllabi, the bar for excluding a body of work from the field of religious studies must surely be higher than that “we” disagree with it.

    This point, in turn, brings to the surface the question of the constitution of the we and of empirical claims about the landscape of the field. At key points in his response, Bagger depends on an account of who “we” are. In particular, this “we” is conceived as the study of religion, which is itself conceived as not encompassing any theists. Crucially, “we” do not need to take seriously the questions and doubts of those who are not one of “us” in this specific respect. My point here is not to reject altogether Bagger’s pragmatist claim that we need not treat all doubts equally; it is to put pressure on the we that is implicit in his deployment of this claim.

    Unlike Bagger, I do not think that all views involving any sort of existence of a deity are so weak that they do not need to be engaged. Nor am I ready to effectively equate them all with astrology and alchemy. I have learned too much from my engagements with a wide range of scholars of religion who are making strong arguments but would be excluded by Bagger’s definition to think that I don’t need to take their arguments seriously. (This is all that much more the case because the lines can be so difficult to draw. For instance, I have hardly broached the question of precisely how Bagger defines “theology” in this sense. Does someone like Amy Hollywood count?)

    I also don’t think this account of “our” community of scholars tracks well with those occupying departments and programs of religion and religious studies today (though how we would decide which departments to include is an issue in itself). Bagger may reply, “Well, so much the worse for these departments; that may explain part of the field’s problems.” But that retort suggests that the collective “we” of his original response is doing more substantial exclusionary work than he makes apparent.

    1. Wayne Proudfoot, “Religious Belief and Naturalism,” in Radical Interpretation in Religion, ed. Nancy K. Frankenberry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 85.

    • Matthew Bagger

      Matthew Bagger


      Peremptory Disbeliefs and Methodological Naturalism

      Tal replies to my critique with the venerable retort: “Just who is ‘we,’ bub?” I’m not sure it carries any force in this case because in fact Tal musters the ‘we’ in question. Why Philosophy Matters establishes a context in which the relevant question is “Should we describe and comport ourselves more inclusively than we have come to do?” Tal’s framing of the issue (in Chapter 2) about the boundaries of religious studies acknowledges that currently there are insiders and outsiders. He writes that theologians “decry” their “exclusion” from religious studies and some “seek… readmission to the guild” (43-4). The chapter involves immanent critique in which Tal cites and/or examines the work of prominent, self-identified religious studies scholars (Orsi, McCutcheon, Fitzgerald, Slingerland) to persuade insiders that they should reconceive the field to admit some currently excluded outsiders. It’s worth pointing out that apart from my references to teaching Eliade and Plantinga, I do not employ first person pronouns in the pertinent part of my response. Were I to use ‘we,’ however, it would refer to religious studies insiders. It would be shorthand for ‘we religious studies scholars, who have long negotiated and renegotiated the terms of our independence from theology, and who have generally become ever more insistent on methodological naturalism (despite apparent dissenters like Orsi, and whether or not we use that term).’ Tal calls attention to the suspicions that religious studies insiders tend to harbor about theology (and which in most cases he thinks they ought to get over), but when I offer a competing explanation for the insiders’ suspicions, he objects that I’m invoking a gerrymandered “we.”

      As an alternative to Tal’s explanation, in which religious studies scholars uncritically (Just who are you implying is uncritical, bub?) sustain an essentialized view of religion as “arational or irrational,” I hypothesize that scholars exclude religious thought from the theoretical arsenal of religious studies when they come to judge it “clearly false.” (From my hypothesis alone one cannot, of course, infer which theological claims I judge clearly false.) I find Tal’s reply ironic because he urges religious studies to be more cognizant, and less fearful, of normativity. He exposes religious studies’ fraught relationship to normativity: the field has a long track record of neurotically denying or obscuring the normativity on which it (and all other scholarship) depends. In keeping with Tal’s objective, my explanation curbs the cant about truth that is and has long been endemic to religious studies. Various influences and circumstances—e.g. Van der Leeuw’s creative misapprehension of the phenomenological epoché, Abington v. Schempp, the French reading of Nietzsche, and anthropological scruples about the ethics of interpreting the Other—have (with greater or lesser justification) induced scholars of religion to underplay or conceal the judgments about truth that are operative in the formation of their categories (e.g. religion vs. superstition) and ineliminable from even the most elementary exercises of interpretation (viz. the principle of charity) or explanation. My explanation seeks to acknowledge that “peremptory disbeliefs” (as William James calls them) always in fact constitute the “mental climate” in which religious studies transpires.

      Tal finds the ‘we’ that he imputes to me more loaded than it is because he infers more from my explanation of “our” suspicion of theology than is warranted. I describe the mental climate of peremptory disbeliefs in which methodological naturalism has become a widely accepted norm of religious studies. (The reaction to Orsi’s dissent demonstrates the norm’s wide acceptance.) This genetic claim about the conditions giving rise to the norm (and the practice it informs) entails neither that there are no justifications for the norm (instead only partisanship and power), nor that theists cannot participate in the practice or that we cannot learn from our “engagements” with scholars from other fields that do not embrace the norm. Indeed, I have attempted a justification elsewhere (#1), and, although we all know theists working in religious studies who nevertheless conform to methodological naturalism in their research, I will rest my case with William James, a substantive non-naturalist—in his self-description, a “crass supernaturalist”—who nevertheless found good reasons to practice methodological naturalism (#2).

      #1. Matthew C. Bagger, “Dewey’s Bulldog: Sidney Hook, Pragmatism, and Naturalism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 79:3 (2011), pp. 562-586

      #2. See Matthew C. Bagger, “Religious Apologetic, Naturalism, and Inquiry in the Thought of William James,” in Pragmatism and Naturalism: Scientific and Social Inquiry After Representationalism, ed., Matthew C. Bagger, Columbia University Press, 2018, pp. 44-65.