The Use of Religious Studies

Nothing is less certain over time than the certainties of successive generations. Each generation tends to be wrong in a different way. Between the end of World War II and 1971, when I published Ascent of the Mountain, Flight of the Dove: An Introduction to Religious Studies, many great secular universities neglected the living realities of religion, believing that religion would soon vanish from history, i.e., the “secularization hypothesis.” Its proponents didn’t anticipate the decline in the self-confidence of secularism after 1975, partly from the rise of post-modernism and other such attacks (feminism and some black studies advocates, too) upon human reason, and partly from the very real upsurge of religious energy in many places around the world.

Europe, indeed, became more secular, but in the United States a broad religious awakening was gathering force. The civil rights movement led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the anti-Vietnam War movement often found themselves using churches for their meetings and religious leaders as sponsors of training sessions and seminars. The growing sense of the inner emptiness of modern secular culture drove a significant number of secular Jews into a reinvestigation of Jewish orthodoxy and tradition, and many Catholics and Protestants drifted back towards religious engagement. By 1971, departments of religious studies were beginning to open at secular universities, and journalists seemed to write more and more stories about the internal and external dramas of religious awakening. The secularization hypothesis seemed to have gotten things exactly backwards. Secularism, its inner vitality played out, was beginning to decline, while religion was turning out to be far more dramatic. The belated turn towards religious studies revealed realities of intense interest to investigators.

Religion even seemed to have become in a way the center of the action. On the negative side, the orange flames and brown-black smoke at the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001, shocked even some of the most distinguished secularization proponents in Europe. For the first time, some recognized that their small secular world was only an island in a vast turbulent sea of highly differentiated religious energy. The rapid growth of Christianity in coercively secular China, and vastly more so in Africa, slowly came to be acknowledged.

Even in Europe, intellectuals who consider themselves secular (like Jurgen Habermas in Germany, and Marcello Pera in Italy, both of whom have been in serious dialogue with Benedict XVI) have stated publicly that many Enlightenment ideals such as “Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality” owe their origins to Jewish and Christian aspirations, as do “compassion” and “solidarity.” The dream of a merely “secular” world was an illusion.

Initially, this new branch of investigation, “Religious Studies,” was created to do two things. First, these new departments would teach about all religions, not one only, and even about unbelief itself, as one choice among many for seeing and living life. Second, their subject matter and methods would differ from those of the schools of divinity and traditional courses in theology that had appeared here and there since the earliest days of the founding of Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and other early universities. The new point of view would shift from one strong, enduring tradition, to learning to “cross over” (intellectually) from one tradition to another, for purposes of enriching students’ comprehension of each.

For example, Jewish students would gain some understanding of the way Christians of different varieties approach life’s big questions; Christian students would gain a better comprehension of how Jews read the Bible, and divide into secular and religious; departments would also deal with how unbelievers cope with questions of evil, suffering, loss, and personal moral fault. Today, re-reading my short book some thirty-eight years later, I find that the tools it presents for identifying one’s standpoint and horizon, and the horizons of others, are still highly useful: “standpoint” and “horizon” themselves need defining, as do terms such as experiencing, imagining, understanding, judging, and deciding to act. The same goes for grasping the twists and turns of narrative or “story” in each of our lives. At age thirty, though we are much the same person we were at twenty, in some ways we will have changed quite a lot – in our standpoint, in our horizon, and perhaps in our habits. I have certainly experienced such changes, along with such continuities, over the past four decades.

“Religious Studies” is not the deepest way to study religious vitality. “Theology” is deepest, and the theology of a specific tradition at that because, at the end of the day, there is no generic religion, but a set of particular faiths that engage in reasoned reflection on their own religious traditions, together with respectful reasoning about other major traditions. It is an always incomplete exercise and some have criticized it because it may suggest that all traditions are equally true – or false. But properly understood, it is an inescapable part of the modern world that we be aware both of ourselves and of our relations with others, and here as in much else, we should not let the best become the enemy of the good.

Michael Novak (1933-2017) was George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy from the American Enterprise Institute, is an author, philosopher, and theologian. He was also a trustee and a visiting professor at Ave Maria University.