Religious Studies and the role of the university

John Roxborogh

University departments of religious studies have played a pioneering and important role in the development of religious understanding in New Zealand. The encouragement given to many students to undertake primary research in vital areas of church history in New Zealand has gone some way to both raising the level of scholarship in this area, and to providing the resources needed for a more informed understanding of the role of religion and of Christian and other institutions in New Zealand society. Departments have helped students from different denominations and religions understand themselves and one another. This continues to have an important social significance in providing language which makes conversation about religious beliefs possible.  

The questions which arise however, are the ways in which justice can be done to the nature of religious commitment and to the standards of objectivity to which universities have traditionally aspired. The assumption that fairness is achieved by detachment which precludes commitment is one model. Although it suggests a neutral stand towards competing traditions of belief, and in some situations may contribute to more civilised dialogue, it must now be doubted whether it necessarily delivers the objectivity that may have been hoped for.  What is achieved by rational discourse may be at the expense of insight into how religion actually functions in people's lives. And even the unbelievers have beliefs and prejudices which filter their understanding and structure their points of insight into what is going on. They are not immune from the temptation to fail to take seriously what they intend to study fairly because they too have a set of values and a world view which is different.

Both believers in all their varieties, and those who admit of no religious belief, have issues to work with in a university context. There is a role for universities in setting standards of dispassionate yet committed scholarship that is both critical and positive. Staff need to model the highest ideals of the faiths they study and teach.

It is important for a university to be able to openly deal with the history and phenomenon of religion in this sort of way, in a manner which will earn the confidence of the different religious communities, assist a wider range of New Zealanders towards having a greater empathy across boundaries of sincere religious difference, and thus fulfil some of the integrative role which must remain part of the vision of a university.  

Religious Studies departments also need to interact with wider communities of scholarship in related institutions in ways which respect the integrity of different roles yet help ensure that they do not act in ignorance of one another.  

One can understand the need and the desire to define the nature of its discipline and the manner in which it carries out its task in order to reassure the university of a non-partisan approach which seeks to understand religions in their own terms as well as to emphasise objectivity as against personal bias. It is also understandable that in the past at least this sort of statement has been set over against a perception of the traditional role of a Faculty of Theology (or indeed a Theological Seminary or Bible College) as concerned with apologetic and the defence of a particular religious viewpoint.  

However definitions of purpose which seek objectivity through detachment do not do justice either to the element of personal judgment present in all teaching and learning, or to the degree of objectivity sought by institutions established by the churches or by Christians with a particular ethos.  

In reality we all have points of view, professionally we all seek to be fair to those with whom we may individually or corporately disagree, and we all seek to allow for the right of private judgment. Detachment and lack of commitment is a strange and unnecessary way to try and preserve these qualities. It is possible to be fair to the strength of viewpoints and the quality of the critical judgements of staff, students and representatives of the points of view being studied. This is no different from any other area of human enquiry where there are different schools of thought. It would be better to indicate what is meant by "objectivity" and to allow that the viewpoints of staff to be expressed at the same time as the viewpoints of students are respected.  

The now accepted standards of inter-faith dialogue should apply in this situation. If dialogue is an encounter of commitments, it is not only unhelpful to try and describe objectivity in terms of avoiding challenging or defending beliefs and practices, it actually runs counter to a legitimate and important function of a university.  

It is not actually the experience of students in university courses in general, never mind religious studies in particular, that they are unchallenged. It is of the very nature of extending knowledge in any direction that there is an element of threat as is there is of promise, and there will certainly be the possibility of change. What we would look for in these situations is not that lecturers should be devoid of a point of view, but that they indicate respect for other viewpoints (including by how they handle religious differences among themselves) and encourage a process of mutual search for greater understanding.  

It is in terms of respect, search for truth, encounter of ideas, and open discussion, that the dynamic of the university process can be more adequately described. As things stand there is a shading towards the unreal situation of a Department of Religions which cannot talk critically about religion for fear of offending somebody - not far removed from religion being one of those things not talked about in polite society. One would have thought one of the roles was that of restoring religion as a fit topic for conversation, and that the reduction of conflict and contention was achieved not by not talking about differences, but by modelling better and more constructive ways for doing so.  

It would be reassuring to believe that various Christian traditions are studied in terms of exposing students to the best of their traditions, and that adequate representative library resources are provided for this. It is important that emerging Third World Christian writing, the fresh generation of self-critical Roman Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal/Charismatic historical and theological scholarship, and the growing volume of material in inter-cultural studies is being purchased at an adequate level by the University library. One would hope that the University is providing a sufficient research base for the diversity of those who are taking courses in the Department. Ensuring the availability of quality resources and directing students to them is as important as statements about respect for different views. 

See also

Eric Sharpe (obituary)

Stuart Vogel

John Allen, Word from Rome, 12 September 2003, Pluralism conference report.

Anglican Network for interfaith concerns

Review, Irving Hexham, Concise Dictionary of Religion, InterVarsity Press, 1993, 245pp