Normative Commitments: A Philosophical Vision for the Study of Religion

By Raphael MagarikSeptember 5, 2016

Normative Commitments: A Philosophical Vision for the Study of Religion

Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion — and Vice Versa by Thomas A. Lewis

SHOULD A PUBLIC UNIVERSITY teach theology? In 2015, the University of California, Berkeley launched a “Public Theology Program.” Funded by a million-dollar grant from the Henry Luce Foundation and run by the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, the three-year program supports post-doctoral fellowships, public lectures, faculty reading groups, and curricular development in order to “chart new paths for the study of religion in the public university.”

Whether it was intentional or not, the BCSR has chosen a loaded preposition by advocating the “study of religion.” Religious studies departments at public universities have long presumed their constitutionality from the 1963 Supreme Court case Abington v. Schempp. While the Court’s main holding in that case was that readings of the Bible or the Lord’s Prayer in public schools were unconstitutional, in his concurrence, Justice Arthur Goldberg noted, passingly, that “The Court would recognize the propriety of […] the teaching about religion, as distinguished from the teaching of religion, in the public schools.” It is unclear if Justice Goldberg’s prepositional distinction is settled law; indeed, it is hard to say exactly what he meant by it. But just as ambiguities have never impeded the canonization of religious texts as scripture, the ambiguity of Goldberg’s statement has not impeded universities from building religious studies programs on the rock of that “about.” Regardless of whether law prohibits professors from advancing normative religious agendas, academic taboo certainly does. So introductory courses in world religions or the Hebrew Bible legitimate themselves as value-neutral and purely descriptive. Divinity schools theologize, the argument runs, whereas universities study. The Berkeley Public Theology Program’s “of” symbolically transgresses this taboo, opening an old and thorny intellectual problem. How can public universities teach theology if they are forbidden from endorsing particular theological claims?


In his book, Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion — and Vice Versa, Thomas Lewis presents one vision of public theology. Lewis surveys the last half-century of religious studies scholarship, arguing that religious studies should become more philosophical. Thankfully, he does not mean emphasizing the “philosophy of religion” as it is often done in American universities. In Lewis’s view, contemporary philosophy of religion usually splits along the Analytic-Continental divide. Analytic philosophy focuses on arid, scholastic apologetics over the tenets of Christian theism, while Continental philosophy usually — and fuzzily — posits religion as an irrational Other used to club Enlightenment, rationalist modernity. Neither is a particularly attractive direction for religious studies, for both make strong, problematic assumptions about the nature of religion. Lewis proposes something else altogether. When he argues that scholars of religious studies should become more “philosophical,” he means that they should be more willing to make and defend normative claims, to meditate self-reflexively on their own concepts, and to concern themselves with their own historical context.

Lewis explicitly rejects the commonplace dichotomy in religious studies between “good” descriptive scholarship and “bad” normative theology. Critical scholars often claim that the discipline of “religious studies” was molded by Protestant theologians cloaking their religious commitments in universal, academic terms. As Lewis writes, these critics claim that religious studies “remains tainted” by those roots and thus “functions as a kind of liberal Protestant — or at best ecumenical — apologetics.” Liberal Protestant scholars, these critics argue, implicitly project their own theologies onto other religions. For instance, religious studies scholars have often overemphasized belief and doctrine, even though many non-Protestant religious traditions emphasize bodily practice. Others tendentiously locate an “ur-monotheism” hidden within indigenous polytheisms such as traditional Maori mythology. This misreading of other religions wrongly affirms the universality of the scholar’s own commitments. Indeed, the very concept of “religion” academics often use — a distinct sphere of culture, grounded in transcendent beliefs and individual experience, and impervious to rational argument — describes modern Protestantism much better than, say, the life of medieval monasteries, Talmudic practice, or anything outside Western culture. As a result, some critics even deny that religious studies has any place in academia at all.

Throughout his book, Lewis advocates a less uniformly Protestant religious studies. And yet, at the same time, he argues that critics have confused the specific, historical problem of reading other religions from a Protestant perspective with an absolute, theoretical objection to normativity. Such an objection is unsustainable, he claims, because normativity is pervasive. Philosophy and political science make normative claims regularly. More broadly, all humanistic scholarship commits itself normatively by choosing which texts to study or through which lenses to interpret religious behavior. Indeed, as Lewis notes, those who advocate abolishing religious studies usually do so because of their own normative commitments, like secularizing American politics or combating European colonialism.

Lewis believes the real trouble lies not with normativity but with unquestionable assumptions. Rather than excluding normativity from academia, Lewis proposes we exclude authority. Scholars must “in principle be willing to offer arguments” for their normative claims, but “no claim or canon can stand as unquestionable.” Lewis provides several examples of the “explicitly normative” work he advocates. For instance, he praises Amy Hollywood’s scholarship on how modern, secular French theorists thought about medieval Christian women mystics. Hollywood argues that these modern theorists saw in mysticism a way to express what they saw as otherwise ineffable loss.

Crucially for Lewis, in critiquing modern readings of these mystics, Hollywood also explicitly advances her own normative claims: we “need expressive forms and even rituals” to limit and lessen loss and trauma, but we also must be wary of “dangerous forms of irrationalism” that occur in conjunction with modern recoveries of the past. As Lewis shows, these normative claims arise from, and are justified by, rigorous readings of medieval and modern texts in historical context. One could call Hollywood’s book “theological,” in that she takes particular stances on religious questions. But, as Lewis emphasizes, she herself never appeals to “claims of ineffability or conversation-stopping appeals to experience.”

While Lewis insists on normativity, he also hopes that religious studies becomes a thoroughly introspective discipline. He imagines scholars constantly arguing over basic concepts like “religion” itself, since a fixed definition is essentially a dogma. Does prioritizing faith and the irrational spring from 19th-century Protestantism? If so, religious studies scholars of other places and times should articulate how the people they study would slice up the world differently. As an example of how starting with another religious tradition generates a different concept of religion’s central themes and preoccupations, Lewis highlights the work of Dan Arnold, who studies the philosophy-of-mind problem of “intentionality,” that is, the notion that our thoughts are “about” something. In his work, Arnold draws both on contemporary analytic philosophers and on the seventh-century Buddhist thinker Dharmakirti. This pairing suggests what Analytic philosophy of religion might become if it gave up its obsession with Christian theism. Rather than debating endlessly over the existence of God and the like, scholars of religion could address vital questions of phenomenology and epistemology. By pairing a “religious” text with modern philosophical work, Arnold illustrates how the best religious studies scholarship can redefine the field itself.

For exactly that reason, Lewis smartly critiques the project of “religious literacy,” or the teaching of basic facts about each religion’s scripture, tenets, and major denominations. Since the September 11 attacks, scholars and popular writers have persistently argued that Americans are poorly informed about religion and have recommended a course of remedial study. Lewis points out that, though they may seem commendable, such literacy projects presuppose we know what a “religion” is. Advocates of literacy, Lewis shows, regularly scoff at highly pious Americans’ supposed ignorance of their own religion or argue with practicing Muslims over the contents of the Quran. In such cases, Lewis thinks scholars have merely demonstrated that the elite, text-centered, and unified concept of “religion” on which religious literacy typically rests is useless. In fact, the concept of “religion” that these literacy advocates employ often makes it hard to understand why adherents of “the same” religion disagree with each other without assuming extra-religious causes like economics or politics. This irony means the religious literacy conveyed thus may not help the learners understand the people they are supposedly studying, or what role religion plays in their lives.

Because Lewis’s ideal for the field of religious studies does not anchor itself in a specific, concrete concept of religion, it is very abstract. “Religious studies” comes to name a textually and historically engaged form of philosophical argument, one that no longer has any specific connection to a God or ritual and could easily include intellectual historians, literary critics, or anthropologists. The program he describes is interesting, but what, exactly, makes it “religious studies,” as opposed to an explicitly normatively committed account of the humanities? Much of Lewis’s previous work is on Hegel, and this book is as much an argument for a Hegelian fusion of philosophy and history as it is for a newly capacious religious studies. Indeed, the line between the two programs is often vague.


Still, Lewis is a provocative thinker whose work is well worth reading. In particular, he offers an alternative to a particularly American fallacy about religion, namely, the idea that religious convictions are essentially individual, inward, and experiential and thus cannot be debated or challenged. Most recently, this idea surfaced in the Republican Primary. After Pope Francis said in February that Donald Trump was not a Christian, Trump replied, “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.” (This from a Christian who has never asked God for forgiveness and apparently pronounces “2 Corinthians” by analogy with the movie 2 Fast 2 Furious.) Imagine someone claiming that a socialist leader had no right to question someone’s socialism, or a leading choreographer their dancing, or a parallel in practically any field of human culture. Yet many Americans do think, like Trump, that no one has the right to question your religion, not even the pope.

This strange theory would be fine were religion purely a question of personal taste. But as Trump’s wrangling also shows, religious claims seriously influence American public life: many votes hang on whether Trump can credibly describe himself as a Christian. These two points form an unsustainable paradox. Religion cannot at once be an important category of public discussion and an un-discussable, totally private absolute. Perhaps books like Thomas Lewis’s, and initiatives like the Berkeley Public Theology Program, can return religious belief and practice to the sphere of rational argumentation and deliberation — where they belong.


Raphael Magarik is working on a PhD in English at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written for publications such as The New Republic,, and The Daily Beast.

LARB Contributor

Raphael Magarik is working on a PhD on English at the University of California Berkeley. He has written for publications such as The New Republic,, and The Daily Beast.


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