Understanding Religion

lord-cherburyIvan Strenski approaches theorists of religion by asking the question: why did they think they were right? In this way, he is able to situate both the theoretician and her theory within her or its historical and cultural context. Approaching the study of religion this way, allows for a fuller understanding of any given theorists or theory. For Strenski, it is out of a given historical, cultural, or religious problem that a theory of religion arises. “That is what theoretical argument in the study of religion is supposed to be,” Strenski writes, “critical inquiry about the way to use language. It is a vehicle for people to come to a common mind about religion. Over and above any personal religious commitments they may or may not have, theorists try to provide ways to agree on the terms of public discourse about religion” (243). Stemming from this, Strenski makes a few useful distinctions: natural religion, the study of which consumed the earliest theorists, is either seeking to uncover the abstracted essence of religion (ahistorically) or arrive at the first religion (the origin of all other religions). Strenski makes another distinction between the internal study of religion (philosophy, psychology, etc.) and the external study of religion (Sitz im Leben, ethnography, etc.). He makes one further distinction between those theorists that also fancy themselves activists and those that pursue a more “objective” approach to the study of religion. He distinguishes the two through a number of dichotomies: liberal versus liberationist, negative versus positive, freedom from versus freedom for, teleological versus non-teleological, and academic versus activist. The “study of religion,” or “religious studies” proper, Strenski argues, limits itself to the former movement. The latter moves us away from “religion” as an academic field of study towards a positive theology (where “theology” is understood broadly as an aspiration towards an end that, once achieved, would somehow redeem the critical-theoretical pursuit). For Strenski, religion is a constructed category, but it is a category that, however local, is still objectively “out there” in the world and worthy of our study.

* Strenski, Ivan. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2015.

*This is a summary for my upcoming comprehensive exam in the study of religion.


2 thoughts on “Understanding Religion

  1. According to Strenski (and others), there is no overlap. In fact, that is the very thing that academic scholars of religion should avoid. There are, of course, people who are interested in both, but the American Academy of Religion makes a hard distinction between the two. If they do intersect in the life of the individual, then I think that the inner-theologian of the religious studies scholar is, more often than not, repressed. If I were to crudely say that the one is objective and the other is subjective, then how might you say that they should or shouldn’t overlap within the public discourse of the academy?


  2. Considering those distinctions, where is the overlap between religious study and theology? How does the theologian do and benefit from religious studies and the religious scholar from theology? Is the theologian able to also do the work of a religious scholar or must one fit into only one category or the other? I can certainly see where the one can read and learn from the work of the other, how do they intersect in the life and work of an individual?

    Liked by 1 person


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