Scholarship and Opinion or the Journal vs the Blog

[Started this a while back and going through the in-process queue thought I might finish it up now]

A while back the posting Pause Taken by Dustin Eaton on his blog The Impermanent Record got my attention with a situation I was somewhat familiar with. A few months later gonzo scholarship by Scott Mitchell on The Buddha is my DJ echoed some of the same concerns.

That situation would be the personal practice of religion within the Religious Studies departments of universities, particularly in North America.  

I had hoped by now these departments would have addressed the situation a little better than had been done back in the 80’s and early 90’s.  But it seems that there is still a lot of trepidation in addressing the very human issue of studying something in which one is personally involved in a Religious Studies department.

Oddly this situation occurs only rarely in other faculties. The difference seems to be between the faculties of philosophy, culture and those of religious studies. For example here are some blogs, writings or people who have a very public Buddhist position and either study or teach in an academic setting.

  • Soraj’s Weblog-teacher of philosophy at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and keeps a Buddhist blog
  • Loden Jinpa-a monk and graduate student of philosophy at the University of Tasmania
  • Justin Whitaker while obtaining a PhD in Buddhist ethics at the University of London keeps a number of blogs including  Buddhist Ethics, and numerous others.

Sometimes outspoken or controversial Buddhist scholars or philosophers with a central focus on Buddhism

  • Robert Thurman-Columbia University department of Buddhist Studies
  • David Loy -“currently holds the Besl Family Chair of Ethics/Religion & Society, a visiting appointment at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio” according to Wikipedia
  • B. Alan Wallace-Stanford PhD scholar and lecturer
  • Lewis R. Lancaster-emeritus professor East Asian Languages and Cultures UC Berkeley. Recent work includes Buddhism in a Global Age of Technology

What interests me is the difficulty in acknowledging one’s personal beliefs and the conflict that seems to create within this particular area of academia.

Back in the day when I had big ambitions of slapping the PhD behind my name there were certain assumptions made that caused me some concern. It came to light that within Religious Studies one should not profess a personal opinion about religion or belief. This struck me as odd since biologists studied Biology and they certainly had their own personal biology to contend with and Sociologists also brought into their discussions their own sociological viewpoints. Similarly Cultural Anthropologists could not discuss culture without delimiting their own particular viewpoint. And so on with Psychology, Philosophy and numerous other disciplines. It was a given and was acknowledged as both a possible source of bias as well as a departure point for further study.

I had numerous great professors who operated under this stricture and had I not gotten to know a few of them outside of academia my education would have been less rich. One fellow was a Hindu who taught Islam. He was very much informed by the Sufi tradition as well. In class he taught from the text and was not too happy about that. It would have been much more beneficial had he been able to discuss some of the conflicts between Hinduism and Islam, particularly in the cultural context of India. And were it not for his own personal interest in Sufism (mystical Islam) that class would have been really dry. The advantage of being able to discuss Islam in a larger context would have been immeasurable.

Another professor I had was a Belgian who had thoroughly embraced Taoism. He taught Buddhism, Taoism and Chinese Syncretic Folk religion. It was due to his efforts that I got to go and study all of these in Taiwan in the late 80’s. Knowing him one could easily see how his religious practice informed his academic work. And I learned as much enjoying the pot-luck suppers he’d host at his house, with his wife making her native Taiwanese delicacies as well, as sitting in a classroom or undertaking a seminar.

But discussion, or even admission of a personal religion, especially one that was not of the majority was rarely if ever done.

The exception though was with Christianity. One class I took was on the Exegesis of the works of the apostle Paul. Fascinating class but for the continuous phrase, “We as Christians…” interjected throughout lectures. I was somewhat non-plussed by this statement. The class was majority, though not exclusively, Christian since it was an open course and not restricted to seminarians or the like. I let it pass the first couple of dozen times then finally mentioned it to the professor in charge. He dismissed my concerns with, “Well this is a Christian-themed class.” He didn’t get it. This phrase continued.  I mentioned it to the head of the department, who I knew personally. Some shit hit the fan I gather though I was not privy to it. Some people were rather pissed off at me after this incident.

My point was not that I was anti-Christian but that some language and some viewpoints are as valid and some acknowledgement of those would not be amiss. And if not acknowledgement then the omission of the exclusionary and rather exclusive religious phrase might be in order. They didn’t get it.

And by the opinions I’ve lately been reading on the above-mentioned blogs and elsewhere they still don’t.

So that potential PhD still sits on the shelf gathering dust.

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4 comments on “Scholarship and Opinion or the Journal vs the Blog

  1. It is definitely a touchy area; though for some reason I find myself not really worrying about it too much (that is, worrying about my blog being a red flag for some hiring committee down the road). Sure, it means that certain departments will not hire me, but those are departments I wouldn’t want to work at anyhow! :) There are plenty of schools that seek out ‘well rounded’ and publicly involved colleagues, not simply focusing on publishing record and conference presentations.

    On the other hand, scholarship is central (to me, at least). Thus it’s the professor’s responsibility to leave some things at the door. For example, I would agree that your “we as Christians” professor should have simply said “Christians” – “Christians believe this or do that.” A good scholar, in my opinion, wouldn’t even do that. He would say “this part of the tradition has held this belief or that practice.” Saying “we as Christians” seems to open the door for a whole mess (that whole no true Scotsman fallacy).

    Lewis Lancaster said in a recent lecture that he learned early on in academia (and I think this goes well in most of life) never to make universal claims – everybody this, nobody that – because with just one counterexample and your argument is shown to be wrong.

    I’m not sure if I’m one of those who doesn’t get it, but I’m happy to discuss this more here, at my blog, or elsewhere.

    Best wishes, – jw

    • Thank you for your response Justin. I think you do get it quite well. I just wonder why it is so touchy in Religious Studies and not so much in other disciplines. For example in Political Science it is not difficult to suss out a profs position. He/she may even state it. It seems that to be forthcoming with one’s own potential biases would be beneficial to scholarship. How can one write a balanced view of anything if they don’t know or won’t admit where they are in that balance?

      I wonder if it is because most people do not convert religions and therefore do not see their worldview as having that particular lens. What I mean is that religion is so taken for granted among many non-converts that it doesn’t factor into worldview the way politics or culture does. One is, by means of travel, media, globalization and the like faced with cultural/political and many other kinds of conflicts daily. Religious conflicts, particularly in America tend to be of a nature that does not call much for personal examination of one’s religious beliefs except by a small number.

      There is the monolithic Christian derived culture and that tends to be the focus and tends to be taken for granted. Culture by it’s nature being learned both overtly, such as in school, and covertly, such as in unspoken community mores, is full of these kinds of bias traps.

      I have noticed in places where there is religious conflict that people either harden their stance in their birth religion without question or attempt to at least increase their level of tolerance of differences. It’s kind of interesting to watch this sort of situation.

      Religion is so personal yet it is culturally derived. I just wish the level of discourse about it would include both of those perspectives since to exclude either in my opinion skews scholarship into being some sort of paradoxical objectivity that always contains some unacknowledged shadows of self.

  2. I’m not sure about other departments, other than the little philosophy dept. here at UM, where I’ve done some work. There it is often the case that you can be any religion you’d like as long as you openly adhered to Analytic methods instead of Continental. Or, as is often the case, Christians (esp the more ‘open’ ones) there are the ones who are ostracized. To be fair though, our phil dept is wonderfully diverse and welcoming, and the relig studies debt is too.

    I think you’ve got passion though and often enough that is what is so desperately needed in academia. I hope you find your way to a ph.d. and a big classroom filled with eager young minds before long.

    Best, jw

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