Normativity & Description in Religion

This is an explanation of the difference between the normative claims of theology
and the descriptive claims of scholarship. 

To make sense of this article, it is strongly recommended that you first read: The Theologian & the Scholar


How Not to Make a Scholarly Claim about Religion

The first thing to note about scholarly claims is that the Scholar makes descriptive claims, while the Theologian makes normative claims. One of the key problems with the scholarly study of religion is that, if you’re not careful, you might end up making strong normative claims about your subject.

A “normative” claim is when someone claims to know what you ought to do by inferring that it is normal. For example, dentists make a normative claim when they tell you that people with good teeth floss every day. Consider, then, the following normative statements about religion.

  1. A Christian should not serve in the military.
  2. A Jew must have a Jewish mother.
  3. A woman cannot call Muslims to prayer.
  4. A Hindu believes in many gods.
  5. A Buddhist cannot eat meat.

All of these statements end up being normative because they draw a line in the sand and claim “on this side is Islam, and on that side is not Islam.” Such a claim is a theological statement, not a scholarly statement.


Normative vs. Descriptive: A Study in Claims about Religion

Here's another example of the normative/descriptive distinction.

  • Descriptive: The apple is red.
  • Normative: You should eat an apple a day.

And another example:

  • Johnny is a good person.
  • Bob claims Johnny is a good person.

Pay attention to the differences in the last example. The first statement, “Johnny is a good person,” is normative because it presumes that the author knows what makes a good person. The second statement is descriptive because it is simply stating an historical fact about something Bob said.

A normative claim tells you how things ought to be and presents judgments. A Christian theologian compares “good Christianity” with “bad Christianity.” That’s his or her job. She presents a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things, like:

Normative Claim (Theological Claim):
“The Smiths are good Christians because they are pacifists, but the Joneses are bad Christians because they support the war.”

Howver, a descriptive claim is the only kind of claim scholars of religion are interested in making. A scholar of religion makes no claim as to who is and isn’t a “true” Christian, a good Christian, or a bad Christian. Rather, a scholar pays attention to people making such claims and reports them as historical and cultural phenomena. So, how might a scholar of religion report on the difference between the aforementioned Smiths and Joneses? Well, here’s one way she could do it:

 Descriptive Claim (Scholarly Claim):
"While both the Smiths and the Joneses identify as Christians, the Joneses agree with the war, while the Smiths do not."

Do you see the difference between normative and descriptive? It’s essential to any public course on religion.


Long Live Theology!

To be quite clear, this is not a criticism of theology. In fact, it’s a defense of it!

Theological training belongs in a religious institution—not a public institution, college, or university.  As a public scholar of religion, I will not presume to ever tell my students what is and isn’t proper Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. I leave that work to my friends at the pulpit, bimah, and minbar (respectively).


A Final Example of the Normative/Descriptive Distinction

So how can we tell the difference between normative and descriptive claims in religion? Well, let’s consider the following 2 statements. Try and decide which one sounds like theology and which one sounds like scholarship.

1. A Christian cannot serve in the military because the Bible says, "those who live by the sword die by the sword.”

2. In 1527, at a meeting of the Swiss Anabaptists, a statement of faith called the Schleitheim Confession was signed. One of the seven articles agreed upon by these Anabaptists was that Christians should never engage in violence for any reason. This doctrine is known as Christian Pacifism.

Do you notice how the first statement sounds like something a pastor would say, and the second statement sounds like something from a history book? The first statement could be disputed in a theological argument. But the second statement could only be disputed on the merits of its historical accuracy (in other words, whether it’s a valid claim or not has nothing to do with one’s personal beliefs). That’s what makes the first statement a normative theological statement and the latter a descriptive statement of historical scholarship. The latter is what is done in a public course on religion. The first example has no place in such an institution.

The Narrow Road of the Scholar of Religion

The scholarly approach may seem irreverent to some, especially when we approach a religious identity with which you feel familiar and invested. If this happens, remember our objectives. This is an academic “study of religion,” not a “religious course.” Likewise, keep in mind that no scholar of religion is trying to replace theologians. Consider for a moment the limits of the scholar of religion.

  • A scholar can’t lead a prayer in a church service.
  • A scholar can’t marry a couple.
  • A scholar can’t baptize people.
  • A scholar doesn’t work as a spiritual counselor in times of crisis.
  • A scholar can’t absolve you of your sins.
  • A scholar can’t tell you the secrets of the universe and wouldn’t dare try.
  • A scholar can’t vote in church assemblies.
  • A scholar doesn’t work to affect church doctrine.
  • A scholar works neither to bring someone into a tradition nor out of it.
  • A scholar doesn’t take religious sides on a political issue.
  • A scholar doesn’t advocate for any particular group over any other.

On the other hand, theologians are not only welcome but expected to do all of these things and more.