The Theologian & the Scholar

This is an explanation of the difference between the theologian and the scholar of religion. 

Theologians & Scholars: What’s the Difference?

What’s the difference between a non–sectarian scholar and a theologian? Well, the simplest difference is this:
A theologian picks sides; a scholar doesn’t.

A theologian might say that Liberal Catholicism is the way to go. Or Shia Islam. Or Orthodox Judaism. But a scholar doesn’t pick sides. A scholar isn’t interested in deciding which pastor has it right. Rather, a scholar is interested in the historical, philosophical, and sociological reasons that a theologian or religious group might make a particular claim. As such, a scholar does not reproduce or legitimize one way of doing religion over any other.

Why Scholarship doesn’t “compete” with Theology

At first glance, it might seem like theologians and scholars are in competition. But this is wrong for one simple reason: scholars and theologians have different approaches to their work and different goals in mind. Let’s take a moment to look at the theological model vs. the scholarly model.

  • Theology. A theologian shares his personal beliefs as truth–claims (e.g. “there is only one God”), while contradicting other religious traditions (e.g. Jesus is the Son of God), and will generally conform to the dogma of his religion.
  • Scholarship. In contrast, a professor shares peer–reviewed scholarship, while making no larger claims to any metaphysical or absolute “truth” that must nonetheless answer to and adapt from the highest forms of critique from her scholarly peers.

Neither model of looking at religion is “better” than the other. The two are merely speaking to different goals. In this way, the academic study of religion isn’t “pro–religion” or “anti–religion” anymore than biology is “pro–birds” or “anti–sharks.” Like the natural sciences, the scholarship of religion is concerned with gathering information about its subject, while not taking particular sides with or against any one group or theologian. In short:

  • The theologian seeks to convince his audience of his beliefs through persuasive preaching.
  • The scholar seeks to convince her audience of her evidence–based findings through the peer–reviewed scholarly process.

Is It Ok to Research a Religion as a Non–Member?

So, in terms of scholarly methodology, it’s worth asking: is it necessary to be a member of a religion in order to study it? Do you have to be a Muslim to study Islam? Can only Mormons study Mormonism? Well, a “friend” of Muslims might allow only those who identify as Muslims to discuss Islam or to “own” the discussion. Such a “friend” would then be an advocate of Muslims—akin perhaps to a collector of rare imported objects. But, as University of Chicago’s Bruce Lincoln once warned, no one who hands their tools over to their subject can honestly be called a scholar. This is a sharp distinction between theology and scholarship.

For Scholars: There Is No “Insider/Outsider” Dilemma

First, scholars make no distinction between voices from within and outside of a tradition. How could they without identifying who belongs and who doesn’t? Think about it.

Imagine if a scholar said the following: "We’ll listen to Smith because he’s a real Christian, but we won’t quote Jones because even though he’s a church member he doesn’t act Christian.” That kind of distinction belongs to a minister, not a scholar!

Secondly, those from ‘within’ a religion have no basis for disallowing a scholar from the ‘outside’ to study their history and claims. That is, if the subjects of a study can simply disagree with the study’s findings and then that study is revised to reflect their wishes, it is hardly a study at all. It is not scholarship to allow others to tell scholars what should be thought or written about them.

Third, information given from ‘within’ an ideology is always problematic for the simple fact that, in Bruce Lincoln’s words, “one’s consciousness is itself a product of that system.” In other words, as the saying goes, whoever came up with the concept of water probably wasn’t a fish. That is, a fish doesn’t recognize water because it’s surrounded by water all the time.

Fourth, the ‘outside’ scholar, being unfamiliar to the group, does not have to be “denaturalized” before they begin to ask scholarly questions. They have fewer preconceptions and often feel freer to criticize those outside of the ‘in–group.’

Fifth, often the advocating ‘outsider’ or ‘insider’ will reproduce (sometimes unknowingly) the image of the group most desired by those in power out of fear or incompetence. In other words, an outsider ‘advocate’ of Judaism may simply regurgitate the description of Judaism given by Jewish leaders out of a sense of respect. While that may seem polite, that doesn’t make for very good scholarship.

The Job of a Scholar

So if we have established that a scholar of religion does not have to be an “insider” of a religion to speak on that religion, what else does a scholar of religion do that makes him different from a theologian?

  • A scholar contextualizes a social group’s origins, texts, and claims
  • A scholar compares the claims of a social group with the historical and archeological record
  • A scholar critiques social power structures and how they are used
  • A scholar analyzes the ways social groups tend to take a complex situation and make it look like a simple problem of good vs. evil
  • A scholar resists social forces that aim to make authority unquestionable

So, all that is required to be a scholar of religion is the recognition of the tools and attitudes used by scholars, and a willingness to share ideas without regard to their popularity or agreement by the self–identified members of the group one studies. That’s pretty much it! Well, that, and a graduate degree in religion, some field research, and fluency in the appropriate foreign languages also helps…

For more on this topic, see the article: Normativity and Description in Religion.