Saturday, March 3, 2012

Growing dilettantism in Religious Studies

Ironically, it was Smart’s former colleague Eric Sharpe, the critic of Harnack, who eventually highlighted the growing dilettantism of many Religious Studies programs. What is striking about Sharpe’s argument is that for all his defense of Religious Studies as a valid academic pursuit, he was painfully aware of forces that undermined the field from its beginning. For Sharpe the greatest threat to Religious Studies was not theology but the development of academic amateurism or, as Harnack put it, dilettantism.

Coming from the North of England where calling a spade a spade is a virtue Sharpe was far less diplomatic in his criticism of the way Religious Studies had developed than the more genteel Smart. Although passionately committed to the study of religions, Sharpe believed things had gone badly astray in the way religion and religions were taught and studied in universities.

Pulling no punches he bluntly told his audience that students were desperately in need of “routine, unspectacular knowledge of the basics, as a condition of being able to decipher the small print” but instead of receiving it they were often taught by professors who lacked such knowledge themselves. In his words “the students” and even their teachers “had no context in which to place” the topics they were studying (Sharpe 1997:53). In other words, in Sharpe’s view, half educated academics were teaching even less well educated students none of whom fully understood what they were reading.

Adolf Harnack (1851-1930)

In this situation, Sharpe argued, the issue of “subjectivity and objectivity” became the main “methodological problem” which constantly reappeared in various forms. Yet all it did was expose the naivety of supposed scholars who convinced themselves “that there are quicker and easier ways of acquiring skills than be embarking on the long apprenticeship which provides access to a craft.”

He then caustically added: “We recognize at once how bogus this is when we consider the work of a heart surgeon, an airline pilot, or a concert pianist, where the standards we have come to tolerate in the humanities would be a recipe for total disaster.” But, he went on, Religious Studies has fallen victim to “methodological (or at any rate procedural) innovators” whom he clearly regarded as fraudulent.

To be continued ...


Sharpe, Eric J.: Comparative Religion. A History, London, 1975.

Sharpe, Eric J., “The Compatibility of Theological and Religious Studies. Historical, Theological and Contemporary Perspectives,” in: The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin, vol. 26, No. 3, 1997, pp. 66-68.

1 comment:

  1. The points that you raise in this post (and the next one) from Eric Sharpe, brought to my mind recollections of my time as one of his undergraduate students at the University of Sydney. Sharpe was very keen to encourage students in religious studies to read widely, to cross over the disciplines, and to cultivate what he called "imaginative sympathy" with the study of the past.

    I also recall his "sighs" when students had blank stares about classic pieces of English literature from the Nineteenth century. He had an occasion to allude to Rudyard Kipling's "Ballad of East and West", and was appalled that almost no-one had heard of Kipling let alone had ever read the Ballad!

    In this regard, I am also reminded of Sharpe's remarks in "Understanding Religion" (London: Duckworth, 1983)pp 16-17:

    "When ordinary Christian students find it almost impossible to enter imaginatively into the Christianity of a hundred years ago, which they dismiss with a phrase such as 'Victorian smugness' or 'imperialistic arrogance', and decline to study more closely, is it not likely that the same difficulty will present itself magnified a thousandfold when the time comes to examine Christian origins or the Protestant Reformation? One suspects in both cases that what is being studied is less the first or sixteenth century than the impression which has left on the mind of the twentieth. And that the personal qualities on which religious studies tries to insist are, in such cases as these, mainly conspicuous by their absence."

    These observations dovetail with Sharpe's concerns that you have highlighted here about amateur efforts to produce scholarship based on novelty and abstruse theorizing.

    If some current religious studies monographs are more concerned with presenting a new impressive theory that is overladen with abstruse "insider" knowledge that only a post-doctoral student would have an inkling about, then undergraduate students forced to read such books will learn more and more about less and less.

    An obsession with writing densely worded jargon is a recipe for defeating the purpose of scholarship and education. It is hardly surprising then that some undergraduates are unable to wade through the material and resort to the dubious cut-and-paste habits of composing tutorial papers based on Wikipedia articles that purport to summarise the central tenets of the scholar's abstruse theory.

    For better or worse, undergraduates today seem to practise an ecology of reading based on bladder-control: who can manage to reach the last page before needing both physiological and intellectual relief. While some students almost feel amputated if their mobile phone is switched off and struggle to concentrate for extensive periods of time on reading a book, the problem for education is only exacerbated when the books that students are expected to read are so dense that one needs a computer and the prophet Elijah to assist the reader in decoding what has been written!

    It is a delight read your blog.