Saturday, 31 March 2012

Eric Sharpe on the importance of academic disciplines

Given what he saw as the rise of dilettantism and a lack of a through grounding in the field, Sharpe lamented that “students in search of essay material had no way of telling the difference between books found on the library shelves, or of distinguishing between types and levels of evidence …” In fact, “Most beginning students of religions were simply na├»ve” because studying religion “was a novelty …” (Sharp 1997:54). Further, “very few had … experience of world religions … and a fair proportion were either hostile or indifferent to what little they knew of Christianity …” (Sharpe 1997:53).

For example, he argued that lecturing about theological liberalism and the rise of neo-Orthodoxy theology, made no sense if taken out of its historical and social context. Only if one understood the history of the Twentieth Century with its bloody wars and vicious dictatorships could the history of European religious thought make sense (Sharpe 1997:55). Similarly, in conversation he would say that studying the Buddhist or Hindu traditions with no knowledge of Indian history and society was absurd.

Yet it was precisely the historical and social contexts that Sharpe found missing among both students and colleagues. As a result he saw academic debate degenerating into what Rudyard Kipling had called “a day-to-day traffic in generalities, hedged by trade considerations.” Thus Religious Studies was endangered by “the setting up and knocking down” of men of straw by “alienated and disaffected escapees” from the authority of traditional religions and disciplines (Sharpe 1997:57).

The problem as Sharpe saw it was that “Once upon a time, every western academic knew in principle what a ‘discipline’ was …” (Sharpe 1997:57). Disciplines “presupposed the existence and acceptance of properly constituted authority and obedience to the rules it had laid down. They imply continuity along a chain of tradition …” based on a long academic apprenticeship that provides the practitioner with credibility.

He noted, “In our day we have an ambiguous, almost schizophrenic, attitude to notions like this …” Yet, in another context “None of us whould care to entrust our lives to an airline pilot whose chief textbook had been Jonathan Livingston Sea-gull, or to an enthusiastic but entirely self-taught surgeon.” Yet in fields like religious studies “we lose our bearings” because there is “seemingly there is no need to inquire after our instructors’ qualifications, once we have accepted their persons.”

Nevertheless, despite the fact that no one disputes that a self-taught heart surgeon is unacceptable accepting the self-taught professor of religion is common place. Even worse many of these new “experts” bring with them a “bitterness toward everyday religion” that distorted their understanding (Sharpe 1997:58). Sharpe ends his discussion admitting “I am easily depressed by all those hordes of ideologists who simply want to tell people what to think, supplying every situation with an appropriate question, and every question with an appropriate answer” (Sharpe 1997:59).

Wilfried Decoo, Crisis on CampusCambridge: MIT Press, 2002

Sadly, although Sharpe recognized that one of the main problems facing religious studies is its “inter-disciplinary” nature few people take his concerns seriously. In light of his identification of the problem of “credibility” it is no surprise to find that when Wilfried Decoo investigated academic fraud he found that “A person engaging in inderdisciplinary activities is  more likely to engage in academic misconduct …" and “new interdisciplinary fields” in particular, “are at high risk” (Decoo, 2002:27 and 30). Yet despite evidence of growing evidence that inter-disciplinary fields encourage academic fraud university administrators continue to rush headlong to establish inter-disciplinary programs (Decoo, 2002:14-30).

Wilfried Decoo, Crisis on Campus. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2002
Eric Sharpe, “The Compatibility of Theological and Religious Studies: Historical, Theoretical and Contemporary Perspectives.” In The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin, September 1997.

Saturday, 3 March 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.