Friday, May 20, 2011

Why Religious Studies and Theology Are Not the Same

Joseph Campbell is widely revered in the academy as the Father of Religious Studies, or at least he is so revered by Bill Moyers.

Today the SWNIDish interface with g-mail highlighted this quotation, attributed to Professor Campbell:

Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy. 

Ha ha.

This is why SWNID has learned so little through the years from scholars of religious studies. The discipline is largely controlled by people like Campbell who work with uselessly inaccurate generalizations.

We can't say as much about the various lower-case, plural gods of the Hebrew Bible, but we don't think that "rules" were what distinguished them. Animistic and fertility gods are less noted for their rules than for their capriciousness, as far as we know. Maybe that's another uselessly inaccurate generalization.

But we think that Campbell was really thinking of the upper-case, singular God of the Hebrew Bible and only used the plural to deflect the charge of anti-Jewish and anti-Christian offensiveness. That God is routinely labeled an unmerciful rule-maker. And nothing could be farther from the truth.

The God of the Hebrew Bible gives rules, to be sure. And he also routinely exercises patience with people who break them. Like every single character of the Hebrew biblical narrative. It's hard to believe that someone could know that the central story of the Hebrew Bible is the Exodus and could then claim that the God of the Hebrew Bible shows no mercy.

Campbell loved to talk about "myth," which he said is poetry, not untruth. Fair enough. But when one's description of the "myth's" content is not factual when compared to the texts that embed it, we have a meta-myth, which is a falsehood: the unfairly inaccurate characterization of the God of Israel as a legalistic meanie.



JB in CA said...

I think some of the work in religious studies is of very high quality. In particular, the contributions of Rodney Stark, Jacob Neusner, and William Wainwright have added significantly to our understanding of religious phenomena. And even Campbell isn't all bad (only mostly). E.g., I find his theory that the prehistoric cave paintings were motivated by the ancient belief (still held in parts of Eastern Europe) that animals come from the "womb of the earth" to be highly suggestive and at least as plausible as some of its rival theories. But I do agree. On the whole, those who set the agenda in religious studies seem to have a real knack for concocting factually-challenged generalizations. To be honest, however, I'm not convinced that they're any better at it than those who set the agenda in theology proper.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Then you note how we cleverly embed an unfair generalization into our rant against unfair generalizations.

JB in CA said...

You always exaggerate.