What is Critical Religion?

We are all committed to approaching religion in a critical manner, ‘critical’ being understood in all its positive senses, with two broad strands informing our work:

Firstly: We question the fundamental category of ‘religion’.  It is sometimes assumed to be a ‘thing’ that simply exists, and this is where, in part, the idea that we can study ‘religions‘ as entities in any society or context comes from.  This, of course, implies that what ‘religion’ actually is is common knowledge and applies to all contexts, geographic and ideational (in Scotland, the Middle East, Asia, or in power and gender structures etc.).  This assumes that ‘we will know it when we see it’.  But where, in any given context, does religion begin, end or transgress into other areas?  Some of the great religion scholars of the past have argued that there is some kind of supernatural essence to ‘religion’ based on a person’s relationship to (a) God.  But perhaps ‘religion’ as a category has little meaning on its own because the boundaries around what is and what is not ‘religion’ are so blurred when related to other categories (such as politics, economics etc.)? Secondly: Rather than hold religion to suspicion, or blame, or discredit, or incredulity – a growing tendency amongst certain public intellectuals, even if against the tide of global demographics – we examine religion from a positive critical standpoint.  What this means is that we engage in our work with a view to showing how open to re-interpretation or re-conceptualisation the term ‘religion’ is today in our intellectual, social, and cultural spheres.  Just as the term ‘critical’ has a wide semantic range, so too does the concept of religion continue to develop beyond traditional and conventional boundaries.  So not only do we find engagement with the idea of ‘religion’ in the contexts of religious institutions, but also within the fields of hermeneutics, visual art, literature, history, gender studies, anthropology, politics, philosophy and so on.

What unites us in thinking about these two strands is a conception of religion that inflects on our teaching and our research in ways that accord to the varied meanings of the term ‘critical’:

  • Crucial: We believe that the question of religion remains absolutely essential to our thinking about what it means to be human, and especially what it means to be human in relationship, in what we can now only call a post-secular 21st century.
  • Exercising careful observation and judgement: For us, religion must be examined with utmost rigour, not taking for granted pre-conceived notions or inherited traditions, but carefully examining the ideas of religion, with all their variegated histories, both in theory and in praxis, in order to uncover both the complexities and profundities that ‘religions’ have always embodied, as well as the new possibilities that the term ‘religion’ (or its substitutes) might now afford.
  • Discerning the limits: Following upon Kant’s notion of Kritik in his famous three Critiques, we interrogate the nature of thinking “religiously” with a view to its own internal limits.  How far can the concept of ‘religion’ take us before it must, perhaps necessarily, leave its own conceptual framework behind?  Can a religion, in its particularised, organised, institutional form, be conserved amid the realities of our modern, or postmodern, or post-postmodern, world?   Or must the limits and limitations of these concepts give way to new modes of thinking, which nevertheless may still be deemed somehow religious, even if under different terms (such as spirituality), and, more significantly, as informed by different disciplines?  For us being critical with religion is an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary mode of engagement: incorporating many disciplines, but also going beyond the limits of any one discipline, whether of theology, biblical studies, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, literature, the visual arts, hermeneutics, postcolonialism, feminism, gender studies, politics, history, cultural studies, and critical theory itself.
  • Of the nature of a crisis: Few will contest, from whatever position, that religion, however construed, is presently in the midst of a crisis, whether in Western or global contexts.  Many would argue that religion is still flourishing in the world.  But the contentious nature of religion has never been more palpable as it is now, intellectually, culturally, ideologically, politically, and militarily.  We feel this is an important time to be studying religion, not to relieve religions of their crises, as if this were desirable or could ever be done comprehensively, but to understand and appreciate the gravity and far-reaching influence these crises have on our perceptions of reality and on our subsequent actions within our local, national and transnational spheres of existence.
  • Critical mass: a point at which some action, property or condition passes over into another: In drawing upon a broad range of ideas, theories, and disciplines, we hope that our approach at Stirling goes some way to forming a critical mass with respect to the question of religion.  We feel that ‘religion’ and thinking ‘religion’ is at a crucial point in what we might call our ‘Western world’, as well as in all other contexts.  The impact of globalisation, arising from colonialism and the intrusion of capitalist systems into all parts of the world, means that ideas of religion and its inherited history of ideas and practices is of global import.  We feel it is in the process of passing over into something ‘other’ and ‘new’ – but the exact nature of this ‘other’ and ‘new’ is yet undetermined.  However, through our various yet connected research interests and teaching commitments, we hope to contribute to determining its features and the implications they will have – socially, culturally, ethically – on the world we inhabit.

These understandings are what make Critical Religion distinctive, offering a richness and diversity of thought that is reflected in the work of the scholars who engage in this field.

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