On theory and practice in Religious Studies

By Richard H. Roberts
17 Mar 2011

The version of this article that appears on Critical Religion is the first time I have ever ‘blogged’. In fact the latter word was so new to my PC that I had to add it to the dictionary in the software. In the course of the past two decades I have, however, both made field notes and kept a personal journal as I moved between two very different academic contexts and I draw upon these resources in the following observations.

As Professor of Divinity in Scotland’s most ancient university, with its longstanding traditions of scholarly activity and golf (a searching pastime and form of outdoor freemasonry), I was participant observer in what was until fairly recently an exclusively male lineage saturated with explicit patriarchy.

I then moved from a university that is about to celebrate the six hundredth anniversary of its foundation in 1411-12 to a Chair in Religious Studies at my alma mater, a wet and windswept concrete and brick sixties campus university in the northwest of England, a locale that in part inspired Malcolm Bradbury’s notorious novel, The History Man.

It has to be said that the extraordinarily different genii loci of both contexts were very much alive, although the now omnipresent dead hand of bureaucratising British managerialism is successfully killing off and marginalising nearly all individuality as diamonds are relentlessly transmuted into glass.

When I survey a lifetime and a career spent shifting back and forth between ‘Religious Studies’ and ‘Theology’, I find much of the ideological polarisation erected between these ways of doing things less than helpful. This is above all the case in an era of ever-growing and multi-dimensional global crisis in which the identity-intensifying phenomena traditionally represented by the problematic Western category of ‘religion’ play an important, yet extremely ambiguous role.

Whilst I had the privilege of swinging between these seemingly antithetical academic contexts, for me the pendulum came to rest in a decade of subsistence on the periphery of academia as I explored the interface between burgeoning psychotherapies ranging from the banal repetitiveness of Rogerian counselling to the sudden and unexpected transpersonal insights of psychodrama – and the marketplace of once alternative (but now increasingly main-line) spiritualities.

This borderland runs through contexts that extend from (for example) the milieu of casual power-clothing in organisational shamanism and transformational rituals in top-flight schools of management and leadership studies courses to primal screaming, firewalking, rebirthing, and running sky- and ash-clad over the sand dunes at initiatory men’s gatherings. Experienced in this way no-one could accuse Religious Studies of being boring.

At the same time as going on this journey I began, as Elizabeth Kübler-Ross puts it in her landmark book, On Death and Dying, the process of ‘learning from the dying’ through a series of workshops led by an Irish seabhéan Phyllida Anam-Aire (‘soul-mother’) who had trained with Kübler-Ross herself.

This fieldwork confronted me with dimensions of human pain precipitated for the most part by childhood sexual abuse and rape of participants in relation to which it seemed to me well nigh impossible to maintain the epoche, the bracketing out of the researcher’s subjectivity. My entire self-understanding was called into question and my personal and intellectual identity had to expand and own realities largely new to me, that is if I were to be both true to myself and to the manifest needs of others.

As it happens, what began as participant observation turned out to be an essential preparation for supporting, caring for, nursing and the eventual ‘home death’ of Audrey, my wife and life-partner for over forty years. The decade of my immersion was for my wife a time of acute illness and then terminal cancer and this distressing reality caused me to draw upon what I was learning in fieldwork. Here one re-learned that bodies are indeed all too real and intrinsic, and that they should not be regarded as merely empty signifiers upon which to project metaphors and meaning. Bodies are, of course, both; as touch replaces words body speaks silently in love to body in mutual surrender before the final relinquishment of the physical relationship in decathexis.

Much of the fieldwork I engaged in demanded degrees of confidentiality that has made publication extremely problematic. Nonetheless, any idea that I might, along with the radical secularisers within Religious Studies and the sociology of religion, regard what I experienced and then deployed as the trivial spiritual residue of a fading human pathology is both implausible and unacceptable.

The problem remains: how can one responsibly represent human experience as this is characterised by ritualisation and altered states of consciousness and as they manifest themselves today in late modernity through complex processes of differentiation, migration and surrogacy within a theoretical framework that needs to extend from the level of globalisation down through human communities to the individual, afflicted human body?

How can we clarify this matrix in order, as I would hope, not merely to explain and facilitate comprehension, but also to make intelligently accessible ways of doing things that are as ancient and, I believe, as important to humankind as the making of music?

------------

© Richard H. Roberts is Visiting Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Stirling. His work, background and publications history is summarised here.


This article is one of a continuous series appearing on Ekklesia through our association with the University of Stirling Critical Religion group blog. CR is a research project bringing together academics from a wide range of backgrounds to explore the way 'religion' is employed as a a marker, construct and category in public and intellectual discourse. You can also follow Critical Religion on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StirCritRel

Critical Religion articles and news on Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/criticalreligion

Moderated comments can be left on: http://www.criticalreligion.stir.ac.uk/blog/

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.