Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Will the Real Academic Growth Industry Please Stand Up?

In his not-to-be-overlooked recent web essay, Rusty Reno reports that critical theory “remains an academic growth industry.” Berkeley’s Martin Jay, a scholar who has spent his career steeped in critical theory, see things differently.

In his review of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (History and Theory, Feb. 2009), Jay describes an endless flow of freshly published religion books, such as Religion: Beyond a Concept, a tome which exceeds 1000 pages and is only the first of five projected volumes in a series entitled “The Future of the Religious Past.” After listing similar projects, Jay confesses exasperation with academia’s religious growth industry:

Clearly, whether or not religion can be said to have “returned”–did it ever really go away?–in an age that is no longer fully secular, it has generated a tsunami of scholarly commentary in many different fields sweeping over the nascent twenty-first century in the way that reinvigorated religious practice promises to do as well. The cultured despisers of yore–a few well-publicized exceptions like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins aside–have been replaced by a new gaggle of no-less cultured admirers. In the most advanced theoretical circles, it is now possible to speak, in the words of the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, of “the breakdown of the philosophical prohibition of religion.” Making one’s way through this thicket of new interpretation and appreciation is not, however, easy, especially for those of us who remain religiously “unmusical,” to borrow Max Weber’s still felicitous phrase.

Reno and Jay are, I think, both right. The questions is whether the burgeoning academic interest in religion will tame religion with critical theory, or let religion do some of the taming.