At the Chronicle of Higher Education, K. L. Noll draws a sharp distinction between the “religion researcher” and the “theologian.” Rejecting “the trendy postmodern notion” that humans cannot achieve “an understanding of how things are in the real world,” Noll insists that scholars of religion actively “advance knowledge” about the world while theologians do not:

In sum, the religion researcher is related to the theologian as the biologist is related to the frog in her lab. Theologians try to invigorate their own religion, perpetuate it, expound it, defend it, or explain its relationship to other religions. Religion researchers select sample religions, slice them open, and poke around inside, which tends to “kill” the religion, or at least to kill the romantic or magical aspects of the religion and focus instead on how that religion actually works.


The distinction that I have drawn between theology and religious study is not merely academic but ethical. In my view, the presence of a discipline within academe that does not attempt to advance knowledge but tries to defend a set of truth-claims for which empirical data are, by definition, unavailable requires of theologians greater ethical responsibility than most of us in academe already acknowledge. Academic theologians’ pronouncements give the public a false sense that theology represents an advance in human knowledge. Recent embarrassments, like the rising influence of intelligent-design “science,” demonstrate that claims made by theologians have consequences. Theologians must take a hard look in the mirror and ask if they can live with those consequences.

Read the rest of the piece here.

[via: Religion in American History]