Personal Theology and the Study of Religion

New school year, new classes. New wonderful thoughts. Happily, the new thoughts have started, full-speed ahead. I’m really excited!

My professor for Theory of Religion this semester presented us (indirectly) with a fascinating question this afternoon, during our first lecture of the semester: What is the place of personal theology in the academic study of religion? Asked a bit differently, Are our backgrounds relevant to our study? Do we truly have a right to keep our biases private?

Perhaps the two are slightly different questions.

As for the first question, before asking what the place of personal theology is in the context of the academic study of religion, we must ask whether it does belong. Does it? Of course. Our professor today noted that most academics come to their fields by virtue of some passion they have for the subject; however, he said, “the field of Religion is populated by many scholars who are kind of hostile.” Perhaps hostility is a kind of passion in itself: as Joseph Fletcher once wrote, “The true opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.” Negative passion is still passion. In this vein, our passion — our baggage, more broadly — informs everything we do, especially in our academics.

Yes, I understand that passion, or baggage, is not theology. In a way, though, it is a large part. Theology is the part of my baggage that I pack in my carry-on backpack, right between my siddur (prayer book) and my science textbook, squished in there next to my water bottle and my music. Even if I don’t want it to, my own belief in God and religion — my theology — permeates into all of the thoughts I have, in all the activities I do, whether I present those ideas aloud in class or not. Like Franz Kafka, who once claimed that none of his works were autobiographical in the same breath as admitting that the subconscious consistently leaks into all his writing, one could argue that even if we try to assert that we are capable of divorcing our biases from our learning, all of our biases eventually sneakily leak out into our conversations and discussions like carbon monoxide.

The more pressing question, then, might be: Do we have an obligation to share our biases in a controlled forum, to inform our classmates of our possibly-skewed paradigms, or do we jut let them slide into our speech and writing? Some professors have different philosophies.

In my blog entry “Almost Atheist” (2/3/08), I discussed an experience at the beginning of last semester in which my professor in a different religion class required that we introduce ourselves and our religious backgrounds, as it would “define our perception of the material we are going to study,” a philosophy that grants us a much different — though not necessarily a negatively different — classroom environment than the “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy of my current professor. In all honesty, I have great respect for any person who believes that he can, and does, keep his personal religious biases outside the classroom unless relevant and consciously introduced. Personally, I try very hard to leave my biases by the mezuzah when I enter a room, but it’s very hard. Especially being a religious person, who believes that the Torah is the word of God, I find it difficult to accept lessons like the Documentary Hypothesis (J, E, P, D, and sometimes H). While on the one hand it’s hard, on another hand it’s easy: If I believe that God wrote or somehow inherently influenced the writing of the Bible, and I believe that God is all-powerful, there is no reason that I couldn’t believe that God could write in four (or five) different writing styles. Heck, I write in more than four myself: between my To Do lists, my divrei Torah, my formal academic papers, my Instant Messaging to friends, my poetry, my lab reports, my e-mails to colleagues or e-mails to friends and family, and this blog, there are nine different styles in which I write, not to mention that I speak in an entirely different way. And when I talk about the wonderful things my mom does, sometimes I refer to her as “My mom”, or “Mommy”, or “Mom”, or “Susan”, “Susan Eisen,” or even sometimes “Susan Schor” (her maiden name) depending what I’m telling whom. It doesn’t change the fact that I am the author. Furthermore, while some Documentary Hypothesists would say that the intentionality of the four (or five) authors is different, that proof doesn’t stand here. All of my forms of writing also depend on my intentions.

But I have digressed. Getting back to the second question on hand, I still must ask: are our backgrounds relevant to our study? Do we truly have a right to keep our biases private?

Again, difficult. Of course we have a “right” to keep our biases private. That is what the Bill of Rights meant when it allowed people to “plead the fifth” in order not to incriminate themselves. Sure, this is not a legal issue, but in the American world we do have the right to say, or not to say, what we choose. However, we must remember that when someone “pleads the fifth” they do so in order to cover up relevant information on which they do not want to be judged. Our biases are relevant, and, in an ideal world, it would be important for us to share those.

But we don’t live in an ideal world; we live in a world full of judgment and Nose-in-the-Air syndrome. If we could assure concerned academics and students that they would not be bombarded with these, and that the field was a risk-free environment, then perhaps we would be able to freely air our biases in public. Perhaps there are some, the “good ones,” who successfully bury their paradigms and divorce themselves long enough from their own religions – religions of God or of Science or of hostility – to research and speak freely about their subjects. Many are not so talented.

Almost Atheist

Sitting in the first lecture of a course entitled “Catholicism” at Boston University, Professor Donna Freitas requested that we introduce ourselves by saying our name, our school and major (the usual stuff), but then also to include our own religious backgrounds, and how that drove us to take the course. She explained that our “baggage,” which she says, “some of us carry around with a forklift behind us,” defines our perception of the material we are going to study, and thus it was important for us to know about the “baggage” of those with whom we’re about to share our semester. This survey revealed that the student body in our class is composed of, among others:
— some religious Catholics looking to get an academic perspective on their religion
— some students who grew up nominally Catholic but whose families were never practicing
— one or two Muslims
— two Jews, including myself and an Orthodox friend
— some non-believers or non-practitioners.

While “unloading our baggage,” one student’s response particularly interested me. She said, “I grew up Catholic, but we weren’t really practicing, and I haven’t gone to church in a long time. I would say now that I’m probably almost atheist.

Almost Atheist? Does she mean almost a-religious?

My most handy Dashboard computer-dictionary, crafted by Oxford American Dictionaries, defines atheism as “the theory or belief that God does not exist.” The word is derived, by way of French, from the Greek word atheos, “a-” meaning “without,” and “-theos” meaning “God”. By this definition, can one ever be almost atheist?

I am sure this student didn’t mean her response to be so intensely and excruciatingly scrutinized, and I don’t fault her for this semantic error. It merely gave me fodder for pondering, so I used it to springboard an interesting excavation of thought. but there is indeed at least one great philosopher who can readily fall into the category of almost atheist: Primo Levi.

Primo Levi, author of the famous Holocaust survival memoir Survival in Auschwitz, consistently writes about how he wrestles with the existence of God in the aforementioned book. His beginnings were in an emancipated but Jewish family in pre-World War II Italy, in his twenties ending up in the Auschwitz death camp. Levi was a “non-believer, and even less of a believer after the season of Auschwitz” [Primo Levi, “Shame,” in Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology, ed. Lawrence L. Langer (New York: Oxford UP, 1995), p. 115]. But Levi’s atheism is unique and interesting: he tells comrades and others time and again that he is an atheist, but occasionally acknowledges that a god exists in whom others legitimately believe. In this way, a number of times in Survival in Auschwitz and in his other writings, Levi essentially says, “God, YOU don’t exist.” He is uniquely defiant in his atheism, explicitly expressing that his belief is optional, that he chooses to resist God.

The same dashboard dictionary that I used to define the term “atheism” also intriguingly gives it the following synonyms: nonbelief, disbelief, unbelief, irreligion, skepticism, doubt, agnosticism; nihilism. Okay, so perhaps I was mistaken in my approach to the word: not that it is defined differently than I originally thought, but that, if “atheism” is legitimately a synonym for irreligion, then perhaps it can also apply in the context in which my classmate used it. Of course: leave it to me, ever to remain the Literal One.