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  • Reflections on the Benefits and Risks of Interdisciplinary Study in Theology, Philosophy, and Literature
  • Jennifer G. Jesse (bio)

I. Introduction

In recent years, multidisciplinary study has become all the rage in academic circles. Scholars have been going all out for interdisciplinarity, not only in research programs, but pedagogically in the classroom, and structurally in higher education curricula. Fewer and fewer cautionary voices are being heeded or even heard in this conversation. In this essay, I advocate a mediating position on this issue that has emerged from reflecting on my own professional work with interdisciplinary scholarship. That work includes research, scholarship, and teaching in the fields of theology, religion and science, and religion and literature, as well as ten years of editorial experience with the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, which features interdisciplinary papers.1

Most manuscripts submitted to this journal during my tenure as editor had a cross-disciplinary angle. Many of these were very high quality. But in other cases, it was not uncommon to find that the authors' interdisciplinary reach exceeded their grasp in some way crucial for their arguments. The field of religion and literature is dominated by literary critics, most of whom have no formal education in religious studies. It is not difficult to find instances where the religious components of literary works are analyzed by scholars whose lack of proficiency in the requisite religious issues is apparent. And the religion and science landscape is inhabited by a host of theologians (both liberal and conservative) who are insufficiently trained in the scientific theories and methods they are trying to engage, and by a multitude of scientists who demonstrate little to no comprehension of the religious theories and methods they invoke in their work. The proliferation of such publications can be maddening. Discerning readers are often left bewildered [End Page 62] by portrayals of their own disciplinary interests from "the other side" that show little (if any) resemblance to what they know of those subjects. Very few interdisciplinary works are coauthored by experts in each of the relevant fields. And though most publications are peer-reviewed, those reviewers usually share the author's disciplinary perspective and not that of the secondary field.

My work in these areas as a scholar, author, teacher, and editor has prompted me to think much more deeply about what constitutes genuine interdisciplinary practice. The more I read, in a variety of multidisciplinary fields, the more I realize how prevalent the problems are and how unaware some scholars in those fields still are about the depth of those difficulties. Given the inherently multidisciplinary nature of theology, religious studies, and philosophy, and the increasing pressure to implement cross-disciplinary programs in higher education, we need to think carefully together about the complexities of this situation and how we might chart the path ahead in a responsible way.

For the last three or four decades, American academia has moved increasingly in cross-disciplinary directions. That trend grows exponentially today, especially with budgetary crises compelling all of our institutions to do more with less. More and more colleges and universities are moving, at least in part, to interdisciplinary structures for their curricula and research programs.2 While some scholars have been vocal in resisting this trend for a variety of reasons,3 most heartily endorse it. Some insist it should be done in ways that carefully preserve the clarity of the disciplines. Others see the current departmental structure of institutions and the disciplinary nature of curricula as completely obsolete. For example, according to Mark C. Taylor, "the division of labor model of separate departments must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural." Permanent departments should be abolished in favor of "problem-focused programs."4 We have also heard a lot in the [End Page 63] last ten years about the difficulties of adequately staffing ministry programs in seminaries and divinity schools because PhD graduates from biblical, church history, and theological programs do not know how to relate their specialties to the lived experience of faith communities. Further, interdisciplinary trajectories are being encouraged by the National Endowment for the...


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