Chapter 7. Taking Seriously Our Interdisciplinary Heritage: The Future of Religious Studies
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179 Chapter 7 TAKING SERIOUSLY OUR INTERDISCIPLINARY HERITAGE The Future of Religious Studies from its beginnings in the s, religious studies has taken its interdisciplinary heritage seriously. As noted in chapters 1 and 2, founding visions for the academic study of religion in the 1960s stressed the need for an interdisciplinary approach. George Grant’s vision stressed that the study of religions was to be interdisciplinary as well as comparative. Thus the 1960s McMaster program included textual, historical, anthropological, sociological, psychological, and philosophical approaches. At McGill, Wilfred Cantwell Smith engaged his Islamic Institute students in historical and textual studies . From the beginning, the Ottawa department included sociological and psychological along with historical and textual analysis. William Nicholls, chair of the UBC department and the first editor of the journal, Studies in Religion, said in his inaugural editorial that “it may be necessary to adopt a wide range of methods in approaching religious phenomena.” He went on to explain that these methods will place less emphasis on scripture and theology and give more attention to the religious experience they reflect through the study of art, music, literature, and politics—all aspects of our varied approaches to the single subject of religion (Nicholls, 1971, p. 2). At Toronto, the academic religious studies program, from its foundation in 1976 up to the present, has drawn strength from the rich interdisciplinary resources in departments such as philosophy, literature, history, psychology, sociology, and Oriental languages. At a Harvard University seminar in the fall of 2004 on “Methodologies in Religious Studies,” Robert Orsi argued that any attempt to understand religion requires the use of history, law, medicine, politics, class, and demography. 180 Chapter 7 “That’s what religious studies does,” said Orsi, “it tracks these relationships as we make sense of the world” (Orsi, 2004, p. 18). Of course Orsi could also have included philosophy, psychology, anthropology, art history, and literature in his list of disciplines that we make use of in our religious studies research and teaching. Religious studies is not a narrowly defined discipline with a single methodology but is more like medieval studies or environmental studies than it is like philosophy or psychology. From the beginning, religious studies has engaged a variety of disciplinary approaches such as literary analysis of scriptural texts, history of religions, comparative religion, philosophy of religions, sociology of religions, and anthropology of religions. This has been our strength in the past, providing ways to reach out to other disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and, increasingly today, in science, as we work together to make sense of our world. In this chapter I will argue that taking its interdisciplinary heritage seriously gives religious studies a strong basis from which to move forward into the future. I believe this to be equally true for us as we work in religious studies departments, in cognate departments , as faculty with joint appointments, or in interdisciplinary research teams in centres such as the McGill Centre for Research on Religion or our Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria. In our UVic Centre, for example, scholars may pursue their own specialized research on the study of religion, but they do so in a context of daily dialogue with others who are also pursuing specialized kinds of enquiry, often based in different disciplines. In this interdisciplinary context, new insights and surprising connections often result from comments and suggestions made by scholars from a variety of disciplines. This results in an enriching and deepening of the quality of one’s own research in ways that do not usually happen if one stays within one’s narrow disciplinary circle. Sometimes new research projects are born, as we saw in the last chapter. As described in Chapter 6, at all times in our Centre, we have eighteen to twenty people on fellowships engaging in individual research. In addition, however, we have three to four large interdisciplinary team research projects on the go that involve another forty to fifty scholars from around the world. Narrowly focused disciplinary work has produced much valuable knowledge, but some problems, such as the environmental crisis or the threat of violence and terrorism, are so complex that a team interdisciplinary approach is required to deal with them adequately. This is as true for the sciences as it is for the humanities and social sciences. At the Centre, humanists and religious studies scholars often end up taking leadership roles in interdisciplinary teams. But before examining this role...


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Subject Headings

  • Religion--Study and teaching (Higher)--Canada--History--20th century.
  • Theology--Study and teaching (Higher)--Canada--History--20th century.
  • Universities and colleges--Curricula--Canada--History--20th century.
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