Normative requirements

David Chidester says he wrote Christianity: A Global History (2000), in “a free, open space for the imaginative and disciplined exploration of religion in all its diversity.” Indeed, he explicitly contrasts what he calls the “normative requirements” of a theologian, which he sets to one side, to those of a “novelist,” which he takes up. In other words, rather than analyze the truth of the Christian religion, he is interested in imaginatively exploring its contours through narrative. He characterizes this as “developing resources for understanding religion in all its global variety and local specificity”. As an academically trained historian, in broad terms, I share his aims. And I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book. Having recently finished Owen Chadwick’s A History of Christianity (Phoenix, 1995), I find Chidester’s account of early Christianity much much better, being at once more comprehensive, more current with respect to the present state of knowledge, as well as more critically astute.

That said, I wish there was some self-reflective account about the status of Chidester’s “normative requirements.” While he tells us that he approaches Christianity as a scholar of comparative religion, somewhat tendentiously describing the terrain of his inquiry as a “free, open space,” he assumes rather than shows why and how such a scholar is capable of “understanding religion” better. Consider the following quote from his book, taken from a section on early Christianity:

Although the gospels reflect the social interests of different historical communities, they nevertheless provide evidence of some of the characteristic ways in which Jesus was remembered.

Quite obviously Chidester’s account also reflects “the social interests” of a particular historical community—namely, academic scholars in the liberal arts. This infuses the way he will tell his story. Understandably, he suggests that an anthropological study will understand religion better because its disciplinary and imaginative orientation is “free” and “open.” Given the anecdote he relays about Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chidester’s choice of contrast implies that theology is not best suited to understanding religion, perhaps because he thinks it is for some reason not similarly “free” and “open.” I have to say that I find this setup for his book rather puzzling.

There are now many scholars whose work—Peter Harrison’s ‘Religion’ and the religions in the English Enlightenment (1990), Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions (2005), Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion (2013), just to name a few from past decades—shows that the “normative requirements” of the anthropological study of religion in the modern academy have a concrete history. At a bare minimum, these studies qualify and contextualize the sense in which the scholarly study of religion is conducted in “a free, open space,” and thus whether or not they “understand religion” better. In fact, Chidester has himself studied just this phenomenon in Empire of Religion: Imperialism and Comparative Religion (2014). Incorporating this self-critical history into a survey of a major global religion such as Christianity is, to my mind at least, imperative, as it provides an essential framework for assessing just how useful the “resources” developed by anthropology truly are.

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