Perspective distorted by cloistered views

A Century of Theological and Religious Studies in Britain, 1902-2002

January 14, 2005

This volume was commissioned by the theology and religious studies section of the British Academy as one of a series to mark the BA's centenary in 2002. This provenance is of great significance in shaping its perspectives, a fact that poses awkward questions for the editor and for those who might want to use it.

Does it describe the geographical diversity of the subject in "Britain" during the 20th century or its chronological development? Is it a single subject or an awkward congeries of quarrelsome bed partners? Should it focus on published work or on the broad themes and discourses that characterise its disciplines? What is the point of view from which the field is surveyed (for it makes a difference whether one places oneself in Dublin or Edinburgh, Lancaster or Oxford, Manchester or Cambridge)? And finally, who is carrying out the survey?

Inevitably, the contributors are members of the BA - not in itself a handicap, but a qualification that does not in principle (nor, as it turns out, in practice) succeed in representing an overview of what has constituted "theological and religious studies in Britain" during the latter part of the 20th century. The use of "Britain" is rather tendentious, given that it explicitly excludes Ireland - an implication ironically belied by the editor's own origins. As it turns out, the other minor partners in Enterprise Britain are largely ignored as well, which might make the people of Ireland feel better, but does little to encourage confidence in the reliability of this survey.

No doubt Ernest Nicholson had a difficult task in overseeing such an impossible brief, though allowing 84 pages for the New Testament (no other essay is longer than ) was surely ill judged - the more so since nothing is said about the study of Islam, modern Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism in Britain.

Part of the problem is the undeniable Oxbridge perspective of most of the essayists. Patrick Collinson makes a revealing remark when he says apropos the inaccessibility of scholarship in 1952: "But Hull, where (A.G.) Dickens was working, was a faraway university of which we knew little." The general lack of awareness in this volume of what goes on in institutions outside Oxford, Cambridge, London and Durham suggests that Hull is still "a faraway university", and the resulting bias directs most discussion towards Christian theology and religious studies to the near-exclusion of other voices.

This is not to imply anything about the national or religious affiliation of the scholars involved; but it is telling that the one piece on any non-Christian religion, by Martin Goodman, is devoted to that academic construct, "early Judaism", that figures largely in New Testament and Patristic studies but has relatively little to contribute to the living religion of the Jews today.

Incidentally, it may be indicative of this oddly distorted view of religious studies that the Holocaust, which so profoundly affected the Jews as a people and changed radically the whole range of ethical, philosophical, historical and theological discourse, can be subsumed by at least one writer (Maurice Wiles) in the remark: "By 1950, the halfway point of the century, with the major disruption of the Second World War over, there was the opportunity for the resumption of wider international contacts and greater concentration on the work of scholarship." While this is not true of all the contributors (Jane Shaw is an exception), it is significant how few of the subject areas covered deal with the post-Holocaust context.

Overall, the editorial touch is light and the questions with which this review began seem to have been disposed of more by chance than direction.

There is nothing here that I recognise as religious studies, at least not in the way that it has developed since the groundbreaking work at Lancaster University under Ninian Smart four decades ago. Keith Ward's chapter on "The study of religions" is one of the better pieces - as is Nicholson's introductory survey - but what it offers is an introduction to theories of religion rather than an account of how religions are studied in Britain today.

The more readable and informative essays fall towards the end of the volume, with earlier contributions being more in the category of annotated bibliography. One unresolved question is: for whom is this book intended? The chapters provided by some contributors might be accessible to interested lay readers. Those by Ward, Stewart Sutherland and Rowan Williams deserve mention; the last comes closest to meeting the implied requirements of the title of the book and is a fine contribution. Others, such as those by David Luscombe, Collinson and Shaw, address a predominantly Anglican audience.

The near-total absence of the churches in Ireland, Wales and Scotland follows from the geographical bias already noted, and is perhaps understandable. Nevertheless, the fraught relationship between church and politics in Ireland, and the wholly different character of the Scottish Reformation settlement, might have been noted as subjects of study in British universities in the 20th century.

But perhaps the real audience is much narrower: the membership of the BA itself. Collinson makes this explicit at several points, not least when he laments the paucity of monographs "authored by fellows or corresponding fellows of the British Academy". This hidden perspective (hidden because those who see themselves at the centre of things rarely notice that centres are themselves, as Galileo taught us, conventions) might explain the "annotated bibliography" tendency. It is found in many of the contributions, but is overwhelmingly present in those on the Old Testament (James Barr) and the New Testament (William Horbury), rendering them almost unreadable to anyone outside the field. Those familiar with the extensive work on feminist biblical criticism, on the one hand, and literary theory, on the other, will seek them largely in vain in these two essays, though once again Williams, and to some extent Shaw, redress the balance in their respective fields.

Dare one describe this book as a curate's egg, in homage to its Anglican sensibilities? Perhaps not, though it is genuinely good in parts. I suggest, however, that it might be better described as "A Century of Christian Theological and Religious Studies in (mostly) England". Not so snappy, perhaps, but more accurate.

Alastair Hunter is senior lecturer in Hebrew and Old Testament studies, Glasgow University.

A Century of Theological and Religious Studies in Britain, 1902-2002

Editor - Ernest Nicholson
Publisher - Oxford University Press for the British Academy
Pages - 306
Price - £40.00
ISBN - 0 19 726305 4

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