Separation of church and state is a tenet of American democracy, but separating faith from academia can be murky in the field of religious studies, especially where it intersects with theology.
Hector Avalos, professor of philosophy and religious studies, defined the discipline.
“Religious studies centers on the study of the role of religion in culture,” Avalos said. “It is a descriptive, not a prescriptive enterprise. In other words, a scholar of religious studies attempts to describe different religious beliefs that exist in our world, and not prescribe what religious beliefs people should follow.”
Theology is a point of contention both in how it relates to religious studies, and whether it has a place as an academic pursuit in a public university at all.
“Theology, in its more literal sense, is discourse about God or the study of God,” Avalos said. “It presupposes that there is a god and that human beings can discover the nature and actions of God in the world,” Avalos said.
Anne Clifford, associate professor of philosophy and religious studies, explains in her pending book, “Creation Theology and the Natural Sciences,” why there is apprehension about the academic intermingling of theology and religious studies. The book is set for release in early 2015.
“Among religious studies scholars, some hold it appropriate to set the discipline of theology apart from religious studies, because they associate theology with defense of traditions about God, especially by Christians,” Clifford writes.
Proponents of keeping the two disciplines separate believe religious studies is a discipline that should study religion from an outsider’s perspective, Clifford said.
“They envision theology as being done by insiders, who are practitioners of a particular religion … who have a ‘confessional commitment’ to the religious convictions of the church to which they are affiliated,” Clifford writes in her book.
Avalos said he believes the separation of religious studies and theology needs to be taken a step further.
“Personally, I don’t think that theology is a legitimate academic enterprise because there are no objective methods to verify any claims about the entity called ‘God,’” Avalos said. “It has no place in a public university due to constitutional issues regarding the separation of religion and state.”
Brian Eslinger, lecturer in the department of philosophy and religious studies, cited a personal experience in a theology class taken at Creighton University, a Catholic Jesuit school.
“That particular teacher taught that a certain answer to religious questions was right and others were wrong. Not all schools that teach theology take this exclusivist approach,” Eslinger said. “Such an approach violates the promise of freedom of conscience of the First Amendment ... and is a support for a particular religious view point over others.”
The opinions of Eslinger and Avalos, however, are not shared by everyone.
“[Some] scholars argue that since most religions are oriented to community-forming experiences of a transcendent reality, deity theology is integral to the study of religion,” Clifford writes.
Avalos acknowledged the relationship between theology and religious studies, adding a caveat.
“I do think that religious studies can study the theology of different religions, but it does not center on establishing any theology to be true or normative,” Avalos said.
Eslinger echoed this sentiment as well.
“In my classes, my goal is to try to understand the worldview and beliefs from the perspective of the believers, not to judge them as right or wrong,” Eslinger said. “This study demands a level of academic distance so that we can seek to understand each tradition.”