BYU’s Church History and Doctrine department in the Religious Education school has recently posted a job that may go to someone in “World Religions.” This is an important search and I am eager to see the outcome. Whoever is offered this position is in an important position to shape a coming generation’s approach to the study of non-Mormon religions. BYU is to be commended on this tradition of teaching “world religions,” however small a part of the curriculum. The history of this position has been shaped by the development of courses on “world religions” in previous decades across the academy, and the way that this interest manifested itself even within the Church as the 1978 “God’s Love For All Mankind” statement demonstrated. As those “world religions” courses in colleges, universities, and seminaries have come under greater scrutiny and have been abandoned or modified in many religion and theology programs, it will be interesting to see how BYU’s future hire engages with (updates?) the curriculum.
The position is framed as a “world religions” job, but the teaching duties include heavy responsibilities for D&C courses as well. One problem that the search committee may face is finding someone who is qualified for the position, not only for teaching modern Mormon history, but also the broad scope of billions of people’s religious history and practice. Certainly all people must teach somewhat outside of their discipline, but for a position as broad as “world religions” one faces special problems. Graduate schools in religious studies may require their students to gain basic facility in a religious tradition outside of their primary area of research, though not all have such a requirement. There are some programs that are explicitly based on a “comparative” methodology, but even in these circumstances, students are generally limited to two traditions to compare, and often that comparison is done within certain historical or geographical boundaries. As opposed to 30 years ago, graduate students in religious studies programs today are more likely to be specialists in a particular religious tradition, within a particular time period, than experts on the whole “religion,” let alone the number of different religious traditions generally covered in “world religions classes.”
The move toward specialization in a single, limited subfield in graduate training in religious studies is not simply the result of hyper specialization of academia, but rather a methodological rejection of previous generations of scholarship. This happened for a few different reasons. First, much of the earlier, comparative work on “world religions” turned out to be deeply problematic scholarship, often misrepresenting the objects of study in fact and approach. These approaches tended to hypostatize, systematize, and dehistoricize “religion” in its various manifestations. Today, for example, whether there is even such a thing as “Hinduism” before the colonial period is a serious scholarly debate. Second, these approaches often were invested in particular Christian theological categories, most frequently ranking religious values according to how much ritual or theological thought they had, preconceived notions about “gods,” and often categorized traditions and more or less “primitive” religion. Third, this approach to “world religions” tended to assume at the outset that “religion” was a universal human category, and that we all knew what was supposed to be in it. The problem arose when the category of religion in native cultures either didn’t exist, or differed dramatically from our own. For instance, the conflict (and distinction) between science and religion has a particular history in the West that is often absent in other cultures, making the very distinction itself non-existent in some cultures.
The field of Religious Studies, and the rise of religion departments and “world religions” classes can be traced to the late 1960’s. Throughout the next few decades, colleges began to add a single faculty member in Religion who was expected to be the expert in all religious and teach broad survey courses. Schools with a history of institutional religious affiliation slowly transformed their theology programs into religious studies programs, or at least added a token position or two. As the faculty in these departments grew, faculty were able to specialize more. Even at schools with large theology faculty, they often saw the need to have more experts in comparative religion, especially at progressive Catholic schools. By the 1990’s, religious studies faculty and departments had become a standard program in secular and religious schools. It was also at this time that serious intellectual critiques were offered of the field that exposed its theological and normative biases from the first generation of American scholars (W.C. Smith, Eliade, Ninian Smart, Huston Smith, etc), and the field has been transforming since. These scholars were influenced by theories of religion that have been critiqued as ecumenical theology. “World religions” classes have been dropping like flies over the last 10 years, and hires in these positions are usually one found at very small colleges, never at a place the size of BYU.
BYU’s history with its “World Religions” classes likely parallels this national history, with the class emerging probably sometime in the 80’s. I don’t know the details of the origins of the “World Religions” classes, and I don’t know the details of how they have been taught in recent years. (I would love to learn the story if anyone knows it!). However, without any recent hires in these positions (I understand that those who currently hold the few positions designated for this specialty have been in the job for many decades), BYU has unfortunately not kept up with the historical development, and instead represents a rather anachronistic approach to both the importance of the study of non-Mormon religion, as well as the acceptable methodology for doing so. Of course, BYU’s primary interests in its RE programs are theological and apologetic, not grounded in the academic interests represented by the study of religion. But this dichotomy can hold it back if the theological and apologetic interests are guarded from being informed by changes in the field more generally, because those original interests were as shaped by the historical period in which they first appeared in LDS intellectual circles. For instance, more updated approaches like comparative theology, done by someone like Francis Clooney, can perhaps provide a model for a normative approach in the particular interests of Mormonism, while at the same time avoiding the sorts of stereotypes, simplifications, and distortions present in earlier approaches to “World Religions.”
How can BYU’s “world religions” curriculum respond to these changing assumptions? How should the theological interests of such courses respond to the more secular interests of the discipline of Religious Studies? The next hire for this position at BYU will have the opportunity to shape this future discourse by updating the curriculum, and seriously asking the question of not only is it responsible to teach a class on “world religion,” but also how might Latter-day Saints constructively engage with non-Mormon religions. This task is a significant one, and not one that can be met by a single individual, especially one informed by the contemporary critique of “world religions” type classes. I wish that person the best in their important task.