The Outrageous Idea—on the role of religiously-affiliated scholarship

Catherine Bell

The 2000 GTU Convocation Address

Dr. Catherine Bell is chair of the Religious Studies Department, director of the Asian Studies Program, and holds the Bernard J. Hanley Chair at Santa Clara University, where she has taught since 1985. In addition to numerous articles and book chapters on methodology in the study of religion and Chinese popular religion, Dr. Bell is the author of Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice and Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. Currently Dr. Bell is working on two manuscripts, once addressing "belief" and another that completes her work on Chinese morality books.

The following are excerpts from her September 22, 2000 convocation address.

It is an honor and a delight to be here. As a connoisseur of ritual practices, I am particularly intrigued to be able to participate in such an impressive academic ceremony. I have long been convinced that these occasions-when we dress up so bizarrely to walk and talk in an elaborately-stylized manner-are at least as exotic as anything to be found in a 19th century ethnography. We natives are turned out, and have turned out, for a tribal rite of the sort that keeps the theorists busy. . . .

There is another type of outrageousness I want to mention today. The title that I have given to these comments is meant to echo the 1997 book by George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. In Marsden's characterization, the "outrageous idea" as he puts it, is the prospect of including religious perspectives in the secular disciplines of the university with the same ease and naturalness with which we are now apt to include feminist, class-based and ethnically or culturally diverse views. He sees the university today as fundamentally, and hypocritically, wary of such confessional perspectives. And he finds, to his distress, that many religiously-committed people feel quite comfortable in institutions that leave no public place for what should be their deepest convictions.

There are, I believe, many problems besetting Marsden's arguments-both those directed to secular universities and those directed to religious scholars. But he is undoubtedly correct in identifying some of the contradictions underlying the secularism of our schools and universities. And he deserves to be read-and argued with-for exploring a complicated question and trying to be practical and even-handed. There are other voices, a bit less practical and much more visionary, who are also calling for a new Christian presence, proposing, specifically, a "radical orthodoxy" with which to reinvigorate modern godless sensibilities and repossess whole continents of experience given over to the hegemonic dictates of so-called secularism. This is the type of argument proposed in the work of John Milbank, whose movement of post-modern theology has been stirring so much interest lately.

Yet in both forms-Marsden's pragmatic attempt and Milbank's more visionary radicalism-such calls for Christian presence share the same weakness. And it is a very big weakness. Neither one effectively addresses the reality of religious diversity. At best, the presence of other religious orientations is a secondary problem to solve a bit down the road, for which some tepid provisions are suggested in the meantime. For these scholars, religious diversity is not an opportunity, it is not the real world in which they live, or the very fabric of modern sensibilities. I often think that they should all come and spend some time in California. Perhaps the Graduate Theological Union might consider a guest position for theologians from any tradition in need of exposure to the world-and the future.

Marsden, and others concerned with the place of religion in education, draw upon an old theme in Christian theology, one that has become increasingly emphatic in the 20th century. They believe that it is the role of theology to provide an overarching and undergirding basis for coherence in universities where knowledge is increasingly fragmented. This theme has developed beyond Christianity per se, where it is held that religiosity itself-any religion, but religion alone-will center us and knit together our otherwise random and perplexing experiences of the world.

Well, these arguments lead me to suggest another, even more "outrageous" idea: is the religious life really the source of unity and coherence? I have become increasingly suspicious of the assumption that religion can and will provide a coherent and meaningful framework, that it alone is responsible for a centered peace of mind and a confident single-minded conviction. As an ideal, it certainly can sound like a desirable one. But we are scholars and notice that the reality around us seems to be altogether different. Who has this coherence? Who is not fragmented? I have observed many forms of religiosity and cannot doubt the depth and sincerity involved, but nowhere have I found people at peace within a unified and totalizing coherence. The only people who seem to have achieved anything like this come across as more ideological than spiritual, more focused than holistic, more narrow than coherent. On the contrary, it often seems that to be religious has always been to invite more, not less, fragmentation and apparent contradiction.

I suspect that coherence and unity is not only an impossibility, it is something of a mirage shimmering with nostalgia just at the edge of our vision-a mirage that may keep us from seeing what is at hand; a mirage that may make us discredit what is most spiritual ambitious about our lives today; and above all, a mirage that sees no value and validity in the realities of religious diversity around us.

The questions attending religious diversity, once you get beyond the niceties, are so deep and perplexing that any clear answer may be welcomed. A confident answer may be very encouraging. An answer of aesthetically simple symmetry may seem inspired. But these features do not mean that they are good answers or that they "answer" the right questions at all.

What you are doing here at the Graduate Theological Union is another approach. Here diversity is not an accommodation, but the heart of an institutional structure. You know more than I do about the ways in which this community is unique and the reasons it came about, but I have been repeatedly struck by the simple fact that "you are doing it." You embody Marsden's outrageous idea. You live it without the rationalizing comfort, and pressure, of an architectonic ideology. You live together; you help each other theologize, teach, and thrive; and you allow to develop naturally, with its own halting genius, the fruits of this cooperation and camaraderie, this way of living and being. Diversity and community-you let these forces orchestrate their own goals. It is not perfect, could never be complete, and probably is not nearly as realized as some of you think it can be. There must be tensions and cross-purposes. Yet instead of polemics and revolutionary visions, you are providing a real world beacon, you are doing it.

Perched on this hill-this seismically unstable and rather flammable hill-you overlook one of the great universities of the world and, a bit further on, one of the great engines of the global economy and technological future. You may feel at times like a dowager aunt living on a fixed income in a back bedroom. This hill does not provide much protection from those two Goliaths nor a means to get their attention and line up your best shots. What you do here can seem to be pretty much your own affair. You might forget how important it is: that you are recognizing and following-in your own way of course-what can be the only route really available in this world for how communities with different religious traditions can also be a larger community and a learning community. You are outrageous.