In 2010, I attended a session on the state of the field of “religion and literature” at the British Association of Victorian Studies conference. I was slightly in awe meeting some of the incredible scholars I’d been reading the past few years. As I listened intently to their discussions, I realised there was some tension in the room. The tension seemed to sit around definitions – what constituted religion and literature, and in turn, what constituted theology and literature. Some argued passionately that this was a distinction without difference while others were strongly opposed to being labeled as scholars of theology. Religion was much safer, it was conceded, while theology left you open either to accusations of proselytism or required you to justify your own personal theology. Many thought this was very unscholarly indeed. It was obvious to me that I was one of the only people in the room working in a Divinity School, even more so when the question of departmental affiliation came up and I was the only one not in a school of humanities.
This session, unlike so many conference sessions, has stayed with me, and I feel I should have a cogent answer with regard to the question: What is the difference between literature and religion and literature and theology? In this two-part post, I’ll start by seeking to define how I see this difference. In my next post, I will focus specifically on how to understand the ‘and’ of the field.
What is literature and religion?
Generally speaking, I have found that scholarly works within the field of literature and religion broadly fall within three categories:
- Historical study
- Related to theology but not theology
- Seeks expression of religion in the literary work and requires an answer from the reader
Mostly, studies that can be labeled as those of “literature and religion” seem concerned with methodology and historical relevance that speaks to a broad audience. While the impetus is usually not disinterested, there is often an underlying need to conceal spiritual connections with historical justification. There is also the sacramental principle: that there is a unique illumination through the savagery of humanity being giving over to supernatural belief in God because we are no longer capable of that belief. Some, including Heidegger, have argued that we can relocate this need to literature (and often do).
Works in the second and third categories are far less common. How a work explores a literary text’s relationship to theology but in a way that is not theological is admittedly somewhat nebulous. But, the distinction is worth teasing out. In some contemporary contexts, a distinction is made between theology, which involves some level of commitment to the truth of the religious tradition being studied, while religious studies does not. If contrasted with theology in this way, religious studies is normally seen as requiring the bracketing of the question of the truth of the religious tradition studied. It involves the study of the practices or ideas of those traditions using intellectual tools and frameworks that are not themselves specifically tied to any religious tradition and are normally understood to be neutral or secular.
What is theology and literature?
Theology and literature explores the form literature gives to longing, to finality. Literary study is not just about human experience but also the end, illuminating a transcendental view. The reality is that the world we experience is not about us: rather it is about that which we give the name of God. Theology and literature is not a mere cross street where theology happens to settle upon a text. Rather it is a philosophic and socio-culturally aware methodology that does not settle for mere description but rather seeks the transcendent implications of and within literary texts for theological texts and actions.
David Jasper argues that criticism falling within the sub-discipline of theology and literature is about “rediscover[ing] the religious vitality inherent in [an author’s] genius” within the contextual ontological questions raised by modern movements of critical thought (Jasper 5). This is a loquacious way of stating that theology often asks ‘intent’ questions the way religion may not.
It is also not just about abstract definitions or descriptions of religious practice (although it can and has incorporated those). There is a specific relating of ‘the study of God’ to the text either as something inherent or as a ramification of the experience of the reader. This ‘study of God’ may be personal but it may also relate to the discipline of theology in charting schools of doctrinal thought.
I have of course skimmed the surface of things. But I would welcome any thoughts you may have in the hopes of seeking clarity on this matter of definition.
 For example, Donald Wiebe, The Politics of Religious Studies: The Continuing Conflict with Theology in the Academy (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2000))