Some Challenges of Religious Studies, with Thomas Tweed

Author: Rebecca Corrente

Dr. Thomas Tweed was recently interviewed by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University.  The discussion centered on values and the study of religion, as well as the challenges that face today's religious scholars.  Read the transcript of the conversation here, or listen to the audio interview with Blair Hodges.  

Some Challenges of Religious Studies, with Thomas Tweed

BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. People are usually more comfortable talking about their strengths rather than their weaknesses. It’s human nature. The same can be said about religious studies. When scholars talk about it, you can expect them to emphasize the positive, to talk about what they love about it.

But like many academic fields, religious studies faces some challenges. Some of these challenges come from the outside, like when schools and governments and religious traditions want to know why religious studies ought to be pursued at all. But other challenges come from within—when different scholars disagree with each other about what the field should even be.

In this episode, a former president of the American Academy of Religion joins us to talk about the challenges of religious studies. His name is Thomas Tweed. He’s currently a professor at the University of Notre Dame. Some of you might recognize his name from the Maxwell Institute’s Mormon Studies Review where he’s previously published.

Thomas Tweed’s spent a lot of time thinking about external and internal challenges to religious studies. His proposed solution to these challenges might sound surprising. He says religious studies scholars should think and talk more to each other about values. He explains, in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Please send your questions and comments to and thanks for listening.

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We’re joined today by Thomas Tweed. He was the president of the American Academy of Religion in 2015 and he’s currently the Welch Professor of American Studies and a professor of history at Notre Dame. We’re talking about his 2015 AAR presidential address where he talked about the value of religious studies in the academy, and discussions about the proper way to do religious studies in the academy.

Tom, thanks for taking the time to join the Maxwell Institute Podcast.

THOMAS TWEED: Sure. Glad to be here.


HODGES: I want to begin by talking about some of the challenges that face the academic study of religion right now. I have a masters degree in religious studies from Georgetown and it’s been three years since I was in school. And so I encountered some of these as I did my studies. Let’s talk a little bit about some of the difficulties people face with the academic study of religion.

TWEED: Sure. I think there’s probably a long list for me and for others—not to focus only on the bad things, because there’s some good news too. But I think the study of religion is devalued or ignored in public life. There are declining undergraduate majors in some places—though it’s actually growing in other places, interestingly. PhD graduates don’t really find meaningful work or humane working conditions. So sometimes people are stringing together teaching one course at multiple institutions. Doctoral granting institutions sometimes—who are wonderful in other ways—don’t actually always list their placement rates or adjust their training to fit the job market. Departments are being cut or pressured to defend themselves in terms of higher education funding and really narrow notions of what “useful” means. I think there are debates among folks in the study of religion, and there’s kind of public contests of all sorts. I’m worried about all those things and a few more.

HODGES: When you talk about placement rates, this is something that people who aren’t in the academy might not be familiar with. This is the idea that when an institution grants degrees to a number of students, how many of those people go on to get jobs in that field.

TWEED: Right. And it’s an issue across the humanities. If you look at statistics since 2008—and I’m not the numbers guys on all of this although I’ve seen some of these numbers—but it’s true in history and English and religion and American studies and in lots of fields, that the number of jobs have gone down and so the proportion of people getting meaningful employment from PhD’s in graduate programs and humanities fields has gone down a little bit.

HODGES: And you said there’s a declining number of people who are majoring in it in some places but increasing in other places. Do you have any more specifics about that and what might be causing that?

TWEED: I’m not entirely sure about causes. I think sometimes in a couple of places in the south—in Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, there are some programs that have actually either maintained or grown. And you could argue that that’s just because that’s part of the Bible Belt and of course they’re interested in religion. But I think it’s also, in some places there’s been ingenuity, good ways of reaching out to constituency. You don’t have to make the case for the study of religion in quite the same way in some parts of the country that you do in others.

So for example, in the Pacific Northwest, in Washington, Oregon, and places where survey data shows us that fewer people are churchgoers and so on it’s a little bit harder to make that case, though there’s certainly some presence of a study of religion in the Pacific Northwest too.


HODGES: So these are some of the challenges that come from the university or from different state legislatures or from outside the actual field itself. There are also some challenges from within that you talked about in your presidential address. What are some challenges facing the academic study of religion that happen inside the academic study of religion?

TWEED: Yeah. I think there’s both. Besides the outside challenges—which in public universities includes legislatures that want to do away with the study of religion, public agencies that don’t take it seriously—among those who already study that, and the AAR is one organization, the American Academy of Religion, which is along with the society for Biblical studies of things, the SBL, bring about 10,000 people to an annual meeting every year, which is maybe hard to imagine for other people. But there’s somewhere a little bit less than 9,000 members of the American Academy of Religion. So it’s quite large, about 15% maybe are from other parts of the world or outside of the United States.

And there’s all kinds of challenges in the AAR and they actually reflect the challenges in America at large, I would say. There’s kinds of divisions and debates about lots of things. The same kinds of divisions at universities where you find differences between humanities and arts people and social science and natural science people.

So, should the study of religion be more like biology or more like literature? Should scholarship be just something you do for its own sake? Or should we actually try to make the world better? So a difference between what people would call “activist scholarship” and scholarship just because it’s a good thing to know.

There are divisions between people who would identify as scholars of religious studies who would see their work almost entirely in conversation with colleagues in other disciplines across the universities, so they want colleagues in history or philosophy or sociology to take seriously what they’re doing and are less interested in the implications for their work for religious communities themselves.

And then there’s others, those who would identify themselves as theologians who are working from and for religious communities. That could be Christian. It could be Jews, it could be Buddhists, it could be Muslims. Although they would all not accept the label “theology.” But people who are working from and for communities of faith. And that’s one of the divisions that fragments conversations and really shuts down talk.

HODGES: Does that happen between the AAR and the SBL as well? Are some of the discussions that go on between those two groups are rooted in some of these same divisions?

TWEED: To some extent, although some scholars of the Society of Biblical Literature would argue that they’re more rigorous, more like scholars in other disciplines and in classics, in history, in literature, than some of the AAR. But I think some of the arguments, some of the assumptions—I think incorrect from AAR or some AAR members—is that the SBL members, Biblical literature people, are all on the theology side. Some clearly are. Some Biblical scholars work in seminaries and would clearly align themselves with the faith tradition. But others are not that way. So there is a little bit of that divide. But mostly it’s also within the American Academy of Religion.


HODGES: In terms of studying religion in general, the value of studying religion in general, some current scholars of religion feel a bit embattled. There’s the sense that they need to justify the pursuit in general, especially when they’re looking at things like the economy. United States education focuses on STEM things, on math and technology and these types of issues. And people say studying religion in higher education would be seen as a waste of time.

So what kind of reasons do people generally give—you talked about this in your presidential address—what kind of reasons do people generally give to justify the study of religion? And then you offer some suggestions about how to tighten those up a little bit.

TWEED: Yeah. I think there’s been three main kinds of arguments that folks have made when talking to state legislatures, when talking to boards of private universities, to donors, whenever the study of religion is battled in some way. There’s three kinds of arguments that people bring. And sometimes they combine them first. That the study of religion advances knowledge. We know more stuff. Secondly, it enriches individuals. And third, it improves society.

So those are the three main kinds and they have lots of variations on how they work. Part of my point is that we probably need to refine those three in a couple of ways to be a little bit more effective. And that would mean talking about values, considering the local context, and recognizing that there’s lots of different goods that people might value.

HODGES: As you’ve laid these additional benefits out, it seems like one of the big concerns for the academic study of religion just comes down to funding, it sounds like, if it’s convincing legislatures and academic bodies and donors. Does funding play a big part in why scholars have to defend the study of religion?

TWEED: Yeah. I think scholars feel that they have to defend it for at least a couple of reasons. Some of them are to students. Religion departments and those who study religion in other departments have to explain why those students should not be in business or engineering or pre-med or something else, and why it’s worth doing in some way.

And then the other side of it, they have to defend to deans and presidents and provosts and donors why the source of revenue at the resources new faculty lines support of all sorts should actually go to those studying religion. So it’s both of those things I think.

HODGES: And when they talk about increasing knowledge for its own sake as one of the justifications, I mean, I guess you could say that about pretty much anything, though. So what would distinguish the study of religion from anything else in terms of increasing knowledge?

TWEED: Most of those kinds of arguments don’t want to appeal to any kind of practical or pragmatic or “useful” language. So they just want to say “it’s good to know.” But I think the objection that somebody can raise about this approach is the one that you raised which is “well, I want to know about astronomy too.” And “I want to know how water faucets work.” Why is anything more interesting than anything else?

And I think that’s a good argument. And that’s why in some ways, that’s the least effective of these three kinds of arguments. The only people who will find that useful are basically when you’re preaching to the converted, if they already think it’s interesting. That’s why most of those kinds of arguments have to shift to one of the other two to give it a little bit more power. Namely that it’s good for individuals or good for society.

HODGES: Then you get into some of these more concrete reasons. When you talk about it being good for society for example, this seems to sort of step on that line, that argument between “should scholars of religion be more activist minded or should they be more withdrawn and sort of just descriptive more than prescriptive” or that sort of thing. So how does that shake out? That kind of discussion about improving society as a justification. But some people just want to do just scholarship without thinking about how it impacts society.

TWEED: Yeah. And for those folks who are not really activists, who are not going to be on the front lines in any protests or doing volunteer in the community, some of them would say “you don’t have to do that of course.” Because the very act of engaging in scholarly study of religion when done well will already prepare individuals to do the right kinds of things in the society.

So for example, violence is a part of our world. Some of the arguments are is that emphatic understanding of other worlds, understanding what it means to be Muslim and Buddhist and Jewish and Hindu and Christian and atheist can help make people more tolerant, can lead to less violence, and more inclined to step in. And whether it’s intended or not, one kind of concomitant or unintended consequence—sometimes it’s intended because it just prepares people to be better global citizens. And that’s a second kind of version of that argument which is just democracy and needs it. Democratic citizenship requires that folks have a certain understanding of the range of people in the civil society. And it prepares you to engage, whether it’s at anything from the PTA to the electoral college, from your local city hall to national senate elections—understanding about religious diversity at home and around the world makes you just a better citizen.

HODGES: What about when it comes to religious people themselves? So for instance, some religious communities are uncomfortable with religious studies because of assumptions about religious studies as being like a fully secular pursuit that’s somehow diminishing of religious faith or that is critical of religious faith. Is that a fair picture that some religious bodies have that religious studies is just a secular enterprise that’s sort of out to almost debunk or explain religion?

TWEED: The folks who engage in the study of religion are like the rest of the American population and have a wide range of personal standpoints on this, from the deeply devout to the village atheist. So I think there’s all sorts of people doing it. But as it’s done well, meaning carefully, respectfully, responsibly, I would say the goal is not really to make people more or less religious.

And when I taught at public institutions, I would often say that. My job is to make you more authentically you. I’m not trying to convert you one way or the other or change your mind about that. I want you to be more informed about it. And we’re going to take the tools in arts and sciences from anthropology and history and literature and philosophy, and we’re going to apply them to study religion. And in the process you might end up being more devout or less devout or anything else.

So I don’t think it in principle corrodes faith. Though for those who’ve never thought seriously about their faith, any kind of systematic reflection of course can be occasionally disorienting. But if you haven’t thought much about your faith, then maybe you should.


HODGES: That’s Tom Tweed, we’re talking to him today about studying religion in the academy, what it’s like, what are some of the debates about the study of religion are. And we’re also going to talk a little bit about values discussions as a way to approach disagreements about how to study religion.

The American Academy of Religion sort of considers itself to be sort of a big tent organization. Some characterize it as welcoming of all of sorts of different approaches to how to study religion. And in your presidential address, you say that “some of us stand clustered with the like-minded off to one corner where we whisper, and sometimes intemperately announce our objections to the way that other people are doing their work.”

So in order to approach these different clusters of people, as the president of AAR, it seems like you wanted to get people talking to each other more openly about some of these disagreements. Is that accurate?

TWEED: I did. Yeah. To some extent, what I really wanted to do is just talk about my research. But unfortunately I decided that presidential address and what you should do as president—which I was in 2015—you should actually ask what does your organization need. I would have been happy to go talk about religion in United States or something else in my current research. But I thought what was needed was a little bit more conversation.

To some extent, my goals were really quite minimal. Could we please talk to each other? And that’s really all I wanted to do, and some people would think that’s a pretty low bar and maybe it is, but I’m not sure it was. So the task I set for myself was to figure out okay, people have approached this in different ways. Is there some way that we might do it more effectively? And we might respect everybody in the conversation and allow them to be distinctively themselves. And then what I really wanted to move us toward was thinking through—and it really extends to what I think we should do in American society—what values do we share and what values don’t we share?

HODGES: Yeah. You struck on talking about values as the way to kind of cut through these issues. Why are some people wary of values talk?

TWEED: Well, they think we’ve had more than enough values talk. And they’re worried about it. They worry because they think it’s the imposition of other people’s values, whether it’s through legislatures or something else that is part of the problem. And I recognize that. And so the strategy to some extent was to say, if that’s what you’re worried about, if you think you don’t make judgments about what people should do or think, then I think you’re basically mistaken.

So I wanted to sort of first convince people the value judgments were inevitable. That we all identify what’s admirable or what we and other people should do or should think. And we make judgments. Scholars do it all the time. When we read each other’s work, when we think about things, we all make certain kinds of judgments, and so the first step was to say that it’s inevitable.

HODGES: So this inevitability of value judgments—one of the things you say is the scholars of religion “encode epistemic values”—So we’re getting into some of the jargon-y stuff—They encode epistemic values in three different ways. So in other words, they evaluate or they put into their scholarship types of value judgments when it comes to truth, the good, and beauty. Those are the three that you see.

TWEED: Yeah. I’m not saying—And this is where some folks who would identify themselves as either not religious or feeling constrained in public university that they can’t really talk about religious values—I’m not saying everybody can or should talk about religious values. So I’m setting that aside and at that, I’m hoping that part of the folks gathered under the tent relax a little bit.

But then I’m trying to make the next step to say there’s still a certain kind of value talk, and that’s really the focus. What I decided to do was just focus on how people talk and not any highfalutin’ things about any other judgments—”How is reality really structured” or something. Just forget that and listen to our ordinary speech as scholars among ourselves. If we do that, I think, we’ll see that there are epistemic values. Just a fancy way of saying values about what constitutes truth. So people, when talking about, it could be an article in the newspaper or could be scholarship about a sacred text, will criticize or praise something because it doesn’t all hang together. It’s not coherent or—

HODGES: That’s a value. Like something should fit together, yeah.

TWEED: Or it’s not objective, somebody might say. And that’s a value. It’s too simplistic, so that means you think scholarship should be complicated. You think complicated things are better than that.

Or you might say, you might turn to language about moral values and say “that criticism of that book was unfair.” So you think equity or fairness is an important moral value.

And you might say that that book, “yeah, it has some good details, but gosh, it’s a terrible read” or it’s boring or it’s clunky the way it’s put together. To some extent, you’re appealing to aesthetic or values about beauty. It’s just not an elegant or a beautiful book. Sure it has some stuff that’s true, maybe it even has some stuff that’s good, it’s just not beautiful.

And I think scholars, whether they like to know it or not or like to say it or not, talk that way all the time. And that was the first step to say “don’t you recognize yourself in some of this conversation?”

HODGES: You see this kind of language come out especially most obviously in book reviews and things like that. But I think even scholars, as they do their own work, have this built-in—Like when something’s not working in your paper, it’s because of these values that you have.

TWEED: Right.


HODGES: You know, you want this to be different, you can recognize it yourself. So we see it in a way that scholars evaluate the work of other scholars. But we also see it in the work that we produce. Those values are informing the work that we’re doing and helping us know if we’re on the right track or not, what we need to improve in our own work and things like that.

So your argument is beyond just thinking in terms of religious values, but values more broadly. You’re saying “look, we’ve got to talk about values because we’re already doing it. If we make it explicit, we can be more careful with it.”

When it comes to value judgments in the study of religion in particular, the study of religion has a really interesting history where different values have been emphasized in different times, where people tried to live up to different expectations at different times. I’m thinking about when the comparative study of religion emerged back in the 1870s, there was this idea that it was going to be this scientific, objective, comparative assessment without bias. “We’re going to compare this religion to this religion.” Looking back on how accurate were those expectations in the early study of religion.

TWEED: It’s interesting to think about values in the history of the study of religion. And the way I’ve tried to approach this argument and tried to persuade people, I begin outside the study of religion by saying “look, scientists and mathematicians talk about the elegance of a formula. Why do they like this proof in mathematics more? If you listen to how mathematicians talk, they say ‘it’s elegant.’ Well, that’s beauty talk. That’s not truth talk.”

So for some folks, that helps them understand what I’m going at. Then I turn to the study of religion. And most people would date the origins of the academic cross-disciplinary study of religion from around the 1870s—it happened in Britain, in the United States, in the Netherlands and so forth. And in that, part of what I try to challenge, for those who think it was always framed as an impartial value-free enterprise—and some folks did talk that way. A lot of the key folks actually thought there were two kinds of tasks. First, to describe things as faithfully as you can, and then to make normative judgments about it.

So even some of the people that scholars who would be uncomfortable with making value judgments today would recognize as important scholars, they actually thought that making judgments was part of it in the beginning. And so part of that history was some leading people always thought there were some values at work. And what you get in the history of thinking about the study of religion in colleges and universities and seminaries, is changes over time about how they think about those values.

HODGES: It’s interesting, when it comes to those sort of normative judgments that they would make. I think one of the things is, when you go back and read some of those old studies, there’s also a sense that they were being objective in those judgments as well. That they had this objective eternal truth with which they could measure what they’re evaluating. So would it still be fair to say that even though there were these different sort of exercises going on at that time, there was also this sense that those value judgments, those prescriptive or normative judgments, had some sort of eternal verity about them as well.

TWEED: Clearly, people thought they were getting at the historical truth or the truth about the origins of these religious traditions or the meaning of that sacred text. They didn’t all talk objective talk. So one of the things that’s changed over time is, what are the particular kinds of words you use to describe good scholarship. And they didn’t all say “objective.” Max Weber, the famous German sociologist who influenced the study of religion in the 20th century, would talk about value-free scholarship. Although his own work was not really that. And in other places, he sort of acknowledged that what scholars wanted to study and how they want to study it really had a lot to do with that. But scholars always sort of thought that they were getting it right in some way.

HODGES: Yeah. Or else they wouldn’t be doing it I guess.

TWEED: They wouldn’t be doing it. Why would they do it?


TWEED: But how they talked about what “getting it right” meant has varied over time.


HODGES: When it comes to this idea of bracketing for example. You talked about Weber sort of trying to be value neutral, and this idea of bracketing starts getting discussed in academic scholarship of religion and it’s still discussed today.

TWEED: Yeah. So for those who want to say “I want to study religion, but I want to find some kind of space to engage other disciplines across the university and some space that doesn’t assume the religious truth of any particular tradition,” there’s a couple of ways you can go.

One of them is to say, like the sociologist Weber, that I’m interested in setting aside kind of value judgments in some way. The other one is to say, with a bunch of folks that come out of philosophical traditions and in fact the study of religion called “Phenomenologists” and others, would say that what we want to do is bracket for a time your own kinds of beliefs and values and attend to the phenomena of religion as you’re acknowledging it. So the assumption is that you can temporarily and partially set aside what might intervene and slant your interpretation one way or the other

HODGES: And then in 1963 there is also the Supreme Court decision where they made this distinction about what kind of religion can be taught in public schools. And the Supreme Court made this distinction between teaching about religion versus teaching religion.

TWEED: Yeah. And scholars sometimes get it wrong by assuming that that had something to do with the study of religion in higher education; it did not. What I argue—and I think legal historians would support this—is that what actually happened is that some scholars of religion in particular places, including public universities in the 60s and later, started to say that the distinctions that Supreme Court decision made between studying religion and studying about religion, that’s a good way to talk about it some people thought. So they start to describe their work as teaching about religion and not teaching religion. The same kind of strategy I suggested that I had used in some public universities when I was saying we were talking about religion but I wasn’t trying to make them Presbyterians or Jews or Mormons or anybody else.

HODGES: In your experience, you talk about how you’ve gone from not really speaking about your own religions commitments in school settings to being more open about them. Is that fairly common in the field? And we can talk about what encourages that kind of disclosure and what maybe inhibits that kind of discussion.

TWEED: Yeah. I think it has a lot to do with institutional settings. So if you’re at BYU or Calvin College or Georgetown University there are certain kinds of possible things you can and can’t do that are very different than if you’re at North Carolina or Virginia or Florida State.

So I think the key thing that folks overlook is that there’s no general answer to that, and so my thought was always focused on what’s the institutional setting, what is the mission of my institution? And the other thing I’ve always asked is what’s best for students? So moving from a public university to a Catholic institution, I could of course just come out and say all kinds of things—and I tend to be a little bit more free here. But I still have found that if folks say too much about their own of what they’re teaching, it just gets in the way of student learning. So what I used to say in public universities was that I was a person of faith—this is a weird strategy. I don’t know anybody that does this so—but it worked for me. It worked for my—

HODGES: [laughs] “The Tweed method.”

TWEED: I guess. I used to say—because at North Carolina and sometimes at Texas some students, sometimes Evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, others, would say “tell us about your own faith.” And then whenever that happened I would say, theatrically, “I’m a person of faith, but saying more about that now would hinder your learning. But if at the end of the semester you still want to know more about any of that—and I can’t imagine why you would—I’ll take you all to lunch and I’ll answer any questions you have.

And what that did, in some ways, for a couple of students they would just be determined to guess. And as a heartwarming confirmation that I was doing it right, one student in one semester at North Carolina came in and said, “you’re Presbyterian, you’re Jewish,” and guessed constantly. Never right, actually, about things. And in some classes nobody comes and other classes one person would come. In my last class at Texas after the final exam I said when you’ve done everything I’d be happy to tell you. I can’t remember how many it was. I want to say it might have been fourteen students said “okay, we’re ready for lunch,” and so I took fourteen students to lunch and they then proceeded to ask me all kinds of things about my own religious position and I answered it because it seemed like the right thing to do.

The only flaw with this strategy is, what if somebody takes more than one class with you? Which of course is true. So that’s a quirky way. I know people who would say in public universities they would just fess up to their stand, “I’m agnostic but I’m going to talk about the Bible.” “I love Jesus but I’m going to talk about history,” or whatever they said, so that actually sometimes happens. More often people try to step back from it to some extent and I think that’s useful because too much of the instructor pontificating—I’m at a Catholic institution so that’s our verb here—pontificating about what were they stand might just get in the way of students thinking it through for themselves.

HODGES: [laughs] Some of the discussion I’ve heard revolves around the idea that teaching at a religiously backed institution in some ways opens up a little bit more freedom even as it constrains in other ways.

So I’m thinking of someone who teaches at BYU, for example. They can be much more openly confessional—in fact they’re encouraged to embody the tradition in the course of their teaching. But they couldn’t do that as much as a state university and so in that sense there’s this sort of freedom.

But the flip side of that is schools like this—and I don’t know how much it’s like this at Notre Dame, maybe you can speak to that—but there’s also a certain expectation of orthodoxy. So in other ways freedom can be constrained. It seems to be an interesting tension at these types of schools.

TWEED: Yeah. I think for those who teach, whether it’s a Jewish seminary in New York or it’s BYU or it’s Boston College, I think in some ways people look like they’re freer to state their own positions. But folks in traditions don’t always agree. I know this will be a a revelation to you and to listeners—

HODGES: [Laughs]

TWEED: But at some point there’s a spectrum of beliefs and values within a particular tradition, so there’s always kind of, you know, are they the right kinds of Presbyterians? Are they the right kinds of Catholics? Are they the right kinds of members of LDS community?

So it doesn’t mean that everything relaxes, I think, but I think the other side here is you could actually attend a religious service at Notre Dame and see students there and they wouldn’t be surprised to find that. So I think that’s an important difference. But at the same time, as I was saying before, taking too strong a stand about what kind of Catholic or Presbyterian people should be can actually inhibit that.

The more surprising freedom that I have found at Notre Dame—which I thought might happen but it’s been truer than I would suspect—is that at some public universities that I’ve taught at, a whole range of social kinds of issues, social justice issues, were really much harder to talk about. Even though it might seem surprising. So talking about peace. I don’t want people to kill each other. It seems like a pretty uncontroversial thing to say but it’s more controversial if you’re teaching near places that have no major military bases.

HODGES: Right.

TWEED: Or where legislators might interpret that as being unpatriotic. On issues about poverty. I think we should help poor people. Again, it seems like a Pollyanna-ish, crazy, simple thing to say but worrying about poverty and the causes of them can make some people nervous. Racial justice, I think we should treat people fairly. Immigration, I think we should treat immigrants humanely and I think we should, you know, realize the promises of America as a place that welcomes immigrants.

All of those kinds of stands on social issues can be highly controversial in public universities. I have found a kind of freedom here to take stands on issues about peace and justice and sustainability—ecological things—that are all much more controversial in state universities, which I think some people would be surprised to hear, and that might be a thing that is true at other religions educational institutions, too.

HODGES: Yeah, it’s such an interesting tension. These differences between state run institutions, private institutions, religious institutions, all these different dynamics. And I think at any of these institutions there are these sort of borders that you learn where they are and what crosses the line, and it differs according to where you’re at so it’s really interesting to hear from someone at another university talking about that.


HODGES: We’re talking with Thomas Tweed today about studying religion in the academy and values.

Let’s talk a little bit more practically, because your presidential address gets into some practical discussion about how we go about talking about values when they seem to differ. And there are different ways that we can gain clarity, which is one of your main goals, “at least let’s get clear on where we are versus where someone else is.” So you talk about this two step process.

TWEED: Yeah. In some ways it’s pretty simple. We should talk about what our fundamental values are, and then we should begin to think about both what we share with others and what we don’t. And then we just start talking about assessing them. And that’s where the conversation gets more complicated. But to some extent it’s just a simple thing, that if we just try to do the best we can to acknowledge what are the most important commitments we have—in scholarship about teaching, about research—we can begin to make some sense of a way forward I think.

HODGES: It’s this idea of articulating your own position, and being willing to appraise other positions, and also willing to let your position be appraised. I think this is sort of where people can get stuck.

TWEED: Yeah. And that’s where I think everybody get stuck, including me. We all are happy to tell everyone else what we value. The problem is—part of my view is that we have to cultivate certain kinds of virtues to be worthy and effective participants in those kinds of conversations.

Humility, for example, and what I call reciprocal generosity, meaning to be a participant in this it means you have to give and take. If you only take, it’s stealing. If you only give, it’s arrogance. So I think we all need a kind of humility. I could be wrong. And we all need some kind of generosity that we can’t just do giving or taking. And those are virtues to cultivate, I think, and if people are not open in that way, if they assume they could not be wrong or they’re only there to talk, it’s not going to end up being a conversation. It’s a monologue and we should all go to our corners of the tent.

HODGES: And that’s where it gets especially tricky. It’s not just more secular or non-religious minded people who cause these types of problems or breakdowns in communication. Theologians can also fail to live up to these virtues that you talk about. Being willing to admit fault or that they’re fallible. Being willing to give reasons. So theologians might fall back on appeals to authority, like their religious tradition or scripture. And then on the flipside more secular minded folks might fall back on reason and history and science and they get stuck in these boxes and they’re not willing to give or take either way.

TWEED: Right. Now, and that’s the central kind of problem. And since I have a kind of modest goal—can’t we keep the conversation going and can’t we deepen it just a little bit? —I think those are kinds of the problems. And so to some extent what I was doing, although I felt awkward about it, was sort of challenging my colleagues on both sides of those kinds of issues.

I was challenging folks who identify with the social sciences, with the natural sciences, who think they’re being scientific and objective to just acknowledge that they also have certain kinds of values at stake and that maybe they could be open to multiple ways of understanding the world. And I thought the theologians sometimes can close down conversations by appealing only to scripture and tradition and not reason and not human experience and so on, and not really engage scholarship across the discipline as fully as they could—including religious studies scholarship about their own tradition.

Whether it’s LDS folks looking at historians writing about their tradition, or Catholics looking at social sciences scientific literature, or whatever it is, my thought is that maybe it would be useful to talk to those people—especially if you’re inclined to say that my theological work is not respected sufficiently in the academy or in the public realm. To them I’m saying “thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings, but if you’d like to be more respected, you have to engage actual scholarship that other disciplines are doing. And if you don’t do that you couldn’t possibly expect that kind of engagement in return.”

HODGES: I’m also thinking about issues of authority too, other bounds like it’s hard to get a hard boiled scientific minded person to give revelation or these things credence, and it’s also hard for more religiously inclined folks to allow their revelatory text or beliefs to be critiqued by scientific approaches. But at least knowing where those boundaries are can get a conversation going.

Then the difficulty can also be created by people who are kind of “on your own side” who can be skeptical of the enterprise. So if you’re a religiously inclined person who is dialoguing with more scientifically inclined people—not that those two categories can’t overlap, but you know what I mean—people within your tradition might say “Oh, you’re selling out.” And the same with someone who’s got a lot of atheistic or scientific friends who are seeing you talk to theologians and they’re saying “What are you doing and why are you wasting your time with fairy tales?” So you can start to get hits from your own side, so to speak, when you do some of these things.

TWEED: I think that’s right, and that’s why it can help with just kind of baby steps. Let’s see if we can agree on a couple of values, epistemic values, say. For example. I think some of the theologians and some of the religious studies people, some of the scientific folks and some of the humanistic people, can actually agree about what’s good scholarship is. So for example if one part of a book doesn’t agree with another part of a book almost everybody would say “that’s incoherent. It’s not good.” If somebody gives flat-footed simple kinds of explanations for something and overlooks other compelling explanations, I think people would agree we should have complicated stories that represent that. We want empirically rich things. We want well-sourced things. And I think that actually there are some values that people share, and that is a kind of better beginning place because we’re not about to convert anybody to completely different worldviews, but I don’t think we need to do that.

All we need to do is to agree a little bit more about what values we do share so that when we then enter in conversations in the public arena—whether we’re talking to the state department or to the school board or to educators in our own institutions—we can make more effective and passionate defenses of why the study of religion is worthwhile.

HODGES: I think that’s a great way of summing up the emphasis you place on finding these common values, these shared virtues, these shared—even if they’re virtuous that are being aspired to rather than completely embodied, then you can start to get some good discussions going. I think it lets people do the kind of work that they want to do as well. Part of the problem is when we evaluate other types of projects according to the stipulations of our own type of project and we want everything to fit in to what we’re doing instead of meeting them half way and seeing what exactly are they doing? Are they at least living up to the sort of standards that they’ve set for their own type of practice?

But that takes effort and that takes time. Like I get why it’s hard for everybody to do, including myself so—

TWEED: Me too.

HODGES: Exactly. So since it’s been a little while since you gave this presidential address, when we come back for the conclusion of the interview we will talk a little bit about how things have gone since then. We’re talking with Tom Tweed and we will be right back.



HODGES: We’re speaking today with Thomas Tweed. He was the president of the American Academy of Religion in 2015 and he’s the Welch Professor of American Studies and a professor of history at Notre Dame where he joins us from today. We’re talking about values and the study of religion.

Tom, I wanted to see how things have gone since you gave this presidential address. Have you noticed any kind of changes or any kind of discussions that have cropped up since you gave this address?

TWEED: Yeah. It’s been heartening to hear some of the responses. There’s a couple of different kinds of responses.

One of the responses is just in terms of the organization itself. I still hear talk about values among other colleagues who are in the leadership with the AAR and the board is doing a rethinking, a strategic plan and things, and they’re still talking about values. The webpage talks this way now. So a lot of the staff and leadership has continued to talk that way, which is heartening and happy to see.

And almost immediately after the address there were some warm responses from Muslim colleagues who really liked the distinctions about different kinds of values and saw that as a way to defend their work.

And public universities folks have been especially happy with the way I was talking about religion and higher education and how to strategize about it. So I would say that has worked.

And I would say some theologians have been perhaps more warm in receiving this than I had thought. And I hear them saying “You understand us a little bit and that’s good” and talking more about where we agree and don’t agree. And I had a chance, actually, to talk with some departments in Europe and here that have theologians and religious studies people and had some conversations about it. One person actually asked before it was published, “Could we please use it at a faculty retreat so we can have some grounds to talk with one another?”

So I’m quite pleased that it proved to be a way of framing the conversation. My own sense about it is, I don’t really care much at all whether anybody ever goes further with this. If it starts a conversation and it shifts to another register or a different vocabulary, that’s fine with me. I just want to make things better.

HODGES: How has it impacted your own work that you’ve done?

TWEED: Well, I think it’s impacted my work in some ways because people who have read it know this about me more, and probably resituate my work in some ways. I think a lot of people before I gave this address would have put me squarely in the “religious study” side, and of course I am, I’m not a theologian—and theologians would be the first to tell me I’m not a theologian [laughs]. I mean, I’m clearly on the religious study side and on the academic study of religion side. But I think it sort of opened up some conversations with other folks that I might not have talked with before.

I’d already been thinking for a long time about these issues in my own work and struggled with how to talk about it. So I wouldn’t say it affected my work much more but I’m certainly—I have better reasons for thinking through what kind of values are worked out in my own research and teaching that I did before.

HODGES: One more question. When you’re sitting down with a perspective student of religious studies who’s just entering into the academy, what’s a sound piece of advice that you find yourself giving to students as they’re considering entering that field?

TWEED: There are traditions around the world when somebody says that they want to join a religious community of sort of challenging people to go away. So in Buddhist contexts, you knock and then they go away and you have to knock three times, “are you sure?” I do another version of that, where my standard has been for lots of years to say “before we continue with this conversation you should know a few things: There are not many jobs. You can’t live where you want to live. You’ll not make much money. And you’re constantly evaluating and being evaluated. If you don’t like any of these four things, let’s talk about what you’re actually going to do with the rest of your life.”

If people persist after that, I sometimes I give them numbers and advice about stuff, but I think I usually try to talk to people out of it and then I find that there are some people that just care deeply about it. And of course I was such a person. When I came out, there weren’t many jobs and the questions that people were having around me, at Stanford and Harvard where I did my graduate work, was how many one year appointments would you take before you left the field? So people were taking one year jobs. And I knew all that. My answer was two. I was lucky enough to get a job and I did it anyway because it just—I had to do it, and the tragedy to me, that really worries me, is that there’s so many gifted young emerging scholars who don’t have the right kinds of institutional settings awaiting them. And I think that’s one of the things we tried to work on when I was president and it’s continuing, is how do we think about contingent faculty, how do we reimagine the university in this century in ways that give appropriate, humane working conditions and still manage to teach our students well?

HODGES: Where do you recommend people go to follow news on this sort of thing if they’re looking at the job market and looking, where do you direct people?

TWEED: I think the American Academy of Religion webpage is often good. The AAR actually even tells you of the people who applied for jobs last year, how many got employment and things like that, and there’s even a document on the AAR webpage recommending that graduate institutions offered placement rates. But if I was thinking about doing it, the question I would ask to the person you think you might want to work with is, “where were your last five students? Tell me what they’re doing now.” And if the person does not know or doesn’t have a good answer, I would probably rethink—I’m so sorry to all my colleagues out there who are now mad at me—but I would probably rethink going there.

HODGES: This is where it gets really difficult because it’s a vicious cycle in some ways, where you want better and more students but you’re going to get fewer of those the less you can place, and the less opportunities there are, the less—I mean, it’s just a sort of vicious cycle.

TWEED: It is. And one of the things I worry about is that sometimes—I’ve been aware that I might be kind of arrogant about this because I’m so worried about students not getting jobs, and my former advisees all have jobs, but it might be that somebody does not at some point. And I always thought that if I ever had a student not get a job, I would just stop taking graduate students.

But to some extent what somebody said to me once that I think might be right is, you know, “how dare you decide how someone should live a meaningful life? Maybe somebody just wants to do that for its own sake, for personal enrichment, prepare for something else, why would you shut it off?” I think that’s a really good point. Partly, it’s just me worrying about my moral obligations. But it could mean that what we have to do collectively is what the AAR is doing more and more, which is think about what are the multiple careers—


TWEED: —that scholars of religion could go into.

HODGES: Yeah, they had a special session on that at the AAR conference this year.

TWEED: We’ve been thinking about that a lot. We’ve had panels about it. There’s new initiatives. There’s a new task force about it. So the question is, what else could you do? And then the key thing is how do we link up more effectively those potential employers to those who need work? And I think that’s one of the things that the American Academy of Religion is doing now and wants to do even better in the years ahead.

HODGES: Is it kind of like state department stuff, and maybe high school type education, like what kind of places are people looking?

TWEED: It could be all kinds of things. It can be things about publishing. It could be things about nonprofits. It could be things in government work. It could be things— yeah, I think there’s an enormous range of the different kinds of jobs people who work in non-profits, in the state department, in higher education, but not as tenure track people. People have gone to admissions or development or student affairs at a state university, yeah.

HODGES: Well, I’m glad there are a lot of people thinking through these issues. The American Academy of Religion is one of the main places where these discussions continue. I recommend people check out your presidential address from 2015 on “Valuing the Study of Religion.” It talks about the values that religions studies scholars themselves seek to maintain or should articulate, and it also talks about how to value the study of religion, as we’ve talked about throughout the interview.

People can also check out the contribution that you made Tom to the Mormon’s Studies Review volume one. You have a great article in there about Mormonism, so people can check that as well. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about these issues.

TWEED: Thanks, Blair. It was my pleasure.

Originally published by Blair Hodges of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University on January 17, 2017.

Thomas A. Tweed is the Harold and Martha Welch Professor of American Studies and Professor of History.  He is also Faculty Fellow in the Institute of Latino Studies and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.