Editorial: Theory in its Place
REVER number 4, year 5, 2005

Steven Engler []

This issue of Rever focuses on theory, exploring the significance of some key concepts and approaches to the academic study of religion. Scholars from Europe, North America, and Japan were invited to contribute to this Brazilian journal because theory of religion is a more developed subfield in these regions, and because recent insights from abroad can be useful here. Ideally this set of essays will contribute to a dialogue of benefit to both parties. And this involves recognizing that the role of theory in the academic study of religion varies according to historical, national, and institutional contexts. After all, the study of religion in Brazil has produced important theoretical insights; and it promises to do much more in the near future.

The contributors address a number of currents in the field. The list is neither exhaustive nor fully representative. Time constraints, personal crises, and other issues, as always, prevented a number of potential contributors from being able to submit articles that were requested. Yet, the collection is an exceptional one. The authors include some of the most respected voices in the global study of religion and a number of new and promising scholars. The nature of the contributions, each addressing a specific approach, concept, or theme, reflects a recent reflexive trend in the academic study of religion, with a number of recent volumes examining the field in this manner.[1] This issue of Rever demonstrates the remarkable degree of sophistication achieved by the theory of religion in recent years. It is producing valuable work that ware hard to ignore.

Theory is essential to the study of religion. In the first place, the study of religion is comparative, forcing us to clarify just what it is that we are comparing:

I am convinced by Max Müller's dictum: "He who knows one knows none", that is if you only study one religion, you are not studying religion…. It is only through some element of comparison that we appreciate just what is, and is not, characteristic of religions generally and what is specific to that religion.[2]

The concept of "religion" is infamously hard to define, and the task of pointing out those things in the world that qualify as "religions" is equally difficult. This is not an excuse to avoid theory, but rather a challenge that must be faced. As Thomas A. Tweed puts it, in the most significant book on theory of religion in recent years,

Scholars cannot—and should not—avoid reflecting on the terms that fix disciplinary identity, and it is the academics who use them that get to define them…. [O]ur professional obligations nudge us to enter the debate about the meaning and usefulness of constitutive terms. Those of us who claim a lineage in the academic conversation about religion should be clear about how we use the term. In that sense, we are called to the task of defining—and to contesting definitions. We are called to offer self-conscious sightings from where we stand, reflexive surveys of the disciplinary horizon.[3]

In addition, religion, however it is defined, is such a complex set of phenomena that no single perspective can do justice to it. This forces us to use a variety of theoretical perspectives in order to interpret and explain religion:

Religious studies is theory; it is the myriad conceptual tools used to 'see' religion. It has become clear over the past two centuries that the academic study of religion has no GUT, that is, no Grand Unifying Theory that brings into sharp focus all things religious. And it never will. Every theory frames and focuses our attention on some things while leaving other things outside the frame or out of focus. Thus, religious studies is always in search of new theories that might open up new ways of seeing and interpreting religion.[4]

Theory's value is implicit in the etymology of the word: seeing. If what you see is what you get, then you should think about how you see. More specifically, the Greek term theōria referred to sightseeing, exploring, watching a festival, consulting an oracle, going on pilgrimage, etc.[5] In this light, theory both speculates upon and transcends its object. The necessity and, for some, the threat of theory of religion stem from this. If religion is re-velation then theory, as re-re-velation, can seem redundant, if not an idolatrous confidence in human capacities to make sense of that which is given. Yet, to reveal is to veil again, not to uncover; theory seeks not to remove the veil but to understand it in its place. To ignore theory is to blindly accept as given what we study and how we study it. Simply receiving the given in religion makes sense within certain theological frameworks. Yet here too, aspects of this "what" and this "how" are legacies of specific institutional, political, national, regional and cultural histories. Even given that religion has an unchanging core, the peripherals must be studied in their changing contexts.[6] One of the key advantages of thinking of theory of religion trans-nationally is the opportunity to explore these dimensions of contingency. In this light, it is worth looking briefly at the place of theory in the Brazilian study of religion.

The fact that there is less theorizing about religion in Brazil (as elsewhere in Latin America) reflects a number of factors. The rich variety and striking vibrancy of religious phenomena in the country leads scholars, for good reason, to focus on descriptive research. The field is smaller, with few scholars to carry out this important work, let alone to spend time theorizing. The field is much less well financed: leading to heavy administrative and advising workloads for faculty; to greater job insecurity; to weak library holdings and limited access to online materials; and to an even more inequitable emphasis on "practical" or "profitable" areas with the university (e.g., medicine, law, engineering, and the sciences) than is the case in North America. As a result of these factors, the academic study of religion in Brazil generally lacks the skholé, the academic leisure that allows for relatively unfettered contemplation, that is found in northern, especially American, universities.[7]

The size and relative valuation of the field reflect both economic factors (the Brazilian university system simply has less money to go around than many northern hemisphere systems) and historical factors. The social sciences were established late in Brazil (e.g., sociology in the 1930s). The social sciences and humanities suffered intense repression under the military dictatorship (1964-1985), a setback from which these academic areas have still not recovered.

The academic study of religion in Brazil has had additional challenges that have also diminished the importance of theory of religion. Strong historical links between the Catholic Church and the state (and Brazilian culture more generally) hindered the institutional and intellectual distinction between the (Christian) practice of religion as separate from its (comparative) study. This has had three detrimental effects on the social scientific study of religion (ciências da religião) in Brazil.

First, those intellectuals who have rejected religion for ideological reasons (positivists, Marxists, secular humanists, atheists) have rejected the academic study of religion. This is the primary reason that ciências da religião is marginalized by the secular federal universities in Brazil, which to most non-Brazilian scholars would seem the natural home for the non-theological study of religion.[8] In the city of São Paulo, for example, the (federal) Universidade de São Paulo's sociologists, psychologists, and historians (among others) have produced some top notch work on religion, but the idea of an institutionalized, interdisciplinary focus on religion remains anathema.[9] The city's three graduate programs in ciências da religião are all at confessional schools: the Universidade Metodista de São Paulo (UMESP); the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (PUC/SP); and the Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie.

Second, the rejection of ciências da religião by the secular universities has led to its having to compete for funding and disciplinary autonomy with theological studies and within confessional schools. On the one hand, this enforced cohabitation of theology and religious studies has sidestepped the distracting and fruitless "Theology vs. Religious Studies" debate that continues to bedevil North American theorists of religion. Insofar as theory of religion is beginning to take on a higher profile in Brazil, more astute views of the relations between these modes of the academic study of religion are beginning to emerge here. On the other hand, this has hindered the recognition that the two fields are clearly distinguishable in terms of substance, theory and methods, which has resulted in a lot of theological work being mislabeled as social scientific study of religion.[10] This, in turn, has led some conservative theological voices to see the field of ciências da religião as a threat rather than a natural ally.

Third, as a result of these first two developments, the federal agency responsible for oversight and funding of Brazil's graduate programs does not recognize ciências da religião except, implicitly, as an element of theology. Theology had traditionally been categorized as a sub-area of philosophy, and it was granted status as a separate area only in the last few years. Ciência(s) da religião is only now beginning to emerge as a sub-area of theology. The Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (CAPES) is responsible for oversight and evaluation of all graduate programs in the country. Discussions are currently under weigh to revise the most recent CAPES document categorizing Brazilian academic disciplines. This draft discussion document, circulated in September 2005, makes no mention of ciência(s) da religião. It lists four sub-areas of theology: moral theology, systematic theology, pastoral theology, and ecumenism.

There are two issues here. First, as noted above, this enforced cohabitation with theology has both advantages and disadvantages. The most serious disadvantage for religious studies in Brazil is the lack of guaranteed funding that would come with CAPES recognition. As a result, theologians and cientistas da religião are forced to share a small slice of a tiny pie, and this within confessional institutions. Second, for a number of good reasons, the state respects the institutional and doctrinal autonomy of religions in Brazil. This means that theology is unique among all the categories of graduate education recognized by CAPES: it alone has greater autonomy in determining standards of excellence. This, of course, results in theology's being criticized as a pseudo-discipline within the university, as being not fully academic, because it does not have to live up to the same rigorous standards as all other academic fields. This is fine, in that theology follows a distinct agenda. But ciências da religião, classified as theology by CAPES, is subject to this same exception and to this same critique. If nothing else, this is a knock-down argument for the distinction between theology and ciências da religião in Brazil: the latter, and only the latter, wants to be treated, and should be treated, the same as all other academic disciplines.

The conditions of the recent growth of theology and religious studies in Brazil, side-by-side, with no split, allow for a more nuanced understanding of the relation between these fields. Decades of debate in North America have produced one undeniable result: there is no one clear way to distinguish the two. In one sense, they can be seen as occupying opposing ends of several different spectra: insider/outsider; subjective/objective; unitary/comparative; religious/scientific; faith-based/evidence-based; non-falsifiable/falsifiable; normative/descriptive; theoretically and methodologically unreflexive/reflexive; establishing the Truth/relativizing truths; traditional/modern; revealed/constructed; saving souls/forming citizens; responsible to a church/responsible to a national society; etc. All of these distinctions are problematic: biased, ideologically loaded, and ignoring the potential overlap between religious studies and theology along most, if not all, of these axes. There is little value in arguing a sharp distinction between theology and religious studies. Yet, despite many commonalities, they have certain distinct concerns that are best served if each operates from separate and autonomous institutional locations.

An analogy might be helpful here. There is a clear distinction in a futebol game between players and fans. (Similarly, at first glance, we can separate religious practitioners from those who study religion.) Yet, from a second perspective, the distinction is less clear: some take part in the game without touching the ball. For example, radio and television commentators are part of the game. The line between those inside and those outside become more complicated. Certain sociologists would make good play-by-play announcers, as good as many former players would be. (Similarly, descriptive "commentaries" on religion—e.g., two comparable books on the history of Protestant liturgy—could be written by a theologian and a religious studies scholar.) However, from a third perspective, an important distinction reappears: only players are qualified to make plays on the field; and only the sociologists are qualified to investigate the social significance of the game, in its historical and comparative context. (You need the training in social scientific methods, the comparative frame, and a suspension of passion for one of the teams.) There are three levels: on the first, there is a clear distinction between practitioners and observers, players and fans; on the second, there is an overlap between internal and external commentators, participants and observers; on the third, there is a clear distinction between these first two spaces and that which treats of the historical, social, economic, and comparative significance of the game, and of religion.

Given that ciências da religião in Brazil is becoming more institutionally autonomous and intellectually distinctive, the place of theory becomes even more important. After all, one of the key things that distinguish theologians and cientistas da religião is that the former do not need to ask questions about "religion" in general (they can work with the concepts of their single tradition) whereas the latter avoid such question at their peril. This peril is the failure to justify the study of religion as a comparative, international, interdisciplinary, and largely social scientific endeavour. Without this justification, the field risks fossilization and extinction.

The promise of theory in the study of Brazilian religion is two-fold. Scholars around the world have much to learn from Brazilian scholars of religion, due both to the richness of the religious landscape here and to the promises of new theoretical insights. These are beginning to emerge, primarily from studies of the intense hybridization, syncretism, and "religious transit" in Brazil. There is also an important set of lessons—again only beginning to be formulated—that emerge from the cooperation, rather than antagonism, that has generally prevailed between theology and religious studies here. My hope, and that of my colleague and the editor of this journal, Frank Usarski, is that this set of essays, from outside Brazil, published here, and available globally, will spark greater dialogue about, and more work in, the theory of religion.


P. ANTES, A.W. GEERTZ, and R.R. WARNE, Eds. New Approaches to the Study of Religion. 2 vol. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2004.

BOURDIEU, P. Méditations pascaliennes. Paris: Seuil, 1997.

BRAUN, W. and R.T. MCCUTCHEON, Eds. Guide to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Cassell, 2000.

DEAL, W.E. and T.K. BEAL. Introduction. In: Theory for Religious Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 2004. xi-xv.

ENGLER, S., Afterward: Tradition's Legacy. In: S. Engler and G.P. Grieve, Eds. Historicizing "Tradition" in the Study of Religion. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2005. 357-378.

ENGLER, S. Review of P.Antes, A.W. Geertz, and R.R. Warne, Eds. New Approaches to the Study of Religion. 2 vol. Rever (2005). http://www.pucsp.br/rever/resenha/antes01.htm

HINNELLS, J.R. Why Study Religions? In: J.R. Hinnells, Ed. The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Routledge, 2005. 5-20.

HINNELLS, J.R., Ed. The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

PIERUCCI, A.F. Sociologia da religião: Área impuramente acadêmica. In: S. Miceli, Ed. O que ler nas ciências sociais (1970-1995). 3 vol. São Paulo: Ed. Sumaré, 1999. Vol. 2: 237-286.

SEGAL, R.A. Theories of Religion. In: J.R. Hinnells, Ed. The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Routledge, 2005. 49-60.

SEGAL, R.A., Ed. Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.

TAYLOR, M.C., Ed. Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

THEORY. In: J.Z. Smith and W.S. Green, Eds. The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. 1068-1070.

TWEED, T.A. Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion. Cambridge, MS, and London: Harvard University Press, 2006.


[1] See M.C. TAYLOR, Ed. Critical Terms for Religious Studies; W. BRAUN, and R.T. MCCUTCHEON, Eds. Guide to the Study of Religion; P. ANTES, A.W. GEERTZ, and R.R. WARNE, Eds. New Approaches to the Study of Religion; HINNELLS, J.R., Ed. The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion; R.A. SEGAL, Ed. Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion.

[2] J.R. HINNELLS, Why study religions? In: The Routledge Companion, p. 14.

[3] T.A. TWEED, Crossing and Dwelling, p. 33.

[4] W.E. DEAL, and T.K. BEAL. Introduction. In: Theory for Religious Studies, p. xi, italics in original. On the importance of not just using but evaluating different theories, see S. ENGLER, Review of New Approaches.

[5] T.A. TWEED, Crossing and Dwelling, p. 190 n.13.

[6] On the give and take of receiving the given in religion, see S. ENGLER, Afterward. In: Historicizing "Tradition", pp. 357-378.

[7] P. BOURDIEU, Méditations pascaliennes.

[8] The graduate program in Ciência da Religião at the Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora is an important exception (the singular of "science" reflects ongoing debates in the Brazilian field): department founded in 1969; M.A. 1993; Ph.D. 1999.

[9] An earlier potential opening had little long-term effect on USP's stance. Duglas Teixeira Monteiro (USP sociologist of religion at the in the mid-1970s and a key figure in establishing the social scientific study of religion on a more adequate footing in Brazil) founded the Centro de Estudos da Religião at USP. Along with a group of anthropologists at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), he established, in 1977, the first Brazilian journal focused specifically on the academic study of religion, Religião e Sociedade. The journal continues but it is no longer sited at USP.

[10] Hence, A.F. PIERUCCI, (USP; one of Brasil's foremost sociologists of religion) argues that the sociology of religion in Brazil is an "impurely academic area" due to the "religious contamination of an intellectual practice that ought to be professionally immune to the 'sacrifice of the intellect' that all religion implies and requires" Sociologia da religião, In: O que ler nas ciências sociais, pp. 247. (Translations from Portuguese to English are mine.)