Theology, Religious Studies,and Religious Education:

Oddbjørn Leirvik (research associate),
Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo

Paper presented to the International Colloquium on Intercultural and Interreligious Education, Cape Town, September 1998.
Published in David Chidester, Janet Stonier, Judy Tobler (eds.):
Diversity as ethos. Challenges for Interreligious and Intercultural Education.

Cape Town: Institute for Comparative Religion in South Africa, Univerisity of Cape Town, 1999.


"Theology" and "Religious Studies"

Since the latter part of the 19th century, religion has been a field of conflict in academic institutions, and the academic legitimacy of Theology has been seriously challenged. During this century, a series of alternative approaches to religion have been developed, under headings like Religionswissenschaft, history of religions, comparative religion, phenomenology, anthropology of religion. In the present academic vocabulary, "Religious Studies" is often used as a general heading, covering a multiplicity of possibly conflicting methodological approaches to religion. Some of them still tend to be regarded as alternatives to "Theology".

Parallel to this development, religion has also become a field of study in humanist and social sciences like philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology. In the field of religion, diversity in research methods has thus become a well-established fact.

Although diversity in scholarly approaches to religion is an almost global fact, not everyone would regard it as a desirable ethos, or as offering exciting chances for interdisciplinary co-operation. In many contexts, Theology and Religious Studies are well established as institutional rivals, and in some circles, there is still a substantial amount of suspicion on the part of either one of them, as regards the academic respectability of the other.

What would be the real differences, then, between Theology and Religious Studies at the end of the 20th century?


It is well known that in Europe, approaches like Religionswissenschaft and history of religions were first set up as historical-critical alternatives to faith and truth-oriented theologies. However, since the 19th century, historical-critical approaches have been gradually but firmly established also within the academic fields of Theology. This is particularly true for theological disciplines like biblical studies and church history. The other two major disciplines of Theology - systematic theology and practical theology - still retain much of their traditional normative character. Although many theological institutions in Europe have abandoned their links to a particular faith community, most people would still agree that a kind of normativity, and an orientation towards a faith practice, is in fact what defines Theology as a distinct field of education and research.

In its systematic efforts, Theology has to do with claiming the relevance of a particular faith tradition in the contemporary context. In tune with a general post-modern sensitivity, however, systematic theology has become less universalist in its claims to relevance and truth. "Contextual theology" (e.g. liberation theologies, feminist theology) has become the catchword for approaches to the Christian faith that are more conscious of particularity, experience, difference and conflict, and less inclined towards general and ahistorical truth claims.[1]

"Religious Studies":

As for Religious Studies, one sometimes gets the impression that the assumption of a "neutral" study of religion has miraculously survived the otherwise devastating critique of positivism and value-neutrality in the social and humanist sciences.[2] Religious Studies is still conceived of by some as a more neutral approach to religion than what is held to be typical of normative and confessionally biased theologies. The idea of neutrality has, however, probably been abandoned by most scholars also within the field of Religious Studies, together with the similarly impractical idea of covering the entire religious universe in the religious studies of a particular institution. Theologians have no choice other than admitting their particular outlook. Increasingly, the element of subjectivity has been acknowledged also in Religious Studies, both as a critical insight and as an ethos in research. Many scholars would emphasise the importance of sympathetic involvement. They are critical of previous elements of reductionism, and even advocate a dialectic between the "insider" and the "outsider" perspective as a scholarly ethos of their own.

"Theology" and "Religious Studies":

If a dialectical ethos of this kind is in fact shared by Theology and Religious Studies; if both would like to be critical towards tradition as well as self-critical; if both of them even incline towards contextuality - what would then be the remaining differences between the two?

One obvious difference would still be that Theology is mostly done within the perspective of a particular faith universe, aiming at educating professional representatives of a particular confession or religion. In many contexts, however, the training offered by theological institutions is also directed towards another privileged aim, notably that of educating teachers. Thus, the inherited institutional competition between Theology and Religious Studies is often closely intertwined with the competition in offering basic training for religious education in public schools. The question therefore remains, how Theology and Religious Studies may cease to consider themselves as mutually exclusive approaches to the Pedagogy of Religion and religious education, to the benefit of a more inter-disciplinary approach.

The Norwegian academic and educational context

The Norwegian version of this inherited conflict is as follows. Norway has got three theological faculties (one is part of the University of Oslo, the two others are privately owned), and four departments for Religious Studies within the state universities. From the 50s, Norwegian universities have had a hybrid subject called "Christianity", aimed particularly at training teachers in public schools on secondary and high school levels. "Christianity" (from introductionary to master degree levels) has been situated somewhere between Theology and Religious Studies, oscillating between the respective institutions, but is now mostly incorporated either in the theological faculties or in the regional colleges, where the subject is staffed mainly by theologians.

The latest and northernmost department of Religious Studies (at the University of Tromsø, beyond the polar circle) has recently made serious efforts to overcome the alternatives of Theology and Religious Studies. They have managed to circumscribe the inherited antagonisms by focusing on context: in this case typically arctic or northern versions of Christianity, traditional nature religiosity in the north, and the particular traditions of the Sami population in Norway (including shamanism). But this kind of integrative effort is so far an exemption to the rule. In Norwegian teacher training colleges, Theology has been almost totally dominant as the basic training of lecturers and researchers. As indicated above, some of the regional colleges that cater for teacher training have also set up more ambitious programs of "Christianity" in their own right.

The situation in Norwegian teacher training colleges has somehow reflected the dominant model of religious education in primary schools, with "Christianity" as the dominant subject. As for high schools in Norway, "Religion and Ethics" is well established as a unified and compulsory subject, taught either by theologians or teachers trained in Religious Studies. For public primary schools, however, there was no unified system of religious education until last year. Private primary schools, most of them confessionally based, cover only 1.5% of Norwegian pupils. Discussion about religious education in Norway is thus mostly a question of what should be the preferred model in public schools.

Since the early 70s, parents have had three different options of religious education in public primary schools: "Christianity", "Life stances", or nothing at all. More than 90% have had "Christianity" with a slightly confessional, i.e. Lutheran, bias. Only those not belonging to the Lutheran (state) Church of Norway, had the access to an alternative option. 5% at most have chosen the alternative "Life stances", which has commonly been regarded by parents as either a more neutral or a more secular alternative. Among the new religious minorities in Norway, some Muslims (who now constitute about 1.5% of the entire Norwegian population) tended to opt out entirely, especially in the multi-religious areas of Oslo. Instead, they managed to acquire financial support from public school budgets for their qur'anic schools. It should be emphasised that the rather low figures of minority option at the national level conceal vast regional differences, with much higher percentages of children taking "Life stances" or opting for nothing at all in Oslo and some other cities.

In 1997, after some years of planning and heated discussions, a new and unified subject, designed to be compulsory, was put into practice, under the carefully elaborated but controversial heading of "Knowledge of Christianity with Information about Religion and Life Stances". As one might guess from the rather cumbersome wording, Christianity is the dominant element, arguably for historical reasons, and reflecting the dominant position of a particular "Christian cultural heritage" in Norwegian society. After vociferous protests and concerted efforts from minorities like the Muslims, the Jews, the Buddhists and indeed the Secular Humanists, the subject has gradually acquired a more inclusive character, also with some space for contextual adjustments to the religious demography of particular local communities. But the minorities are still quite apprehensive of the dominant Christian character of this new, compulsory subject.

In the academic field, the new unified system of religious education poses fresh challenges to the teacher training colleges (within the regional colleges) and the universities. Will the dominant position of Theology in teacher training colleges be broken? Will new kinds of interdisciplinary approaches be kindled, together with fresh approaches to the Pedagogy of Religion?

The new subject in Norwegian schools is not thought of as a way of merely transmitting an amount of knowledge to the pupils - as if religions and life stances were something that could be dealt with in a completely detached manner. In the prefaces to the curriculum, it is stated that religions and life stances should rather be approached as "living sources of faith, morals and life orientation". The law lays upon the teachers the double obligation of treating each and every tradition on its own terms and in accordance with its special character, and to apply the same pedagogical approaches to all traditions.

Can these obligations, or goals, be reconciled? If each religious tradition shall be dealt with on its own terms, how can one and the same pedagogical approach be applied to different types of religion and life stances? The narrative approach is dominant the national curriculum that has been formulated. Many would argue, however, that narrative approaches are far more central to Christianity than to Islam, not to speak of Secular Humanism. At the same time, the alternatives of narrative, dogmatic or purely discursive approaches often correspond to different and competing versions of one and the same religious tradition.

The difficulty arises from the double fact that there is no such thing as a uniform tradition, and hence, no innocent methods neither in basic research nor in the applied pedagogy of religion. In the time to come, approaches to religion in academic contexts as well as religious education in schools will have to take plurality, ambiguity and differences more seriously than is reflected in the uniform and detailed national curriculum underlying the new Norwegian subject.

With the current discussion about the new compulsory subject in Norwegian schools as a starting point, and with some side-glances to Britain, I will present my views on diversity in research methods and in the Pedagogy of Religion in five points.

Five points in search for plural, inter-disciplinary approaches

1. A memento to any systems approach in religious education:

There is no such thing as a uniform tradition.

The name of a particular religion conceals a multitude of competing spiritual, confessional and local traditions. In the new Norwegian subject, a "systems approach" to religion appears to be dominant, with the aim of treating each religion "on its own terms", and as a coherent system of faith and religious practice. The systems approach retains its value in dealing with the universal dimensions of religions, dimensions that are, of course, real enough and continue to assert themselves. However, if one acknowledges the all-pervasive fact of intra-religious differences, as well as the continuous interplay between religions and cultures, the systems approach will obviously have to be modified by alternative and less universalising approaches.

2. The necessity of system-transcending approaches:

No tradition has a solitary existence.

All religious traditions have been formed in dialogue with or competition with other traditions. In global villages, world religions continue to influence and transform one another. This constitutes a twofold challenge to inter-religious dialogue, also in the academic context. First, Theology needs to recognise other confessions and religions not only as respected neighbours, but even as privileged partners of dialogue. Whereas European philosophy has for long been the one privileged partner for (Western) theology, all religions must now be recognised as equally important partners in dialogue, in the fields of theology proper as well as in ethics. Secondly, Religious Studies need to further develop methods that can cope with what happens "in between" religions, in order to understand interreligious relations and processes of inter-religious transformation.

A major challenge to both academic traditions in present multi-religious contexts would be to develop research methods as well as teaching models that take the interaction between religions as well as their mutual transformations seriously. As for dialogue as an academic challenge, it could be that Theology is in fact better prepared for this than Religious Studies. Theology recognises itself as a representative of a particular tradition. On this foundation, it can enter into dialogue with other faiths and theologies, and jointly study what happens in between living and closely interacting traditions, like Christianity and Islam. (Needless to say, not all theological institutions would be prepared for this!).

3. Avoiding essentialism:

The need for contextual approaches to theology and religion.

Also dialogical approaches must be wary of essentialism on the part of any of the partners in dialogue. Dialogue functions best in recognised contexts. In order to understand religion in function, univeralising approaches to Theology and Religious Studies must be modified by those of contextual theologies and the anthropology of religion.

In the British context, social anthropology is a major foundation of the interpretative approaches to religious education that have been developed in the Warwick RE Project, headed by Robert Jackson.[3] Religion is studied in context, as lived by people. Much attention is given to cultural issues, to intrareligious differences, and to the interaction between different levels in "religion": religious traditions as practised in particular regions, religions as represented by competing membership organisations, and religions as lived by individuals.

As for the regional approach, we have noted that the northernmost university in Norway is heading towards a contextual model of teaching religion on the academic level. This might be a challenge also for regional colleges responsible for teacher training, presupposing that the curriculum in school is not so overloaded with national or universal ambitions that no space is left for contextuality and local approaches.

4. Taking pluralism seriously on the individual level:

The need to recognise plural identities.

Just as no tradition has a solitary existence, religious education cannot necessarily presuppose a coherent religious identity on the pupils' part. In real life, attempts to re-establish solid and often exclusive identities compete with the tendency to form more plural identities. On the societal level, quite different traditions usually contribute to constitute what might still be termed national identities. On the personal level, people often nourish themselves from different spiritual sources. If we can take for granted that no tradition is the exclusive property of one particular faith community, and that people are capable of letting themselves be inspired by more than one (confessional or religious) source, religious education should allow for more playful and experimental approaches to religious traditions.

This seems to be the vision of John Hull and The School of Education at the University of Birmingham, materialising in their "Gift to the child"-approach.[4] For John Hull, treating religion as a gift to the child implies that the teachers allow themselves to conduct "educational robbery", in other words, to extract "pieces of religion" like the cross, the Ganesha, the Muslim call to prayer, or a particular religious story, and present them to the creative imagination of the pupils. This is what happens in what Hull terms the stages of engagement and exploration. In these stages, pieces of religion are divested of their traditional context. Instead, they are coming alive in the living context of the classroom, which has its own dynamics and its own rules. The next stages, however, are characterised by words like "contextualisation" and "reflection". In these stages, the pieces are put back into their confessional context which now can be taught more systematically. Gradually, the pupils are also invited to critical reflection.

5. In search for combined efforts of Theology and Religious Studies:

The "insider" and "outsider" perspective.

The interplay between what Hull calls "Entering and Distancing Devices" in the "gift approach" might show the way also to a more generous exchange between Theology and Religious Studies - as major basic subjects for students training to be teachers.

Mutually exclusive characteristics like tradition and criticism, normativity and neutrality, particular and universal outlooks, no longer catch the real differences between Theology and Religious Studies. What remains, however, is the dialectic between what might be termed the "insider" and the "outsider" perspective. For the purpose of religious education, religions need to be approached both from the "inside" - as living sources for faith, morals and life orientation - and from the "outside", as objects of critical investigation. If Theology may be defined as the systematic representation of the insider perspective of a particular faith, every faith community in a multi-religious society should have the opportunity of asserting itself as "systematic theology", and the right to be listened to in this capacity. Religious Studies, while retaining its relative "neutral" and critical approaches from the outside of any tradition, must recognise the value of the insider's perspective in order to come to grips with a particular living tradition. This implies sympathetic involvement with believers, as well as willingness to dialogue with theologians, be they Christian or other.

Pedagogy of Religion, aiming at religious education, needs the dialectic between the insider and the outsider perspective. A dialectic of this kind can be taken as an ethos in both Theology and Religious Studies, and as a spur to inter-disciplinary co-operation between these scholarly traditions. Modern pluralism includes a plurality of scholarly approaches to religion. Only research methods that are in themselves plural and inter-disciplinary may claim to be in touch with the complex reality.

On this basis, new forms of institutionalised co-operation can be sought for, and inter-disciplinary projects formulated. Clues like the interplay between holy texts and changing social contexts, the tension between popular and normative religion, the challenge to link comparative religion to dialogical practices, should be sufficient to get brains working in search for multidimensional and truly inter-disciplinary research projects.


[1] It is well known that in Christian theology, South African theologies are often cited as ground-breaking examples of contextual theology. For a stimulating Islamic example of contextual theology related the South African experience, see Farid Esack: Qur'an, Liberation and Pluralism. An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity against Oppression, Oxford: Oneworld 1997.

[2] Cf. Gavin D'Costa: "The End of `Theology' and `Religious Studies'", in Theology, Sept/Oct 1996, pp. 338-351.

[3] See Robert Jackson: Religious Education. An interpretive approach, London: Hodder & Stoughton 1997.

[4] See John Hull: "A gift to the child: A new pedagogy for teaching religion to young children", in British Journal of Religious Education, vol. 91, 1996:2, pp. 172-188.