There is a considerable amount of confusion surrounding the difference(s) between Theological Studies and Religious Studies, and, having found myself in the mood, I am here intending to draw out those differences clearly. A professor of mine once said that when trying to explain the difference between the two disciplines, it is best (and easiest) to say that the whole difference between theological studies and religious studies is the difference between humanities and the social sciences (respectively). That’s a helpful place to start, but I feel as though more can and perhaps should be said. First of all, religious studies strives for academic objectivity, such that regardless of one’s religious convictions one should be able to, with the same data and the same methodology, come to the same conclusion(s) in their academic work. Granted that Theologians do also often strive for objectivity, it is probably fairer to say that Theologians strive first and foremost for truth. Objectivity is often thought to be a means to that end, but the Theologian is not bound to accept that objectivity is always a means, much less the best means, to the truth, whereas the scholar of Religious studies is professionally bound to strive for objectivity regardless of whether there are any good reasons to think that objectivity (in this or that instance) does nothing to ensure truth.
To give a simple illustration, take the last two hundred years of what’s called ‘Jesus’ scholarship, which is just the academic search for the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Theologians are often cognizant of just how biased the field has been, noting that most well-to-do historians specializing in the field almost inevitably come to imagine the historical Jesus of Nazareth in their own image. Thus, one scholar thinks Jesus a political revolutionary, another thinks him a Marxist, another thinks him a secular humanist, another thinks him a radical Jewish Rabbi, another thinks him a mere character constructed from pagan sources. All of these conclusions have been reached by scholars of Religious Studies (as well as Theologians), all dealing with the same data, all working with the same methodologies. Theologians recognize this as a problem with the general approach, suggesting that perhaps Theology, like Philosophy and Politics, is simply not the kind of subject which can be approached or handled in ‘scientific’ fashion. The field of Religious studies, however, seldom countenances such a critique. Other examples are quick at hand, such as the presumption that if a single text tells the same story in recognizably different ways then it must (or likely does) have more than one source of authorship. Such presumptions remain tacit assumptions in the field of Religious studies, where nobody seriously questions longstanding views like the documentary hypothesis, whereas a theological critique of the documentary hypothesis (or such-like views) may begin with criticism at precisely this point.
Thus, the field of religious studies is more restrictive, in a sense, precisely because it encourages an attitude of enlightenment optimism, envisioning a kind of scientific-like objectivity in the field of religious studies. One puts ones religious convictions to one side and simply does their scholarly work responsibly, by which is meant, does the work operating with ‘enlightenment’ presuppositions. In Theological studies, by contrast, students and professionals are encouraged not only to be candid about their presuppositions, and to allow those presuppositions to inform their scholarship, but also to imagine how their case would appear to stand from a different set of presuppositions. In Religious studies, there is simply one set of presuppositions which we might refer to as ‘academic presuppositions,’ from which all academically respectable work must be done, while in Theological studies the naïveté of the modernist presuppositions which underlie and motivate that very idea are constantly brought to the fore of academic discussion. If there is one thing post-modernism is right about it is that nobody, however diligent, is ever truly objective. We all always import our presuppositions into our work, we filter observations and data through a particular network of presumptions, and without at least some such network we would simply never be able to assess any information at all. Theology recognizes this, whereas Religious studies remains committed to an ideal of objectivity regardless of substantive philosophical criticism.
In Theological studies students are encouraged to let their faith and their scholarship interact and inform one another, whereas in Religious studies the dialogue between personal faith and academic work is at best seen as a private affair. Religious studies encourages what looks to the Theologian like a naïve cognitive dissonance inspired by a now 100 years out-of-date enlightenment optimism about ‘objectivity,’ whereas Theology encourages what looks to the scholar of Religion like an academic subjectivism which provides no hope of winning any academic consensus on any issue (since faith informs ones work and it is impossible, per enlightenment, to argue with faith). Moreover, the theologian both exposes her faith directly to challenges to it, and allows her faith to inform her speculation and method; both of these practices are considered academic anathema to the scholar of Religion.
The Theologian generally has a model of the relationship between faith and reason, and generally it is one of complimentarity. Thus, for instance, Catholic theologians in the main speak about reason as a preparatio for faith (a kind of ‘John the Baptist’ figure making way for faith), and then speak of faith as enriching reason, providing it with resources out of its reach, and with which it can be perfected. By stark contrast, the Scholar of Religion is likely to treat faith and reason, or at least faith and academic work, as non-overlapping magisteria. Thus, Theology and Philosophy are closer relatives than Religious Studies is to either of them. This is precisely why one hears talk of philosophical theology, and undergraduate courses in the philosophical foundations of theology, but one never hears of philosophical religious studies. This is also why there are Theology courses on the intersection of theology and science, and a vibrant academic dialogue between Theology and Science as disciplines, whereas the same is not so for Religious studies. Analytic Theology exists, but there is no such thing as ‘analytic Religious studies.’
On the other hand, Theology is much more focused in its scope than religious studies. Theological studies concentrates on the Judeo-Christian tradition (out of which it comes), whereas Religious studies covers eastern religions, ancient and dead religious traditions, aboriginal native american religion and so on. Thus, whereas Theologians often engage in biblical criticism, scholars of Religion often know much less about the Bible, and about Christianity and Judaism in general. It is important not to equate Jewish studies with either Theology or Religion, however, and thus Theology should normally be viewed as a Christian enterprise (though Theologians are often Jewish, Muslim, Atheistic, and many other things besides). If one wanted to study Hinduism, one would have to take a course in Religious studies. If one wanted to study the textual evolution of the New Testament, one would do better to take a Theology class. In Religious studies nobody is encouraged to argue critically about faith-claims (which are really just truth-claims), whereas in Theology one is encouraged to defend or attack such claims. Theology students need some background in philosophy, whereas students of Religious studies need no such background.
I think this provides a sufficient summary of the most relevant differences between Theological studies and Religious studies. To recapitulate briefly, Religious studies adopts something akin to a scientific ideal, aspiring to academic objectivity, adopting broadly modernistic presumptions bequeathed to us by the enlightenment (such as that one cannot rationally argue about faith, or offer compelling arguments where faith is involved). Theological studies often assumes that this project is misconceived (that Theology/Religion is just not as simple a discipline as the natural sciences are), not to mention naïve. By contrast the approach of Theological studies is heavily philosophical and self-critical, it does not encourage the cognitive dissonance of Religious studies (by quarantining the convictions of faith), and promotes instead a more holistic approach to scholarship. Religious studies accuses Theology of being too ‘religious’, while Theology accuses Religious studies of being too ‘modernistic’ and (therefore) ‘secular.’ Theology will court arguments detrimental to faith, whereas Religious studies is detrimental to faith not in its content but by its very approach (to separate faith from reason makes ‘faith’ inhuman and immoral, and, a Theologian may add, does the same to reason). I think it is relatively clear what my preferences are, but at least I hope this short exposé of the differences serves as a fair introduction to the distinction between these two disciplines.
As a final note, it may be adduced from what has been said that Theology and Religious studies have somewhat different anthropologies. In Religious studies, people are encouraged to leave the resources of faith to one side, whereas in Theological studies the human person is invited to engage scholarship as a whole person – and these claims are motivated, in my submission, by two different views of human nature. In Religious studies matters of faith are viewed as private affairs which run the risk of contaminating otherwise respectable scholarship, and thus are best left to individual discretion and excluded from academic conversation. In Theological Studies, what one chooses to believe has immense moral significance, and if one chooses in private life to believe any doctrine or set of doctrines, the conviction is that this very choice will always inevitably translate eventually into some discernible difference in how one interacts with the world and how one motivates others to interact with the world. Thus, Theology not only takes religious belief seriously as a matter of the utmost moral significance (since if one is wrong, one literally owes the whole world an apology, and if one is right one would owe an equally sincere apology to the world for not acting and thinking in accord with those convictions), but also encourages rational argumentation about religious belief(s). Theology and Religious studies thus seem to have very different views of what the human person is, how the human person should reason and act in the public sphere (as opposed to the private sphere, if there is any such thing), what moral epistemic religious duties such a person has, and to what extent he can or should be expected to be ‘reasonable’ with respect to private belief (or indeed, whether or not human beings are so inexorably ‘social’ that there is any such thing as a ‘private’ belief at all). This final distinction between anthropologies is perhaps the most fundamental difference between the two fields.