Doing What, by Whom, for Whom and How?: An Essay on Interests, Modes, Methods and Other Dynamics in “Theology” and/or “Religious Studies”

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The essay begins with a methodological exploration of aspects of the continuing contested relationship between modes of engaging in the study of religion, which are often described in English as “Theology” or “Religious Studies” and more sharply differentiated in the German language as Theologie and Religionswissenschaft. By reference to the example of some of the conflicts that emerged around the formation of the European Academy of Religion, the essay shows how these two modes can solidify into opposing scholarly camps. While acknowledging the economic pragmatics that can come to the fore in institutional settings, it notes that the primacy of “Theology” was rooted in a Christendom social, religious and legal inheritance, while the emergence of Religious Studies and Religionswissenschaft represented an Enlightenment aspiration towards freedom from such. However, the purpose of this essay is neither to take sides between these broad camps, nor to argue that the differences between them are unimportant. Rather, it is centrally concerned with critiquing both modes for having too often proceeded without a sufficiently self-conscious embrace of the contextual impact upon them of social, political and economic frameworks, interests and/or the individual positionalities taken in relation to these. To support its arguments, the essay deploys aspects of the theological and socio-political legacies of the Czech and German theologians Josef Hromádka and Dorothee Soelle, alongside methodological insights and arguments from the British Religious Studies scholars Richard King and Malory Nye. In conclusion, drawing on Ninian Smart’s call for “axioanalysis” in the study of religion, the essay sets out a series of questions to both “Theology” and/or “Religious Studies” which it posits could help to facilitate an important and needed transformation in both “Theology” and “Religious Studies”. Within such a transformation, if socio-political contextuality and positionality are embraced and embedded as necessary (but not exhaustive or exclusive) for both critical and constructive scholarship in “Theology” and “Religious Studies”, then an “engaged” approach to the study of religion might prove able to facilitate a fruitful “shared borderland” between the “hinterland territories” claimed by these otherwise often broadly differential modes of study.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1142
Number of pages15
Issue number9
Early online date6 Sept 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Sept 2023

Bibliographical note

© 2023 by the author. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (


The research that informed this essay received no direct funding. The author was, however, invited to prepare a paper on which this essay is based, which was to be given at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) “Religious Diversity and the Secular University” project workshop on Theology, held at the “University of Cambridge, 20–21 September 2018”. To participate in this: the author was provided with travel expenses and overnight accommodation by the workshop organizers.


  • theology
  • religious studies
  • Religionswissenschaft
  • methodologies
  • methods
  • epistemologies
  • study of religions
  • ideologies
  • secular
  • decolonization


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