Religious Studies, Theology & the Scholar-Practitioner

The voice of the scholar-practitioner emerges from a confluence of well-established disciplines, both inside and outside the academy. The scholarly study of religion and spirituality in the West is formally located in the fields of Theology and Religious Studies; practitioners draw from these and also (or alternatively) from monasteries, ashrams, contemporary yoga studios, secular meditation centers, and more. The natural process of combining scholarship and practice is central to the formation of spiritual leaders, as demonstrated by centuries of seminary and monastic institutions around the world. Yet, in the modern academy, where the emphasis is more often religious literacy and critical thinking, practice and subjective experience are regarded by many scholars of religion as less serious and overly biased.1 Still, an increasing number of respected scholars have begun to talk about how their practice informs their scholarship, and vice-versa. This is an important transition because the scholar-practitioner of today is distinct from earlier Christian theologians and/or missionaries and yet the process of integrating historical and traditional knowledge with the contemporary experience of faith or practice remains essential, especially for the formation of spiritual leaders and teachers and for the possibility of dialogue and peacemaking efforts between newer and established religious communities. The scholar-practitioner offers an emic, or insider’s perspective, that draws from contemplative practice, combined with a rigorous desire for knowledge grounded in traditional sources, emerging research, and new ideas.  

Throughout this issue of Tarka, a number of authors have argued for the value of combining practice with textual learning. In particular, contemplative practice may actually shift how the brain functions, thereby allowing for a different mode of perception and understanding than might otherwise be available. The denial of this shift and omission of the centrality of practice within the study of the Dharmic traditions is part of what Rita Sherma refers to as “epistemic violence.”2 It carries over a colonial impulse that prioritizes European methodologies for study over and above the methods offered by the Dharmic traditions. 

Two additional factors underscore the need for the scholar-practitioner. First, many scholar-practitioners within contemplative studies do not fit neatly into the standard category of religion, yet their practices or texts do. For example, the entry point for many individuals who were not born into a Dharmic tradition is a practice, such as meditation, which then might inspire intellectual curiosity towards the texts and wider tradition. This may or may not be followed by an official conversion, ordination, or initiation. “Belonging” to a spiritual community, in this case, is more defined by a shared set of values and practices versus having a religious identity. Since there isn’t a neat category within the academy for meditators or yoga practitioners, they most often fall under the umbrella of Hinduism and Buddhism, and yet this is not quite accurate either. Still, their questions, concerns, and research agendas do fall somewhere between the established fields of Religious Studies and Theology. The need to define and address the particularity of “scholar-practitioner” is further demonstrated by relatively new fields such as Yoga Studies and Contemplation education that are also emerging with MA degrees available from Loyola Marymount University, Naropa University, and Graduate Theological Union, to name a few pioneering institutions.

Secondly, the scholar-practitioner has a constructive impulse. A living tradition implies an ongoing practice, one that shifts and responds to the needs of the time. Over centuries, religions change or cease to be relevant. At one time, more widespread literacy meant that sacred texts were translated into vernacular languages and read by more people. This democratization of knowledge fundamentally changed religious traditions throughout the world, giving rise to Protestantism, lay Dharma teachers, women leaders, and more. The constructive theologian is one who stands within a tradition, who seeks to understand its history and texts, and who wrestles with the questions that are most pressing for their current era. Though scholar-practitioners may (or may not) stand outside of a conventional religious category, they do sit at the intersection between a religious history and the modern context. In particular, issues around race, class, empire, sexuality, gender, and the environment are of critical concern for many scholar-practitioners who are now forming new approaches to practice and reading texts with increased discernment. 

As noted, the two dominant categories for the study of religion in the academy are Religious Studies and Theology; the scholar-practitioner sits within each of these and yet, simultaneously, outside of both. The field of Religious Studies emerged in the 1950’s as a means to promote an objective, scientific approach to the study of the world’s religious traditions.  For many universities, this entailed the creation of new departments which included Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Previously the study of these traditions was most often known as “Orientalism” and was largely inspired by European colonial efforts, anthropological curiosity, and Christian evangelization.3 The study of Christianity was predominantly “Theology,” and promoted the interests of the Church as a field primarily open to seminarians and church leaders. “Religious Studies,” then became an ecumenical, interreligious platform for dialogue and liberal arts education. However, over time, implicit biases have become evident in the field of Religious Studies (who can genuinely conduct research without any bias?) and the effort to subtract religious and spiritual interests from the study of religious and spiritual tradition has led to a further schism between the scholar and the practitioner. In what follows, I will discuss some of “the “problems” with Religious Studies and Theology. I then argue that the emerging voice of the scholar-practitioner is an important facet for understanding religious traditions, their responses to contemporary contexts, and the possibility of constructive theological work that is capable of addressing the concerns of social justice, including racism, gender, and post-colonial concerns.  

The problem with Theology

Theology is a study conducted by a person of faith for the benefit of a community of the faithful. It presumes a religious faith and it denotes the effort of the individual to better understand, explore, and develop that religious faith. As noted in Christopher Chapple’s article in this issue, the study of one’s own religious tradition, i.e. Christians studying Christianity or Buddhists studying Buddhism, has long been one of the primary categories for advanced education. One of the bases of theology, then, is the acceptance of certain metaphysical truths that are set forth by the faith tradition, such as the assumption that God created the world (as believed by Abrahamic traditions) or, conversely, that there is a fundamental nonduality between Consciousness and creation (as posited by the Advaita schools). The study of that faith tradition might explore these basic metaphysical ideas, but just as often these form the foundational norms for all other study. For example, Patañjali’s Yogasūtras accepts Sāṃkhyan metaphysics and explains the Yoga tradition in light of them. Similarly, a Christian theology accepts the existence of God and seeks to form logical arguments based on Christian metaphysics.   

From a theological perspective, the question of how to understand a different religious tradition naturally unfolds from within the logic of the home tradition, accepting the basic tenets of faith and working to make sense of the world in those terms. For many readers, especially those engaged with contemporary yoga studies and/or those who are “spiritual but not religious,” the idea of interpreting one tradition using the logic of another tradition may appear offensive – it is, after all, calling to the forefront one’s own biases and actually using them to interpret and understand another.4 Still, one’s own worldview implicitly influences how the individual understands the other. This is, in fact, a natural process that is made explicit in the field of theology. For example, Hindus, who are not particularly concerned with converting new followers, might understand the religious other by positing the doctrine of reincarnation. Accordingly, from this Hindu worldview, a good Muslim or Christian might be granted a Hindu birth in their next lifetime –– there is no need for them to convert or attempt Hindu rituals or prayers. In this way, the rituals and prayers that are central to Hinduism can still be understood by the Hindu to be necessary (as a means to a fortunate rebirth or as a means to liberation), yet non-essential for anyone who is not Hindu. Similarly, Christian authors working to make logical sense of the religious other in Christian terms have varied from “exclusivism,” or the idea that only those who accept Christ can be saved, to the more recent “inclusivist” stance that declares that “a light of truth in other faiths” exists and anything with this light of truth comes from Christ.5 However these ideas are expressed, they are clearly biased perspectives, explicitly employing the logic of one tradition to understand a world of diversity. At worst, they can justify religious violence and the idea that the religious other is a threat to the safety and salvation of a given community. At best they are diplomatic and make the effort to accept that truth and goodness exist in different traditions. However, even in this best-case scenario, Hindus are unlikely to fully accept or recognize themselves in the description offered by Christians and vice versa.  They might, however, come to understand the logic of diverse theological perspectives and, ideally, agree to dialogue and peacemaking efforts.  

In India, the study of Hinduism (and other Indic religions) by non-Hindus was largely funded by the East India company and ultimately worked to support the colonizing mission of the British. In particular, during the late 19th and early 20th century, scholars were encouraged to learn vernacular languages and cultural expectations as a means to translate and more widely share the Bible and Christianity. In the Inculturation movement in India, Christian monks went so far as to learn Sanskrit and take on the orange robes of Hindu sadhus in order to gain the trust of the upper caste brahmin priests. It was initially hoped that once the brahmins began to convert, the rest of the population would more easily follow. In India, this effort largely failed and even led to a partial conversion of many Christian monks within what came to be known as the Christian Ashram Movement.6 Yet the idea that Christian theologians held a self-serving agenda in their quest for knowledge about other religions and cultures is a historical fact and stigma that remains. The earliest periods of scholarship that emphasized interreligious study were predominantly conducted for the purpose of furthering the beliefs, practices, and economic interests of a particular people and their religious tradition.

All of this points to some of the central “problems” with theology. The root “theo” means “god,” so the word “theology” literally means something like “the study of god,” which  automatically aligns with some traditions better than others. Despite a rich and varied history, theology is intimately aligned with a colonial past and the myriad violations of human rights that occurred with the occupation of foreign lands. Theology is also exclusive. It speaks from and to a particular community (of believers). Lastly, Christian theology, like Vedantin arguments, is aimed to convert or convince –– it means to show the logic and superiority of the home faith –– and is therefore not an appropriate model for teaching a general population about religious difference.  

The problem with Religious Studies

The Science of Religion developed alongside and in response to the European Enlightenment. This approach posited a neutral position, whereby the scholar of religion could analyze religious texts and practices as data. However, it wasn’t until 1870 that F. Max Müller declared “He who knows one, knows none,”7 in a series of lectures designed to promote and delineate the field. Müller’s suggestion that knowing other traditions will help the individual (and society) to better know themselves, continues to inspire comparative work to this day. The contemporary field of Religious Studies holds an important place within secular, liberal arts education where courses on “World Religions” (among other more specialized topics) can be taught in an unbiased fashion, thus promoting religious literacy and peaceful citizenship within a religiously diverse world. Yet, the earliest scholarship in the Science of Religion inevitably made comparisons with Christianity and held Christian teaching and ethics as the ultimate, neutral, gold standard.  As scholar Tomoko Masuzawa carefully unpacks in her book, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism, the early, supposedly objective and empirical approach to the study of religion also presupposed the idea that a “universal” or “world religion” –– one that was designed for all people in all places –– was naturally superior to more local, indigenous or tribal religious practice.8 Traditions other than Christianity were labeled as “ethnic” or “incomplete.” They were ultimately shown to be too particular and too culturally bound to have the same “universal” value as a tradition like Christianity.  Even more extreme, many of these early studies of diverse religions explicitly stated their intent “to establish the truth of Christianity,” or, as literature that might simply amuse or entertain the reader.9 While the scope of “World Religions” has expanded and become more diplomatic since this early period, the initial parameters of the field demonstrate the subtle (and not so subtle) ways that “scientific” and “unbiased” study is influenced by the norms of the dominant culture.  

Some of the explicit biases that formed the early field of the Science of Religion are continued in today’s study of pluralism and “World Religions,” which codifies certain cultural and spiritual practices as “religious.” In particular, Masuzawa examines the category of Hinduism, which gained acceptance as a “world religion” through the emphasis on Hindu traditions that were monotheistic and universal, and ignored the more local, sectarian expressions of “Hindu” life. This points to an even larger debate around the usefulness of the category of religion and what traditions and practices are counted as fitting within that umbrella. The phrase “New Religious Movements” seems to point to the process whereby spiritual communities, cults, trail-blazers, and heretics slowly shape their practices and ideas around belonging in a way that gradually conforms to the established category of religion. Conversely, contemplative practitioners, who stand outside of the conventional parameters of belonging to a religious group, yet who are deeply committed to a contemplative practice and who even have a sense of belonging to a larger spiritual community, do not fit neatly into the discourse of Religious Studies. According to a 2017 pew research study, 27% of U.S. adults identify as “spiritual but not religious.”10 Of course, not all “spiritual but not religious” are scholar-practitioners, but the numbers point to a significant population of individuals who might benefit from a more inclusive and robust approach to advanced studies of religious and spiritual traditions. One of the great strengths and challenges for the study of religion is the vast diversity of people, culture, and traditions that it attempts to address. To further the parameters of this diverse field is to add to this strength.  

Gradually the field of religious studies has moved away from grand, universal statements and broad comparative analysis towards more particular, specialized investigations. The perennial philosophy pioneered by thinkers like Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, and William James sought a harmony between religious traditions through the emphasis of common goals and experiences. This idea is illustrated in Huston Smith’s famous metaphor of the world’s different religious traditions symbolized by different paths that lead up a common mountain, only to meet at the same top.11 A counter perspective to this idea comes from Smith’s own student, Stephen Prothero in his 2010 book, God is Not One. Prothero emphasizes the distinction between religious traditions and further suggests that each tradition has a unique understanding of “the human problem” and thus offers a unique solution.12 The broader implication of this move within Religious Studies away from universal ideals and broad, comparative statements towards more particular, contextual analysis is further marked by its segregation into increasingly specialized “area studies” such as Hinduism, Islam, and Jainism, along with an array of diverse methodologies including descriptive, philological, historical, and anthropological analyses. In a 2020 article for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Thomas A. Lewis argues that this fragmentation within the field is both its strength and its potential peril. In recent years, departments of Religious Studies have been threatened by university budget cuts, evoking various departments across the nation and leading organizations like the American Academy of Religion to issue statements regarding the value of Religious Studies.13 Regarding these Lewis comments, “Given the lack of engagement across subfields, it is unsurprising that we cannot generate and support robust statements about what we do. It is often unclear what, if anything, brings us together as scholars of religion beyond a vague sense that we all study religion; but that means radically different things to different groups of us. We therefore have trouble articulating, to ourselves or others, why we belong in a single department.”14 And, even if examining the particular may be more accurate and ultimately more respectful to religious individuals than sweeping generalizations, it also risks becoming obscure, thereby making the entire field less accessible and relevant. While theology has a clear intended audience, the community of believers and other theologians, outside of the field of “World Religions,” Religious Studies speaks primarily to students and religious scholars. 

Still, peace between nations (and people) requires knowledge of the other and the ability to critically engage the worldviews, texts, and practices that emerge from different contexts in ways that honor and allow for the richness that this complex diversity offers. To this point, Lewis finally argues for a renewed engagement with the theories and methods for the study of religion. He further comments, “More fundamentally, a revitalized methods and theories project is about generating and sustaining a shared set of conversations, arguments, and disagreements about what we do and how—not about coming to a consensus in our views about how we study religion.”15 Here I add that the voice of the scholar-practitioner offers a unique and valuable perspective (and potentially representative of a quarter of the population of U.S. adults) that a revitalized approach to the methods and theories for the study of religion would do well to include. 

This section highlights some of the central “problems” with Religious Studies. All analysis includes some measure of bias. Thus, recognizing one’s own position and place in the world in relation to the material being studied may be the most ethical and honest approach. Further, descriptive, anthropological and/or historical analyses have a limited audience and are less immediately able to incorporate and address the pressing contemporary issues that most concern communities of practitioners (and these concerns may require constructive work, which will be addressed more fully in the next section). Lastly, Religious Studies presumes certain delineated categories of religious belonging that are not necessarily representative of spiritual practice or of the scholar-practitioner.  

On the Scholar-Practitioner

This issue of Tarka argues for the value and place of the scholar-practitioner. I set out to show the ways in which the very concept of the scholar-practitioner is linked to the practice of theology – that is, in Anselm of Canterbury’s (1033-1109) words – it is “faith seeking understanding.” Practitioners (or believers, in Anselm’s case) begin with an experience of faith and through the discipline of theology and/or the study of sacred texts, they seek to understand and explore the parameters of that faith. Yet, the faith delineated by Anselm is also fundamentally different from the embodied knowledge that the practitioner of yoga or meditation experiences. Instead of faith in God, this is “experience seeking understanding” that includes physical awareness and kinesthetic knowledge. As noted above, it is often this initial affirmative experience that inspires further curiosity and commitment to a particular tradition or lineage of knowledge. Thus, the scholar-practitioner who is grounded in contemplative studies is not necessarily a theologian, in the traditional sense. 

Interestingly, the practitioner’s turn towards scholarship subsequently tends to align with the methodology of Religious Studies, with descriptive, particular knowledge as the key point of focus. Scholars, who are not necessarily practitioners, are invited to teach relevant texts within yoga teacher trainings and students are, at times, left with the choice between “misappropriating” a text for their own purposes or grappling to understand it. Encouraging a more robust discipline of “scholar-practitioner” would fill a gap between the general public and experts in a field of Religious Studies. The aforementioned “misappropriation” of a text is often earmarked by a clash between the modern context and a historical commentary or tradition.16 This is precisely where a well-trained, constructive theologian –– or a scholar-practitioner –– is needed, that is, someone formally trained in a scholarly field, who is also grounded in a living, contemporary faith/practice community, who not only reads what texts are saying, but who can also bravely question their authority, propose new meanings that are also grounded in tradition, and potentially reinterpret key points in ways that both honor a tradition and embrace liberative philosophies, such as equal rights, environmental concerns, and economic disparity.

Inspiring examples of constructive theology abound in Christianity with liberation theology, black liberation theology, womanist theology, latinx theology, queer theology, and more.17  Each of these areas represents special interests, but they also address the tradition as a whole, pushing the wider Christian community to examine assumptions, texts, practices, and ritual in light of a theory of liberation, the desire to create a tradition that is inclusive of all people, and a practice that centers on social justice as a key Christian ethic. Some Buddhist and Hindu scholars are also producing important constructive work along these lines.18 It’s worth noting, however, that many of these works are quite recent. I contend that this is an exciting trend, and one that arguably coincides with particular scholars writing as scholar-practitioners. In order to further a space for this kind of work and the discourse that can support it, the role of the scholar-practitioner, particularly within the emerging fields of yoga studies and within the Dharmic traditions, must be explicitly recognized and centered. The field of Religious Studies is essential for increasing religious literacy, diplomacy, and citizenship. And, scholars from within Religious Studies and Theology also play a vital role in shaping new forms of tradition and practice.    


  1. Also see Jeffrey Lidke’s “From Faculty and Friends” interview in this issue. Lidke emphasizes the enthusiasm of the practitioner that is, at times, closed to objective reasoning and analysis.
  2. See Rita Sherma’s “From Faculty and Friends” interview in this issue. Also, see Rita Sherma.  Contemplative Studies & Hinduism: Meditation, Devotion, Prayer, & Worship. New York, NY: Routledge (2020).
  3. Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism, New York, NY: Vintage Books (1978; 1994) fundamentally changed the way this term is understood by critiquing the West’s popular and scholarly conception of the East.  See also, Tomoko Masusawa. The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (2005:14-20).
  4. Thanks also to Marcy Braverman Goldstein for pointing out the following: “Christianity is ‘orthodox’ (focused on doctrine) whereas Hinduism/Judaism are ‘orthoprax’ (focused on practice). Christians looking for a central creed in Hinduism is Christocentric because the categories are different between orthodox and orthoprax traditions. Scholars who are most familiar with orthodox Christianity will find orthoprax Hinduism and Judaism lacking.  But these other traditions aren’t lacking; they are categorically different.” (Personal communication, 12/20/2020).
  5. This concept is addressed in Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document that explains the Catholic Church’s understanding of non-Christian religions. See:
  6. Two key figures within the Christian Ashram movement were Henri Le Saux (1910-1973), who eventually became known as Swami Abhishiktananda, and Jules Monchanin (1895-1957).  For more on this history of this movement see, “Inculturation,” by Michael Amaladoss, SJ in The Routledge Handbook of Hindu-Christian Relations. Chad M. Bauman & Michelle Voss Roberts, eds. New York, NY: Routledge (Forthcoming, 2021).
  7. See, Eric J. Sharpe. Comparative Religion: A History. London: Duckworth (1975, 2003: 27-46). Sharpe dedicates a chapter to discussing the significance of F. Max Müller and his comparative efforts.
  8. Masuzawa (2005: 63, 78).  Chapters 1 & 2 of Masusawa’s study analyze the works of several early scholars of religion including Bernard Picart (1673-1733), Josiah Conder (1789-1855), James Freeman Clarke (1810-1888), and Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-1872).
  9. Ibid.
  10. This number is up 8% from a previous study conducted 5 years ago. This evidence points to the significance of this category of individuals who do have some kind of spiritual practice, but who are no longer comfortable with a conventional religious category. See:
  11. Huston Smith. The World’s Religions. New York, NY: HarperCollins (1958: 72-73).
  12. Stephen Prothero. God is Not One: Eight Rival Religions that Rule the World. New York, NY: HarperOne (2010).
  13. See the statement published December 16, 2020: Also, for example, see the statement published by the University of Alabama on December 21, 2020:
  14. Thomas A Lewis, “Theory and Method and the Stakes of a Fragmented Discipline: Or, What Economics Taught Me About the Study of Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, lfaa060, (emphasis in the original).
  15. To explain this point Lewis adds, “For this to be a robust conversation, we need not come to an agreement, but we need to develop enough common reference points to make our disagreements meaningful.” Ibid.
  16. Cultural appropriation is an additional, serious concern. Yet, the very concept of the scholar-practitioner is indicative of the effort to move beyond popular images of commercially inspired yoga or orientalist images of Eastern wisdom towards an understanding of the Dharmic traditions in context. Further, the practices of meditation and yoga reach beyond particular cultures and while texts and traditions must be engaged respectfully, it is also essential to engage more “modern” concerns of gender equality, race, the environment, etc., in relationship to the contemporary practice of yoga and meditation because these are the concerns that (for many people) represent liberation, wellness, and spiritual maturity in this time.
  17. A few key examples from the Christian tradition include: James Cone. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. New York: Orbis Books (2011); M. Shawn Copeland. Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2010); and Kwok Pui-lan. Postcolonial Imagination & Feminist Theology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press (2005).
  18. See, for example, Samhita Arni & Moyna Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana. Berkeley, CA: Groundwood Books (2011); Rita M. Gross. Buddhism Beyond Gender: Liberation from Attachment to Identity. Boulder, CO: Shambhala (2018); Stephanie Kaza’s Green Buddhism: Practice and Compassionate Action for Uncertain Times.  Boulder, CO: Shambhala (2019); Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, & Jasmine Syedullah’s Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books (2016); and Rita Sherma’s Contemplative Studies & Hinduism: Meditation, Devotion, Prayer, & Worship. New York, NY: Routledge (2020).