Practitioner vs. Scholar: Why Reza Aslan Reminds Me to Fight for that Division

As you most likely have heard by now, author Reza Aslan participated in what is being called “the worst Fox News interview ever.” A sociologist and and scholar, Aslan recently wrote Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and began touring the interview circuit to promote his book. However, what was meant to be a promotional interview suddenly plunged into a black hole when Fox correspondent Lauren Green became fixated upon one question, “Why would a Muslim be interested in writing about Jesus?” (You can watch the interview here).

I grimaced as I watched Aslan repeat his credentials over and over, insisting his scholarship was separate from his personal religious affiliation. I know Green’s tone well; how many times have I received the confused looks and pointed questions when some hear I am a Christian studying Judaism. Countless times I’ve insisted my personal religious affiliation has nothing to do with my scholarly interests, and often I’ve received messages such as this one, “I remain somewhat incredulous of people who seem to actually separate what they believe from their scholarship.”

And so I’d like to make the case for the division between practitioner and scholar.

1. Can a person separate belief from study?

My answer is yes, yet the Fox News interview with Aslan reminds me that many are skeptical of this skill. Why did Lauren Green find it impossible? Because the skill of thinking like a scholar is not taught on a mass scale, nor is it relevant for most people’s lives. Think about it; college has been deemed by many a fundamentalist as a time of corrupting impressionable youths’ faith and causing all manner of questioning. This is because academia has cultivated its own style of thinking, writing, and questioning that one customarily learns in the college setting. Graduate school and the PhD process in the Humanities are specifically designed to train students in this very skill of separating one’s beliefs about all manner of things, such as religion, politics, society, in order to engage a text, culture, or history in its own context.

Can this skill ever be fully realized? No! No scholar can deny their personal worldview, biases, or experience; these forces drive the types of questions the scholar asks or lends the particular lens by which the scholar operates. Yet as I tweeted recently,

Scholars cannot ignore their biases, but they can rely on years of training on how to navigate them.

I think Albert Camus captures this distinction well when he writes: “An intellectual? Yes. And never deny it. An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself. I like this, because I am happy to be both halves, the watcher and the watched. “Can they be brought together?” This is a practical question. We must get down to it. “I despise intelligence” really means: “I cannot bear my doubts.”

A scholar is simultaneously the watcher and the watched, the observer and the observed. Through rigorous training a scholar should be taught how to navigate those two realities with skill, with the precision any other craftsman might learn in their own field. It is this precise skill that we offer —we engage the doubts and questions many do not want or are not able to attend to. And while we may never be able to write an unbiased history, that does not mean we cannot offer a better one.

2. Must a person study only that which s/he believes? 

Of course not! Does the Classicist have to worship Zeus or Apollo? Does the Political Scientist have to practice libertarian socialism? Neither does the religious scholar have to ascribe to the religious text, group, or culture s/he studies.

Perhaps it is a bit un-Western of me to admit belief matters very little to me, but I think we could all spend time loosening our clench on belief. Perhaps this means I’m not a very good Christian. Perhaps this means I’m not a very good scholar. But we lose so much when we do not stop to consider the thoughts and practices of others, apart from our own beliefs.

The theologian, most often one who considers the beliefs regarding the divine in their own faith tradition, is important. They are concerned in the perpetuation and evolution of their religious institution, typically preoccupied with the dialectic between spiritual and practical issues. This discipline can at times cross planes with the scholar, but is ultimately functioning at a different place. A scholar is always meant to criticize, is always meant to challenge, is always meant to consider, but is not typically concerned with how his/her findings will impact practitioners and/or theologians on the ground. A scholar does not say what a practitioner “should believe” or “should do,” as a theologian would. Our concerns are different; thus, one is able to scholarly study a subject apart from his/her own belief system.

In conclusion,

I know many of you reading may disagree with my distinctions or might want to nuance my quickly written post, and I encourage you to leave your comments below. My thoughts are ever evolving on this issue, and I welcome discussion.

Yet, I’ll close with these thoughts: I do not study Judaism because I want to be Jewish, nor do I study in order to write the equivalent of Jewish theology, and it should not be expected that I would. It is relevant that I be asked about my personal faith tradition, only in as much as it shapes the nature of my scholarly questions. Am I curious about certain aspects of ancient Jewish thought because of my Christian background? Definitely. And when my scholarship traverses the lands of Christianity and Judaism, you can know that I am employing immense skill and training to separate my practitioner status from my scholarly work, despite the fact that this division is never completely achieved.

The division might be arbitrary, but as Reza Aslan’s recent interview debacle displays, it is a division I will fight to maintain.