[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next]

Finesse, access, and scholarly ethics

Sep 07, 2004 05:27 PM
by kpauljohnson


Following up on my post of Stephen Prothero's remarks, I'd like to
explore the issues they suggest. While it's certainly understandable
that a religious studies scholar would choose to "finesse" questions
like HPB's phenomena and the existence of the Masters, what does that
tell us about religious studies as a discipline and the power it
grants to religious organizations? My own experience shows that
discussing the existence of the Masters as a historical question
susceptible to empirical investigation sufficed to get the archive
doors shut in my face, even though I was a Theosophist of many years.
(And even though I like Prothero "bracketed" the paranormal claims
associated with the Masters and HPB.) Imagine the reception that
would be given in Adyar or Pasadena to someone whose declared
objective was to evaluate the reality of HPB's phenomena, if that
someone were not a committed Theosophist whose conclusion was
foregone. Hodgson is still such a bitter memory that such an
investigation would be completely unwelcome. "No religion higher than
truth" be damned.

The sad truth about religious studies scholarship is that access to
resources can depend on implicit promises not to question truth claims
associated with belief systems. Gordon Melton has received a fair
amount of criticism from ex-disciples of JZ Knight and EC Prophet for
adopting an uncritical tone in exchange for unprecedented access. The
storm of protest I aroused by trying to discuss the 19th century
origins of the Book of Mormon on the AmRel listserv made me forever
doubtful of the ethics of that discipline. Historians by contrast
seem a lot more interested in "what really happened" and a lot less
worried about "maybe we'll offend some believers if we talk about
their claims in terms of truth and falsehood."

I don't mean to question Prothero's ethics for finessing these
questions. The discipline in which he was awarded a Ph.D. for his
study of Olcott clearly prefers to "bracket" religious truth claims
rather than to wrestle with them as historical puzzles. But I wonder
if this new discipline has sold its soul, trading access for truth.



[Back to Top]

Theosophy World: Dedicated to the Theosophical Philosophy and its Practical Application