As my readers know, I consider myself an eternal amateur in a world of professionals. For most of my career, this status has not excluded me from dialogue with the latter, but occasions for it seem to diminish as the years go by, not wholly as a result of the aging process. Two recent experiences reminded me of the reality of this change, fairly rapid as such things go, which extends well beyond my own idiosyncratic situation. The intellectual world may be able to do without such amateurs as I, but that it has begun doing without “amateur” thought altogether is a sea change that not at all coincidentally goes along with the growing skepticism in and out of the academy about the usefulness of the liberal arts concept of the university, and more broadly, of studying such things as the humanities at all.
The first of these experiences was a talk on the Old Testament, sponsored by the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion. When the Center was founded in the 90s, I was its most active member. It used to be a group of enlightened amateurs that met every week to discuss an informal talk or “working paper” by either a member of the group or an outsider. The idea of transforming this discussion group, which was then headed by Political Science professor and terrorism expert David Rapoport, into a Center was in good measure a reaction to the additional energy I brought to the group. I gave eight or nine talks to the Study group, before and after it became a Center, which is probably still the latter-day record, since now they hold only lectures, not informal, “amateur” talks.
At the lecture, which dealt in very learned fashion with the question of why Moses was not allowed into the Promised Land after striking the rock to obtain water in apparent adherence to God’s instructions, I took the perhaps ill-advised step of bringing up the fact that the group had once been composed of amateurs. This occurred in the context of a point I raised concerning the importance of the passage I have long seen as central to the whole “monotheistic” enterprise: the “burning bush” episode in Exodus 3, where God gives his name as the declarative sentence Ehyeh asher ehyeh. The lecturer cordially considered my question but didn’t see any reason to attribute unique significance to this passage (although Martin Buber certainly did), and above all didn’t think we should speak of monotheism at this point, since the Hebrews of old were merely monolatrists. As the director of the center remarked, monotheism in the modern sense is really an idea of the 19th century. (I wonder what Buber would have thought of that one.)
But the really disquieting moment of the afternoon occurred when the director, a man seemingly in his 40s, displayed his contempt for the idea that had presided over the old religion group, which was that religion is a complex phenomenon that different people could look at from different perspectives. No, he affirmed, religion isn’t a thing; religion is a field.
Somehow I don’t think I’m likely to be invited back to that group to add to my eight or nine talks. Religion as a “field” has thus become like chemistry, a super-specialty divided into sub-specialties. I have nothing whatever to say about the latest research into, say, ketones, which can and need only be discussed among specialists. Like ketones, the Bible is not studied by “religion” specialists, let alone French professors, but by Bible specialists. The subjects of religion and particularly of biblical religion being ostensibly of general interest, people may find themselves under the unfortunate illusion that they do have something to say about them, but this is of no importance to the specialists in the “field,” who alone are competent to formulate valid ideas on such subjects.
A month or so later, I attended another lecture, in a field that had enough in common with the first to give me the sense of a trend. The speaker was a pleasant young man from the Ivy League, dynamic and clearly marked for success—as is the wont in those places, he was hired by the university he had attended, and seemed destined for tenure. His topic was the Iliad, a work I know pretty well—for an amateur. His talk concerned the political dimensions of the poem, in particular the leader’s dependence on the judgment of the assembly, a principle followed by Zeus as well as other kings and commanders, but violated by Agamemnon at the outset of the poem in the flashback in which he arbitrarily takes Achilles’ captive for himself, the act that provokes Achilles’ “wrath” and thereby generates the entire narrative.
This time the speaker spoke so long I had no time to ask a question, which I probably wouldn’t have done anyway; I had no nostalgic connection with the sponsoring group and it’s not clear what question I could have asked. I had noted that throughout this long talk Achilles’ name was scarcely mentioned. No doubt one doesn’t have to remind an audience of presumed classicists of the name of the poem’s protagonist. Yet I wondered if once again the speaker’s lack of concern with what I consider the most important element, not Agamemnon’s hubris but Achilles’ menis or “wrath,” was not an illustration of the same phenomenon as in the religion talk: the experts know every tree in the forest, every leaf on every tree, and its relationship to the leaves of similar trees in similar forests, yet when they come to talk about the forest as a whole, they never seem to focus on the principle that I see as holding it together. In the case of the Pentateuch, this seems to me Moses’ experience of God’s name; in that of the Iliad, it seems to me the foregrounding of the peculiar kind of “wrath” that we know as resentment.
And to this factor in both cases is added the more unsettling point made manifest in the religion group but implicit in the other as well: these subjects are not for amateurs but professionals. If you want to talk about the Bible, you can’t just assume that your interest or general knowledge is sufficient enablement; you must be an expert. If you want to discuss Homeric epic, you have to be a professional Hellenist, and you would do well, as was the case with our speaker, to have some experience of those south-Slavic poems discovered in the 1930s by Milman Parry as the only known surviving examples of “Homeric” oral epic.
I am worried when a university professor can affirm with full authority and not the least suspicion of extra-professional humility—for within the profession one must remain humble, there are always other professionals who might know more than oneself—that religion is a field. There is a kind of monstrous naiveté about such a statement that suggests not so much that “laypeople” won’t be able to talk about religion any more, for who will prevent us? but that “expert opinion” will concern itself with matters of increasingly more parochial, which is to say, increasingly less humanistic and anthropological significance, as these are the sort of matters one encounters in the “field,” and that only these opinions will be taken seriously, that is, quoted by other “scholars in the field.”
I have no desire to abolish the fields of religious or Homeric studies, to take away from these specialists their incentive to form others in their wake so as to preserve and augment the specialized knowledge whose maintenance across generations we have no right to take for granted. In our current economic cum cultural crisis, if whole areas of humanistic study are not (yet?) threatened, their necessity to a “complete” university is no longer assured. The UC Irvine French Department, for example, which not long ago housed some quite distinguished scholars, has been disbanded. UCLA is currently in the process of losing its German department: a number of older faculty have retired, younger ones brought in to renew the department have either left or turned to peripheral fields, and the few remaining members seem fated to wind up in a “European languages” mishmash with the left-overs of a couple of other departments. I have been told that when confronted with this situation, the UCLA administrator in control of these decisions simply said that UC Berkeley has a fine German department and that it is no longer statewide policy that UCLA should have one too. And what is to prevent a Berkeley vice-chancellor in 2025 from declaring that since Yale—or Berlin—has a fine German department, Berkeley doesn’t need to keep one either? Under these circumstances, we certainly don’t want to be on the side of the Yahoos. Let’s have specialists in Biblical Hebrew and Homeric Greek on every campus!
No doubt the proper reaction to my two experiences is to distinguish them. In the case of Homer, no one is telling me that because I’m not a professional classicist I can’t read and comment on the epics in a different context from that of a specialized scholar. Homeric scholarship, unlike religion, is unproblematically a “field,” but there is nothing to prevent others from exploring that field, albeit with a less locally powerful set of tools, and above all, from connecting that exploration with more general conceptions of literature, culture, and the human.
In the domain of religion, in contrast, real barriers have been erected. No doubt our old “amateur” religion group was a unique operation with few parallels in other major universities in the US or abroad. But it is no coincidence that this “amateur” operation was welcoming to the kind of thinking that René Girard and I engage in—in fact, we invited Girard here at my suggestion to speak at the inaugural ceremony for the Center. One wonders what kind of reception the group would give his thought today.
Religion is too great a subject to be limited to its “field” and subjected to barriers of entry. It is a fundamental feature of all human societies. This simple fact makes it impossible to reduce discussion of religion to a kind of social-science discourse that maintains all its material “in context” and dares not speculate on great questions such as the innovation accomplished by (yes!) Hebrew monotheism, let alone the greatest question of all, the role of religion in the origin of humanity itself. The history of religious studies has involved a constant tug-of-war between the “experts” and those whose insights have been obtained by reflection on other areas of knowledge; Girard’s anthropology of religion cut its teeth on modern literary texts, not those of the ancient Middle East.
No doubt I was ill-advised to categorize myself as an amateur, a term I undoubtedly respect far more than my interlocutors. I admire scholarship and learning as much as the next fellow, but I don’t think erudition is a sufficient or even a necessary condition for fundamental anthropological reflection on religion. For this we must rely on intuition and a rigorous sense of minimality.
UCLA’s old religion group is no more, but it has not been superseded—it has simply been abolished. For a student of religion to make a real contribution to human self-understanding, erudition is less important than the ability to interpret religious rites and precepts in terms of human ethical values that are not “ethnocentric” but truly universal. Like not all but many things in the cultural sphere, religion is a matter far too important to be left to the experts.