Advice to Young Ph.D.s in Religious Studies

Circumstances may have changed. But in 1993 when I earned a newly minted Ph.D., a senior scholar gave me the following advice:

"As a freshly minted Ph.D. in Religious Studies you must embrace epoche as an indispensable approach to the study of religion. Pronounce it epokay, with the accent on ep.

Epoche is Greek; it means 'to abstain from judgment.' Epoche was introduced into philosophy by ancient skeptics who felt that neutrality was the best attitude to adopt when searching for knowledge: each idea was to be considered impartially without the weight of personal attachment to it via either assent or dissent.

Epoche has come to mean something slightly different in the modern academy. This is how to practice epoche as an instructor of religion in a public university:

1. Learn to hide your religious beliefs. Appear to be without confirmed religious or irreligious notions at all. Tell the students you are there like a football announcer, simply relating what you see in religion and that you have no personal opinions whatsoever. Just as it would be improper for a sports announcer to say, 'Johnny stone-noggin is the least gifted player on the field,' so too would it be inappropriate for a professor to say, 'The religion under review today has the whiff of wombat about it.'

2. Cultivate descriptive powers and content yourself with recounting the phenomena of religion without injecting your judgment of the facts related. For instance, say only 'the Dolores sect believes chimney soot boosts spiritual pliability' and don't go on to opine that that belief was pinched from a rooftop scene of the movie Mary Poppins (unless it actually was, and then simply state it as a matter of fact without a glimmer of sarcasm).

3. Treat all religious phenomena as equals under your law of epoche. A miracle is a miracle is a miracle, and all of them, from all religions, are to be accepted calmly and without prejudice and without expressed incredulity. One religious hero produces a flow of water from his fingertips that satiates a thirsty crowd and several beasts of burden. Another religious hero feeds a thousand people with two pond perch and a piece of pita. Yet another religious hero heals a case of myopia with an application of mud. Still another religious hero rides a winged pony at a lofty altitude. Another speaks eloquently as a sixty-second old newborn baby. All fantastic farragoes must be one to you, without judging them.

4. Treat all religions' scriptures as equals, and don't forget to over-praise their literary quality and sapience.

5. Like an art appreciation class, offer your courses as 'religion appreciation' classes: eliminate all criticism of religion and concentrate on the well-deserved highlights of religion. You might even reconfigure your teaching as a 'higher catechism.'

6. Note that epoche entails your public portrayal as an objective scholar and instructor. Privately, while lowered into your comfy chair, while sipping port or nursing a water pipe, while sitting in the well of your solitude, you may entertain judgments, you may hold beliefs. You might even hazard the disclosure of your views to a spouse or to a learned friend.

7. You can see that epoche is adopted for the protection of scholarship and for the fortification of religion: scholarship cannot abide emotional involvement, and religion cannot brook critique. Epoche is an academic safeguarding of scholarship. Epoche is an intellectualist defense of religion.

Good luck!" he said.