Contrasting Walter Capps’s and David Chidester’s Concept of the Study of Religion

Screen Shot 2019-02-21 at 3.44.38 PM

Contrasting and Assessing Walter Capps’ Representation of the Discipline of Religious Studies with David Chidester’s “Worldview Analysis of African Indigenous Churches.”

David Chidester’s Representation of Religious Studies as an Impartial Studying of Sacred Symbols

Concluding remarks in David Chidester’s worldview analysis of African indigenous churches (AICs), and the role sacred symbols play within religions, reveal his views concerning the operative function of Religious Studies as an academic discipline. Chidester’s defines religious worldviews as process a stealing back and forth sacred symbols (Chidester 1989, 22). He notes this process within AICs and appeals to Janet Hodgson’s work on Xhosa and African religions and their historical appropriations of sacred symbols of power. Chidester states that there are numerous such symbols in the history of religion some of which are land, river, mountain, tree, healing, sacrifice, dreams, ancestors, and God (Chidester 1989, 23-25). What follows is one of Chidetser’s main ideas, namely that religions claim ownership of symbols and render them sacred. He uses this observation as a means to define and distinguish Religious Studies from religion (as we shall note shortly). These symbols are also fluid in that they are passed “up” (not “down”) as tradition and then appropriated by a religious community in its ongoing negotiations of meaning and power. Peripheral here (but worth noting) is that Chidester believes that symbols play an important in the dynamics of power, especially in that of colonization.

Thus Chidester begins to distinguish Religious Studies from religion (Chidester 1989, 25-26). As a discipline, Religious Studies enables an engagement with religion as a process of stealing back and forth sacred symbols. It opens up a “demilitarized zone” for an academic inquiry and investigation into religion’s underlying patterns and historical processes. A demilitarized zone is necessary because religions generate a “particularly intense kind of energy” in their treatment, contestation, ownership, and appropriation of sacred symbols (Chidester 1989, 25). However, a scholar of religion is able (or should attempt) to stand back from this to provide a more objective and impartial examination of sacred symbols and religion’s underlying patterns and historical processes. Whereas religions and religious traditions, people, and communities make exclusive, privileged claims to their ownership of symbols, Religious Studies does no such thing, rather, “it is a strategic renunciation of ownership itself” (Chidester 1989, 25). According to Chidester, the process of examining symbols should involve a “temporary” suspension of personal prejudice, bias, and investment in religion (Chidester 1989, 26). It is temporary because it is not intended to be a way of life, and the scholar of religion is always free to engage in his or her religious investments after the inquiry has been completed.

Walter Capps’s Representation of Religious Studies

Walter Capps’s Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline provides a more comprehensive elucidation of Religious Studies that could ever possibly be achieved in a journal article such as Chidester’s. What is most helpful in Capps is that he reduces the academic study of religion into several main branches, namely sine qua non (essence), primordium (origin), description (phenomenology), function, language, and comparison of religion. Each branch operates via a particular rationale and trajectory of inquiry. Capps’ formulation is helpful in situating current debates, discussions, and developments within contemporary scholarship, as well as acknowledging the varied historical developments of the discipline.

Capps and Chidester Contrasted

Both Capps and Chidester believe that Religious Studies ought to be an impartial examination of religion. As such, both certainly believe (and state) that religion is worth examining for it plays some crucial role in human consciousness and society. Chidester sees this in sacred symbols, their appropriation, and the power and influence they have over human life and societies whereas Capps states that religion can be “approached and traced as a continuous narrative” (Capps 1995, xi). This narrative must be worth approaching and thus forms the premise from which Capps states that the discipline provides “inquiry regarding the subject of religion” and seeks to make the “subject of religion intelligible” (Capps 1995, xxii, 345). Having laid these foundations both analysts agree on the ideal of methodological impartiality which is an objective, neutral, bias free approach to studying religion. Chidester referred to this as a demilitarized and temporary zone in which scholars can analyze sacred symbols impartially and objectively. Capps agrees, stating that an examination of the function of religion is to be conducted via a methodological inquiry that is objective, open-minded, and impartial (Capps 1995, 147).

Capps acknowledges that diverse worldviews have been involved in the development of the discipline of Religious Studies. This includes the worldview Religious Studies developed out of, such as the enlightenment, and the personal philosophical and theological worldviews of the theorists taking part in its historical development (Capps 1995, 1-12). Chidester also notes the dynamism involved in worldview which he says “are a process, not a thing, an object” and something in “flux, in transition” (Chidester 1989, 20). As such, there is not a static “African” or “Western” worldview which leans into Chidester’s critique of generalizing worldviews. Chidester believes that within the academic study of religion this dynamism must be acknowledged prior to an analysis of religion within the framework of worldview.

Both Capps and Chidester note the Euro-centric development of Religious Studies. Capps observes this primarily in its historical development whereas Chidester appears far more concerned with contemporary events such as colonization. Chidester contends that Religious Studies must become a discipline of ‘worldview analysis’ that avoids the trappings of unreflective generalizations about Western and African worldviews (Chidester 1989, 15) It must also avoid unexamined power relations in the assessments of African religious movements. Contemporary scholars should be guided by these principles when examining new, emergent, or alternative religious movements. Capps provides a historical context to this development noting numerous European theorists who referred to Africans and historical non-Europeans using objectionable terminology. For example, James Frazer (1854-1941) referred to “the savage mind,” E.B. Tylor (1832-1917) to “primitive imagination” and “savage tribes,” Andrew Lang (1844–1912) to “low savages,” Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954) to “primitive cultures,” and so on. Perhaps this could be conceived as a weakness in Capps’ examination of Religious Studies for one might have wished for him to identify more theorists who have noted the objectionable terminology and sought to separate such historical developments with the future of the discipline.

Reflecting on the Implications of Chidester’s Notions of Symbols

Perhaps a controversial idea that Chidester proposes is that “no one owns the symbols,” a statement upon which one might wish to reflect. For instance, what might it imply? One could argue that it implies more than just religion’s borrowing or stealing symbols which they render sacred. Does it perhaps suggest that any one religion cannot lay honest and authentic claim to a symbol just because the symbol can be found elsewhere in the historical record? If so, then is this not a theological statement of skepticism which would extend beyond the impartial approach Chidester supports in his paper? One might too wonder of an original “owner” of symbols, so to speak. Which religion or religious figure first conceived of a particular symbol of, say, ‘prophet’ or of ‘God.’ Further, should one identify such a religion or figure then does it or he or she have legitimate claim to the symbol that other religions do not? If so, then one is it concluding about other religions? These are just a few of many questions one might ask to probe into Chidester’s statement.


Capps, Walter. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press

Chidester, David. 1989. Worldview analysis of African Indigenous Churches. Journal for the Study of Religion, 2(1), 15-29


Let me know your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s