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Assess the relation between theology and the study of religion, their potential for conflict and for mutual enrichment.
The relationship between theology and the study of religion is a relatively modern phenomenon, since, whatever we mean specifically by 'the study of religion', its birth and development as an academic discipline has only occurred relatively recently. Theology, by contrast, is one of the oldest disciplines, and has experienced a number of profound shifts in importance, exposure and indeed method over its history. In assessing the relationship between the two, then, we must start by making clear what is meant by 'theology' in this case, and what is meant by 'the study of religion', and to what degree the two can be distinctly separated. We should identify the areas of theology that are important to us in this case, out of the range of areas that comprise the field as a whole, and consider in what ways the history of this academic theology has led to the birth of religious studies as a separate discipline, and, as the question demands of us, in what ways the growth of this new academic field has damaged or supplemented the field that precipitated its inception. I shall endeavour to conclude that whilst there exists an inevitable and unavoidable tension in the relationship between the two fields, the place of theology within the university institution remains justified, as offering a route of access into the religious sphere that the study of religion is unable to provide by virtue of its essential disattachment from its subject matter, and the problematic nature of attempting to study that which is inherently near-impossible to clearly define. In talking about the relationship between theology and the study of religion, one of the first things that should be made clear is that the proportion of the wider theology that goes on in the world that is relevant to this discussion is small: theology (or any of its analogues: 'religious thought' or 'religious philosophy', for example) as a whole is a sprawling, organic entity, that permeates human life on every level. Theological concerns arise naturally in the life of a religious community, in the emphases upon teaching and learning from past theologies, but equally, religious tradition provokes thought even in those who do not personally identify with that particular religion, or indeed any religion. Theology is thus considered and practised by those outside of religious communities, in educational theory and in public debates at every level. For our purposes in this essay, however, it is specifically academic theology to which we will be required to refer, as it is this theology, the theology of universities and seminary schools, that interacts with the academic study of religion. By 'academic theology', we shall mean for this essay the study of questions that relate to meaning, truth or moral practice which are raised by religions, the answers to which are pursued through mutual engagement with other academic disciplines. Throughout the history of western civilisation, theology has often enjoyed a privileged position as the central and leading academic discipline, whose word carried authority with other 'sciences'. This position eventually became less secure, however, and theology was replaced first by political theory, as new states concerned themselves with legal and not the theological affairs, and later by the rise of scientific method. Indeed, it is an important point to consider that the ideas that had the greatest influence on the shape of the field of theology and the way in which it has been practised from this point onward were often ideas
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