My thesis, which I recently defended successfully last week, talks a lot about the development of orthodoxy in the history of Christian theology. While I was constructing my analysis and arguments, I began to think that orthodoxy is used in three different ways (which I call the theological, political, and ecclesial concepts of orthodoxy). However, I have also begun to see that many claims to orthodoxy are made through only the ‘political’ concept which is concerned with the maintenance of existing power relations. As a result of this usage, many discussions of theological opinion (i.e. whether something is theologically acceptable) and even social relations (i.e. whether a group which has different opinions is ecclesially acceptable) are used to hide the play of political power (i.e. only those which accept the authority of one can be considered ‘orthodox’ by that authority).
However, I think there are some less obvious applications which may prove interesting. In particular, I think this analysis can be applied to academia. There are at least two problems in the academy which revolve around this issue of orthodoxy: one is the restriction of a discipline to its own department and, two, is the breaking of such boundaries by academics when they approach other disciplines.
The first problem can be restated as the belief that (subject) can occur only in (subject) departments. Many of the conferences I have experienced do this, at best, subconsciously. However, a stronger example comes in rating places of study. Something like the Philosophical Gourmet Report seeks to determine the best places to study philosophy but excludes all non-philosophy departments. Syracuse (according to the report) has a great philosophy department with strengths across the discipline (though primarily in the analytic tradition), but it also has a strong grasp of the continental tradition in its religious studies department (sometimes even jokingly called the ‘continental philosophy department’ by the philosophy department). Rankings like the PGR overlook these strange arrangements and equates the entirety of a university’s expertise in a subject with the department which includes that subject in its title.
Through this approach to ‘orthodoxy’, imperfect rankings may be seen as the ‘canon of truth’ rather than as flawed but perhaps useful guides. In the case of the PGR, this is reinforced by the claim that the influential academics in that discipline chosen for the rankings survey are the collective voice of the discipline as if there could only be one priesthood and one orthodoxy. Let me be clear here: I am not suggesting the PGR is necessarily incorrect or inaccurate but that it is incomplete and narrowly-focused on departments rather than subject areas. It is a lot easier to analyse the former and rank them, and the latter requires a lot more research and work to be done successfully.
The second problem of academic ‘orthodoxy’ might seem unrelated at first because it is focused on the membership of the department: not even everyone in a (subject) department are true believers of (subject). An example here might be the Syracuse religious studies department because some might complain that there is a contingent of philosophers who don’t study religion and therefore see the single department as two separate halves joined together by administrative alchemy rather than an affinity or shared interests in the study of religion. (This argument is mostly hypothetical. I do not know the department well enough to say it is factual.) Yet here is how it relates to the first problem (and perhaps could be re-formulated): interdisciplinary work is acceptable only from one’s own discipline. While the (hypothetical) group of ‘philosophers’ in the religious studies department see themselves as people doing work in both subject disciplines of religion and philosophy, the ‘pure’ scholars who are ‘real’ philosophers/religious scholars both see the ‘hybrids’ as outsiders. The ‘orthodoxy’ of the disciplines excludes the interdisciplinary work as heterodoxy and subsequently invalid.
However, the strangest thing is that those who consider themselves ‘orthodox’ scholars feel perfectly fine in claiming to understand properly other disciplines. Biologists like Richard Dawkins (or physicists like Stephen Hawking) feel that they understand the humanities (religion for Dawkins, philosophy for Hawking) to make bold statements and claim that their ‘orthodoxy’ supersedes the understanding that the other scholars possess (religion is terrorism, philosophy is unnecessary) while they deny the possibility of the reverse (philosophers and scholars of religion either possessing more detailed knowledge of their own subject or any useful knowledge of the sciences). What this amounts to is the installation of one’s own discipline as the ‘queen of the sciences’ which mediates all other forms of knowledge and understanding. Rather than seeing disciplines as inter-related, separately focused, and perhaps useful in society, a zero-sum game is formulated and played so that their own orthodoxy is the only one allowed. Academic ecumenism (in the form of interdisciplinary work from one discipline) should be employed for evangelistic or colonial purposes: to convert the heathens or colonise their discipline as a subset of orthodoxy in which only those deemed acceptable are allowed to speak for the discipline. No actual study of a discipline is needed because the orthodoxy speaks for itself as the only possible (and common sense) way to understand reality. Pluralism is disallowed and actively rejected in the academy.
The end result is the absence of interdisciplinary work and the virtual image of every scholar as interdisciplinary in order to protect their own discipline rather than work together with others. That which follows is the establishment of multiple orthodoxies within each discipline because if one’s judgement is questioned and one possesses orthodoxy, the other must be surely a heretic. Academic disciplines have been replaced by departments which generally exclude other departments by name rather than by the disciplines represented in their staff (even though one may have a PhD in philosophy from an orthodox university, if one works in a religious studies department one surely cannot be a philosopher any more!).