In March 2015, German automobile manufacturer Audi announced a new creative campaign to promote its 2016 Audi A6. This campaign was inspired by the company's new tagline: "Challenge All Givens."
Their "Drones" commercial (above) ends like all of their 2015 commercials, with the imperative to "challenge all givens." It is this imperative that connects Audi to the study of religion. For I know of no better tagline for what we religionists do than "Challenge All Givens." It is our job, as scholars of religion, to challenge that which is presented as given, as natural, as just the way things are. Thus we ask questions of these givens. What assumptions are at work in allowing one to present this as a given rather than that? Or, for instance, what is at stake in proclaiming that Islam is a religion of peace (or of violence)?
The most obvious "given" when discussing the category religion is that religion speaks of "things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal" (Bruce Lincoln, "Theses on Method," Thesis 2). Scholars of religion challenge this given by "insist[ing] on discussing the temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions of those discourses, practices, and institutions that characteristically represent themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual, and divine" (Lincoln, Thesis 2). Since the temporal, contextual, interested, human, and material dimensions are all we have access to, that is what we analyze. Whether religion really does speak of things eternal and transcendent is irrelevant to what we do as scholars of religion. That is presents itself as such, however, is not.
Such "givens" taken on numerous forms: arbitrary boundaries between what counts as "Greco-Roman" and what counts as "Christian" in the ancient world, representations of terror in the aftermath of the Paris Attacks, an inconspicuous religious test for office, the demand for black forgiveness, and dog whistle politics, to name a few. Because we as scholars of religion have developed a skill set that is not limited to one area of study, our skills are transferrable. So, while I study early Christian heresiology and need my Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Syriac skills to do this well, I am not resigned to only being able to study early Christian heresiology.
As soon as I recognize that what I am doing is studying how difference is made meaningful, my skill set is instantly applicable to myriad other realms, from politics to economics to racial violence. So, next time someone asks what I do as a scholar of religion, I think I may just tell them that I "challenge all givens."