A Wide Open Field
Religious traditions themselves are obviously very old, but the study of religion is itself a relatively new invention. Only in the nineteenth century did scholars begin to examine religion from an academic perspective, and in American colleges and universities, religious studies has taken hold in the past four decades, especially since the 1960's. This means that the discipline is still finding its way.
For the student of religion, the newness of the study of religion presents a wide open field. In order to ask better questions about religion, scholars have always borrowed from other disciplines. In fact, many scholars within religious studies also identify themselves within another sub-field, like philosophy, theology, philology, sociology, anthropology, psychology, history or other lines of inquiry, such as gender studies, racial/ethnic studies, or area studies (like the study of the Middle East or South Asia). But Religious Studies is a remarkable field of study because it manages to hold all of these influences together. As eminent scholar Walter Capps has written, "What distinguishes religious studies from any of its individual component parts is its composite nature: it consists of all of these methodological operations, and all of the these selective foci of interest working together."
For some, this diversity can be a little disorienting. What is religious studies about, anyway? What is the essence of this study? What is it after? These are the questions that confront any college major. Do psychologists uphold any one method in common? Do they agree on the "essence" of the human mind? Similarly, is there any one definition of literature, or one agreed upon method for examining it? A course of study in any academic discipline will offer foundational concepts and basic methods, but then advanced study opens up a variety of angles and debates for students.
This is also the case for religious studies, only this field is a little wider than most, probably because religion crosses so many boundaries in human experience. This breadth poses a challenge, but it is an exciting one. For a young field, religious studies is remarkably mature: it is able to hold many different ideas together, allowing students of religion remarkable freedom in thinking about human culture and fundamental realities.