Archives of Reception of the Bible

Past blogging in more ways than one.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Faith based scholarship?

It is interesting to see that once again the issue of faith-based scholarship has come to the fore. And Alan Bandy is to be congratulated for getting some quite detailed responses to the issue this time around. But I hope I’ll be forgiven if I say that nothing seems to have really changed from ten years ago and Philip Davies’ volume, Whose Bible is it anyway? (Sheffield, 1995). My own feeling is that the secularist position was bankrupt then and that it remains so. Let me try and explain why.

The key, it seems to me, is the notion of ‘publicly available facts’ (explicitly mentioned by Mark Goodacre). The assumption is that scholarship is only what we can all discuss, what Philip Davies wanted to describe as a non-creedal Biblical Studies. We check in our beliefs at the door and enter a cool clean place, free of religious affiliation.

The problem is that this place does not exist. It is the typical liberal attempt to define a level playing field in which all are equal so long as they don’t challenge the presuppositions upon which the arena for discussion sits (see Stanley Fish’s essay, Liberalism doesn’t exist’, in his book There’s no such thing as free speech [1994]).

Ben Myers is absolutely right when he states that the historical critical method is the number one theological achievement—it has been so successful that it is simply assumed rather than chosen, its results are now non-creedal, and it can now effectively try to rule out of scholarly existence any other creedal viewpoint. Don’t get me wrong, I like the method (for some obscure reason I usually end up defending it at conferences). I appreciate what the Enlightenment gave us (in some areas at least). But it is not neutral, and any decision to define scholarship in its terms is a colonising and imperialistic one based on a dogmatic acceptance of Enlightenment thought. Surely postmodernism and postcolonialism have taught us that much?

The largely uncritical acceptance of this view in much biblical scholarship is one of the major factors in the current split between theologians and biblical scholars. When I see theologians either working with fundamentally anti-enlightenment projects like ‘Scriptural Reasoning’ or basing their work on theological authorities like Barth or papal documents, I see the gulf between them and us as biblical scholars—and I feel we have probably cheated them. Biblical scholarship was once so much more than just ‘historical criticism’.

And there is the rub. These people work in secular universities just like we do. My colleague Gavin D’Costa is a well-respected Catholic theologian who has his own views on what a University could be (see his recent Theology in the Public Square: Church, Academy, Nation [Oxford: Blackwell, 2005]). But he still works in a British secular institution. We occasionally discuss Theology and Religious Studies, but actually co-exist quite happily. I accept that the States may be different but don’t feel that placing their theological dysfunction on the rest of us is particularly helpful.

Two things make me laugh about the current situation. First, both sides feel hard done by. The secularist feels that the religious is too dominant in governing something like the SBL, for example. The religious feels squeezed by the secularist who wants to throw him or her out of the academy. Yet, and here is the second thing, just who among us has the power to define the academy in this way? Historical criticism came close, but the elitist power structure that is modernity has now become hypermodern in such a way as to turn the academy into what is effectively a pluralistic supermarket. Economics defines the academy in a way that the discussion tends to ignore. The secularist can make it uncomfortable for the religious (journals can insist that you don’t use God, for example, or BC/AD), but that’s about it. On the other hand, the secularist has his or her place at the table and no amount of prayer will get them out.

So welcome to the modern academy—it is all things to all people. Historical criticism is an extremely valuable mode of discourse that I value but there are others, and even others that might have something to say about ‘history’ itself. Let’s just see where it all goes, and not leap to shut it all down in the name of some fictitious purity. Perhaps where we are is not too bad a place to be. It beats being in a position to exclude (or, in a more distant past, torture each other—James Crossley on the rack might appeal to some, but I'd rather have him teaching people to think in Sheffield). As someone who likes having the freedom to think heretical thoughts, the current situation certainly suits me. So if you all don’t mind, I’ll just get on with it and hope none of you ever gets your own way fully.


At 6:26 pm, Blogger James Crossley said...

I agree with much of what you say John and at times I think the debate hasn't moved on from the 90s in most circles. This could change though. Berlinerblau has something new to say I think. Indeed he thinks nothing new has really developed since C19! I thought at first the Fox article was wrong but necessary now I'm not so sure. It is starting to seem that the Fox view is being perceived as 'the secular view' which is unfortunate because of the reasons you and others have outlined. I do think there is something for a secular approach to give but it will probably take an increase in numbers to make them heard. There is a place for secular scholars and it remains to be seen whether this is exploited properly. But I would not want secularism to dominate the discipline. If it did I would not want to be associated with it.


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