Archives of Reception of the Bible

Past blogging in more ways than one.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Philip Davies on Faith-based scholarship

It was a real blast from the past to read Philip Davies' comments on faith-based scholarship on Alan Bandy's Cafe Apocalypsis blog. Ten years ago as a PhD student in Sheffield I took part in a seminar with Philip and offered the comments below. I will always be indebted to Philip for his gracious encouragement to me. But I did and still do find his arguments problematic here. (The only thing I cringe at now by the way is the crack about creationism. I am sure it was funny--well, I hope it was--but for the life of me I can't see how.
A Response to Professor P.R. Davies’ Whose Bible is it Anyway?
(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995).

Delivered in Sheffield in 1996

William John Lyons

I should like to begin by thanking Professor Davies for both his provocative paper and his willingness to present it here. As Professor Davies is hoping for a good debate, my aim is to raise in what follows a number of questions and present some arguments which should ensure this.

Professor Davies’s paper has concentrated on certain binary relationships within the whole area of the study of the biblical texts; Academy/Church; Theology/Non-theology. Yet, if I understand him correctly, he is suggesting that three types of discourse are involved here. The first is that of Bible study within a church setting. The second is that of a ‘non-confessional Biblical Studies’ within the Academy. These two are not, he suggests, in any kind of opposition to one another; they are incommensurable. I shall return to this point later. The third type is that of the study of Scripture within the Academy, and it is this type, and its relationship with a ‘non-confessional Biblical Studies’, that Professor Davies finds problematic. These two he characterises in the following way:

A) Biblical Studies is a non-confessional critical discipline which concentrates on bibles and implies human creativity.
B) Scripture is a confessional critical discipline which concentrates on the Bible and implies revelation.

Professor Davies argues that these two are separate disciplines, and that they cannot be reduced to a single discipline, and with this I am in considerable agreement. Neither, he suggests, is it any answer to look to a non-confessional Biblical Theology of the type proposed by Krister Stendahl; a point with which I am in total agreement.

Having accepted such arguments, however, I find a number of areas of Professor Davies’s thesis with which I have difficulty. The first is the question of what happens to the study of Scripture? Professor Davies talks of the outing of Scripture. Does he simply mean revealing it for what it is or does he mean removing it from the Academy? He does at one point seem to leave a place for Scripture in the Academy but the language which he uses to describe it lead me to believe that he does not think it a suitable academic subject. I find it interesting that Professor Davies does not just say “throw it out”; this indecisiveness leaves me wondering whether Professor Davies is completely confident about his grounds for its removal.

This is my first question; accepting that there are two disciplines here, is there any qualitative difference between them which makes one academic and one not. Professor Davies suggests that one is credal and one is not. Scripture study begins from a non-negotiable dogmatic given. He notes that some may suggest that ‘biblical studies’ is also credal but discounts this possibility. According to Professor Davies, non-confessional Biblical Studies has no creed, and is open to critical discussion of its founding assumptions. This claim to have no creed stands in interesting juxtaposition to statements such as ‘Discourses are not neutral, innocent or equal’ (Whose Bible is It Anyway? [JSOTS 204; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995], p. 26). However, even if it did have a creed, Professor Davies sees no difficulty since he is trying to demonstrate that the two disciplines are separate. However, this is, I feel, a fundamental point. It is one thing to accept that the two disciplines are separate; it is another to suggest that one is not academic on the grounds that is credal.

For it seems plain to me that Professor Davies’s non-confessional biblical studies is actually credal in nature; with the removal of ‘the transcendental signifier’, ‘the denoted object’, or ‘the raw fact’ from philosophical discourse, it seems to me that there is no non-credal position for any of us. Of course one could accept this but then argue that one’s creed is open to change. Is this the case for Professor Davies’s non-confessional Biblical Studies? The answer, it seems to me is no. The ideology of its discourse seems to have come straight from that of contemporary liberalism. The problem, as Stanley Fish puts it in terms of liberalism, is that

[l]iberalism is informed by a faith (a word deliberately chosen) in reason as a faculty that operates independently of any particular world view….Indeed, liberalism depends on not enquiring into the status of reason, depends, that is, on the assumption that reason’s status is obvious: it is that which enables us to assess the claims of competing perspectives and beliefs. Once this assumption is in place it produces an opposition between reason and belief, and that opposition is already a hierarchy in which every belief is required to pass muster at the bar of reason. But what if reason or rationality itself rest on belief ? Then it would be the case that the opposition between belief and reason is a false one, and that every situation of contest should be re-characterised as a quarrel between two sets of belief with no recourse to a mode of deliberation that was not in itself an extension of belief. This is in fact my view of the matter and I would defend it by asking a question that the ideology of reason must suppress: where do reasons come from? The liberal answer must be that reasons come from nowhere, that they reflect the structure of the Universe or at least the human brain; but in fact reasons always come from somewhere, and the somewhere that they come from is precisely the realm to which they are (rhetorically) opposed, the realm of particular (angled, partisan, biased) assumptions and agendas (There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and Its a Good Thing Too [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994], p. 135).

If, as Fish has written elsewhere, “ Interpretation is the only game in town”, then it would seem that we must agree with him “that there are no moves that are not within the game and this includes even [and one might say, especially] the move by which one claims no longer to be a player” (Is there a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980], p. 355).

But I have to say that I do not believe that Professor Davies really thinks his ‘biblical studies’ is non-credal; his description of it as ‘positivistic’, ‘materialistic’, and ‘needing a coherent world view to justify it’ (Whose Bible is It Anyway?, p. 27), along with his characterisation of discourse mentioned earlier, seem to me to demand that the discipline be understood in ideological terms. Since it does not submit to the judgement of ‘orthodoxy’, but weighs evidence in order to form its own judgements, this approach seems to me to be one which submits to that ideological creed of the Enlightenment, the autonomy of human reason.

If both these approaches are credal in nature as I am suggesting, then a further option to disqualify Scripture study from the Accademy which flows from Professor Davies’ work is that of the relative openness of different discourses. But this option seems to me to be of little use; the problem is one of what constitues ‘public and accessible evidence’. Presumably this terms means that all can accept the evidence. But what exactly is this ‘public and available evidence’; for ‘Professor Davies’ ‘Biblical Studies’ is it not only that which reason allows? Is not the ‘public’ in question only those who accept the foundational role of autonomous human reason. Since. as Professor Davies states, all discourses are exclusive to some degree, then it seems to me that no truly ‘public’ evidence in the sense of a foundation for such a discipline can exist. What one has is the tyranny of the majority, and this is in some ways delightfully ironic. In the Middle Ages the Universities taught Scripture and reason was submissive; now the tide has turned. In the battle of creeds reason has been winning. However, this strikes me as somewhat incongruous; hasn’t Enlightement rationalism been decisively challenged by Post-modernity. Professor Davies’s argument strikes me as modernistic and untenable in the present intellectual climate. The real question here, it seems to me, is “what is the Academy?” And perhaps more pertinently, “who should be allowed in?” I shall return to this later.

My next question is that of Professor Davies’ use of the terms Emic and Etic, and in particular his wish to ensure that the two things are completely separate. This is to return to the question of incommensurability of discourses. I want to ask if this absolute separation is tenable. If ‘Biblical Studies’ is credal then it is impossible to describe any discipline as absolutely Etic in the sense that it tells us what is ‘really going’ on from an outside perspective; it is always viewing the scene through its own tinted spectacles. One should note that all researchers begin with a description of their approach before applying it to the “natives”. This is an exercise in Emic self-description - What I am doing and why. It could only be Etic if the researcher could stand to one side and discount their own horizons, an impossibility according to many involved in hermeneutics.

In a similar vein, it also occurs to me to ask whether Professor Davies’ rather “schizophrenic” professor who teaches one thing in the University and another in the Church can so easily hold these two things together. How can one avoid opposing these two possible truths without criticism of either position. In other words, can the presuppositions of History not be challenged from the side of Scripture. I don’t obviously mean that History can all of a sudden account for the resurrection, but it would make a nice change to hear a historian say they were unable to comment on this rather than to hear them denying, as Professor Davies example does, that “the body of Jesus of Nazareth revived and left its tomb”. At this point I am obviously re-introducing the question of the separation of these two disciplines, at the level of Etic and Emic discourse. I can accept that these are two discourses which are separated by different commitments but I am distinctly uneasy about the assertion of two dichotomous Emic and Etic discourses which can never meet. I might also add that other academic discourses are currently heavily involved in work undertaken from an Emic perspective, i.e. Sociology.

A final point on the place of Scripture study is that of what Professor Davies calls the “unethical” behaviour of using tax-payer’s money to do work for the church. He has already anticipated part of an answer to this suggestion, the fact that Church goers (and Fundamentalists at that) are Tax-payers too. But there is a larger problem here; what is the University for. I am reminded of the uproar in the Eighties when Ronald Reagan suggested that the study of creationism should be added to the curriculum alongside evolution. And why not I ask myself ? But it seems to me that this problem could rebound very easily on Professor Davies. If the academy is to be characterised by commitment to Enlightenment rationalism, why should tax-payers, many of whom believe more in Astrology than in Philosophy, have their money spent on the pursuits of Enlightement rationalists. Why should Church goers? Once again we are back to the tyranny of the majority (or perhaps here, the powerful). It is no longer possible to argue that the results of the Enlightement are ‘Good’ and that everything else is obscurantism. For many, the limitations of such a discourse is obvious, and they are entitled to ask for their money back. It seems to me that, however, we decide what constitutes academic work, it will not be by either the role of the tax-payer, re-introducing the foundation of reason through the rediscovery of a transcendental signifier, or, I believe, through attempts to find an ideology free discourse.

In conclusion, I wish to offer one possible definition of what is academic in our post-modern, anti-foundationlist world. The issues discussed above will be known to any here familiar with literary theory or philosophy. One possible answer has been suggested by the Philosopher of Science, Paul Feyerabend (most fully outlined in his highly influential work Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge [1975]). In a 1964 attempt to distinguish between the reasonable scientist and the crank he writes:

The distinction does not lie in the fact that the former suggest what is plausible and promises success, whereas the latter suggest what is implausible, absurd, and bound to fail. It cannot lie in this because we never know in advance which theory will be successful and which theory will fail. It will take a long time to decide this question and every single step leading to such a decision is again open to revision…No, the distinction between the crank and the respectable thinker lies in the research that is done once a certain point of view is adopted. The crank usually is content with defending the point of view in its original, undeveloped, metaphysical form, and he is not at all prepared to test its usefulness in all those cases which seem to favour the opponent, or even to admit that their exists a problem. It is this further investigation, the details of it, the knowledge of the difficulties, of the general state of knowledge, the recognition of objections, which distinguishes the respectable thinker from the crank. The original content of his theory does not. If he thinks that Aristotle should be given a further chance, let him do it and wait for the results. If he rests content with this assertion and does not start elaborating a new dynamics, if he is unfamiliar with the initial difficulties of his position, then the matter is of no further interest. However, if he does not rest content with Aristotelianism in the form in which it exists today but tries to adapt it in the present situation in Astronomy, Physics, and Micro-physics, making new suggestions, looking at old problems from a new point of view, then be grateful that there is at last somebody who has unusual ideas and do not try to stop him in advance with irrelevant and misguided arguments (‘Realism and Instrumentalism: Comments on the Logic of Factual Support’, in M. Bunge [ed.], The Critical Approach to Science and Philiosophy [New York: Free Press, 1964], p 305; cf. A.F. Chalmers, What is This Thing Called Science? [2nd ed; Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1982], pp. 135-36).

It might be suggested that the study of Scripture is rather like the crank. However, it seem to me that the project of theology is a serious endeavour which has results which can be measured in terms of their success or failure. David Tracey writes that ‘any contemporary Christian position will consider itself obliged to interpret two basic phenomena: the Christian tradition and contemporary understandings of human existence (Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology [New York: Seabury Press, 1975], p. 23). It seems to me a mistake to characterise Christian theology as something which is merely opinion, as accountable to nothing. If that were the case, it would indeed be a system held by cranks. But Christian theology is quite capable of rejecting its own foundation in Scripture, as the radical theologians have done or of radically criticising it as the revisionist theologians are doing. Even Childs’ Barthian model of theology cannot simply state its presuppositions and leave it at that; it must engage with the world of human experience and the objections of other theologies, running the risk of rejection. If this is an accurate picture of theology, then I suggest that one should take Feyerabend’s advice, and let the theologians get on with it. Questions of overlap should be taken as they come !


At 10:55 am, Blogger Lloyd Pietersen said...

Ah, I remember the occasion well!


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