On Labels and Scholarship: Secularism and Faith in L’Accademia

Up until a little over a year ago, I would have called myself an atheist, a secularist; I have no doubts that many scholars might identify with labels like those or others similarly linked to a lack of faith.  But I have wised up a bit since those days.  On the one hand, I don’t think I can really call myself an atheist as I don’t think I identify with the label.  I can’t idealize Dawkins and, even though I am an existentialist, I cannot push aside burning questions about the value of the current trends of atheism.  Am I a humanist?  Yes.  Am I a Christian?  No.  But an atheist as far as the existence of a sort of supreme being?  I am not that either.  Certainly, even when I did take on the label, I was not really identifying with something I was, but something I believed I was not.  Consequently, I think a lot of us do that; we identify with what we aren’t as a way to define what we are and, as a result, we caricaturize and label.  We create whole socio-cultural groups, opinions, delusions, about others that simply don’t exist.  Watch Fox News or MSNBC, tune into any political debate on CSPAN, sit in at a town hall meeting for an hour and you’ll immediately catch on to my reasoning.   That such a thing occurs in politics is expected.  But that it also exists in scholarship is something that both shocks and disappoints me.

This post deals with this fiction we all create, not just within the community of l’Accademia but with the general public as well.  We fabricate these perspectives–whether about BAR and Shanks, about Jesus, about Christians, about which side we aren’t on and which side we idealize–and then we distribute these fabrications to others as part of a means to eliminate, albeit unintentionally, the very purpose of scholarship: the purpose to continually challenge and question and, more importantly, to educate and disseminate information about the past for the preservation of the future.  Instead of preserving the memories of the past, we are dissolving them in the bitterness of the labels we use.  We are the Wormsley Commom Gang from Graham Greene’s The Destructors rather than being the Solomon or Hiram of 1 Kings.

There has been a lot of discussion lately in the biblioblog-o-sphere about the battle between secularism and the seminary over Biblical Studies.  Tim Bulkeley has recently posted up an article on B&I on the subject, of which has garnered as much attention as the article is enjoyable.  He writes (read the whole article, it is quite good):

“The Bible’s most vociferous cultured despisers, the so-called neo-atheists, argue that (read literally as some sort of instruction manual) the Bible supports all sorts of barbarity…. That’s not strange, the challenge they pose is a reasonable and necessary one. What is strange is that their reading of Scripture is one that Jewish and Christian tradition across the millennia has NOT practiced. Religious reading of sacred texts has been more nuanced and careful… So how can this new wave of atheist argument get away with such misuse of Scripture?  Only because vociferous groups of Christians also use and advocate just such blind simplistic readings.”

In an earlier article on a subject similar to this, he also wrote words so profoundly astute I must reiterate them here:

“So, the issue at heart is about a basic attitude of either skepticism or trust towards the object of study. Jim West’s person of faith trusts Scripture; therefore, he argues, their relationship to this object of study is different from, and richer than, the relationship a skeptical reading permits. By contrast, both Avalos and Lemche see such committed reading as full of social and intellectual dangers…. These two distinct genres of skepticism and trust should not be confused, for they are different…. What is needed is a frank recognition that there are two (related but different) disciplines studying the biblical texts. Then their practitioners need to identify more clearly what they do similarly and what they do differently. In such an environment, discussion of whether any, all, or no religious study of Scripture is scholarly might be possible without a slinging match. But that, of course, is not the world we live in, so we will no doubt continue to read abusive missives aimed from one set of trenches to another in the religious, as in the historical, wars.”

To be fair, I can’t say that I am responding directly to these articles as the former is concerned more with helping seminary students in Biblical Studies deal with the theological issues rather than the existentialism of what Tim calls ‘new atheism’ which is so much more common in Universities and the latter, an article in response to several discussions of the relevancy of Biblical Studies over at B&I, was about finding common footing as much as it was about establishing a dialogue.  Neither of these issues are the foci of this blog post.  However, their relevance is in the use of language which has become more pervasive in academia over the last few years.  Roland Boer recently published a collection of essays entitled Secularism and Biblical Studies (London: Equinox, 2010), which directly engages the debate; what is the value of secular critical scholarship and what impact is it having–or could it potentially have–on Biblical Studies?  “Coming out of current debates that have been flaring within biblical studies over the issue of secularism, the essays crystallize the various positions that have been taken.” (via)

Yet, what is in need of clarification is why such distinctions exist at all.  A few years ago, when I was first introducing myself to modern critical scholarship, I saw a flux of archetypes which in truth, for all my trials, I could find no real substance.  Terms like ‘critical scholar’ and ‘conservative scholar’ and ‘liberal’ were tossed around as if such blatant fictional topoi were living and breathing individuals.  And, I must confess, I did fall into such a trap.  Niels Peter Lemche reminds us that such tactics have existed for some time and Philip R. Davies even dedicates substantial time to the discussion in his Memories of Ancient Israel (Louisville: WJK, 2008).  However, Philip has done us a great service by isolating the value of the argument rather than the label by focusing–not so much on terms like ‘minimalist’ and ‘maximalist’ (though he does to some extent)–on the value of trust and the value of doubt (esp. pp. 124-169).

Trust and doubt have a large role to play in the study of the ancient world.  Since history is a field formulated in and upon inductive, rather than the deductive, investigations, what will inevitably happen is that someone with more investment in the material will trust it more than a person who does not have in it as much of an investment.  This is a byproduct of many different vagaries of life and little of it, if any, has to do with Biblical Studies–or perhaps, it simply shouldn’t.

Alas, I may be naive in believing that scholarship can do away with such labels.  I know that the biggest criticism I will receive about this post is that my idealism is not well-grounded. Some arguments are rather ‘conservative’ or ‘maximalist’ or ‘evangelical’ or, perhaps, “too Christian (or Jewish)” and others will undoubtedly be more ‘liberal’, more ‘postmodern’, more ‘secular’–“too Dawkins-esque”.  But the problem with this terminology is that, as parts of language, these labels will bring in more than their share of cultural (or, as Roland Barthes might put it, their diachronic) contexts, many of which will simply not apply to the work or individual(s) to which the label is being applied.

Unfortunately, too many people are working against me on this.  I do not believe that secularism is the cure for Biblical Studies.  I do not believe we need to limit secularism, either.  Jim West is probably more right than he knows when he wrote:

“It seems to me, at any rate, that biblical studies cannot move forward any further along the historical-critical path alone. Furthermore, it seems to me that the only useful approach to biblical studies which can move us forward is theological exegesis. And, to be honest, returning to our roots in theological exegesis as practiced most efficiently in the Reformation writings of Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin.”

It’s certainly true that “historical-critical tools are useful but…Theological exegesis is the missing link in most modern biblical scholarship.” (ibid.)  And I’m sure Jim would argue that the only way to exegete Theologically (correctly) is to have faith (and being a Baptist wouldn’t hurt either–eh, Jim?).  But what he doesn’t argue for is fundamentalism, even if many out there would say otherwise (yes, I’m looking at you John Loftus).  Jim’s quite astute and an excellent scholar; I would value his exegetical prowess over Sam Harris or John Loftus (even if he were still a Christian) and put more stock in his interpretations, even if they lean away from what many would call “secularism”.  The Bible wasn’t written by new atheists (unless, by some crazy coincidence, Carl Sagan invented a time machine, lent it to Bart Ehrman and Hector Avalos, and sent them back to do just that…)–though I have heard it argued that Job didn’t believe in God (this is neither here nor there).  But the Bible was not written, collected, nor edited by Baptists, Reformers (well, maybe just the KJV), or Catholics either, for that matter, regardless of what Pope Benedict would have you believe.  And Jim seems to have a better grasp of that than his detractors–and Tim Bulkeley was right to point out their misuse and abuse of scripture.   But again we come back to labels, don’t we?  Jim West, though a Baptist and seminarian, and pastor (who, admittedly, puts people to sleep), still recognizes that:

In sum, the Bible, from beginning to end, is primarily interested in God. The stage is set in the opening verse of Genesis where we learn, “In the beginning, God….” The Bible’s aim is not to tell a historical tale; its aim is to tell a theological tale. For that reason its authors, minimalists all, recognized that their work and aim and calling was something other than to use traditions and tales for historical reconstruction. “What, when, and how” were of no interest to them at all; but “why and who” mattered supremely.

In other words Jim, like his portrayal of the authors of the Biblical narratives, has little interest (if any) in the historiographical background of the narratives.  So it may be shocking to see him putting the contradictions on display as he does, because he, like other scholars, knows full well that “contradiction” is just as anachronistic a phrase for an ancient author as was “historiography”.  Does one really believe that the author of 1 Kings was any more interested in history than the Dionysius of Halicarnassus or Josephus or Livy?  Does anyone believe they were less interested?  Perhaps, but then they can argue that at the next scholarly colloquium.  In the end, what matters is not the position that Jim holds here, but that he is defying a stereotype which I feel is often applied to Christians by other, more “secular” scholars.  Indeed, the reverse is just as true.  By generalizing about new atheists, Tim Bulkeley has committed himself to tearing down Old Misery’s house.   When one follows a part of a school or train of judgment, fabricating and building upon existing archetypes (i.e. the evil atheist or fundamentalist Christian), the arguments–the discussions–fall through the cracks.  Albert Schweitzer recognized this fabrication in his day, when analyzing the first quest for the historical Jesus.

The mistake was to suppose that Jesus could come to mean more to our time by entering into it as a man like ourselves. That is not possible. First because such a Jesus never existed. Secondly because, although historical knowledge can no doubt introduce greater clearness into an existing spiritual life, it cannot call spiritual life into existence. History can destroy the present; it can reconcile the present with the past; can even to a certain extent transport the present into the past; but to contribute to the making of the present is not given unto it.

And his conclusion cements the very reason why such labels are useless:

“Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from Him and flows through our time also. This fact can neither be shaken nor confirmed by any historical discovery. It is the solid foundation of Christianity.”  The Quest for the Historical Jesus (London: A. & C. Black, 1910), 397-98; German original: Von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1906)

This perspective was echoed, also, by the students of Bultmann.  Bornkamm wrote, quite prophetically of the current dilemma:

“Why have these attempts failed? Perhaps only because it became alarmingly and terrifyingly evident how inevitably each author brought the spirit of his own age into his presentation…” G. Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 13

Where is all of this leading; I know that is the question going through a lot of readers’ minds.  I suppose my conclusion is that labels are not useful; they do not contribute to the end-goal of academia.  Let’s face it, is secularism really a bad thing?  Is religious theology?  Is spirituality?  I tend to believe all are necessary.  Is there one systematic approach to the answers about the past?  Is there one way to teach seminary students about the Bible without making them schizophrenic? At a university, is there a way to educate the student about the value of Theology and a spiritual reading responsibly?  The question I would ask is, is there really a single, methodological way to teach the Bible?  When we say Dever is a Maximalist, or that James McGrath is a progressive, what are we really doing?  What exactly is Dever putting his faith in and, conversely, what is it that McGrath is not?  When we read William Dever’s contributions to scholarship, are we going to find postmodern thoughts and arguments, minimalistic perspectives, and some doubts as well?  Certainly we will, because Dever is as much a product of his day as were the historical Jesus scholars of Schweitzer’s and Bornkamm’s.  But I’m sure if Dever read my post here, saw that I labeled an argument of his as minimalistic, he’d probably object (and I would probably object if someone labeled something I wrote as maximalistic).  But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, or that there is no common ground.  Labels are not so much wrong in that they can’t be true; labels are wrong in that they oversimplify and muddy the water.  They cause confusion when there is none, they force us to misread, misinterpret, and misjudge.

We forget simple things; Theology is just as important as critically analyzing the historical competency of the author.  History is inductive and so we must induce things about the past that are sometimes wrong.  Oh well.  Atheists, secularists, agnostics, should not fear the thought of having to use theology to exegete and, conversely, theists, Christians, evangelicals should not fear reason and critical perspectives about the historical core of the Biblical narratives.  As Schweitzer remarks, such a history may never have existed–but the past has no grasp on the present, in that it can change it.  I believe Tim is correct:

“If we continue as we have been, seeking to separate faith from biblical studies, then all we can expect to foster are sharper and wilder fights between the extremists, with the middle ground left as a muddied no-man’s-land.”

As a friend of mine once said, “atheism and theism died in the trenches of World War 1.”  Indeed.  If we continue to fear each other, the answers will always elude us and, alas, the past as we know it will disappear to us entirely.

Subtle Revenge

What Really Happened at the last SBL Conference?

This heretofore secret photo has emerged showing some of our favorite bibliobloggers at the last SBL conference in Atlanta… I can’t be sure, but that might be James McGrath portraying Adam West…

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