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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

SBL Forum: Michael Fox

There is an excellent piece on the SBL forum by Michael Fox called 'Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study: My View' which effectively argues that faith based scholarship is something different to academic scholarship.
Faith-based study of the Bible certainly has its place — in synagogues, churches, and religious schools, where the Bible (and whatever other religious material one gives allegiance to) serves as a normative basis of moral inspiration or spiritual guidance. This kind of study is certainly important, but it is not scholarship — by which I mean Wissenschaft, a term lacking in English that can apply to the humanities as well as the hard sciences, even if the modes and possibilities of verification in each are very different. (It would be strange, I think, to speak of a "faith-based Wissenschaft.")

I'm not sure If I follow him the whole way but the point is very well made and it's great to see such views published. This is a particularly important point which has bothered me for some time:
There is an atmosphere abroad in academia (loosely associated with postmodernisms) that tolerates and even encourages ideological scholarship and advocacy instruction. Some conservative religionists have picked this up. I have heard students, and read authors, who justify their biases by the rhetoric of postmodern self-indulgence. Since no one is viewpoint neutral and every one has presuppositions, why exclude Christian presuppositions? Why allow the premise of errancy but not of inerrancy? Such sophistry can be picked apart, but the climate does favor it.
I hear this argument all the time. And those Fox (rightly) criticises are in a weird position by embracing a view which logically (though not practically) I cannot understand how it could possibly hold together.

11 Comments:

Blogger J. B. Hood said...

"In our field, there are many religious individuals whose scholarship is secular and who introduce their faith only in distinctly religious forums."

I would love it if he'd name names here.

"It would be strange, I think, to speak of a 'faith-based Wissenschaft.'"

He thinks...but again, can you really posit an ultimate separation of beliefs about religious facts from study? Blomberg doesn't, granted. But neither does Ehrman or Eck, for that matter.

Who gets to define what counts as an "extraneous, inviolable axioms"?

"Scholarship rests on evidence. Faith, by definition, is belief when evidence is absent." I have to say that this is a pretty naive statement, at one level, as Polanyi, Kuhn, and a host of others--not just biblical scholars, but scientists, ethicists, philosophers and others--insist ad nauseum.

"...it starts with the conclusions it wishes to reach." Well, isn't that the first step? "State a hypothesis"? I'm not trying to argue that all faith is equal or relevant, just trying to say that you can't write it out of the classroom and academia. By can't, I mean CANNOT. A "religiously-neutral hermeneutic" is an impossibility.

"The reader or student of Bible scholarship is likely to suspect (or hope) that the author or teacher is moving toward a predetermined conclusion." But this is as true of (again) Ehrman and Eck--supposedly neutrals--as it is Blomberg.

"These things would (in my view) be abhorrent coming from the Godhead, but tolerable when viewed (and dismissed) as products of human imperfection and imagination in an ancient historical context." This is a religious claim, is it not, one that is governing his approach to his discipline! I'm certainly not saying he's wrong, I'm just saying when you use "abhorrent" and "tolerable" you are exercising religious commitment, particularly when you're talking about what a god can or cannot, should or should not be expected to do.

I do agree that we should expect some sort of skepticism about one's own ideas/commitments, though I'm not sure what that looks like. That would be an interesting question worth exploring together. Nor do I mind trying to temporarily set such commitments aside, trying to see from others' perspectives, trying to be 'neutral' (impossible though it is). I just think that's not a reasonable "permanent" expectation to place on the product of one's research. Even if I did this, I still may come up with a commentary on Proverbs that looks more like Bruce Waltke's than his--am I therefore not a scholar?!?

James, keep in mind that Fox's comment in the American realm of study is ironic for just this reason: the scholars (supposedly neutral) are the one supposedly training ministers and other religious professionals, and providing ethical and moral judgments on the basis of their research and academic credentials. To use one example, it's absolute folly to think that Jesus scholars who preach peace to future preachers (and use their research on Jesus to buttress this) in supposedly 'academic' circles aren't influenced by that commitment when they're carrying out the 'foundational' research.

I note that Fox doesn't challenge such folks: his real concern here is any sort of orthodox commitment.

February 22, 2006

 
Blogger J. B. Hood said...

James,

Sorry--I forgot to clarify that I think you misread him; I think he's being more harsh than you are. Note in the first paragraph of your post, that he is actually not (as you say) saying "faith based scholarship is something different to academic scholarship." He's saying there's no such thing as faith-based scholarship, as that first section you quote makes abundantly clear. His term is "faith-based study."

February 22, 2006

 
Anonymous steph said...

Yip, faith based scholarship is something different - it has a place but not in academic institutions where it won't allow itself to be treated like other academic disciplines.

February 23, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

For the reasons you say Jason, I don't follow Fox all the way. I have got some stuff coming out on this and it is quite polemical but ultimately I am of the opinion that a multitude of perspectives is the only fair way. Our discipline is very unusual in one sense but I still use faith based scholarship (I will still use the term!!). The reason why I am attracted to Fox's comments is that it might provoke people to think about the make-up of the discipline. It is, after all, dominated by Christians and I would like to see a far greater mix. If people like Fox provoke something then that is a good thing. But ultimately, I cannot endorse exclusion of any perspective because of the assumption that I am right. I think I am but whether I know it or not I, like everyone else, will get things wrong. Moreover, I know what it is like to be excluded from a seclar perspective and I think it is profoundly unfair and so it would be if we excluded faith persectives (but don't worry, they are still dominant!).

Yet, his point on the postmodern thing is spot on. I have heard that argument used countless times but it only makes sense in keeping every perspective valid. As a logical argument it can't work unless you really believe it. I mean, what's the point of thinknig all views are valid etc when you don't in reality? I think I'm right and not (say) Wright and I'm sure Wright would think the exact opposite.

February 23, 2006

 
Blogger Michael F. Bird said...

So in the words of the learned Dr. Fox, scholars who operate with any religious-commitments are pseudo-scholars and have no place in a University! But why are religious-commitments only taboo? Why not say the same thing about anyone with right-wing political leanings for instance. Or why not exclude (and this is what I suspect truly lies beneath the surface of Fox's remarks) anyone who's viewpoint does not suit his own. His tirade seems to forget that secularism can be just as ideologically driven, just as subjective, and just as immune from self-criticism, as any religious scholar can be.

February 23, 2006

 
Blogger Michael F. Bird said...

One more note, I'll side with James - I think everyone deserves a place at the academic table: faith based or secular. Although we must face up to the the fact that as far as biblical studies goes, it will invariably attract students and lecturers who are usually "religious" in some way.

February 23, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Interestingly, Mike, in the case Fox gives of the ancient 'state' of Israel (if there was such a thing) a case could be made (and has) that political interests have distorted the scholarship.

While (unfortunately) I think you are right that the discipline will attract more religious types I don't think it has to be the case. I have found and subsequently found, that others have found, people are genuinely interested when you explain the kinds of things we do. Also just look at the sort of interest the ancient Egyptians or the DSS can attract. the history of scholarship should show a steady stream of Marxist scholars who worked on Xn origins but were effectively written out partly because some of the stuff was plain awful but partly for ideological reasons.

February 23, 2006

 
Blogger J. B. Hood said...

Jesus Seminar (mostly) qualifies in that latter category as well--the presumption of neutrality that attempted (poorly, as it turns out) to mask ideology. Again, it's interesting that this is not what Fox targets.

James, FYI, note that Fox teaches at a state university. It is almost impossible for an evangelical or (relatively conservative) catholic to get a position at such a school. It's not like the UK, where one finds scholars of all stripes teaching in state-funded universities. In our public universities, secularists or radical (unorthodox) types dominate and are the only voices allowed: that means (selected at random)--Ben Witherington, Raymond Brown, Martin Hengel, Gundry, Bonnard, brueggemann, fretheim, thiselton, hurtado, Bauckham, Schlatter, Richard Hays, Stuhlmacher, stephen fowl, Dunn, Childs, even Mark Powell, and others like them need not apply, because their work is not "scholarship," by Fox's definition. But Eck, Ehrman, Crossan, Borg, Ludemann, Schaberg, et al? Love 'em. Give 'em tenure.

Maybe part of this is a reaction to fundamentalism; but it's an overreaction--and it's illogical and ideologically driven.

February 23, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

There's no doubt that the JS is a reaction to fundamentalism (they even say so in the Five Gospels) but I wouldn't call them secular, not even Crossan and Funk. I know many don't believe in the literal truth of many things and may be classed as kind of sea-of-faith people but they are still engaged in discussions over spirituality and implications for the future of Christianity. I've got to say the UK and German scene is dominated by faith approaches inthe universities to the near 'exclusion' (I don't mean that in a deliberate sense) of the secular.

All this is why I think the problem is not about eliminating perspectives but opening the discipline up somehow to a braoder range of people. Then multiple perspectives will force new questions to be asked and answered by everyone.

February 24, 2006

 
Blogger J. B. Hood said...

Sorry James,

I meant that Fox is reacting to religious conservatism; he and the 'secular' university guild in the States aren't bothered by the Jesus Seminar and the like, indeed such are celebrated.

James, you ought to come to the US and teach in a state university!

"I think the problem is not about eliminating perspectives but opening the discipline up somehow to a braoder range of people. Then multiple perspectives will force new questions to be asked and answered by everyone."

I have no problem with this, as it would be helpful for all concerned. But this is not what Fox is arguing! Fox has only served to polarize the debate by selecting personae non grata.

February 24, 2006

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fox is an ordained Rabbi.

March 29, 2006

 

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