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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Deinde and faith/secular

Danny Zacharias has re-opened the old favourite: faith versus secular scholarship. Here's further interaction with lots of agreement and development of Danny's points.

Both Stephen Carlson’s blog and Mark Goodacre’s interview with Alan Bandy got me thinking about the terms we are using in this discussion. Stephen Carlson questions the label “faith-based” while Goodacre is uncomfortable with evangelical and secular to categorize scholarship. Reading Mark Goodacre’s interview, terms that I wonder about are ‘personal faith’, and especially ‘academic scholarship’ throughout this whole discussion...Goodacre and Carlson (and Bandy and George Guthrie) didn't like the term 'faith-based' and 'secular'. I too don't necessarily like the labeling and classifications, but I think they are unavoidable for the most part. We put labels on everything to help make sense of things.

In one sense these points are valid but I also think it would be a problem in getting rid of some general academic label as Danny rightly points out (though he may not agree with the reasons I think this!). Individually there are Christian scholars who show little signs of how their faith guides their work or at least I can't guess. But it is the fact that the overwhelming majority of scholars have a faith background (and this is not just evangelical by the way) that the discussion will inevitably reflect Christian issues. Much of the history of scholarship (and I include here the Jesus Seminar) shows this I think and it is no coincidence that Marxism before liberation theology was largely ignored in the mainstream of NT studies when it was playing a significant role in the humanities. Incidentally, this doesn't mean that the Christian debates were somehow wrong or that the varied perspectives didn't provide their own insights. But it did mean that some big discussions were avoided. This is why I think is is dangerous (well in terms of academic debate) to lose the secular label otherwise we can just say everyone is welcome while effectively excluding secular people.

After thinking through this and trying to determine what irks me so much about the arguments for secular scholarship as "the higher road" is that the religiosity/spirituality that these types of statements allow scholars is incompatible with Christian discipleship- Jesus calls us to a whole-life faith.

Just for the record I don't believe that secular is automatically better or higher. I'm pushing for more voices and more perspectives. If there was a dominance of secular perspectives in the discipline at the expense of others then I would happily join in criticising that hypothetical establishment. I certainly don't think that evangelicals, Catholics, liberal Christians or whatever should necessarily hide their perspectives.

We put labels on everything to help make sense of things. Imagine a scenario where we got rid of them. Then one day James Crossley and I are talking about the resurrection. I think it happened and he doesn't. We exchange friendly blows to each others arguments (but I have the weight advantage and N.T. Wright is in my corner so I got it made in the shade) and finally James says- "you are coming from a faith-base that affirms at the outset the possibility of the miraculous", to which I reply "you are coming from a secular base assuming that the miraculous cannot happen".

Taken out of context I know, but our different perspectives lead to question neither side would have brought forward without such opponents.

Mark Goodacre's stress on the arguments and evidence is important. That's what agreements and disagreements should be ultimately based on- even when we do recognize presuppositions of the author(s).

Yes this is what, following certain philosophers of history, I would call objectivity as distinguished from neutrality (or perspective or whatever) which is effectively impossible to avoid even if it can't be fully defined. And neutrality is not necessarily a bad thing: it is precisely what I think brings more and more questions to the table. Just think of the increase in women in biblical studies which was the only real reason why feminist and history of women has increased in prominence in biblical studies.

As to the term 'academic scholarship', it seems to me that people of a secular persuasion intechange 'secular' and 'academic' as if they are synonymous- they aren't. Neither is 'faith-based' and 'academic'. Essays from scholars of both persuasions can be really good and horribly bad- in the end scholarship rests on evidence that is publicly coherent and available.

Yes, I agree. I use secular more in terms of individuals in the discipline and the questions they bring. It is the one-sidedness of the discipline which some (with some justification I think) leads to questioning whether 'academic' is fair. It is nothing to do with faith based being inherently non-academic.

I have also been a little confused with some seemingly mixed messages from those of the secular persuasion. James Crossley encourages secular studies to bring more voices and ideas to the table- he says that Christians have a stranglehold on biblical studies. Then Thomas Thompson says this in his interview (which irked me to no end by the way): "They [evangelical scholars] now stand at a turning point where they are undergoing a very serious struggle for academic recognition which goes hand in hand with an equally serious struggle for academic integrity, which, for many of the individuals involved, is consonant with personal struggles of faith." Am I wrong that this is in a bit of contradiction to Crossley's desire for more secular scholarship?...I am perplexed.

I can't speak for Thompson and whether we would disagree I'll leave open but it shouldn't be a surprise that secular people disagree. There are a massive range of disagreements among secularists just as there are among Christians. To take an extreme example (which are always quite helpful in clarifying a position I find) I don't agree with Stalin!!!! I should also add that it seems I am addressing a slightly different issue to Thompson. I discuss the Christian dominance of discipline as a whole whereas Thompson appears to be discussing the role of evangelicals in the discipline.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"our different perspectives lead to question neither side would have brought forward without such opponents."
Very good point, thanks.

I have to admit, I had you all wrong. I thought you were a Stalinite through and through :)

Although I recognize that not every secular scholar will agree, there still seems to be a glaring contradiction between you and Thompson- and one is right and one is wrong (just for the record I think you are correct, not him).

Danny Zacharias

April 19, 2006


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