Sheffield and the Secular
Michael Bird has a post on secularism with some comments on Sheffield and asked for me to give an opinion. Ok then. Mike says with reference to a recent John Barton article:
First, Barton nominates the OT studies department in Sheffield, UK as a place that is decidedly secular and "not interested in theological issues" and such departments exist also in the USA. I wonder if secular is readily translatable into either anti-theology or only disinterested in theology which are not the same thing - which one is true of Sheffield?
You probably get a bit of everything at Sheffield. On the Hebrew Bible side of things there are people with no interest in theology as we might conventionally think of it and there have been people who don't like theology. But there are also Hebrew people who have been interested in theology and continue to be interested in theology and produce research on the Hebrew Bible and theology. There is also one Jewish scholar. On the NT side of things there are ordained people who teach in the department and obviously have theological interests and others who are definitely interested in theology to varing degrees. And there is one person who would self identify as a secularist. To answer Mike's question in terms of Sheffield: as a whole it cannot be categorised as secularist, anti-secularist, theological or the like as all are and have been represented. I could add to this the students: many, perhaps most, come from different religious backgrounds though there are atheists and agnostics - pretty much like all departments teaching biblical studies, religious studies and/or theology in the universities.
Now of course there are always going to be various perspectives under-represented but that seems like a healthy mix for an academic dept doesn't it?
In terms of secular, whether it is anti-theology, disinterested in theology or even interested in theology depends on the secularist you ask. And even speaking for myself, it might depend on my mood!
Now for some of Mike's other questions.
(1) At the end of the day biblical scholars are dealing with religious texts that by their very nature attract religious people. If one dislikes being around persons of religious disposition, either working with them, teaching them, sitting beside them at conferences, reading books written by them, then find a new job without religion.
Yes, that's fair enough. Mike adds:
I can understand the plight of secularists who may feel alarmed at the incursion of religious ideologies into their field and lament the fact that their job prospects are not as broad as those of scholars with religious leanings. But that is, to put it grimly, the nature of the beast.
In terms of theological colleges/seminaries/bible colleges ok, although that leaves a structural imbalance in terms of the ideological make up of the discipline. And should theological colleges be given any special privileges in academic settings and conferences? That would be an important issue to discuss I think. But in terms of universities religious leanings absolutely should not be an issue. It isn't legally and in my experience I have never felt that pressure in terms of job applications. But it remains an issue of course because (and correct me if I am wrong) there are Oxford-Cambridge posts which are tied in with the church.
On the rest of what Mike says, you've read my views on this before (and can read them again in detail with lots of nice examples in, ahem, Why Christianity Happened chapter 1). I agree with him in general but just add that we should not forget what the discipline missed out on in comparison with other humanities (e.g. history) because of a lack of secular perspectives.
Finally, I just want to add that there has been a bit of discussion about critical scholarship prompted by Ben Witherington. All I want to say is that the secular approach I envisage can step beyond the intra-faith debate of whether you must be very sceptical or not sceptical to be right and so on. For me a secular perspective means that the types of results, at least in terms of conventional historical study, can be fairly unpredictable (I leave aside the miraculous for the moment) and not strangely in sync with our own theological views (liberal, evangelical or otherwise). It also means that the biblical texts are open to a much more critical reading, critical in the sense of deconstructing their ideologies etc. and being ready to entertain the possibility that the texts are just irrelevant, at least in a historical context.
I wish I didn't have to say the following but as the same allegations frequently come up...: this secular approach does not equal neutrality. It has its own agenda such as that I've partially outlined.