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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

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.

13 Comments:

Anonymous Christopher Shell said...

To say that 'the secularist approach has its own agenda' is a teasing statement: if it's true, one is not quite sure whether to approve or disapprove.

People often say 'Everyone has biases'. What they don't always add is: 'If those biases are the result to-date of their researches hitherto, then they have every right to have them; whereas if they are the result of their own preferred ideologies or wishful thinking, they have no right to have them.' Neither do they always add 'Some people have a lot fewer biases than others - and this could not be possible unless it were possible to be self-critical of one's biases.'

In characterising a secular perspective as one with unpredictable results, you're describing what I call a truth-seeking perspective, something which thankfully has been becoming more common in NT studies. I wouldn't call it a secular perspective because secularism is an ideology and a worldview like any other, whereas the truth-seeking approach is aiming to be dispassionate and self-critical. The secularist approach (to be literal) not only assumes a questionable sacred/secular dualism but also commits itself (an unexamined presupposition: dangerous) to the assumption that the 'saeculum' (world order / age) is all there is. This assumption is highly question-begging. Where did the saeculum come from? Has it no reference to anything beyond itself? I doubt you are taking the word 'secular' that literally, but I suggest it's not the best word for the purpose.

I don't understand what the word 'religious' means, but I do understand the word 'worldview'; and the secularist worldview is committed to the view that no living thing greater than human beings is guiding our destiny, which is at least as questionable as the worldview of others that human beings are probably not where the buck stops, or at least (in a universe as utterly vast as ths) that they are are unlikely to be, and (in a universe about which we are familiar with much less than one percent) that we are not remotely in a position to assume such a thing.

Possibly Michael Bird is also in danger of being dualistic? Shouldn't we welcome the discussion of all questions (particularly the big questions) by people with as wide a variety of perspectives as possible? Otherwise we will miss things.

Traditionally some criticism of Sheffield has conflated the publishing house with the university department - of course, there are in fact overlaps. Sheffield has justly been spoken of as a breed apart in the extent of its selling out to the more questionable varieties of postmodernism. Who else would appoint a Stephen Moore as editor of a flagship journal? While Philip Davies leaves no-one in any doubt that he is standing in opposition to the majority of departments elsewhere, despite being in his way equally ideologically 'biased'.

August 15, 2006

 
Blogger Jim said...

Sheffield is no more secular than any other University. And some seminaries and faith oreinted colleges do a worse job of educating their students.

It seems a bit sad that the "culture wars" have now come to the point where "secular university" is a byword.

August 15, 2006

 
Blogger metalepsis said...

Chris: It is funny you mention Stephen Moore who is now at Drew, which if I am not mistaken is a Methodist Seminary.

If you look at the new Phoenix press it seems pretty even handed in its publications.

August 16, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Yes, I suppose it was a bit of a teasing statement but whether to approve or disapprove isn't too much a worry for me! I just wanted to avoid any allegations of neutrality etc. which I frequently get. On the bias thing, of course it needs to be checked and so on.

On the secular definition I suppose we are just talking about semantics. One reason I use secular is that I'm not as optamistic as you are about the results of the discipline. Much still seems to be predictable with a given scholar usually tied in with a some kind of underlying faith perspective. Tied in with this reason for using secular is that I would push for more and more similarities with the humanities e.g. ideological and materialistic literary criticism, a greateruse of causality in historical explanations etc. These are not great concerns in NT studies at least and the reasons are no doubt because they are perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be useless for faith and hence that's why I go for secular. But the label is not so important.

By religious in this context I just mean people in the discipline with faith backgrounds which numerically, no matter how much honesty in their truth seeking, will almost inevitably have an impact on the results of the discipline. As for secular worldview you may be right as a generalisation but my own is one of agnosticism, or better, don't know and no longer care! But again my concerns are with the perspectives of the participants in the discipline and I agree that we are not really in a position to determine what the true worldview or anything like that is. I wonder if all this debate might boil down to how we assess the results of the discipline. You seem much more optamistic than me on the interdisciplinary nature. Is that a fair comment?

On the Sheffield question I'm not sure if that's all fair. There have been people who go for a distinctively postmodern approach but that's never been everybody. Given that the humanities has been experimenting with a variety of postmodern criticisms for however long I see it as only healthy that there are people doing this becuase there's a good chance virtually all other depts would avoid it. I'm not sure that the so-called postmodern approach is as distinctive these days as it was in previous decade yet there is still something distinctive about Sheffield in the approaches we've all been talking about. For me that is one of its major strengths.

As for appointing Stephen Moore, I just don't see the problem. Again, what Stephen Moore does builds on a lot of mainstream work in the humanities which is slightly marginalised in biblical studies. I wonder, are you implying that there is a problem and if so there has to be a certain slant to flagship journals (e.g. 'traditional' approaches)?

Philip Davies probably wouldn't disagree with you but again I don't see the problem. For a start a bit of antagonism isn't necessarily a bad thing!

August 16, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

I should probably also add that throughout its history the Sheffield dept has always had people doing traditional scholarship and from faith perspectives. If I remember rightly the first head was FF Bruce (correct me if I'm wrong).

August 16, 2006

 
Anonymous Christopher Shell said...

Thanks for the useful background.

(1) We agree in our presuppositions about how scholarship is to be done, just disagree about how to use the word 'secular'. So far as I can see, scholarship is truth-seeking by definition. If it's not truth seeking, but has already made up its mind (presuppositions equal conclusions) how can it be scholarship? That is why I don't at all agree with those who advocate a dual approach: faith- based and non-faith-based. The former should be disallowed in cases where presuppositions are unexamined and/or based on wishful thinking. This applies to both 'religious' and liberal/radical/humanist premises: both are often unexamined and therefore illegitimate / unscholarly. (Which makes one wonder why the latter are allowed everywhere in the media and the former nowhere. They display equal amounts of unwelcome fundamentalism and dogma.) It would only be with these provisoes that I would accept any of what you term 'traditional scholarship' from a 'faith perspective'.

(2) There is only one proper approach: critical, eclectic, truth-seeking, and above all honest. (As in your book on Mark.) Honesty is aided by the ability to listen to as wide a variety of informed opinions as possible. One's approach cannot be presuppositionless, but must at least be based on presuppositions which are (i) researched and (ii) provisional and open to refinement / correction.

(3) This is where I slightly differ from the presupposition of agnosticism. The world is full of a number of facts, and the degree to which we know these facts varies immensely. Some we know competely, others we haven't a clue about, and there is a vast standard deviation hump in between. To say we know nothing at all is crazy; to say our knowledge (or rather lack of knowledge) of each given topic is precisely equal is also crazy. (Though common in scholarly circles where caution is mistaken for a virtue. It is appropriate caution, not caution per se, that is a virtue. Why should one be cautious in agreeing that the planet we inhabit is normally called 'Earth' by English people? -to mention only one perfectly secure fact among many.) Agnosticism should however be regarded positively, since it shows the person is honest, which is rarer than we may think. 'Don't know' is, with the above provisoes, a good approach. Whereas 'don't care' is an absolutely rotten approach to life - the worst, in fact - but a good approach to scholarship: one should not care what conclusion emerges, since if one does, one's caring may subconsciously affect the research.

(4) All university study, NT studies included, has rightly been becoming much more interdisciplinary. In this tribal and specialist age this needs to be encouraged to continue. No non-interdisciplinary approach makes sense, since the real world is multi-dimensional, and consists not of a sociology cross-section nor of a psychology cross-section etc but of all dimensions co-existing.

(5) I can well believe Stephen Moore has Methodist links (surely he is an atheist?) knowing what has become of Methodism. This is the writer who thinks it significant that the Greek rho looks like an English p, allowing him to interpret the word 'gar' as 'gap', much as Mary Baker Eddy interpreted 'Adam' as 'a dam'. Any normally sensitive and compassionate human being who cannot see what is wrong with the book God's Gym...(!). Its credo is: Let's besmirch everything good and lovely. Yeah, right.

(6) Davies I was just using as an example of why Sheffield was originally seen as being in a different category from other BibStudies depts, rather than as an example of a problem - tho' it could be argued that he is both.

Apologies for length.

August 16, 2006

 
Blogger Michael F. Bird said...

James, good balanced post.

August 16, 2006

 
Blogger Peter M. Head said...

Some Oxford chairs seem to have religious requirements (see http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/reporter/current/weekly/6044/44.html); but I'm not sure about the BS ones. (sorry: Biblical Studies)
There is nothing quite the same in Cambridge.

August 16, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

No problem Christopher.

I think we probably agree on quite lot here and I wouldn't challenge a lot of what you say. I think the problems are still semantic.

I think faith based and non-faith based could be changed to scholars having faith and not having faith because that is what is at stake for me and what can drive results. This may shed some light on my use of the term secular. I prefer it to atheistic or something because that doesn't fit me. You could just replace it with non-faith or something but I think what I'm getting at it is perspective more than anything and that secular suits my perspective and covers that of others who may also be more atheistic.

Absolutely agree on presuppositions and honesty etc.

I think I may have accidentally misled you on agnosticism. I only meant it in terms of faith so as not to confuse my position with a hard atheist position which absolutely knows God doesn't exist etc. I really don't care too much these days on the issue of whether God exists: I can't prove it either way and it makes little difference now to the way I lead my life. It may be rotten way to lead life (though I don't think you were quite saying that - I certainly don't have a 'don't care' attitude towards life) for many but it works for me. I quite agree on the don't care about the results though.

As for Sheffield I agree it is certainly distinct (a very good thing for me). As for Philip Davies possibly being a problem well that depends on what you mean by problem. If you are into theology then he is a problem because he poses challenges to that. But that isn't a problem for people like me particularly this and the rest of his work produces some very creative ideas.

On Stephen Moore I have no idea of his beliefs (I know that wasn't directly asked to me) but he has been the major person to introduce poststructuralist theory and cultural studies into NT studies and such approaches continue to become used by more and more scholars (it will be interesting and maybe worrying to see what happens with the next generation of biblical scholars) so I don't think it is such an outrageous thing to give him editorship of a major journal. Besides, all the individual articles in major journals tend to be sent to the relevant experts.

A dam!!! Never knew that!

August 16, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Thanks Peter and were you being a bit naughty with the BS comment?!!!

August 16, 2006

 
Anonymous Christopher Shell said...

Yes - Davies is someone well worth welcoming to the debating table. He would be far from the greatest giant there, and if one were to identify a problem with this work it is the following pattern that I have identified: he homes in like a hawk on anything that might help to discredit trad Xnity as he understands it (so much for balance and the non-ideological approach), which is of course not a lot worse than the reverse tendency which one also finds.

There is no question that Stephen Moore is also sitting at the table. His plus points were never denied - I was speaking about his minus points, which are ugly and would have no place at the table. Because if everything is welcome, nothing is.

August 17, 2006

 
Blogger J. B. Hood said...

James,

time for a personal update on your blog isn't it? (1) season prediction, now that you've seen what ManU do to easy opponents this season (and what Arsenal are doing, period). (2) courses/teaching/life, SBL plans, etc.

August 27, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Yeah, you're right Jason. I've been ultra-busy of late but in a nice way.

August 29, 2006

 

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