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Friday, November 10, 2006

Reception of the Berlineblau article: what should not be overlooked

Well the world of blogging has enjoyed this one and as the topic of secularism is one close to my heart, it is that issue that I would just want to emphasise because it is arguably the most important if biblical studies wants to function as an academic discipline.

People may say that the Bible is the book of believers and that is where its heart is. Well whatever, but why was I like, many undergraduates across the UK at least, taught Islam and the Quran by a non-Muslim and no one thought this unusual for one minute whereas an openly non-believing scholar of biblical studies tends to stick out? I'm now guessing, but I wonder if it would be fairly normal for an academic study of (say) Islam or any other non-Christian religion to to have so many confessional academics? But more to the point, to what extent should we care if the Bible is at the heart of Christian communities in academic biblical studies? Should we take on more anthropological or sociological models when discussing the Bible, or better treat it like other non-theological disciplines in the humanities treat their primary source material? That's my personal model (though getting involved with the issue of the resurrection shows that I do not or cannot in this context put this fully into practice).

My real problem is that biblical studies, or at least the historical study of Christian origins, will bypass tricky issues if it stays largely in the hands of the faithful and not be able to function fully as a serious academic subject. There are many examples of this and I have mentioned a few on this blog. Again, Marxism (and note this is not to say we should become Marxists) and the interdisciplinary history of the Annalists. In the mid-C20 when there were plenty of Marxist historians providing grand explanations of this, that or the other (think of Hill, Hobsbawm, Hilton, Thompson et al). Annales produced Braudel. Nothing like this was going on in the heavily studied area of Christian origins and it is not going too far to suggest that confessional dominance was the reason. Plenty of NT scholars want to do history but how far are they really prepared to go in historical explanation?

One e.g.: I keep running into trouble with believers for using conventional (in the humanities) approaches to conversion to explain recruitment to earliest Christianity and why it shifted toward a gentile religion. I don't get critiqued because of the pros and cons of the approach but because I don't discuss faith. But try using faith to explain historical change and you won't get far at all.

Such problems are embedded in the discipline and is difficult to avoid. The UK NT scene is packed full of these issues. Prayers have opened conferences, theological colleges have a significant say in the running of various affairs (could you imagine places reserved for secular types or non-believers?). Whatever the virtues or vices of such things, it only re-inforces what the discipline is about and what it is not about.

To the article:

First, the SBL desperately needs to know more about the identity of its own practitioners, and it needs to share that information with its members. I would like to see a census, if you will, of the rank and file. The questions of interest to me: What percentage of members practice in theological institutions? What percentage work in a university not affiliated with any denomination? Of the latter, how many did their graduate work in seminaries? What is the denominational breakdown of the society? Is the persistent rumor that the SBL is dominated — if not overrun — by conservative Christians true?

That is an interesting idea. This could extend to SNTS, BNTC etc. etc. I think it is pretty clear that most scholars are Christians (esp. in NT and Christian origins) but it really would be useful analysis of the discipline. It would sharpen the focus on how interest groups have shaped questions (and answers).

As a conversation starter, I would suggest that the SBL adopt the goal of creating 100 new positions in biblical scholarship in the next decade in secular universities. (Seminarians, naturally, are encouraged to apply, but universities should be mindful of the importance of having secular scholars on staff.) This would mean making the case to academe (and the public at large) about the Bible's central and enduring place in humanistic inquiry. I might also recommend that the society get a little nasty. It should aggressively caution secular universities against excessively outsourcing biblical instruction to either theological institutions or part-time clergymen. This is no slight on theology — it is simply a question of creating more job opportunities for beleaguered graduate students.

Now we are at the heart of what should be a very uncomfortable issue: what do we do with confessional imbalance? I pretty sure there are plenty of secular types who are potential for recruitment to biblical studies, if only they knew it so to speak. But how do we go about it? Positive discrimination? I really don't know the answer, and whatever it is it might not be fair, but something needs to be done. A Christian dominated discipline, for all the disinterested work of individuals, will bring a range of Christian results as the history of the historical study of Christian origins at least shows. I keep saying all this and it is a basic and obvious point. It is a convenient issue to ignore but there is plenty of rhetoric about acting like historians in my own field by good Christians who then invoke the supernatural in history, something most mainstream historians would not even come close to doing. This is a serious challenege for the credibility of an academic discipline.

Now, I'm all for the range of positions, no problem. But here I come up against an inevitable tension: if there are so many theological colleges, seminaries, confessional departments and so on simply as part of the structure of the discipline am I going to be a convenient secularist to wheel out because I'm not hostile to religion or belief? Again I emphasise, what can be done? And for believers, are your results (let's say in the history of Christian origins) ever going to be tested to the full if only intra-Christian dispute is going on? I don't think so but I'm starting to repeat.

The idea of the unpapal conclave sometimes gets mentioned in these debates and is a great idea in the abstract but simply cannot be put into practice as things stand and we should not pretend otherwise.

Anyway, don't you forget to see more of this fun at the secular session at AAR/SBL (I'll mention it again, don't worry) where I (James not John Crossley) will be on the panel with Berlinerblau.

Not wanting to get all partisan but in the UK there is of course one Biblical Studies department in a secular university...

12 Comments:

Blogger Bilbo Bloggins said...

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November 10, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

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November 10, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

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November 10, 2006

 
Blogger Bilbo Bloggins said...

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November 10, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

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November 10, 2006

 
Blogger Bilbo Bloggins said...

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November 10, 2006

 
Blogger Bilbo Bloggins said...

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November 10, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

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November 11, 2006

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

James:
I never said supernatural explanations were out of bounds, just that they are very unusual ina university setting. Compare history. It is the Christian context of the disciplie that allows this, clearly.

Alex: Well, if it is a multiplicity of viewpoints that you're after, and you don't consider supernatural explanations out of bounds, then this should be one of the virtues of the Christian context of the discipline - that it allows us to explore issues that are out of bounds in the wider field of allegedly secular history.

James: I'm looking for more perspectives and more questions to be brought into the discipline, that's all.

Alex: More perspectives will be brought into the discipline if we import an actual real diversity of worldviews, not just increase the number of secular scholars. That will give us predominantly two - secular and Christian.

James: In fact Christian scholars will use it as something beneficial to Christianity (e.g. Esler). What amazes me is that you appear to assume that I don't know this. I've put it in print in detail but you are telling me I thin other wise otherwise.

Alex: So then, we all agree that Christian beliefs are no hindrance to proper social science studies currently.

James: Anyway, I wrote loads on the omission of social sciences and Marxism in the mid-C20 arguing that it was too problematical for a Christian discipline at the time but things changed in the late 60s for variou socio-political reasons. There is masses of evidence for what I argue on the omission of social sciences in the mid C20, it is not speculative, it is not quoting what you say. It has absolutely nothing to do with the models you are on about (because they weren't there!!!) You are just making things up or utterly misunderstanding.

Alex: Since the correlation between Christianity and aversion to the social science is no longer the case, I'm really not sure what the point is of your argument attempting to show this in the past. You seem to admit that it is the socio-political circumstances that are at the root of the aversion, and not Christian belief per se.

James: You are also completely missing the point of what I mean by causality. It is in the tradition of historians explaining why things happen (the big why questions as Hobsbawm put it).

Alex: The point there was that there are a multitude of reasons as to why things happen and the social sciences only describe one aspect of this (usually a general social trend, value-system, or milieu).

James: There are social reasons for the rise of secular approaches, as there are for just about any. Do you assume that I am not influenced by my context?

Alex: I don't. I assume you are, but I also assume that you make decisions based on your beliefs as well. For instance, your belief in the importance of fairness and equal representation obviously motivates (and thus has explanatory power with regards to) your stance on the issue of secularization with NT study. So the point is that there are multiple levels of description and causality as well (i.e. material causes, efficient causes, etc.), and beliefs, commitments, and even faith can easily come into play in historical accounts involving causality.

Alex Dalton

November 11, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

The name aside, that's better. If you are more sober like that then there's no problem. As soon as the insults, slurs, lies etc. start flying, I delete, ok?

I've never denied Christian virtues, though I think the supernatural issues is no benefit and has hindered scholarship.

I also argued that secular is one voice. The increase in women, as I mentioned, led to significant advances in various areas.

Christian beliefs do not always have to hinder but they can. Anything that smacks of explaining away is not high on the agenda. There may well be areas we are just not aware of.

The point of this is that the dominance of one group will almost inevitably exclude perspectives it doesn't like. This, obviously, includes a secular one should it dominate. I think there has been an avoidance of various big why questions to explain things as well as well as an over emphasis on the individual as the cause of all.

November 11, 2006

 
Blogger Peter M. Head said...

You've got to stop talking to yourself James.

November 11, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

If only I had that luxury!

November 12, 2006

 

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