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Friday, February 24, 2006

More on faith based scholarship

This is a kind of response to Danny Zacharias (and not in complete disagreement I might add) at Deinde sparked off by the Michael Fox post on SBL forum and kind of further thoughts on the subject.

Danny write:
1) I think at bottom this discussion is arguing over which presuppositions are better. Faith-based scholarship (evangelical scholars don't just do study) roots its presuppositions in the Christian faith while secular scholarship roots its presuppositions in modernity and enlightenment thinking. I got the distinct impression in Fox's essay that, while he was aware of presuppositions, faith-based scholarship is seen as entrenched in them while secular scholarship is not- that is simply hogwash.

I'm not sure if this is entirely fair. But maybe it is so just as a general defence of certain secular approaches let me offer this. No secularist I know thinks they are working without presuppositions but I heard plenty of people claim they act in such a way. What certain secular minded scholars worry about (and I'm not saying this is necessarily right or wrong) is that certain faith based studies want an answer that they will get whatever and will never change their minds on the issue. Is that scholarship? Is scholarship all about being prepared to change views in light of evidence? Shouldn't it be possible to come to a conclusion about an ancient piece of evidence which runs clear contrary to your own personal political or religious beliefs? Just some thoughts really, not a definitive opinion and to be fair that problem is not just restricted to faith based approaches.

Danny wrote:
2) Practicing faith-based scholarship does not negate collegiality and exclude the ability to learn from people of different presuppositions, and the same should be said of secular scholars. Sometimes we need to get off of our high horse and recognize that anyone, regardless of presuppositions, can bring valuable insights to the discussion.

No, it doesn't have to and yes we can all learn from one another. But what happens when a faith based group dominates the subject? How can they possibly learn or even want to learn from a minority of secularists who will come to some very different conclusions. Example: what other academic discipline discusses whether it is valid to analyse whether the virgin birth happened or not, whether a virgin birth happened or not, or whether it should be taken in a more spiritual sense? We all know why such discussions happen and I think it is safe to assume that they would not happen in a coonventional history dept if they stumbled across similar kinds of beliefs some other place some other time. the ideals in dialogue are fine but they cannot be put into full practice as the discipline stands.

Danny wrote:
4) Who exactly are we talking about here? Are we talking about Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, Rick Warren, etc? Or are we talking about Luke Timothy Johnson, Michael Bird, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall, Stanley Porter, (and the list can go on and on and on)? I recognize scholarship from people's of faith everywhere, and to be frank I think the best biblical scholarship is coming from a "faith-base". If faith-based scholarship is really a problem- then it is more of a pandemic. We are everywhere and -surprise surprise- we can do critical scholarship.

Well for a start I have to strongly disagree with the idea of the best scholarship coming from a faith base. I know this is to some degree subjective but for me at least most - not all- comes from non-conventional perspectives or those where I have no idea about the perspective. But even if we agree that the best stuff comes from a faith perspective that is hardly surprising if the discipline is dominated by Christians.

Danny wrote:
5) Fox talks about faith-based scholars and how they work towards a pre-determined conclusion. This is an excellent point- one that every scholar constantly needs to watch in their own assessment of their work. But are secular scholars really any different? I've read many a secular historical Jesus scholar who seemed quite intent on a pre-determined goal. Pre-determined conclusions are rooted in presuppositions, and since everyone has those (secular and religious alike) then pre-determined conclusions are a problem that every scholar faces. (Fox's assertion that scholarship is based on evidence-which I agree with- is itself a pre-determined conclusion).

This is an important point. I think here there is a problem for the more scripturally conservative rather than faith in general. For example, what is the point of doing critical study if you know that everything in the gospels is going to be 100% accurate, including miracles? I would go so far as to say that is bordering on the impossible for the historian on analogy with other ancient material. Why not have the narrative Jesus and work from there? There are very few secular historical Jesus works to analyse this problem but if we take the discipline of history as an analogy if there were more and more secularists (and yes with their won presuppositions) there would be views of the historical Jesus which directly contradict their own views and rightly so because Jesus lived in a very different culture with a very different worldview. Incidentally, as I said in the comments on an earlier post, I don't consider the Jesus Seminar to be secular. Individuals might be but as a whole I think it is fair to say that it reflects something like liberal Christianity. Funk and Crossan have both expressed themselves in such terms.

Danny wrote:
6) On a more basic human level, I simply despise the continual message that I need to live a fragmented life. I act and think one way at church, act and think one way in academia, and live differently in the real world. Our world is fragmented, people are fragmented and breaking apart from it. This kind of supposed opposition between faith and academic pursuits is the continuation of this kind of fragmented thinking. I try and make my faith part of everything I do- how I raise my children, how I throw out my trash, how I handle my money, how I blog, how I research and write academic papers. Faith certainly has its place- but not just in churches, synagogues, and religious schools, as Fox asserts. Faith finds itself in a community and an individual. That faith ought to go with that person wherever their feet and minds should take them.

Fair enough. My problem is when it dominates a discipline.

One of the interesting things about this whole debate is the impression that the religious and religious conservatives are under attack. Of coure in one sense they are. But let's also remember that these people dominate the discipline not only in arguments with a more or less religious perspective but in numbers also. So why worry...

Update: Ok, there's a good possibility I'll miss someone out because the debate has been running across the blogs. Loren Rosson has made comments which I would endorse. Alan Bandy has some disagreements but some agreements too. More from Danny at Deinde here. From the HB/OT side there is Joe Cathey edging towards Danny's view. Tyler Williams has a very useful detailed discussion here. Have I missed anyone out? Anyway, whisper it but for all the differences there is almost a consensus on the blogs concerning this issue.

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.

Francis Fukuyama versus the neocons?

It appears that well known neocon thinker Francis Fukuyama has had a re-think. There's an extract from his book in today's Guardian.
Here's some of it:
There were other reasons why the world did not accept American benevolent hegemony. In the first place, it was premised on the idea that America could use its power in instances where others could not because it was more virtuous than other countries. Another problem with benevolent hegemony was domestic. Although most Americans want to do what is necessary to make the rebuilding of Iraq succeed, the aftermath of the invasion did not increase the public appetite for further costly interventions. Americans are not, at heart, an imperial people.
Now that the neoconservative moment appears to have passed, the US needs to reconceptualise its foreign policy. First, we need to demilitarise what we have been calling the global war on terrorism and shift to other policy instruments. We are fighting counterinsurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and against the international jihadist movement, wars in which we need to prevail. But "war" is the wrong metaphor for the broader struggle. Meeting the jihadist challenge needs not a military campaign but a political contest for the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims around the world. As recent events in France and Denmark suggest, Europe will be a central battleground.

Here's the damning section:
The war's supporters seemed to think that democracy was a default condition to which societies reverted once coercive regime change occurred, rather than a long-term process of institution-building and reform. Neoconservatism, as a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support.
Remember Fukuyama had signed up to the 'Statement of Principles' for the major neocon base Project for the New American Century in 1997.

He's also said the blindingly obvious which few of the pro-war people particularly in the UK would say because of the utter contradictory nature of their actions:
The most basic misjudgment was an overestimation of the threat facing the US from radical Islamism. Although the ominous possibility of undeterrable terrorists armed with WMD did present itself, advocates of the war wrongly conflated this with the threat presented by Iraq and with the rogue state/proliferation problem.

But some comments are dubious to say the least:
What we need are new ideas for how America is to relate to the world - ideas that retain the neoconservative belief in the universality of human rights
To be polite, the concern for human rights is not something that the neocons have put into practice. In fact Fukayama's statement is quite perverse in the light of what we know about the people neocons have supported over the years.

I haven't checked and so he may say something about it in his book but I wonder what Fukayama now thinks of his infamous idea concerning 'the end of history' which seems flatly contradicted by events of recent years.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

David Irving Jailed

I've followed the whole Irving thing since he sued Deborah Lipstadt a few years ago. From what I can gather he wasn't expected to be jailed. The historian Richard Evans was used in the UK trial and found that it wasn't a question of Irving just being unfortunately mistaken but that he deliberately mis-used and mis-translated sources to portray Hitler and others in a positive light and deliberately downplayed the extent of the Holocaust. Here's the story from the Guardian today:

Irving jailed for denying Holocaust

Three years for British historian who described Auschwitz as a fairytale

Ian Traynor in Vienna
Tuesday February 21, 2006
The Guardian

David Irving, the discredited historian and Nazi apologist, was last night starting a three-year prison sentence in Vienna for denying the Holocaust and the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Irving, who appeared in court confidently yesterday morning carrying his book Hitler's War and a PG Wodehouse paperback, immediately vowed to appeal against the sentence. "I'm very shocked," he said as he was led from Vienna's biggest courtroom back to the cells where he has been held for the past three months.

Article continues
"Stay strong David, best of luck to you," an English supporter shouted after the sentence was read.

Irving, 67, had started the day affecting the image of an English gent arraigned before a foreign court. "Frankly, questions about the Holocaust bore me," he said. He clutched a copy of Hitler's War - "my flagship, 35 years of work" - and from his blazer pocket he fetched the Wodehouse book Eggs, Beans and Crumpets. He called the trial "ridiculous" and claimed that the Austrian law under which he was being tried would be scrapped within a year.

Austria has Europe's toughest law criminalising denial of the Holocaust. Irving went on trial for two speeches he delivered in the country almost 17 years ago. He was arrested in November last year after returning to Austria to deliver more speeches despite an arrest warrant against him and being barred from the country.

In the two 1989 speeches he termed the Auschwitz gas chambers a "fairytale" and insisted Adolf Hitler had protected the Jews of Europe. He referred to surviving death camp witnesses as "psychiatric cases", and asserted that there were no extermination camps in the Third Reich.

State prosecutor Michael Klackl said: "He's not a historian, he's a falsifier of history." Arguments over freedom of speech were entirely misplaced, he added: "This is about abuse of freedom of speech."

Irving's defence lawyer, Elmar Kresbach, appealed to the jury for mercy for an ageing man with a 12-year-old daughter and an ill young wife. Even if he did voice views which were "horrible" or "repellent", he was no danger to Austria.

Last night Irving's partner Bente Hogh said he had brought his imprisonment on himself by going to Austria despite the ban. She said: "He was not jailed just for his views but because he's banned from Austria and still went. David doesn't take advice from anyone. He thought it was a bit of fun, to provoke a little bit."

Irving pleaded guilty but under Austrian law the trial went ahead. Judge Peter Liebtreu called Irving "a racist, an anti-Semite, and a liar", citing the verdict delivered by Justice Charles Gray at the high court in London in 2000 when the historian lost a libel case against an American writer and academic and was bankrupted.

Irving said that defeat had cost him $13m, but supporters were sending donations to help him fight yesterday's case.

The judge repeatedly asked Irving if he still subscribed to the views articulated in the 1989 speeches. "I made a mistake saying there were no gas chambers in Auschwitz," he conceded. He claimed the Holocaust figure of six million murdered Jews was "a symbolic number" and said his figures totalled 2.7 million.

He said he was not sure how many died at Auschwitz, but he mentioned a figure of 300,000, a fraction of the accepted total. And he still believed Hitler protected the Jews and tried to put off the Final Solution - the systematic killing of all European Jews - at least until after the second world war.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Islam: A response to Pete Phillips

Pete Phillips responded to me in the comments section of the previous post where I commented back. Then I noticed a response on his blog so here's my response!

Pete says:
He suggests his comments are not personal. This of course raises huge issues about what is personal and what is not - almost reminded me of the Dan-Brownian manoeuvre to create fact out of fiction...

Where am I creating fact out of fiction? I have no idea what he means. An example?
And Dan Brown? In what sense? What fact have I created? Or is Pete inventing what I said then claiming it is me who is inventing facts? If Pete meant that I was making up that Islam was all liberal and open then I didn't say that and so I can't really defend something I haven't said and that's Pete's creation of me not mine of Islam. My concern was the portrayal and stereotyping of Islam (see also Paul Nikkel at Deine on this). As for personal, as I said in the comments, this was to make sure no one who had written on it took it as an attack on them personally. It was the argument I wanted to deal with and fankly it means little to me who individually made the arguments. That really should be obvious.

Islam is not open to free speech. I know that is a generalisation. There are indeed Muslims open to free speech - many of them. But institutionally and politically this is a true generalisation. Go to Saudi and try and print the cartoons - even the most inoffensive of them and you will realise how Islamic politics is not the same as Western politics.

Apart from it being very weird that freedom loving Western Christian leaders would support such a regime, what does this mean? Why are there so much problems with free speech in Saudi? Some I know would defintely answer 'yes' to the following question so there should be no problem asking this question outright and to Pete in particular: is Christianity therefore inherently better than Islam? Ok and some more. If so what were all those centuries of burnings and heretics? And would it not be better to start thinking more in broader socio-historical terms than history of ideas?

No-one, surely, with a right mind is saying that Western imperialism is right but nor is it factual to simply say that Islam is as open to freedom of speech as the West is...
Of course, I am not giving a value judgement here.


Pete said:
James says he is an advocate of free speech. I am not so convinced that the rights agenda of the late twentieth century and twenty first century is going to be as helpful to human society as we think...I think it is another corollary to late capitalism that may well yet destroy the foundations of what we call civilization.

I'm not quite sure what Pete is getting at here. Rights and free speech as found in the West are certainly tied in with late capitalism but not what I was advocating. A lot of the ideals of rights and free speech in western contexts is a bit dubious. There are plenty of sophisticated ways of non-totalitarian censorship in the West: that's not the kind of free speech I was defending.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Back to football

It's been a week or so for those who count but first week of term and all that...

Anyway what better way to return than noting the following results:

Portsmouth 1-3 Man Utd
Middlesboro 3-0 Chelsea

And let's not forget,

Arsenal 1-1 Bolton

Ok, the league is still almost certainly over but a few nerves, a few injuries and who knows...

Friday, February 03, 2006

Islam and THAT cartoon

There have been countless comments on newsblogs, biblioblogs and whateverelseblogs about this cartoon, freedom of speech and what Muslims are really like. Two things to begin. None of the following is personal IN ANY WAY WHATSOEVER: just a general argument covering several blogs. Also I should point out that I am an unashamed extremist on the side of free speech. Put this another way I have no problem with the right to print or say whatever.

One problem I do have is the portrayal of Islam in all this. Many times on this blog I have been very critical of those who have a unsubstantiated negativity towards Islam and here I go again. Across the blogs and the media in general there are comments which completely generalise about Muslims having no sense of humour, being too easily offended, ignorant, not speaking out against this or that offensive remark aimed at some other religion or ethnic group. Frankly some of this is like generalising about Christians from those who target abortion clinics or the vocal creationists or ID-ers. I don't know the figures but I suspect there are a fair few Muslims in the world today and many are split into all sorts of religious and ethnic divisions. Many leading Muslim figures condemn things like antisemitism but when that is barely reported at the expense of some extremist then that becaome 'what Muslims are like'. Many Muslims hold a whole range of ethical and other values which are simply not discussed in any significant way at the popular level. These have been put in print in numerous books and articles but too often throughout the world of the media and beyond these are simply ignored and the tabloid or broadsheet views are just accepted uncritically who should know better and would know better if the comments had been made about Christians. It seems to me that generalising about such a vast range of people in the ways that have been seen in the media (both conventional and blogging world) is not only uncritical but often just plain ignorant.

Also focusing (and this is very common in the media and on the blogs) in on what certain Muslims hostility in Iraq, Iran or the West Bank or wherever in contrast to 'our' civilised behaviour wildly and deliberately (at least in a structural rather than individual sense) misses the point. While individual journalists or bloggers may think what they are saying is honest and right the overall effect is distorting and way off mark. As I've said repeatedly, follow this through to its logical conclusions. You will end up having to say that either Muslims have a genetic fault or that there is something rotten in the heart of Islam. Some (explicitly or implicitly) really do hold the latter view which as I've said time and time again is viewing the world in an abstract and a-historical way to the point of absurdity. Look another way at western policies in the Middle East which have resulted in the deaths of countless Muslims and suffering of countless Muslims then we might understand why there is such hostility towards the west. If the situation was reversed would 'we' just sit there in our calm civilised manner? After the deaths of I don't know let's say over 500,000 children (like the sanctions on Iraq caused) would 'we' just sit there all smiles? Hmmm, I somehow doubt it. This is one generalisation that is very simple to understand but one which is conventiently ignored right across the board.

Another regular feature of this blog is shameless self promotion. This may like seem a little bit of dubious timing (well its more semi-self promotion really) but I think it is worth it. The following two articles should be read by anyone who generalises abut Islam in ways which represent is (ALL!?) as monolithic, evil, extreme etc. etc.:

Hugh Goddard, 'The Crisis of Representation in Islamic Studies', in J. G. Crossley and C. Karner (eds.), Writing History, Constructing Religion (2005), pp. 85-106.

Kathryn Tomlinson, 'Living Yesterday and Tomorrow: Meskhetian Turks in Southern Russia', in J. G. Crossley and C. Karner (eds.), Writing History constructing Religion (2005), pp. 107-128.

Once again I should point out that none of this is a personal attack on any one in the media.

Marking, Jason Hood's new blog and other things

Ok, marking has meant no blogging at the moment (to a chorus of cheers etc. etc.) but thought I should just point out that Jason Hood (a regular i nthe comments section here) has a new blog Gospel of Matthew. that pretty much explains itself but Jason is also a football/soccer fan so in addition to Michael Bird's comments on what Jason might blog on, what about football/soccer, eh Jason?

Oh and it appears that Jim West was a Farrah Fawcett fan and here goes on a brisk jog down memory lane.