Popery in Nottingham!
As promised, a review of the Nottingham conference on the Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth...
This conference was a strange but definitely fun experience for me. It is one thing holding a minority position in biblical studies but another thing entirely in terms of theology and even more in terms of the Pope! There were various Catholic figures, including the Archbishop of Granada and people from the monastic orders and people from the Radical Orthodoxy crowd. I won’t say much on my paper about the Pope’s construction of Judaism and how it is not so different from the very problematic construction of Judaism in historical Jesus scholarship but I think it was the only paper consistently critical of the Pope’s book. Not surprising perhaps but presenting such a paper to such a crowd was nothing like I’ve experienced before. I’ve debated with WL Craig in front of a largely evangelical crowd and the SBL panel review of Bauckham’s book certainly had a very unusual crowd for an academic context (remembering whooping crowd members and being pounced upon by creationist types still makes me laugh) but I’m sort of used to a variety of evangelicals now. Giving such a paper to theologians brought back memories of postgraduate days but critiquing the Pope in front of devout Catholics was something very new for me. It was one thing being in the audience but another thing presenting to the audience, looking up and seeing the aforementioned good and great looking back and just wondering what on earth must be going through their minds. The question session was fun (I had the allegation of a hermeneutic of suspicion – yep, out and proud!) but what was best for me (and any potential conference organisers take note) was the drinks reception where I could talk things through and get to know potential opponents much better. Always have a healthy drinks reception, they really do help. As much as I think there’s little to top the social side of SBL, there is a tendency to drift off with likeminded people after a paper to the numerous things on offer. The drinks reception at the Pope conference was very helpful in clearing up and/or developing debates. I have to say, for sheer experience, this was one of my own papers I particularly enjoyed giving.
I won’t discuss other papers either because some papers were circulated for internal discussion only and presumably this means not discussing them on the internet. So forgive me for discussing in general terms but I think I portray things fairly and if anyone from the conference thinks I wasn’t and is reading this, feel free to let me know.
This conference revealed what seems to me (and others) a significant and very interesting tension between theology (probably more precisely systematic theology) and biblical studies (more precisely historical criticism). This tension came through in the Bible and Justice conference and other conferences I’ve been to where biblical studies and theology are brought together. This tension came through in virtually all the papers and discussion at the Pope conference. There was a tendency to see historical criticism as almost too secular and too non-theological which is particularly interesting for me as I’ve made opposite kind of suggestions. Many theologians wanted historical criticism to give them the answers they wanted for theology and discard views that were not helpful. Someone did bring the question of whether this could lead to making things up. This also raises the serious problem (and too easily dismissed with allegations of ‘empiricism’) of honesty to basic or contradictory evidence (I got a bit annoyed at the Pope accusing people in his book of imposing things on the text…like he didn’t!). So I was very curious as to how theologically minded people would deal with this.
I had a very interesting discussion with one theologically minded academic and I raised this issue and asked what would be the point of historical criticism if the answers were already known. I was pretty surprised to find that this wasn’t actually seen as a problem. I was even given this answer: the Pope’s Jesus or a sort-of-orthodox Jesus (some people still made minor criticisms of the book) is historically right (you know what I mean), has to be historically right and can be proven to be historically right through historical criticism. Incidentally, I was also told that the Pope’s Jesus is more historically plausible than Jesus as reconstructed by either Vermes or Sanders – can’t say I was convinced! Such an approach, obviously, doesn’t please me in historical-critical terms but it at least helps explain one element of the logic of some of the participants.
But not all. Some, I think, took a kind of Barthian line (am I being fair here…?) and came very close to bracketing out the reconstruction of the historical Jesus thing and some, I suspect, probably wished the Pope had too. Here I would also bring in, maybe unfairly, those advocating canonical criticism and the general role of a believing community. This may surprise some, but I’m starting think, if I were coming in from an overtly theological/faith perspective, I would be tempted to take this position because of the ‘what if’ issue of the historical Jesus actually being something theologically problematic (as I suspect the historical Jesus is). At least from this kind of perspective it can do what it is supposed to do, namely produce what is helpful for a believing community without worry that someone will come along and say ‘it never really happened that way’.
But I don’t come from a theological perspective and I personally wouldn’t be happy in the context of a believing community or any group that roughly knows the answers before hand (we could parallel this sort of theology with forms of Marxism, Freudianism etc, could we not?). Moreover, we should not forget that the Pope did explicitly put one foot in the historical critical camp and therefore opening himself up for criticism from historical critics. And I’m afraid now I start getting all protective of historical criticism (despite slagging it off from time to time) which the Pope seriously misused (if he really used it at all in practice) to come up with a fully orthodox Jesus and have John’s gospel as historically accurate. I know some biblical studies types more-or-less agree with me too on this (including at least one other blogger – you know who you are…!). Ultimately I find myself siding, to the surprise of no one, with Vermes and Luedemann on this and the serious, serious problems with the Pope’s book as a work of historical criticism.
Another notable point raised at this conference was that the Pope’s book is surprisingly not overtly Catholic – much, if not all, would be compatible with the main denominational strands. What wasn’t mentioned, I don’t think, was the obvious result of this, namely that people from main denominational strands at the conference really seemed to like the book. Is this not a notable development? I also thought about Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ in this context. For such a Catholic inspired film, it managed to do very well among evangelicals, including the Bible Belt. I wonder if this is anything to do with a general reaction to the prominence of aggressive atheism of the past decade, general issues surrounding secularisation and the whole culture wars thing (though that is more US)… It is still notable that there is such a bringing together of such denominational strands on such an issue because I was thinking some Protestants would have great fun in demolishing a very flawed book by the Pope. Perhaps I’m just far too cynical and perhaps Michael Ball really was right that love changes everything.
Another reason why I think along these lines was the ways in which the terms ‘secular’ and ‘secular academy’ were being used in opposition. It seemed to me that the term ‘secular academy’ – and maybe I’m wrong here – was not being used as a place for open debate but was being used as a description of non-religious or even anti-religious university setting. If so, I wouldn’t be a fan of such use: I much prefer the anything goes approach. As one colleague said to me, perhaps it is time to call it the ‘independent academy’ to avoid such (potential?) distinctions.
I wish more biblical scholars who would have been critical of the book had attended. The audience was largely sympathetic or at least not very critical of the book. It was also particularly sad that Vermes had to pull out because he would have been scathing given his review of the Pope’s book. I would like to have seen more conflict on the big issue of historical criticism v theology though perhaps that needs to be worked out in a conference of its own. That said, it was a conference I really enjoyed and it was good to see people from my Nottingham past and meet people from Nottingham present. Adrian Pabst and Angus Paddison saw a great opportunity in this conference and organised it well. I’m glad the British Academy funded it too. Whatever we think of the Pope’s book (not much in my case) its publication was a culturally significant event and needed academic discussion.