Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Secularizing Biblical Studies

How "secular" (that is, "worldly") should Biblical Studies be? A common assumption within the Academy is that religious belief is somehow uncritical or opposed to reason and must be bracketed from critical scholarship. At the same time, Biblical (and Religious) Studies is often (mis)understood as being implicitly or covertly related to seminary and ministerial training. On one hand, then, academic Biblical Studies is not quite theological enough for the faithful; on the other, it is not quite critical enough for the Academy.

Secularism is foundational to the modern separation of Church and State. It promotes no particular religious interest or affiliation and strives to create a religiously neutral public forum for both the freedom of religion and freedom from religion. In other words, secularism has nothing to do with assessing - or denying - the validity of religious truth-claims. It is the elimination of such claims from the public and political arenas in order to facilitate the pursuit and production of scientific knowledge in a free society. Secularism is not opposed to religion; it simply co-exists alongside religion.

Yet the secularist approach to religion has also (indirectly) given rise to various Fundamentalism(s), largely in reaction to the perception that religious world-views are being undermined. Conservative Christians, for example, complain that Western culture is too secular or atheistic in its orientation. Biblical scholarship has become the storm-center of this cultural divide. For many, the very idea of "Secular Biblical Studies" seems like an oxymoron. How do you study The Bible - the quintessential faith-text of the West - non-religiously? How do you interrogate The Text? It is not surprising that many believers prefer to attend Christian schools and seminaries where the Bible is studied as Scripture - as opposed to studying it as an ancient religious text - like any other.

The relationship between the Church and the Academy resurfaced a number of years ago. In 2010, biblical scholar Ron Hendel announced his "Farewell to SBL" after a few unpleasant experiences at the Annual Meeting where he observed the increasing numbers of faith-based groups in the session-units. Hendel noted that the SBL had removed the phrase referring to the "critical investigation" of biblical texts from its mission statement and replaced it with language about "fostering" the study of biblical literature. For Hendel, this suggested that the SBL was no longer a Society that required critical engagement and blurred the lines between academic scholarship and theological apologetics. Criticizing the SBL for fostering the "views of creationists, snake-handlers and faith-healers," Hendel withdrew his membership from the Society and provoked a flurry of comments on the blogosphere. It seemed like the proverbial line in the sand had been drawn: the Evangelical and Pentecostal units had somehow "infiltrated" the "sacred space" of the secular SBL.

This discussion is nothing new. In 1995, Philip Davies argued for the separation of "confessional" and "non-confessional" approaches. And while few scholars have heeded Hector Avalos's prophetic announcement of The End of Biblical Studies or appreciate his disparagement of the SBL as promoting "a self-serving ideology," Jacques Berlinerblau has called for a secular approach to the Bible that recognizes the complex nexus between faith, theology, and reason. In other words, biblical scholars have long navigated these border lines, but despite the fact that there is broad agreement that Biblical Studies, like Religion, should be an academic discipline, there is little agreement on how we should go about it. In Jonathan Z. Smith's collection of essays, Teaching Religion, I came across this passage in his essay "Are Theological and Religious Studies Compatible?":

    "I find no problem, in principle, between the 'academic study of religion' 
    and the 'theological approach' . . . But this is because I invoke a principle 
    of subordination. After all, individuals who 'affirm' . . . some 'religious tradition' 
    make up the bulk of the data for the study of religion . . . 
    In what I freely acknowledge to be a necessarily imperializing move, 
    theology is one appropriate object of study for religious studies. 
    From the perspective of the academic study of religion, theology is a datum, 
    the theologian is a native informant" (74).

Smith's methodological "subordination" is a bold, but necessary, move. At the end of the day, the best reason to adopt the Academy's methods and approaches is not that they always produce reliable knowledge about religion, but that they attempt to do so. Facile accusations of theological (and/or anti-theological) bias may be rife in the Academy, but there does not seem to be any easy way to identify, isolate, and/or correct for it. And it is all too easy to identify ideological bias in others, but not in ourselves. Accusing others of ideological bias often relies on subjective impressions of others' motivations, and all too often descends to the level of the intellectual equivalent of playground antics ("No, I'm not! You are!"). The study of religion and the study of God may involve two very different ways (and objects) of knowing, yet either way, our readings are situated in time and space, embedded in social constructions of meaning. Scholarly work informs theological reflections; theological convictions inform scholarly work. No one stands outside of these constraints. Our personal interests reflect the complex dialectic that faith and reason play in our personal lives and are incorporated in our work which reflects - not the impossible dream of complete disinterest - but the reality of our embodied thought.