On the Society of Biblical Literature and Sharing the Academic Playground
Posted on July 2, 2010 at 12:27 pm by Dr. Jim
Ronald Hendel of the University of California Berkeley has stirred up a major storm over his recent article in Biblical Archaeology Review explaining his quitting the Society of Biblical Literature over its compromised critical academic focus. I thought I should start blogging again, so here are some of my comments on a few aspects of the uproar.
In Farewell to SBL, Hendel writes:
When I learned of the new move to include fundamentalist groups within the SBL, I wrote to the director and cited the mission statement in the SBL’s official history: “The object of the Society is to stimulate the critical investigation of the classical biblical literatures.”3 The director informed me that in 2004 the SBL revised its mission statement and removed the phrase “critical investigation” from its official standards. Now the mission statement is simply to “foster biblical scholarship.” So critical inquiry—that is to say, reason—has been deliberately deleted as a criterion for the SBL. The views of creationists, snake-handlers and faith-healers now count among the kinds of Biblical scholarship that the society seeks to foster.
The SBL has published its own response and there are several dozen comments that have been appended to it. The response seeks to correct some points of Hendel’s claims about the SBL’s institutional history and intentions that I’m in no position to judge. It also affirms at the outset that through the SBL’s long history it,
has seen no inherent contradiction between “critical investigation” and including in the conversation “all interested in biblical literature,” a perspective that is consistent with the SBL’s current mission statement: “to foster biblical scholarship.” In short, “critical inquiry—that is to say, reason” has not been “deliberately deleted” from the SBL mission. SBL has never“removed the phrase ‘critical investigation’” from any initiative.
Many of the comments offer varying degrees of support with some adding that Hendel has used some ill-chosen terms or overstated his case. Hendel has a lot of outright opponents, though. A number of these commenters champion “inclusiveness” of different viewpoints and stress the subjectivity of all human endeavour that should preclude virtually any boundaries to the kinds of discourse permissible at the SBL.
To my mind some of these objections only show the extent of the problem Hendel has identified. Regardless of whether Hendel himself overreacted …
…many of his critics certainly do.
For instance, the first commentor, Daniel Harlow, thinks that Hendel suggests that everyone with ”confessional interests in and faith commitments regarding the Bible should be excluded from the SBL”, while Hendel says no such thing. He reminds Hendel that the Bible’s authors were religious. I would remind Harlow that there is a distinction those who are studied and those doing the studying. The biologist dissecting a frog need not be an amphibian.
You might want to think like a gopher, but you don’t have to be one.
The ancient Israelites, Jews and Christians were not writing modern critical scholarship (or doing modern theology, either, for that matter). Their thoughts are the subject, not practice, of scholarship. As scholars we must analyze what they did and wrote. There is no need to share their beliefs to do that.
Scholars study other people’s religions all the time. There is no advantage I can see for scholars examining the world view behind Aztec human sacrifice rituals to think these murders may have have been a good idea. Indeed, the whole pro-faith approach falls down on the special status it claims for its own world views, a status it does not grant to other faiths. Would some of the theological groups that hold meetings alongside the SBL welcome papers that entertain the reality of Marduk?
Amy Anderson (comment #21), a Pentecostal, challenges Hendel’s characterization of her church as fundamentalist. From this one alleged academic slip, Anderson is led to “question everything else he claims”. Now there are academic standards for you! Anderson then writes that, “I have always been impressed by the theological breadth of the SBL annual meeting.” Well, isn’t this the whole point? Hendel is objecting to the SBL permitting the doing of theology under its auspices. Claiming that it is done only after careful vetting of contributors and welcomes “vigorous disagreement” hardly answers his complaint, does it? Regardless how rigorous the level of theological discussion, is it really compatible with the humanities or social scientific scholarship into religion? I don’t think so. Whether or not the two sides both have rights to the word “scholarship”, they are just too different of beasts to be in the same pen.
The issue is the special pleading for a status for Judeo-Christian beliefs that is not extended to other religions. We can see this in the comment of Benno Zuiddam (#68), who opines that scholars should treat the object of their study with integrity, and I couldn’t agree more. But when he says “we should let these sources speak“, a few red flags go up. Of course, we must not make them say what they do not, but in what way should we listen? Do we do as Zuiddam says?
As far as I am concerned, members should be allowed and even be encouraged to debate, agree and disagree about the validity and possible implications of statements and conclusions in the primary sources.
How far can we take these debates and remain scholars? If the Bible or other ancient text says King S0-and-So did this, that or the other thing, certainly it can be worthwhile and important to discuss the evidence for those alleged events transpiring. But when the sources say a donkey talked, that shellfish should not be eaten, or that all religions other than that of the source’s authors (or that of those who appropriate the source as their own scripture) are abominations, is there really any “validity and possible implications” worthy of a scholarly debate?
If scholars are not willing to debate whether Thor of Baal provides the superior divine metaphor for storms, then they really have nothing to debate in terms of the validity of the Bible’s claims about Yahweh. And it matters not a bit how familiar the debaters are on matters meteorological or archaeological, or what great ability they have in ancient Hebrew, Ugaritic, or Old Norse.
Academic debate is fine. No one on any side of this issue is against it. It is merely a question of what kind of topics are worth debating as biblical scholars. Unless we are willing to entertain the possibility that ANY god, goddess, godlet or sprite ever imagined might be real or that any scripture or religious/spirtiual writing has a validity outside of the world of its own writers and subscribers, there is no point in giving pride of place to Yahweh, El, Jesus, the Bible, Talmud, Book of Mormon, etc.
One comment strikes me as down-right silly. Patricia Elyse Terrell (#69) tries to affirm a sharp delineation between the teaching of Christianity in seminaries and the teaching about the faith in non-denominational U. S. universities. I would have thought there are a number of scholars in otherwise secular universities whose work proves to be rather unsecular, but this need not detain us. What is strange is how she tries to describe the life of the Church as scientific:
Churches teach Christian facts based upon biblical study, repeated religious events that test the veracity of its precepts (scientific falsification), and partake in a liturgy as a devotional drama of its history. Christian teachings are based on repeatable experiences the way a scientist repeats an experiment to test its truth or falsity.
This is enough to make one’s brain hurt. Repeated experiences are not repeatable experiments! This is not scientific falsification but merely confirmation bias in action. Do Hindus or Muslims find veracity in “Christian facts”? So long as the fact finding and fact verifying are solely an in-house exercise, there are no “facts” or veracity that any outsider need concern themselves with directly. Of course, examining those “facts” and processes of verification as social constructs are good subjects of critical scholarly research, but the generation and transmission of the facts and strategies of interpretation within the confines of those social contexts are not.
She continues: “SBL is an assembly for biblical studies and Christian teachings like no other.”
I have no idea what can be meant here. The in-house Christian jargon should be plain: “assembly” and “teachings” makes it sound like she is suggesting that the SBL is doing the church’s work. If it is, it should stop immediately. The SBL is not a church. She complains that Hendel’s views on objectivity are unreasonable, claiming that there is no possibility that anyone could be objective. Oddly, she doesn’t try to reconcile this with her earlier (mis)appropriation of the scientific method for “Christian facts”.
Like so many others commenting on Hendel and in other contexts, the impossibility of total objectivity is taken as legitimizing the absence of any value in at least partial objectivity. One can only wonder how relative Terrell would see the claim that she caused a fatal car accident when it was the other party who ran the red light. I wonder if she would see the conflicting testimonies as “emotional and relational variations” that “make one a sense extending instrument in evaluating the subject matter.” Whatever the heck that might mean, she relates it to the frequent schisms of the Christian church which she explains as occurring when:
groups identified personal events with particular biblical principles that validated their shared experience, be they Catholics, Mennonites or Pentecostals. The denominational mosaic is a very beautiful collection of carefully studied and tested biblical values, each holding differing views about the best route to Christian goals.
I wonder if she thinks that all the insults, anger, denunciations, heresy trials, tortures, executions and wars that accompanied many of these splits are part of the inherent beauty of it all. In any case, she ends her comment on a totally bizarre note that makes a mockery of her previous views on the relativity of facts:
SBL consists of many amazing scholars who are sense-extending instruments of a Reality that is greater than ourselves and is still very much who we are, including Mr. Hendel if he were brave enough to investigate the history laid bare before him.
In my view, Terrell’s opinions at this point are nonsense-extending instruments of bafflegab™, and if Terrell would just be brave enough to think about it clearly, she would probably agree. She first appeals to the relativity of truth and here asserts a capitalized “Reality” external to Hendel. Well done.
My last example is comment 81 by Daniel Darko, who questions what “critical” biblical scholarship might be. Well that he does, since he really does not seem to know. Odd for a member of an academic association. He is among those who argue that the more the merrier when it comes to different approaches. But here is the kicker:
Perhaps, we should encourage more open discussion on debatable matters while promoting Biblical scholarship that serves Jewish and Christian communities.
But why should scholarship do the preachers’ or rabbis’ work? Why can’t it align itself with the academics trying to understand other religious or cultural groups? Scholars looking at the phenomenon of Scientology need not find new ways to serve that community. But perhaps I am being a bit hasty:
Faith cannot be divorced from the study of sacred texts—even if a scholar does not deem it as such. Most of our members are of Jewish, Christian or some sort of faith background! ‘Denominational cleansing’ at SBL will not be healthy for us.
I fail to see where Hendel was proposing “denominational cleansing” (or, for that matter, a “thought-police” as suspected by J. H. Ellens, comment 79). First of all, using language that evokes images of the atrocity of ”ethnic cleansing” is a rhetorical hyperbole far beyond any overstatement Hendel might have made. It also evokes images of a failed ecumenicalism, but let’s get this straight: SBL is not a church or religious organization. It is dedicated to scholarship, not ecumenicalism. A smaller SBL might not be a weaker one, if academics are the main concern. Darko also ends on a weird and perhaps deliberately ambiguous note:
Let us find a way to encourage critical scholarship without requiring the misnomer of a ‘faithless’ Biblical scholarship.
Now, does he mean that everyone has a “faith”, including atheists and agnostics? It is a popular equivocation to regard the presuppositions of atheists or secularists as a “faith”, in the same way that a Christian, Hindu, or Muslim (or whatever) buys into an elaborate mythology with accompanying ritual, dogma, and theologies, that is beyond rational scrutiny. The two, while related, are rather different critters. Secularism is not a “faith” and atheism is not a “religion”.
Perhaps Darko is suggesting that secularists cannot be scholars, and this too would not be an idea exclusive to him. Secularists have heard it all before. Again, one need only look to how other religions are studied. Indeed many Christians and Jews study other religions. Are they doing the impossible, or does their “faith” give them an insight to that which they hold to be untrue? Either way, Darko seems to imply that secular research into the Bible is not possible or illegitimate.
A number of other people try this same bullshit. Last year, when I started blogging about secularism and the SBL, Rick Wadholm questioned how anyone could be non-religious about anything. Therefore, secular biblical scholarship was impossible.
As I pointed out in my comment to the SBL response (#80, ironically placed just before Darko’s), Jim West wrote an article in Bible and Interpretation in which he asserts the total irrelevance of secular scholarship, except as outsiders whose opinions ultimately mean nothing. Well whoopdie-doo.
On behalf of the Church (presumably all of them) and the Synagogue, he claims ownership of the Bible (but which one? All of them?). Since unbelievers didn’t write or transmit it, they really have nothing to do with it. He likens atheist to sports commentators who never have first hand experience of the game. To a point that is true, but still if one wanted to know the history of baseball, a person who has studied that subject extensively may be better equipped to speak to it than a home-run champion. West then appeals to a special spiritual gift he claims Christians have that gives them spiritual insight into the Bible. In his citing the New Testament to prove this, however, one is left wondering where this leaves the Jews he previously spoke for!
More importantly, at this point West gives up any pretence of writing as a scholar. He has both feet planted solidly in the ephemeral world of internal religious claim, belief and mystification.
Atheist exegesis is, by definition, spiritless and therefore – according to the very texts which they attempt to interpret – empty, void, vapid, pointless, meaningless.
Really Dr. West, what self-respecting scholar is bound by the claims of the text she or he is studying? The Vedas are to be studied only by the “twice born” castes according to Hinduism, but this does not stop non-Hindu, and technically “untouchable” scholars from reading them. West acknowledges that “outsider” scholars examine the Bible as textual artifacts but says
they cannot interpret, they cannot explain, they cannot exegete- for they lack the requisite tool- spiritual understanding. This is precisely, exactly why unbelievers cannot, and normally do not, and absolutely under any circumstances should not, write commentaries.
Oh brother. There are many different kinds of commentaries. Is the whole broad genre to be closed to unbelievers? Certainly what a secular scholar does with a text is different from what a believer does with it as an act of faith, but which secular scholar suggests otherwise? Academically, West is creating a strawman but beyond that he is just articulating Christian claims to a special status, something religious groups (and political, ethnic and other collectives) do all the time. It is hardly an academic position but is a view that should be the subject of critical scholarship as part of Christian discourses. A study of the history of world religions reveals the mystification of the origins and meanings of the religions, texts, doctrines and teachings. What West and St. Paul are doing are merely Christian examples of a world wide phenomenon. Scholarship into religion is supposed to penetrate those clouds of mystification to see them as personal and social constructs (and in West’s case, its use is political, intended to position his camp into a higher social position vis-a-vis secularists). Scholarship that defers to the mystification it is intended to unravel is no scholarship at all.
Well, I’ve said enough for now. I will close by returning to a comment by Ron Hendel himself (#59).
One further thought: The mission of the American Council of Learned Societies is “the advancement of humanistic studies in all fields of learning in the humanities and the social sciences and the maintenance and strengthening of relations among the national societies devoted to such studies.” If the SBL is no longer devoted to the humanistic study of the Bible—and I see no indication of such devotion in its mission statement and core values (revised in 2004)—and actively promotes groups and scholarship that are antithetical or hostile to the humanities, then I suggest that the SBL is morally obligated to resign from the ACLS. I suppose that many members of the SBL would welcome such a decision.
I, for one, really think he has a point. We cannot as an academic society permit the humanistic, secular study of the ancient cults of Babylon, Ugarit, Egypt or Israel and their texts and other cultural products, while at the same time permit the bizarre level of special pleading to permit Christian theology exist as a “scholarship” on an equal footing.