Posted on March 23, 2011 at 5:46 pm by Dr. Jim
It’s good to see this discussion about secularism and the Society of Biblical Literature developing since I first posted on the subject on March 13. Since then, Scott Bailey has a great post on the topic and there are numerous long comments there by others. Much of it is trying to clear up John Hobbins’ misrepresentations and misunderstandings (t o no avail, apparently), but there are a lot of substantial points are made along the way. James McGrath has a post too and there are some substantial comments. I discussed very briefly some of the issues in a post on the 16th that predominantly deals with Hobbin’s misreading of my original post and I promised a longer reply to some other reactions, and so this is little essay should go some way to fulfill that promise.
At the outset, I need to restate some things that are often overlooked in the heat of the discussion in which popular misconceptions sometimes come to the fore. So let me state clearly:
1) Secularism does not equal atheism or anti-religion.
Secularism, of course, can mean different things to different people, and the members of the Secular Biblical Criticism steering committe themselves disagree on its boundaries and what, if any, term might be a better replacement. During the Secular Biblical Criticism’s group’s initial planning session in New Orleans in 2009, before the steering committee (William Arnal, Zeba Crook, Randy Reed, Johanna Stiebert and myself) was chosen, we had a good discussion on what to call ourselves. Our choice of terms is still debated on our private email list which now has around 20 members. Our recent discussion have to some extent confirmed our earlier choice as the least inappropriate of any alternative.
“Non-confessional”, a term I often use, is not ideal since it indicates what we do not do, instead of what we do. “Scientific” was suggested, but it carries specific connotations that cannot really cover the full range of sub-disciplines and approaches we feel are integral to biblical criticism. The use of “critical” as a label is, for many in our group, completely redundant, as any scholarship is necessarily critical, and there cannot be an uncritical scholarship. As some on our large email list have pointed out, some confessional groups use the term “critical” to define their approach to their scriptures, so it is a hotly contested term. Other terms bandied about included “humanistic”, “humanist”, “analytic”, but none really seem to fit the bill.
One of our group asked in a recent email to consider our problem from this angle: how odd do these disciplines sound: “Humanist Shakespeare Studies. Non-Confessional African History. Analytical Homeric Criticism.” This is the essence of the problem we see see with the current academic landscape surrounding the study of the Bible, its producers, and consumers throughout the ages. It is an issue that does not arise in most of the humanities and social sciences too often and scholars working in these fields do not have to identify themselves over and against “confessional” perspectives. Within Religious Studies, such matters arise more often but mostly in the areas which overlap with the interests of the sub-discipline of biblical studies (e.g., history and thought of Christianity, Judaism, religion in the modern world). For much of religious studies, however, the boarders are relatively easy to identify.
In biblical, Christian or Jewish studies, however, “scholarship”, “critical” etc. are all used by people working within theological contexts whose research contributions employ as premises the existence of a historically active deity, the possibility of miracles, and the historicity of biblical narratives for which no external corroboration can be found. There must be a way to identify work that is not built on such religious belief.
We picked the word “secular” and, as I’ve noted above, it is understood in different ways in various contexts. What I mean by secular, and I think the majority of the committee won’t have serious reservations about it, is this: discourses that seeks naturalistic explanations for the products of human experience, thought and culture, including religion. These discourses, therefore, stand out side of any particular religious world view.
To some people, the word “secular” evokes a hostility to religion or, worse, a denigration of religious people. The SBC committee does not imply anything like this. Nor does “secular” mean for us a view that implies the impossibility of there being a deity but includes agnostic positions or the bracketing of faith commitments for the sake of an academic argument.
One concern that many in our group have is that any term we use to label ourselves has the potential to be misread by others. Given the sharp polemics in the public sphere over religion, which spans science education, politics and more, virtually any term we could have settled on would be taken by some as battle cry against religion and the integrity of religious people. As one correspondent in the email discussions pointed out, even if we found a suitable term that is currently is not interpreted by the faithful as an attempt to demonize them or their religion within a year it would be!
But let us take a lesson from scholarship, shall we? “Myth”, in its popular usage, is a term that has negative, disparaging evaluations of a story (i.e., “lie” or “error”). In academic usage, however, it regularly means something else entirely, and when scholars call the Puranas to be collections of Hindu myths they are not indicating that these stories are to be insulted. So too with academic uses of “secular” (or “humanistic” for that matter).
Following from this:
2) Secular scholarship represents the majority of work done under the SBL’s auspices at the meetings and certainly in terms of its publication efforts.
We did not intend to imply by our group name that we would be the only people doing secular biblical criticism. We certainly are under no misconception about that. What the group is intended to do is to talk about the necessity of secular perspectives as a part of the critical examination of the Bible and the negative impact on this work from the existing unclear boundaries between itself and confessional approaches that do not bracket out the content of faith commitments.
3) People who work for denominational colleges or are believers can be, and often are, very good scholars and do a lot of work fully in tune with what we mean by “secular”.
This point cannot be under-emphasized. Considerable amounts of the best scholarship on the Bible is done by believers who work in a wide range of institutions and everyone in the SBC committee and our supporters know this adn will freely acknowledge it publicly. Much of this work is fully at home in a purely secular setting as well.
I hope the above discussion goes some way in alleviating the concerns James McGrath seems to have about our views concerning the many scholars who do work in confessional institutions. I also hope that this clears up a few issues that arise from his post in which he asks his readers if the SBL should “simply allow secular, atheist and other views to have their own sessions to[sic]?” As noted, atheists and secular scholars already have sessions. What is lacking, however, is a forum to talk about secularism.
McGrath certainly has some sympathy with my original post but he also makes the valid observation that the scholars who work in faith-based institutions do their work essentially in the service of the church. He seems to be a bit wary about our views on this situation. He writes:
At present, my inclination is to view the matter thus: I don’t mind other people doing things that I don’t personally find valuable, as long as (1) there is academic rigor; and (2) all viewpoint are free to hold their program units. And at present, there does indeed seem to be legitimate cause for concern in both these areas.
Each member of the SBC committee or those in the larger group of supporters has their own sense of what is the most interesting or relevant topics to study and each probably has a few subject areas that are considered of dubious merit, yet we are committed to defending a great level of diversity within the SBL if there is, as McGrath puts it, “academic rigor”. Where we would part company, however, is over the issue of faith-based work, regardless of its academic rigor. But let us not forget that we do not construe all work done by Christians or Jews in confessional institutions to be inadmissible, but only some of it.
My personal view is that if the details of these scholars’ specific pieces of work does not require a faith commitment to accept or if there is no challenge to the author’s faith committments if the work is refuted on rational, academic grounds, then there is no problem presenting this work at the SBL meetings, in its publications or any other academic venue. I certainly do not wish to give the impression that all of a scholar’s efforts must pass our test before any of it is presentable! The SBL should judge the merits of each paper presented to it on an individual basis and ignore the religious affiliations of its author. We should judge the work and not the worker.
Now, there clearly are conceptions of the Bible, the Church and ancient Israel within Christianity and Judaism that do require belief in a deity to make any sense and upon such premises many books and articles are produced. To my mind, the products of such thought, regardless of how well thought out they are, are hardly compatible with the way the Bible is studied in the majority of SBL sessions in which acceptance or rejection of scholarly conclusions do not depend upon religious belief.
The Society of Biblical Literature is a member of the American Council of Learned Societies whose mission 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.” The ACLS is a secular organization of secular societies. What the SBC group wishes to do is to promote these secular academic values as essential to the role of the SBL in its own mission to promote biblical scholarship.
Having said this, let me repeat that any restriction on the scope of the SBL that the SBC might imply by this is directed at specific works of research on an individual basis and not on the individual researchers or their institutions. Thus, some of the output of one scholar may be welcomed into the SBL and other papers may not.
We need to remember that the Society of Biblical Literature is not the only venue for the products of careful examination of the Bible, and the SBL cannot represent the totality of research areas of all of the institutions for which its members work. It already is selective. Most likely a large number of faculty who belong to the SBL (including myself) have academic interests that are outside of the scope of biblical studies or put their education to use in non-academic areas (e.g., political commentary, or various forms of activism). Since the SBL is essentially secular, we feel that it needs to view confessional study of scripture as beyond its purview as well.
It needs to be remembered that even as it as it is today the SBL is not host to any and all thought about the Bible. The SBL probably excludes more than it includes. But should it be a free for all? McGrath understandably argues that “academic rigor” should be the determine the admissibility of a program but here I would have to differ. Intellectual sophistication and can occur within religious contexts that seem to an outsider to be quite conservative or even “fundamentalist”. But can a scholarly society otherwise dedicated to the social sciences and humanities entertain papers that take the existence of Abraham or Noah “on faith” that the Bible’s God would not mislead the reader? Should these be allowed? And if so, what about a historical Noah or Adam? Where should inclusiveness end? It must end somewhere if the term “scholarship” is to mean something.
In my original post on the 13th, I mentioned a number of program units that engage in confessional scholarship. I need to ask now why the supporters of these units thought they needed this particular kind of unit and recognition by the SBL. My sense is that such units are attractive to some members because it allows the bracketing out of some of the secular methodologies and critical questioning of the Bible in which the majority of sessions relish. But if critical questioning is curtailed in particular units, are they really deserving of inclusion, regardless of whatever intellectual rigor guides the particular papers?
For example, the Christian Theology and Bible session will be hosting three sessions in San Francisco on “Life in the Spirit”, one of which will deal with Jesus’ “life in the Spirit”. For the supports of this group Jesus truly had a “life in the Spirit”. As I said earlier, this is the stuff of modern Christian mythology (in its positive academic sense) about Jesus, yet in these sessions it is simply taken as historical reality beyond doubt. Mythology has displaced academic integrity. Indeed, for one session they would interpret “Christological Controversies surrounding Nicea in light of Jesus’ (and others’) experience of the Spirit”. I wonder if this program unit would entertain papers or the presiders acknowledge objections from the spectators that this “life in the spirit” is a modern phenomenon being read into the past, or that the biblical evidence of what Jesus’ own spiritual life was like is a tendentious construct not to be accepted at face value?
The Homiletics and Biblical Studies unit advertises itself as encouraging “dialogue among scholars in both fields who share an interest in critical exegesis, its various methods, and the unique hermeneutical and theological problems inherent to the relationship between biblical interpretation and proclamation.” This group also recognizes that some critical exegesis proses problems for the “proclamation” of the divine word. But why is an academic society that sees itself as part of the social sciences and humanities interested in proclamation in the first place? I can see how scholars who have an interest in actually proclaiming (rather than just analyzing proclamations ethnographically) may wish to talk about the intersection of their two careers. But the proper venue for that discussion would be in conferences of theologians and pastors, not secular academia.
Similarly, I’ve noted in my original post how the Bible and Pastoral Theology group construes the Bible as something different from “human texts”. But Pastoral Theology is a vocation that exists within the confines of Christianity. It is properly something that could be studied but its practice is something beyond what the SBL can legitimately engage without compromising its own scope of analysis and critique. How would this group’s participants take to requests for a demonstration of the Bible’s non-human nature? That is a claim that is based on faith, not scholarship. Yet, the SBL will freely treat religious texts from other traditions as “human texts”. The status quo in the SBL implicitly ranks the legitimacy of various religions. Rather than have a free for all, the best option is to treat all scriptures, all claims to inspiration and revelation, and all religious formulations as human and historically contingent products.
The “Theological Hermeneutics of Christian Scripture” unit openly declares the Bible to be divine revelation and Christians to be “God’s People”. The group claims that critical approaches to the Bible have limits. But then, let them explore the openness of faith in the context of their own churches and meetings of theologians. A secular society committed to those “limited” methodologies is hardly the place. Rather, it is the THCS unit that places limits on what scholarship can or can not study or critique, and as such, I cannot see how they can justify their existence as part of the SBL. Indeed, their claim about “God’s people” again implicitly ranks religions.
When I first began blogging about my dissatisfaction with SBL, I was wondering if it would be best to avoid the 2009 meeting in New Orleans. I went through the program book and found a listing for paper by Margaret B. Adam in the “Christian Theological Research Fellowship”, which holds meeting in affiliation with the SBL. The abstract for “Catastrophe Transformed: Suffering Together as the Dependent Body of Christ” includes this:
Then, when pain does come, when life ceases to go according to plan, it seems unprecedented, unfair, and catastrophic. This modern autonomous self thus suffers the incongruously heightened vulnerability of an endangered illusory self-sufficiency, an illusion to which the gospel offers an alternative both truer and more fully human: baptized into the body of a suffering Lord, they unite in interdependence; their solidarity equips them to endure suffering…
I cannot believe that anyone would permit a speaker in a 21st century academic meeting to assess ideas according to a scale of partial to “fully human”.
Many people have expressed concerns the SBC is seeking to limit opportunities and restrict scholarship. In my view we are doing something quite the opposite. We are defending the integrity of scholarship against those who would place limits on critically examining their own religious views.
To close this overly long post, let me just say recent conversations with a variety of people in person, in blogs, and through email have given me a good bit of hope that the SBL can sort itself out, and to some extent, I regret some of the severity of what I wrote on the 13th. I am certainly not the first person to criticize the SBL’s welcoming of confessional program units. In recent years, the issue was becoming very public and the SBL issued its own response to Ronald Hendel’s well publicized refusal to renew his membership. But length of the arguments about the secular nature of the SBL should have been an indication to the program committee that critical self reflection on this was necessary and that people willing to talk openly about this should be accommodated.
In one regard, perhaps there has been a misunderstanding about the process of approving a new unit. As the SBC committee understood the process, the application requires the steering committee of a prospective unit to submit a two year plan with two sessions for each year. We did this last year only to have the application returned for additional clarification on what we meant by “secular”. We reapplied this year and were told that the application was rejected but we were granted one of the two sessions as a trial. There seemed to be nothing in the SBL literature that this was a possible or likely preliminary step in the approval status. I and some others took this perhaps too harshly, and perhaps if the SBL in future iterations of its documents could spell this possibility out, future misunderstandings and hard feelings could be averted. Be that as it may, I still remain a little dumbfounded that a ostensibly secular society that embraces confessional work would think that a discussion of secularity needed a trial run. As I suggested early, “secularism” has become the elephant in the room and the SBL has not done itself any favours by letting the situation persist for so long.