This was the question blogger Rick Wadholm asked in response to a plan for a secular biblical researcher’s special interest group meeting in conjunction with the Society of Biblical Literature (which is the largest academic society in the world dedicated to research into all matters biblical).
I wrote this up a few days ago and then decided that I should just ignore these comments but darnnit… some very important points need to be made.
Wadholm, who is listed in SBL’s membership directory, followed a link on SBL’s facebook page and found his way to my blog. His comments only go to show how badly the SBL is in need of a major campaign to tell its own members what “fostering biblical scholarship” involves, beginning with what scholarship itself actually is. If some folks don’t like it, the SBL should have the guts to tell them that their subscription fees are not needed that badly.
Wadholm writes that I had advertised the formation of a “group of ‘Biblical scholars’ for reading the Bible in a “non-religious” manner.” Note the inverted commas he places around the expression “biblical scholars”. Wadholm goes on to ask ask if non-religious biblical studies is possible, adding:
Is there any way for ANYONE to be “non-religious” about anything?
I wonder how “religiously” Wadholm pulled his trousers on that morning.
One line in the original announcement was found particularly egregious by Wadholm. It said that a possible aim of the proposed group would be to act as a “counterbalance” to the Evangelical Theological Society and to engage this group in a productive discourse. The ETS is one of a number of theological associations that meets in conjunction with the SBL. In the post Wadholm read, the various aims are merely proposals, items at least worth talking about. Nothing is set in stone. The comment about the ETS might be taken as somewhat provocative, but not necessarily so. I’m not sure naming a specific group was the best way to put it (and if a formal group is organized, I will argue that such naming NOT be included in our aims). Given the amount of theologizing that goes on at the SBL, however, certainly there is room for talk about secularism. Isn’t there? Isn’t that what “counterbalance” means? Apparently not. Wadholm continues:
However, the site offers to organize a group to challenge the Evangelical Theological Society (and even the sub-heading of the blog includes the notion of “atheism”).
Now, notice how “counterbalance” becomes “challenge”. Sure I’m an atheist. Millions of people are. Big deal. I talk to a lot of religious people constructively. It doesn’t mean I’m constantly trying to get them to abandon their religion!
But Wadholm isn’t done yet. In his next sentence “challenge” is replaced with the claim that our agenda is not the “non-religious” reading of the Bible but an “anti-Christian” reading. Notice the escalation of the perceived attacks on his faith! He then says we are using “naturalistic” terms to give the air of being “very ‘scholarly’”, and hide our true intent that would be too hard to sell straight up.
Is it possible that an ‘atheistic’ reading of the Bible will be “non-religious”? Or will it simply offer its own godless reading where man sits as the arbiter of truth and revelation? Further, what is the point? Why would ‘Biblical scholars’ (or anyone else for that matter) want to “non-religously” read the Scriptures that claim to be the words of the Lord demanding faith from humanity?
What do you think? Can there be any “non-religious” reading of the Bible? Or should there even be an attempt to do so?
Oh my godless! Does one have to believe in Baal to study Ugaritic mythology? If we are to study the Book of Mormon, do we have to believe that Joseph Smith really did find the golden tablet? Did L. Ron Hubbard really talk to a bunch of aliens? How else to understand Dianetics and the other scientology stuff? How does Wadholm learn anything about other people and other cultures?
All secular biblical scholarship is is the study of the Bible and its historical and cultural contexts in the same non-confessional fashion that the scriptures and religious thought of other religions are studied. Why should one set of religious documents be treated by researchers according to fundamentally different rules from others?
Here are a few things for Mr. Waldholm to ponder.
It matters not in the least that the Bible, or perhaps better, religious traditions that employ a bible, make claims on people’s loyalty. Every religion makes claims. Why do you suppose those made by your religion should be treated in any way different from the claims made by other traditions? And remember, there are more than one bible that religious societies have made for themselves.
And should non-religious folk not study religion? Religion has been an important part of people’s lives probably since people evolved on this planet scores of thousands of years ago, and people are just intrinsically interesting. People are interested in people; their past, their thoughts, their art, their societies, politics, wars, foibles, moments of genius and their failings. Anybody can study these things and intelligent, well educated have developed academic methods to do just that. Why not study people’s religions with the same intellectual tools? Religion is no really so special a phenomenon. It is a complex one, but not a special one. IT is intrinsically wrapped up in politics, personal and group identity, totemism, symbolic projection, social control and a host of other things, including humans’ innate tendency to anthropomorphize things.
There are probably a large number of agnostics and outright atheists in the Society of Biblical Literature who know a hell of a lot more about Christianity, its mythology, history of doctrines and theological thought than Wadholm does. They’ve been studying it for years.
Groups like the SBL have been an intellectual home for considerable amounts of serious, secular scholars for many decades. Many of the people doing this good work are, if fact, Christians and Jews, but it would be hard, if not impossible, to tell what their religious views are based on the nature of their academic work. They let the data and reason speak for itself; and so even though they may be quite devout their, work is, in fact, secular. Certainly agnostics and atheists can join them in this and, for very many years, have done so.
What the proposed group can afford all of these secular scholars is a voice in defense of shared academic values, something Wadholm does not understand and seeks to undermine. The study of religion is not the practice of religion. Why is this concept so hard for people to understand?
Mr Wadholm, if you have problems with real scholarship, perhaps you should find a different kind of society to join.