It is an idea worth thinking about.
The Society of Biblical Literature is a major international academic organization. It includes scholars working within a wide variety of scholarly sub-disciplines from ancient history and assyriology to culture criticism and philosophy. SBL’s publications, its many books and flagship journal, Journal of Biblical Literature, along with the vast majority of its conference sessions reflect a serious and secular approach to its many areas of interest.
It is no overstatement to say, however, that the academic interests and methods of the SBL’s members overlap extensively with the interests of many religous organizations. Moreover, a significant proportion of it members’ work straddles the fully secular world of biblical scholarship and its counterpart within confessional discourses. As is well known, the SBL has a number of affiliations with confessional groups that hold sessions at the SBL national and regional meetings.
Are secular academic standards impacted by this blurring of boundaries with overt religious discourses? Some members of the SBL think so and have published such views not only in the SBL’s online magazine Forum (see articles by H. Avalos, M. Fox and J. Berlinerblau) but elsewhere, too. Most famously, Hector Avalos’ The End of Biblical Studies and Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible. Most recently, see Kurt Noll’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Of course, the great majority of secular scholars in SBL and other academic organizations are not as outspoken as those named above and my find little that is disturbing with the status quo as they are not unduly prevented from saying and publishing their own work. The number of people who are concerned about the “unsecular” marriage between biblical scholarship and faith based academics, however, may be more significant than those who have already put their views into print or on the internet.
Perhaps some kind of informal asociation, perhaps built around a shared blog or email list could give those interested a venue for sharing and further developing constructive criticisms and other contributions to the practice of biblical scholarship. It may even be possible to have in-person meetings or even sessions at the SBL meetings at some point in the future.
One could expect such an association—especially it if is seeking an affiliate status with the SBL—would be seen as unnecessary by many and provocative or even aggressive or offensive by others. Exactly how “assertive” it should be is an open question and I don’t want to offer an opinion on that at the outset. If the association has an identity outside of the SBL, however, it would have the independence of thought that a regular SBL session or consultation might not have.
Here are a few topic ideas I think might work as possible session themes for such a group to discuss in public fora.
1) The practical limits of a “Great Divorce” between theistic and non-theistic (running the gamut from firm atheism to professional agnosticism) biblical scholarship: e.g., academic isolation, institutional structures.
2) Non-theistic biblical scholarship’s relationship with the wider world of secular study of religion, cultures and societies.
3) Pedegogy: how can one best teach non-theistic biblical studies when a large portion of most library holdings mix theological and secular materials. It is often hard for students to identify theological agendas in the prsentation of data or reasoning in many books that remain very useful and profitable to read. There are a lot more issues that might be addressed besides these. Some will occasion little objection and others that might be more controversial.
Beyond this, I don’t want to say anything more at this point. Little would be gained by springing something fully formed on others. What I think needs to be done now is for those who are interested to talk about whether such an idea would or might work, how it might be organized, what the exact nature of it might be and who might be willing to do some work on the project.
GO TO THE SECULAR BIBLICAL STUDIES PAGE
for more information.