Monday, August 14, 2006

Secularism and Biblical Studies

In reading over John Barton's article "Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective" in The Nature of New Testament Theology, eds. C. Rowland and C. Tuckett (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 27-29, he makes some remarks about secularism and biblical studies.

First, Barton nominates the OT studies department in Sheffield, UK as a place that is decidedly secular and "not interested in theological issues" and such departments exist also in the USA. I wonder if secular is readily translatable into either anti-theology or only disinterested in theology which are not the same thing - which one is true of Sheffield?

Second, he writes: "OT study has always until very recently, been a largely theological discipline. I do not say that essentially in either praise or blame, but as a statement of fact. But my own opinion is that, though it need not remain a theological discpline to continue to be worthwhile and have its own integrity, it probably has more of a future if it does. For it will continue to be the case that the majority of people who take an interest in the OT will be those for whom it is religiously significant. In other words, I do not regret the establishment of secular departments in biblical studies ... But I still think that the most important aspect of the OT is the theological content of most of its texts, and that it is therefore natural for this to continue to be the focus of interest in the future as it has been in the past."

That leads me to ponder a bit about the call for the "secularisation" of biblical studies by Matthew Fox and company.

(1) At the end of the day biblical scholars are dealing with religious texts that by their very nature attract religious people. If one dislikes being around persons of religious disposition, either working with them, teaching them, sitting beside them at conferences, reading books written by them, then find a new job without religion. I can understand the plight of secularists who may feel alarmed at the incursion of religious ideologies into their field and lament the fact that their job prospects are not as broad as those of scholars with religious leanings. But that is, to put it grimly, the nature of the beast.

(2) I find it hard to understand the tirade of certain persons who imply that all faith-based scholarship is little more than a type of pseudo-academia, this is far from the case. Biblical studies from a secular perspective is a recent newcomer to a discipline that is now over 2000 years old and has operated for the most part with religious perspectives. The more militant secularists would have us believe that until they came along that there was no serious academic scholarship, they think that they are the bibical academy, and the rest of us are plebs blinded by the opium of the masses. This may all be rhetoric designed to bring attention to the secularist cause, but even in the politics of universities and academic societies this revisionistic and self-serving agenda is not helping anyone. Furthermore, the texts that biblical scholars study frequently speak of mercy, love, kindness, and grace - something that biblical scholars of all persuasions should be willing to demonstrate in public discourse. If not, one must wonder if any of us have learned anything at all from our endeavours and question whether what we do really leads to the enhancement of the human condition.

(3) Scholars of faith (diverse and pluriform) continue to be the leading lights in our discipline. I need only mention the names of Bauckham, Allison, and Hengel to speak of a few scholars who have positively impacted their discipline and extended our corporate knowledge of the ancient world. In fact, we could say that the shoe is on the other foot and that some secular authors like A.N. Wilson, Gerd Luedemann, James Tabor, etc. are the one's who produce works so strewn with secular ideology and so blatantly biased against anything religious that their works can scarcely be counted more than fanciful secular dogmatics. In fact, religious scholars could be said to have an advantage over secular scholars in that they possess an ability to empathize with a text and so come closer to the ethos of the author, and have an ability to identify with the world of the text in a way that secularists cannot.

(4) We can agree that fundamentalism of any kind obscures and hinders serious academic study. But that applies equally to secular fundamentalism as it does to religious fundamentalism.

(5) Is there a place for secular scholars in the biblical academy - of course - but (like it or not) they will always be a minority. Furthermore, secular scholars bring their own atheological perspective and can make valid contributions to the furthering of our discipline so, viva la differance! But no single group regardless of denomination, affiliation, religious conviction (or lack thereof) should arrogate themselves by implying that they alone are the academy and they are alone are the one's engaged in true academic study.

Well, that's my take on it anyway.


Andy Rowell said...

Thanks for this post. I have forwarded it to a bunch of people because I think it is a commonly wondered about and yet rarely talked about.

Andy Rowell
Taylor University
Department of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry
Blog: Church Leadership Conversations

steph said...

Surely it's a bit of a leap and a jump and overly defensive to suggest that Sheffield is ANTI-theology?! So what if it doesn't specialise in theology?! The Department is called "Biblical Studies", after all. Is it also anti-Islam if it doesn't offer courses in Islam? You may of course be being provocative and just baiting ... in which case you've got one small fish.

Corn on the Robb said...

Steph, I think you've completely missed the point. Mike merely asked if it was anti-theology, or if it was not interested in theology, which he clearly said are two different things.

Your Islam analogy doesn't make sense, because the bible is full of theology, and if you are doing biblical studies, you will interact with theology at every turn you take. So if they are uninterested in theology, or dislike theology, Mike's point was that they are the "new kid on the block" in a way in biblical studies.

Good post, Mike.

exegetical fallacy said...

"(4) We can agree that fundamentalism of any kind obscures and hinders serious academic study. But that applies equally to secular fundamentalism as it does to religious fundamentalism."

MB, would you be willing to replace "fundamentalism" (the first one) with "feminism", "post-modernism", "anti-imperialism", "liberation-ism [sic]", or other socio-religious lenses through which folk are reading the Bible today? Or is there something about Fundamentalism that you see as particularly dangerous?


Michael F. Bird said...

I'm not trying to take a stab at Sheffield. My aim is: (1) To ask if secularists are anti-theological interpretation or just disinterested in theological interpretation all together - which are different. (2) Which one describes Sheffield as a test case for a "secular" department. This entails no value judgment about Sheffield but rather I'm curious about attitudes towards theological interpretation in secular departments.

Perhaps James Crossley can venture an opinion for us!

steph said...

corn on the robb: No - I did get the point but I meant to ask whether Mike was suggesting that Sheffield "COULD" be anti- theology, not whether it "is". Typo, sorry. I understood perfectly Mike's distinction between not interested in, and anti-theology. But I was suggesting the inference was there.

I think you missed my tone of voice. In the Antipodes you see, we tend to get a little too cheeky.

Mike: Gidday. But I don't believe you...

(just kidding)

J. B. Hood said...

I think you're right that those with a sharp agenda (say, sharply fundie or sharply secular) probably produce the worst material in our discipline in terms of arguments saturated with ideology. This is certainly true in my area of research--if I took the worst four or five articles, say, they would all fit in one of those extremes. Probably more of the sharply secular, however, since the sharply fundie tend to have their own journals (and blogs! I won't name names) which matter little, while the sharply secular can get the limelight at SBL just by being hostile and provocative.

I wonder if others could say the same about the worst material they've encountered in their areas of research, that it fit the bill as too extreme in one direcction or another.

metalepsis said...

I think that Shef can be seen as a secular institution merely because we don't have a Divinity School attached to us. But as James has mentioned the faculty can not be deemed as secular, it is far too diverse.

I am quite confessional and I can tell you that my faith was deeply strengthened whilst at Sheffield.


James Crossley said...

Damn it, Sheffield failed you then!! ;) But seriously the point is absolutely right: there are a variety of perspectives among staff and students and historically this has always been the case.