Saturday, August 9, 2008

On Confessional and Secular Biblical Scholarship

According to Bill Arnal, an atheist professor of Christian Origins down the highway at the University of Regina, confessional scholars are necessarily committed to the unforgivable exegetical sin:
[T]o put it as bluntly as possible, Christian theology at once insists on the necessity of a historical examination of its own founding narrative, and simultaneously insists on the necessity that such an examination produce affirmative results. (264)
Arnal's solution is to propose a "parting of the ways" between secular religious studies approaches to Christian origins and the theologically-driven interpretation of confessional scholars:
I am proposing, in other words, a trial separation, preparatory to an amicable divorce. Those of us who study the earliest Christians are clearly studying them in two radically different ways, for radically different reasons. Perhaps it is time to divide our furniture and move it into separate dwellings, with confessional institutions . . . exclusively responsible for edifying interpretation (including historically based interpretation) of the New Testament, and with non-confessional institutions (particularly state-funded universities) exclusively responsible for using all of the available data (including textual data) to provide comprehensible, non-obfuscatory, explanations for the development, permutations, and attractions of the Christian movment. (275)
For an example of what this looks like, check out the Christian Origins yahoo group, of which Arnal is a moderator. The group adopts an explicitly atheistic approach to the historical data--miracles don't happen; any willingness to take them seriously is irrational. Historical explanations are therefore necessarily constructed from a modern etic perspective; there is little interest in an emic reconstruction of how the ancients would have interpreted their own experience. Discussion of early Christian theology, let alone modern theology, is forbidden. Forays into hermeneutics, especially philosophical attempts to defend the practice of history from a theistic perspective, are also ruled out of bounds. The list owners regard these questions as boring and tiresome. In addition to being academics, members must subscribe to the "secular shahada" of Jacques Berlinerblau: "to love critique more than God." (In case you are wondering, I am not a group member, though I do check in from time to time to see what's going on. For some reason the list itself is normally remarkably quiet.)

A few comments:
I must confess I am puzzled by Arnal's association of exegesis--the interpretation of texts--with confessional scholarship. Although he acknowledges that the interpretation of texts is important to the study of relgion in general, Arnal thinks it is "because, in short, of its orientation toward exposition rather than explanation, [that] the academic field of biblical criticism as it is encountered even today is often radically different from, and adopts procedures alien to, many other types of Religious Studies" (257). I have always regarded the study of ancient texts (and other data) on their own terms and in their own contexts as a prerequisite to historical investigation. And, like students of literature in other disciplines, I find this fascinating not boring.

In addition to ruling God out of the equation, Arnal's take on the study of religion is resolutely historical, which reminds me of Jacob Neusner's comment about his former teacher, Morton Smith:
"...It was the assumption that the only valid scholarship answered the narrowest historical questions: did it really happen? did he really say it? and if so, what kind of history can we make of it all, meaning, what can we say about what was really said and done?"
Now I don't share Neusner's extremely negative evaluation of Morton Smith: He may have been a hoaxer, but he was also brilliant, and his work continues to shape the study of early Judaism in important ways. But both Smith and Arnal seem to be exclusively concerned with historical explanations, and something is missing here. There is, for example, no positive evaluation of the ideas expressed in religion--a sort of "great books" approach that is fruitfully applied to the study of classics, and that one might expect to play an important role in a secular religious studies department.

Finally, it seems to me that Robert Morgan's comments in the previous essay in the same volume apply to Arnal rather well:
"Religious and moral traditions are essential to human well-being and are in constant need of both development and criticism. A sympathetic phenomenological study of religion can help sustain them, but in practice 'outsider' accounts have often proved destructive....[T]he real theological despisers of religion are those observers who cannot credit faith in a revelation making an absolute claim on participants" (252).
Arnal, William. "A Parting of the Ways? Scholarly Identities and a Peculiar Species of Ancient Mediterranean Religion." Pages 253-275 in Identity and Interaction in the Ancient Mediterranean: Jews, Christians and Others. Essays in Honour of Stephen G. Wilson. Edited by Zeba A. Crook and Philip A. Harland. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2007.

Morgan, Robert. "S.G. Wilson on Religion and Its Theological Despisers." Pages 238-252 in Identity and Interaction in the Ancient Mediterranean: Jews, Christians and Others. Essays in Honour of Stephen G. Wilson. Edited by Zeba A. Crook and Philip A. Harland. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2007.


Nick Meyer said...

A fine post like this deserves a comment! Or a question: So what do you make of his charge that confessional scholars must necessarily find affirmative results in their investigation of the historical beginnings of their faith? It seems a fair question to ask. Even if true, however, it would not preclude those same scholars from pursuing important historical questions on grounds which can be accepted by scholars of all stripes (as with the `great books` approach). Still the question remains whether his charge is accurate. I guess the broader question concerns the compatibility of Christian faith with the historico-critical method.

Isaac said...

How have other religions approached historical criticism? I don't know how to characterize Judaism's response; I know there is one. But what about Islam and eastern religions? If he wants Christian origins to be studied in the university religion course method; do these other religions have some of the same conflicts?

d. miller said...

Nick: Thanks for the question! I hope to return to it in another post, but for starters I'm wondering whether the problem is primarily with the h-c method itself or with those who practice it from a certain perspective.

Isaac: "Judaism" has had to struggle with historical criticism in the same way "Christianity" has, with a similar range of responses. My understanding is that most Orthodox Jews affirm that the oral Torah was revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but there are rabbis like Shaye Cohen who are also first-rate critical scholars. Perhaps a difference here is that Jewish traditions have always tended to emphasize practice over doctrine. My sense is that the vast majority of Muslims are very resistant to a h-c approach to Islam and the Qu'ran, although Muslim apologists don't hesitate to use the latest historical-critical scholarship to attack the Bible. (E.g., they point to the many mss. variations in the Bible, and claim that the Qu'ran is the same as when Gabriel revealed it to Muhammad.) Christian apologists, unfortunately, often behave the same way, rejecting historical criticism of the Bible while applying it to the Qu'ran.
One of Arnal's main points, by the way, is that religious studies is naturally comparative simply because scholars of different religious traditions are forced to rub shoulders with each other. Confessional institutions tend to lack this comparative element. In his view, this leads to bizarre claims about the uniqueness of Christianity.

Tim B said...

Thanks for posting on this, as it's a topic I've thinking mulling over a lot lately. I've decided to post some thoughts about it: