The SBL and Secular Biblical Studies
Recently, Dr. Jim Linville posted an article that dealt with the probation letter received by the secular biblical studies section When an Academic Society Does the Church’s Work. Can Elephants in the University be Academic?
The problem for Dr. Linville is that “The SBL is the primary organization for the critical study of the Bible. There really is no international organization of a comparable scope and size. Yet, the SBL lives in two worlds: the theological and the secular. Among the ranks of the SBL are many devout Christians and Jews, and truth be told, they make their fair share of valuable contributions to the secular study of the Bible and its cultural contexts.”
However, Dr. Linville goes on to highlight the nature of some of the (ridiculously) theological sections that are allowed legitimating space at the SBL while the secular section is allotted probationary status.
Dr. James McGrath also opined on the matter, “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.”
Legitimate cause for concern indeed.
In this era of political correctness, and frankly in North America, the untouchability of Christian religious ideology and practice, I find Dr. Linville’s concerns valid, and view an irony in the very nature of the discussion.
While the Society of Biblical Literature may proclaim in its Mission Statement that their goal is to foster biblical scholarship, they seek to facilitate broad and open discussion from a variety of perspectives, and their core values include “inclusiveness” the groups that Dr. Linville highlights in his post are confessional Christians.
And confessionalism by its very nature is exclusive and non-academic
Therefore, secular scholars are asked, nay demanded, by the nature of academic practice (which I believe is right and true) to give ground and be ‘inclusive’ with those who practice exclusivity the majority of the time. In fact, as any practitioner of a religious group knows this exclusivity indwells their religious practice and worldview. Ultimately then, even if (ideally) confessional attitudes are not ‘practiced’ at SBL they are a large part of the assumptions of confessional scholars.
This is a minor point. It is not practiced as far as I can tell–and that may only be because I do not attend sessions such as “pentecostal ‘studies'”–but I do find it ironic that in a group largely comprised of people who practice exclusion, ‘inclusiveness’ is a core value.
More disturbing for me is a group such as the Theological Hermeneutics of Christian Scripture. From the SBL group’s website:
Theological interpretation does not reject out of hand the importance of the bread and butter of modern critical study of the Bible — viz., historical investigation and linguistic inquiry — but insists that these do not exhaust the subject matter of the Bible, nor the ways in which the biblical materials might be engaged critically, nor the role of Scripture among God’s people.
A theological hermeneutics of Christian Scripture concerns the role of Scripture in the faith and formation of persons and ecclesial communities. Theological interpretation emphasizes the potentially mutual influence of Scripture and doctrine in theological discourse and, then, the role of Scripture in the self-understanding of the church, and in critical reflection on the church’s practices. This is biblical interpretation that takes the Bible not only as a historical or literary document but as a source of divine revelation and an essential partner in the task of theological reflection. (highlighting from Dr. Linville)
At what point does a group move from ‘hermeneutics’ to outright fideism? Is it anti-religious to explicitly label and identify ‘fideism’ in an academic setting?
Because Fideism by its very nature is exclusive and non-academic
Any ‘interpretation’ of biblical material in an academic setting that would claim superiority based on ‘faith’ or ‘divine revelation’ should always be labeled and decried. There are legitimate places for such discussion, however, I am very skeptical whether SBL is one of those places.
Finally, I am extremely skeptical whether the SBL should be a place where the normative nature of ‘scripture’ should be discussed. We could go a lot of different places with this one: different religious groups have different versions of the Bible, and even similar groups such as protestants have widely differing views of interpreting scripture.
But certainly the SBL, an academic meeting, is not the place for sermonizing cloaked in an obfuscating word ‘normative’, that allows for any sort of suggestion of what the text ‘really means for us today.’
Because some discussions of a biblical text as ‘normative’ are, by their very nature, exclusive and non-academic
In fact, I would think one of the core concerns of secular scholars (and if any are reading this correct me if I am wrong) is persons, or groups of persons, approaching and indwelling some biblical material as ‘normative’. Simply put, biblical cosmology should not be normative for twenty-first century persons; some biblical views of women should not be normative for twenty-first century persons, biblical material that promotes othering should not be normative for twenty-first century persons.
I’m not entirely convinced that a secular biblical studies group should not be organized that is a separate entity from the SBL that refuses to validate in any way scholars, groups, or sections who explicitly or implicitly practice exclusion based on faith, fideism, othering, or the promotion of ancient literature as normative.
Certainly, some sort of affiliation with the SBL for meeting places and economic purposes would be necessary, but refusing to treat certain issues with kid-gloves might be more important in the long run.
What I am not saying: There are incredible scholars who have had amazing careers whose bootstraps I am not fit to tie and have no chance to ever accomplish what they have in the field. Some of my favorite scholars are persons such as George Nickelsburg and Peter Flint (for whom I worked and is a fantastic scholar and human being). Some great scholarship takes place at SBL (but also some bad stuff as I witnessed first hand last year in Atlanta). I think the above are legitimate concerns; however, these concerns, which may only be a small part of the SBL, do not become illegitimate if only a small part of the constituency practice them.