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The Role of Advocacy in the Academic Study of the Bible

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The Historical-Critical Historical/Theological Enterprise: Why Are We Asking These Questions?
By Kenneth Atkinson

By Raymond F. Person, Jr.
Ohio Northern University
Professor of Religion; Chair
Department of Religion & Philosophy
March 2012

Kenneth Atkinson has provided us with another response to the impact of theological agendas within the academy provoked by Ron Hendel’s protest of such theological agendas by his leaving the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). Although I can agree that all biblical scholars should reflect more upon how our professional societies work, especially including the SBL annual meeting, I also think that both Hendel’s and Atkinson’s critique of SBL misses the mark, so I want to use this space and time to assert my own position as a way of furthering the much needed continuing discussion.

Both Hendel and Atkinson present the problem as a conflict between the objectivity of biblical scholarship and the subjectivity of various theological agendas. Although I do not disagree with some of their examples of this conflict and the pernicious role such a conflict can play within the academy, I think that their solution of removing theological agendas from SBL altogether misunderstands, at least from my perspective, the value of biblical studies and the study of the humanities in general.

First, most contemporary scholars are fully aware that their own particular interpretation cannot be understood to be completely or purely “objective.” Although many of us may strive for such ideal objectivity, it is generally understood as an unattainable goal, and we all operate to some degree from our unique individual subjective perspectives significantly influenced by the various communities that we live in and represent.

Second, such subjectivity is not limited only to the traditionally understood theological perspectives. Or, another way of stating this (from the perspective of Tillich) is we all work out of our own theological perspectives since theology is based on our “ultimate concerns.” As a teacher and scholar, one of the things I think is most valuable about the study of the humanities in general and the academic study of religion in particular is that such study often helps us see the conflict of such “ultimate concerns” between our communities and those of others but at the same time to see how we humans all share some type of “ultimate concern.” Thus, even if Hendel, Atkinson, and others successfully removed what they understand as theological agendas from biblical studies, the advocacy of particular worldviews would certainly continue within the academy. Certainly, one can imagine various critiques continuing from a “secular” perspective devoid of such theological agendas—for example, feminist and womanist critiques, post-colonial critiques, and ecological critiques. And in this context anyone who thinks that he/she is avoiding such critiques as a way of remaining completely “objective” is obviously, at least from the perspective of those making such critiques, advocating for the status quo.

Third, any position that necessarily insists that any discussion of the divine must be removed from “objective” or “rational” inquiry can be reasonably argued to be itself “irrational”—at least, this is the perspective of the philosopher Nicholas Rescher. Rescher argues, convincingly from my perspective, that, since God can be justifiably understood as something that transcends our human abilities to comprehend fully within the confines of empirical reality, then any argument for or against the existence of God can be judged to be irrational because it is arguing something that cannot be logically argued within the limitations of human reason. If Rescher is right, then our particular theological agendas are necessarily the result of our particular (ir)religious traditions and their inherent subjectivities, but this does not necessarily make all of them irrational. Of course, Rescher allows that many particular understandings of God/gods can nevertheless be shown to be irrational. An example of such that I would offer as a biblical scholar would be the notion that God is tied up with the fundamentalist notion of biblical inerrancy in sharp contrast to what any reasonable reflection on the available biblical manuscript evidence flatly denies. Thus, even Rescher’s position does not abolish the important role of objectivity based on some type of empirical analysis, even if such objectivity is an unobtainable goal.

Therefore, I disagree with Hendel and Atkinson about their notion that SBL should sever ties to groups with explicit theological agendas and abolish sections with such explicit agendas. However, I share their concern for how we may be evaluated by scholars from other fields. Of course, other professional associations, especially in the humanities, have similar issues related to advocacy (for example, post-colonialism and queer theory at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association). Since I teach at an institution that has a variety of strong professional programs, I am aware that a conference paper presentation at SBL really does not equate with, for example, a conference paper presentation at a major engineering conference. Some of my colleagues in engineering are required to submit the full papers (not abstracts) for review for any conference and the acceptance rates for the papers are published publicly. The process with SBL does not even begin to approach that and, as a result at least from my perspective, a conference paper at the annual meeting of SBL carries much less prestige because it undergoes a much less rigorous peer review process.

It seems to me that there are two possible responses to this issue in SBL. First, we allow the current review process to continue, acknowledging that sections have widely divergent procedures for peer review and the resulting acceptance rates. The result would be, in my opinion, the continuing decline in conference papers meeting scholarship requirements at teaching institutions and the ascendance of the necessity of publications. Second, we could reform the proposal process to resemble at least more so those conferences in other disciplines in which there is a more rigorous peer review process and more openness to the results of that process, especially concerning acceptance rates. Admittedly, this would reverse the direction that SBL has been moving over the last 50 or more years from a professional society with a fairly closed membership to a professional society with open membership and a more democratic approach to its governance. I’m not sure which approach I really would prefer. Although I am often disappointed with the quality of papers in open sessions and prefer invited panels, I nevertheless see the importance for sessions with open papers. Therefore, although I hope my reflections here might help further the discussion concerning any possible reforms of SBL, I’m still not sure at this point what specific reforms I would support. However, I think Hendel’s and Atkinson’s notion of removing theological agendas is ill founded, primarily because I see the larger issue of how advocacy relates to biblical scholarship in general and I think that biblical scholars have much to contribute to important contemporary issues within both religious communities and secular society.

Comments (6)

A well considered, thoughtful, engaging piece with which I agree. The SBL would be better and better serve its membership if it both tightened up on paper submissions (because, with you, I'm frequently disappointed by the fairly poor quality of too many papers) and if it recognized the value of theological contributions (which just simply cannot be divorced from any discussion of the biblical text).

How it balances the two is the $64,000 question though, isn't it?
#1 - Jim West - 03/07/2012 - 13:16

Just to clarify, I don't think the problem has to do with "a conflict between the objectivity of biblical scholarship and the subjectivity of various theological agendas." I agree with Person that this is a false conceptualization. The problem for SBL is a conflict between the discursive grounds of critical biblical scholarship and the very different grounds of apologetic-oriented discourse that is predicated on biblical inerrancy. This involves issues such as academic freedom (which inerrantists tend to disparage as "academic license") and the differing aims and institutional contexts of confession and critical inquiry. Given Person's comment about the doctrine of inerrancy, I think we are roughly on the same page here. This is a tough problem for which there are no easy solutions.
#2 - Ron Hendel - 03/07/2012 - 18:21

Thanks for the fine article! One minor quibble on point three: It’s not “that any discussion of the divine must be removed from ‘objective’ or ‘rational’ inquiry,” but that supernatural agency cannot be called upon to account for any religious phenomena, including, of course, the genesis of scripture. Also, I do wonder about Rescher’s claims: Why must a deity transcend our abilities to comprehend it/him/her, and why must any claim for or against a deity’s existence necessarily “stand outside the limitations of human reason”? Both claims seem arbitrary to me (many ancient peoples appear not to have thought of deity in this way), and they sound suspiciously like a Christian author’s convenient way of dodging the hard work of justifying her belief. The question of the Christian God’s existence can and should be addressed by “human reason,” and for a majority of philosophers today, the existence of the Christian God has become highly improbable.
#3 - Jim Metzger - 03/08/2012 - 21:44

Issues related to theology are not solely about divine power or causation, certainly not solely about inerrancy or miracles, but also very much about feelings or value or esteem. People may select a theological system whose values they especially admire or detest. They may esteem, habitually take seriously, the exponents of one religion whilst treating others as little more than fruitcakes. These sentiments are bound to affect what we would 'like to think' about the Bible and many other subjects too, not excluding natural sciences.
The task of genuinely scientific enquiry is not to demand that people actually have no 'preferred thoughts' (we all do) or even that they never make these thoughts into premises of their arguments, but that if they do use such premises they make it clear that they are doing so: which is enough to restrict the use of 'preferred thoughts' massively, at least if people want to carry any conviction. People are asked to be clear about the difference between what they would like to think and what they can prove without appeal to their own preferences.
There's also a danger from the preferred thoughts of the whole group. An academic or scientific organisation shouldn't really distinguish between solid scholars and fruitcakes on the basis of the religions that these people profess. That is 'groupthink'.
#4 - Martin - 03/13/2012 - 15:40

Thanks to Prof. Person for his response to my earlier article. I must, however, disagree and remain convinced that allowing theological agendas is dangerous for the future of SBL. It is because there is no purely “objective” approach to Scripture that makes the historical-critical approach necessary. It is the only method that allows for diversity, and which strives for objectivity. Unlike theological approaches, historical-criticism allows everything (even the method of historical-criticism itself) to be subject to proof, verification, and criticism. I believe that Person confuses theology with scholarship. All scholarship is secular by definition. Theology belongs in the seminary, the divinity school, and the pulpit—not at SBL! If, as Person suggests, we allow theological agendas then what is the basis for scholarly communication? Can scholars challenge the theological presuppositions that persons of faith would bring to SBL? Must they, for example, accept the resurrection of Jesus as a historical fact because their faith requires it? What about Jewish scholars, some of whom are among the leading experts on the historical Jesus? Although even secular critics bring presuppositions to their work, the historical-criticism allows these to be challenged. Historical-criticism remains the basis for all humanistic scholarship and must remain the basis for all critical scholarship at SBL—both its meetings and in its journal—if it is to gain legitimacy among our peers in other fields such as classics, history, archaeology, many of whom are also interested in religion and the Bible.
#5 - Kenneth Atkinson - 03/18/2012 - 15:00

Prof. Atkinson, allow me to ask you a clarifying question concerning your position, because I'm still not sure you understood my point that advocacy is a broader category of which theological approaches can be understood as a sub-category. You state that "historical criticism allows everything (even the method of historical criticism itself) to be subject to proof, verification, and criticism." I agree. However, does this include such theological positions as feminist theology (for example, Schussler-Fiorenza's criticism) and other liberation theology (for example, Sugirtharajah's postcolonial criticism)? It seems to me that your target is actually a particular conservative form of Christianity (for which I have no personal attachment), at least based on your examples; however, your position would seem to exclude feminist and other liberationist critiques that are not particularly "secular" and, in my opinion, have had a tremendously positive influence on the academic study of the Bible. It seems that you are essentially arguing that there is no role for any such advocacy in SBL.

Also, one reason why I chose Nicholas Rescher's work in philosophy is that it is widely respected in philosophy, a discipline that can certainly be understood to be "secular" in many ways--that is, Rescher has made his philosophical arguments concerning the (non)existence of God based strictly on logical arguments without any reference to any kind of special revelation. His "secular" arguments led him to argue that human reason is too finite to adequately address the issue of God's (non)existence. So I was using a "secular" philosophical argument to undercut your own argument that belief in God (in general) is irrational and, therefore, should have no place in scholarship.
#6 - Ray Person - 03/18/2012 - 17:42

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