Secularism and Biblical Studies

I think there’s a general perception that Biblical scholars have a secular worldview. I know that when I first began thinking about graduate programs, that was my expectation. My undergraduate experience was in a religious studies department at a public university, and while many or most of the students had a religious background that informed their studies, it was clear to me then that we were expected to check those at the door, so to speak, and approach a religion from the outside in. For me, with interests (at that time) in the formative periods of Judaism and Christianity, that wasn’t hard (perhaps surprisingly?). It was clear to me that even if we thought of the same texts as sacred, my religion was not the same as that of second Temple Jews, or even of the early Christian communities. My little cousin looks astoundingly like his grandfather but is clearly a different person.

[Now that I think about it, that was kind of a strange situation to be in—many public universities don’t have a religious studies department at all. I’d like to talk with my professors there about how their teaching is influenced by the type of program it is, whether they would teach from a different perspective in a different situation, and whether they have to tread carefully with the constant spectre of the state breathing down their necks. But I digress.]

I think that this perception becomes a stigma, even. The Bible is a career to you, and you spend your whole life picking it apart and de-sacralizing it, so to speak. How can you possibly take it seriously as a religious text? (Your mileage may vary, however—I’d be interested to know whether others have the same sense.) The question of how such a thing is possible is a great topic for another day. The point is that it is the case; the more I get to know others in my field, the more I realize that most of us do have some sort of faith commitment.

And yet– and yet—we’re still expected to check those at the door. It’s not that we pretend they’re not there; we just don’t really talk about them. We talk as if they didn’t inform our every thought; as if they didn’t matter. This is less true in theology departments, as I’ve since learned—there’s more of a space, in classrooms and conversations, to be more than a brain with legs. One of my great memories from [mystery program] is of the last ten minutes of a seminar class dealing with canon formation. We’d spent the past two and a half hours taking the canon apart, looking at how canonical choices were made, asking ourselves, “What is a canon, anyway?” and coming exhaustively to the conclusion that really, we had no idea. (That also is another post for another day.) Finally one man—an Episcopal priest, and a very good one, as it happened—sat back and said, “Okay. So what do I tell my congregations about this?” And suddenly everyone started talking at once. This was a fascinating intellectual question, but also a serious challenge to faith. What did it mean to be part of a “religion of the book” if we couldn’t decide on the nature or the content of the “book” in question? And we all really wanted to talk about that; and in that place at that time, we could.

Those kinds of conversations are rare in the classroom; and my experience so far has been that people want to have them in private but need a real atmosphere of trust before they’re possible. For me, this blog is a place to make that possible—hence the insistence (however illusory) on privacy; I want it to be very clear that these are not the things I am publishing or teaching. This is a separate space.

So, now we get to the question: is this a good thing? Isn’t this fragmenting of ourselves completely artificial? Isn’t this insistence on an “outside-in” attitude toward religion just a holdover from the Modern period? Aren’t we just placating the atheistic god of Science, trying to be a science (which we’re clearly not—don’t get me started on the “social sciences”) in a vacuum-sealed world cut off from our essential humanity?

And I would say: “Yes, it’s a good thing,” but with footnotes. Yes, we should check our beliefs at the door (but we should also realize that that’s impossible). Yes, we should insist on critical distance from the text for ourselves and for our students (but we need to have so much patience with students for whom that comes hard). Yes, we should keep the “public” conversations—the papers and the conferences—on the “secular” level (even though secularism doesn’t exist in the way it was originally conceived). And here’s why: that is the only way (that I can think of, anyway) we can all have a place at the table. That’s the only way I, the then-nonbelieving child of a low-church Episcopal priest, could have fallen in love with this field with the help of a Jewish convert professor and a deeply committed Catholic friend (who, incidentally, ended up studying Hinduism, in large part because he didn’t feel able to maintain that critical distance). There needs to be a safe space to talk about how your work informs your faith; but we also need the space in which we talk about the work itself to be safe. It can’t be okay, for example, for Jewish scholars to be the targets of proselytization at conferences. As I see it: for now, at least, secularism is like a language that’s foreign to all of us; but it’s the only language we all speak.

(That’s what I think these days, anyway. I’d like to know what you think.)


11 thoughts on “Secularism and Biblical Studies

  1. Thanks for the post, Mary!

    I do object to your description of the god of science as atheistic. Ignoring the semantic issues, I want to ask: In what way is the study of science different from the study of religion? Do scientists not also have to check our beliefs at the door? And if you cut scientists, do we not bleed?

    I think the phenomenon you are describing is that of the scholarly method, here with the religious studies flavor. I liked your description in terms of languages–the secular language of scholarship is a foreign language to people of all beliefs, except perhaps atheism. It was decided somewhere (interesting to wonder when, given that we retain the term “professor”, a heavily loaded and Church-based term) that this was the language in which scholarship would be done (perhaps the move paralleled the move from German to English? Or from Latin to the vernacular?). It’s been useful, but it does pose a real problem in two directions. People of strong faith can be unable to speak the language (hence your call to patience), and people of strong anti-faith (faith in atheism?) can grow to be unable to question or set aside their own beliefs. It’s like Americans being unable to set aside belief in their natural superiority over others because English is the lingua franca.

    • Luke–I am not sure that I’m understanding you rightly, so if my reply is way off-base, let me know. I do think that the scholarly method is the same across disciplines. I guess what I was describing (although I wasn’t thinking it through clearly, so thanks for making me examine it) was the sense that I think people in the humanities have that scientists don’t have these problems. It’s really a romanticization of science, funnily enough. Science is totally objective! Science is pure knowledge unsullied by emotion! Science can furnish absolute proof, can lead you to the absolute truth! And so forth. So there’s this sense that, if we can talk in the same language as scientists, then our work will be more scientific, maybe.

      • I think I’d protest to this characterization because…theology and science are the same in that, if you learn something that challenges what you thought to be true before, it will be challenging no matter. Sure, the stakes are different for theology because it involves God (an idea that orients peoples’ lives in a way that Newtonian physics might not), but that’s where critical distance comes in. The moments I’ve learned the most in theology have been the ones in which I have had to seriously rethink a concept because of some absolute intellectual proof. I’m not sure where I’m going anymore, except to say that theology and science–not that different.

    • One thing I just thought of–in German, “Wissenschaft” covers the scholarly method in all fields, from what we’d term the hard sciences to soft sciences to humanities.

  2. Mary, thank you so much for this post! I think I know exactly what conversation and what class in [mystery program] you are referencing here, and I remember it as one of the very, very few moments in [mystery program] where I felt comfortable being a person of faith. Having had a wee bit of distance now from [mystery program], I have come to realize that it really was not the best place for me simply because of how fragmented it left me feeling. Having gone to [mystery Christian liberal arts undergrad], I learned to freely integrate my faith and my scholarship in a way that I really did not feel free to do at [mystery program] with you. Now being in [mystery explicitly seminary program] I have felt able to blossom as both a scholar and as a person of faith in a way that I simply could not have done before. Anyway, all of that is to say, I’m oh-so-glad that I’m not the only one who thinks about the relationship of careers and faith when the object of our career is one of the most important bases of our faith. (And on a more personal and confessional level, I’m even more happy to read this coming from you because I think I spent the majority of time at [mystery program] comparing myself to you and thinking that I wasn’t doing as good of a job as you at being “objective” when it came to studying the Bible because of these pesky little faith commitments that I had floating around.)

    • Thanks, Melanie! I’m really sorry–both that you didn’t feel comfortable in that program and that you ever felt as though your faith commitments would detract from your abilities as a scholar. I had no idea about the former–to me, it was such a radically more “religious” atmosphere than I had been accustomed to or been expecting, and it took me a long time to get used to–especially because I was (and am, really) much more comfortable with my role as a scholar than as a person of faith. In terms of the latter–you seem to me to be very graceful at navigating those two roles, and I’ve always really admired that.

      So, I have two questions. You don’t have to answer them if you don’t want to, obviously–this is a pretty public forum and they’re pretty personal questions. First, how if at all did denomination play into your feeling fragmented? That is, was it about being Christian and not feeling as though that was welcome in the classroom, or was it about being a non-Catholic model of Christian? Second, I’d really like to hear how your experience has been at a seminary program. What is it that makes it so much more comfortable for you? How do you un-fragment yourself, so to speak? How do you manage to play both of those roles at the same time? And do you think that’s something that can be carried out into “public” conversations/do you see the kind of divide I’m talking about as unnecessary?

  3. Interesting. And it does strike me as true, that stereotypes dictate that systematics/moral theologians are allowed to speak more openly about faith, Bible scholars are more secular, and liturgical theologians are always a little bit mystical. But this is clearly one of the places where you and I had a vastly different experience, Mary, despite being in the same graduate program. I never felt as if I had to stifle my faith in the name of scholarship. I did feel that others wanted to talk more openly about faith than I was comfortable (seeing it as a transition into catechetics rather than theology) but there certainly was a tacit recognition in systematics classes that what we were talking about bore serious consequences for faith.

    So I’m not sure I’d agree with your idea that scholarship requires secularism. Critical distance, yes. I have never met a theologian worth her/his salt that refused/could not separate the search for theological truth from the truth claims of a particular faith tradition. But there seems to be a great difference between critical distance and pretend secularism. We don’t need to talk about our own faiths all the time, but to pretend that what we write and research happens in a vacuum…I see it sort of like interreligious dialogue–as long as we all acknowledge that the things we learn bear immense importance for everyone at the table, the terms of dialogue can become a little bit more civil without sacrificing intellectual integrity.

  4. To clarify: I didn’t mean to say that ALL scholarship requires secularism. Theological study within a denominational university–well, obviously that cannot and should not be conducted on a secular level. You’re all there to understand your faith; the faith is an integral part of what you’re researching. I meant only to talk about secularism as necessary for biblical studies; and that’s, to my mind, the result of having these texts be so important to so many people in so many different ways. There was definitely a time when biblical research wasn’t conducted on secular terms–but that’s because the only people who were allowed to be a real part of the conversation were Protestant men. That’s not the case any more, thankfully.

    I’m pretty shaky/undecided about this, though. I mean, what’s the situation with the New Testament? And what about biblical studies within the seminary? Within the confines of a seminary class, you can assume a unity of belief that you can’t elsewhere; and the point is to prepare your students to go out into the world and preach the gospel, so they NEED to be thinking about and discussing how the material relates to their faith. (Remind me to do a post about my totally-based-on-speculation opinions on how to teach Biblical Studies to ministers.)

  5. It’s interesting because it’s something that happens all the time when teaching high school students the Bible–for many of them (particularly in my mostly non-Catholic school) the idea of studying the Bible critically is a serious blow to their faith. They cannot reconcile the sacredness of the Bible with the scholarly distance required to study it honestly. The idea that Adam and Eve aren’t real sends so many of my students into a valley of disappointment with faith from which they never emerge. Some will emerge, with a more sophisticated understanding of faith, but some won’t, and will leave Christianity behind.

    But my question is–why is the Bible any different? Should we be just as critical when studying, say, Church history? (I’d rather my students not see Church history through rose colored glasses). And ethics? I’ll give you the history argument–we haven’t always been as critically distant when studying the Bible, and that was a hindrance to scholarship. But shouldn’t we always presume BOTH that no one person approaches theology/Bible from the same faith basis, AND that studying these sacred texts bears enormous importance to a lot of people?

  6. Hi Mary: What a wonderfully thought-provoking post. And so many great comments and responses I feel compelled to join in the Socratic discourse!

    So of course, I have more questions than answers :)

    Your paragraph that begins “And yet — and yet — we are expected to check them at the door…” made my mind shift to a politician’s office who might have his or her head in hands, bemoaning the same thing. I am a scientist who studied the universe (where physics meets philosophy, honestly). My questions are, if we agree faith exists, and we acknowledge that some of us experience this phenomenon, then how do we, as believers go about the business of identifying the formula for when and how that belief system affects our thinking, teaching, conversations, work… our very being? Who decides what the appropriate level of influence our faith should hold over any/every aspect of our lives and our beings?

    I look forward to more thoroughly engaging intellectual stimulation :D


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