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.)