24th February 2006
Michael V. Fox has a thought provoking essay at the most recent SBL Forum entitled, “Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study: My View.” While I have the utmost respect for Fox as a scholar (his various works on the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible are absolutely second to none), I am not sure I agree with his bold statement “faith-based study has no place in academic scholarship” (see Danny Zacharias’s reflections at Deinde, as well as James Crossley’s posts here and here).
On the one hand, I’m not sure I like the implication that “faith-based scholarship” (or Wissenschaft) is an oxymoron. While I would agree that any scholarship that presumes its conclusions is methodologically problematic (and borders on disingenuous), faith-based scholarship does not necessarily have to fall in this category (though some certainly does). Furthermore, I would think that secular Wissenschaft could learn a lot from a lot of faith-based scholarship as well as other ideological approaches. As Peter Donovan has recently noted, “the scientific study of religion can ill afford to insulate itself from the thinking of others interested in the same subject-matter, merely because they may hold very different views about theory and method” (“Neutrality in Religious Studies,” in The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion: A Reader [ed. Russell T. McCutcheon; New York: Cassell, 1999], 245). What is perhaps most important for any approach to biblical studies is that the approach is academically sound, methodologically rigorous, and up front about any and all presuppositions.
On the other hand, Fox’s point has some validity in that he is not dismissing the “scholarship of persons who hold a personal faith.” In fact, he notes that “there are many religious individuals whose scholarship is secular and who introduce their faith only in distinctly religious forums.” Basically what I understand Fox as saying is that “Wissenschaft” employs a “secular, academic, religiously-neutral hermeneutic” and any scholars who want to engage in biblical Wissenschaft needs to play by the agreed upon rules. Thus, Wissenschaft becomes a “middle discourse” by which people of different faiths and/or no faith can engage in scholarly discourse.
This debate within biblical studies is paralleled by a larger debate within the discipline of religious studies. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the discipline of religious studies has typically been understood to be the “value-neutral” and “objective” study of religions, while theology is the confessional or particularistic study of one religion (see, for example, Donald Wiebe, “The Politics of Religious Studies,” CSSR Bulletin 27/4 [November 1998] 95-98). This distinction played an important part in the establishment of religious studies departments in a number of universities in Europe and North America — and especially Canadian public universities (interestingly, not all educational institutions thought that the distinction was necessary). This traditional demarcation has been challenged on some fronts in light of the postmodern recognition that there is no real objective, value-neutral study of religion (or any other subject for that matter), and thus the only differences between the disciplines are the rules agreed upon by those working within them — the rules of the game, so to speak.
(For an interesting discussion of postmodern theories of religious studies, see the interaction between Garrett Green, “Challenging the Religious Studies Canon: Karl Barthâ€™s Theory of Religion,” Journal of Religion 75  473-86; Russell T. McCutcheon, “My Theory of the Brontosaurus: Postmodernism and ‘Theory’ of Religion,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 26/1  3-23, and William E. Arnal, “What if I Donâ€™t Want to Play Tennis?: A Rejoinder to Russell McCutcheon on Postmodernism and Theory of Religion,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 27/1  61-68; see also McCutcheonâ€™s response, “Returning the Volley to William E. Arnal” on pp. 67-68 of the same issue).
In practice, religious studies (and biblical studies) in the Canadian public university context tends to be the scientific study of religion which does not privilege one religious discourse above another. Theology, on the other hand, is typically defined as the study of one religion from a confessional standpoint. So in this sense, I agree with Fox that there is a valid difference between faith-based scholarship and secular scholarship. But the question remains “what rules are we going to play by?” While I appreciate Fox’s point, I am skeptical about whether there is any scholarship that is truly “objective” and “value-neutral.” And any scholar who suggests that their work is “objective” and “value-neutral” would perhaps be more at home in the 19th century! I for one live in both worlds and produce scholarship for a variety of contexts. Some of my research is for the broader academy and employs methods appropriate for such work, while some of my study is for the community of faith to which I belong and employs a slightly different approach. I hope, however, that all of my research may stand up under the scrutiny of scholars who take different approaches and have different presuppositions than I.
- Rebbe: “… Are you telling me you will not be an observer of the commandments?”
- David: “I am not telling the Rebbe that.”
- Rebbe: “What are you telling me?”
- David: “I will go wherever the truth leads me. It is secular scholarship, Rebbe; it is not the scholarship of tradition. In secular scholarship there are no boundaries and no permanently fixed views.”
- Rebbe: “Lurie, if the Torah cannont go out into your world of scholarship and return stronger, then we are all fools and charlatans. I have faith in the Torah. I am not afraid of truth.”