Saturday, 14 June 2008

Academic Privilege and Belief

In his Moule Memorial Lecture called 'New Testament Scholarship and Christian Discipleship', at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, on June 5 2008, the Bishop of Durham, Dr. N. T. Wright, asked for some places in universities to be restricted to Christian believers for the study of the New Testament. He said:

Nobody in the secular university world, so far as I know, actually denies the existence of music and hence its importance as a university subject. But it [the analogy] is still potentially helpful. Provided there is also open access to teachers of every kind of background, I believe a university should make appropriate space, if necessary by tying some posts to some confessional positions, for those who, albeit sometimes in maverick ways, are trying to live the material they are teaching, not least because, as with music, theology (including biblical studies) has a kind of analytic and organic relation to actual human life. The musical notes on the page mean what they mean because there are such things as singers and trombones and double basses. The New Testament means what it means because there are such things as prayers and holiness, as justice and mercy. (pages 9-10)

This used to be the case, and often the restriction was towards Anglicans. Indeed, it was once the law. I think he is wrong.

Back in 1996-1998 I did an MA Theological Understanding of Contemporary Society at the University of Hull, a University once Anglican dominated regarding its theology, and indeed still having a theology department (though one that had spread to include some other faiths as equal studies). The course, taught by a Roman Catholic and an Anglican, was full of assumptions about normative belief, and one then as a Unitarian I had to battle against in order to develop my own space. I quite enjoyed the clash, and I provided some sociology of religion, and the Anglican used to find me irritating because he felt I was undermining his beliefs. But this was a university, and that was his problem. The other confident lecturer lived in an impenetrable world of sophisticated philosophical theology, demonstrating in every way a case of how not to teach (the language too complex, delivery by lecture handed out, taking no prisoners on the way), and the clash with him was more direct, when I could keep up. Nevertheless I was introduced to worlds of theology I had never encountered, and realised that the difference between Church life and international academic life was wider than I had imagined even when reading previously all that mainly Anglican stuff produced mainly in England and concealed from church people. He focuses on the fact that the University likes to be neutral space, and the neutral scholar claims some sort of academic superiority:

Sometimes, however, as with Vermes himself, such scholars declare that because they are 'neutral', they can claim a supposed high moral or scholarly ground against those of us who are compromised by our own personal commitments, though this late modern rhetoric is now routinely unmasked by the postmodern point that we all have commitments and agendas and that looking for historical arguments on which to base your agnosticism is no more neutral an activity than looking for historical arguments on which to base your faith. Then, continuing the map-work, some within the guild of New Testament scholarship have publicly declared that, though they used to be believing and practising Christians, they are so no longer. Michael Goulder comes to mind in this country, as do Gerd Lüdemann in Germany and Bart Ehrman in America. Sometimes they, too, then try to claim a certain high scholarly ground: they have 'seen through' all that stuff, have come out the other side of faith and can see its historical unseaworthiness. Meanwhile, some other scholars who do still profess Christian faith nevertheless declare that they keep their scholarship and their discipleship in watertight compartments: from Monday to Friday, declared one famous professor who had better remain nameless, I'm an atheist. You pray on Sunday as if the Bible is God's book, and you study during the week as if it's purely and simply a human product. (3-4)

I suggest that these are no more than faith journeys, and they are not particularly typical, just as some people acquire faith that may have gone into theology neutrally. That is my own position, for example, if afterwards, though I am rather on the edge of the usual institutions. And that often goes with the territory. But the argument about neutrality or its absence is an important one.

...there is also the more complex and challenging question of how the scholar's mind is formed. And once that large question is raised there is no neutral ground, and the Christian disciple will say, humbly but clearly, that though our present formulations of Christian truth are undoubtedly deficient, as far as we can see the Christian worldview is the one which enables people to see the whole truth about God, the world and themselves, and that therefore, though many mistakes will continue to be made, there are bound to be ways in which Christian discipleship will in principle open up avenues of insight in the realm of scholarly study of the New Testament. (10)

Yes but if the modernist secular approach is taken of neutral ground, then the University is the place for a general secular stance, at least in employment and in enrolment. If the postmodern argument is taken, then the University bubble is again the secularised (not secularism) bubble, the place of critical work and self-aware self-critical work, the awareness of one's own bias and its exposure. Then the Seminary is the place for the faith enhanced scholarly work.

It is not necessary to reserve space for a Christian believer. Where necessary, this can be done as the social anthropologist does it - through a kind of empathetic submergence into the material and how the community understands the material. It is like the Religious Education schoolteacher who uses the Warwick centred anthropological method: he tells the tale of the believer in any religion and passes this insight on (often at some variance from official beliefs), but does not have to be a believer to do this.

Bishop Wright says of Bertrand Russell:

First he would read up the subject as fast and as fully as he could. Then he would walk round and round the garden of Trinity College until, suddenly, the shape of what needed to be said presented itself to his mind. Then he would hasten back to the study and write out what he had seen. (11)

This sort of technique is indeed for anyone, including the insight Tom Wright suggests that the library is a place of prayer and the chapel a place of study (11). From the point of view of study - for this is what the University is about - one only needs to know about the culture and mentality involved in such an insight to texts. If there is a secret Gnosis that only the Christian can see regarding faith texts and their study, then it has to be asked whether such - when it is claimed - makes any appreciable difference to the study of and writing about theology and faith texts. If so, the University may have to withdraw from something so other from its business of critical education. I doubt it, however, not if the full critical apparatus of study is applied.

Tom Wright has not made the argument. The context, unfortunately, is the battle the institutionally religious seem to be having with the secularists today:

Today’s shrill new atheists wave such claims away, declaring for instance that our knowledge of Jesus is late and patchy, but New Testament scholarship has a habit, not least in Cambridge and Durham, of coming back again and again to say, No, historical research may well teach us that we haven’t understood Jesus fully, but nevertheless a remarkably good case for the historical roots of Christian faith can and must be made. (5)

And it is a battle about the insecurity of the Church in the "public square".

From this point alone I hope some will hear a vocational challenge, to apply their God-given gifts to the tasks of undergirding, and perhaps also reorienting, the church's witness in the public square. (5)

Well there are degrees of separation taking place, simply because the Christian world view is becoming so departed from the ordinary, practical, workaday view. In my current project as an archivist and educator, I am searching through old documents including church magazines that were reaching out to the community in the early 1970s. Even then, the assumptions and connections were different. You can see between then and now how social connections have gone, how religion is even more specialised, and how the generations passing through no longer do so. The assumptions are in the texts and the photographs, and they are gone. Remember, history is about primary documents (the New Testament is not a set of primary documents), and I am sticking to the documents that for a period tried to be more than a humble parish magazine, and are full of witting and unwitting testimony. The documents show that they can see change coming, but were they optimistic!

There is a place for theology, beyond simply Religious Studies, in the University, but there is no place for privilege or reserved seats for believers. It once happened, it then happened informally, but those days are also past.

Better now for the person of faith to go about quietly and engage in conversation as it arises. The person of faith should question easy assumptions, however, and I am hoping that there is space beyond all the scanning and picture and text processing and web presentation to design an adult education based theology course that bridges some of the gap long identified between believer and academic, lay person and clergy. This course would be, as such, within the seminary of the Church, but it would be one that respects the different critical options thrown up for belief once the material is discussed. It might even attract the interested outsider, who does not think a church is going to pounce simply for showing an interest in religious matters.

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