Perhaps I’m just addicted to indignation, but I can’t help myself.
Today’s entry is a rather smug piece by Jacques Berlinerblau, who thinks that purely rational (and rationalist) standards are the only ones that can be considered truly and professionally academic. A taste of his reflections on a panel at the Society of Biblical Literature:
[N]one of that astonished me as much as the way that the presenters reasoned through their subject matter. Their stated remarks were devoid of nearly any reference to biblical scholarship. The speakers each built their arguments almost exclusively by citing scriptural passages in an effort to figure out what the Bible was trying to say.
This is highly unusual—the typical exegete’s research leans heavily on the findings of modern biblical scholarship and those findings are prominently integrated into the substance of the analysis.
Making this more unusual was the fact that all of the presenters had considerable training as biblical scholars. All had professional familiarity with ancient Greek and probably biblical Hebrew. A glance at their footnotes (two of the presenters handed out copies) indicates that they were, in fact, acquainted with secondary scholarly literature, especially biblical commentaries.
But that secondary literature was relegated to the backmatter. It could not, for some reason, intrude upon the presenter’s interpretation of scriptural verses. These verses were assumed to link together into a larger pattern of meaning; a meaning which constituted the truth of the Scripture and the labor of the scholar.
This was, then, an approach predicated on not asking the types of troubling questions that exegetes have been asking for centuries if not millennia: Was the text I am studying written by the person who claims to have written it? Did the events recounted in the text actually happen? Can I trust that the text’s author (or authors) depicts events accurately? To what degree can we assume that the supernatural occurrences in these texts actually occurred?
Everything has to be hauled before the bar of (Berlinerblau’s pretty crabbed version of) reason. Now, I’m a pretty big fan of reason, but I recognize that there are some questions it can’t answer on its own. And I know enough about the history of early modern philosophy to recognize the problematical (not to say ideological) character of regarding reason as our “only star and compass” (John Locke’s words, if memory serves).
Berlinerblau’s conception of reason and of the university and scholarly professions that are its home would leave no room for the thoughtful development of genuine faith. It would be “presuppositionally” excluded.
Now, if that isn’t enough (along with your first six cups of coffee) to get your juices flowing, you might also read Scott McLemee’s review of a new book by two evangelical scholars. There we learn that that there’s a distinction between evangelicals (some of whom are good) and fundamentalists (all of whom seem to be pretty doggone stupid).
It might be a good moment to clarify the distinction between evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, which are not the same thing even though the labels are often taken as synonymous. The evangelical Christian has had a transformative inner experience (Collins writes about how he “knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ”) and then communicates the message of the gospels to others. The fundamentalist regards the scriptures as literally and timelessly true. The Bible was dictated by God in plain terms requiring no interpretation at all, except in a very few places where He has laid the symbolism on so thick (beasts, crowns, horsemen with names like War and Famine, etc.) that nobody can miss it.
Someone can be both evangelical and fundamentalist, of course. Each perspective plunges a believer right into the absolute. But they are ultimately distinct. To put it one way, the evangelical stance is ethical (it defines a way of living) while the fundamentalist claim is not just about interpretation but about access to knowledge (which is certain, unchanging, and immediately available).
Evangelicalism is a (merely) ethical stance, and one based upon a (likely subjective) ”transformative inner experience”? That would be news to most of the evangelicals I know. Here the attachment to a very modernist conception of rationality gets in the way of understanding the phenomenon. Taken this way, reason is unreasonable.
Joseph Knippenberg is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.