Friday, November 25, 2005

ETS, IBR, SBL, AAR and PETA


. . . okay, not PETA. But I did return from ETS/IBR/SBL/AAR this week, and I had a marvelous time with some of my most cherished, colorful, Caucasian friends around the country. Even though it wasn't long before our room began to smell like a Bombay bus station, spending time with these guys is always worth the price of admission. Please accept my apologies for the sparse posting! In any case, after having some time to process the various papers and conversations I experienced, I thought it might be appropriate to blow the mucus which is my reflection onto the Kleenex which is this blog. Why else would I call it "Soylent Green"? Rather than chronicling the iterations of my thoughts in every individual seminar I attended, allow me to enumerate some general themes I found to be of interest:

1) Epistemology: In just about every session I attended, the issue of epistemology lingered around the edges of the paper, only to come periodically crashing to the center, especially when dissent was expressed by panelists or audience members. When it comes to theological discourse, it seems increasingly the case that Jerusalem has actually been relocated to Athens. Issues of prolegomena and theological method have become hot-button topics in Biblical studies, and in many ways I see this as a positive development: Evangelicals are now being forced to lay their philosophical cards out on the table and expose their epistemological underwear. This kind of methodological strip-poker is the necessary beginning for any meaningful rapprochement in that it must be acknowledged that the correspondence theory of truth, accounts of epistemic justification, and traditional theories of language can neither be found in the pages of Scripture nor referenced as “obvious” common sense. Being forced to defend these notions in all of their philosophical technicalities highlights just how NOT common sense the issues really are.

In other ways, though, the center stage given to philosophy can be somewhat frustrating. For one thing, the theologians discussing the issues don’t always have formal training or adequate grasp of contemporary debates in epistemology, which inevitably leads to muddled distinctions, well-worn caricatures and passé (re)formulations. My frustration with this is particularly acute, since I’m only being introduced to these issues via theological debate, only to find out upon further research that my confusion has as much to do with the major participants as with my own initial unfamiliarity. What is foundationalism, and is the rejection of it a rejection of both strong and weak varieties? By anti-realism are we referring to a metaphysical or epistemological position? Is the debate over foundationalism about epistemic justification, or is it a disagreement as to what counts as knowledge in the first place? Is a rejection of correspondance a rejection of Truth? In listening to the debates the answers to these questions aren’t always clear. What is clear, however, is that engagement in these disciplines (philosophy and theology) is crucially clarifying for both parties. The discussion between Merold Westphal, James Beilby, John Franke and Kevin Vanhoozer at the Evangelical Philosophical Society was especially helpful in illuminating this point. Keep watching this site, as I may be posting an mp3 of this session soon.

2) Postmodernism: The buzzwords in greatest currency at all of the sessions I attended were terms related to postmodernism - postfoundationalism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, postconservativism and the like. The fact is, whether one likes it or not, the contours of contemporary debate in most of the disciplines within the guild of Biblical studies (including theology, hermeneutics and missiology) is being shaped by the variegated challenges of postmodernism. The positive effect of this has been the chastisement of positivistic excess and the cultural hegemony exercised by these disciplines under the guise of rational purity and detached objectivity (and hence the increasing discussions of prolegomena mentioned above). Yet, the negative effect is that since postmodernism tends to be more of a critique than a positive contribution, the void left by such criticisms tends to be filled by an untenable skepticism which seems incompatible with the missional prerogatives of the Church. Most of the friendly wrangling with my pals at the conference was over these sorts of issues, but the tension remains - how does one appropriate the global criticism of postmodernism, and the potential it holds for subverting the traditional impasses of Biblical studies, without resorting to nihilistic incredulity? Fortunately some positive contributions have been made in light of postmodern: Though Vanhoozer mentioned that he was "cooling" to speech-act theory as a panacea for all theological ills, I still think it represents heuristic value for textual meaning; Reformed epistemology holds some promise for an account of theological knowledge (while Bruce Marshall attempts a different account by way of a semantic conception of truth ala Alfred Tarski); critical realism is, if not rigidly methodological, at the very least an attitudinal middle-way between positivism and skepticism; Barth has proven to be a resource for a theological account of our knowledge of God, the Bible, and the (in)adequacy of human language, etc. As for the lasting value of these and other proposals, time will tell.

3) Theological interpretation: There seems to be a growing interest in the Bible as a Christian book. While that sounds like a stupid thing to say, the fragmentation of Biblical studies into adversarial sub-disciplines has presented a well-recognized crisis for churchly appropriations of the Bible. Historical criticism and biblical theology emphasize development, dissent and fundamental disunity in the pages of Scripture while theologians and systematicians wrestle these particularities into submission so that Christians can meaningfully speak of one book, one Gospel. Unfortunately the tug-of-war between unity and diversity has resulted in something worse than a stalemate; it’s created a taut rope for educated clergy to trip over. But a heartening turn was felt at this year’s annual meetings with Baker Academic and Brazos Press both publishing commentary series dedicated to the theological interpretation of Scripture, as well as The Dictionary for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, a stupendous compendium of articles related to this attempted reclamation of the Bible for the Church. Of course the Scripture and Hermeneutics Series has also attempted to grapple with the issues raised by the Bible turf wars. Concurrent with these ongoing publications is the formation of a new study group within SBL, as well as a biannual journal dedicated to the topic. Hopefully these developments, alongside burgeoning theological projects which emphasize the controls of community identification and the rule of faith, represent a return to Biblical studies as a churchly endeavor.

12 comments:

Jonathan Moorhead said...

Did you happen to be at D. Jeff Bingham's plenary address at ETS? If so, what did you think?

marc said...

Welcome Back Sharad! Nice mucus comment... its a great visual to get your readers excited about reading your blog again. The word epistemology itself sounds like sneeze.

I'm wondering if you get the sense that as various theological, philosphical, hermeuetical, epsitemological, etc. ideas are discussed at these events that we are getting closer to Jesus? I don't want to come off as anti-intellectual, just wondering? It also sounds like you had some fellowship there, and not simply fraternity.

BTW, Do you know what happened to Bobby Grow's blog, Thelogia Crucis?

TheBlueRaja said...

Sadly, jonathan, I didn't make it to any of the plenary sessions at ETS. I did purchase the mp3 CD's, though. I'll probably be putting them on my ipod as soon as they arrive, and maybe I'll post some reactions later.

Thanks, Marc, it's nice to be back! No worries about sounding anti-intellectual; you're talking to a fairly brain dead member of the clergy, so I'm not sure I'd even recognize anti-intellectualism. To be honest, I think that there isn't a generic answer to your question. For some peoople I'd think that it brings a deep sense of dependence upon God in a Barthian recognition of "sovereign grace". For other people, perhaps it becomes an exercise in wrangling over abstractions. In any case, I don't think there's anything in the investigation that inherently turns people away from Jesus and not toward Him - but maybe that's harder to see from within than without. What do you think?

I have no idea what happened to dear Bobby! Let's hope he turns up soon.

marc said...

Blue,

I think for myself, the answer to whether or not wrangling over some of these issues brings me closer to Jesus is yes and no. It really depends on where I am at when engaged in these (or to be honest) any activity. If my mind is toward Christ then that infuses my activities (either of the mind or the body) with direction. If I am simply trying to reason, or figure out how I know what I know in a vaccuum, it doesn't help me.

I guess, for me, the outward appearnace of the pursuits of the mind might look the same to someone observing, but how they are impacting me and shaping me are dependent on my willingness (for lack of a better term) to consider all things as loss in order to gain Christ.

Hmmmn? I just read what I wrote and I think I agree with what I said. Not too confusing I hope?

TheBlueRaja said...

Hard to disagree, Marc!

Stephen said...

Great post. Firstly, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't jealous of you having the opportunity to attend ETS, etc... Second, I'm glad to hear that questions of epistemology were widely discussed. Although I'm somewhat ignorant in such matters, it is heartening to see that Evangelicals are realizing that such disputes underlie what many would have before assumed to be theological issues.

Sameer said...

Colorful, *Caucasian* friends? What am I, chopped liver?

TheBlueRaja said...

You're MORE than a friend; you're my "special friend" and I don't only "like you", but I "like you like you". If you still want to go to the dance with me check yes:
_ _
|_| YES |_| NO

Sameer said...

|_| YES |X| NO

P.S., regarding the three areas you delineated, have you formed any opinions on any of these matters?

TheBlueRaja said...

Stephen,

Thanks! But don't be jealous - unless there's people you're planning on meeting up with, you can pretty much just buy books and read 'em for the same effect. As for the epistemology thing, I obviously couldn't agree more!

Sameer,

I guess when it comes to all of three of the issues I mentioned I tend to gravitate toward explanations that have a more robust theological character. I was deeply impacted by Plantinga's Advice to Christian Philosophers not (as you know) because I'm a philosopher, but because the vision to redeem all disciplines under Christ is so important to me. The attempt to ground these issues in God and the freedom to make use of theological concepts are what attracts me to Vanhoozer's speech-act stuff and Plantinga's warrant stuff. I also am suspect of any view that shows RADICAL discontinuity with the intuitions of the Church's interpretation in years past (which is what attracts me to some of the paleo-orthodoxy stuff). I guess I'm not willing to completley jettison either 1) knowledge of God as properly basic 2) the importance (though not hte SINGULAR importance) of intention on the part of biblical writers 3) the authority of the Bible for Christian practice/witness and 4) the need for clear boundaries to be drawn between believer and unbeliever.

All of that leaves me open in many ways to the contributions of postmodernism, but it also leaves me closed to it in a number of ways. I'm of course generalizing and being vague, but I think that pretty well sums up my disposition. It'd be interesting to hear the reactions of some others (including yours) as well.

Chris Pixley said...

I hope I'm not too late to get in on the discussion, but I just caught up with your post this evening (Monday, Nov. 28th). Raja, in your discussion of epitemology you wrote:

Evangelicals are now being forced to lay their philosophical cards out on the table and expose their epistemological underwear. This kind of methodological strip-poker is the necessary beginning for any meaningful rapprochement in that it must be acknowledged that the correspondence theory of truth, accounts of epistemic justification, and traditional theories of language can neither be found in the pages of Scripture nor referenced as “obvious” common sense. Being forced to defend these notions in all of their philosophical technicalities highlights just how NOT common sense the issues really are.

Although the word picture you paint is quite clever (I especially liked the reference to "methodological strip-poker."), I'm not sure I can agree with your conclusion that long-standing philosophical notions among evangelical Christians are no longer common sense. Exactly how does the need for these matters to be defended in all of their "philosophical technicalities" demonstrate the conclusion you reach?

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks, Chris! My point wasn't that certain philosophical presuppositions "are no longer common sense" but that they've never really been "common sense" in the sense of "perennially obvious". For example, the sharp distinctions that some evangelicals make between "meaning" and "significance" or "interpretation" and "application" in order to defend single-meaning interpretation is a syllogism that would have been incomprehensible to a first century Jew (which is why there is so much debate about Paul's use of the OT). The idea that one can (or that it's advantageous to) come to the text as an objective, detached party in a "scientific" way has more in common with the Enlightenment than with earlier church history. The influences of modern secular philosophy on evangelical "common sense" are legion, and while this isn't always bad, it does the church some good to think through these things to re-examine where we've been careless and less than Christian in our theory and methodology. And that's really all I'm saying - the process of examination is crucial to our sanctification as a community, and for this reason alone I think postmodern influences can be useful, if appropriated in the right way (which is to say that it certainly can be appropriated in a wrong and very un-Christian way). Does that make sense?