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.