walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: April 13, 2011
Guidelines for Gynecologists and Biblical Scholars

How can a gynecologist manage to have sex?  Presumably by resolutely switching from one mindset to another.  How can a New Testament scholar manage to be a Christian? Presumably by a similar exercise of mental compartmentalization.

I don’t know whether there is a literature dealing with the sexual problems of gynecologists (I have no intention of finding out). But there is a huge literature about the problems raised by Biblical scholarship for faith and theology. The problems exploded with the rise of modern historical scholarship being applied to the Bible, beginning earlier but then progressing impressively in the nineteenth century. Much of this new scholarship took place in Protestant theological faculties, especially in Germany—a historically unique event of religious scholars applying the scalpel of critical analysis to the sacred scriptures of their own tradition. The meaning of “critical” here is clear: Biblical texts are analyzed in the same way as any other historical text, with the question of their revelatory status rigorously excluded from this exercise. Many Biblical scholars succeeded (and still succeed) in understanding the revelation being somehow preserved within the all-too-human processes that produced the text. (This is not the place to explore how Lutheran theology has facilitated this understanding.) Others, of course, were (and are) deeply troubled. Some lost their faith. Others reacted by violently rejecting the critical approach, especially if they believed in Biblical “inerrancy”—that is, the literal truth of every part of the Bible. Such rejection was an important impetus for the development of modern Evangelicalism in America in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

In its issue of April 5, 2011, The Christian Century carried an article titled “Scholars and Believers” by John Dart. It discussed in considerable detail a current controversy in the Society for Biblical Literature.  The controversy is of interest far beyond the membership of this worthy organization. (In my post of last week I have taken off from another article in the same publication. I herewith declare that The Christian Century is not the only publication I read. It just happens to be a good source for all kinds of religious curiosities.)

The Society for Biblical Literature began in 1909 as the Association of Biblical Instructors, a group presumably containing many with a faith-based approach. In the 1960s the present name was adopted, with the obvious intention of distancing the organization from such an approach. The SBL has experienced remarkable growth in membership—30% since 2001. It now has about 8,700 members. Probably this reflects the growing interest in religion in academia and in public attention following the event of 9/11. It is also due to the openness of the SBL to various new theoretical approaches—feminist, gay, postmodern, postcolonial—all of them claiming to be critical. (I will not pursue here the question of whether the adjective accurately describes these approaches.) If you are a conventionally trained scholar trying to figure out the presumed Aramaic original of a Greek Gospel text (on the well-founded presumption that Jesus spoke Aramaic rather than Greek), you may be disturbed by the approach of a “queer theorist” to the same text.  But the same scholar, devoted to a strictly scientific method of analysis, is likely to be even more disturbed by the sizable influx of Evangelicals with a faith-based approach. It so happens that queer theorists are more acceptable than Evangelicals in the faculty clubs of better universities.

These tensions erupted last year in the incident reported on in Dart’s article. Ronald Hendel, a professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at Berkeley, resigned from the SBL. He explained his reason in a column in the Biblical Archaeological Review: “The views of creationists, snake-handlers and faith-healers now count among the kinds of biblical scholarship that the society seeks to further.”  He asserted that the organization now faced a “battle royal between faith and reason.”  Leave aside the likelihood that the list of villains reflects a majority opinion about Evangelicals in the Berkeley faculty club. More interesting is the implication that faith and reason are necessary adversaries. Since Hendel teaches Jewish studies, I am reminded of an old Jewish joke which nicely describes a secularist view (not necessarily Hendel’s) of the exclusion of faith from an academic discipline:  A man tries to enter a synagogue on a High Holiday. He is stopped by an usher, who says that only those with reserved seats may enter. The man insists—he must go in and talk to one of the worshippers, whose mother has just been rushed to a hospital with a serious heart attack. The usher relents, with the warning: “But don’t let me catch you praying!”

Hendel’s resignation clearly troubled John Kutsko, the new executive director of the SBL. In August 2010 he put Hendel’s column on the SBL website, acknowledging that there are concerns and inviting discussion. In November the SBL board issued a statement, defining the organization as “a learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible from a variety of academic disciplines.” The adjectives “critical” and “academic” are somewhat ambiguous—Evangelical theologians may be critical of some things and they are proliferating in academia. But in the context of the current debate, the message is rather clear: “Don’t let me catch you praying!” Not in general—I am sure that the members of the board are not against faith. They are just insisting that faith is not an acceptable method in the critical investigation of the Bible, a position with which I, for one, would not argue. But the board surely understood how the statement would be perceived by many (probably not all) Evangelical scholars—as a battle cry. This perception could only be reinforced by another action of the board. It voted on a new vice-president, to be president next year—John Dominic Crossan, who used to participate in the so-called Jesus Seminar, a particular bête-noire to conservative Christians, which twenty years ago concluded that only 25% of sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels were likely to have been uttered by him. More recently Crossan noted that he understood the resurrection of Jesus “metaphorically,” not literally.  Evangelical scholars of course have their own associations, where they also differ in the matter of Biblical “inerrancy” but in which they can assert a “hermeneutic of assent”—in contradiction to what they rather nicely call the “hermeneutic of suspicion,” which in their view dominates the critical study of the Bible. I suppose that the former could be described as a theoretical analogue of the presumption of innocence in the common law.

It seems to me that both hermeneutics are right up to a point. Theology, as a learned discipline within a context of faith, must begin with the presumption that the faith is true. “Hermeneutic of assent”—I am reminded of John Henry Newman’s wonderful phrase “the grammar of assent.” But the method of critical historical scholarship must indeed operate on the basis of skepticism. “Hermeneutic of suspicion”—a pretty accurate paraphrase of Nietzsche’s “art of mistrust,” the necessary foundation of modern social science and psychology. The question is how the same individual can practice both “grammars” in different areas of the mind.

In trying to answer this question, one may find useful a seminal concept coined by my old teacher Alfred Schutz  (who only posthumously became known as an important sociological theorist). The concept is “relevance structure”. It is a more ponderous equivalent of the term “mindset” I used in the opening of this post. It definitely applies to diferent intellectual disciplines, by no means just to faith-based and critical approaches to religious texts. The relevance structure of sociology differs from that of psychology, even as each is applied to the same phenomenon. For example, in trying to analyze charismatic leadership, the psychologist will seek to understand the biography enabling an individual to play the role of leader. The sociologist can completely disregard the biographical background and only look at the motives of the people who accept the authority of the leader. Put differently, the psychologist will ask whether an individual is really the leader he purports to be, the sociologist will say that he is the leader if people define him as such. Similarly, different relevance structures will be applied to the same phenomenon by physics and chemistry, by philology and linguistics. But also we constantly switch relevance structures in everyday life. I have to buy a new bookcase. In the furniture store I first look at a prospective purchase functionally: Will it hold the number of books I need space for?  Then I may look at it aesthetically: Yes, it is big enough, but I think it is ugly, or its color will clash with the rest of the furniture in my study. Different relevance structures also apply to my relationships with people: I don’t like my dentist as a person, but he has done a very good job with my teeth. I enjoy the company of my friend, but while doing so I better forget his politics. I shake hands with a political candidate, and suddenly find myself physically attracted to her.  Different relevance structures dictate different interests. Schutz liked to tell a joke to make this point: A society lady found herself trapped next to an insect specialist at a dinner party. All evening he went on telling her about insects. When the dinner thankfully came to an end, she said to him: “This is very interesting, if you are interested in it.”

Back to the problem at issue: Scholarly objectivity is one relevance structure among many. As a social scientist I must try for an objective analysis of a political movement I am sympathetic with and of a movement I detest. As a scholar of religion, I can try to be objective about a faith I affirm and a faith that I don’t believe in. In the present controversy, some on both sides share what may be called the holistic fallacy—the notion that one’s approach to life must be an undivided whole. I can look at the Bible as containing messages of salvation coming from God. I can look at the Bible as containing texts written by human beings in specific historical and social circumstances. The two relevance structures are not intrinsically contradictory—unless I am either a believer in Biblical “inerrancy”, or someone who believes that reason precludes faith. Come to think of it, both kinds of holism can be called fundamentalist.

show comments
  • John Barker

    “I can look at the Bible as containing messages of salvation coming from God.”

    I should like to know what those messages are, which Berger is reading. Perhaps, some have left the church because they could not understand the message or no clear message was sent.

  • Joel

    Spot on!

  • Colin

    Is it possible to accept that some see it and some don’t, through no fault of either?

  • Pingback: Peter Berger on Gynecologists and Biblical Scholars | Theoblogy()

  • Cord Hamrick

    A well-written article.

    (To Peter Berger: I’ve no idea whether you read comboxes, but if you do, I’d love to see your response to the following challenge:)

    Dr. Berger states, “I can look at the Bible as containing messages of salvation coming from God. I can look at the Bible as containing texts written by human beings in specific historical and social circumstances. The two relevance structures are not intrinsically contradictory….”

    Well, that rather depends on the what facts are uncovered by scholarship, doesn’t it?

    So long as the facts uncovered about the authors of the Biblical texts and their intended meanings jive more or less amenably with some form of Christianity, then any Biblical scholar can be a Christian.

    But if good scholarship leads necessarily to the conclusion that the Bible’s human authors and their “historical and social circumstances” are utterly incompatible with the claims of Christianity, then all scholars would be non-Christian and all Christians would be non-scholars.

    This suggests a breakdown in the wall of separation between Church and Scholarship, don’t you think?

    The reason for this breakdown is because in being a Christian (or not being one), a personal and free choice is involved.

    In choosing between mutually-incompatible alternatives, a person becomes necessarily one; he cannot be divided because there are not two of him which he can send down each of the mutually-incompatible paths.

    Now Dr. Berger states that “In the present controversy, some on both sides share what may be called the holistic fallacy—the notion that one’s approach to life must be an undivided whole.”

    But is that a “fallacy?” I thought it was a truism…in any matter where a choice must be made.

    I suppose the question “How can a gynecologist manage to have sex?” at the outset of the article was intended to pre-empt that challenge. And of course it is true that we can look at a given object in different ways by shifting our mindset.

    But the gynecologist example is a misleading one. For the analogy to be a relevant one, this sexual difficulty would need to arise specifically because the gynecologist knows, as part of his work, something which makes sexual relations with his wife unwise. In other words, the real information afforded him by his vocation would need to provide rational grounds for a particular choice.

    But barring health problems (and with the understanding that I am here taking far too seriously something intended as an off-hand joke) this is not the case for most married gynecologists. For them the problem, if they have one, is an irrational one: How to get over the purely emotional sense of having taken his work home with him, or of a lack of novelty, or some such thing.

    Now the significance of a religious text is that it calls us to make certain choices. And there is no option to permanently put off the choice, because death comes for all: These are areas in which “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

    So the choice is inevitable, and the options are mutually exclusive, and by selecting one option or the other one changes the remainder of one’s life for good or ill.

    Were it not for this, Biblical studies would be much like studies in ancient Nordic languages — interesting for a scholar or two but irrelevant to most of humanity.

    Biblical studies are of broader interest precisely because in making the choice to become a Catholic or a Baptist or an atheist knowing whether (a.) the Biblical texts are, or aren’t, reliable expressions of witnesses to unusual events and personages, and (b.) if so, what message their authors really intended to convey is important data. It is, to borrow a military term, “actionable intel.”

    The outcome of one’s scholarly investigation — assuming it is an honest seeking of the facts and not an attempt to curry favor with the religious or the non-religious by publishing results crafted to draw book sales from one group or the other — will necessarily impact one’s personal decision.

    How then can the two realms be kept entirely separate? They cannot.

    I do not mean, here, that good scholarship is impossible. I believe that a man may produce good scholarship if he “holds firm to the end” in pursuing the facts, in vicious disregard of any qualms about his conclusions compelling him to alter his life or philosophy in uncomfortable ways. (Dr. Scott Hahn’s biography comes to mind.)

    But once he is persuaded, to whatever religious view (including atheism for convenience as a “religious view”), what then? Can he still produce good scholarship, after he commits himself to a partisan view, Dr. Berger?

    Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps you think it depends very much on which partisan view he embraces!

    But all this demonstrates, I think, how wrong it is to think of “holism” in religious matters as a “fallacy.” It simply isn’t. There are always many views about any topic — until one knows the facts.

    After that, for sane men, there’s only one.

  • Pingback: Guidelines for Gynecologists and Biblical Scholars | Religion and … « 1 « Church Leadership()

  • Pingback: » Guidelines for Gynecologists and Biblical Scholars | Religion and …()

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2015 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service