Where the humanities come from

In my previous post, I claimed that “the humanities are good for contextualizing and interpreting texts and other text-like human artifacts, particularly artifacts that are regarded as especially authoritative or masterful and that belong to an identifiable intellectual or artistic tradition.” Clearly people have been engaging in activities of this type in a variety of settings for as far back as we have written records. Yet I want to suggest that there is a common root or model for most if not all of the humanities disciplines as academic discourses, a kind of Ur-discipline: namely, modern biblical scholarship as it existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

(Now before anyone freaks out, I don’t mean to say that humanities disciplines are “secretly religious” in any simplistic way — I’m referring to modern biblical scholarship specifically as a secular discipline. Nor do I mean to say anything about contemporary biblical scholarship, which has changed a lot since the period I’m highlighting.)

The primary goal of modern biblical scholarship during its classical period was to undermine and disqualify traditional theological claims based on Scripture as corruptions of their true historical meaning. Read the rest of this entry »

Gender and the Nephilim

Tony Baker writes the following in his ill-considered post on gender:

Let me attempt to bring my gender constructions out of the subflooring of the argument and into the proper living space. The fall narratives, from Eden to Babel to the origin of the Nephilim, are about the disorder than comes of too much taking. In the latter case, the Sons of God find the daughters of men desirable, and “take” them as wives (Gen 6). The “Sons” are pure activity here, and the “daughters” are so passive that the text implies a Sabine-like rape.

There is here, as in my Prometheus reading, an association of boundary transgression and gender. Masculinity is associated with active violating of “kinds,” and the feminine is a pure receiving. The important thing to notice, though, is that this is precisely what invokes God’s displeasure, and becomes the set-up for the flood cycle. Archetypal gender bifurcation (though not gender itself) belongs only to the fallen form, for Christianity, not to our proto- and eschatological versions. If both woman and creation are “feminized” in the narrative while the earthly and heavenly “sons” are masculinized (Cain, Nimrod, David’s “taking” of Bathsheba), this is a split archetype that belongs to our broken form.

I have written frequently in comments that I find it disturbing that he uses what he regards as a rape scene as the paradigm for masculinity and femininity, which supposedly contains a grain of truth that is revealed through the parallels with the consensual passivity of the Virgin Mary (immediately after the passage I quote). That is a core point that I simply cannot let go — if your account of the meaning of masculinity and femininity is derived from a rape scene, something has gone badly wrong, something that requires not “clarification,” but repentance and conversion.

Yet there are a lot more questions to ask about his use of this passage. Read the rest of this entry »

The appeal of the idiosyncratic

Preparations for teaching have brought me into contact with two new translations: Robert Alter’s rendering of Genesis and Joe Sachs’s version of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Though the underlying texts could not be more different in style and genre, I think that the impulse behind the two translations is similar: to cut through a translation tradition that has impeded understanding, but more than that, has rendered the texts in question boring.

It is a gesture that I find profoundly attractive, a kind of “Protestant principle” of translation. Part of the appeal is probably the individualism of it, which sits well with someone like me, since I flatter myself that I have “charted my own way” without accumulating an approved pedigree. More than that, though, I think the attraction of this kind of radical retranslation is the sense that it’s not just possible to say something new about some of the most commented-upon texts in the Western tradition, but to see them again for the first time.

Genesis, for instance, is obviously one of the most familiar texts in the world to me, and yet Alter’s translation made it feel brand-new. I can’t say I’ve studied Aristotle anywhere near as closely, but the contrast between Sachs’s translation and the jargon-laden near-nonsense I struggled to work through before could not be clearer. I now want to read every translation both authors have done of their respective body of texts — which is especially striking in the case of Sachs, since I’ve previously had no particular interest in Aristotle.

Do others know of similarly iconoclastic translations of other major works?

Biblical studies and radical theology

Over the last couple years, I’ve worked through about half the New Testament in Greek, and in the last week or so, I’ve been working on an article I agreed to do on the resurrection accounts in the NT. In addition, I will be teaching Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis this year, a translation that made Genesis completely new to me.

After all this work with the Bible, it strikes that it’s a real shame that theologians are so hesitant to work with biblical texts. In part, that may be the fault of the biblical studies guild itself, which often acts as a perpetual “wet blanket” when anyone tries to make constructive claims building from the biblical text or even make overly strong claims about the meaning of a given text. Yet I detect in much recent biblical studies work a certain chafing against the disciplinary paradigm: they always get right up to the point where they obviously want to make an interesting theological claim, but they can’t quite let themselves…

On the other side, it seems to me that many orthodox theologians are much more comfortable with the stability of the tradition than with the radical heterogeneity of the Bible that two centuries of critical biblical scholarship have made almost impossible to ignore. It feels safer to just “skip ahead” to the generation of the Apostolic Fathers, where the hierarchy and the sacraments are already reassuringly in place.

This may be changing to some extent, given the recent series of “theological commentaries” on books of the Bible by figures like Jenson and Hauerwas — but I think the real opportunity here is for radical theologians, because they have the freedom necessary to genuinely respond to the critical work of modern biblical studies. They are unconstrained by the need to make sure that the Bible winds up saying basically what we always thought it did (even though it is now clear that that wasn’t the only thing the Bible could have said nor even the most obvious thing it could be construed as saying).

Kant and biblical studies: On deactivation

This week, my philosophy of religion course is reading Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, whose preface anticipates his arguments in Conflict of the Faculties in favor of viewing the “philosopy faculty” (something like the “college of arts and sciences”) as superior to the other faculties (basically professional schools). In specific, he claims that although the philosophical theory of “pure religion” seems narrower than historical religions, it nonetheless has the right to judge and assess them insofar as it is higher and more universal than them. Kant does wind up claiming that Christianity is uniquely in line with the ideal “religion of reason,” but that claim of Christian superiority is undercut insofar as it is Kant qua philosopher who is entitled to make that judgment.

It seems to me that this move on the part of Kant can shed some light on the place of biblical studies in the university. Biblical studies did historically make claims for Christian superiority just as Kant does, and postcolonial critics have pointed out the ways that critical biblical studies wound up underwriting imperialism, etc. Such things don’t happen as much anymore (at least not openly — for that we need to look to theologians like Milbank), but biblical studies does still claim the authority of the Bible and arguably does so in the interests of the liberal state. It does this by claiming biblical authority only to deactivate it.

Broadly speaking, biblical studies sets itself up as a new magisterium regulating the use of the Bible. And ultimately, it turns out that all possible uses of the Bible in contemporary life are somehow wrong, as indeed all previous historical attempts to use the Bible have been.

Read the rest of this entry »


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