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.
In uncovering the “original” intended meaning of the biblical texts, it reveals them to be documents whose true meaning is completely at odds with their familiar historical uses and whose original context was so radically different from our own as to make application seem nearly impossible. The classical instance here is Johannes Weiss’s Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, where he concludes that the liberal Protestant use of the “kingdom of God” theme is completely wrong and that the term in its original, thoroughly apocalyptic meaning is basically unusable for contemporary life. Yet the pattern repeats itself for every attempt at a contemporary application, whether that attempt happened yesterday or a thousand years ago — in each case, the conclusions drawn are somehow illegitimate.
The basis of this strategy is a fundamentally Protestant view of scriptural authority. Viewing the Bible as the “source” of Christianity — itself a weirdly anachronistic view of how Christianity developed — it goes on to show that the church, the supposed guardian of the Bible, has relentlessly failed to apprehend its true meaning. The only way to gain access to that meaning is through membership in the new magisterium of biblical studies, and that carries with it the price of forever abstaining from any attempt to apply the Bible to public life. The only true meaning of the Bible is the “secular,” historical meaning of its component parts, which must be left in the past in the service of the modern secular public space.
I know that biblical studies has in many ways moved beyond this solely negative view of the tradition — many people working in Hebrew Bible also work with rabbinic traditions and many people getting PhDs in New Testament are effectively doing all their work on early patristics. Yet the policing and deactivating impulses are still in place. For instance, I heard an SBL paper in which the presenter detailed the ways in which public figures routinely misused biblical passages. In the Q&A, I asked her if the answer was for public figures to use the Bible more accurately, and she replied that the answer was actually for them to stop using it altogether. At the time, that struck me as a strange answer for someone who was devoting her career to studying and teaching about the Bible, but that’s the basic impulse of the discipline.
I won’t claim to have a definitive answer here, but this view does call into question several common stances toward biblical studies. First of all, theologians are constantly criticized for failing to take historical studies seriously enough — but how can the theologian truly work with a “deactivated” Bible?
Secondly, it seems clear that many in higher ed view biblical studies as more “basic” or essential to a religious studies curriculum than the history of Judaism or Christianity. Yet it is only through the history of Judaism and Christianity that the Bible has had any concrete effect, including in the present day. Does it really aid understanding for an undergrad’s primary lesson about the biblical religions to be that they have got their founding documents “wrong”? Isn’t the study of the Talmud or of Augustine much more relevant to understanding Judaism or Christianity than a historical-critical study of the sources of the Torah or an investigation of the Q source?