On Being a NT Scholar
A few days back I promised to respond soon to a reader’s request that I say something about what it is like being a scholar of NT/Christian Origins. (As I recall, the reader was doing/contemplating graduate studies in the subject.)
The first thing I want to say is that it is now increasingly difficult to generalize, as the field is now very diverse (which is the basis “story” I tell in my article on 20th Century NT studies posted on the “Essays, etc.” section of this blog site). As recently as 50 years ago, the field was dominantly white, male, Protestant (liberal), and European (esp. German-speaking). The dominant method was a “historical-critical” approach, but often combined with an explicit theological interest and agenda (Bultmann, Kasemann, et al. prime examples). Likewise, esp. in North America and the UK, there is now a wide institutional diversity, with scholars in the subject in public and private universities as well as in seminaries and theological colleges. So, it’s hard now to say what life is like, as it will be so diverse.
My own academic service involved an intial appointment at a theological college, but for over 30 years I have been in major university departments in which “theology” and “religion” were engaged in an intellectual context enriched by the colleagues in a variety of other departments and disciplines. And these university departments have also comprised colleagues of widely varying personal stances on religious matters. This I have found highly stimulating.
One of the potentially positive emphases in current intellectual/academic circles is to disclose (and reckon with) one’s own social, political, and relegious/philosophical “location”, on the (correct) premise that even the most rigorous scholarship is done by human beings, shaped by their own personal experience, orientation, psychology, strengths and weaknesses. I.e., all knowledge is “embodied” knowledge, knowledge produced and held by historically-conditioned human beings. (This can produce some counter-productive things, too, e.g., what I call “Oprah scholarship”, i.e., scholars who tell human-interest accounts of themselves as a way of getting attention for themselves and their books. This obviously works, but I find it a bit tawdry. )
As I have been shaped in the field, being a scholar in NT/Christian Origins involves serious intellectual commitments (including rigorous self-criticism of assumptions, etc.), the hard work of building up skills (e.g., languages), knowledge (including the oceanic body of scholarship in the field), learning to limit one’s confidence to the extent of the evidence and treat one’s views as provisional and subject to correction, and, in particular, a commitment to study carefully and for understanding the views of those with whom one disagrees. It involves serious professional commitments: e.g., to contribute to the field, to engage in respectful scholarship debate and criticism.
Study of the NT can also require a particular intellectual and “spiritual” discipline, regardless of one’s religious stance. For Christians (of whatever stripe) the NT is in some sense a body of scriptures, intended to serve in liturgy and life as shaping one’s pilgrimage. I think we must make a strong conceptual distinction between “God” or the truth, and my perception/understanding of “God” and the truth. (I confess to being a Christian–so take me to the lions!) We can only operate on the basis of our understanding of these matters, but we must operate ready to revise it in the light of scholarly investigation and critique. So, I think that Christian scholars must be able to develop and revise their views, religious as well as academic, without fearing that to find our understanding, e.g., of God, is faulty or untenable means that Christian faith as such is untenable. But serious study of the NT/Christian Origins can also productively (re)shape and even inspire one’s religious faith, both intellectually and in praxis.
Scholars of other stances face very similar responsibilities. So, e.g., my Jewish colleagues who study the early Christian texts have to learn to overcome traditional Jewish religious repugnance at all they represent, and engage their core religious ideas (e.g., Jesus’ divine significance) with intellectual (and even “spiritual”) discipline, seeking to understand appreciatively ideas that they may well feel unable to accept.
And, of course, our friends who think themselves “beyond all that” when it comes to religious faith are no less particularized and shaped by their experiences, prejudices, and formation. So, if they wish to practice good scholarly work in the field, they too have to develop a similar intensity of self-criticism and disciplined inquiry.