More on “Labels” and Scholarship
Personally, I have little time for labelling scholars (e.g., “liberal,” “conservative,” etc.). The only question for me is what someone is saying and the adequacy of their basis for saying it. I hold the view that you should have to read a scholar’s work before you make up your mind about it. How about that for radical!
But I know that lots of other folk, including lots of other scholars, seek to label everybody, and then use such labels through which to read/hear what someone says. So, e.g., they’ll judge a book by its publisher, or by the institutional base of the author. In the USA especially, this seems to be a big activity. Nothing compares, of course, to the stupidly polarized political situation (Fox News has a lot to answer for when the last judgement takes place!). But even sober scholars (who should know better) can be guilty of trying to peg other scholars and label them, often thereby determining in advance what to make of what these labelled scholars have to say.
Now it’s true that some people operate as activists of this or that “cause” or camp. E.g., there are those who see themselves as defenders of a “conservative” position in NT studies, actively policing the lines to ensure that their notion of proper views are maintained, and quick to identify those not “conservative” in order to marginalize what they say/write. Likewise, there are equally militant exponents of “liberal” positions who do similar things. These folk actively fly a given flag, and operate as supporters of a given political stance in scholarship. That they do so openly makes it better, actually, than the covert labelling often practiced by some others.
But to my mind, for scholarship to mean anything, the only thing that counts is what a given scholar says/writes, and how well based it is: How well it takes account of all relevant evidence, how soundly it is reasoned, how well it engages the positions of others, etc. Of course, the values, and even the personal qualities, of a given scholar may well shape what she/he writes. Granted, there is no truly “unconcerned objectivity” in a subject as “hot” as the NT/Christian Origins. But we can aim to be fair, honest with the data, transparent in how we work it.
I’ve occasionally been contacted asking if I’m “conservative” or “liberal” or “evangelical,” which actually pleases me. For it suggests that maybe what I’ve written isn’t so easily labelled. When asked, I may reply that I’m all those, and more, if I’m allowed to define what the terms mean. But, really, I’m just a scholar of Christian Origins, seeking to understand what I regard as a fascinating phenomenon: the origins and emergence of what became “Christianity”. I’m sure I’ve got things to learn still (though I’ve been at it for nearly fifty years, as student and scholar), but I don’t know that I’m trying to fly some fleet flag or advance some party cause. I’m just trying to do the best work I can, within my real limitations. And I just want to assess what others do as best I can in terms of the same criteria by which I hope to be judged.
So, that’s the only label I think I would own.