We've just emerged from that exciting time of year when scholars in biblical and religious studies await word on whether their presentation proposals have been accepted by the sessions of the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion.
Those in the SBL whose proposals are accepted will have found this blurb included in the congratulatory emails that they receive:
Please note that, by submitting a paper proposal or accepting a role in any affiliate organization or program unit session at the Annual or International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, you agree to participate in an open academic discussion guided by a common standard of scholarly discourse that engages your subject through critical inquiry and investigation.
It hardly looks like something to get excited about, unless you see it as one stage in a current unfolding controversy in the field and in the SBL. If you do, then you will know why one scholar of my acquaintance refers to it as "the Hendel clause."
Ron Hendel, in the July/Aug 2010 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, wrote an opinion piece "Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies." There, he criticized the SBL for blurring the distinction between critical (or "secular") biblical study and faith-based biblical study. Examples included the publishing in RBL of book reviews that adopt a non-neutral stance on confessional or denominational reading of the Bible, and having sessions at the SBL Annual Meeting that turn out to presuppose a confessional stance or that proselytize.
The SBL's formal response to Hendel's BAR article refuted the more bombastic and inferential elements of Hendel's opinion piece, without directly addressing the basic question raised: What is the role, in the SBL, of claims whose arguments grant methodological privilege to sectarian dogma or private revelation?
[Update: I do find an email sent to SBL meembers by John Kutsko, as executive director of SBL, in August 2010, in which the substance of Hendel's concerns are addressed more directly. I should add that there, John writes that an SBL initiative to redraft program unit guidelines regarding critical inquiry preceded Hendel's piece.]
Hendel went on to write a follow-up rebutting the SBL's response along with a responsive piece by James Crossley and its comment thread. The matter was well discussed in the blogosphere (search for "Farewell to SBL" in your favorite search engine for more results). Naturally, the affair drew out the sadly predictable proportion of commenters insisting (irrelevantly) that people of faith can do biblical studies too! (a claim not disputed by Hendel and not germane to his opinion piece).
The SBL "blurb"
Against this background, I judge that the new SBL "blurb" cuts through the noise gets things exactly right: Hendel's piece was not about atheism, or about cutting people of faith out of biblical studies. It is not about what people are or are not at all (people of faith, or evangelical, or atheist, or anything). It is about what people do or do not in their scholarship.
Critical Biblical Scholarship: If your argument consists entirely of publicly available evidence and an explicit line of reasoning, subject to critique if found to be logically unsound (for example, depending on premises not demonstrable or on logical fallacies), then what you are doing is open and critical—sometimes called "secular"—biblical scholarship. This is scholarship to which all persons may contribute, regardless of their faith commitments.
Confessional Biblical Theology: If your argument grants methodological place to sectarian dogma or private revelation, then what you are doing is some form of confessional biblical theology. This can be an excellent theological discipline, and in many forms presupposes, and rigorously participates in, the results of critical biblical scholarship. It can be "critical" according to its standards and within the rules of its own game. Nonetheless, this is "in-house" scholarship, conducted in a closed circle of those who assent to the dogma or revelation presupposed in the argument.
Let's look at that SBL "blurb" again, in this light:
Please note that, by submitting a paper proposal or accepting a role in any affiliate organization or program unit session at the Annual or International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, you agree to participate in an open academic discussion guided by a common standard of scholarly discourse that engages your subject through critical inquiry and investigation. (emphases mine)
The substance of Hendel's criticism is, as far as I can see, addressed. At the same time, this excludes nobody in terms of who they are or what they believe. It does restrict SBL sessions to a particular set of activities: open discussion (not limited to a closed circle) guided by a common standard of discourse (not a standard shaped by private confessional claims), involving critical inquiry (nobody's claims are "off limits," by special pleading of privately-held commitments, to evidentiary and logical testing).
What are your own thoughts on the new SBL "blurb"? Does it address the problems described by Hendel? Does it create new problems? What ancillary issues, if any, continue to haunt the background?
["Farewell to SBL" Revisited: Biblical Studies, Faith, and the New "Blurb" was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 20121/04/12. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]