Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Myth of Secular Objectivity

Alan Bandy has been conducting a series of interviews with well known biblical scholars on his increasingly popular website. In the most recent interview, Andreas Köstenberger says, “I think it is ironic that the people you call ‘secular’ biblical scholars look askance at ‘faith-driven’ scholars and accuse them of bias. In my view, it is the other way around…” Köstenberger here sounds a theme that runs throughout the various interviews, namely, that scholars who criticize work done from the perspective of faith as unbiased are oftentimes no less objective themselves.

Craig Evans writes:

“[S]ecular scholars are themselves often guided by personal beliefs and agenda that interfere with critical thinking, just as surely as in the case of Christians (or Jews, or Muslims, etc.). Some of the silliest ‘left-wing fundamentalism’ that I have ever encountered comes from former fundamentalists, who have given up faith and now have an ax to grind. In their minds skepticism becomes criticism. But skepticism is often no more critical or informed than naive conservatism."
(I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Evans in Philadelphia last year. He emphasized this same point in our conversation.)

Mark Goodacre also writes:

“I think that there is sometimes a missionary zeal about that kind of secular perspective that runs the risk of becoming unscholarly. I tend to think of that as an equal danger to an uncritical conservative perspective and it illustrates the importance of the scholarly task as a communal task, a democratic discipline, in which -- to repeat -- the key things are publicly available evidence and publicly coherent arguments.”
What is noteworthy to me is that it seems that the only scholar who didn’t talk about the role personal bias plays in his scholarship was James Crossley, who identifies himself as a “secular” scholar.

Dr. Crossley has vigorously defended himself over at his blog. I feel I should offer an apology here. Certainly Dr. Crossley is clear that secular scholarship is not without its own biases, which I think I implied in my comments. Although he doesn't talk about the role his own specific biases play in his work, he is very clear that faith plays an important role in scholarship and that "secular" scholarship has its own issues to confront. Clearly he does not equate secular scholarship with pure objectivity. Dr. Crossley stated:

Personal faith has an important role to play in scholarship as does just about any perspective... I often find that a desire to show the historicity of this or that gospel passage can prove particularly useful and an important counter to the more ‘radical’ views.

I don’t think a secular approach is inherently superior to any other approach but like evangelical perspectives it offers new ways of looking at the history and the texts. It too would offer new questions which would (hopefully) have to be answered. My own particular hope is that more and more secular types could provoke differing ways of looking at history such as a more causal based explanation for the emergence of Christianity rather than explanations grounded in description or history of ideas."

Read Dr. Crossley's full explanation of his views here.

I hope Dr. Crossley will accept my apology and recognize that I in no way mean him any ill-will. I certainly was not implying that he is one of those scholars with an ax to grind that Evans talks about. I deeply regret making the comments I made above. I am extremely grateful that he has contributed to Bandy's website and greatly appreciate his work and his willingness to collaborate with scholars with a faith perspective. I especially look forward to reading the book he is about to publish with Michael Bird.


Anonymous said...

maybe a secular scholar doesn't have to be a reformed fundamentalist or even have a particular axe to grind. Maybe a secular scholar could just be an interested happy agnostic.

James Crossley said...

No apology required Michael, absolutely none at all. I never thought any ill-will was implied. It is an interesting question you raise on what specifically are my own specific biases. Presently it is a desire to understand the socio-economic reasons which gave rise to earliest Christianity. That has its own agenda I know but I don't have a problem with agendas (hence I have no problem with faith based approaches in themselves) and think they have their own contributions to make. On previous work I'm not sure what my biases were other than a whole mix of social, historical and psychological issues which I haven't been able to pin down. I think that is one of the main reasons why I wasn't able to precisely say what my biases were. It is not so easy to pin down as an explicit agenda which I do have now. I'm not sure if that makes sense but it is a fairly random collection of thoughts which might just!