(Con)Texts in Religious Scholarship

Excellent article by Jon Levenson, Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, on texts in contexts.

Levenson beings by retelling how he was trained in the classical historical-critical method of Biblical studies, particularly the Albright school of archaeology.  [Personal sidenote: one of my Hebrew Bible professors (Jim Lindenberger) was also an Albright student].

Levenson describes this method:

The goal was to place the Hebrew Bible in its historical context, and we could do that only if we could reconstruct the cultural world in which its many documents were written—an arduous task but one that bore, and continues to bear, much good fruit.

But Levenson already recognizes a problem with this method (for all the admitted good it has done):

Almost from the beginning, though, I felt there was a certain problem with this. What the biblical texts meant in the world of their authors is in considerable tension with what they mean today—including what they mean personally to the professors and students who devote themselves to that historical task. But the very method rendered that question of what they mean today one that could not be asked. It belonged somewhere else, to the theologians, for example, or to the preachers. Of course, when the theologians or preachers interpreted the book in light of ongoing tradition and contemporary experience, the historical-critical scholars were none too reluctant to accuse them of taking the Bible out of context.

Levenson discusses (and hints at) the rife possibility of secularization in this process.  That is, everyone is going to have an interpretive tradition (religious or otherwise), but if they can achieve this knowledge through simply the academic “neutral” viewpoint, then why is the religion necessary?  The historical method growing largely out of Protestant exegesis de-emphasized tradition (which was considered too Catholic)–Levenson critiques this vivew from a Rabbnic Jewish perspective and relates it interestingly to Catholic views of tradition.  I would call this sense of getting to the original context (following Habermas) neo-positivism–especially when related to the fields of archaeology, historicism:  i.e. whatever is the case is what is right.  Neo-positivism’s main flaw in Habermas’ mind is that it is a non-liberating praxis.  And I think this is what Levenson is getting at as well.  It can not get us to the question of how do I live?  How do I find truth?  In Luther’s question:  How do I find a Loving God?

When applied more to hermeneutics (and less to archaeology or history), this notion of entering the mind of the original readers derives from the Romantic tradition (also Protestant) of Schleiermacher and later Dilthey. i.e. Text without (our contemporary) context.  The only con-text given priority is the ancient one.  But of course it is our reconstruction of the ancient context.  [For a more detailed discussion of this point, here.]

In other words, this whole system Levenson describes is a product of the modern wave.  In that sense I would say it is in a sense of a kind of faith.  I wouldn’t make a sharp distinction between secularism and faith (i.e. religion) because in the manner just mentioned, I think secularism is a faith (or worldview).

A faith in the scientific method, a faith in reason, human progress in knowledge, combined in these religious scholarship with a notion that the original setting has some quasi-mystical/revelatory power than will simply be unleashed when we return to it.

That faith has been largely critiqued and it’s promise of a final fulfillment/enlightenment has been shown to be false (true but partial/negated but preserved).  What replaces this outmoded vision, is one Levenson describes as brining our own context into the story.  This is essentially a postmodern turn (a healthy one in this case I would say but one that certainly has its own pitfalls and blindspots).

Levenson makes a particularly brilliant point here imo:

Personally, I believe that the danger of projecting the forms of one’s own religious life onto the ancient data, though real, is only half the story. The other half is the impoverished religious imagination that so easily results when those who study the religious literature are themselves a-religious. Secularity does not guarantee objectivity; sometimes it can impede it.

That double standard is a particularly nasty one in the context of academia.

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More on Gadamer

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Hermeneutics:

Human being, Gadamer argues, is a being in language. It is through language that the world is opened up for us. We learn to know the world by learning to master a language. Hence we cannot really understand ourselves unless we understand ourselves as situated in a linguistically mediated, historical culture. Language is our second nature

This has consequences for our understanding of art, culture, and historical texts—i.e., on the subject area of the human sciences. Being a part of our own tradition, historical works do not primarily present themselves to us as neutral and value-free objects of scientific investigation. They are part of the horizon in which we live and through which our world-view gets shaped. We are, in other words, formed by these great works before we get the chance to approach them with an objectivizing gaze.

Gadamer argues that we never know a historical work as it originally appeared to its contemporaries. We have no access to its original context of production or to the intentions of its author. Tradition is always alive. It is not passive and stifling, but productive and in constant development. Trying, as the earlier hermeneuticians did, to locate the (scientific) value of the humanities in their capacity for objective reconstruction is bound to be a wasted effort. The past is handed over to us through the complex and ever-changing fabric of interpretations, which gets richer and more complex as decades and centuries pass. History, as Gadamer puts it, is always effective history. This, however, is not a deficiency. It is, rather, a unique possibility, a possibility that involves the particular kind of truth-claim that Gadamer ascribes to the human sciences: the truth of self-understanding.

This is something of what I was trying to get across in my post on the Jesus of History and the Holon of Christ arguing that the Historical Jesus is another kind of Christ figure, another figure of faith.  I didn’t have Gadamer’s precise philosophical language at the time, so the piece suffers in that regard.

More after the break, er breaking this down…. (more…)