What Kind of Science?

Daniel Kirk has a post up over at Storied Theology about what Biblical Studies is. For which I have great sympathy, and yet with which I'm going to quibble while trying to stay on the same side of the point. In part, his post is a response to complaints that Biblical Studies "masquerades as a science." That, essentially, it has put on a lab coat in order to justify its continued presence in the university. The same could be (and has been) said of Theology as a discipline. And, in fact, we've tried harder at it, and with more success! Which is among the reasons that more universities have Religious Studies programs than Bible and Theology programs. Certainly not the major reason—the universities are simply adapting to a world in which Christianity is resuming its place among others. But it is certainly also true that Christian intellectual pursuits have been sublimated into the Religious Studies context in order to keep their lab coats as something other than pretense. Unnecessary, but true.

Now, Christianity has no naturally superior claim in the university, or in the world. And it is right that the intellectual pursuits of Christianity should take their places in parallel with the intellectual pursuits of other religions. Or, perhaps better, that the intellectual pursuits of other religions should take their places alongside specifically Christian theology and sacred text study. I have every interest in seeing Muslim studies (which is not identical with "Islamic Studies" in the West) take their place alongside Jewish studies and Christian studies, along with Buddhist studies, and Hindu studies, and as many other faculties as can be assembled, in the university setting. And in solid distinction from "Religious Studies" as social anthropology of religion, just as we commonly distinguish between the disciplines of theology and philosophy of religion. And there is no reason that these disciplines in their particularities should not or cannot become properly resident and contributing members of the university pursuit of human knowledge in their own rights. No reason, in other words, that the intellectual pursuits proper to specific religions and their cultures are in any way inferior as pursuits of knowledge in contribution to the human project that the university is.

And, of course, it goes without saying that there's a definite place in the university for social anthropology applied to the phenomena of religion, just as there is for philosophy applied to the phenomena of religion. And the scholar in a religious tradition has as much use for these as they do for scholarship within the religious traditions. Closer to home, I can't do my work properly in a world without them. But I'm not going to pretend that these sciences are what I do, or what any practitioner of the intellectual pursuits of a religion does. Theology is not properly either social anthropology or philosophy, nor is Biblical Studies. This does not make these pursuits not sciences, any more than does the fact that they are not properly physics or biology.

But if we're not going to renounce the claim so quickly as utter pretense—and as a Barthian I refuse to renounce it on anyone else's terms but my own—what kind of sciences are they, then?

Part of the problem with the claim that Biblical Studies and Theology aren't proper sciences is that we also have an outdated notion of what a science is. Especially under such post-Enlightenment concepts of "sciences" as rule out religion (except as a human social phenomenon), we do take to masquerading as other things in order to conform to the externally-imposed definitions of what an acceptable science is. But there is no reason that a definition of science cannot be found which is adequate to describing the tasks of the various natural and human sciences, and also to the intellectual endeavors by which human creatures deal with the divinities to whom they variously belong. One which may better such pursuits without othering them, in fact.

Any claimed methodological inadequacies of Biblical Studies and Theology as practiced can certainly be remedied, and so these present no true obstacle. Both are certainly quests for knowledge, and both are determined by the nature of their objects, in ways that change according to the understandings of the times. But they are not any other sciences than what they are. They are interpretive sciences, and they make use of descriptive sciences, but always by connection to their objects and communities of inquiry.

Now, Dr. Kirk also makes the claim that Biblical Studies isn't a science, and he does it for its own sake. I can respect that. He says that
anyone who still speaks or acts in this way has simply not caught up to the past 40-70 years of biblical studies. If the impression someone has of biblical studies is that it is a science, I can only say that one’s instructors have not been continuing to read since the time they were in seminary. And, of course, that one is not up to speed on the discipline that is being critiqued.
And again,
Critical study of the Bible arose at the same time people were claiming that theology is a science. Why? Because it was becoming increasingly clear that dogmatic commitments were hindering our ability to interpret the Bible.
I agree on the last bit, especially as a theologian. Theology cannot be permitted to determine Bible. There is every justification for Bible and Theology being separate and distinct disciplines. The rise of critical exegetical scholarship in independence from theology is essential even when not threatened by an apologetic orthodoxy, because free scriptural interpretation must precede and intervene at all points in theology. We cannot intervene in our own source material without very quickly becoming circular and self-referential. The Bible must mean and say things that we do not, or there can be no correcting theology.

And I can see why, out of such a situation, it might be undesirable to claim for critical exegetical scholarship the place within the domain of the sciences that theology has so often fought for. Bible scholars do work that is far more like the Humanities than the Sciences in the university schema. And yet I observe in Dr. Kirk's positive claims an unwillingness to reside there.
Biblical studies at its best is simultaneously doing two things:

(1) Positively, it is continuing to keep the Bible as a book to God’s people located in particular times and places in front of the church. This means both: reading it as a book written for the people of God (there is a theological dimension and it calls forth certain praxis) and that it was written in the past to people in different situations.

(2) Negatively, it serves as a gadfly, showing the church where due to cultural, philosophical, and theological blinders, it has misconstrued the words in which it thinks it finds its validation.
Biblical scholarship is not yet an art; there remains in it too much evidentiary responsibility. It is not about creativity and novelty. It is not about freedom, and it is not a space in which opinion is a free matter. The arts are certainly not without their criteria, their quantitative and qualitative measures and judgments, but they do not do what is claimed here. Biblical scholarship has too much responsibility for investigating and speaking and proving and upholding truth, for the sake of the church as a practical realm in which this material is used. An art may perform these functions, as we say that Art does when it holds a mirror to reality, especially when it does so critically. Especially when it serves as a gadfly. Which is to say that arts and sciences may do the same things, engage in the same functions.

But if Biblical studies, at its best, is responsible for maintaining the evidentiary ground on which the church relies for its proclamation and to which it is responsible as witness to revelation—and especially for doing so in a manner that constantly reminds the church of the precise nature of these writings in their particular and distinct contexts, authorships, and readerships—then I have to claim that it is a science. That it is about the methodical pursuit of knowledge, and the expansion and updating of knowledge over time, whatever its methodologies may be. It is a science done by people who themselves rely on it, for others who also rely on its results. It is a science with moral responsibility for producing good results, because it is a science whose results will be used by others—even if they are used as physicists use mathematics, to the persistent vexation of mathematicians. It may be a particular kind of science, but there is nothing about it which disqualifies it from being a science, and no reason I can see to disclaim that status, rather than simply qualify it.

Now, off to the side, I have to acknowledge that the same cannot properly be said of literary studies, in terms of responsibility, unless we consider their responsibility to the university itself. But it could well be said of them in terms of the methodical pursuit of knowledge, and the expansion and updating of knowledge over time. Perhaps there is some blame to be had in the trivialization of literature? Of hermeneutics and interpretation as arts but not also sciences? Again, an area in which there is historic sentiment against the scientization of the pursuit of knowledge, but a tacit embrace nonetheless.

Now, I'll own up to the fact that I'm talking about sciences like someone educated in the sciences, but from outside of a disciplinary paradigm. The folks Dr. Kirk is responding to are making claims that have much more to do with the popular perspective of the authority of science. But that's exactly the reason I refuse to relinquish the claim. Just because someone else has a false idea of what a science is, does not change what science is or how it is done. But I'm not going to go further than that, for a very good reason: there are just some coals that I refuse to carry to Newcastle. Science education has always seemed to me to do a perfectly decent job of explaining the very real burden of proof for validatable scientific claims. And you can find science educators in every city and town of this country. Let them do their jobs, and I will do mine.

Edit: Alright, that last bit, and some in the middle, was a bit too bitchy even for me. I softened it already last night, and I've tried to do better in the following post.


Popular Posts