Thursday, 11 September 2008

Canon and the "history of religion"

I've posted a number of times on the limits of historical criticism on its own terms. The division between "historical" and "theological" exegesis is ultimately useless because the category "historical" is ideologically loaded from the outset (as I have argued in a series of posts here)As such, the question posed by Childs at the end of the following citation is not only spot on, it should be registered by all involved in the humanities who see it as their task to uncover the depths of what it means to be human:

(Taken from Childs, "The Canon in Recent Biblical Studies," in Canon and Biblical Interpretation, 33-57; here, 37-38):

Another characteristic feature of the modern approach to canon within the English-speaking has been the shift from its primarily theological perspective to the dominance of the history-of-religion categories. From this point of view there are no privileged canonical texts, but all texts are treated equally as potential sources regardless of later canonical or non-canonical status.
... Since it was thought by some that the Jewish sources including Qumran had been mishandled and that many of the earlier debates revealed Christian theological biases, much attention was given in describing the historical development of the canonical process in a neutral, scientific terminology of religious phenomenology. ...

In 1986, J.J. Collins seemed to speak for a larger group in declaring: 'the decline (of Biblical Theology) is evident in the fact that an increasing number of scholars no longer regard theology as the ultimate focus of biblical studies or even as a necessary dimension of those studies at all.' Similarly, Philip Davies spoke of canon formation as a 'cultural phenomenon' ... ' a natural process' in any literate society. The formation of a canon is an exercise of power by a privileged class, defining class values by controlling the politics of reading. Finally, J. Blenkinsopp described canon as the resolution of ideological conflicts, the imposition of an ideology or orthodoxy by force or compromise.

One can only wonder whether such history-of-religions categories will prove more objective and unbiased than the theological ones being replaced. Can such an approach generate enough empathy for interpreting religious texts where the perspective is often radically alien to the entire Western mentality?

(emphasis mine)

3 comments:

John C. Poirier said...

Is "the category 'historical'" really "ideologically loaded", as you say, or does not your series of posts simply purport to show that the *task* of historical investigation is ideologically freighted? There's a big difference--the fact that historical investigation is never 100% objective does not logically entail any delegitimizing of having objective historical investigation as our goal.

So if Childs thinks he has a logical case against "historical" exegesis, what is it?

Phil Sumpter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Sumpter said...

I'm glad you're still reading my posts, John!

Whenever anyone says that anything is ideologically loaded they are refering to the human perception of the thing and not the thing in itself. No one doubts that things happened in the past independent of human perception. Childs' problem is with the way that the "historical" has been perceived in the secular acadamy, a perception in which the eschatological inbreaking of another dimension of reality and time is ruled out of court before one starts one's analysis. Childs is not having a dig at "historical" exegesis. His own work fully embodies it (see my forthcoming post tomorrow, along with my examples of canonical exegesis). In his other work he makes clear that he is redifing what history is (especially in his amazing essay here). This has been subject of my posts on Paul Minear over the past few weeks, who expresses this this most clearly. I think his book would provide interesting reading for you, John. I don't think the word "canonical" or "narrative" comes up at all.