Does the Bible Have a Place in the Academic Discussion of Theology?

For my write-up today on Ari Goldman’s The Search for God at Harvard, my focus will be on the role of the Bible in theology, or the authority of the Bible, or bringing the Bible into academic theological discussions.  Something along those lines.

I’ll start this post with a story that Goldman tells on pages 175-176.  Goldman is talking about a Christian Scientist named Fran who attended Harvard Divinity School the same time that he did.  Fran came to the Div School because she thought that it was a tolerant, friendly place when she visited as a Brandeis student doing research.  But, as Goldman narrates, in a class called “Contemporary Theology”, “she found that there was little tolerance for one way of thinking” (page 175).  There was a debate in the class about whether or not there is life after death.  Fran said, “There is proof from John, Chapter 11, where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.”  There were snickers in the class in response to her comment, and the discussion proceeded as if Fran’s point had not even been made.  On page 176, Goldman says that “In certain academic circles, especially at Harvard Divinity School, the Bible can be picked apart, examined, debated and condemned but never, never accepted at face value as historic fact.”

One might be tempted to think that the reaction to Fran’s comment stemmed from a village atheist notion that we cannot appeal to the Bible as an authority on such issues as life after death, for there is no proof that the Bible is true.  And maybe some of the students who snickered at her comment did so out of that kind of sentiment.  But, in my experience, it’s not exactly the case that, in places such as Harvard Divinity School, the Bible is considered to be completely off the table in discussions of such issues as life after death, ethics, politics, or other issues.  It’s just that Fran appealed to the Bible in the wrong way (in the eyes of many of her classmates), in a proof-texting, fundamentalist sort of manner. 

If we were to dismiss a source that has no proof for its authority (such as the Bible) from a discussion about whether or not there is life after death, what would be an acceptable source that could guide people in such a discussion?  I mean, as far as I know, there is not exactly any solid evidence that there is life after death.  I wonder this when it comes to the academic study of theology in general: what is the evidence for theological scenarios or claims about God?  If we can’t appeal to the Bible because there’s no proof for it, then how can we claim anything about God, since there’s no solid proof that God even exists, let alone that God is a certain way or has specific intentions? 

I can speculate about what would have been acceptable comments in that classroom discussion on life after death: sophisticated analyses of the mind-body problem (i.e., do we have a soul that can exist apart from the body, or do our thoughts and consciousness stem solely from our physical brains?), and looking at how world religions handle life after death.  I can picture people nodding contemplatively as a soft-spoken lady talks about Native American belief in life after death.  I can also envision people nodding as a student discusses Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ experiences with the beyond, even though they’d probably snicker if someone mentioned the cable TV documentaries on ghosts!

As far as the Bible is concerned, perhaps it could be mentioned in a Harvard Divinity School classroom without being snickered at, but one would have to manifest consciousness of the Bible’s diversity and interaction with the historical times in which its writings were composed.  Could the Bible have authority, even in a Harvard Divinity School classroom?  I think so, but it wouldn’t be the same sort of authority that fundamentalists believe in: the Bible is true because God spoke or inspired all of it.  Rather, the authority would be rooted in community acceptance of and grappling with the biblical writings or the ideas within them, or personal experience of the transcendent, or the Bible containing thought-provoking ideas.  On pages 134-135, Goldman talks about how his Jewish professor, Louis Jacobs, was observant even though he accepted scholarly constructions that dismissed the divine revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai.  According to Goldman, Jacobs rooted the authority of Jewish law, not in Sinai, but in “‘the historical experiences of the Jewish people,’ which in itself, he writes, is a type of revelation.”  Jacobs wrote that “There has to be a different concept of revelation from that which obtained before the rise of critical scholarship”.

Would an HDS discussion on life after death actually go anywhere in terms of answering questions?  I doubt that it would in the same way that such would occur in a discussion in a small group fundamentalist Bible study: a person cites a proof-text, and everyone is satisfied (though, in conservative Christian Bible study groups where there are seminarians, you’d probably get more nuance and more issues getting unresolved by the end of the study).  But, in an HDS discussion, you’d hear a variety of opinions, and you’d probably walk out with a broad perspective about how people have addressed the topic of life after death.

I have to say, though, that I rarely heard any discussions about life after death when I was at Harvard Divinity School, but I am speculating, based on my impression of how the Bible and theology were treated by students and professors when I was there.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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