Rejoicing before Him at all times, Rejoicing in His inhabited world, Finding delight with mankind. (the voice of Wisdom from Proverbs 8:30-31 NJPS)Sometimes I wonder whether, in our drive to be taken seriously in an academic world that is frequently hostile towards Christianity, we have sold out: whether we have made compromises we cannot afford to make. I don't mean backpedaling over specific issues such as the Virgin Birth or the reality of miracles, though these certainly play a part, or again over such particulars as the authorship of the gospels. I think we have made a mistake on a far more basic level: the choice of playing fields. If we are to take our own studies seriously, then we need to re-examine the nature of scholarship itself.
The Wisdom literature of the Scriptures does not consider wisdom to be emotionless or detached. If we are to do justice to God of whom we think, we must reconsider whether detachment is appropriate. In much of contemporary scholarship, objectivity’s detachment is considered to be not only the accepted method and approach, but also the only acceptable tone for any conclusion. This required detachment does not govern whether someone holds a particular view, but limits the allowable attitudes towards the views we hold and towards the material we are discussing. Anything too far from analytical detachment is considered bad practice, evidence of clouded judgment.
Two things are often confused when talking about objectivity. On the one hand, objectivity has meant a clear-headed, sober, unprejudiced view of the facts; on the other hand, objectivity has meant personal detachment at any and all stages of consideration. But what if there are facts that, when viewed with a clear-headed, sober, unprejudiced view, lead to the conclusion that detachment is inadequate and indifference is unacceptable? What if the facts involve us so that detachment becomes a denial of either our humanity or of the meaning of what we are considering? What if there are times when a clear-headed, sober, unprejudiced view of the facts might lead us to celebrate? If no clear-headed view could ever lead to that type of joy, then all our joy in life is without a clear-headed basis. When we apply detachment to the starting point and the method, we avoid prejudice. But when we pre-determine that we will also apply detachment to the conclusion, that is begging the question whether detachment is an acceptable stance in light of the material being considered.
A prior intellectual commitment to detachment precludes the finding that there is something worth celebrating, someone worth praising, that there is such a thing as good news in the sense meant by our faith. This prior commitment to a certain outcome is a form of prejudice – in this case, a prejudice against meaning, passion, and attachment (not to say devotion). The scholarly process as currently conceived establishes in advance only one thing: that we must not claim that our findings matter beyond a certain threshold. The remnants are reduced to intellectual curiosities and denied life-changing force regardless of their content. If we decide in advance that anything even remotely visceral is out of bounds for scholars, then what remains is by definition eviscerated.
There is additional ground I wish to reclaim within the legitimate domain of Christian scholarship. The Christian’s study of God is inseparably bound to meditation, so that a detached analysis of God is not the highest pinnacle of thought about God, but is actually misguided and misleading. Likewise the Christian’s pronouncement of the knowledge of God is inseparably bound to praise, to blessing, and to proclamation of good news. We need to re-envision scholarship to reclaim respectability for this: that good judgment might lead someone to be devoted and passionate without any loss of good judgment.
It becomes the place of the scholar who wants to know God to ponder deeply on the things of God, to see how far clear thought of God leads, and to follow with honesty wherever those thoughts lead. This may lead to breaking scholarly taboos against lament, repentance, praise, or adoration. It should also improve the quality of material generally considered “devotional” as rigorous scholarship enters conversation with popular devotion. I believe it is important that we make this shift to expand the territory allowed to scholars, and that we make it with no apologies. Knowledge of God and proclamation of God are intrinsically blessings; considering them as either academic curiosities or as outside the realm of serious scholarship does them an injustice.
This is a portion of my entry to the recent 2008 Trinity Blogging Summit, slightly reworked to help it better stand on its own.