Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Society of Biblical Literature and the failed experiment of an open society

It has been some time since I was involved with academia in a professional capacity. I keep tabs on a few subjects, publications, scholars, articles and colleagues. though, by and large, I am unlikely to spend too much time in former pursuits.

This said, I paused when reading the initial blurb that InterVarsity Press had been barred from the SBL's annual meeting.

What is the hub-bub all about? It seems to be a matter of contemporary academic ideology coming into discord with Christian Theology and Anthropology. The controversy swirls over IVP's “Theological Summary of Human Sexuality.”

SBL's letter regarding their decision fires on all fronts, stating:

The Council of the Society of Biblical Literature will meet on October 29-30, and I will raise these concerns at that time. I will also discuss my concerns with the American Academy of Religion to determine whether InterVarsity Press will be allowed to exhibit at future Annual Meetings, beginning in 2017. Further, I will request a temporary suspension of IVP’s booth registration for the 2017 Annual Meeting while we take this matter under advisement.

You can find a well thought out reaction at Patheos.

The action taking by the SBL aptly shows the complexity of our times. The West is committed to the idea of the open society defined by diversity. This dominant cultural goal has, in recent years, reached such status so as to become a pervasive framework into which every aspect of the culture's leading institutions is framed. In this instance, academic purpose of the SBL is in conflict with the theological position of IVP. The fact that this conflict exists at all raises some important (and deeply philosophical considerations).

The SBL took its action based upon a document on sexuality that appears at odds with the goals of diversity in an open society. Yet, this document is based in large part upon a text, the Bible, which itself upholds positions on sexuality which run contrary to the norms of the contemporary West. Will the SBL summarily ban the ancient text that constitutes its purpose? Will it mandate specific interpretative norms designed to either reach a predetermined conclusion, or discourage study of questionable texts (from the perspective of contemporary Western sexuality)?

In many ways these events are representative of the crisis facing Christianity in contemporary Western culture - Christianity is forced to create interpretive norms which allow for greater assimilation of Western ideals, or it adheres to its Scripture and tradition as a result becomes more marginalized in the West.

The above being noted, the SBL's actions are disturbing in so far as they are a targeted attempt to censor legitimate discourse and restrict the exchange and debate of ideas. It is not as though IVP is dishonest with their sources - the document draws very legitimate conclusions based upon Christian Scripture (and tradition). That these legitimate conclusions are at odds with contemporary Western ideals ought not cause controversy if acknowledged. From a certain perspective, this action represents an attempt to regulate authorized intellectual discussion and interpretation. The motivations can only be speculated, although the end results are somewhat clear - scholars or publishers supportive of a more traditional interpretation of Scripture or of certain issues will be forced out of the academic discussion until such time as they form their own contrary institutions. Those institutions, however, will be marked with the "reactionary" label and struggle to acquire the perception of academic legitimacy. If taken far enough, the decision of the SBL may influence the AAR, the long term consequence of which could impact accreditation of theological schools (by association) and the future of theological scholarship.

This entire event is itself a picture of the crossroads to which post-Enlightenment ideals have come to in the Western world. It was some 20 years ago that a major academic institution in the North Eastern United States found itself in the middle of a controversy stemming from a student flying the Nazi flag outside of his or her dorm window. The president of said university determined that the student would not be subject to any discipline and could continue to fly the flag. The reasoning was simple - the ideals of the open society run contrary to notions of censorship and a legitimate debate and exchange of ideas cannot happen if dissenting views are suppressed.

The SBL's decision runs contrary to the intellectual ideal underpinning the aspirations of an open society. One wonders if this is not systemic of the West in general at this juncture in cultural history. It seems "tolerance" is taking an increasingly authoritarian approach to dissent in the effort to fully institutionalize the open society's ideals. If we are at such a juncture, then we no longer have an open society - we are witnessing the birth of a new totalitarianism.

When legitimate academic or intellectual discussion is censored, it is often the precursor to the establishment of a intellectual orthodoxy for a new cultural regime. The open society only survives if academic institutions (be they universities or forums for peer review) are committed to its ideals. When intellectual or academic differences become dissent, the gates are beginning to be closed.

The greatest benefit we have in the West is the free exchange and debate of ideas. The moment we lose this, we have nothing to distinguish ourselves from the list of totalitarian regimes that so reviles us.

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