A Humble Academic Backlash

Article excerpt

At a recent New Testament seminar, a scholar dared to disagree that the story of Mary Magdalene, sitting at the feet of Jesus, had been added to Scripture by early church fathers to keep women subservient. He suggested to colleagues instead that Mary Magdalene was occupying a place of honor, as typical in Hebrew culture.

In a pointed rebuke, the scholar, a pioneer in the study of women in the early church, was told he had "sold out." His colleagues charged he had failed to bring enough "critical suspicion" to the story.

Over 25 years, critical interpretation based on a "suspicious" reading of texts has gained prominence in America's intellectual centers. To study religion and the liberal arts in college today is to be highly aware of possible "biases" encoded in traditional texts of Western culture, from the Gospels to Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot. Students learn how texts have been used as instruments of social oppression or exploitation. They are taught to read with relentless suspicion. Yet in recent years a small but growing band of thinkers are becoming suspicious - of too much suspicion. Across a broad range of the humanities, a few voices are arguing for a change in the way readers study text - one that involves greater trust, humility, and even the occasional suspension of judgment. In the field of religion, more scholars seek to enable readers to experience what Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards called "spiritual sense" - letting the text reveal hidden dimensions of meaning and light. These thinkers are challenging, however modestly, the intellectual groundwork laid in the 19th century by the so-called "masters of suspicion," Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. They are in a pitched battle over a crucial area of modern thought - hermeneutics, or the method by which we interpret and know what it is we know. This eclectic group is found in every field of the liberal arts, on both the left and the right. For them, the tendency to overemphasize a "hermeneutic of suspicion" blocks readers from realizing important dimensions and experiences in the classic texts, such as the poetry of literature or the capacity of Scripture to inspire and illuminate. "There's a counter move in academia today to challenge an ethos of suspicion," says Garrett Green, an expert on theology at Connecticut College in New London and the author of "Imagining God." "You see it in vigorous meetings of young scholars who aren't captive to ideology and have a freer reading of things. They go to the big conferences as a way to keep their small groups alive." But in challenging the prevailing approach to study, they are objecting to a methodology born in part of an awakened sense of the injustices of history. "No biblical patriarchal text that perpetuates violence against women, children, or 'slaves,' should be accorded the status of divine revelation," says Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, a preeminent feminist biblical scholar at Harvard University's Divinity School. Political correctness under fire Partly the trend is a challenge to political correctness. The challengers don't want Shakespeare's "The Tempest," for example, taught only as an instance of colonial exploitation. Nor do they sympathize with the head of the New Testament department at a West Coast seminary who teaches the Gospel of John as a sexist document with male language and symbols that make it a "suspicious" text. Rather, they advocate being "vulnerable and open" when reading. They advocate a "hermeneutic of trust" that will allow Scripture, for example, to speak in new ways, to be a vehicle for intellectual and spiritual experience. They feel the loss of trust in text is corrosive and unhealthy both for churches and society at large. The challenge is not only one of how the next generation of students will interpret the central texts of the culture. In some circles, it is also about whether divinity or a higher intelligence exists that can be accessed through reading. …