Friday, February 1, 2013

Faith and Scholarship; News or Religious Book?

I have two items for my write-up today on Ari Goldman's The Search for God at Harvard.

1.  On page 70, Goldman states:

"Another noteworthy development in the academic study of religion has been the ability of scholars of religion to admit that they too----on occasion----are men and women of faith.  The distinction between believers and scholars was fast coming apart in a reaction to the objective study of religion that had been prevalent at the university for decades.  Suddenly, faith was seen as an edge in the study of religion.  As a result, ministers and priests, long valued at seminaries, were finding greater acceptance at Harvard----and not just at the Divinity School."

As I look back at my educational experience, I'd say that many of my professors in religious studies have been religious.  This was the case at DePauw University and also (to many people's surprise) at Harvard Divinity School.  They were still critical scholars, in that they acknowledged that diversity and historical errors existed within the Bible, but they still adhered to a religious tradition, and they took that tradition seriously.  Why they did so, I'm not entirely sure.  Perhaps they thought that there were profound points that religious traditions or theologians made, points that helped them to make sense of life.  In short, their religious tradition contained things that inspired them, even if they regarded it as flawed, in a sense.  And maybe experience played a role in their faith.

It does seem to me, though, that the Jewish institutions that I attended were less religious.  Or maybe they were differently religious----their religion was not as focused on theology.  When I think of religion, what comes to my mind is inspiring lessons that make us feel whole or encourage us to serve others.  I didn't get that as much at the Jewish institutions that I attended.  There were a few professors who treated the Bible and Jewish tradition in such a religious manner, but, often, the focus was on critical scholarship (highlighting biblical diversity and history without trying to incorporate the Bible into an inspiring theology), language, and eccentricities or interesting points in the stories.  There wasn't as much of an attempt to speculate on how the tradition speaks to larger human questions.  I'm just speaking from my experience, and others may have different impressions.

I guess that I'm the sort of person who would like to combine critical scholarship with theology.  I'd like to be honest about the text, but I'd also like to feel fed.  What's ironic is that I know some people from conservative Christian institutions who prefer the opposite: they want to focus on the academic dimension of studying the text, rather than straining to come up with application points that strike them as a stretch.

2.  Goldman tells stories about his experiences at an Orthodox Jewish school when he was a boy.  Ari enjoyed reading the newspaper on the subway each morning on the way to school, but his teacher thought that he should read a religious book instead to draw closer to God and to make a positive impact on the world.

I've heard similar advice from Christians.  Joel Osteen said a couple of times that, instead of listening to the news each morning (which is depressing) on the way to work, one should listen to one of his tapes, or a Joyce Meyer CD.  In one sermon, he mentioned a guy who listened to a particular sermon of Joel's each morning on the way to work, and this guy eventually had Joel's sermon memorized!

I can sympathize with this, somewhat.  Others may choose not to listen to religious tapes, but rather to motivational speakers.  They're hoping to have a positive attitude each day, and maybe even to advance.  But, like Ari Goldman, I like keeping updated on the news each morning.  The news has a certain amount of drama that I like to read.  And it helps me to be informed when I go to school or to work, for then I can participate in discussions about current events.

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