Biblical Studies at Sheffield

16 10 2009

For a while now, there has been talk of Sheffield University closing the undergraduate component to their Biblical Studies department. Word has finally got out that this is not going to happen – in any case, not just yet. John Hobbins has the official report from a representative of the undergraduate student body, that you can read on his post. In this official report, the official reporter thanks all those who prayed on behalf of the department.

The following is the comment that I wrote on John’s blog. As it is only short, I reproduce it here:

For my part, I was also put out by the thought of Sheffield closing their undergraduate Biblical Studies department, but the rhetoric that has issued forth from the student body has made me rethink that.

Again and again (which is to say, on blogs like yours and on the Facebook group), I see references to praying and having prayed for the welfare of their department. If Sheffield has converted their Biblical Studies department into a seminary, then perhaps shutting it down is not so bad an idea.

When somebody on behalf of the student body … refers to the universally objective power of mumbling to oneself as an act that saved his department, it’s not only a “defeat for hard-line secularists”, it’s a defeat for everybody with at least half a brain.

My sentiments are rather harsh, and I would like to take this opportunity to clarify them somewhat.

I am heartily fed up with needing to explain to people that, no, I am not intending to “enter the clergy”, simply because I am studying the Bible. Why won’t people get it into their heads that Biblical Studies is an academic subject, and has nothing to do with faith? For this reason, I am livid that an official representative of a Biblical Studies department (at a prestigious university!) can say something so utterly inane.

The undergraduate component of the Biblical Studies department was saved by public lobbying, and not by the prayers of worshippers. If somebody wishes to strike up a conversation with their invisible god, that’s their affair and their affair alone. I am tempted to wish them a speedy recovery, but the truth is that we all find our own paths through life and what fails to work for me may work very well for others.

Like meteors, we blaze through this existence with light and splendour, and like meteors we burn up wholly and make little or no noise on impact. The meaningless chaos of our brief existence leads people down all manner of different paths and, as something of a relativist, I would not demean the path that another takes were it not continually obstructing my own.

If somebody wishes to read the Bible as the eternal words of an eternal deity, so be it. If they wish to ascribe objective reality to the Bible’s central protagonist, then that is theirs to do. If they choose to believe that their words and their thoughts are appreciated by this deity, and that by speaking quietly to themselves they can alter the world, I marvel at their ability to adopt such a practise but it is theirs to adopt. Such beliefs, while they might have a place in numerous institutions, do not constitute an academic approach to Biblical Studies, and I thoroughly resent any contribution to the ridiculous stereotype that they do.




23 responses

16 10 2009
Chris Weimer

Nicely and strongly worded. I’d even take it a step further and say that to think the mumblings is what kept Sheffield’s Biblical Studies department open is anti-social and insanely demeaning to humans. A group of people, through seeing protests of students and faculties from all parts of the globe (albeit only a handful of people all told), decided against closing the department. Where is god in that? No where. PEOPLE DID THINGS. To think that prayer is what kept it open seriously calls into question their ability to place worth and value on other human beings. And that, both today and historically, has had deadly consequences follow.

Chris Weimer

16 10 2009
Judy Redman

Simon, I agree with what you say, but would like to take slight issue with one statement:
Why won’t people get it into their heads that Biblical Studies is an academic subject, and has nothing to do with faith?

I agree that Biblical Studies is indeed an academic discipline, but would say, rather, that it doesn’t *necessarily* have anything to do with faith. I think it is not unreasonable to suggest that the majority of biblical scholars over the decades/centuries have, in fact, been motivated by their faith to explore their texts in an academically disciplined way. :-)

16 10 2009
Inga Leonora

I thoroughly enjoyed this post, and agree with you, for the most part. And with both commentators so far. Especially with Mr Weimer! The faithful rarely proprerly credit people for the things they do. Monotheistic belief systems are by their nature antisocial, and very generally demean humanity.
But the vast majority of scholarly research in this field must come about due to a faith based on the Bible. One would have to have their head firmly up their own arse to miss the fact that Judaism and Christianity are very popular, and also very powerful. Seems odd that you should call it a ‘ridiculous stereotype’ that such beliefs should constitute an academic approach to Biblical Studies, when I would suggest that the academic approach to Biblical Studies is made possible by such belief systems. Sheffield, Maquarie and Sydney Universities are all secular government funded educational institutions, and the shear volume of academic work and study produced by these and other secular, governement funded institutions in the area of Biblical Studies, would seem to me, a Heathen (and considering that you yourself are a ‘no-believer’), a gross misappropriation of funds and human effort, were it not for the fact that so many believe such studies to be funamental to their ways of being. My question would be then; how are you, a nihilist come relativist come atheist being obstructed by their beliefs? On the contrary, it would seem you are greatly aided by it. I happen to prefer Islam of the monotheistic religions, but the families who wanted to have an Islamic school in Camden met strong opposition from other residents. I suppose this to be because there simply aren’t enough muslims in Camden. Enough for a small school perhaps, just not in Camden. There does seem an abundence of Christian Schools in the area and surrounds however, and none of these were ever protested against. Do you suppose that beliefs held by the majority do not hold similar sway in the tertiary institutions you are involed in, or any that exist in secular societies like Australia and the UK? Do you suppose scholarships would be made available to students in this area if there were not large and influential faith-based communities to offer them?

16 10 2009
Greg Hopkins

This is incredibly intolerant, bordering on offensive. So students of the course aren’t allowed to pray? So as soon as one becomes a student of the Bible, they ought to drop their faith entirely for the sake of the integrity of the field? The messages suggesting that others might pray were always precluded by a note saying ‘for those “that way inclined”‘. I.e. if you’re a Christian, go for it, if not, don’t worry. I find it frankly shocking that your intolerance goes so far as to object in this way when other people simply express their faith (I might add, in private).

No, Sheffield is not a ‘seminary’. It is, has been, and, hopefully, will continue to be, one of the best places in the world to study the Bible, and a centre for innovative research. I’d have thought you, as a student of the Bible, would be happy it has stayed open, and not lament the fact that a degree in Biblical Studies for some reason attracts Christians.

17 10 2009
Simon Holloway

Sorry Greg, but I don’t think you’ve properly understood what I wrote. I have no problem with people praying, and you can pray as hard and as much as you like. If you’re going to stand up, however, and claim to represent other people then you might wish to think a little bit before you harp on about your own religion. Ben Hinks of Sheffield University does not represent me, as I am not a student at that particular institution. Nonetheless, what he says affects me. By making references to prayer (as though all undergraduate students at Sheffield University’s Biblical Studies department share his theological outlook) he contributes to the stereotype that Biblical Studies is an offshoot of “the Church”. Would you like to know why Biblical Studies departments around the world are constantly in danger of losing their funds? Because of this attitude, that divests the field of its intellectual integrity and makes it seem an avenue for those who seek to know God.

Hinks’ remarks concerning the efficacy of prayer are as anathema to me as statements that concern the salvation of Jesus. Somebody who represents the student body should try representing all of it.

Inga, I do not agree with you. The origins of my field do certainly lie within the history of “Judeo-Christian” faith (and for that reason, I accept Judy’s correction), but they now exist beyond it as well. Its very existence as an academic discipline is owed to the success of the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement of the 19th century, which elevated the study beyond theological speculation and paved the way for critical analysis. Faith is now more robust as a result, and the discipline strong enough to exist even without it. You mention the University of Sydney: due to funding cuts, our department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies now solely subsists on donations from the Jewish community. I do not wish to see other Bible Studies departments around the world go down the same path.

17 10 2009

As a student of the department, I welcome this debate. Within the student body, we are fully cogniscent of being an academic areligious department, and recognise the criticism and rigour of our discipline as key to the demand for its salvation (a deliberately provocative word).

If you work back through the various conversations that took place within the facebook group, (and I think this was even more prominent within internal student communications), we have always been very careful not to make assumptions about others’ religious perspective. And it is quite clear that it is Sheffield’s ‘not-quite-unique’ (one must be careful not too claim too much) but nonetheless cutting-edge academic approach to Biblical Studies which is so precious, and to which the broader academic community has so overwhelmingly testified.

In the book of Ruth, we see a theology in which God seemingly acts through people. Of course one may also read the book as if God does not act. It is a choice each reader must make, but it would seen odd to argue that because we can read the book ‘outside’ of tradition, it is somehow unacceptable to read the book ‘within’ the tradition.

So, for those who choose, it seems to me perfectly fair that they should be entitled to read the presence of God in this situation. Naturally, such interpretation will reflect their own preconceptions, and as academics we may excel in pointing out and picking on these. But we do all have preconceptions.

I have had a peculiar degree of involvement in the situation here in Sheffield, but I’d actually consider it arrogant and offensive to claim much for myself out of that. We each of us do what we can, and we have limited controls over the opportunities we are presented with.

For those who inhabit a theological worldview, it is both reasonable and honest to own that. And for those for whom prayer is a source of support and consolation, can all observers not acknowledge that regardless of the impossibility of finding some objective abstract empirical proof of its efficacy, it is reasonable for them to give thanks for that? —The improvability of faith and its correlates, is precisely what makes it faith. To fault it for that quality is surely illogical.

Is Ben an official spokesperson? Yes and No. There has been nothing official about this protest. And Ben would I’m sure acknowledge that in many ways he speaks for himself. There have been a multiplicity of voices throughout this campaign; if at this moment Ben’s seems to speak louder, then perhaps there is a need for other perspectives to enter into ‘the facebook space’ again… It has always been a public space, where all are welcome.

I fully acknowledge your frustration with the kinds of assumptions we face as biblical scholars. There is a great deal of ignorance and prejudice which prevents people understanding what we’re engaged in — and the battle at Sheffield has been significantly about demonstrating that. It doesn’t help that ‘biblical studies’ is a term embraced by more than just academics. — The most recent Christianity Today article ends with a now irrelevant but nonetheless irritating comment about the availability of bible schools elsewhere, a viewpoint which displays considerable ignorance about the nature of biblical scholarship in Sheffield — and acts as a good reminder of why it was so important to save our department.

I do think though, that in staking a claim that biblical studies has ‘nothing to do with faith’ you are at risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

17 10 2009

On the original blog that I read, a student was quoted:

>We are really pleased! Thank you everyone for your support, action and prayers. We have saved the Univeristy [sic] an embarassing [sic] and awful decision, which would not have done its reputation good in the long run.When somebody on behalf of the student body … refers to the universally objective power of mumbling to oneself as an act that saved his department, it’s not only a “defeat for hard-line secularists”, it’s a defeat for everybody with at least half a brain.<

Can one not thank someone for support action and prayers without asserting that the prayers themselves were the cause of the success? In addition to whatever theological import one may ascribe to prayer, they can also serve as a show of solidarity, expression of values, or call to action. Any one of these might merit a "thank you," *whether or not* they actually helped.

Chip on your shoulder, perhaps?

I might add that just as personal prayer has no place in the academic study of Bible, neither does departmental politics or the current economic crisis. Nevertheless, I believe that people who take part in this study are entitled to have views on all of the above, and even to express them in public!

17 10 2009

Is there not a sense in which the demand of the atheist that everyone leave their faith identity label (whether theist or otherwise) outside the door is excluding honesty?

It seems reasonable to demand that we use our critical faculties to the full. I find myself wondering whether by promoting a scholarly ideal where there is no personal religious influence (or at least the most minimal of influences) we are not being intellectually dishonest. I applaud the development in academia that demands critical reflection and expresses distaste for exclusive religious truth claims. But does that justify the promotion of irreligious truth claims in their place?

For scholars to feel pressured to maintain a conservative religious identity in their public square is abhorrent; but sometimes we impose the reverse artificial closedness, where a scholar is expected to embody a non-religious identity which is not their own. If a scholar cannot be open about their preconceptions, we mayend up playing an exhausting guessing game to locate their standpoint, and waste a good deal of energy in the process.

To be obliged to leave your identity outside the seminar door, is little different to being asked to leave it outside the seminary door. To encourage all to use their critical faculties, we surely should not exclude the fullness of each individual from the field of intellectual dialogue. Such a demand simply shores up the negativity of some toward the rigorous approach taken by the kind of biblical studies I, and to my perception those in Sheffield, value so much.

(And please note that I consider the above to be a set of reflections in progress, rather than a finished statement of my position.)

17 10 2009
clayboy » When prayers stop blogging atheists from thinking

[…] blogging leads otherwise sensible and rational people into irrationally insensible statements. One came today from Simon Holloway (who then drew Chris Weimer into his rant in a […]

17 10 2009
Simon Holloway

Thank you, “Anon“: very nicely expressed, and I appreciate hearing the opinion of somebody from the university in question.

To respond to one point in particular, I see no problem with reading the book of Ruth from within the confines of “tradition”. I would argue, however, that one who does so is learning about the tradition more than they are studying the actual book of Ruth. Given that God does not feature as a protagonist within this book, reading the actions of God into it (rather than merely the assertions of the author that God, for example, caused the famine to end) makes certain presuppositions regarding God’s objective nature that are critically untenable.

Likewise, you can choose to read Isaiah as though the prophet speaks of Jesus and, while you may learn much from such a study, none of it will concern the actual book of Isaiah as it was originally intended. There is a place for such studies (indeed, even a reception history class at university would render them meaningful), and I do not reject them out of hand.

As I see it, the difference between a university and a seminary is that a university does not operate within the confines of a religious tradition, and therefore eschews such assumptions as those I mention above. The university is secular, which is not to say that it advocates atheism, but that it neither advocates nor assumes any particular religion. Those scholars who do have certain presuppositions should, as you suggest, feel emboldened to declare them. An environment that neither advocates nor assumes faith should still be an environment in which faith is welcomed.

For the record, I am not the atheist that some commenters have assumed. I am a Jew, and the fact that I do not believe in God is merely a point of contact that I share with atheism, without at all subscribing to their group identity. When I teach, I like to make my presuppositions clear, as regards my personal opinions and how they might inform my view. All personal opinions are welcome, and I agree with David, who suggests that scholars should be able to air their views publically. I shouldn’t need to repeat this, but my contention is solely with those who speak for others as well as themselves.

17 10 2009

What causes you to misrepresent Hinks? He did not credit God with saving the department. And why should believing members of the department, or any other university department, be expected not to pray or be grateful to those who do? That’s the sort of self righteous Ditchkian attitude which makes non believers afraid to identify themselves as atheists.

18 10 2009

For the record, the seminar/seminary contrast contained an implicit reference to the issues faced by believing academics working within a ‘religious-academic’ context, as summarised rather neatly by Crossley:

“In terms of specific theological colleges, Bible colleges, or seminaries, faith is also a problem if the Christian academic has to sign up to statements of belief. The simple reason for my concern is that certain answers are simply ruled out, otherwise… Well, we probably all know of people in these contexts who have lost jobs or disappeared because they’ve come to the wrong conclusions. But more moderately, scholars in certain institutions are not allowed come to the wrong conclusion. This it hardly the best model for critical scholarship. It is also more an institutionalised problem rather than that of the individual scholar. Many have little choice but to work in places where they know they cannot come to conclusions they may well believe.”

18 10 2009

Couldn’t agree with Steph more!
I’m a student at Sheffield bibs. Ben thanked people for their prayers (and for their letters and support), he did not thank God for saving the department single-handedly, though I do not doubt that many of my friends in the department do attribute the decision to prayers and action from God, and that is their right regardless of if I or you, or anyone, agrees with their belief.
How you can be ‘livid’ as to what Ben says I do not understand. And how you can say that our Department has been converted into a seminary and deserves to be shut down is completely ignorant. Of course there are many students there who have strong faiths, and that is their right (and perhaps an influential factor in their decision to study Bibs), but that is not to say that we are not taught in a purely academic manor by professional academic staff.
I too hate that I get continually asked if I am to enter the Church after I complete my degree as it shows a profound misunderstanding of everything that Biblical Studies stands for, but please be more tolerant to those who want to study Bibs simply because they are interested or want to expand their horizons or maybe even to test their faith.

18 10 2009
Chris Weimer

“though I do not doubt that many of my friends in the department do attribute the decision to prayers and action from God, and that is their right regardless of if I or you, or anyone, agrees with their belief.”

If that is their right, then it is our right to criticize it. Just because they hold a belief doesn’t make them immune from criticism.

18 10 2009
Simon Holloway

I wonder, Sarah: if you add up the bits of the post that you read and the bits that Steph read, would it come to the whole thing?

I never suggested that I ascribed to Ben the belief in God “saving the department single-handedly”, and I never suggested that scholars and students should be prohibited from expressing their faith. Certainly, I would never be so stupid as to suggest that the department should close!

My language was very emotive, but the post was not calculated to cause offence. I was certainly not criticising your university and, although I was criticising Ben Hicks, I was not criticising his faith – whatever it may be. My point is simply this: faith-based approaches and secular approaches are so fundamentally different that they need to be thought of as separate. Any faith-based approach (and remember, there are actually several different ones) must be viewed as simply one perspective among several, never to be priveleged by the university itself. When a spokesperson says something in their official capacity, they need to bear this in mind. Assertions that can be directly understood to pertain to the efficacy of prayer, or even to the existence of God, fall squarely in this category.

Again, I am only referring to people who represent the university or the student body. What individual scholars and individual students say and believe is not of my concern.

18 10 2009

Simon: You said Hinks “refers to the universally objective power of mumbling to oneself as an act that saved his department”. He didn’t. He thanked people for their prayers and support and said “we” saved. Not the prayers or God saved.

You also claim on Doug’s blog that members of departments of Medicine, Law, English Literature and Physics, don’t express their faith in this way. This is false. You do hear members of other departments speaking about their faith, quite regularly. An MD (Dewi Rees) wrote on after death experience and wrote what was easier to do in parts of his research, precisely because he shared the Christian faith with some of the patients he was dealing with. Also when death or mishap occurs in a department, members of that department express their faiths in quite a random way. I have experienced this in another department where it became suddenly apparent that most of the staff and students were Christian. Funnily enough I only knew one Christian in my year in the Religious Studies department, a couple of Buddhists and a Muslim. There are plenty of examples of personal faith being expressed in a whole university environment. Also remember Simon, that prayer is not exclusive to religions of the Bible.

It is ludicrous and petty to criticise Ben Hinks for expressing gratefulness to prayers as well as action and support.

18 10 2009
Simon Holloway

Steph, you’re repeating the same points and I’m beginning to feel as though this argument is being dragged out on principle. Your first issue is thoroughly semantic. If I say, “Thanks for the water, guys! Looks like we put out the fire”, my direct implication is that the water did the job, even though I said “we”. Furthermore, I noted that prayer was taken to be “an act that saved the department”, not the act that did so. You don’t need to keep exaggerating my claim in order to get worked up about it.

As for my comment on Doug’s blog (and on John’s blog, incidentally), I stand by that 100%. You are still ignoring my assertion, however, that it is only problematic when representatives of departments make these claims. What lawyers, doctors and literary critics say and do has nothing to do with me. Stop trying to make it look like I’m asking religious people to get out of uni. I’m asking the uni to get out of religion.

19 10 2009

Not sure you aren’t still guilty of granting Ben an excessive ‘official-ness’. He’s an admin because the group-creator made him one, and?

Noting the existing discussion on the difficulties about religious affiliation and academic discourse, I still think Steph has a valid point, and that you may be unfair to Ben in taking his remarks out of the original context. Also, I have heard people of equal or greater ‘representative-status’ make similar remarks. Are you perhaps demanding more of Biblical Studies students than others? — This might be an understandable demand, I merely ask you to consider whether you are doing it.

Also, do you think it makes a difference that this was in some senses an internal and informal remark to group members, rather than a fully public statement? From an authorial perspective (and in my own facebook experience), isn’t a group message different from a wallpost?

19 10 2009

Just read your last bit on Clayboy’s post. It seems to me like you’re taking out “people”‘s ‘crime’ on Ben, blaming him for their prejudices. I get what you’re complaining about, but not sure victimising Ben is the right way to make the point.

It is __very__ annoying that people assume, for example, that biblical studies is about being religious or ‘doing religion’. Ben, to my understanding, wasn’t doing that.

But this is all good dialogue, since at the very least, we demonstrate our opposition to the ‘religious’ interpretation of biblical studies, and the resultant (actually I’m not sure of the causal link here) prejudiced negativity of some non-religious people against it. — To my recollection, prejudice is connected to ignorance, judging something before you know about it. If people are foolish enough to think that Ben’s remark substantiates their perception of Biblical Studies as a religious activity, they were fools in the first place, before Ben said anything. Maybe we should spend more time and energy getting them informed, and less time arguing with Ben! (And I can already anticipate your reply here… back round the circular argument all over again. — No offense meant.)

19 10 2009

Ben is no more a representative of the students than every other student with a voice is on facebook or the internet generally. I think, as suggested above, you do demand more of biblical studies students than those in other departments. I assure you I am not ‘worked up’ but I think you may have got a little worked up over nothing to dedicate a whole post to your criticism. Students in any department are free to express their political, religious and social viewpoints. If something devasting such as this recent event threatened to occur in another department and similar gratitude was expressed by a student to those who had supported them, I would not blink an eyelid. Would you? I think it would be a shame if you did. It is stretching it a bit to imply that the university, or biblical studies department is ‘in religion’ or whatever. Members therein nevertheless will have religious beliefs and this will be reflected in their choice of words just as your beliefs are reflected in yours.

19 10 2009

I retract my comment about ‘all good dialogue.’ Is this not all just a storm in a teapot? An intellectual one perhaps, but about time I dedicated my intellect to something else.

4 11 2009
Biblical Studies Carnival XLVII « Paul of Tarsus

[…] crisis has been averted.  However, comments made by representatives of the university sparked a strong response by Simon Holloway wanting to emphasize the status of Biblical Studies as an academic […]

4 11 2009
Jordan Wilson

First they came for Sheffield, but Simon did not speak out – because he was not Christian.

Then they came for Princeton, but Simon did not speak out – because he was not a Muslim.

Then they came for Brown, but Simon did not speak out – because he was not Jewish.

Then they came for Duke, but Simon did not speak out – because he was not a Buddhist.

Then they came for Harvard, but Simon did not speak out – because he was not a Hindu.

Then they came for North Shore Temple Emanuel – but there was no one left to speak out for Simon.

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