Sheffield University

18 10 2009

My last post has struck a nerve. I suspect that the only reason that this issue is so controversial is because of the recent events surrounding the University of Sheffield. Were it not for the fact that some people were mistakenly led to the conclusion that I was criticising their university, I doubt that the issues I raised would have been so very incendiary. The issue that concerns me is the issue of religion, and its rule in academic discourse. Contrary to the conclusions of some, I was not suggesting that religious people should be limited to operating within a non-religious framework; I was simply suggesting that the university must be cognisant of the different discourses through which it operates simultaneously and, when it speaks in an official capacity, must be mindful of not priveleging any of them over any others. The following is a brief quote from the preface to the second edition of Whose Bible is it Anyway?, by Philip Davies – a scholar at the University of Sheffield:

Whose Bible has been seen by some as an attack on theology, which was certainly not its purpose. I wanted rather to show (much for my own benefit) how biblical studies might function, in theory and practice, as a secular discipline. But despite the mischievous manoeuvres of some theologians, secularism is not the opposite of religion, since there is no such thing as ‘religion’, only religions, and they are each other’s enemies. Secularism is a culture, a discourse, in which religions enjoy no special privelege, where they (who, after all, tend to exclude each other) make their claims and argue their cases alongside everything else. In churches, synagogues and mosques religious discourse can reign unchallenged, but not in the academy. Here, at least, we are not supposed to be advancing religious claims but examining them.

– Philip R. Davies, Whose Bible is it Anyway? (2nd ed; T&T Clark International: London, 2004), Preface.

Later on in his introduction, Davies defines religious discourse as a reading of the biblical literature that “adopt[s]… the internal values of the scriptures as criteria or presuppositions of the ‘criticism'” (11-12). Amongst such presuppositions, Davies lists the belief in monotheism as a good thing, the objective existence of God, God’s merciful nature, God’s creation of the world, and the differentiation between true and false prophets. I might also add to this list any dogma later established by religious faiths, which includes reverence for religious leaders and the efficacious power of personal prayer.

Davies’ overall thesis, that faith-based and non-faith-based approaches are fundamentally different, that they need to be differentiated and that the university should not privelege any one over any other, is not only of pertinence at this time, but at any time. We can all be very pleased that the department to which Philip Davies belongs is not going to have its undergraduate component closed down for the foreseeable future, but I do not think that we should let that cloud over what was essentially a gaff, when a spokesperson (however official) for the department thanked people for their prayers.

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One response

19 10 2009
steph

I didn’t interpret you as criticising Sheffield in particular at all. But I don’t think Philip Davies would consider Ben’s appreciative comments a gaff either. Just a Christian student freely expressing appreciation. By the way, it was not an issue of ‘semantics’ either. It is a matter of interpretation and intention. But I’m glad you are not ‘livid’ anymore.

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