Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Beyond Concept

I recently read an article by Damon Linker that argues that the real reason there are so few conservatives on campus is because the conservative notion of scholarship tends to foster a recurrent return to the same well-worn themes. He uses the example of Shakespeare: "Love in Shakespeare," "Justice in Shakespeare," etc. We can see simply comparable in New Testament studies. How many new studies of "Paul and the Law," for instance, do we need? What new can be said on the subject?

The reader at this point is probably expecting negative answers. How many new studies of "Paul and the Law" do we need? Not many. What new can be said on the subject? Not much. I'm going to defy that expectation, and say that in fact there is much more to be said, but that--and this is where we can very much see the wisdom in Linker's argument--this new work must be asking new questions. This is not simply a matter of using new methods. There is a remarkably unreflective "New Method Laundry" (to borrow a wonderful turn of phrase from Lonergan) active in biblical studies, which tends to confuse the mere act of defining and describing one's method with reflection thereupon (stating what I do is not quite the same as knowing why I do), but this is not what we're talking about. This is about asking genuinely new questions. When "Paul and the Law" is considered in New Testament studies, it is usually on the level of concept. We are asking "What does Paul mean when he refers to 'the Law'? How does he understand 'the Law'?" If we are particularly enterprising, we might ask "How does his understanding of 'the Law' relate to other Jewish or Christian writings?" We might push beyond Judaism and Christianity into the broader Greco-Roman world, and convince ourselves that we are being innovative. The above are of course all quite legitimate questions, but again, all remain within the orbit of concept.

There is an entirely different set of questions left untouched by such functional conceptualism. They operate on a level properly antecedent to concept, although in operational terms we tend to investigate them subsequently. Keeping with the example of the Law, they begin from the basic question, "What does law do for humanity?" They ask why human societies recurrently create laws. They situate the Jewish Law within that recurrent creation. They consider recurrent difficulties and challenges faced by any system of legal reasoning and practice, and how Paul might be responding to those. For instance, such queries might look at Paul's consistent tendency to play the language of law off against the language of justice (often in English rendered in terms of "justification" or "righteousness," but which have the sense of rendering or making something just), and consider how this relates to recurrent human struggles with the gap between law and justice. By such queries "Paul and the Law" begins to move from an almost-purely antiquarian pursuit of interest almost exclusively to persons whose antecedent theological commitments suppose that whatever Paul says on the matter must be normative for all persons at all times, and towards situating Paul within the great human adventure wherein disparate groups recurrently have struggled with the same sorts of dialectical conflicts.

Such questioning of course takes place. It has characterized the recent explosion, perhaps now showing signs of slowing down, of "postmodern" philosophical readings of Paul, which of course go well beyond the relatively narrow question of Paul and the Law. (With specific respect to Paul and the Law though, José Porfirio Miranda and Theodore Jennings have made some particularly insightful contributions of the sort described above, and the African-American theological tradition has produced a wealth of insights in its existentially-vital efforts to make sense of writings that were used to justify their enslavement). Yet biblical scholars have tended to shy away from asking questions of this sort within our vocation as scholars. In part this is probably because such questioning entails some solid grounding in such matters as social theory or political thought. Returning to the example of "Paul and the Law," this needs to be a grounding that not simply can say "So-and-so says X about the Law, and this relates to what Paul says about the Law," as this is still effectively conceptualism: it is the relating of one set of concepts to another. Rather, it needs to be a grounding that can render and defend competent judgments about what law does for human societies. Such competency tends to be beyond the ambit of the average biblical scholar. Such is not a critique but rather a statement of fact. The reality is that competence takes time and energy to develop, and already biblical scholars must investment much time and energy into developing the competence simply to be biblical scholars. This leaves only so much time and energy to develop competence in other areas. Where someone like Lonergan is of much value is that his investigations into knowledge provide ways by which to "streamline" the process of competence-development. Nonetheless, such competence is perhaps worth developing, as it can help move biblical studies from the ghetto of antiquarian conceptualism.

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