They streamed through the corridors, carrying their tote bags – thousands upon thousands of venerable scholars, aspiring academics, graduate students. Skywalks and lounges and restaurants in each of the three Atlanta hotels – the Hyatt, the Marriott, and the Hilton—were packed. The conference book was over 500 pages long, listing hundreds of panels and discussions and receptions for award-winning authors.
I was there to deliver a paper as a member of a four-person panel exploring ritual items in Jewish practice. I chose panels to attend during my free hours and happily imagined going home with accrued knowledge of some sort or another.
I like evidence and data.
I teach in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC-Charlotte. Each semester, I engage in helping my students understand that honest, academic text study requires that they drop their theologies outside the classroom door. We must encounter texts on their own terms, I explain. That means understanding their context, their history, and the culture(s) which produced them. That means learning about how to construct our arguments and conclusions on the basis of verifiable data.
We are limited. We know very little of the priest who offered sacrifices in Dan before the Assyrian conquest of 722 BCE; we have no evidence that Abraham or Moses were actual, historical persons.
We accept a measure of humility: What can we really say for certain about these texts, about the mindsets of those who told and retold and revised the stories we encounter?
It is hard work. My students discover that monotheism is not a feature of most biblical texts and that God’s omniscience and omnipotence is highly overrated by modern readers. They find out that neither Jesus nor the devil can be found in Hebrew Bible.
Week in, week out, they practice thinking in academic terms: They are being asked to understand God as just one of many characters in a diverse library. The study will be unnerving, upsetting for many of the young people in my classrooms.
But there is a secret bonus. My students will discover that the texts we are to explore invite profound encounters with the purpose and the meaning of human life.
When we consider the story of Saul, students will rightfully wonder if that hapless king deserved to be chosen, then rejected, by the God he had tried to please. My students will read Lamentations and recognize it as a text that could be written in their own time. The Israelite inhabitants of Jerusalem in 585 BCE are the Yazidi of Sinjar in our time, after all: human beings forced to endure terror and violence, seemingly abandoned by God.
When I was at the AAR/SBL conference, I attended a panel reviewing Michael Fishbane’s new commentary of The Song of Songs. One of my library bookshelves is almost wholly inhabited by Fishbane’s work, including, among others, his Sacred Attunement, Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking, The Kiss of God, The Garments of Torah, and the magisterial Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel.
Towards the end of the discussion, Michael Fishbane told us a story. He was talking to a famous Israeli archeologist – a colleague and teacher. The archeologist told him: “You and I, we do the same thing.” Fishbane, he said, dug in texts the way he himself dug into the earth – looking for artifacts, for evidence.
Then Michael Fishbane informed us: After decades of contributions to the field, this is no longer his work. This is: exploring historical theology of past ages and doing so as a pathway to constructing theology now.
“We must ask,” he asked, “‘what is the goal?’ Can we read for the sake of the humanities? What is the goal of teaching texts?”
Academics are taught to dig for more evidence, for artifacts left behind by peoples. With objective data, we make sense of the past, of peoples who left them behind.
But to read for the sake of the humanities, and for the sake of being human, we must study in order to learn how to be.
We should acknowledge our preconceptions. But then, knowing ourselves, we may encounter and experience the intersection of divine and human – in the data before us, in the artifacts we discover, in the words of the past.