The Unbearable Idealism of Biblical Scholarship

By Roland Boer
University of Newcastle
Religion and Theology
May 2011

At nearly every biblical conference, one comes across the same type of paper: read a biblical text in this way, goes the argument, and we can change the world. It may be an effort to counter a negative text, one that espouses patriarchy, or economic exploitation, or racism, or (early) communism, attempting to ensure that the dreadful effect1 of the text in question is blocked in order to encourage human flourishing. Or it may be an interpretation that uncovers a biblical mandate for helping the homeless or the colonized, encouraging peace, or cuddling your pet ferret. Or it may espouse an environmental ethic, identifying subversive voices that suggest we should tread lightly upon the earth, if not listen to the voice of (created) earth. Or it may be a biblically-inspired defense of private property, the sacrosanct individual, wealth and rampant exploitation of one’s fellow human being. One may hear a paper arguing that Paul, for example, was a proto-feminist, an eco-activist, an anti-colonial and anti (Roman) imperial agitator, or indeed the first protagonist of “family values” and the market economy. It matters not whether the argument comes from a mildly left or rabidly right political position. The underlying drive is the same: this interpretation may well contribute to making our world a better place in which to live (from the perspective of the interpreter in question).

I am less interested here in the overt but rarely noticed contradiction generated by the setting of such a paper: it usually takes place in a plush, chandeliered five-star hotel room, delivered by someone who has spent an inordinate amount in travel and hotel costs. I am far more interested in the implicit idealism of such an approach to biblical interpretation. In other words, the unchallenged assumption is that if we can change the ideas of others who read these texts, we can thereby influence their actions in a way that would benefit our human, animal, and earthly society. The key to change is a change in attitudes; assume one and nearly all will change their attitudes and act accordingly.

Is that not how people function? Is that not natural to human behavior? Are not our ideas the key? Unfortunately, that is both a conservative and a false position. It is conservative since it moves from idea to deed, from belief to behavior, from attitude to action. And the one who most infamously espoused that approach was the arch-aristocrat, militantly anti-democratic and elitist Plato: Ideas make the world go round. That idealist position is false because it neatly sidesteps the messy material and social causes of our acts. Empires collapse not because people think they should, but through economic decline, invasions, and environmental degradation. Women take crucial roles in societies due to social and economic necessity rather than speeches and tracts. Ecologically sustainable life happens through the pressure of economic forces and not simply because we think it is a good idea. A non-oil reliant future becomes a reality once the demand for oil outstrips supply, prices sky-rocket, and we are forced to find alternatives; not because someone suggests we should.

The problem is that idealism seems such a natural position, especially for intellectuals like biblical scholars. Indeed, biblical scholars are by default idealists. Why? We work with texts and opinions and arguments all the time. We read, teach, write, speak, and persuade. We have been trained long and hard to believe that what we think and say and write will change people, or at least change the accepted opinion concerning the understanding of a text. We hold that the interpretation, say, of Aaron’s rod, or of the daughters of Zelophehad, or of Elisha’s floating axe, or of Ezekiel’s smelly loin-cloth, or of Paul’s remarkable ability to resist snakebite, or whether Paul communed in the seventh heaven with Philo or the Stoics, or of the advisability of a little wine with our dinner, is absolutely vital. And we spend inordinate amounts of time analyzing the texts themselves, checking what others have written about these texts, and arguing endlessly about them. Ideas are our stock and trade, so we assume that the world operates in the same way.

We also like to think that we are far more important than we really are. And the only way we can kid ourselves concerning our self-importance is to project our default idealism on the rest of the world. Our ideas do matter, we like to think, and the world had better take notice – just as long as we do not actually need to go down to the street from our comfortable offices and get dirty. After all, when was the last time a troop of biblical scholars seized power in a revolution? Does anyone recall when the program committee at the SBL was last arrested en masse for civil disobedience? And when did the SBL last attempt to establish an alternative economy?

Do not get me wrong: I do not argue for the sheer unimportance of ideas. Rather, they are part of a much larger mix. Ideas find themselves jostling among economic production and consumption, social relations, the tussle of some serious politics (and not the sham of our parliamentary democracies), judicial decisions, and cultural representations. In short, ideas are one small part of a far greater material whole. Relativized and cut down to size, these beloved ideas become the runt of the materialist pack.


1 Or “reception,” as the fashionable and problematic term of German provenance would have it today.

Comments (6)

boy roland that's right nicely done. it reminds me of the tv show 'heroes' that aired a while back whose catchphrase was 'save the cheerleader, save the world'. thanks a bunch.

#1 - Jim - 05/19/2011 - 12:12

Thanks Jim. Anyone pick the allusion regarding Philo and the Stoics?

#2 - Roland - 05/23/2011 - 04:51

The source of decisions in economics--including production,marketing, purchasing, politics, social relations, judicial decisions are rooted in ideas. Justification for their implementation, or the opposition to enactment, is usually to the moral/religious values of the culture.

#3 - Tim Solon - 05/23/2011 - 21:33

Sigh, Tim. Do we need to rehearse this each time? The evidence is simply against your idealist position.

#4 - Roland - 05/23/2011 - 22:48

Dr. Boer,

I have three questions.

Do you think Lenin overemphasized ideas when he argued that the dictatorship of the proletariat could only be achieved by education and class consciousness?

Can you identify any historical event in which the relative autonomy and reciprocal action of ideas on material conditions has comprised a significant or primary cause? Please do.

Do you deny that NT Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God has influenced recent events in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world, as he hoped ("If what I write could help in any way towards the establishment of justice and peace there [in Israel and Palestine], or indeed anywhere else, I would be deeply grateful", p. xv)?

Thank you for your time.

#5 - Deane - 05/24/2011 - 11:05

I think of how abolition of slavery was once an idea. Do you think those criticizing misguided biblical exegesis undergirding slavery in earlier days hindered the abolitionist cause? Would you have responded to an impassioned abolitionist critique of key biblical texts used to justify slavery with a world-weary sigh and the recommendation, idiomatically put, to "aw, shut up"? Would that be an act friendly or unfriendly to the victims of slavery?

Not sure if you're intending to be cynical as an end in itself, or whether you have a better agenda to suggest for biblical scholars, and if so what, and also if so, how such an hypothetical better agenda would be helped by an end to discussion of ideals that matter.

When I hear ideals expressed with passion by biblical scholars who envision a better world in some way, I see sparks of life that should be encouraged. Your essay to me has the effect of shutting down youthful idealism--a lot more lost there if your essay succeeds than gained. Just my opinion.

#6 - Greg Doudna - 05/25/2011 - 13:15

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