Reza Aslan, Jesus, and the (False) Presumption of Objectivity

When I watched the clip of Fox News anchor Lauren Green interviewing professor Reza Aslan about his recent book, Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, my initial reactions were nearly as confused as the interview was chaotic. The interview illustrates the state of contemporary religious lack of discourse: everybody is scrambling to find a place to stand from which they can struggle to express the inexpressible with more volume and heft than the other guy or gal. The market feels wide open, and everybody wants their share. But what I found most intriguing about the content of the interview was Reza Aslan’s insistent reliance upon his status as “expert,” with the obvious suggestion that to be an expert in the “history of religions” is to have attained pure objectivity with respect to the content.

Now, I get it: Green’s questions were simplistic with a hint of religious ethnocentricity–some would say even bigotry. She did not understand that academic researchers can (and do) distinguish their personal religious orientation from their academic work. And why wouldn’t a Muslim scholar of the history of religion be motivated to write about Jesus of Nazareth? Why would someone need to be a Christian to be interested in Jesus–particularly from a historical point of view?

What nagged at me during and after the interview, however, was any lack of acknowledgement by Prof. Aslan of the role of subjectivity in academic pursuits.  I found his defensive reaction to the questioning illuminating, in retrospect. It was as if he’d never considered that his personal context (his subjectivity) would have any potential bearing on his work as a “historian” of Jesus. I’m not saying a Muslim scholar can’t–or shouldn’t–write on the historical Jesus, or that a Christian can’t or shouldn’t write on the historical Mohammed. But any member of the history of religion or biblical studies (NT origins, etc.) guild will acknowledge that subjectivity plays some role, right? Can we ever really escape our presuppositions, even in an academic discourse (i.e. history) that seems to assume complete objectivity is possible?

Noted feminist biblical scholar, Elizabeth Schlusser-Fiorenza, in her essay “For the Sake of Our Salvation,” claims that, “No scholarship is objective and value-neutral but is ‘on behalf of.’” The contribution of feminists, liberation theologians, and postmodern thinkers of other sorts is to point out  the “standpoints” in our epistemological frameworks which set the table for our academic work. We can certainly attempt to be as objective as possible, but it might be worth noting that ideology (or presuppositions, or faith commitments, or personal/political objectives, etc.) runs all the way down. Any survey of the “history of Jesus” enterprise will show how often this is true: how often does the “historical Jesus” end up looking so much like the historian–or the historian’s ideal portrait of him/herself? That said, historians do carry a special burden to identify their subjectivity and to attempt to be as neutral, or objective, as possible with respect to their subject matter. But even our choices of what material to study–and what questions to ask–bely that even the “purest” of historians is steeped in human subjectivity.

In this sense, perhaps it would have been a more interesting dialogue if Green had started the interview with: “Reza, why, as a twenty-first century American middle-aged male, were you interested in writing a history of Jesus?” Or given Reza’s apparent, actual, full-time job, “Reza, why, as a professor of creative writing trained in sociology of religion were you interested in writing yet another history of Jesus–and what (if anything) is new that you are adding to this long conversation based on your subjective relation to the material?”

About Kyle Roberts

(PhD) is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Roberts has published Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Cascade, 2013) and is currently co-authoring a theological commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans) and A Complicated Pregnancy: Was Jesus Really Born of a Virgin? (Fortress Press, Theology for the People)