Peter Berger on Gynecologists and Biblical Scholars

Peter Berger on Gynecologists and Biblical Scholars April 20, 2011

Eminent sociologist of religion Peter Berger has penned a very interesting post at The American Interest asking, parabolically, how gynecologists can enjoy intercourse.  More to his point: how can a biblical scholar who examines the Bible according to historical-critical method also be a person of faith.  Bart Ehrman has failed at holding these tensions together, as have several of my closest friends.

I have not.  In fact, I would find it disconcerting if the Bible were less parabolic, obtuse, and paradoxical than real life is.  And life is, if nothing else, parabolic, obtuse, and paradoxical (at least in my experience).

Berger goes on to muse about the Society for Biblical Literature, now under the leadership of my friend, John Kutsko.  John is sailing the SBL through some choppy waters these days.  There was the divorce and then impending remarriage with the American Academy of Religion.  And now a high profile Jewish scholar has publicly resigned because he feels that the encroachment of evangelicals threatens the “critical” nature of the SBL’s scholarship.

I don’t have a dog in this fight.  I tend to think that the majority of the subject matter at SBL and AAR meetings makes the medieval disputes over angels and heads of pins look downright relevant.  However, Berger’s written a great and thought-provoking piece that deserves a read and a conversation:

How can a gynecologist manage to have sex? Presumably by resolutely switching from one mindset to another. How can a New Testament scholar manage to be a Christian? Presumably by a similar exercise of mental compartmentalization.

I don’t know whether there is a literature dealing with the sexual problems of gynecologists (I have no intention of finding out). But there is a huge literature about the problems raised by Biblical scholarship for faith and theology. The problems exploded with the rise of modern historical scholarship being applied to the Bible, beginning earlier but then progressing impressively in the nineteenth century. Much of this new scholarship took place in Protestant theological faculties, especially in Germany—a historically unique event of religious scholars applying the scalpel of critical analysis to the sacred scriptures of their own tradition. The meaning of “critical” here is clear: Biblical texts are analyzed in the same way as any other historical text, with the question of their revelatory status rigorously excluded from this exercise.

via Guidelines for Gynecologists and Biblical Scholars | Religion and Other Curiosities.

"Have you considered professional online editing services like ?"

The Writing Life
"I'm not missing out on anything - it's rather condescending for you to assume that ..."

Is It Time for Christians to ..."
"I really don't understand what you want to say.Your"

Would John Piper Excommunicate His Son?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ken Wilber’s riff on the distinctions between pre-rational, rational, and trans-rational would be really helpful here. I appreciate guys like Borg, Crossan and Ehrman but they seem to be camped out at the “rational” stop and can’t conceive of the train continuing on to a place where rationality is embraced but also transcended.

    Here’s a little info on Wilber’s “Pre-Trans Fallacy”

  • I think Crossan and Borg at least, as opposed to Ehrman, will cross the rationality line, just not in regard to the text. I just heard Crossan speak the other night and he vehemently affirms Christianity, just not the kind most people like. He affirms that Jesus was resurrected, just not bodily. That’s not quite the reductionism you’d expect from someone like Ehrman. I think Crossan does see the train moving on to an especially good place, and often speaks of historical eschatological hope (what he calls God’s “great clean up”) as well as his own hope for something similar. Ehrman is usually just a jerk about such things.

  • Totally agree with you, Bo. I think both Borg and Crossan are less reductionistic than someone like Ehrman but all three seems to operate from the same kind of mindset, albeit with different conclusions. I totally see what you’re saying about Crossan. I see a little mystic in him at times.

  • I think a gynecologist who equated “sexuality” with “genitals” would be thoroughly unable to enjoy sex for what it is. The act of compartmentalizing and reducing something down to its outward form is what robs it of meaning.

    This is exactly what Liberal Protestant scholarship, particularly European Continental scholarship made the mistake of doing–reducing Scripture to the hypothetical redaction-history that it (in most cases) invented out of thin air. With the awe-inspiring term “scholarship” draped around this quest, many mainline churches (ironically) embraced this movement uncritically. After all “they’re scholars…they must know more than I do about it!” The ones who didn’t, the Fundamentalists, reacted in the opposite direction and declared “scholarship” to be in opposition to the Spirit and to the Gospel itself. The result has been over a century of ill-informed folk-theology battling naively-critical mainline scholarship.

    Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle…where it usually resides.


  • Odd assumption that a gynecologist must be male, but anyway, wouldn’t one suspect that such a specialist would have learned a thing or two that might make sex MORE enjoyable for all concerned?

    Which is to say that there’s something deeply strange about the idea of a tension between biblical scholarship and biblical devotion. It leaves one in the position of saying that the Bible is too important to try to figure out what it actually means. If we’ve arrived at the point at which the Great Commandment tells us to love the Lord our God with all our heart OR all our mind, then we’re doing it wrong.

  • Travis

    Peter Berger also espouses a “methodological atheism” for (“believing”) scholars of religion and proposes that sociologists embody a “dual citizenship” between the worlds of their own positionality and that of the people they study. While I like the intent behind these bifurcations, contemporary reflexive ethnographers of lived religion have demonstrated their unattainability. There is no neutral position, no biased disinterested perspective from which to study anything. Some see Berger’s methods a throwback to old-school positivistic objectivity, but I like to give him the benefit of the doubt.

  • Anon

    Gay male gynecologists also likely don’t have any problems having sex.

  • Dan Hauge

    I also think the analogy is a bit of a misfire: does Berger know enough gynecologists to know that their intimate knowledge of anatomy creates a barrier to great sex that they need to mentally shift out of?

    But my main question is: what kind of presuppositions are required in order to do “real scholarship”? At a later point in the article, Berger talks about how true historical scholarship must operate on the basis of skepticism, and in Ronald Hendel’s public resignation he asserts that faith and intellectual inquiry must be completely different, mutually exclusive areas of thought: “They are like oil and water, things that do not mix and should not be confused.” Similar arguments are made when talking about the physical sciences, and their bearing on matters of faith.

    My question has always been, “why?” It seems to me that to require that any faith considerations be excluded up front from any intellectual inquiry is 1) simply an a priori metaphysical commitment, and 2) ensures from the get-go that any conclusions reached by such inquiry will, necessarily, exclude any possibility of faith-convictions being true, or even possible. The deck is stacked before you crack open the first book.

    At another point in Berger’s article, he mentions that the SBL’s position is that “faith is not an acceptable method in the critical investigation of the Bible”. I might actually agree with this, to a point, depending on what they mean by “method”. If it means that “I start out assuming the Bible is historically true by faith, and any conclusions I reach about historicity must align with that conviction” then I agree, that isn’t a valid way to do critical research–all options must be on the table, and scholars must be free to look at different possibilities, different likelihoods, based on our study of culture, archaeology, and other texts of the time.

    If, however, it means (as I think it often does mean) that “historical scholarship must rule out of court any conclusions that don’t align with naturalist presuppositions” then I would differ on that. What we consider “likely” or even “possible” always depends on our own worldview (and yes, everyone has one, even those who insist we are pursuing a Christianity ‘beyond worldview’). For example, in biology there is the frequent assertion that any consideration of intelligent design must be ruled out of “science” always with the caveat that “you can believe God created the world by faith, but that’s not science”. But as any good post-structuralist should know, “faith” and “science” are not absolute entities, they are terms that we use to describe certain activities and ways of thinking, and the way in which we use them always carries the freight of underlying assumptions and ideologies. In the case of science, we define that endeavor by saying we are limited in making claims to what we can repeatedly observe and test. Fair enough, in describing the limits of what science can tell us. But it is another step to insist that “science” must be able to tell us all that we can know about the world, and therefore there is nothing in the world outside of what we can repeatedly observe and test. We are confusing ‘science’ as a legitimate field of endeavor, with the metaphysical insistence that that field of endeavor (what is observable and testable) is all that can possibly be, because “science has told us so.”

    If ‘critical scholarship’ requires, as an initial commitment, that we begin with the belief that nothing extraordinary occurs, and that whatever “God” may exist has nothing to do with the world as we observe it, then yes, critical scholarship is a mindset that is so at odds with faith that one would need to be constantly switching frames of mind in order to be both. But if critical inquiry can at least allow for the possibility of extraordinary events occurring, can allow for the possibility of a God interacting with the natural world, or communicating with that world, in some way (even if one still doesn’t believe in ‘miracles’), then there is no reason why our study of that world needs to preclude the possibility of God’s interaction.

  • Historical criticism is important to understand the history and context behind the text. This research has been a real blessing in my life and ministry. However, I don’t think we can just stop there. That would just impose one more “right” way to interpret Scripture. Plus, who is to say that historical criticism is liberative, faithful, helpful, relevant, etc. in our own contexts today. That is one of the reasons that I find it important to juxtapose historical criticism with Biblical intepretations that are feminist, womanist, queer, postcolonial, liberation, mujerista, etc. Instead of leading to one eternal “right” way of reading Scripture, the diversity of interpretations help the Bible to come to life in ever-new ways. It’s messier – just like real life.

  • A common mistake in conversations like these is to think that all historical critical scholars are the same. Or to think that all of the members of the Jesus Seminar are the same. There is major diversity in both groups. For example, here is a small sample of the members of the Jesus Seminar: Pamela Eisebaum, John Crossan, Marcus Borg, Stephen Patterson, Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre, Rubén René Dupertuis, John Spong, Hal Taussig, Walter Wink, etc. They represent different ages, genders, theologies, methodologies, denominations, etc. They are Christian and Jewish. And they even come to different and conflicting conclusions. Therefore, attempts to collapse all of these folks into a simplistic category is reductionistic at best. Things are always more complicated than we first imagine.

  • Joe L.

    Wilber explicitly identifies Borg with his “Orange” stage, which is highly rational and Modern, although I think he’s moving much more into the Green Post-Modern stage as time goes on.

  • joel kuhlin

    Thanks Tony for a good post, and taking the time to blog about this!

  • Dan Hauge

    Yup, what Brian (10) said.