A call to dialogue between postmodernists and historical critics

I am so glad that John van Seters published his response (Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 9.26 [2009]) to Aichelle, Miscall, and Walsh's call for dialogue between historical critics and postmodernists (JBL 128.2 [2009] 383-404). I came across Seters article via the Dunedin School blog.

It will be no surprise that I hold very similar criticisms to Aichelle, Miscall, and Walsh's position. I have been wanting to take a moment to respond on my blog to this 'call' for dialogue since I read it last summer. So now appears to be a great opportunity to do so.

1. It has become evident to me especially in the last year that postmodernism is not a method, and should not be confused with a method, and is not a substitute for empirical research. It does not move us "beyond" the rigors of historical criticism. Rather Postmodernism is a set of critiques and attitudes toward texts and their interpretation that are largely dependent on modernism and historical criticism's own hermeneutic of suspicion.

2. The historian relies on empirical data gathered by using a critical, rational, contextual approach to the materials being studied. In Europe this is called "the scientific" approach to the study of religion rather than the "theological approach".

3. The postmodern approach, which divorces literature from historical context and questing for 'authorial' intent, is more amenable to churched traditions and theological readings which have been at odds with historical methods for 200 years. It claims that texts have a diversity of meanings that are located in the point of view of those reading it and the intertextual associations that those readers make. Thus many postmodernists want to conclude from this that historical interpretation is no more meaningful or valuable than any other. It is as 'ideological' and 'mythic' as the next. This conclusion is very dangerous and very inaccurate for some of the reasons that I outline in #4.

4. The historian is no idiot. Every generation of historians has critiqued its outcomes, well aware that personal biases affect the interpretation or assemblage of the data. In fact, this is a point that I first learned when I was an undergraduate in college in a history class. My professor called it "our colored glasses", and how it was necessary for us to be aware of them because they would affect our interpretation of the data. The fact that we all have biases that affect the interpretative process does not suggest that the historical critical method does not work or that it is 'mythic' or equivalent in validity with any other interpretation. On the contrary! The historian's own hermeneutic of suspicion and agreement to employ a critical or scientific approach to understanding our past demonstrates that the historical method works and that over time, as more and more historical interpretations and critiques of these interpretations are generated, we get a better and better grasp of our past and what was going on.

That's all I have time for today. I need to get back to cleaning and organizing my office, but at least it is a start to the 'dialogue' called for by Aichelle, Miscall and Walsh.