Faith, the Academic Study of Religion, and the Need for Humility

December 4, 2015 | Jeffrey Woolf
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Within the university, scholars of religion generally practice what the sociologist Peter Berger has termed “methodological atheism”—putting aside their own beliefs when it come to their research, writing, and teaching. Jeffrey Woolf sees the merits, and the limits, of this approach:

As a practitioner of the academic method, I have no argument with my colleagues in biblical studies. They follow the rules and try their best to reach the truth, as best they can and as best they understand it. Furthermore, I am not arguing for a theistic approach to scholarship. In my own work, I do not write that “such and such” occurred because God willed it. . . . .

However, within the internal discourse of a faith community, there is no room for methodological atheism. . . . God is the central portion of our calculus. Secular materialism, which drives Him from the universe and beyond, is an anathema to the person of faith.

That does not mean that the findings of historians should be dismissed. Questions are valid. Doubt is a legitimate religious category. However, as with so many other matters, a person of faith must be sustained by his convictions that the historical record will ultimately confirm that which the Bible states; that the divine authorship of the Pentateuch (and inspiration of the Prophets and Hagiographa) will be confirmed; and that the tradition of the Written Law and the Oral Law also transcends the exigencies of the contexts within which they first emerged.

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