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Friday, August 06, 2004

JB15331-Jas #3: general considerations (cont.) 

(15331) Jason BeDuhn [ Fri Aug 6, 2004 12:40 pm] (Re: John 8:58 - Jason#3: general considerations (cont.))

Rob,

Yes, we do seem to have established a substantial common ground, with the first couple of messages involving coming to understand what each other means by various expressions. In response to your message #2 I only want to push a little more on the point of "insider" vs. "outsider." You say:

Rank-and-file Muslims on the street may be woefully ignorant of various elements of the Qur'an familiar to non-Muslim scholars of religion, but their ignorance is likely to pale in comparison to that of people who are neither religion scholars nor Muslims. On the other hand, Muslim scholars of religion are likely to know more about the Qur'an than Buddhist or Christian scholars of religion. A good Christian scholar writing on the Qur'an will surely defer to Muslim scholars specializing in Qur'an studies on a wide array of matters, and would properly bear the burden of proof in claiming that most such scholars have got something wrong in their reading of the Qur'an.

It seems to me that you are speaking here from experience in apologetics, where it is a worthy ideal to defer to authorities of other faiths for fair representations of what they believe and practice, and only on the other faith's self-presentation undertake a comparison or critique. But this is a very different undertaking than the non-apologetic historical study of religion. I am among those trained in the field of religious studies, which is committed to the principle of "bracketing" personal faith commitments in the research and teaching process. I teach in a state university, where such objectivity is a constitutional necessity. I have colleagues who research Buddhism without being Buddhists, Hinduism without being Hindus, Islam without being Muslims, etc. I can tell you that they do not "defer to Muslim scholars" or so forth. Once they are trained in the language, the culture, the history of the religion, and all the other things that make them "scholars," they conduct their research objectively and without submission to religious authority. It is certainly possible, and often the case, that an "outside" scholar has insight into material well beyond that manifested in the contemporary work of "inside" authorities, precisely because the latter typically labor under the necessity of conforming their research to the already established tenets of their faith. By a commitment to the scientific ideals of religious studies, by "bracketing," even those scholars who happen to study their own religious tradition have the advantages of an "outsider" in not being subject to this pressure of conformity. That is how new things are discovered, whereas faith communities by definition are not looking for new discoveries, but confirmations of already established truth. What I am saying, then, is that diligent scholarship closes the gap between insider and outsider knowledge of religious matter, and quite frequently allows the outsider (whether personally or by bracketing) to surpass even the scholars among the insiders in knowledge and insight into the material. There can be no argument from authority, therefore. Everything must be judged on the evidence. Getting back to the situation you seem to be imagining: there is every reason to give preference to the insider on the subject of what contemporary believers think about a specific matter of religion. The outsider usually has a disadvantage here (but even that can be closed, for example when the outsider conducts extensive fieldwork, and may discover that the insider scholar is out of touch with his or her own constituency). But on any historical question (including the historical meaning of sacred scripture) the insider loses any inherent advantage to the serious outside scholar.

best wishes,

Jason B.


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