In a post on his self-titled blog, Dr. Claude Mariottini responds to criticisms of his earlier claim that in terms of biblical hermeneutics, “believers” are inherently superior to “atheists.” Mariottini correctly observes that atheism cannot pass the “outsider test”: it cannot scientifically prove that God does not exist, anymore than Christianity (or any other religion, for that matter) can scientifically prove otherwise. This fact is recognized by more erudite atheist commentators such as Richard Dawkins, but often overlooked or ignored by others.
However, a number of other points are extremely problematic–at least in my view. First and foremost, how does one define the term “believer”? Are Jews included within this category? Mariottini does not explicitly address this question, as he is principally concerned with the battle between Christianity and atheism. He does state that the distinction between Christian exegetes and their atheist counterparts is that the former “read the Bible from a historical, sociological, linguistic perspective, but also from the perspective of faith and religion.” Under those criteria, Jewish scholars would certainly qualify, at least as far as Hebrew Bible studies are concerned. But even if these are included, the fact remains that a number of Jewish scholars have turned their attentions to the world of the New Testament, with fruitful results. Samuel Sandmel and Amy-Jill Levine immediately come to mind. Should their efforts be discarded because, in Mariottini’s words, they cannot “say ‘Christ lives in me'” or “understand fully what it means to be saved by grace”? Having recently read and enjoyed Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew, I would respond in the negative.
Furthermore, Mariottini’s argument that faith provides intrinsic exegetical superiority is largely incompatible with the last century of mainstream biblical scholarship, which has encouraged a more critical, scientific approach. A number of significant developments have occurred as direct results of this shift, including the reevaluation of key texts in light of extrabiblical historical and archaeological findings and the advent of ecumenical research efforts. A return to faith-based scholarship would likely undermine these developments. While Mariottini may believe that atheists are at a disadvantage because “they approach the Bible with false assumptions” such as the belief that there is no God, the actual veracity of those assumptions remains beyond the scope of human epistemology. Neither the atheist nor the believer can produce evidence which irrefutably verifies his or her claims. In their own ways, they are both matters of faith… and members of both camps must recognize and respect this.
Ultimately, it seems that the validity of Mariottini’s arguments rests with one’s understanding of the relationship between faith and scholarship–specifically, whether the two must go hand in hand. Anyone who feels that the discipline is and should be dedicated to Christian apologetics will likely be attracted to his position. On the other hand, anyone who feels that it is a primarily critical enterprise–capable of being strengthened by faith, but not simply operating on its behalf–will likely dissent. Personally, I believe that it is quite possible to be a person of faith and a critical scholar, and to use the results of the latter to strengthen the former. Also, I feel that it is possible to learn a great deal from critical scholars who represent faith commitments other than my own. Both of these beliefs certainly reflect my experience at Yale. Nevertheless, I realize that others will hold different views. Shall we agree to disagree?