Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
(prologue to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet)
Assuming that a student had no prior knowledge of either the Bible or Ovid, which of the two would be more helpful to them in understanding Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
I raise this question not to prove a point. A single example doesn’t prove much of anything. I do raise it to illustrate a problem in the humanities. The streams that joint together in our western experience are diverse and complex in both source and current. We never know in advance what we may need to know to navigate those streams.
I say this despite the fact that the contingencies of history have favored certain streams over others. A battle with a different outcome here, a different political decision there, and yes, perhaps, even a butterfly flapping its winds this way rather than that way in a Brazilian forest, might have favored other streams.
Those contingencies have resulted in our cultural heritage being what it is. We are both their benefactors and their victims. As such, those preferred streams of shared experience enjoy a pride of place. But we should not confuse pride of place with either moral or aesthetic judgment.
It is in this context that I wonder a little about some elements or should I say, “inferred tones” in James Crossley’s essay at The Bible and Interpretation on academic Biblical Studies and several follow-up posts by others. I’m not sure if James and some of the others imply a privileged position for Biblical Studies or I only infer that they do or may. I do agree that Biblical Studies are important enough and welcome enough (and abnormal enough) to maintain a significant place in what is very likely and lamentably a shrinking humanities portfolio. But how significant a place and at what expense? If trade offs are indeed required, how should decisions be made?
Rather, than beginning our thinking on these questions with the results that those contingencies of history have favored, I think we need to begin our thinking with something like Bottéro’s “defense of useless sciences” and reflect on what he taught us of the “university of sciences” which “place(s) the dignity and greatness of mankind before all else in the pursuit and satisfaction of its hunger for knowing and understanding . . . that does not leave anything outside its field of vision, of research, and of study.” If we start with that thought, I think whatever lies ahead for the humanities both within formal education and outside of those hollowed halls will survive and ultimately flourish and whatever painful priorities the current economic contingencies force upon us will be rightly decided or at least decided in a way that will not do permanent harm to any discipline worthy of the name and that includes Biblical studies.