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Updated: Sep 22, 2020

By Jeff Cross

Professors within my area of study, Hellenistic Judaism, routinely encourage us to read relevant literature from critical theory. Although these theories offer a veritable buffet of approaches for the scholar to choose from, the vast majority consistently presuppose a secularized worldview. In recent weeks I have been reading through a collection of essays entitled Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion, which offers a methodological counterpoint to reductionist theories of religion. Among these, Brad S. Gregory’s essay, “Can We ‘See Things Their Way’? Should We Try?”, challenges the typical approaches to analyses of religious thinkers and their ideas.

This volume seeks to apply the methods of intellectual historian Quentin Skinner to the study of religious ideas. Skinner has sought to find an alternative to the methods of materialist and idealist scholars by “[arguing] that we should identify the precise intellectual and political contexts of the texts we are studying, in order to ascertain what their authors meant and what they were doing.”[1]In other words we should do our best as scholars to see through the eyes of those thinkers whom we are analyzing. Gregory’s essay lays out four categories of objections to this methodology as applied to the study of religious ideas and persuasively refutes these objections.

Two objections are epistemological (“cannot”) in nature while the other two are ideological (“should not”). They run as follows: on the one hand, we (1) cannot in principle or (2) should not in principle “see things their way”; on the other hand, we (3) cannot in practice or (4) should not in practice “see things their way.” The first objection, a species of radical skepticism, essentially claims that we cannot truly understand the religious ideas of men and women of the past. Taken to its logical end, however, this argument makes both past and present ideas unknowable and finally swallows up knowledge itself. The second objection contends that certain forces, whether economic, political, or psychological, are more fundamental to reality than religion. Viewing religion through these more “real” categories allows a scholar to break through the illusion of religious ideas and experiences. To argue this, however, is to treat religion in purely secular categories and reduce it to self-interest. The third objection makes the alterity of the past into an insurmountable obstacle. Whereas the first objection regards truly “seeing things their way” as impossible, this argument deems it too difficult to be prudent. Experience, Gregory argues, shows that this is not the case and that “we can learn to read and understand in context—to some degree and admittedly almost always less fully than we would like.”[2] Lastly, the fourth objection contends that “seeing things their way” ends up as glorified antiquarianism and serves little point. This objection also falters, not least because it fails to appreciate the continued relevance of religious ideas for understanding our modern world.

I have noticed how little current scholarship in religious studies takes the perspective of religious practitioners into account. Scholars in my field of Hellenistic Judaism, for example, tend to emphasize a pluralism and lack of unity within ancient Jewish communities. The encroachment of Hellenistic culture in the wake of Alexander the Great, seemingly syncretistic authors such as Artapanus, or figures of “apostasy” such as Tiberius Julius Alexander and others skew the evidence in scholars’ eyes toward disunity. As a result they often speak of many Judaisms rather than one Judaism. This trend of historical reconstruction is relevant to Christianity because scholars of early Christianity, the origins of which lie within Judaism, might transfer to it the perceived pluralism of Hellenistic Judaism. It is of course true that early Christianity was not a monolithic unity and that heresies and schisms appeared. Nevertheless, it seems fairer to treat the evidence of unity and disunity with equal weight. The perspective of Christians today might offer to scholars a useful counterpoint to the paradigm of difference equals disunity. Although contemporary Christianity does exhibit much difference among its various branches,—take the examples of Roman Catholicism, Protestant denominations, and Eastern Orthodoxy as a starting point—we Christians do not on the whole speak in terms of many Christianities over against one Christianity. Scholars ought to take heed of this and entertain the possibility, by “seeing things their way,” that Hellenistic Jews and early Christians could see themselves as united in spite of their differences. The methodology advocated by Gregory and the writers of this volume shows greater respect for the ideas of religious practitioners themselves and mitigates the risk of reading our own ideas into those of our historical subjects.

[1] John Coffey, Alister Chapman, and Brad S. Gregory eds., Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 2.

[2] Ibid, 37.

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