Saturday, February 25, 2012

My Life as a Heretic...

I have never really been religious. This may have something to do with my family background. My parents weren't religious in more than a ritualistic way. A few of my grandparents were religious. My father's mother was deeply religious. My father's grandmother was, I am told, religious. I knew her but I didn't get to know anything about her religious life. Other family members were more secular. My father's father, for instance, preferred the mystical joys of fishing and an occasional nip of alcohol over the supposed joys of a more traditional religious nature.

Over the years, my college years in particular, I occasionally attended temple, occasionally did the Pesach thing, and occasionally attended Quaker meetings, the last more for political reasons I suppose, than anything else. I emerged from the Vietnam era as a skeptic, governmental discourse and later Watergate taught me that governments lie, a pacifist, an anti-imperialist, and a socialist and I found kindred spirits in silent Friends meeting houses, Jewish radicalism, the kibbutz movement, the CCF, Niebuhr, and Anabaptist conceptualisations of the world and the state (my attempt to come to grips with the nastiness of humankind and, in particular, the Holocaust).

Given this I suppose it was a surprise to some in my family that I would matriculate into a undergraduate Religious Studies programme at college in order to concentrate on Biblical Studies. I think that at the time I was motivated by a sense of mission to teach superstitious fundamentalist types about the real nature of the Tanakh, the Bible, the Christian Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, in a college or university, preferably a research college and university setting in the future, my own little version of Eden or utopia. I very quickly learned the truth of what one of my Biblical Studies told me at one point during my undergraduate career, however, that trying to convert a true believer with empirical history and textual analysis talk out of his or her metaphysical beliefs is akin to banging your head up against a brick wall (a maxim that applies to true believers of all stripes, varieties, and flavours, by the way).

A funny thing happened on my way to a career in academic Biblical Studies. Biblical Studies opened up a world of hermeneutics to me. It helped me to understand that all is interpretation, that all is discourse, and that all is ideology. Hermeneutics, in turn, led me into the worlds of social theory, intellectual history, the sociology of knowledge, and the history of ideology. It led me, in other words, to become as skeptical of academic discourse as I was of discourse that the Bible was the very world of god. As a result I came very quickly to realise and recognise that academia, just like anything else, was, in part, a meaning system grounded, again at least in part, in ideologically created rather than empirical reality and that academic discourse told us as much if not more about the person uttering it than about what that academic was talking about. And that is how I became an academic heretic. I have remained one ever since.

Most academics, just like most of the religious faithful in general everywhere, do not like to be confronted with the possibility that their discourse and their practises, practises they are intellectually and emotionally attached to, are largely socially and culturally constructed. Most academics truly believe that what they do is important, they rationalise that what they are doing is critical for human life or the planet in some way, shape, or form, and that what the do is real. They, of course, make it real via the process of festishisation, transcendentalisation, or universalisation. When someone like me suggests that academic knowledge is as socially and culturally constructed as religion, another type of meaning system, a type of meaning system some academics do see as constructed (hypocrisy?), they react in ways similar to those who maintain the absolute truth of religious claims react to those who raise questions about the absolute truth claims of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, they turn critics into dissidents or heretics and oftentimes ostracise them. And while academia may not be as centralised as the Catholic Church nor have an authority system as top down as Catholicism, it does, like Protestantism, have a conception of what is in the mainstream and what is not. And it is ideologically centralised enough, thanks in large part to socialisation processes that turn academic wanna bes into full fledged practising academics, to make such categorisations stick.

Needless to say most history programmes, to focus on one academic discipline, are reticent to hire anyone who doesn't fit into their little socially and culturally constructed disciplinary boxes. One must be an American historian, a European historian, a World historian. There is nothing to fear in the historical profession apparently save comparative history. They are reticent to hire anyone who doesn't fit into the ideologically constructed boxes that exist like matryoshka dolls within these socially and culturally constructed boxes. One must specialise in American gender history, American diplomatic history, American religious history, and so on. There is nothing to fear except generalisation and comparative history. And they are reticent to hire anyone who doesn't believe in the transcendent nature of primary documents (in reality historians always interpret primary source materials through the lenses of economic, political, cultural, geographic, or demographic causality), the transcendent nature of doing research in primary source material, and the transcendent nature of the structure of history itself. There is nothing to fear except interdisciplinarity, comparative history, and generalisation. Historians, in other words, are wary of those who engage in "philosophy", the term many historians often use to categorise questions that are reflexive (many are also wary of social theory, and comparative history) and use this term to turn valid questions about the human origins of historical knowledge and historical practise into something irrelevant and heretical. Again, this is not unlike how religious authorities turn questions of a similar sort about religion toward irrelevance and heresy as well. This is how meaning systems, meaning systems with notions of insiders and outsiders, mainstream and non-mainstream, right and wrong, orthodox and heresy, good and evil, function and work.

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