Twenty-seven students sat in desks arranged in a ring around the room. The professor sat with us at the part of the circle closest to the blackboard at the front of the room. His long, spindly legs stuck out from beneath the desk, grasshopper-like. The sheen from his vintage polished burgundy shoes matched the glare of sunlight streaming through the wide windows and reflecting off of his thick glasses. Dr. Karkaroff also sported a trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. His erratic movements and lack of eye contact while talking intimated that his energies were being directed primarily inward to his thought processes.
He seemed a true scholar. And respectable – a good professor for a religious studies class. Earlier in class he had admitted that some of his methods of interpretation were insufficient to understand the Islamic text we were supposed to dissect. He was implementing a postmodern analysis – asking only what the text tells us about those who wrote it as opposed to what the author intended or posited as fact. One student had raised his hand. I waited to see whether he would agree or disagree with the professor.
“In order for us to approach the text this way, wouldn’t we have to assume that all the content has a purpose for being as it is? Intentionally arranged that way for a specific reason?”
Gears whirled in the professor’s head. “Yes. Which you’re saying would be inconsistent if we found particular features that appear a certain way for no apparent reason, which we have, in which case my approach cannot account for everything. Is that what you’re saying?”
“Well, I agree with you.”
I assumed this meant we had decided that religious texts should be interpreted at least partially through a historical-critical lens, asking whether events described in the material actually occurred as the material said they did. I soon found out that I was mistaken.
Students around me began to attack the idea of a historical paradigm by commenting that even our view of history is subjective. “We find what we want to find,” one student proclaimed.
I wasn’t sure of that. Why do ardent atheists do historical research and then convert to Christianity if they are only looking to affirm their presuppositions? Conversely, why do devout churchgoers discover what they believe to be inconsistencies between their faith and facts before falling away? Certainly not everyone who undergoes this kind of metamorphosis subconsciously wished for what they ultimately received. But to an extent this is a reigning ideology in the classroom today, especially the college classroom, and especially in the humanities.