by Robyn Whitaker
Lately I have taken to interrupting students who begin a sentence with “I feel…” and asking them to rephrase their statement on the basis of argument and evidence. While I’m not trying to convey that feelings are irrelevant, I am attempting to help highly churched seminary students learn to separate their own assumptions and emotions about the biblical text from interpretations that can be argued for on the basis of historical and literary evidence. At least that is what I tell myself. John Corrigan’s Emptiness: Feeling Christian in America has challenged me to think again.
If I’m honest this process of separating emotion from reason is frustrating and I find myself thinking back to a student I taught very early on. On the first day of an Introduction to the New Testament course she described herself as a “feminist, atheist, Jew.” She had never read the New Testament and I found her discovery of it throughout the semester rather delightful. At a superficial level it was easy to think of her as a student free of all that religious bias, a sharp contrast to the clearing of clutter that often has to occur for the highly churched when introducing them to biblical scholarship. Of course, she was no more “free” than the others; her assumptions and experiences of the text were just refreshingly different to me.
Corrigan’s Emptiness talks about the role of emotion in religion and particularly the requirement of emptiness in American Christianity. Whilst he speaks about a particularly American context it is an interesting idea to think with as a teacher of biblical texts. For starters, it has helped me become aware of my own bias as a teacher and some of my own assumptions that needs to be challenged. I am deeply ambivalent about emotion and I prize the rational. This means I rarely engage emotions in the classroom and I am at risk of ignoring them in the texts I teach.
There are a couple of implications for teaching the Bible that spring to mind when reading Corrigan’s work on emptiness. Firstly, students who come from the kinds of religious backgrounds Corrigan describes might not be aware of how all pervasive this idea is, that they are empty vessels who receive God’s word. In its worst form this emptiness ideology supports the doctrinal idea that the Bible came down from the divine realm in its final form and thus negates the insights of history, context, and a whole range of scholarly pursuits such as source and redaction criticism. That is, it negates human contributions to divine revelation. Similarly, it can manifest in a naïvety about students’ own assumptions or a resistance to having to do with “work” of interpretation. Surely the text should just be clear for those willing to receive it?
I currently use a couple of class exercises to try and counter these issues. At the beginning of semester I ask students to write a reflective piece about who they are as interpreters, explicitly asking them to name their biases and core identities. At the end of the semester I return their reflection and ask them to think about what has changed. Of course, this exercise works best for the already self-aware. In a seminary context I think it could helpfully be reframed in terms of emptiness and the desire to be filled. Additionally, I hold a debate in class about whether theology precedes or follows scripture and, lastly, I ask them to think about authority and whose authority they have trusted to teach or interpret the Bible for them. These latter two conversations tend to reveal unstated suppositions and can help with self-awareness, but there is still the issue of emotion.
An unavoidable implication of Corrigan’s work is that emotions relate deeply to cognition. If we are educating whole persons we are engaging with them intellectually, bodily, emotionally, contextually. How we do that in an integrated way is something I’m still working on: it is easier to find ways of sidelining or externalizing emotion than engaging it. Moreover, if Corrigan is correct, emotion plays a major role in every religion and here we move beyond the individual. I plan to try and help students recognize the emotions, including emptiness, on display in the biblical text so a conversation can begin. Indeed, doing so might help students, in the words of Corrigan, be “better positioned to appreciate the similarities and differences among religious groups in different parts of the world. … [and] able to better understand religion in relation to other aspects of life” (p. 16).