If you are a member of SBL (Society of Biblical Literature), you received the 2020 Annual Report, some 35 pages. The report begins with an introductory letter by Executive Director, John Kutsko, who writes on the idea of community. This is apt given the state of the pandemic that we have been experiencing for almost a year now. Many if not all of us who are involved in SBL and the other societies greatly missed last year’s annual meetings. While I appreciate the conveners and organizers for their work in putting together the online conferences in 2020, we also realize that it is just not the same as traveling, gathering, and partaking together in the week’s festivities in the designated city. It really is the community that we have been missing for the last year.
But the second half of the letter surprised me, and pleasantly so. Kutsko writes:
Community does not depend upon unity. When we acknowledge this, the concept of community becomes our greatest strength that overcomes its fragility.
This can be taken in number of ways, some positive, some negative. There are some contexts in which unity is essential for community, but there may be contexts in which unity (depending on what unity means here) is counterproductive. So we read on!
SBL is a community that actually thrives best without unity. Our program units compete and our publications run a wide range of methods that are not always complementary. A fundamental purpose of a learned society is to discuss and debate difference—and to be different. We can be in community without being in agreement. Community is intentional in a way that empathy and even respect are not.
We live in a culture today where the individual’s right to freedom of speech, let alone freedom of thought, is becoming more and more threatened. Rather than respond to disagreements in civil discourse and constructive discussion, we see more people leading with emotions and responding with manipulation. While libel, slander, false accusations, and empty claims are irresponsible and could even be illegal, we have gone to the other extreme in becoming a culture in which we are not able to speak our opinions without fear of losing jobs, friends, or even our lives.
SBL is meant to be an academic community that fosters scholarly discussion, debate, and discourse about biblical literature and its impact on society and culture. It is meant to represent diversity. Its purpose is to create open and safe spaces to disagree, to dialogue, to learn from one another, and to grow by being challenged in our thinking. A wise person once told me that if everyone agrees with me, then I’m probably not doing something right. He was probably a bit hyperbolic, but there is much truth in this. Scholarly discourse does not progress when everyone simply agrees with one another without any critical thought and evaluation. And what we see in today’s society, as well as in the academy and the church, is this pressure to conform to whatever the consensus is. This does not foster biblical scholarship and intellectual thought, and in fact it deters individuals from thinking freely and openly. So I am grateful for Kutsko’s statement and his desire to see SBL to be that community: large, diverse, inclusive, and actively engaged, while maintaining the dignity, respect, and honor of all of its members. These are not mutually exclusive qualities. We can be all these. And if you disagree with me, I’m open to discussion.