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The Bias Criticism

Posted on: September 15, 2019

Category: Theology

The Bias Criticism

Quest Thoughts: The Bias Criticism

I have been writing Quest Learning Centre blogs in this newsletter format for about five years. It is probably not a surprise to know that readers criticize Quest blogs. Some of the criticism is constructive and appreciated, like corrections or fine-tuning to my ancient Greek translations and commentary expanding on some things I have relayed in overly simple terms. Other times the criticisms come from areas of life I am unable to relate to, and inevitably they deal with the authority of the Bible, who God is, or what God said or wants. The latter criticism comes with the charge that the Quest Centre, like the CBC (and Westar, because I am related to Westar), is biased. I want to explore briefly the "bias" criticism today.

The word bias came from French during the Middle Ages. Though it is clear the word came from French to English, it is not clear exactly how the word originated. In medieval French, bias was an oblique or slanted line. To hold a bias is to have a built-in slant for or against an issue, a philosophy, a political preference, or a theory. In the Enlightenment era (the seventeenth to the nineteenth century), the key was objectivity. True knowledge was objective and beyond bias. Since the Enlightenment, we have learned that no matter who we are or what we think, we all hold a bias in some form or another. I like the joke that "reality holds a liberal bias." It refers to nature itself having a preference for life, growth, plurality, and creative possibilities through the processes of evolution. (A liberal bias is presumably about supporting plurality and seeking creative possibilities, which seems to be nature's forte.) If it is not possible not to hold a bias, what value does the criticism "you're biased" hold?

If everyone holds a bias in some form or another, then the charge of being biased amounts to very little. If someone charges that I am biased or Quest is biased, the only answer available is that of course, I'm biased; that's not really the question. The question is does the bias help? Is it a constructive or destructive bias? Since the Enlightenment period, we have learned to use and often rely on critical tools for education. We have also learned that critical tools do involve our biases and that we need to discern between what is unquestionable (what we have to accept and move on) and what is questionable (what is subject to debate and discernment). In Biblical Studies, it is no longer questionable to state that the Bible is not a history book. The Bible is a theological document. It holds epic stories about many things that never actually happened in history. It has a lot of sayings that Jesus actually never said. It has letters that Paul never wrote. In fact, we do not even know who wrote the Bible. Mark did not write the Gospel of Mark; Jeremiah did not write the Book of Jeremiah. It's difficult, on the historical level, to discern between what actually happened and did not happen in the Bible. Instead of trying to defend the Bible as a historical document, we have learned (at least in the academic study of the Bible) to ask what the writer of a particular book wants to say as a theologian, not as a historian and certainly not as a scientist.

The biases in the academic study of religion are earned biases through critical thinking and critical methodology. They are not opinions equal to any other opinion out there. Of course, bias is inescapable, but do biases based on critical thinking help us or hurt us? Provided they are open to change with new evidence or better theories, I would argue that biases based on critical thinking skills are helpful. The only option for us is to hold the best biases we can, biases that are thoughtful, open to change, supportive of pluralism, loving and creative in nature. We can never hold the Enlightenment ideal of complete objectivity. We can ask, though, if our biases are constructive; we can both ask and even insist that our biases be based on critical thinking skills and that they hold a vision that includes the whole of the human family and our home, planet Earth.

I do not mind being accused of bias, and I have to admit that often I'm not aware of the biases I hold. Many biases are unconscious. But I defend the principle that bias alone is not a fault. What I work at, and what I hope to be about, is holding the best and most helpful biases presently possible.

©By David Galston

 

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