Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Shadows of Authenticity

I was thinking the other day of ways to explain why the criteria of authenticity in historical Jesus studies simply do not work. I have a good intuitive sense of why they do not work, I also have a good theoretical articulation. What I was looking for was some sort of metaphor that could demonstrate why they are just kinda absurd.

And along came Plato.

More specifically, the allegory of the cave. For those residing in an actual cave for the last 2400 years, the allegory of the cave is a classic discussion of epistemological issues located at the top of Book Seven of Plato's Republic. It describes a hypothetical situation of a group of humans who have only seen shadows in a cave their whole lives and then suddenly are exposed into the real world. Such humans would have previously assumed that shadows were the real, and indeed when exposed to the real they would naturally think what they now saw to be less real than the shadows.

Now, the point of the allegory of the cave is not that some of the shadows are real objects whilst others are not. The problem is that in fact none of them are objects but rather the consequences of objects. Likewise is the case with the statements in the gospels. None of them are objects, in the sense of being historical events, but rather the consequences of events. Therefore setting out to decide which statements in the gospels are true and which are false is precisely equivalent to setting out to decide which shadows are objects and which are not. Thus we can see that the criteria did not fail because they did not measure up to the task for which they were formulated but because more fundamentally that task did not measure up to intelligence or reason.

This brings us to Lonergan's altogether heuristic distinction between data and facts. Facts are objects known through judgment operating upon intelligence operating upon attending, and such judgment is precisely that a given statement of fact adequately apprehends the real. In the realm of historiography facts are statements that adequately apprehend past reality. Put less abstractly, they are known events. By way of contrast, data are not that which is known to be true but rather that which is experienced. Now, of course, there is a relationship between data and fact, just as there is a relationship between shadow and object. Wherever I see a shadow I can reasonable suppose that there is an object nearby. Likewise where I see data I can suppose that there are facts to be found. The relationship between data and fact is typically less direct however than even the relationship between shadow and object. It is not unusual to have an one-to-one relationship between shadow and object: the sun striking my body produces a single shadow, such they in common parlance we refer to this as "my shadow." Things are less often the case in historical investigation. A single historical event will often result in numerous data, all of which when considered today can potentially lead to the intelligent and reasonable apprehension of that event. This is particularly the case with historical Jesus studies, where our basic sources remain the data found in four distinct accounts of Jesus' life. All this tells us though is that the effort to convert data into facts is even more absurd than the effort to convert shadows into objects, thus obviating all the more the criteria.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Reality of Historical Jesus Studies

I have generally been a little hesitant to post things here that deal directly with historical Jesus studies. After all, I am writing a monograph on the matter, and I would like to use this space to post ruminations on critical realism that go beyond the more specific focus of that book. Plus, I don’t want to steal my own thunder. Still, there are sometimes things that burn in your brain and won’t release you until you share them with the world. What follows is an example of such a thing.

I have come to realize that the central issue in historical Jesus studies is where we locate reality, and thus also what we mean by the word "true." The criteria approach proceeds upon the supposition that the real (or, to use the term preferred in such scholarship, "authentic") is to be found in ancient statements about Jesus. That means it is in the gospels, canonical and otherwise, select passages in Paul, select passages in Josephus, etc. This supposition however does not entail that every ancient statement about Jesus is a statement about the real. Thus it is concluded that the task of the historian is to distinguish those statements which are about the real from those which are not, i.e. to distinguish true statements from untrue statements, and then to assemble a Jesus from whatever statements are deemed to be true. Thus results what Collingwood called "scissors and paste history," wherein our historical narratives about Jesus become mere collages of pieces cut out from the gospels and potentially other material. I like to think of this as the Frankenstein Jesus.

The last ten years or so have seen genuine advance in the study of the historical Jesus precisely because the discourse has moved from a general focus from the truth of statements found in the sources towards the interpretation of said sources. This shift can be conveniently dated to Dunn’s Jesus Remembered, and has been advanced by the work of younger scholars such as Chris Keith, Anthony Le Donne, and Rafael Rodriguez. They have rightly grasped that what we have in statements given in the sources are not the real but rather interpretations, and that moreover what we produce as Jesus historians are in fact further interpretations. For the historian the question “Is this statement given in the sources?” is thus invariably a question mal posée. That the discourse as whole has moved from such questions is genuine advance. It nonetheless leaves a number of epistemic questions unresolved.

Where I think that we presently struggle is that we do not yet have a clear idea how one can move from the interpretation of sources to judgments about the real. If we locate the real within our interpretations then how do we know what interpretation is true? How do we know whether my interpretation is any truer than your interpretation? That is where we are at, I think. There has been genuine advance, but like any genuine advance it has created new difficulties that now require resolution. In response to these difficulties there will inevitably be the reactionary who wants to return to the more familiar world that existed before the advance (consider Foster’s argument at “The Blow-up in Baltimore” that what Keith and Rodriguez are doing isn’t really historical Jesus studies because it is not concerned with the truth of statements given in the sources); there will also be the nihilist who will declare that if the old ways of doing things will not yield truth then truth cannot be found (consider Crook’s declaration in the same session of a “New No Quest”); then there will be those who diligently, thoughtfully, carefully, work through the difficulties (consider Keith and Rodriguez in that session, or Le Donne and Jens Schröter in print). Neither the reactionary nor the nihilist represents a way forward, for the former counsels taking a step back whilst the latter denies the very possibility of further steps.

Returning to the question of the real, if it is not to be found in statements given in the sources or our interpretations of the sources then where is it to be found? Lonergan’s answer is that it is found in the “fit” between the sources and the interpretation thereof. Put differently, the interpretation is a hypothesis advanced to answer a question borne from observation of the sources (which we will henceforth designate as “data”) and insofar as it is warranted by the data a hypothesis articulates the real. Thus Lonergan’s critical realism is the position that the real consists of warranted judgments. For the historian the real is not a past “out there” because there is no past out there. Today is not two millennia ago. However the past that did exist two thousand years ago left traces of itself upon the presence that does exist and through these the historian can say things about that past. And insofar as those things which the historian says are warranted by those traces they are the real.

Of course, the above is just a sketch of how to go about making judgments regarding the (historical) real, but then again this is only a blog post. Perhaps it might give readers a better sense of why I am doing the work that I am doing. Contrary to those who might think that we are in a bad place in historical Jesus studies I think that quite the opposite is the case. We are in a very good place. There has been tremendous advance. Our next two steps are obvious: we need to consolidate this advance whilst using it as the stage for further advance. Exactly how that consolidation and further advance will look is the question before us.

Monday, 21 July 2014

On Anthropology

I was just re-reading Marianne Sawicki's wonderful 2000 monograph, Crossing Galilee. On p. 63 she begins a section entitled "Hypotheses are not data." Her argument in this section is pretty straight-forward: the social sciences might help us in the process of organizing the data that we found in ancient texts but for the historian of the ancient they do not constitute data in their own right. This is so self-evident that it is incredible that it needs to be said. Yet for some corners of the discipline this will come as surprising and deeply unwelcome news. That is because, as she argues on p. 68, too many New Testament scholars "have been methodologically seduced by the hope that 'social scientific models' can reveal universal causal laws enabling us to patch gaps in empirical data."

Now, don't get me wrong. I love the social sciences. All of my degrees have come from faculties of social sciences, including my B.A. in Anthropology. It's exactly this love and knowledge of the social sciences that leaves me deeply suspicious of this weird animal called "social-science criticism." The problem is that it really has little resemblance to the social sciences. Take the idea, very often thrown around but remarkably never actually demonstrated, that cultural anthropologists proceed by the use of applying cross-cultural models. Never mind that this recurrently fails to attend to the very real distinction between cultural and social anthropology and that if there is any tradition of anthropology that is resistant to cross-cultural comparisons it is precisely cultural anthropology. The truly intriguing thing for me is that during the entirety of my undergraduate degree the one word that I never heard uttered by any of my professors, working anthropologists all, was "model." Anthropologists just don't proceed by applying preexisting models. They just don't. Anthropologists don't know of an honor-shame model that can be decontextualized from particular ethnographic studies and "applied" to historically remote situations. Yet somehow we who are not anthropologists know of these anthropological procedures that anthropologists do not. What do we know about anthropology that they do not?

Let us return to the distinction between cultural and social anthropology. The short version is that the term "cultural anthropology" is associated with the Americanist tradition that developed around Franz Boas and his students at Columbia, whilst "social anthropology" developed in Britain around Bronislaw Malinowski, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and E.E. Evans-Pritchard (and thus is typically known as the "British School." Incidentally, the definitive history of the Americanist tradition is Regna Darnell's Invisible Genealogies and of the British School Adam Kuper's Anthropology and Anthropologists). This distinction doesn't even cover the Durkheimian tradition, which of course was greatly vitiated when most of Durkheim's students were killed in the First World War, or the Marxian. Despite rumours in our discipline there really isn't a Weberian anthropology, Max Weber's impact being registered heavily in sociology but hardly at all in anthropology. But I digress. The upshot of all this is that Boas, the founding father of what we call cultural anthropology, argued strongly for a cultural relativism and historical particularism that precludes the sort of model-driven work that we all too frequently attribute to anthropologists. Instead Boas and his students were concerned with showing how each culture group that they studied (due to their situation in early twentieth-century America they tended to focus upon Native American and Canadian groups) was unique in its own, how its thought could only be understood on its own terms, how their cultural uniqueness was the result of unique historical experiences. In other words, they were historians, but historians of culture who just happened to be interested in Native American and Canadian groups. Even though both cultural and social anthropologists would eventually work out a common language for referring to such recurrent cultural forms as matrilineality, patrilineality, etc., it was understood that such forms were little more than heuristics. And in any case anthropologists haven't been fixated on kinship for the last forty or so years, mostly because it became painfully obvious that kinship was not the key for understanding a group that it was once held to be (short version: it was once thought that kinship forms were generally conservative and durable, but more recent work has revealed that in fact they are quite fluid and adaptive. Such dynamism of course all the more calls into question the feasibility of anthropological "models").

Now, Boas was a neo-Kantian, but that's okay. He was basically an exegete, really, just one concerned with other-than-European cultures. He couldn't care less whether a group's cosmology was true or not. He cared only about how their cosmology helped them make sense of their world. His basic insight holds: before we rush to judgment about the validity of another people's beliefs we need to understand those beliefs on their own terms. Why were they so compelling to the people who hold them to be true? This is the single most important lesson I learned from a degree in anthropology: not how to short-circuit the process of understanding by imposing "models" ripped from other cultural and historical contexts but rather how to diligently seek to understand the particularity of the specific group with which one is concerned to understand. This is really what Lonergan calls being intelligent: understanding what a person or people thinks. This is not a substitute for determining whether these beliefs are true but rather a necessary precondition for such judgment. After all, how can I know whether something is true if I do not know what that something actually is?

Friday, 18 July 2014

SBL and the Birkat Ha-Minim

So, at SBL Annual this year I'll be presenting in the John, Jesus, and History Group, on the Birkat ha-Minim and its (ir)relevance for the study of the Johannine aposynagōgos passages. This presentation will be based upon my now-published dissertation. Given the exigencies of writing a dissertation I was not at that time able to develop as fully I would have liked the Lonerganian method of which I was already enamored. So, as I preparing for this SBL presentation alongside writing a monograph on Lonergan and HJ studies I am taking this opportunity to more fully articulate the core arguments of my dissertation in explicitly Lonerganian terms.

This has led me to follow my own advice and explicitly draw up a list of conditions necessary to affirm that the Johannine aposynagōgos passage are, following Martyn, describing the Johannine community's late first-century experience of being expelled from the synagogue via the mechanism of the Birkat ha-Minim. Of course I identified and investigated the conditions necessary for this to be the case in my dissertation, but I did so in a way that in retrospect seems more haphazard than I would now prefer to be the case. I stand by my judgment regarding the Birkat ha-Minim and its relevance to the aposynagōgos passages; what has changed is that I would now go about arguing that judgment in a different, heuristically more systematic, fashion.

Among the conditions necessary to affirm that the aposynagōgos passages describe the Johannine community's late first-century experience of being expelled from the synagogue via the mechanism of the Birkat ha-Minim are surely the following:

1) The aposynagōgos passages must be referring to events that took place something between c. 75 and 100 C.E.
2) The Birkat ha-Minim must have been operative within synagogues by c. 75 to 100 C.E.
3) Christians must have been the original targets of the Birkat ha-Minim.
4) Given the rabbinic material which Martyn cites to support his hypothesis, the aposynagōgos passages must be referring to a liturgical context.
5) That same material must indicate the Birkat ha-Minim was a mechanism for expelling people from the synagogue.

Let us now re-phrase these as Yes, No, Maybe questions, and seek to answer each in turn.
1) Do the aposynagōgos passages refer to events that took place something between c. 75 and 100 C.E.? 9:22 and 12:42 manifestly situate their narratives in Jesus' life, thus vitiating any attempt to suggest that they refer to events of four or five decades later. Jesus in 16:2 indicates that the disciples will be made aposynagōgos after his departure, thus allowing the possibility that this particular passage might have in mind events of the later first-century. We can thus by way of answering this question offer a qualified "Maybe," the qualification being that for 9:22 and 12:42 the answer must be "No."
2) Was the Birkat ha-Minim operative within synagogues by c. 75 to 100 C.E.?
The general consensus among rabbinic scholars seems to be that the Birkat ha-Minim does not date this early. That said, I cannot say that it is impossible that this was the case. This condition however is not simply about when the Birkat ha-Minim was written but rather when it became operative within synagogues. There is good reason to think that it was sometime later than c. 100, but, again, I cannot rule out the possibility that it was operative by this time in at least some synagogues. Again, the best answer is "Maybe," but with a general inclination towards "No."
3) Were Christians among the original targets of the Birkat ha-Minim?
Rabbinic scholarship seems divided on this matter, with solid arguments on both sides. So, again, a "Maybe" seems to be the best judgment on the matter.
4)  Do the aposynagōgos passages refer to a liturgical context?
Here we can give an unqualified "No." In not one of these passages is there even a hint of a liturgical context, and in fact the account in 9:22 would seem to clearly envision a non-liturgical one.
5)  Does the rabbinic material indicate that the Birkat ha-Minim a mechanism for expelling people from the synagogue?
The rabbinic material regarding the Birkat ha-Minim tells us that a reader who stumbled whilst reciting the prayer would be removed from the position of reader on suspicion of being a min. There is no hint that the person was thus expelled from the synagogue. In truth we probably would not even suspect that expulsion was involved if we were not already reading this material with the aposynagōgos passages in mind. Thus the answer to this question is a clear "No."

So we are left with three answers that are "Maybe," two that are "No," and none that are "Yes." There is thus no reason to accept Martyn's hypothesis that  that the aposynagōgos passages describe the Johannine community's late first-century experience of being expelled from the synagogue via the mechanism of the Birkat ha-Minim and in fact good reason to reject it.

For greater elaboration of this argument, as well as my own historical reconstruction of what is going in the aposynagōgos passages, come and see me at SBL in November. Or read my dissertation. Or both.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

On Faith and Reason

I have of late been thinking about the fact that Bernard Lonergan was a Catholic theologian. To my way of thinking it is precisely the fact that he had an interest in the broader Christian tradition that makes his thought so very apposite to the study of the New Testament. For many that same interest that obviates his relevance for the work of biblical studies. There are those who would suggest that as a religious man Lonergan was given by definition driven by faith rather than reason. What I find quite interesting about such an assertion is that it is typically just that: an assertion, all too infrequently defended by reasoned argument. Rather, it turns upon an often unexamined supposition about the incompatibility of faith and reason.

It would of course be the case that faith excludes reason if, but only if, they are mutually exclusive. Yet reason would require that we demonstrate the veracity of such mutual exclusion. What, exactly, is it about faith that excludes reason? Is it the content of a religion’s beliefs? Insofar as religion is a human phenomenon then it is reasonable to expect that any given religion contains some beliefs that are reasonable and others that are unreasonable. Moreover, even if I showed that the beliefs of a particular religion were without exception unreasonable I would have shown that this is the case only with that religion; I would still have said nothing about “faith” an object in its own right. Moreover, even if I showed that every belief in every religion known to have existed or currently exist is unreasonable I would not have established the possibility of a future religion in which that is not the case. Content is thus a dead-end.

If it is not the content of faith that makes it incompatible with reason than perhaps it is the means by which faith generates knowledge. The problem is again diversity: there is no distinctive epistemology common to all religions and only to religions. Heck, even within particular religions there is significant epistemic diversity. In one sense for instance the entire Catholic-Protestant divide turns on a properly epistemological question, namely what are the appropriate processes by which one generates distinctly Christian knowing. Yet the differences between their epistemologies pale compared with those of, for instance, Buddhism.

If faith has neither a distinctive nor epistemology then what makes faith distinctly faith? Let me define faith by reference to orientation, which is to say that faith is the conviction that we live in an intelligible world. This conviction might take the materialist forms frequently favoured by atheist thought, the realist forms frequently favoured by Christian thought, or the generally idealist forms frequently favoured by Buddhist thought. Despite the diversity of explanations all proceed on the supposition that the world is an intelligible place. This supposition is faith, and thus understood faith becomes not a barrier to but rather a necessary precondition for genuine reason. Only if one believes that the world is intelligible can one fully commit oneself to the work of intelligently understanding the world. Just as St. James and St. Paul identify faith as the basis for genuinely just works so too can we consider faith to be the basis for genuine reason. Put otherwise, all reason—and not just theology—is faith seeking understanding, such that a doctrine such as the existence of God or the existence of a multiverse are not doctrines are reason’s attempts to give an account of a faith held antecedent to the work of reason itself.

One need not of course subscribe to the above, all-too-hastily sketched, account of the relationship between faith and reason. That’s not even the major point of this post. The major point is that one cannot suppose them to be mutually exclusive without demonstrating this to be the case, at least not if one wants to operating in a reasonable fashion. Unreason is no less unreasonable simply because one declares it to be reasonable. Absent demonstration of the invariant irrationality of faith then any dismissal of any thinker, such as Lonergan, simply because she or he is a person of faith is in fact quite unreasonable. That of course is not surprising, as such a dismissal would in fact be predicated upon an ad hominen argument.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

On Ideology

As one learn from a diligent study of the human sciences--or, barring that, a quick jaunt to Wikipedia--the term "ideology" was coined during French Revolution. It initially had a non-pejorative meaning, and referred merely to the study of ideas (an "idea-ology"). It didn't take long for this non-pejorative meaning to give way to something closer to our typically pejorative usage of the word, wherein to call something "ideological" is typically to belittle or dismiss said thing. I still remember quite vividly a moment in one of my earliest seminars as a graduate student, wherein I referred to something from the work of a feminist biblical scholar only to be informed by one of my classmates that feminist biblical studies was a form of "ideological criticism" and thus not worthy of our attention. Of course, in so doing, said classmate revealed much more about her own ideological blinders than she elucidated about feminist scholarship.

That leads to the question: what is "ideology"? Lonergan has a very simple answer: ideologies are programmatic accounts offered to justify the self-alienation that results from a recurrent failure to follow the four-fold imperative. Rather than undertake the difficult and diligent work of learning to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible, people invest their energy into justifying their very failure to undertake this work. The end result are worldviews that are inattentive, unintelligent, irrational, and irresponsible. National socialism stands as exemplar of all ideologies for no attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible person can doubt that it was anything but inattentive, unintelligent, irrational, and irresponsible. It also shows clearly that the end result of all ideologies, if they are nurtured and allowed to flourish, is totalitarianism. After all, inattentive, unintelligent, irrational, and irresponsible, they can be persuasive in contexts wherein attentive, intelligent, rational, and responsible inquiry is actively prohibited.


This explains quite well the recent high-profile dismissals of first-rate scholars from institutions that one has good reason to suspect are dominated by ideology. I will not name names, but we all know to whom and to what institutions I refer. The ideology in this case is a notion of "biblical inerrancy" that can be held by no attentive, intelligent, reasonable, or responsible individual and thus can only be maintained by strict policing of the questions that can and cannot be asked, the propositions that can and cannot be advanced, and ultimately the thoughts that can and cannot be thought. The problem is not that these institutions have too much respect for scripture but rather that they have nowhere near enough, for they are unwilling to let the scriptures be themselves. They are unwilling to consider seriously the actual data of the scriptures, instead dictating in advance what study of the data can and cannot reveal. In short, if indeed scripture is the word of God then such an ideology seeks to tell God how God can and cannot speak.


Lest this critique seem unbalanced however one cannot ignore the radical skepticism of self-proclaimed “free thinkers," who, precisely because of own ideological blinders they are anything but free. They simply invert the basic supposition adopted by the inerrantist. If the inerrantist loudly proclaims, before ever examining the actual data, that the biblical text is true in all regards, the radical skeptic loudly proclaims that it is false in all regards. Of course, since attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible inquiry will not permit such extreme positions each side must make strategic concessions. The inerrantist acknowledges that whilst every proposition in scripture is true in every conceivable sense it is not the case that every proposition is equally relevant to contemporary Christian thought and practice; conversely, the radical skeptic acknowledges that there will be “kernels” of truth within all the myth. With each strategic concession however both acknowledge that their initial starting point is in fact not as unassailable as their ideology would suggest.


Ultimately, both the inerrantist and the radical skeptical each operates from a metaphysics of scripture: the inerrantist according to the principle that because it is God’s truth scripture cannot contain any proposition that is anything other than true in every conceivable sense, the radical skeptic according to what constitutes the precise inverse, that because there is no God scripture cannot contain any proposition that is anything other than false in any conceivable sense. As such, there emerges from this discussion a basic rule of thumb: whenever you hear appeals to metaphysics used to limit interpretative and historical possibilities you can be fairly confident that ideology is near at hand.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

On Miracles

Over the past quarter-millennium much ink has been spilled over the question "Are miracles possible?", or more precisely for the purposes of the biblical scholar, "Are biblical accounts of the miraculous possible?" Sadly much of this ink has generated more heat than light, in large part due to a recurrent sophistic move on the part of the various writers. If miracles are defined, as they often are, as the impossible then, no, miracles are not possible. Indeed, the question, under such conditions, would in fact be "Is the impossible possible?" To this, again, the answer must be "No," but a "No" so trivial that it tells it absolutely nothing about the world in which actually live.

More to the point, the question as formulated completely misunderstands the Weltanschauungen of the biblical writers and the succeeding Christian tradition. The claim was never, at least not until the rise of a mechanistic worldview, that miracles were instances of the impossible but rather that we live in a world wherein such phenomena are possible given the proper condition. The proper condition, of course, was that the God of Israel willed that the phenomena would occur. This was understood as "supernatural," certainly, but not in the sense of violating invariant natural laws, for quite simply that's not how people thought about the world. It was supernatural in the sense of a graced nature; or, more precisely, since all nature, as God's creation, is an instance of divine grace, a miracle is simply a particularly notable instances of said divine.

The miraculous as the violation of invariant natural laws is really a product of Newton and the gang. It's basically inconceivable before the 17th century. It is however a latter-day development of classical thinking, which sought the invariable and necessary. Indeed, Newton and Leibniz represent the zenith of such thinking, with calculus translating into mathematical precision the scattered observations of centuries regarding the constancy of change in the world. It sought to offer an invariant account of the variable, and thus reached the limits of thought that is focused upon the invariant.

As I discussed in a recent post, Lonergan argues that classical thinking began to give way to statistical thinking, i.e. the transition from statements taking the basic form "Y invariably follows X" to statements taking the basic form "Y frequently follows X, but sometimes Z will occur instead." With this breakthrough in human cognition such fields as the human sciences, biological evolution, and quantum physics open up for investigation. And also opens up a new definition of the miraculous, one that is not rooted in an outdated notion of nature as invariant: a miracle is a phenomenon at gross variance from what can be statistically anticipated to be the case given our current understanding of the universe.

Such a definition does not stack the deck by a priori defining out of possibility the miraculous. It also respects that the problem of the miraculous is not first and foremost an ontic matter but rather an epistemic one: it stems from the difference between our understanding of the universe and those of the ancients through the medievals. It further focuses upon phenomenon rather than cause, again to avoid stacking the deck: after all, if the miraculous is defined as God's intervention in the natural order and if one holds that God does not exist then one must rule out in advance the possibility of the miraculous; but, such metaphysical fiat holds little water in actual exegetical and historical investigation, and when it comes to asking about the biblical traditions that is exactly where the issue of the miraculous takes us.

For, as intimated at the beginning of this post, what is really at stake in these discussions is the intelligibly of the biblical account. Note that I said "intelligible," not "veracity." The question in the first instance is not "Are these accounts historically plausible?" or "Did the events happen?" but rather "Are the accounts intelligible?" Certain (but far from all) thinkers during the Enlightenment declared the accounts prima facie absurd, the product either of deliberate fraud or an infantile inability to discern reality from fantasy. Obviously one should approach the writings of fraudsters or man-children differently than one approaches the writings of intelligent, reasonable, and responsible adults, even if one needs to recognize that intelligence, reason, and responsibility are themselves variant across the history of the human species. That is, precisely due to the intelligent, reasonable, and responsible investigations carried out by previous generations each generation operates at a different "level," such that it no longer intelligent, reasonable, and responsible to affirm that which was intelligent, reasonable, and responsible to affirm. Lonergan refers to this as operating "at the level of our times. It is, of course, a foundational idea, a necessary corrective to the sort of anachronism that breeds the sort of sophistry that is the question "Is the impossible possible?"

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

A perhaps not numerous center

At the very end of Collection (the first of three volumes of Lonergan’s collected essays) Lonergan writes that

[c]lassical culture cannot be jettisoned without being replaced; and what replaces it cannot but run counter to classical expectations. There is bound to be formed a solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists. There is bound to be formed a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that new development, exploring now this and now that new possibility. But what will count is a perhaps not numerous center, big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transitions to be made, strong enough to refuse half measures and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait.


An initial word is in order regarding the use of the term "classical culture." Throughout his work Lonergan regularly poses "classical" against "modern" culture. By the former he means the ways of thinking associated with Platonism and (given his Thomistic heritage) especially Aristotleanism. Classical culture sought invariant laws; it conceived of truth as something located only in the universal and never in the contingent. It began to face major challenges with the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, but survived via a transformation into a mechanical view of the world that sought refuge by defining the world as a sort of unvarying and non-contingent clockwork. As this mechanical view broke down in the face of the more dynamic understandings of change brought about in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the full appreciation of the contingency of development across the various spheres of human knowing--notably via relativism in the study of physics, evolution in the study of biology, historical-mindedness in the emergence of the human sciences--this classical culture finally had to give way to the full emergence of a modern culture that cannot locate truth strictly in the invariant but must seek truth also and perhaps even most fully in statistical regularities. This is the move from thinking about science, natural or human, as the study of necessary laws to thinking of it as the study of probabilities.

The "solid right" develops whenever there is a refusal to move from valorizing the necessary to foregrounding the probable. This "right" is not self-identical with what we call the "right" politically or religiously, although certainly much if not most or all of the hermeneutical wrangling that falls under the rubric of "biblical inerrancy" would indeed be part of the solid right. Biblical inerrancy is simply a way to avoid the hard work of empirical investigation by making a grand sweeping a priori claims regarding the invariant and necessary historicity and veracity of the literal words of the biblical text; put otherwise, it identifies "historicity," "veracity," and "literal" as virtual synonyms, a move that no one in fact made before perhaps the 19th century--and for good reason. Yet the sold right also takes the form of the dogmatic opposition to anything that looks "supernatural" or "miraculous." Whenever one reads that a miracle story simply cannot be true because miracles necessarily cannot happen you are dealing with an instance of the solid right, one that would rather rely upon sweeping and pre-empirical metaphysical pronouncements regarding the invariant state of the world than it would upon the difficult work of actually slogging through and seeking to genuinely understand the relevant empirical data. This of course is not a defense of "supernaturalism" but rather of the inane sloppiness of thought that mistakes metaphysical for historical thinking.

We see the scattered left in various turns to literary, feminist, Marxist, queer, post-structuralist, linguistic, etc., criticisms. I want to be clear though, lest I be mistaken: there is much to be learned from all these criticisms. They are compelling precisely because they hit upon genuine insights. These insights provide powerful correctives to our pre-existing ideas, simultaneously deepening our knowledge of the world. They must be affirmed wherever it is reasonable and responsible to do so, and indeed failure to thus affirm those genuine insights would constitute a refuse of reason and responsibility. The problem emerges when those insights are affirmed not via the result of attentive, intelligence, reasonable, and responsible inquiry into the truth of the matter at hand but rather via ideological commitment or a desire to be perceived as avant-garde. Again, the religious "right" is just as implicated as the religious "left." In my experience many of the most ardent devotees of what Lonergan calls the "New Method Laundry" are evangelicals who desire to show themselves conversant with the broader human sciences.

Similarly, the "perhaps not numerous center" will potentially consist of persons who are religious and politically on both the left and the right. I saw "potentially" because one cannot rule out a priori that those who most diligently seek to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible will not thus consistently fall on one or the other side of the traditional left-to-right spectrums vis-à-vis religion and politics. This however would emerge precisely a posteriori, precisely because of diligent attention, intelligence, reason, and responsibility, one that is possible precisely because one has refused to succumb to the temptation to allowing ideological fiat short-circuit the process of inquiry. The positions that emerge would in fact be stronger than those advanced on a simple ideological basis; for instance, I am confident that women must have full equality with men precisely because any alternative condition would be demonstrably unintelligent, unreasonable, and irresponsible. My argument however is not from a personal preference or an ideological commitment but rather the result of diligent inquiry into the very nature of things, and thus my argument is significantly stronger than those who have not undertaken such diligence. The same is the case of course with regard to the study of the New Testament: show you your exegesis without reason and I will show you my exegesis by reason.

Friday, 4 July 2014

All Lonergan is summed up in AIRR

The title of this post is a play on a mnemonic that I devised for remembering Lonergan’s four-fold imperative: be attentive; be intelligent; be reasonable; be responsible. Or, AIRR. This encapsulates in nuce the basic structure of critical realist thinking, and indeed I would go as far as to say that just as all of Torah is summed up in the statement “Love others” so is all of Lonergan summed up in this imperative. Everything that he writes elsewhere really are but efforts to both account for why this is the recurrent structure of human knowing at its best and also to consider the entailments of that fact.

The four-fold imperative can be stated in a more expansive form as follows: attentively observe the data; intelligently understand what one has observed; reasonably judge as true or false one’s understanding; responsibly respond to one’s judgment. This could be re-phrased entirely, now not as an imperative, but rather as ideal steps in the process of knowing, as: first, empirical investigation; second, develop a hypothesis; third, verify or refute the hypothesis; fourth, adopt any practice implications that issue from the verification or refutation.

To illustrate, let us consider whether Paul wrote Colossians.

In the beginning I attend to the data. I notice that Colossians bears a style and makes statements that seem at variance from that evident in the letters that I suppose were written by Paul. This constitutes my initial empirical investigation of the matter.

Now comes the work of intelligence. It begins with a question, one that in theory is the same for every work of intelligence: “How do I best account for what I observed in the data?” In this case I will more precisely ask “How do I best account for the formal and substantive differences that I have identified between Colossians and the authentic Pauline literature?” Asking this question I come to the initial understanding that Paul did not write Colossians. This constitutes my hypothesis.

Yet a hypothesis is not a conclusion. A conclusion is that a given hypothesis is either true or false. It is via reason that I reach this conclusion. As with intelligence, the question for reason is always in theory the same: “Is the hypothesis true?” Note that whereas the question of intelligence cannot be answered via a simple "Yes" or "No," the question for judgment is articulated such that these, as well as the non-answer "Maybe" (to be given when one finds the data insufficient to allow judgment), are the only possible answers. In order to answer this question I make a list of all conditions that must be satisfied if the hypothesis is to be judged as true. If all these conditions are met then an answer of “Yes” to the question “Is the hypothesis true?” will be warranted, such that in fact it would be unreasonable to render any other answer; if any condition is not met then “Yes” would be unwarranted and thus unreasonable to render.

These conditions are themselves judgments rendered in other investigations. This involves us in a web of judgments, one that could in theory become infinitely recursive. Fortunately scholarship is a collective process, so in many cases others have already investigated the matters that I must consider in determining whether conditions have been met. As such, unless there is reason to reinvent the wheel, I can often rely upon the good judgment of my colleagues. Dealing with the conditions necessary for veracity vis-à-vis the hypothesis that Colossians is non-Pauline I might list the following questions (note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, as it is simply an example):

--Is it in fact the case that the letters and only the letters that I consider to be authentically Pauline are indeed authentically Pauline? (For it is this corpus that I have established as a baseline for comparison against Colossians).
--Is the formal and substantive variance between this corpus and Colossians such that the same mind which produced said corpus cannot also have produced Colossians? (For it is this variance that stands as my primary evidence for non-Pauline authorship).
--Can competing explanations for the variance, such as the work of an amanuensis, be persuasively excluded? (For although non-Pauline might be a possible explanation it might not be the only possible explanation; and if not the only possible explanation it might not be the correct one).

Note that I articulated the above as "Yes" or "No" questions. If I have enumerated all necessary conditions then the following will be the case:
If all conditions are answered by “Yes” then the only reasonable answer to the question “Is the hypothesis true?” will be “Yes.”
If any conditions are answered by “No” then the only reasonable answer to the question “Is the hypothesis true?” will be “No.”
If any conditions are answered by “Maybe” and no conditions are answered by “No” then the only reasonable answer to the question “Is the hypothesis true?” will be “Maybe.”

Finally we come to the matter of responsibility. If I judge it to be the case that Colossians is non-Pauline then responsibility demands that whenever this judgment makes a difference I operate as if it is the case. It is irresponsible to call true false and false true, or right wrong and wrong right; or, as Paul would have it, let your Yes be Yes and your No be No. With the work of responsibility located firmly posterior to the work of reason Lonergan is pushing towards the idea that a responsible person is a reasonable person, for it in fact is profoundly irresponsible to proceed with indifference to the matter of truth and error. Thus this is what allows Lonergan to open his account of knowing towards an account of ethics.


So, AIRR: be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable, be responsible.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Two wonderful books

Ben Meyer's last published work, Reality and Illusion in New Testament Studies, bears the sub-title A Primer in Critical Realist Hermeneutics. It is certainly a primer on critical realism, no question, but as an introductory text it leaves something to be desired. Truthfully, although he had a first-rate mind, Meyer is at times a quite opaque writer. Yet given that Lonergan's two key works--Insight and Method in Theology--together run in excess of 1100 pages, and that these constitute but two volumes of the twenty-odd volumes planned but not yet all published in the Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, such introductory and summary volumes are a virtual desideratum for those first encountering Lonergan and his thought. I am always on the look-out for such volumes, both to enrich my own understand and also to recommend to others.

To this end, I just recently happily discovered a wonderful little book: Mark T. Miller, The Quest for God and the Good Life: Lonergan's Theological Anthropology (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2013). In just over 200 pages Miller, assistant professor of theology at the University of San Francisco, manages to make the basics of Lonergan's thought accessible to the uninitiated. Not only does it accurately and fairly represent Lonergan's thought but it does so in a remarkably lucid and fluent fashion. It is sufficiently succinct and well-written that one could easily consume the entirety in a couple days of dedicated reading. Moreover, unlike Meyer in Reality and Illusion, Miller abundantly references Insight, Method, and other of Lonergan's works; particularly happy is the fact that in the case of Insight his references are to the pagination found in the 1992 Collected Works edition. It occasions little surprise that on the back cover Robert Doran, one of the editors of the Collected Works, not only praises the volume but recommends its use in introductory courses on Lonergan.

I recently also discovered Neil Ormerod, Re-Visioning the Church: An Experiment in Systematic-Historical Ecclesiology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014). Actually, "discovered" is not the right word: I knew about the volume before it was released and in fact swallowed the bullet and paid international shipping to get it delivered from the US to Canada as it was going to become available in the former country a bit earlier than in the latter. I was not disappointed. If Miller's book is an excellent introduction to Lonergan then Ormerod's is an excellent extension of Lonerganian thought and ideas in new and exciting directions. As the title might suggest, Ormerod is a systematic theologian. Yet the title should also suggest that he is a systematic theologian who recognizes the importance of history in doing his work. This is only proper from someone working in an explicitly Lonerganian framework, for Lonergan envisioned his own work as the introduction of historical thinking into Catholic thought. Consistent with this vision Ormerod argues that a "systematic ecclesiology" must be empirical/historical, normative, dialectical, and practical, giving a specifically Lonerganian sense to all these terms. He draws heavily on the work of the aforementioned Robert Doran, especially the latter's 1990 volume Theology and the Dialectics of History, to articulate a historical and dialectical account of the Catholic Church.

Incidentally, it should be noted that Ormerod's focus upon the Catholic Church comes from a recognition that ultimately one cannot do everything in one volume, and since Ormerod is a Catholic theologian drawing upon the thought of other Catholic theologians it makes good sense for him to focus upon the Catholic Church. This does not mean that his ideas are of exclusive relevance to studying Catholicism however. For instance, his student Shane Clifton has worked with many of the same notions in his own investigations into Australian Pentecostalism; cf. Pentecostal Churches in Transition: Analyzing the Developing Ecclesiology of the Assemblies of God in Australia (Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies; Leiden: Brill, 2009). Whilst reading and re-reading Ormerod however what I find truly thrilling is that his work helps open up the possibility of a New Testament scholarship that on the one hand can integrate its discoveries into something much like what the Annales School called the longue durée (i.e. development taking place over the course of centuries) whilst on the other hand facilitates the work of the later "functional specialties" of the theological endeavour, what Lonergan described as foundations, doctrines, systematics, and communications. IMHO, Ormerod's Re-Visioning the Church stands as an example of an all-too-rare breed: a study that produces genuine, indisputable, breakthroughs in the conceptual apparatuses necessary for the work of theology.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Gratuitous Canadian Pride

Today is July 1st, Canada Day, and so this seems a good time for a digression on Bernard Lonergan and Ben Meyer's Canadian connections. They are actually pretty straight-forward. For his part, Lonergan was born in Buckingham, Quebec, and began his early studies in Canada. Later he would teach at Regis College, a Jesuit college affiliated with the University of Toronto and which today houses the Lonergan archives. He ended his life at a Jesuit infirmary just east of Toronto and is buried in a Jesuit cemetery a bit west of Toronto.

Although born in Chicago, Ben F. Meyer taught from 1969-1993 in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University, located in Hamilton, Ontario, a city about an hour's drive from Toronto. At the time Lonergan was teaching at Regis, and so the appointment to McMaster allowed Dr. Meyer to work and live in close proximity to the man whom he would later call in print "the master." My understanding is that this proximity was for Meyer part of the appeal in coming to McMaster, whose RS department was at that time less than five years old. Meyer would for the next fifteen years teach alongside E.P. Sanders before the latter moved on to Oxford and was succeeded by Stephen Westerholm. He retired in 1993 and sadly passed two years later, still resident in the Greater Hamilton and Toronto Area.

I had the wonderful good fortune of doing graduate work in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University, although I never had the privilege of meeting Dr. Meyer. I was still in high school when he passed away. I did however have the opportunity to study under several of his former colleagues in the department. As a New Testament scholar who also happens to be Canadian I think that there is yet significant work to be done in examining Meyer's contribution to New Testament studies specifically in Canada.