Friday, 18 August 2017

The Exodus in Our Time, Pt. I

A few years back, I attended a doctoral defense wherein one of the examiner's asked the candidate if a particular distinction that she had made in her thesis was academic. I remember being struck by the remarkable impropriety of the question, if taken literally: an academic, employed by and sitting in the the academy, was critiquing an aspiring academic for being academic. But such a query raises a subsequent one: what questions matter, and why? It's with that in mind that I want to think about historical doubts regarding the existence of Moses and the occurrence of an Israelite exodus from Egypt. The reason that that should matter now should be obvious: given the current struggles over the legacy of slavery in our time, it is a question of some material relevance whether or not the single most defining event of the biblical tradition common to both Judaism and Christianity, and to a lesser extent Islam, was in fact the successful escape of thousands of slaves from captive labour. If the Israelites were never enslaved in Egypt nor escaped that slavery, that has potentially significant impact for the many persons who hang their hopes for freedom and a better life for themselves and their descendants upon this event. Given the significance of the matter, this will be a three-part post: here, I will address the ancient data, in a subsequent post the grounds for negative judgment regarding the existence of Moses and occurrence of the exodus, and in a third the cultural import of this entire discussion.

It is often stated today that there is "no evidence" for the exodus, by which is usually meant "no extra-biblical evidence." And certainly there is a degree of truth in that: there is no clear, direct data outside the biblical tradition for the exodus. But that argument seems hardly sufficient to merit the conclusion that the exodus did not occur. This is an argument from silence, and arguments from silence tend to be among the weakest that one will find in historical thought. The question with any such argument is always "Should we expect such data?" In this case, "Should we expect extra-biblical evidence of the exodus?" Precisely to the extent that we cannot answer "Yes" with confidence, to that extent the argument from silence is unsound. In this case, confidence does not seem high. Israel was hardly a particularly significant actor in the ancient Near East. Why its departure from Egypt should be noted is not clear. It is equally unclear why the Egyptians themselves should be expected to have recorded what, if we take the biblical literature at face value, would have constituted such an ignominious moment in their history. It is noted that no archaeological remains of the exodus have been found, but that forces us to consider what we should expect to find in the archaeological record. This tends to be left under-addressed in such discussions. We do, after all, know that persons with southern Canaanite connections were present in the southern Sinai--the route of the exodus, as described in the biblical account--during the Late Bronze Age. Yes, many of these persons seem to have been employed in mining operations, but their presence raises possibilities that a group of southern Canaanite slaves escaped from Egypt might well have had access to networks of support in the southern Sinai (indeed, the biblical text intimates that this group had such access throughout the Sinai and the Negev, perhaps not surprising given the transhumant heritage of the Canaanite peoples, the early Israelites included).

It is sometimes argued that the fact that the early Israelites were of Canaanite extraction furnishes evidence against the exodus. If they were Canaanites, the argument goes, they must have always lived in Canaan. This is highly dubious. As noted above, we know that ancient Canaanites existed outside of Canaan. We have abundant evidence of significant Canaanite populations in the eastern delta region of Egypt during the mid-second millennium, exactly where and when the biblical tradition locates the Israelites. And the interaction between the eastern delta region and Canaan raises a fascinating set of questions, because although we do not have Egyptian accounts of a figure named Moses or of something that looks particularly close to the exodus, we do have Egyptian accounts of peoples (whom they named the "Hyksos") who likely 1) came from Canaan; 2) dwelt in the eastern delta; 3) rose to great power in this region, so much so that they were responsible for bringing the Middle Kingdom to an end; 4) were defeated by Egyptian kings; and 5) left the region in significant numbers to return to Canaan. Compare this with the Joseph and exodus cycle, where we have a people who 1) came from Canaan; 2) dwelt in the eastern delta region; 3) rose to great influence in this region; 4) were enslaved by Egyptian kings; and 5) left the region in significant numbers to return to Canaan. Moreover, Pi-Ramesses, one of the cities in which the Israelites are said to have laboured, very likely sat at the site of Avaris, the Hyksos' capital. I am not suggesting that the Israelites should be identified with the Hyksos, certainly not in a hard sense (although I do not think it inconceivable to consider that the Israelites entered Egypt among the peoples known as the Hyksos, which appears to have been largely a covering term to describe a variety of groups and are often conceived in modern scholarship as having slowly infiltrated rather than invaded the delta). I am suggesting that the fact that both Egypt and Israel preserve memories regarding the rise and fall of southern Canaanite influence in the eastern delta, followed by a flight back to southern Canaan, seems to defy the likelihood of mere coincidence, and perhaps undercuts the argument that we have no extra-biblical evidence relevant to the exodus.

Thus far the relevant data. In my next post, I will consider more fully the grounds for negative judgment regarding the existence of Moses and occurrence of the exodus.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

No, Seriously: Racism is Evil

Okay, four posts in a row relating to the events that recently took place in Charlottesville, thus very much breaking my own policy regarding the focus of this blog. But it seems to me, the more that I reflect upon it, that these are the times that try intellectual traditions. Whether the tradition takes its cues from Lonergan or Marx or Freud or..., it is at times like these that the tradition in question reveals the extent to which it is up to the task not only of making sense of our world but also of providing intellectual grounds by which to engage with and change the world. For although we cannot think our way out of the situation in which we find ourselves, neither can we expect that a failure to think will do us much good.

Towards the above end, I will in this post think about a distinction drawn in Robert Doran's remarkable development of Lonergan's thought, Theology and the Dialectics of History. He distinguishes between two dialectics: that of contraries on the one hand, and contradictories on the other. "Contraries," he writes, "are reconcilable in a higher synthesis, while contradictories are not." In short, contraries are both/and, while contradictories are either/or. With dialectics of contraries, human flourishing is advanced through a creative tension between a limiting (or integrating) pole and a transcendent (or operating) one. The integrator holds together the dialectic as an integral unity, while the operator moves the dialectic towards new possibilities. So, for instance, one might conceive society as integrating by spontaneous intersubjectivity, i.e. the way that we naturally and unreflectively interact with one another, while it is moved forward by practical intelligence seeking to alter those interactions towards desirable ends. Fail to recognize the reality of spontaneous intersubjectivity and our efforts to transform society collapse as we do not adequately attend to the range of viable social possibilities. Fail to recognize the necessity of practical intelligence and harmful intersubjectivities are allowed to become or remain the norm. Put more abstractly, one cannot hope to achieve social revolution overnight, but neither can one expect that the world can or should remain unchanged.

But the more urgent matter for us to consider at this point in our history, I think, is the dialectic of contradictories, the exemplar of which Doran identifies as the dialectic between good and evil. When faced with such a dialectic, one must opt for one pole or the other, because between them there is not creative tension but rather destructive antithesis. In our situation, one either affirms the full humanity of all persons, regardless of skin colour, or one does not. One cannot compromise on this. One cannot say "Well, I see that you affirm the full humanity of persons of colour while that guy over there denies that they have any humanity, so we'll split the difference at half-an-humanity." Well, one can say it, but in so doing one has chosen to stand with the racists. One, quite simply, has sided with evil.

Of course, the above is heuristic. It sketches out how things should be in order to begin thinking about why reality so often falls short. In reality, choosing to affirm the full humanity of all persons does not mean that there won't necessarily be situations in which one finds that one's existing beliefs or practices functionally deny that full humanity. It does mean that one becomes increasingly alert to that possibility, and when faced with it as a reality one alters one's beliefs and practices so as to affirm the full humanity of all persons. Making the right choice does not make one perfect, but it does put one on the road to righteousness.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Love in a Season of Hate

I'm violating my own policy here by a third consecutive post on contemporary politics, but as I reflect upon our current situation I cannot help but feel that with the Charlottesville riot (interesting how that word is avoided) perhaps we've crossed some sort of Rubicon. Every generation, it seems, faces a defining moment, a "Nothing will be the same after this" moment. Sometimes they are obvious: the assassination of JFK, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the events of 9/11. Sometimes they are perhaps less obvious, and that might be the case with Charlottesville. But just as 9/11 forced the world to confront the reality of terrorism enabled by a distorted Islam, so is Charlottesville forcing at least the US to face the reality of terrorism enabled by a distorted Christianity. And like it or not, that is precisely what is happening here. Since 9/11, we've lived in fear of a distorted Islam enabled by Muslim-ish leaders who represent something very far from the best of the tradition. Now, we have to live in fear of a distorted Christianity enabled by Christian-ish leaders who represent something very far from the best of the tradition. This is the distorted Christianity of the George Wallaces, the Jerry Falwells, the Franklin Grahams: a Christianity that rose to prominence through the effort to maintain segregation, that cynically exploited the AIDS epidemic in order to depict LGBT persons in the harshest possible terms, that abetted the raise of virulent xenophobia in the post-9/11 era, and that now is quite happily getting in bed with the so-called "Alt-Right." It is to Christianity as Al-Qaeda is to Islam.

It's in this context that I find myself increasingly persuaded of Lonergan's wisdom in placing such emphasis in his understanding of human flourishing upon religious conversion. As I've mentioned in this space before, religious conversion for Lonergan is the conversion to ultimate meaning. It entails grounding one's being not in parochial group interests or narcissistic individualism but rather in something that allows one to see all of humanity, and increasingly all of the cosmos, as valuable and beautiful. In a word, it is conversion to love. It is what distinguishes between distorted religiosity and authentic religiosity, and thus why it can be described as religious conversion. Distorted Islam, distorted Christianity, are distorted precisely due to the absence of this religious conversion. It is the inability of these "Christian" leaders to love--to truly love, in a way that touches and lightens the soul--that drives their hatred and fear of others. Being so far from the best that humanity can be, they suppose that the values of everyone around them are equally decrepit. When you are the worst, you assume the worst.

With the assistance of David Bowie, Queen reminded us that although love is such an old-fashioned word it is still the one thing that makes all the difference. As we live through a season of hate, the necessity of love is all the more evident. If we are to oppose hate we must rediscover love as a civic virtue. In fact, that seems to be the real dividing line today. Not between Right and Left, or between Christian and Muslim, or between religious and irreligious, but rather between love and hate. Those who have been converted to love, whether Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or Jewish or atheist, whether female or male, trans or cis, gay or straight, will stand strong on one side, while those who have not will stand shrieking on the other. And I do believe that in the end the gentle strength of love will win over the violent weakness of hate.

Nazis, Memory, and the Gospels

I've long dreaded what will happen when the Greatest Generation, with its wealth of experience, passes away. And we are fast reaching that point. The last veteran of World War One passed away in 2012, ninety-four years after that conflict ended (the last veteran who saw actual combat died a couple years earlier). Taking that as a measure, the last World War Two veteran should pass away around 2039. The last Holocaust survivor will probably pass away a few years later, as these included children. But we have already reached the point when these women and men are no longer active members of civil society. Towards the end of the war Germany was forcing boys in their young teens into uniform; a boy of thirteen in 1945 would today be eighty-five, likely saw little to no action, and probably retired from his post-war career a couple decades ago. Older veterans--such as my grandfather, who served from '39 through '45--would be well into their nineties (my grandfather volunteered in '39. If he was still alive, would have turned ninety-five this year). A lone Dunkirk survivor showed up, in uniform, at a screening of Nolan's Dunkirk, and made international headlines; he was ninety-two. Again, we have Holocaust survivors who are a bit younger, but still into their seventies and eighties (and those with the strongest memories of that time will of course be towards the upper end of that range; a survivor who was three years old in 1945 would have a valuable story to tell, and we would do well to listen, but it would differ qualitatively from that of a survivor who was fifteen. But even that three-year-old would turn seventy-five this year). In many ways, the Greatest Generation's collective wisdom has already in large part disappeared from public life. At the very least, it's nowhere as prominent as it was when these women and men were in their prime. I am just old enough to have had schoolteachers who lived through those years. No one much younger than me could say the same.

This weekend brought home very strongly what a loss this truly is. Persons present in Charlottesville report that the majority of the Nazi losers who gathered there were Millennials. One friend who was there estimated that persons in that age range accounted for about 90% of the white supremacists who showed up. These are the great-grandchildren of the Greatest Generation, some probably the great-great-grandchildren. And I think that significant. I don't know about anyone else, but I can say that I know my parents and their lives very well (if forced, I could probably tell you almost down to the month what city or town my parents lived in), my grandparents and their lives reasonably well (I can certainly give you the broad outlines of at least what countries they lived in and when), but my great-grandparents and their lives barely at all. In fact, of my eight great-grandparents, I have memories of meeting just one, my mother's maternal grandfather, and really when I think about him all I can recall is a visual image of his face. I know nothing about my great-great-grandparents. And that for the most part is what the Greatest Generation is to the Millennials: people they can barely remember if they met them at all. No wonder such persons do not share my deep, instinctual horror of Nazism. They did not grow up surrounded by the women and men who suffered most from those years, who fought and lost in the struggle to stop the terror.

It is with this experience that I think about a particularly fruitless debate in recent historical Jesus scholarship, regarding how well eyewitnesses remember things. This debate is fruitless in that it rather misses the point of history. The debate views history as a game of Chinese Whispers, wherein the transmission of eyewitness experience is a matter of transcription. The historian's job, under such an understanding, is to identify transcription error in the transmitted information. But of course that's not how it works. When my grandfather would tell me stories about the war, he wasn't just relaying factual information. He was relaying an experience, or really an entire Gestalt of experiences. He was relaying his fears and his convictions about the matter. And frankly, when thought of from that perspective, does it matter if he made small errors, or if I did? I remember him talking about watching tanks burn at the Battle of Monte Cassino. What if that experience actually took place at the Battle of Anzio, and either he or I remember it wrong? Would that make a difference to how I understand the sheer horror that he communicated to me, about his realization that the crews were trapped inside, burning to death? I remember him talking about how my great aunt's first husband died thirty minutes after first seeing combat. What difference would it make if he was killed after forty-five minutes, or twenty-four hours, or three days? I remember being told that he was killed in the Netherlands. But what if it happened in Belgium? What difference would that make? The central point remains: my grandfather had at that point been in and out of combat for  years, and he couldn't get over the unfairness that someone he knew lasted so little time in the war zone. And that survivor's guilt is not a fact subject to transcription error, nor is the message that fascism and hate are awful because fascism and hate are exactly why he and so many of his generation had to suffer through such horrors.

This is one thing that I think that the scholars who work on social memory in the gospels have gotten very right: what matters most is the experience that is communicated, not the minutiae thereof. Of course, the details do matter. For instance, there have been persons who have claimed to be Holocaust survivors, who cynically even sought to profit off of such claims, but whose claims were shown to be false precisely because of the minutiae. That's an altogether different matter. It is an invaluable contribution. It is nothing less than the discernment of truth from error. Equally invaluable is the work of those historians who seek to calculate just how many were killed in the camps, or how the Nazis actually, concretely carried out their genocidal scheme. But none of that can be permitted to obscure the real importance of listening to persons who lived through those times, nor of preserving and passing on their stories. The real importance lies in the dramatic reality of human experience that they sought to convey, the horror and destructiveness of hatred and warfare. Likewise, the gospels seek to communicate a particular set of human experiences, all of which converge on those of Jesus's earthly followers, namely the experience of Jesus himself. These were experiences that changed them, and that change compelled them to change the world. And if history is to be anything more than pain-loving antiquarianism, it is to such experiences that we must attend.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Irrational in Charlottesville

I try to keep this space free of politics, as much I can, but as I watch the images coming out of Charlottesville today I just can't. I'm also currently planning a course on Religion, Violence, and Peace for the fall, which due to current events has become increasingly about the euphemistically named "Alt-Right" (there are other words by which I might more accurately describe such trouble-makers, but neither this blog nor the classroom is a space for such language). As someone who works on Lonergan and scripture, I am naturally thinking through these matters from a Lonergan perspective, and so I'll make some suggestions from that perspective about how one might think about what we see coming out of Virginia today.

Lonergan has a four-fold imperative: Be Attentive. Be Intelligent. Be Reasonable. Be Responsible. Let us take the question: are white persons systematically disadvantaged in the US simply for being white? One attends to the relevant details, such as statistical data. One exercises one's intelligence in an effort to understand the situation via inference from the details to which one has attended. One renders judgment, answering "Yes" or "No" to the question of whether white persons qua white persons are systematically disadvantaged in the US. Then, one operates in conformity with that judgment. In this particular instance the facts of the matter render only one reasonable judgment: No, white persons are not systematically disadvantaged in the US simply for being white. Persons born into poverty and who happen to be white might be systematically disadvantaged, but that is incidental to (and in some very real senses despite) their whiteness. By contrast, if one were to pose the question "Are persons of colour systematically disadvantaged in the US simply for being persons of colour?" the answer must, again, unequivocally, be "Yes." Any other answers to these questions (such as those that invoke such nonsense ideas as "reverse racism" or "white genocide") demonstrate a failure of attentiveness, intelligence, or reason, quite possibly--one suspects probably--all three.

This is where responsibility comes in. If--contrary to fact, intelligence, and reason--I hold that white persons are systematically disadvantaged for being white, and if--contrary to fact, intelligence, and reason--I hold that persons of colour are not, then this distorts my conduct. It renders it impossible for me to intentionally conduct myself in a responsible manner in situations wherein my positions on these matters make a difference. In principle I might end up behaving responsibly, but that would be accidental, and altogether despite my failures of attentiveness, intelligence, and reason. This is all to say that the pathetic losers polluting Charlottesville with their violence are unquestionably quite irresponsible, and they are irresponsible precisely because they are irrational. In turn, they are likely irrational because they refuse to properly exercise either their intellect or their capacity to attend to details. In short, what we see in Charlottesville is not simply a collective moral failure, although we do see that, but also a collective failure of intellect and reason. The cries of the Alt-Right are the cries of the unintelligent, the irrational, and the irresponsible.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Of Gnostics and Trans-Identity

N.T. Wright recently set off a minor dust-up in the blogosphere with the following letter to the Times:
Sir, The articles by Clare Foges (“Gender-fluid world is muddling young minds”, July 27) and Hugo Rifkind (“Social media is making gender meaningless”, Aug 1), and the letters about children wanting to be pandas (July 29), dogs or mermaids (Aug 1), show that the confusion about gender identity is a modern and now internet-fuelled, form of the ancient philosophy of Gnosticism. The Gnostic, one who “knows”, has discovered the secret of “who I really am”, behind the deceptive outward appearance (in Rifkind’s apt phrase, the “ungainly, boring, fleshly one”). This involves denying the goodness, or even the ultimate reality, of the natural world. Nature, however, tends to strike back, with the likely victims in this case being vulnerable and impressionable youngsters who, as confused adults, will pay the price for their elders’ fashionable fantasies.
The Rt Rev Prof Tom Wright
St Mary's College, St Andrews
Others have commented upon whether or not this is an appropriate use of "gnostic," or the extent to which the Rev. Prof. Wright might be misrepresenting ideas surrounding trans-identity. Those are legitimate questions, but not worth yet another blog post on the matter. What perhaps I can contribute is a distinctly Lonerganian response. Such a response is warranted because Wright in his work identifies his hermeneutics as a form of "critical realism." He more specifically identifies this critical realism as that promulgated by Ben Meyer, who in turn is very clear in identifying his critical realism with that of Bernard Lonergan. As such, insofar as Wright to some extent identifies with the Lonerganian tradition, it is reasonable to think about these comments from that tradition. And it just so happens that Lonergan was not silent on the matter of the gnostics.

For Lonergan, as I read him, the gnostic is not necessarily self-identical with the persons that ancient heresiologists described by that term, although certainly he would tend to envision them as some degree paradigmatic of the gnostic. Rather, the gnostic represents an inevitable moment in the dialectical development of human consciousness, where it has been apprehended that symbols (numbers included) can convey meanings, but the criteria by which to adjudicate the relationship between symbol and meaning have not yet been fully worked out. In other words, gnosticism represents a moment in the development of human consciousness wherein partial insights are routinely confused for complete insights. And if we are to accept that definition, then it is difficult to see how we can meaningfully describe trans-identity, whether articulated by transpersons or others, as gnostic. As such, regardless of what one makes of Lonergan's definition of "gnostic," it does seem reasonable to conclude that Wright's usage is not consistent with that found in Lonergan.

The above of course does not speak to whether what Wright says about gnostics or about trans-identity is true or not. Rather, it says that whether true or not, it is not grounded in Lonergan. I think this an important point to make, because while Wright has become virtually synonymous with "critical realism" in New Testament studies, it is worth noting that he frequently departs from the thought of Bernard Lonergan, from whom the critical realism to he claims some degree of adherence ultimately descends. The upshot then is that if one wants to understand Lonergan's critical realism, it is not sufficient to read Wright (or Meyer, or me), but one must rather read Lonergan.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Beyond Concept

I recently read an article by Damon Linker that argues that the real reason there are so few conservatives on campus is because the conservative notion of scholarship tends to foster a recurrent return to the same well-worn themes. He uses the example of Shakespeare: "Love in Shakespeare," "Justice in Shakespeare," etc. We can see simply comparable in New Testament studies. How many new studies of "Paul and the Law," for instance, do we need? What new can be said on the subject?

The reader at this point is probably expecting negative answers. How many new studies of "Paul and the Law" do we need? Not many. What new can be said on the subject? Not much. I'm going to defy that expectation, and say that in fact there is much more to be said, but that--and this is where we can very much see the wisdom in Linker's argument--this new work must be asking new questions. This is not simply a matter of using new methods. There is a remarkably unreflective "New Method Laundry" (to borrow a wonderful turn of phrase from Lonergan) active in biblical studies, which tends to confuse the mere act of defining and describing one's method with reflection thereupon (stating what I do is not quite the same as knowing why I do), but this is not what we're talking about. This is about asking genuinely new questions. When "Paul and the Law" is considered in New Testament studies, it is usually on the level of concept. We are asking "What does Paul mean when he refers to 'the Law'? How does he understand 'the Law'?" If we are particularly enterprising, we might ask "How does his understanding of 'the Law' relate to other Jewish or Christian writings?" We might push beyond Judaism and Christianity into the broader Greco-Roman world, and convince ourselves that we are being innovative. The above are of course all quite legitimate questions, but again, all remain within the orbit of concept.

There is an entirely different set of questions left untouched by such functional conceptualism. They operate on a level properly antecedent to concept, although in operational terms we tend to investigate them subsequently. Keeping with the example of the Law, they begin from the basic question, "What does law do for humanity?" They ask why human societies recurrently create laws. They situate the Jewish Law within that recurrent creation. They consider recurrent difficulties and challenges faced by any system of legal reasoning and practice, and how Paul might be responding to those. For instance, such queries might look at Paul's consistent tendency to play the language of law off against the language of justice (often in English rendered in terms of "justification" or "righteousness," but which have the sense of rendering or making something just), and consider how this relates to recurrent human struggles with the gap between law and justice. By such queries "Paul and the Law" begins to move from an almost-purely antiquarian pursuit of interest almost exclusively to persons whose antecedent theological commitments suppose that whatever Paul says on the matter must be normative for all persons at all times, and towards situating Paul within the great human adventure wherein disparate groups recurrently have struggled with the same sorts of dialectical conflicts.

Such questioning of course takes place. It has characterized the recent explosion, perhaps now showing signs of slowing down, of "postmodern" philosophical readings of Paul, which of course go well beyond the relatively narrow question of Paul and the Law. (With specific respect to Paul and the Law though, José Porfirio Miranda and Theodore Jennings have made some particularly insightful contributions of the sort described above, and the African-American theological tradition has produced a wealth of insights in its existentially-vital efforts to make sense of writings that were used to justify their enslavement). Yet biblical scholars have tended to shy away from asking questions of this sort within our vocation as scholars. In part this is probably because such questioning entails some solid grounding in such matters as social theory or political thought. Returning to the example of "Paul and the Law," this needs to be a grounding that not simply can say "So-and-so says X about the Law, and this relates to what Paul says about the Law," as this is still effectively conceptualism: it is the relating of one set of concepts to another. Rather, it needs to be a grounding that can render and defend competent judgments about what law does for human societies. Such competency tends to be beyond the ambit of the average biblical scholar. Such is not a critique but rather a statement of fact. The reality is that competence takes time and energy to develop, and already biblical scholars must investment much time and energy into developing the competence simply to be biblical scholars. This leaves only so much time and energy to develop competence in other areas. Where someone like Lonergan is of much value is that his investigations into knowledge provide ways by which to "streamline" the process of competence-development. Nonetheless, such competence is perhaps worth developing, as it can help move biblical studies from the ghetto of antiquarian conceptualism.