Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Decline: An Illustration

Some readers might have noticed that my post http://criticalrealismandthenewtestament.blogspot.ca/2014/08/progress-and-decline.html ignited a small firestorm surrounding mythicism. Now, I have been quite clear in my view of this "position," namely that it has a scholarly merit comparable to that of creationism or the hollow earth theory. I stand by that position. So one might wonder why I am concerned with addressing the issue. The reason is simple: mythicism is the fruit of historical Jesus studies. We created this beast. It is our Frankenstein's monster.

Now, begin I proceed, let me be clear: I am not interested in continued discussion of mythicism's scholarly merits because, again, it has none. Rather, I am interested in considering why one should care about something that is so obviously erroneous. The answer lies in the insidious character of decline.

Let me elaborate. I described, in the aforementioned post, Lonergan's notion of decline. Oversight leads to oversight, error compounds error. Historical Jesus scholarship began as an autonomous discourse in the 19th century. It built upon a series of genuine insights, predating but whose significance was first fully appreciated in that century, the most notable of which was the recognition that Jesus probably did not do, say, or experience everything that the canonical gospels attest to be the case. The possibility that Jesus might thus have differed subtly or radically from the evangelical portrait emerged. Indeed, the very idea that we are in the gospels dealing with not a single portrait told quadriphonic but rather with four distinct portraits is largely a product of this period. Put otherwise, this was the century that we began to realize the historical significance of evangelical diversity.

A dual enterprise effort was then launched. In his introduction to the epoch-defining and already classic 2012 edited volume on Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity Anthony Le Donne describes quite succinctly and aptly the duality of this enterprise, and I would refer any reader there for fuller discussion. But to make even more succinct that succinctness, the dual enterprise was the pursuit of two forms of authenticity: one, the other the pursuit for the "what really happened"; the other, the pursuit for Jesus's authentic genius. These are of course related: a statement about the "what really happened" would potentially have implications for understanding Jesus' genius, and vice versa. A signal recent example would be the Cynic Jesus: Jesus' authentic Jesus rested in his striking aphorisms and counter-cultural lifestyle and thus sayings and deeds consistent with that genius tended to be favoured over those that did not.

These two pursuits allow us to situate the seeds of decline that have led to our current situation, in which the absurdities of mythicism actually seem to some (indeed, not many) to be something other than, well, absurd. The "what really happened" need not but potentially and in actuality was carried out under the banner of what Lonergan calls empiricism, namely the position that since the real is what is there to be seen the task of the historian is to eliminate from her or his field of vision that which is not real. So clever techniques were devised to carry out the stated elimination. Completely overlooked in such a procedure is the reality the real is not simply what is there to be seen, that knowing is not like looking, but rather genuine understanding entails just that: understanding. What I see is data to be processed, and as such historical reality consists not of data deemed to be authentic but rather of the historians's work in construing via the data the world from which that data came to be.

The quest for Jesus' authentic genius understands that, at least implicitly. It understands that the historical Jesus is not just a sum of the parts left over after we have gutted the gospels via criteria of this or that provenance. Rather it understands that just as the Evangelists were constructing Jesus in their own time so too are we constructing Jesus in our own. The difficulty is that the quest for Jesus' authentic genius lapsed into what Lonergan calls idealism, namely the position that since the real is what is there to be seen and since what is there to be seen is not what was really the case it follows that one cannot apprehend the real. Put more succinctly, the gap between what the scholar thought to be Jesus's genius and the gospels' empirical presentation of Jesus' teaching and actions generated an epistemological chasm that idealism could not and cannot broach, precisely because it cannot apprehend how to move from understanding ideas to understanding the world.

In practice idealism fell back on empiricism. The quest for Jesus' genius became the quest for the "what really happened." Again, the Cynic Jesus portrays this quite well. The procedure that results looked typically something like this: I determine what I consider to be Jesus' genius, then I devise methodology by which to eliminate from the data all that contradicts with said genius. And this is how we would have ended up with mythicism. The mythicists simply take this subtractive approach to an extreme: since all in the gospels is in question it must all be false. The problem is that it in so doing it simply repeats the basic error of both empiricism and idealism, namely that knowing is like looking, that the real is what is there to be seen. It reasons: since what is there to be seen differs subtly or significantly from the "what really happened" then it must follow that there was no "what really happened."

This of course is silliness. No one actually operates that way in the real world, and no one actually could. If I tell you that Friday night I went with John Bolton to see Guardians of the Galaxy and John Bolton tells you that we went on Saturday night one would not conclude that we never went to Guardians of the Galaxy but rather that one or both of us is confused about the date. (Side note: if you haven't seen Guardians of the Galaxy stop reading now and go watch it immediately). It is silliness, but it is silliness of our devising. It's the end product of two centuries of oversight that has seen our vacillate between an untenable empiricism and an unequally untenable idealism, generating in the process all sort of freakish chimeras in between. The so-called "criteria approach" constitutes but the latest chimeric menagerie. We have no to blame but ourselves, or perhaps more precisely our predecessors.

So the solution is simple yet difficult: we need to get our conceptual house in order. No point bemoaning mythicism when it is but a symptom of our own disorder. Only when we genuinely understand what it is to do history will we be able to articulate to people outside our discipline.


  1. A few remarks and questions:

    //The "what really happened" need not but potentially and in actuality was carried out under the banner of what Lonergan calls empiricism, namely the position that since the real is what is there to be seen the task of the historian is to eliminate from her or his field of vision that which is not real.//

    I am not sure if this is just a different way to use the word "empiricism" or whether there's a misunderstanding involved concerning what empiricism is. Either way, some conceptual cleanup can help, whether that means helping with clarity or helping with accuracy.

    Philosophically, empiricism isn't a view about what is real, but instead is a view about how knowledge is formed. An empiricist wouldn't say "what is real is what can be seen" but rather "all knowledge is formed from sense impressions." An empiricist wouldn't (qua empiricism) deny that things are real that can't be seen. Rather the empiricist would say that knowledge of objects which don't impose direct sense impressions on me instead is formed from the sense impressions I _do_ have. (And have had--memory plays a role here as well.) So for example I've never had direct sense impressions imposed on me by the Pope, so my knowledge of him is formed from sense impressions I _have_ had, such as images of him on my laptop screen, and things I've read about him.

    That process of forming judgments about what one can't immediately sense based on reasoning (sometimes complex reasoning) from what one can immediately sense _sounds_ to me like what you're terming "understanding" when you say:

    //What I see is data to be processed, and as such historical reality consists not of data deemed to be authentic but rather of the historians's work in construing via the data the world from which that data came to be.//

    If I'm right that this is what you mean by "understanding," it is possible you're actually espousing empiricism, not criticizing it!

    (Continued in next post. The word count on here seems to be very inaccurate, or else I'm somehow accidentally creating a large number of invisible characters.)

    1. I draw your attention to the statement "what Lonergan calls empiricism." This is a blog on Lonergan's critical realism and the New Testament, not all philosophy and the New Testament. So if I use the word "empiricism" I use it as it appears in Lonergan. He uses it heuristically to designate an epistemology that identifies the real directly with experience. This is a usage consistent with his background as an Aquinas scholar. In any case, this is caviling, and does not address the matter under discussion, namely the epistemologies of the historical Jesus quests.

    2. My apologies. It wasn't my intention to make any kind of objection at all, much less a petty one. As I said, if accuracy was not the problem, I sought only clarity.

      Can you point me to a good resource for understanding how Lonergan conceives of empiricism? Specifically I'm interested in knowing more about how he includes ideas about "what is real" in the concept he labels "empiricism."

    3. Perhaps the best resource now available for an intro to the basics of Lonergan's thought is Mark T. Miller's 2013 monograph "The Quest for God and the Good Life." A more advanced work is Joseph Fitzpatrick's "Philosophical Encounters: Lonergan and the Analytic Tradition." And then there's always Lonergan's own "Method in Theology." I think that often philosophers struggle with Lonergan, not because he is difficult but because he is a Thomist, and as Fitzpatrick argues Thomists tend to use many of the same words as analytic and other philosophers but give them somewhat different meanings. That said, I'm not a philosopher by training but rather a biblical scholar who has found that Lonergan helps me answer certain of the long-standing issues in my away of specialty.

  2. (Continued from previous post):

    Concerning that last quote, there's something in it I wanted to make sure I'm clear about. Using ellipses to highlight one of the claims you seem to be making, you've said:

    //"...[H]istorical reality consists ... of the historians's work in construing ... the world ... "//

    I wanted to ask whether you meant that literally--that reality consists in the historian's work. Or did you mean that reality consists in the world historians are working toward understanding through their construals? Probably the latter, I'm thinking, but it's not like there's nobody who would affirm the former so I wanted to check and make sure about what you meant.

    I think empiricism is basically right (you may have guessed) and I would have thought the historian's task is to reason carefully about the evidence (where "reasoning carefully" includes "reasoning with others," so one can feel free to at some points to simply defend a thesis without worrying there will be no one around to check you when you go wrong) to determine what probably happened. What, in your view, is a "world" other than "a bunch of stuff that happened"? I ask because if a world is, basically, a bunch of stuff that happened, then construing via the data the world that gave rise to the data is basically the same thing, I think, as reasoning carefully about the evidence to determine what probably happened.

    Lastly--this thread involves, in part, a diagnosis of mythicism. I won't address it's scholarly value. But I think it's directly on topic, and would be interesting to you to know (because one can't diagnose what one hasn't accurately understood) that arguments for mythicism need not (and usually, in my reading, do not) proceed along the radically skeptical lines you've outlined. I think diagnosing mythicism is a great idea--every idea has a history, and every idea both comes from and gives rise to genuine problems that need to be addressed. I think a good diagnosis comes from accurate information though. You've seen my reading recommendations in this regard already.

    1. The historian's work, if genuinely intelligent and reasonable, will apprehend the real.

      You make the mistake of supposing in your final paragraph that I have not read mythicist literature. I have. The thing is that I have an advantage, namely a specialist's knowledge in historical Jesus studies. I can situate what is being said into the more than two centuries of scholarship on the matter, and in turn I can situate those two centuries as the sequel to the eighteen centuries that proceeded them. I can see that these arguments are barely warmed radicalizations of ideas that were rejected the better part of a century ago. The problem here is not that I do not understand the literature in question but that I understand not just the literature and I know quite well where it fits into the history of the discourse.

    2. //The historian's work, if genuinely intelligent and reasonable, will apprehend the real.//

      Is that because the real is sort of "out there" waiting to be discovered, and intelligent and reasonable work is just the kind of work best suited for apprehending whatever may be "out there?" Or is it because genuinely intelligent and reasonable work is such as to constitute a body of (statements? propositions? activities? constructs? something else?) which attains something like the "dignity" or at least "status" of reality? Or something else?

    3. Let us use an illusion, as that is how Lonergan typically proceeds. We can presume that the force of gravity has always been 9.8 metres per second squared, even if it took until the modern era to discover this fact. Lonergan will ask why it took until then to discover; his answer will be that the conditions necessary for that discovery were not yet in place. It was not that women and men were unintelligent or unreasonable but rather that they had not yet made the requisite antecedent breakthroughs. These breakthroughs included matters conceptual, factual, methodical. Lonergan would point out though that even in those earlier, incomplete and in many ways erroneous understandings of gravity there were nonetheless genuine insights, and breakthroughs occurred when new insights were built upon antecedent insights and these new insights corrected previous oversights. So "apprehend the real" must be qualified by Lonergan's phrase "at the level of our term": to apprehend the real is to understand and judge a matter as best one can given the resources at one's disposal.

      Consequent to the above Lonergan will also spend a great of time upon how the individual person becomes a subject capable of understanding and judging specific matters. This is where a notion of functional specialization comes in. He is writing with the specific area of theology in mind, but his thinking can be easily ported to any discipline. There are, on the one hand, certain "conversions" that must take place for any subject to operated in a genuinely intelligent and reasonable fashion; and there are, on the other hand, content and procedures particular to specific pursuits that require one to specialize. I.e. the biologist and historian are, when operating at the best in their respective fields, equally intelligent and reasonable, but they have learned to utilize their intelligence and reason in quite distinct ways, and this because of the distinct subject matter with which they are concerned. Yet the structure will always be the same: attend to the data, intelligently understand those attentions, reasonably judge whether those understandings are warranted by the data.

    4. Thanks, I'll be interested to see as your blogging continues how these ideas contribute to your project of helping history put its conceptual house in order. I'll add your book recommendations (from your other post) to my list. I'm interested especially in the Longergan and Analytic Philosophy one that you mentioned.