Friday, 1 August 2014

Reality and specialization

I was thinking the other day about reality. More to the point, I was thinking about how to give an adequate account of how it is the case that the gospels do not consist of historical reality but are of course an aspect of reality. It hit me: Lonergan's notion of functional specialties do this work.

I discussed these in an earlier post, but by way of reminder I will say the following. Lonergan divides theology into eight functional specialties, of which history is the third. It is preceded by "research" and "interpretation" and succeeded by dialectic, foundations, doctrines, systematics, and communication. Now, each is a specialty in the sense that theologians tend to most fully develop their skills in one or two of these areas but not all eight. I have come to realize that they designate more than a cluster of skills. More specifically, they designate a cluster of skills which are intended to apprehend a particular object. In other words, functional specialties assign different aspects of reality to different scholars. This would also of course mean that we could give a similar account of the distinction between theology and, say, the natural sciences: the distinction is first and foremost their respective objects.

So, when I say that the gospels do not consist of historical reality I mean precisely and only that: they do not consist of historical reality. That requires careful clarification, though. The object of historical inquiry is the historical event, addressed through the five w's: what, when, where, who, and why. Historical inquiry is carried out through the attentive, intelligent and reasonable compound that is knowing. To say that the gospels do not consist of historical reality is simply to say that they do not consist of historical events. This might sound pedantic but a moment's reflection should reveal that if it is pedantic then it is a necessary pedantry, for the criteria of authenticity necessarily suppose that the gospels consist of historical events, some of which happened and some of which did not. This is their unspoken minor, and it is results in the strange and incoherent combination of a naive realism that assumes that what you see is what you get with an idealism that assumes that much of what you see is illusion.

Yet the gospels do exist, and here we return to functional specialties, specifically what Lonergan calls "research." The object of research is data itself, and it too is carried out through attentive, intelligent, and reasonable knowing. It is research then that establishes the existence of the gospels, that establishes their content, etc. In New Testament studies research consists primarily of textual criticism, although it does also consist of archaeological excavation insofar as that is relevant for studying the NT. The gospels are real insofar as research can show that they existed, that they consisted of a particular content (or, given the fact of textual variants, a particular range of content), etc. They are not however a collection of historical events, and thus the nature of their reality is that they are not historical reality.

The object of interpretation is meaning. If research establishes the texts of the gospel then interpretation asks what it means. More to the point, it asks what the author(s) intended. Of course a thousand readers just recoiled from the word "intend," assuming that by this I naively fall into the intentional fallacy. But only can only think that I am guilty of the intentional fallacy if one does not understand what the intentional fallacy means. The intentional fallacy, as articulated by Wimsatt and Beardslee when they coined the term, is not the view that the author had intention but rather that the intention can be discerned independent of a text and then used as the proverbial "hermeneutical key" for interpreting the text. What Lonergan means by interpretation, what Ben Meyer meant, what I mean is precisely the opposite, namely that once one adequately understands the text one also understands what the author intended to communicate through the text. Thus, again, intention is quite precisely the object of interpretation, whereas in the intentional fallacy it would be the means of interpretation. The difference between object and the means by which one achieves a means is not inconsequential.

Yet I digress. The point is that meaning too is real, but it is not the same as historical reality. To say what the author(s) intended in writing John 9:22 and 12:42 is not to say how John 9:22 and 12:42 relate to actual historical events (I refer to these verses as they were the object of my dissertation). It is a necessary precondition for asking properly historical questions, just as establishing the content of the text is a necessary precondition for asking properly interpretative questions, yet it is not historical inquiry proper. The failure to clearly identify the object of inquiry has sent more than one discussion within historical Jesus studies off the rail. It can lead to scholars talking past each other. And that's when you see heat rather than light.

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