Sunday, 21 September 2014

Myth and Method

I just read an old post on James McGrath's blog, in which he writes about Richard Carrier's Proving History that
[B]y the time I had finished reading, I felt like I had already read two very different books. The other reads like a case study in what happens when someone ignores their own sound methodological advice in practice when turning their attention to the figure of Jesus, an exercise which has led even some of the brightest minds in history to write some absolute nonsense, and many more to write things that were merely unpersuasive. I have read many other books where the same criticism could be made that I will here make of Carrier: the methodology is brilliant but the application is problematic.
Now, I want to be clear: I'm not writing in critique of Carrier here, although I have come to the firm conclusion that he and the rest of the Mythicist Mafia need to be filed under  "C" for "Cranks." Baffling appeals to Bayesian theorem and irrelevant parallels in world mythology don't change but ground that conclusion. I am writing because James' comment is really a brilliant observation about historical Jesus studies. And, as I am wont to do, I will articulate what I think to be the significance of that observation by reference to Bernard Lonergan.

Bernard Lonergan's genius rested in the fact that, when he produced his first magnum opus, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, he did not set out to answer the question "How should we go about understanding?" but rather "How do we go about understanding?" His method was simple: he took a look at how people actually, really, go about the work of knowing, then schematized what he observed, then spent seven-hundred pages articulating that schematization and considering its implications. His reasoning, indubitable in my mind, is that we already go about knowing, and insofar as we are at times successful in that process we already in fact know how to know; so what we need to do is to learn how to do what we already do better and more consistently. Put in other words, the method of knowing is known by observing and reflecting upon the work of knowing, and such observation and reflection helps us do that work better.

What James has flagged brilliantly is the danger that occurs when one reverses the priority, thinking about method antecedent to the work of knowing. I'm not saying of course that one cannot think about method before one engages in a particular act of knowing; the relationship, as outlined above, is precisely dynamic, with the work of knowing informing our method of knowing informing our work of knowing. So reflections upon method can come before particular instances of knowing. But to the extent that these methods lay out a "We should" divorced from "We do," well, those methods will be castles in the sky. And this leads to what Meyer likes to call "self-reversal."

Self-reversal occurs when one "labouriously theorizes in one direction but spontaneously operates in another." I say that in studying the historical Jesus I should do X and not-Y, but in fact I end up doing Y and not-X. A gap emerges between methodology (i.e. the talk about method) and actual method. The cure for this is already outlined above: know what it is to know, and then one's acts of knowing will work much more smoothly. The gap between methodology and method is almost invariably a result of methodological discussions that are completely removed from any account of how we actually go about the work of knowing.

And offering such an account lies at the heart of Lonergan's project, and that's why I think his project one that can greatly inform our work as historical Jesus scholars.

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