Sunday, 26 October 2014

Paul and Multiculturalism

The recent attacks on Canada's Parliament Hill have me returning to a subject that has preoccupied me and every thinking Canadian's mind in one form or another for most of my life, namely multiculturalism. It became most acute in the post-9/11 world, as Muslim and really any darker-skinned individuals became increasingly profiled as potential terrorists simply by virtue of their creed or colour. Now, my primary training as a thinker is in New Testament studies, so that is where I tend to go when I think about serious things in the world. And this all has me thinking about Paul and his efforts at reconciliation between Jewish and Gentile persons and groups within the context of the ekklēsia.

Now, for obvious reasons, Paul did not have in mind the relationship between Muslim and non-Muslim persons within the broader context of a modern liberal democratic state, and as such any direct application of Pauline statements to the contemporary context is deeply problematic. No, precisely because two millennia of history have elapsed between Paul and today we have to think in terms of development. We have to consider that Pauline thought has, over two thousand years of reading and knowing the text, permeated our collective consciousness. Such a way of thinking is not unrelated to the projects of recovering Paul recently carried out by continental philosophers such as Badiou and Agamben, among others. And through so doing we begin to reckon with the possibility that multiculturalism in fact has profoundly Christian roots, or put otherwise that the Canadian practice of multiculturalism is a nation-wide radicalization of Pauline thought so as to embrace not just incommensurable gender and ethnic and class differences as did Paul but incommensurable religious differences as well. One suspects that one could well frame most of our most painful struggles within the Canadian state in terms of Pauline struggle: the tension between French and English paralleling the tension between Jew and Greek; the inequality between First Nation and European peoples paralleling the tension between slave and free; the struggle for LGBT rights paralleling the tension between female and male. Our solutions, I think, tend to be ones that Paul would approve, as despite his reputation I think him a deeply cosmopolitan rather than parochial thinker.

I state this not to engage in some sort of Christian triumphalism but rather to suggest that those who assail multiculturalism as somehow opposed to Canada's Christian heritage are in fact deeply misguided. Rather multiculturalism is the distinctly Canadian way of working out that heritage. It is an appropriation of the Pauline legacy in a novel way. It is one that we see developing in Lonergan's work, even if Lonergan never uses that term and rarely addresses the Canadian situation directly, and I hold increasingly that Lonergan should be seen as providing some of the strongest theological and philosophical work supportive of Canada's multicultural vision. Likewise I think work yet needs to be done to situate Lonergan as a deeply Pauline thinker, but that's another matter.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

On "Religion"

I've been thinking about this whole "Religion is a modern, western, concept and therefore it is anachronistic and illicit to think in terms of 'religion' in pre-modern, pre-western, contexts." It occurs to me that this is grounded in a fundamental misconception of what it means for something to be socially constructed, and this due to an antecedent commitment to what Lonergan calls "idealism."

Five difficulties. at least, are overlooked in this discussion. First, they elide the distinction between "constructed" and "not real." Social and linguistic constructions are too often treated as if they are ipso facto false when in fact the exact opposite is the case. Constructions are very real, with very real consequences. Just ask the people dying in Iraq because ISIS has constructed them as polytheists. Second, they elide the distinction between "similar" and "sameness." To call Islam a religion and Buddhism a religion is not to say that they are the same but rather that in certain ways they are similar, perhaps most notably a concern with what we might call "ultimate reality" (i.e. what is the ultimate origin of all that we experience; and pointing out that Buddhism's answer is to deny the reality of ultimate reality would hardly mean that Buddhism is unconcerned with ultimate reality but merely to state its own distinctive approach to the matter). Third, they entail a markedly artificial understanding of discourse, one that ignores how people actually use language. The supposition is that if in reference to a given historical context we cannot speak about religion in the sense that we use it in reference to contemporary phenomenon then we cannot speak about religion at all. Under-considered is the reality that when in academic discourse I use "early Christian religion" I recognize, and assume reasonably that competent readers will recognize, that this is something quite distinct from "modern Christian religion," that in fact the adjectives "early" and "modern" do important linguistic work, signalling the precise semantic meaning to be given to both "Christian" and "religion." Fourth, it fails to consider that just because people are unaware that something is happening in their midst does not mean that it was not happening in their midst. Meyer talks about this with reference to development: Christian religion was always marked by development, even if it took until the mid-19th century for Christians to develop the conceptual tools to recognize that development. This is to say, showing that the ancients had no concept that translates directly to what we mean by "religion" does not mean that they had no phenomena that could be grouped under that term as the broad umbrella. Fifth, there is lurking in the background an interesting western and modernist linguistic hegemony: if the pre-modern or a non-western people does not have religion as we understand the term then they did not or do not have religion at all.

Ultimately much of this discussion flounders on the rocks of pragmatism. We have to have some word to distinguish analytically between what an ancient Jewish women did daily in the marketplace and what she did when she went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. If we excise "religion" and by extension the adjective "religious" then we will have to invent terms that do the work that they did. Rather than reinvent the wheel why not simply retain those terms and remember the hardly new lesson that their religion is not the same as our religion? I.e. that to group two distinct entities under the categorical heading "religion" denotes that they are similar not that they are the same.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Why the Historical Jesus is Indispensable to Theology

I was recently rereading Scot McKnight’s excellent article in Demise of Authenticity, “Why the Authentic Jesus is of No Use to the Church.” My interest in this rereading has to do with my current work on Lonergan and Meyer, and specifically was to think about how it is that Meyer can consider the historical Jesus to be of great benefit to theology, given McKnight’s reservations on the matter. As I reread McKnight I saw the inklings of an answer: McKnight’s reservations are about the relevance of the authentic Jesus for the church, whereas I was thinking about the relation between the historical Jesus and theology.

It seems to me that one can have a historical Jesus who is not the authentic Jesus, at least not in the sense that McKnight appears to use the latter, i.e. to reference a figure at fundamental variance from the church’s understanding of Jesus of Nazareth. That is, judicious historical study of Jesus of Nazareth could potentially lead one to an understanding of the man that is remarkably congruent both with the evangelists’ understandings and with later Christian interpretation. This is in fact to be expected, at least to some extent, given that the gospels remain our best data for the historical study of Jesus of Nazareth and the church’s understanding of Jesus develops largely out of engagement with those same gospels. I would merely add the caveat that we must not expect history to answer metaphysical questions. That is, the historian is not equipped to offer either a "Yes" or a "No" to the question "Was Jesus the Son of God, second person of the trinity, etc.?"

What I find under-developed (pun intended) in McKnight’s argument is a notion of development. He seems to be resting his argument upon the supposition that the church has an invariant understanding of Jesus of Nazareth, such that if the “authentic Jesus” is one that is at notable variance with this understanding it is no longer that of the church and thus of no use to the church. Of course I have no doubt that Dr. McKnight is well aware that such invariance is not empirically the case, that in fact the church's understanding of Jesus of Nazareth has been remarkably diverse over both time and space. Yet I wonder whether he underestimates the significance of that fact. It has always been in development, even if the fact of development was not fully realized until the 19th century (thank you, John Henry Newman). In fact, Meyer defines one of the central problems of New Testament historiography, and I would extend this to include Christian history up until quite recently, as the need to account for the fact of doctrinal development whilst working with texts written by persons who had not the conceptual apparatus to recognize that their doctrines are the product of and continue to be in development.

The fact of development allows us to make two observations. First, we can define the task of historical Jesus studies as the enterprise committed to understanding Jesus’s role in the development of doctrine that leads from Second Temple Jewish theology to such later articulations as the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian definition, the rejection of the latter by churches such as the Assyrian Church of the East, on into medieval, early modern, and contemporary theological and Christological discourse; in other words, the quest for the historical Jesus becomes not the quest for the “real Jesus” but rather for the Jesus who occupies a significant place in the movement from ancient Judaism, even in fact ancient Israelite religion, to contemporary Christianity. Second, consequent to the first observation, we should understand historical Jesus studies not as an aberration from Christian thought but rather a development therein, and in fact one of the distinctive modes in which Christological discourse has taken over the last two centuries. That this is a mode of Christological discourse markedly open to contributions from non-Christians is itself a theological question of some significant interest. That is to say, McKnight is quite right to state that historical Jesus studies is a fundamentally theological enterprise.

The above brings us also to the distinction between church and theology. The church is an institution, or more properly a number of disparate yet historically related institutions, made up of parishioners, clergy, and, yes, theologians. It is to this latter group in particular that falls a particular interest in and responsibility for the work of theology. Not to say that these are matters of disinterest to parishioners and clergy, but that the theologian has a specialized vocation that contributes to the church in a myriad of fashions. Now, insofar as one supposes the development of doctrine to be a matter of some importance to the work of theology and to the extent that one integrates the historical study of Jesus of Nazareth into the study of the development of doctrine it follows that the historical study of Jesus of Nazareth is a matter of some importance to the work of theology. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that one cannot really understand what happens at, for instance, Nicea, and thus also the urgency of the council’s decisions, without a robust understanding of what gets us from Jesus to the council. And thus we can begin to see the indispensability of the historical Jesus for theology.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The criteria of authenticity, again

I spend a lot of time thinking about the criteria of authenticity in historical Jesus studies. I remember already as a master's student realizing that they didn't work, but not then really being able to say why. I still struggle to explain the problem: and by then I don't mean that it is absolutely clear in my own head and I have not the words to explain what is clear but rather that I am still parsing out the issue myself. As such my blog posts on the criteria should be read as a sort of stream of consciousness, a glimpse into an ongoing dialogue that is taking place inside my head.

I begin, as one always should in addressing matters of method, by asking "What is the question that this method seeks to answer?" This I think is where we get into problems. Ostensibly the question is "What did Jesus do and say?" But that's not really what the criteria of authenticity are designed to answer. Rather, they are designed to answer the question "Did Jesus do or say what is reported in this particular pericope?" Procedurally do so by asking "Does this pericope pass the criteria that we have developed to determine whether Jesus did or said what the pericope reports him doing and saying?" An affirmative answer is defined as "authentic" and the pericope can now be put in the bin called "Things Jesus said or did," whilst a negative answer as "inauthentic and must now be put in the bin labelled "Things Jesus did not do or say?"

That there are problems with asking this question is evident the moment that scholars have to add the qualifier "something like," as in "Did Jesus do or say something like what is reported in this particular pericope?" or "Does this pericope pass the criteria that we have developed to determine whether Jesus did or said what the pericope reports him doing and saying?" The difficulty of course is that "something like" is semantically equivalent to "something unlike." Judging that Jesus did something like x is the same as saying that Jesus did something unlike x. The practical question then is whether the thing was more like or unlike what is reported, and the most precise answer will give a degree: this is 75% like, 25% like; this is 40% like 60% unlike. Then there is the thorny question of how much unlikeness renders something inauthentic. The qualifier "something like" ends up with affirmative judgments about events that tell us in fact very little about events.

The problem is that the question "Did Jesus do something like what is reported in this particular pericope?", and its procedural reflex, "Does this pericope pass the criteria that we have developed to determine whether Jesus did or said what the pericope reports him doing and saying?" can admit of only two possible answers, yes or no, whilst the qualifier "something like" is a question of degree. This points at an epistemic reality: the question of "What happened?" is not one that can be answered by yes or no judgments regarding the historicity of textual reports. Not to mention the question "Does this pericope pass the criteria that we have developed to determine whether Jesus did or said what the pericope reports him doing and saying?" can never lead us to the quite conceivable situation in which Jesus did something that is unreported in and yet can be inferred from the gospels.

Thus we must either: revise the question ("What did Jesus do and say?") to fit the procedure ("Does this pericope pass the criteria that we have developed to determine whether Jesus did or said what the pericope reports him doing and saying?"); the procedure to fit the question; or something of both. The final option seems the question. Please allow me to suggest that rather than ask "What did Jesus do and say?" we ask "What understanding of Jesus's life and activity best accounts for the data relevant for studying his life and activity?" Such data would be found in the canonical gospels but also potentially the balance of the New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers, etc. When approaching a particular pericope the question then becomes not "Did Jesus do what is reported?" but rather "What event(s) in Jesus's life led to Matthew or Mark or Luke or John or Thomas reporting that Jesus did what is reported, and in the precise that why that it is reported?" Some times the best answer will be "None at all": that is, the text in question is complete fiction, and in fact at marked variance with how Jesus actually operated. Sometimes the best answer will operate on a fairly genuine level; we can, for instance, conclude with greater confidence that Jesus regularly engaged in speech acts that can be described as parabolic than we can that these acts had such and such precise content. Some times the best answer will sound a lot like the text in question; the best answer to the question "What event(s) in Jesus's life led Matthew et. al. to report that Jesus regularly used the phrase 'Son of Man'?" is "Jesus regularly used the phrase 'Son of Man.'" Some times the best answer will be "I have no idea." In answering these questions the heuristics that drive certain criteria might reappear, for in many cases they rest upon quite legitimate insights (for instance, the recognition that the apparent infrequency of the term "Son of Man" outside the Jesus tradition suggests that we are dealing not with the retrojection of distinctive Christian language on to said tradition but rather with a reminiscence that this language was distinctive of Jesus's pattern of speech), but this would not be the same as utilizing the criteria of authenticity precisely because the question is no longer "Is this passage authentic?"

Sunday, 12 October 2014

On Using the Right Tools

I've come to realize that a big part of the problems that have long plagued historical Jesus studies is a failure to recognize that different questions require different methods. Lonergan's notion of functional specialties can help us think through this difficulty. Each functional specialty has a distinct object, and consequent to that object a particular set of data to consult and a particular set of methods to employ. The first four functional specialties are research, interpretation, history, and dialectic. The object of one specialty becomes the data for the next. Thus in biblical studies research investigates via text critical method manuscripts, fragments, etc., to discover the texts that interpretation will investigates via exegetical method to discover the meanings that history will investigates via historical method to discover the events that dialectic will investigates via dialectic method to discover the conflicts upon which the fifth functional specialty, foundations, will take a stand. This can be summarized in the fully table:

demanding attention
to be intelligently understood
Nature of Warrants
to provide reasonable judgment
Text Critical

Of course this is a heuristic. In truth it's messier than that. Nonetheless, such a schema helps us better construe what methods to use to work with which data to investigate which objects. This in turn helps us see why things break down when data, object, and method significantly mismatch.

Let us consider an example. We will often read in the HJ literature that such and such a passage is redactional and thus could not "go back to the historical Jesus." The difficulty is that redaction critical judgments belong really to the level of interpretation, and then only if one goes about establishing what the respective evangelist means to communicate by both utilizing an identifiable source and making a demonstrable change to said source. The data for history is not text but rather meanings inferred from texts, and absent such prior inferential work there is a mismatch between data (text) and method (exegetical) on the one hand and object (event) on the other. As such redaction critical work can contribute to the work of history by defining the content of the data (meaning) with which the historian works but it is not a historiographical method in and of itself. Using redaction criticism to directly answer historical questions is like using a hammer to put in a screw.

But of course I'm not talking about redaction criticism per se. I'm talking about the match between data, object, and method--any data, any object, any method. We've gotten, I think, into the habit of letting method drive our work. I discover a new and innovative method and I'm looking to try it out. So I bring it to bear upon the questions that most interest me. But if the method cannot elucidate that question, cannot discover the object for which it seeks, then I am doomed to failure from the off.

Oh, and, yes, the title of this post is an intentional allusion to Morna Hooker's still-fantastic article, "On Using the Wrong Tools."

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Necessity of Dialectic

Yesterday I posted some theological reflections upon a variety of contemporary issues that have to do with agents of states, or self-proclaimed states, lynching identifiable groups, such as white police lynching black teenagers or IS fighters lynching Yezidis, Shiites, and other minority religious groups in Iraq. When I shared it via Facebook and Twitter I stated that it has nothing directly to do with critical realism. That was the case of course, the way I articulated things, but it got me thinking about how better to frame my concerns about these matters within a Lonerganian framework. Something I realized as I did so is that these sort of events reinforce the need for what Lonergan calls "dialectic."

Dialectic is the fourth of eight functional specialties that Lonergan identifies within the broader work of theology. The first three are research, interpretation, and history. Each builds upon the other. Within New Testament studies we might say that research works with manuscripts, etc., to discover texts (i.e. textual criticism); interpretation works with these discovered texts to discover meaning; history works with these discovered meanings to discover events; and dialectic works with these discovered events to discovered processes. Dialectic thus introduces into biblical studies what the Annales School called history in the longue durée, history across decades, centuries, even millennia. It is where we can locate many of the issues studied and insight generated by feminist, queer, critical race, postcolonial, Marxian, Freudian, etc., theory. It is about the remarkably durable mentalités (to again use a term beloved by the Annales School) that in myriad ways both constrain and enable our choices, our decisions, our potential.

And mentalité is precisely what is missed when we consider such things as the shooting of Michael Brown as an event isolated from larger concerns. The response by the people of Ferguson, MO, to this crime (let us not call it a tragedy; that ignores the agency of Brown's murderer) is not just about the lynching of Michael Brown. It is of course about that, but if this were an isolated incident then the focus would no doubt be upon dealing with the actions of one aberrant police officer. The problem is that the people of Ferguson, MO, and people of colour elsewhere, are profoundly aware that it's not an isolated incident. Quite the opposite. The response is about a particular mentalité, one dating back to at least the institution of a racialized slave trade, namely the idea that Black lives are disposable, to be taken on the whim of the White establishment. Absent an understanding that it is to this mentalité that the people of Ferguson object one cannot understand why they have responded the way that they have.

A healthy notion of dialectic incidentally relieves one of the need to show that a text is overtly racist, or misogynist, or heterosexist, or antagonistic to any of these matters. "Empire criticism" in NT studies can benefit from such a lesson. It too frequently operates at the level of interpretation. It wants to show, for instance, that Paul really was a critic of empire. With a healthy notion of dialectic one can set out on the work of showing that Paul's thinking was structured by his life within an empire even if he was completely unaware of that fact. Likewise, it is entirely possible that, when he shot Michael Brown, Officer Darren Wilson was unaware of any racialized motivation on his part, and that nonetheless he operated within a racialized structure that made it more likely that he would shot and kill an unarmed Black teen than an unarmed White teen. Thus White people can say with all conscious integrity "Some of my best friends are Black" and yet be deeply and profoundly racist. Put otherwise, it opens up discussions of the unconscious without obviating discussions of the conscious (altogether considered in the work of interpretation).

In short, dialectic is important.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Jesus and the Object of History

I spend so much time on philosophy and method of history in historical Jesus studies that sometimes I forget to take a step back and consider the man himself. So I want to spend time thinking about that here. I begin with two observations. First, Jesus was Jewish. Second, although he was not Christian, Jesus's life and ministry were a direct cause of this thing we call Christianity. Thus we must demonstrate how Jesus represents a development within Judaism whilst he laid the groundwork for developments within Christianity. The same holds really for most if not all of the apostolic generation; even Gentile figures appear to have been deeply immersed in Jewish thought, but here I'm thinking specifically of Jesus. Thus rather than a criteria of double dissimilarity we have a principle of double continuity: a Jesus continuous with Judaism and from which Christianity reasonably continues in turn is a desideratum put upon us by the content of the data.

This almost immediately eliminates such oddities as the Cynic Jesus, even its somewhat odder variant, the Jewish Cynic: the former because it does not adequately situate Jesus within his Jewish matrix, the latter because Cynicism is no part of said matrix. It also calls into question narratives that proceed by posing Jesus in radical opposition to Paul. Part of what we need to explain is how we get from Jesus to Paul. Despite what I just said, the Cynic Jesus offers a powerful insight in this effort, for by emphasizing Jesus's social criticism it helps to retrieve an oft-neglected aspect of Jesus's work. This is better situated within a prophetic paradigm, however, which is to say that I think we best understand Jesus when we think of him as the latest in a long lineage of Israelite and Jewish prophets, persons who turned the rich resources of the Israelite and Jewish theological tradition to critique abuses of power in their immediate context. They were, in Lonergan's language, reasonable and responsible, which is to say authentic, persons, railing against the irrationality and irresponsibility, which is to say inauthenticity, of the cultural and social matrices in which they found themselves, using the conceptual resources available to them, namely those of the Israelite and Jewish theological tradition. Jesus was one such person, as was Paul later.

That both Jesus and Paul at times focused their critique upon perceived problems with Judaism and Jewish life itself is not in and of itself anti-Jewish, anymore than my critiques of the current state of things in Canada makes me anti-Canadian. Quite the opposite: it was out of their love for and commitment to their tradition and their people that they spoke up. I thus see Jesus increasingly as what we might call the loyal opposition: out of his love for his Jewish kinsmen he critiqued what he considered to be abuses of power within his Jewish milieu. This he did using the resources of the Jewish theological tradition, even more specifically the prophetic, although certainly there were likely valences of the apocalyptic and the wisdom. I add that qualifier because in point of fact the lines between prophetic, apocalyptic, and wisdom were porous in the Second Temple period.

I also have no problem describing him as eschatological, but only if it is understood that Jewish eschatology is always also protology: it is an account not simply of the end but of a new beginning. Jesus I think anticipated an imminent renewal of Israel and through Israel all creation. It seems very likely that he expected this to occur via what would seem to us miraculous and supernatural means: the Son of Man coming on the clouds. Yet I think that he, with some degree of paradox, worked to effect change in the here and now, to encourage people to live together in a better, more perfectly and heavenly way. The extent to which he envisioned a continuity between such contemporary renovation and the impending cosmic renovation is open to question. Did he think that through his work there would emerge communities of goodness and light that would endure through the eschaton and into the coming new era? I suspect that this was the case, but I would not at this point press the case. That said, I am playing with the possibility that Jesus intended to establish communities that he expected would be protected from God's wrath during the eschaton and endure into the new creation, and that this best accounts for the distinctive forms taken by Christian communities and identity.

Anyways, that's a very brief synopsis of what I currently think about the man, Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing particularly radical. One can easily detect hints of Ben F. Meyer, but also of Richard Horsley. This reflects my appreciation for both Lonerganian critical realism and the liberation tradition. But with all the talk of method and philosophy, sometimes it's good to just sit back and think about the object of study. So there you have it.