Sunday, 21 December 2014

A Hermeneutics of Trust? Part II

So yesterday I responded to a suggestion on the SBL site that the society should have a section on the hermeneutics of trust for people who "take the bible and history seriously." I did what I know how to do best: advance arguments for why this will not work hermeneutically or historiographically. In the discussion on FB Margaret Aymer Oget pointed out an issue whose significant had not fully impressed itself on me: persons who belong to historically marginalized groups--women, persons of colour, LGBT persons, etc.--have a hard time subscribing to a hermeneutics of trust when reading a book that has in complex ways contributed to that marginalization. Dr. Oget is 100% right, and I thank her for her insights.

This really drove home to me the importance of diversity within the SBL. As white, straight, male I know that I have blinders. And that in and of itself is fine. We are all a product of our experiences. What is not fine is refusing to deal with those blinders. One must actively work to overcome the blind spots, or what Lonergan calls scotosis. One does this by the work of actively listening to others, letting them teach you about their worlds. That is why diversity is so important. It's not just because women and persons of colour and LGBT persons should have an equal shot at success in our discipline, although that is definitely the case. It is also because a diverse discipline contains a rich mixture of experiences that can mutually enrich and correct each other, and I am just optimistic to believe that through such mutual enrichment and correction we are moving slowly, collectively, painfully, towards greater understandings of our world.

So I stand by my initial critiques of the idea of a hermeneutics of trust. To them I add insights brought to my attention by persons with experiences different from my own. And for those insights I am quite grateful.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

A Hermeneutics of Trust?

Recently the following was posted on the SBL's Facebook page:
Given SBL's pluralistic vision and that there are now so many members who take the Bible and history seriously, should we think about proposing a section on Biblical History and the Hermeneutics of Trust? It could provide an alternate scholarly forum to the pervasive skepticism and post-modernism at SBL.
This is horribly problematic, for several reasons, which I will discuss below. First, however, a word situating my own thought. I am heavily interested in traditional historical questions. Not exclusively in such questions but heavily. I also tend to towards what many might describe as a maximalist understanding of such questions, although I must admit that I find the idea that we can know in anything but the broadest strokes what a historical figure said two millennia ago quite baffling. The point is that I am sympathetic to the idea that we can know a fair amount about ancient Israel, Judaism and Christianity and this in large but not exclusive part because of the biblical tradition.

That said I find this suggestion quite problematic, and were such a section to materialize I would be the first in line to produce a less-than-sympathetic review of its premises. First, politically, I am somewhat nonplussed about seeing the language of pluralism used to warrant what seems to be a somewhat reactionary program. Second, conceptually, I'm somewhat unsure exactly how hermeneutics is understood to operate within historiography. By my way of thinking hermeneutics is about how we going on figuring out what a writer intends to communicate; in other words, it is the theory of exegesis. Yet exegesis is not historiography. For instance, exegetically I am quite confident that Luke really does mean what he says in the opening verses of his gospel: he intends to tell us about the events of Jesus's life, and I think we can also generalize these to Acts such that we can say that he also walks to tell us about Christian development subsequent to Jesus's life. Yet even exegetically I have to acknowledge that Luke intends to tell us these things within the ancient framework that he operates. So I have to take account of things such as ancient historiography, and when I do I discover that many of the things that we value--chronological sequence, accuracy in quotation, etc.--maybe were not that significant to Luke. In fact I can point to places wherein it seems clear to me that Luke is clearly not ordering things chronologically. This renders the idea of "trust" difficult, for I have to ask exactly what it is that I am as a historian to trust?

Yet the more interesting thing is that none of the above even gets at the transition from exegesis to history. This idea of a "hermeneutics of trust" in historiography seems to me to operate on the implicit supposition that whatever Luke or any other biblical writer intends to tell us about past events is precisely what did happen. In such an understanding historiography is simply exegesis. Never mind referencing postmodernism: such an understanding of historiography was obsolete two hundred years ago. And not just in biblical studies; no competent historian after about 1800 works that way. And the impracticability of this hermeneutics is evident when we consider what to do with material that makes mutually contradictory claims. And saying that no such material exists in the biblical corpus, aside from being empirically unsound, is quite irrelevant, for any hermeneutics that we utilize in the study of the biblical tradition we must also be able to utilize in the study of the extra-biblical tradition. Yet there is manifestly material in the extra-biblical tradition that is at variance with the biblical tradition; it is hard to imagine even the most dyed-in-the-wool inerrantist saying otherwise. Quite simply not all claims about the world can be true simultaneously and thus one needs to distinguish between what is claimed and what is true.

And that brings us to a third point: trusting, for instance, that Luke intends to accurately tell me what happened in past in fact tells me nothing about whether he does so. Luke could be the most honest person in the world and yet be absolutely wrong. Indeed, for all my tendency towards what could be deemed to be a maximalist understanding of early Christian history there is more than one place in Luke-Acts wherein I think it demonstrably the case that Luke has muddled things up. What this simply says is that every historiographical question needs to be addressed on its own, without either programmatic credulity or programmatic skepticism (to use terms from Ben Meyer) getting in the way.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Your construction is too small

Whatever else might be the case the advocates of social memory theory are to be commended for making abundantly clear that the Jesus tradition is always already constructed by human agents. This is where we seem to stand now in Jesus studies: with the full recognition of this reality. Our current struggle seems to consist of discovering how, if all the tradition is constructed, can it be the case that we can ever learn anything about the historical Jesus from the Jesus tradition. Let us think this problem through via deeper engagement with the implications of constructionist theory.
Let us begin with that most basic articulation of a thorough-going constructionism:
All statements are constructed by human agents.
Surely any work in the human sciences and of course any critical hermeneutics must affirm this statement to be true. This must be the case, unless affirms either that statements somehow magically appear fully-formed or that whilst constructed there are no humans involved: both affirmations of course entailing some affirmation of the mystical, whether it is the work of the Holy Spirit or some vaguely defined cultural or social apparatus that somehow operates independent of the human agents of culture and society.
Having affirmed the above articulation let us consider certain corollaries of this affirmation. If the statement “All statements are constructed by human agents” is affirmed as true then it must be the case that the statement “All statements are constructed by human agents” must have been constructed by human agents. The opposite conclusion would require the judgment that at most some but definitely not all statements are constructed; but this would be to deny that which we initially affirmed and thus lapse back into mystical. Now, if we affirm as true the statement that “The statement ‘All statements are constructed by human agents’ is necessarily constructed by human agents” then we must also affirm that “Some statements that are constructed by human agents are true,” or, since we have already affirmed the statement “All statements are constructed by human agents” we can eliminate redundancy and affirm that “Some statements are true.”
This has clear consequences for certain rhetoric current in historical Jesus studies. Consequent to the work of social memory theorists a number of scholars have revived the radical skepticism associated most (in)famously with Rudolf Bultmann, at least one going as far as to publicly declare a New No Quest. The argument is functionally that since the Jesus tradition is always already constructed (such construction coded in terms of “memory”) then we can know little if anything about Jesus. The most radical form of such lines of argumentation terminates in mythicism, that school of thought made up mostly by internet trolls and a handful of published writers (only one with primary expertise in New Testament) that argue that Jesus never existed (of course it needs to be said that the “New No Questers” do not go this far, although one wonders how an affirmation of Jesus’s historical existence sits with their skepticism with regard to historical knowing).
Now, please, do not misunderstand me. I am not making a plea for returning to an obsolete historiography wherein we go through the sources asking which propositional statement is true (coded as “authentic”) and which is false. The point that I want to make here is that the statement “The Jesus tradition is constructed” is not ipso facto identical with “The Jesus tradition is without utility for the work of historical investigation.” It simply means that historical investigation must take into account the constructed character of the data. The gospels and other relevant material in fact do not consist of historical claims at all, not in the sense that the (post)(post)modern historian understands “historical claims.” Our judgments regarding truth or falsity regarding history are thus not rendered directly on the material to be found in the gospels or other relevant material but rather hypotheses that seek to make sense of that material. Exactly how to formulate and then judge such hypotheses is of course another matter (actually, two matters) upon which could write volumes; and in fact I am writing one, so I suppose I’ll stop here.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Prophet and the Priest

Rachel Held Evans wrote an interesting Facebook post the other day which resonates with certain thoughts that I've had of late. Three sentences in particular struck me, and I'll quote them in full.
I'm deeply skeptical of pretty much all religious leaders, whether it's Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell, the pope or the Dalai Lama. Local pastors aren't as much of an issue. Let's just say I'm wary of famous or powerful "gurus."
I'd like to do a little commentary on this, in the way that biblical scholars know best: sentence by sentence response (not exposition, as I don't think that it requires much exposition; Ms. Evans is a quite lucid writer whose thoughts are invariably expressed with notable clarity).

I'm deeply skeptical of pretty much all religious leaders, whether it's Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell, the pope or the Dalai Lama.
If one reads the balance of Ms. Evans's post one discovers that what she means by "skeptical" is what I would call "critical." That is, she's not advocating programmatic distrust (which I would describe as skepticism) but rather a healthy criticism. And to that one can only agree, not just with regards to religious leaders but all persons who make truth claims. Neither God nor the lucid thinker is a respecter of persons; she or he is interested in only one question, whether the truth claim in question is true and good. That's part of why I am a critical realist: it provides me with a set of tools for better answering that question.

Local pastors aren't as much of an issue.
Here I break somewhat with Ms. Evans. Perhaps it's my Plymouth Brethren heritage showing through but I tend to be as skeptical of local clergy as I am of big-name figures. (The connection with my PB upbringing is that the PB favour a congregationalist polity in which there are no pastors but rather elders, as pastors as seen as something foreign to the NT pattern of church governance). Actually, I would argue that without a larger ecclesiastical structure holding the local pastor accountable she or he tends to replicate many of the ills that might otherwise have occurred higher up in the hierarchy. Put otherwise there is always possibility for corruption at the top, and if the top happens to be the local pastor then that's where a goodly amount of ecclesiastical corruption will take place. I've seen more than a few horribly abusive ministers in my time, and it is not for nothing that in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, which has arguably the most fully developed hierarchy and bureaucracy in the Christian world, it was not the pope or the bishops who were abusing children but rather the parish priest. I suppose that my experience has led me to be a bit more wary of local clergy as Ms. Evans.

Let's just say I'm wary of famous or powerful "gurus."
As seems so often the case a return to Weber is warranted here. Let us recall his distinction between prophet and priest. The prophet has charisma purely on an individual basis, the priest by virtue of her or his office. Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell would fit into the former category, the Dalai Lama and the pope into the latter (the Dalai Lama is a special case: his appeal to the west is perhaps better described as prophetic whilst his exile from Tibet obviates much of his priestly functions). This distinction, whilst an ideal type (the messiness around the Dalai Lama reveals that it is ideal and not precisely actual), is not unimportant. Driscoll and Bell need to appeal directly to the populace whilst the pope can work through the hierarchy and bureaucracy of the church. Yes, the pope can at times appeal directly to the populace but that's not really the way that the papacy has typically worked. Such appeal is largely a function of modern mass media. The current Holy Father has been expert at this, as was his predecessor but one, John Paul II. Yet barely anyone cared what Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio had to say the day before he was elected to the papacy. No, it is just his position as pope that made him interesting.

What this means is that for all his formal power Pope Francis, or any pontiff, must ultimately take account of the reactions of the curia and other parts of the hierarchy. The recent synod vote around homosexuality in the church makes that quite clear. He must also be responsive to the faithful, for ultimately they can vote with their feet. That's no doubt why he is making moves to be more inclusive of LGBT persons: precisely those regions where the church is demographically the strongest are also those regions where support for LGBT rights is the highest. Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll: they don't have such limitations. It's not that they won't be held accountable: Driscoll's recent fall from grace makes that clear. But it does mean that the accountability is more ad hoc. This ultimately goes back to my comments about wariness towards the local pastor, because what are Bell and Driscoll but local pastors with really large congregations?

So on balance I'd extend Ms. Evans's wariness around religious figures to include the local pastor whilst also nuancing her critiques of the famous and the powerful to distinguish between the Weberian prophet and priest ideal types. That said I would suggest that these are friendly amendments to Ms. Evans's concerns. The basic point remains: one must be not a respecter of persons but rather a respecter of truth and goodness.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

The Scandal of Redaction Criticism

I've been thinking about redaction criticism. As we all know redaction criticism operates upon the difficulties in the text--the disjoints, the contradictions, the awkward transitions, etc.--seeing these as evidence of redactional activity. This necessarily supposes that more difficult passages are typically secondary to less difficult passages. This is an interesting supposition because it is virtually the opposite of that supposed by textual critics, who suppose that less difficult passages are typically secondary to more difficult passages. The textual critic supposes that editors reduce textual difficulty whereas the redaction critic supposes that editors introduce textual difficulties.

Redaction criticism tends not to go back to the manuscript tradition but rather to work with critical editions, such as the NA28. The difficulty though is that the NA28 has been generated by textual critics, who are operating with the above-mentioned tendency to prefer more difficult readings to less difficult ones. This creates a critical edition in which potential difficulties are maximized. Since the redaction critic adopts the opposite principle, that difficult readings are more likely secondary, the appearance of widespread redaction is also maximized. This however is to a large extent the artifact of a conceptual difficulty, namely the contradictory understandings of an editor's work adopted by textual and redaction critics.

Let us imagine then that textual and redaction critics adopted identical understandings of an editor's work. What would result if the textual critic agreed with the redaction critic, thus judging textual difficulties to typically be secondary rather than primary? In that case we would have a critical edition with fewer difficulties and thus evince less evidence of redaction. What would result if the redaction critic agreed with the textual critic, thus judging textual difficulties to typically be primary rather than secondary? In that case we would have a critical edition with greater numbers of difficulties and thus evince less evidence of redaction. Put otherwise redaction criticism would be greatly vitiated if its understanding of the work of the editor coincided with that of textual criticism.

This is of course not to deny the work of redactors in generating ancient texts. It is to suspect that perhaps we have a bit too much confidence in our ability to detect such work in the texts themselves. Insofar as historical Jesus studies have for the better part of a century, since the advent of form criticism, operated with a felt need to distinguish between traditional (read: non-redactional) and redactional material this has potential significance for that area. If our capacity to detect redaction is vitiated then so too is our capacity to distinguish non-redaction. Of course this ceases to be a problem the moment that we realize that historiography is not a literary analysis and that the question of redaction is largely a sideshow in the work of historical Jesus studies.