Thursday, 26 February 2015

On Charity in Reading

Love is a central aspect of Lonergan's thinking. For Lonergan a conversion to love is what ordinarily sets us down the path towards cultivating our moral and intellectual awareness: through loving I learn what to value; through learning what to value I learn to value truth; and through valuing truth I learn how to discover what is true. I regularly ask myself: within the academy, how does such love work itself out in practical terms, however?

In typical Lonerganian fashion I begin by looking at my own operations. Thus will I go semi-autobiographical. With the recent spate of hate crimes against Muslim persons in Canada and the US I have found myself motivated to learn more about Islam. Not that I'm ignorant of Islam, of course, but it's not something to which I've given that much thought over the years. But one of the things that I wanted to do was read the Qur'an straight through, something I've never done before. Now, like probably any text, there are passages in that text that seem bizarre, even troubling, to the uninitiated. As I encounter those texts my first instinct is always to put them in the best light possible. I ask myself, for instance, "Do these texts unambiguously advocate violence, as both groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda as well as anti-Muslim provocateurs might suggest?" If I find myself unable to see how they cannot be read as anything but warrants for violence I look at the writings of, for instance, feminist Qur'anic interpreters, or more generally any interpreter of the Qur'an who is concerned to present what we might consider a more "humanist" or irenic exegesis. This is because my interest is precisely to see how Muslims and non-Muslims might coexist in the same world without sniping at or killing one another.

Let us call such a procedure "reading for charity." I would suggest that it is a procedural example of the priority of love. Quite simply, I am giving the Other, in this case Muslims, the benefit of the doubt. I know that those enamoured with a certain understanding of the hermeneutic of suspicion might find this foreign, even offensive, but I'm okay with that. And that's because in point of fact what I am employing is precisely a hermeneutic of suspicion, namely a suspicion that those who would use the Qur'an to warrant violence--either in the name of Islam or against Muslim persons--are driven not by a commitment to truth but rather by a commitment to hate. Such persons are violent not because of how they read the Qur'an, but rather they read the Qur'an the way they do because they are violent. Violent people, it turns out, tend to produce violent exegesis, and of such exegesis I am indeed quite suspicious.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Lonergan and Media History: Dialectics

Okay. So a couple weeks back I wrote what was supposed to be the first of a two part discussion of media history as situated within a Lonerganian context. I suggested there that discussions of media culture within New Testament studies have tended to cluster within two of the four functional specialties most relevant to biblical studies proper, namely interpretation and dialectic. That first post dealt with interpretation, concluding that in point of fact media history yielded little to the work of this functional specialty. I never got around to writing that second because, infuriated by recent attacks on Muslim persons (because, you know, I have something resembling empathy and compassion), I felt that blogging on media history seemed a little trivial. In this post I return to the matter, addressing media history within the work of dialectic.

The single most extensive engagement with Lonergan’s notion of the dialectic comes from Robert Doran, most notably in his magisterial work, Theology and the Dialectics of History. This work however was published in 1990, by which time Lonergan had passed on and Meyer was ill sick with his ultimately terminal illness; as such in their respective corpuses neither Lonergan nor Meyer engages with THD. This is unfortunate, as the book is a treasure trove of insight that greatly advances the Lonerganian tradition. What follows in this blog constitutes my effort at a Lonerganian dialectical engagement with media history, enriched by the work of Robert Doran.

Lonergan approaches dialectic by what we might broadly define as a systems approach. In the system there are basically two poles. One of these, the integrator, is the principle of limitation, i.e. that which ensures that the system remains a system, with an integrity (hence, integrator) that allows it to continue. The operator is the principle of transcendence, i.e. that which allow the system to move towards a higher level of integration. The operator typically results from some sort of deficiency in the integrator, such that the movement towards a higher level of integration is internal to the system itself. Note that there is also what we might call a negative dialectic, one that causes breakdown in systems, such that movement is towards a lower level of integration; this comes about when there is bias towards either pole. I will not deal with that here, other than to note that of course Lonergan is well aware that it is not the case that every day, in every way, things are getting better.

One of Doran’s great achievements is to more fully explicate what is merely suggestive in Lonergan’s work, namely that what the latter describes as the scale of values needs to be considered dialectically. More specifically Lonergan identifies five values—vital, social, cultural, personal, and religious—in this scale, and Doran focuses upon the dialectical reality of social, cultural, and personal values. I will not spend time here enumerating the integrator and operator of each of these. This is where we can begin to think profitably about media history in dialectical terms. Each of these values require media to function, and more to the point so do the integrator and operator within each one. A society, culture, or person incapable of communication within itself or her or his self would be capable of neither integration nor of operations that facilitate movement towards higher levels of integration.

Let us use an example, one drawn from our contemporary world. For social integration we rely greatly upon paperwork. Our cultural integration relies upon providing warrant for the significance of such paperwork, such that it is seen as just the way that things are. No doubt our historic emphasis upon sacred texts developed in part out of a need to provide precisely such warrant. Our personal integration is the means by which we learn to exist within our particular culture. Yet in a fully globalized world such reliance upon physical papers becomes tedious in a variety of ways. Thus we have developed ways to transmit the information contained within our paperwork instantaneously. The need for such instantaneous transmission, or more precisely the solutions found to meet that need, is, in Lonerganian terms, a social operator; yet it requires a cultural operator that is capable of adjusting our cultural values to the reality of an electronic, post-paper age, and in turn personal operators capable of adjusting our personal values so that we can function within this transformed cultural reality.

The above paragraph contains an insight of paramount importance for thinking early Christian media: the development of the idea of sacred texts was a cultural innovation aimed at providing warrant for the increasing social reliance upon written material. By the late Second Temple Jewish society, culture, and persons overall had been profoundly affected, and indeed effected, by the impact of written. This is the case even for those who were utterly illiterate. This is because illiterate persons yet lived in a society and culture wherein text mattered; the very existence of Torah and the exegetical tradition surrounding Torah as well as scribes makes that evident. Consequent to these social and cultural realities, by the late Second Temple there was on the personal level a marked libidinal investment in the notion of sacred texts.

This has potential consequences for thinking about the origins of the gospels and other Christian literature. The operative supposition, often unspoken, was that the early Christians had no idea that any of their texts would constitute sacred writings. Yet this is not self-evident. The history of religions has more than a few examples of texts that evince a self-consciousness regarding their own sacrality; the Lotus Sutra and the Qur'an come to mind immediately, the latter being of particular interest as it evinces significant engagement with the Jewish and Christian scriptural traditions. It is altogether conceivable that the early Christians thought much those responsible for the Lotus Sutra and the Qur'an as they produced certain of their texts; of the New Testament documents the gospels would seem to be the sort of material that more likely would have been conceived from the off as sacred literature than, say, the various epistolary material. This can also help account for such otherwise strange occurrences as the quotation in 1 Timothy 5:18 of material found extant only in Luke 10:7, which is referred to as coming from a graphnē that apparently could be situated in the same category as Deuteronomy; if Luke's Gospel was from the off understood to be sacred literature than this would not be strange at all. The upshot of the above is that nothing seems to remove early Christianity from the world of Second Temple Judaism and indeed the ancient Mediterranean and Near East more resolutely than presuming it to ever have been other-than-heavily-invested socially in textuality and culturally and then on the personal level in the notion of sacred texts.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

N.T. Wright and Critical Realism

By now many have seen the following screed against N.T. Wright written by by Paul Holloway. Holloway is Professor of New Testament at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, who is quite upset that Dr. Wright will be receiving an honorary degree from his institution. He suggests that Dr. Wright is not an NT scholar but rather an apologist, that he teaches at a third-rate institution, that he's not taken seriously by "critical scholars" in the field of NT. Now, these arguments are all logically fallacious and empirically absurd. NT scholar and apologist are hardly mutually exclusive categories, and in any case N.T. Wright is by any measure a NT scholar; St. Andrew's, where Wright teaches, is one of the most respected schools in the field, and in any case there is no direct relationship between the quality of one's work and the prestige of one's posting; and the interest with which scholars have greeted his recent mammoth volumes on Paul belied the suggestion that he is not taken seriously by critical scholars, unless one plays the No True Scotsman card and says that anyone who takes his work seriously is by definition not a critical scholar. But none of that is my main concern here.

My main concern is that this gives me an occasion to express something that I have long found troubling in Wright's work, namely his definition of critical realism. Whilst ostensibly inspired by Ben Meyer and thus grounded ostensibly in the Lonerganian tradition it is in fact antithetical thereto. in fact, I would go as far as to say that it is utterly incoherent. What Wright means by critical realism supposes a double affirmation: one, that we know the world only through our investigations into said world (thus it is critical); two, that the world exists independent of ourselves (thus it is realism). The difficulty is that if the first is true then then the second can be true only as a consequence of our investigations into the world; it is conclusion, not supposition. But more to the point, such investigation will quickly reveal the second supposition to be false, for in point of fact there is a reality that is not independent of myself, namely myself. It can be true only if I am not a part of reality, which is to say that I am not real; but surely if I am to investigate the world I must first be real, such that if I am unreal the very investigation needed to demonstrate the independent reality of the world becomes utterly impossible.

Thus I reject Wright's account on this matter. In fact, I feel quite ambivalent about Wright. On the one hand I appreciate the fact that he has kept Meyer's name alive in the discipline; on the other hand I think that he misconstrues Meyer's project in fundamental ways due to a failure to more fully engage with Lonergan. Moreover, as a former student of Steve Westerholm I frequently disagree with Wright on more particular exegetical matters, especially in the area of Pauline studies. Yet, unlike Holloway, I do not thus say that Wright is a pseudo-scholar; I simply say that on this matter or that I think him to be is mistaken. That is where Holloway crosses a line, and whilst indicting Wright as someone who is ideologically-driven tells us more about his own ideology. In fact, that ideology is evident throughout his letter: he doesn't like social and theological conservatives and doesn't think that they have a place in the scholarly enterprise; in fact, he just comes across as someone bitter about that time that liberal Protestantism no longer dominates the NT guild, such that now one must make room for scholars from conservative Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, etc., backgrounds. A refusal to do so: that's ideology. And ideology, Lonergan has taught us, is a way to make good a failure of attentiveness, intelligence, reason, or responsibility, without having to undertake the difficult work of cultivating these cognitive virtues. I see little ideology in Wright: yes, he tends in certain directions, like we all do, but I also see him cultivating the above-mentioned cognitive virtues in himself, even if I might at times think his statements on the matter to be demonstrably false (and in fairness, the account of critical realism with which I engaged above was written almost twenty-five years ago).

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Coherent and Intelligibility

The great and intimidating thing about writing a book on theory and method (although I loathe that term) in HJ studies is that you regularly gain new insight into those matters oneself. Then one wonders how one ever did the work of HJ studies before that insight.

I have in the past used the terms "coherent" and "intelligible" as more or less synonymous. About ten minutes ago I realized that there is a conceptual benefit in differentiating between coherency as the condition in which a historical hypothesis is internally consistent with itself and intelligibility as the condition in which a historical hypothesis renders an account in which human agents operate in an intelligible fashion. Let me expound.

Efforts at harmonization are very frequently coherent. If I take the two canonical accounts of Judas Iscariot's death I can create a quite coherent narrative. Matthew tells me that he hung himself. Luke tells me that he fell headlong and burst open. It is quite coherent to say that Judas hung himself and then his body fell headlong and burst open. Is it intelligible, however? Whilst I could imagine Matthew leaving out the part about what happened to Judas' body post-mortem it seems a major lacuna on Luke's part to leave out the matter where Judas committed suicide. It seems to me that a more intelligible account would suggest that there was in early Christianity some diversity of opinions regarding Judas's death.

Or take the cleansings of the temple. It is altogether possible that Jesus cleansed the temple twice, once at the beginning of his ministry (as per John) and once at the end (as per the Synoptics). Yet this would mean that each Evangelist fails to mention that this event happened at least twice. It is coherent, sure, but perhaps at the expense of rendering the Evangelists' operations less than intelligible. Perhaps more intelligible, and no less coherent, would be to argue that either the Synoptic tradition or the Johannine, or both, has for literary or theological purposes placed the cleansing in a location other than where it occurred in Jesus's ministry.

Anyways, just really thinking through this insight about coherence versus intelligibility. I'll see where it takes my thinking in the future.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The Aims of Luke

In my post yesterday I commented that I think that the best explanation for the ending of Acts is that which the great historian Adolf Harnack reached at the end of his career, after trying out various alternatives: namely that Luke does not mention Paul's execution because it has not happened yet. It was actually more an aside than anything, a slight indulgence to my vaguely-neurotic obsession with the dates of the NT documents; nonetheless I got some push back on Facebook from my friend Dave DeJong, who advanced the argument that including mention of Paul's execution would have been counter-productive to Luke's efforts to present Paul as an innocent man. Out of respect to Dave, I think it well and good to offer a fuller response to his objection than one can offer in a post on Facebook.

What Dave argues is a quite venerable position; Harnack held it at one point, and when it was first presented to me as an undergraduate I was content to do so as well. Within a Lonerganian framework it falls properly within the functional specialty of interpretation: making intelligible to oneself the meaning of the text, which is to say to construe what the writer(s) intended to communicate. Of course it goes without saying that some texts are ultimately unintelligible, but all things being equal an interpretation that can, without doing severe injustice to the data, offer an intelligible reading of the material is to be preferred to one that cannot. And that's where I'm afraid that the "Luke didn't want to mention Paul's execution because it was counter to his efforts to present him as innocent" begins, for me, to break down.

It strikes me as a bit odd that Luke would be at such pains to show that Paul was innocent in the proceedings that took place in Jerusalem and Caesarea but make no effort to argue the same with regard to the proceedings in Rome. If Luke is so keen to highlight Paul's innocence and if he is writing after Paul's execution, then it seems a major lacuna not to offer an explanation of how it is that Paul, an innocent man, could be put to death by the empire. If it is the case that he could expect that his audience doesn't know that this was Paul's fate then could he reasonably expect that they knew of his earlier legal strugges? And if on the contrary he could reasonably expect that they did not, and if he wants to highlight Paul's innocence, and if he does so by excising events--such as the execution--that present him as in trouble with the authorities, then why does he raise the matter of these legal struggles at all? It's sort of like arguing at great length that a man is innocent of those speeding tickets yet altogether ignoring the fact that he is languishing in prison for murder. In such a reading then, at the very least Luke, would seem to be majoring in the minors. For the reader of, say, 85, the ending is going to raise more questions than it provides answers, with specific regards to Paul's legal innocence.

This problem disappears entirely if Luke finishes Acts towards the end of or not long after Paul's two years under house arrest in Rome. In that case one could affirm with Dave that Luke aims to highlight Paul's innocence, and in the process not generate such a lacuna. Luke's aims, as identified by Dave, become infinitely more intelligible. And remember that Luke does not shy away from depicting great figures of the faith put to death, such as Stephen and James son of Zebedee; he simply frames their deaths as the result of human malice. Given that Paul is executed under Nero, and given that c. 70 and later the Flavian dynasty is at pains to represent Nero (rightly or wrongly) as a tyrant, and given that in fact he is remembered as having unfairly persecuted Christians at Rome, it would not have been too difficult for Acts to frame Paul's death in a manner comparable to how he frames that of other martyrs. And in any case, if he can present Jesus the crucified as an innocent man then it seems that he could do much the same for Paul the beheaded.

In the final analysis of course the above is not a definitive argument. Dave's position is not impossible. I just think that on the balance of the data a Luke who wrote Acts c. 63 operates more intelligibly than one who wrote Acts c. 85. And ultimately that is my only concern here: rendering intelligible these ancient writings, and having thus done so rendering intelligible the world in which they were written. I am aware of course that there are always those who will co-opt such arguments to support various conservative theological and indirectly (given the confluence of theology and politics in certain places in this world) political ends; I cannot help that. All I can say is that they are mistaken to think that an Acts written c. 63 C.E. is somehow more conducive to such ends. Indeed, an Acts written in 62 is no more intrinsically likely to be more historically "reliable" (a somewhat problematic historiographical category anyways, although one that I am guilty of employing in my own work) than one written c. 85, and conceivably quite the opposite: time and distance from events have a way of calming passions that might otherwise interfere with reasoned reflection upon and construal of experiences, either one's own or that which one has learned about others. And moreover, few Christian doctrines turn upon the historical reliability of the Acts; the edifice of Christian theology does not topple if Paul never visited Athens or Peter never baptized Cornelius. My argument is no more calculated towards theologically conservative ends than is James Crossley's argument that Mark wrote his gospel c. 42 (and if you want to call James Crossley a theological conservative, please, be my guest); and to let fear of conservative co-optation drive my exegesis and historiography is to let such conservatives control the discourse, and I'm not quite prepared to do that.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Luke and Timothy

I'm deferring my comments on media history in order to address an issue that has come up in the blogosphere, namely whether Paul quoted from the Gospel of Luke. The passage in question is 1 Timothy 5:18, which reads: "18 for the scripture says, 'You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,' and, 'The laborer deserves to be paid.'" The former of these quotations comes from Deuteronomy; the latter is found within our extant literature only in Luke 10:7.

Now, before I started my current book on Lonergan, Meyer, and historical Jesus, I was indulging my obsession with the dating of the New Testament texts with a now-half-completed manuscript that might or might not ever see the light of day. The truth is that I've increasingly come to recognize that on most issues of interest to the historical development of Christianity the precise dating of the NT texts is actually not that important, except as an end on to itself. That said, I did come to the conclusion that the relationship between 1 Tim. 5:18 and Luke 10:7 has an import under-appreciated in the study of NT origins.

Let us deal with the most basic issue first. It is often objected that 1 Timothy could be quoting something other than Luke. This is possible, but is it probable? Perhaps it is quoting oral tradition or one of Luke's sources, or even an other, otherwise unknown, text. The former seems unlikely: the quotations are introduced as coming from the "writing[s]" (probably a a better translation than "scripture"); given this language it seems most probable that what is being quoted comes from a written text. The other possibilities would seem to run afoul of the principle of parsimony. We have this quotation in an extant text; it is quite conceivable that whomever wrote 1 Timothy knew that text; so why multiple entities on this matter? The strongest (albeit not only possible) hypothesis is that 1 Timothy here cites Luke.

Another possibility has been floated by James McGrath: that Luke was influenced by 1 Timothy. Whilst possible, again it seems unlikely. First, Luke 10:7 parallels Matt. 10:10, with one change (Matthew's τροφης is Luke's μισθου). If Luke got his usage from 1 Timothy then where did Matthew get his usage? From Luke, perhaps? Moreover, 1 Timothy explicitly presents the passage as a quote. If Luke copied from 1 Timothy then we would still have to explain the origin of that quotation. The alternative, quite possible, view, that 1 Timothy cites Luke thus has both greater explanatory power and greater parsimony, and as such is to be preferred.

Now we reach the date of the texts in question. If indeed Luke is post-70 and if 1 Timothy cites Luke then 1 Timothy must post-date 70. This however is only possible if Paul did not write 1 Timothy, or if somehow Paul lived into the post-70 era. The latter can reasonably be ruled out: all the best data should lead us to infer that he died sometime in the mid- to late- 60s. The former stands as a broad consensus in the discipline. Indeed, I would argue that given the consensus views on the matter of NT chronology the most probable hypothesis is that 1 Timothy is a pseudo-Pauline text written subsequent to and quoting Luke's Gospel.

This could well stand despite my own thinking on the dates of the gospels. I have come to the conclusion that Luke's Gospel was probably written by c. 60. That is because I think (negatively) that the references to the destruction of the temple do not necessitate a post-70 origin, and (positively) that the ending of Acts is most explicable if written whilst Paul was still alive. The interesting thing is that even if Luke was written in, let's say, 60, it would not necessarily follow that Paul wrote 1 Timothy. There would still be the possibility that 1 Timothy is a pseudo-Pauline text that knows a text that happened to have been written during Paul's life. Thus although I don't think it impossible that the historical Paul could have referred to Luke's Gospel neither do I think it as certain as Glenn Peoples.

In truth, New Testament chronology and inter-textuality are difficult, dodgy, matters. There are always a lot of balls in the air at any given time. The only tools that I have found particularly useful in adjudicating between hypotheses are those of explanatory scope and parsimony: what explains the most data with the fewest entities. The above, with 1 Timothy quoting either a pre-70 Luke or a post-70 Luke, seems the best here.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Media and Lonergan: Interpretation

Over the last few years Jesus studies has developed something of a fixation upon media history (Hurtado, with some impish wit, calls this an "oral fixation"). I have, for purposes of my second book, been thinking about how to situate such concerns within a Lonerganian framework.

The first step is to think about Lonergan's notion and identification of functional specialties, of which those most immediately relevant to the work of historical Jesus studies are interpretation, history, and dialectic. I have come to the conclusion that vis-à-vis historical Jesus studies the concerns of media history are to be situated most properly within the specialties of interpretation and dialectic; in this post I will deal with the former, in a subsequent post with the latter.

Vis-à-vis interpretation the work of media history entails asking whether and if so how the medium chosen by the communicator determines or influences the meaning of that which is communicated; put otherwise, is it the case that, following Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message? In historical Jesus studies this has led to a concern with what have been called "oral hermeneutics" and "written hermeneutics." The idea is that oral communications are so fundamentally different from written communications that each requires a discrete mode of interpretation.

Let us grant for one moment that this is indeed the case. It should follow from this that oral hermeneutics are of complete irrelevance for the study of the Jesus tradition. Why is that? Well, the reality is that by their very nature ancient oral communications about Jesus are no longer extant. If oral and written media are by definition fundamentally different then it follows that in being written the oral Jesus tradition was radically transformed so as to no longer resemble itself. If that is the case then we cannot know what the oral Jesus tradition looked like; and if we cannot know what it looked like then neither can we judge to what extent it resembled the written Jesus tradition. Thus is the study of oral hermeneutics vis-à-vis the Jesus tradition hoisted on its own petard. Only if we grant that the oral Jesus tradition closely resembled that which we have in at least some of our extant texts can we claim to know anything about the substance of that tradition; but in so granting we also functionally obviate the very idea of an oral Jesus tradition distinct from the written Jesus tradition.

Moreover, the very idea that there was ever an oral Jesus tradition that existed independent of a written Jesus tradition is itself a hypothesis, and one that stands on perhaps less-than-solid ground. Given that they came out of a religious milieu that placed a high premium upon literary production and consumption; given that they were writing letters to each other by c. 50 C.E.; given that they were writing gospels by 70 C.E. and most likely sources for those gospels earlier than that: given all those matters we would have to assume that if early Christians ever went through an extended period wherein things about Jesus were not written down they did so consciously and intentionally, and frankly I see nothing in the data that would suggest that this was the case. It is probably better to imagine the oral and the written Jesus tradition always interacting with each other in some sort of dialectical fashion from more or less the beginning; combined with the above-mentioned difficulties in establishing the existence of substantive differences between oral and written Jesus tradition, let alone the nature of those differences, and with Barry Schwartz's observation that generally one can expect the content of messages produced by the same people in different media to more or less conform to each other, and the putative oral/written divide begins to seem a bit more, well, putative, and a bit less significant for the specific work of interpretation.