Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Lonergan and Hebrew Bible

I've been reflecting recently upon the relative dearth of Lonerganian scholarship related to Hebrew Bible. It's not an absolute dearth: Sean McEvenue has done some interesting work at the intersection of the two. But there doesn't seem to be as developed a discourse that we can call "Hebrew Bible and Lonergan" as there is one that we can call "New Testament and Lonergan." Such dearth probably has ready explanations. The most obvious is that both Hebrew Bible and Lonergan studies have a steep learning curve. It takes a lot of energy and time to develop genuine expertise in one, let along both. Whatever the explanations though, the reality is that this Hebrew Bible and Lonergan seems less developed a discourse than even New Testament and Lonergan.

Hebrew Bible thus stands as a major lacuna in Lonerganian thought. Why major? In principle of course, Lonerganian thought is concerned with all areas of human inquiry, and as such any area with which Lonerganian thought leaves unaddresses in practice constitutes a lacuna. But this particular lacuna feels more acute. After all, Lonergan was a Catholic theologian and philosopher, and the Hebrew Bible constitutes the bulk of the Catholic biblical canon. Especially as someone trained to closely relate the study of the New Testament to the study of Second Temple Judaism, this lacuna very much strikes home. After all, the Catholic Old Testament (leaving aside how it relates to this thing we call "Hebrew Bible") contains not a few works that are the product of Second Temple Judaism. And that is before we even start to think about pre-exilic texts and material. Both in terms of the history of the Abrahamic traditions and of the Catholic biblical canon, early Christianity is in fact a relatively late part of the story. A Lonerganian scholarship that more fully explores the texts and history of ancient Judaism and Israel will be one that more fully apprehends the Catholic tradition from which Lonergan and Lonerganian thought themselves emerged. At the very least, it might well help the Lonerganian tradition better understand itself. At the same time, I am fully persuaded that the resources of the Lonerganian tradition are such that they could help elucidate ongoing difficulties in Hebrew Bible studies.

I might better explicate that persuasion by reference to a specific problem that is addressed at length in Meyer's work, namely the question of how to best articulate how the first Christians are both embedded fully in a Second Temple Jewish matrix, thus in many ways of typical of that matrix, yet in many other ways atypical thereof. This question finds a parallel in the reality that earliest Israel was embedded fully in a Canaanite matrix, thus in many ways of typical of that matrix, yet in many other ways atypical thereof. Much of Meyer's reflection upon how best to describe an entity that is wholly Jewish yet distinct from other Jewish groups, and also how to think about the reality that in relative short order it shed its Jewish identity while never fully dispensing with its Jewish past. This can potentially inform how best to describe an entity that is both Canaanite yet distinct from other Canaanite groups. Of course, such work would entail translation, from the particularities of early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism into the particularities of ancient Israelite and Canaanite religion. Meyer's work in turn builds upon a Lonerganian tradition that increasingly explores an ever-growing range of disparate areas in the human sciences, thus facilitating the coordination of insights between the study of early Christianity, of ancient Israel, of psychology and anthropology and sociology, etc. The potential gains to Hebrew Bible studies of consciously Lonerganian investigations are very exciting.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Baal and YHWH

The richest thinkers will typically makes observations in passing that could be developing into entire monographs or even entire research programs. Bernard Lonergan was such a thinker, and so was Ben F. Meyer. On pp. 188-189 of his under-read and under-appreciated monograph, The Early Christians (which I maintain is even better than his more famous Aims of Jesus; written the better part of a decade later, EC represents that many additional years of reflection upon Christian origins), Meyer makes a series of observations about the nature of ancient Israelite religion that I increasingly feel need revisiting. Now, in saying that, and in the interests of appropriate humility, I must be clear: ancient Israelite religion is not my primary area of expertise. But cognizant of the difference between thinking about a matter and claiming to be an expert therein, I will risk a foray into that field.

Meyer discusses ancient Israelite religion almost in passing, as part of his larger discussion of the nature of syncretism. Syncretism, for those who do not know the term, refers to the practice of appropriating religious practices or beliefs foreign to one's own religion. Meyer distinguishes between weak syncretism and strong syncretism. Weak syncretism he describes as religious traditions that have a strong identity in their own right, such that any appropriations from other traditions are predominantly formal: they are taken over in order to better articulate the tradition's fundamental understandings. Strong syncretism he describes as occurring as religious traditions that lack such a strong identity, such that appropriations from other traditions will tend to be matters of substance. So, weak syncretism in ancient Israel would entail appropriating the imagery associated with Baal in order to describe YHWH, but making clear that Baal is not YHWH; strong syncretism would entail not only appropriating the imagery associated with Baal in order to describe YHWH, but also identifying Baal and YHWH as the same being.

I would prefer to describe this not in terms of strong and weak identities, but rather in terms of reducibility of being. The question at stake is whether the being in question can be reduced to another (yes, I know that classical theology would potentially raise technical objections to talking about YHWH as a "being," but I use the term in a more colloquial sense here, so please bear with me). In ancient Greco-Roman religion, various gods of the ancient world were interchangeable. If a god of another people's pantheon had functions analogous to those of a Greek or Roman god, they were thought to be the same being. In the Hinduism of the Brahmins, all the gods ultimately are reducible to Brahma. But for the pattern of ancient Canaanite religion that began to emerge in ancient Israel and in the fullness of time eventuated in ancient Jewish monotheism, Baal and YHWH were not so reducible. There was no divine reality more basic than YHWH. Indeed, as creator, YHWH was in a very real sense the ultimate horizon of being. Moreover, Baal could not be reduced to YHWH, because YHWH was defined not simply as Being but as a person, and thus insofar as Baal was another (perhaps real, perhaps fictive: here is the distinction between henotheism and monotheism) person they could no more be identified with one another than any two given human persons. And consequent to the above, the worship of YHWH could entail appropriation of all sorts of imagery used in the worship of Baal, but never in a such a way that YHWH became identified with Baal.

Of course, this understanding of YHWH took centuries to develop, and it was not without conflict. Nonetheless, there is a significant methodological point to be gleaned from all this, namely that it is insufficient to simply note "parallels" between religious traditions. One must also show what is happening with these parallels. This is the problem with such gobbledlygook as mythicism. Even if we granted all the parallels between Jesus and various mythological figures that their asinine memes and vacuous apologists trot out (most of these "parallels" of course tend to be vitiated by profound errors of fact), it would tell us next to nothing. What matters is not simply the existence of comparable material, but its significance. What were the New Testament and post-apostolic writers doing with this material? And no simple listing of putative parallels can tell us that. Rather, that demands the patient, hard work of slugging through the details, a task that meme culture is ill-equipped to carry out.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

James and John

I've been reading through the second edition of Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. He has an extended chapter on the names of the Twelve, and I was struck by something in the lists as given in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts. But before I get to that, some initial observations. In each of these texts, there is a list of the Twelve. The lists are remarkably stable. Eleven out of twelve names recur in all four, vitiating greatly the argument that by the time the Gospels were written the number "twelve" was fixed while the exact names were highly fluid. Moreover, the one is divided between Mark/Matthew (which refer to Thaddeus) and Luke/Acts (which refer to Judas, son of James), and thus--given the common authorship of Luke and Acts--we actually have only one author varying from two. Add in the very cogent argument that Thaddeus and Judas are in fact the same man and you've got a remarkably stable list. The order varies, but even that is limited. As Bauckham notes, each list is divided into three groups of four, and each group has the same four names (with Judas of James taking the place of Thaddeus in the Luke-Acts lists). Moreover, each of the three groups is in each list headed by the same name. This reeks of intentional mnemonic devices, designed to greatly facilitate one's ability to remember the list.

What interests me more than all that however is the handling of the sons of Zebedee. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, James, son of Zebedee, always comes before his brother, John. In Matthew and Mark, John is referred to as James' brother, and no familial relationship is mentioned at all in either Luke or Acts. It has been suggested to me in personal communication that this order might well reflect a reality that James was the elder brother, and that is altogether possible. Nonetheless, this is quite the interesting phenomenon, because John in fact is the one who was more prominent in the Christian tradition by at least the second century, if not earlier. All indications are that in short order there was more energy invested in remembering John than in remembering James. That is perhaps because James died in 41 or 42, during the Agrippan persecution (cf. Acts 12), whereas Paul would later describe John as one of the "pillars" in Jerusalem (cf. Gal. 2). John's connection with the Gospel of John--real or fictive--would no doubt have also contributed significantly to his prominence. Yet, Matthew and Mark explicitly refer to John not in his own right but by reference to his brother, while Luke refers to James before John.

But here's where it gets interesting. In the list in Acts, John is mentioned before James. Why does Luke present James first and John second in his gospel, but reverse that order in his Acts? One could say that he simply remembered differently when he was writing up his respective works, and that's probably quite likely. I don't imagine that this variant was particularly intentional, but that doesn't obviate the possibility that it is significant. Combined with another detail, I would suggest that Acts reflects the reality that by the time Luke was writing, John was more prominent in Christian consciousness than James. In Luke, the author follows his Markan (and I think likely, Matthean; I don't abide Q) source, and places James before John, but (unlike Mark or Matthew) does not mention their familial relationship. John now stands in his own right. In Acts, no longer with Matthean or Markan versions rumbling around in his head to the same extent, he more naturally places John before James, because John is more prominent in Christian historical consciousness.

Of course, such a reconstruction is more comprehensible on a lower chronology than a later one. If Mark wrote c. 40 and Matthew c. 50, as I would argue, then it makes sense that John has not yet eclipsed his brother. Circa 40, James either is still alive or only recently deceased. It is quite possible that for whatever reason--perhaps their relative ages, or their temperaments, or whatever--James tended to be more prominent in the early movement during that first decade. By c. 50, John might be coming more to prominence, but not so as to eclipse his brother's position in the tradition. But by c. 60, he's up the better part of twenty more years to make contributions to the movement than his brother ever did, and his prominence in Christian awareness exceeds that of James'. By contrast, there is no ready explanation for why James would be more prominent in c. 70 but John more prominent by c. 85 or even c. 125. What changed in that period to make John more prominent? One could argue that it was the production of the Gospel of John, but that then opens up the question of why that gospel was attributed to John. Given the tendency of the middle and especially the higher chronologies to suppose that the texts are pseudonymous, the inclination for such chronologies would naturally be towards supposing that John's prominence in the tradition led to the attribution rather than the other way round (there is of course the question of "Which John?" with regard to the gospel, but it does seem that at least in second-century consciousness John, son of Zebedee, was generally assumed to be the answer). For the middle and higher chronologies, the variants on this matter between the lists of the Twelve would probably have to be described as the result of mere randomness. Mere randomness is not implausible, but presents as somewhat less compelling than a cogent historical narrative can account for the precise features of the data in explicable human terms.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Lonergan and Bible

Hello, all. There are some very interesting developments afoot in the world of Lonerganian thinking about biblical studies. As no doubt some who read this blog know, the late Ben F. Meyer worked extensively on developing Lonerganian thought in relation to biblical studies, specifically New Testament studies. But sadly Dr. Meyer was sick for many years, and thus did not produce as many students who could continue this project as he might have otherwise done. There are, however, signs today of a growing interest among biblical scholars, especially New Testament scholars, in returning to Meyer and his engagement with Lonergan. Perhaps most exciting, the idea of developing some sort of Lonergan and Bible Group at the SBL Annual has been floated around.

When this idea was initially proposed to me, the idea was Lonergan and New Testament, simply because the discussion was taking place among New Testament scholars. But some subsequent discussions have led me to think more broadly of Lonergan and Biblical Studies, with the latter term construed broadly to include Hebrew Bible, Second Temple studies, New Testament, potentially even Patristics and Rabbinics. The idea would be to take the fruits of Lonergan's breakthrough in developing a historically-conscious hermeneutic and work these out in relation to these various fields. Of course, because of Meyer's work, New Testament scholarship is currently best situated to undertake such work, but there is no reason in principle that it could not be also carried out in cognate areas. For instance, in a single paragraph on pp. 188-189 of Early Christians: Their World Mission and Self-Discovery, Meyer presents the rudiments of a dialectical--in the sense used by Lonergan--approach to the religion of Israel, a matter that Lonergan also touches upon briefly in, for instance, The Way to Nicea. It would be fascinating to hear what a specialist in Hebrew Bible and ancient Israel might make of Meyer's thoughts here. I would also note that this discussion in Early Christians, published in 1986, could only be improved by engagement with Robert Doran's 1990 masterpiece of Lonerganian thought, Theology and the Dialectics of History, as well as Meyer's own subsequent thought on related conceptual matters in Christus Faber. The point to be made: there are already some ready starting points in Lonergan and the broader Lonerganian enterprise that could greatly facilitate the sort of work in which a Lonergan and Bible Group might be interested.

Anyways, the purpose of this post is to put this on people's radar. There is talk about an informal meeting at SBL Annual in Boston this coming November, to discuss the potential for such a Lonergan and Bible group. I have been quite happily surprised by the degree of interest in Lonergan and Meyer among biblical scholars, and the reciprocal interest in biblical studies by Lonergan scholars, so I feel that there are a lot of people out there who would welcome such discussions. It's now a matter of finding the right venues in which to bring such persons together.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Luke and Papias

I'm reading through the second edition of Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. In effect, this means rereading the entirety of the first edition, as the second edition consists of the first with three additional chapters appended to the end. It's good for me to do so though, as I have not read the book since it came out in 2006, incidentally the first year of my doctoral studies, and am finding that I have largely forgotten the extent to which ideas that I have fully internalized and made part of my own understanding of early Christianity were ideas that I first encountered in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

Today, as I read, I stumbled across a paragraph that resonates strongly with me, given my current work on the dates of the New Testament. I would like to quote it at length, if I might be so indulged.
Papias in this passage [quoted in Eusebius, Eccl. hist. 3.39.3-4] speaks of a time before the time at which he is writing. The time when he collected oral traditions deriving from disciples of [the earthly] Jesus was in the past. At that time most of the disciplines of Jesus had died, but at least two such disciples, Aristion and John the Elder, were still alive. This must have been close to the decade 80-90 CE. According to most scholars, this is the time at which the Gospels Matthew and Luke were written, and a little earlier than the time at which the Fourth Gospel was written. Thus what Papias says in this passage can be placed alongside Luke's reference to the eyewitnesses (Luke 1:2) as evidence for the way the relationship of the eyewitnesses to Gospel traditions was understood at the time when the Gospels were being written (p. 19-20).
There is much in this passage with which I can readily give assent. I indeed think it likely that Papias was collecting the oral tradition about Jesus that he claims formed the basis of his work during the last quarter of the first century (I would add that I think it likely that he wrote his work probably around the time of Trajan's reign). I would of course agree that this is around the time that the majority of scholars date the compositions of Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John. But when both those points are granted, I find something jarring when I compare Papias' prologue (which Bauckham here discusses) with Luke's. This is best explicated if I quote both.
1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed (Luke 1:1-4, NRSV).
3 I will not hesitate to set down for you, along with my interpretations, everything I carefully learned then from the elders and carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth. For unlike most people I did not enjoy those who have a great deal to say, but those who teach the truth. Nor did I enjoy those who recall someone else’s commandments, but those who remember the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the truth itself. 4 And if by chance someone who had been a follower of the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elders—what Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and abiding voice (Papias' prologue, as quoted in Eusebius, Eccl. hist. 3.39.3-4, following Holmes' translation).
Although these two prologues are formally quite similar, there is a stark difference in the content. Luke identifies as his primary sources persons who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. He presents himself as in direct contact with the first generation of Christians, and it seems with persons who knew Jesus personally. There is no reference to depending upon others to tell him what these persons had said or were saying. By contrast, Papias identifies as his primary sources persons who knew such first-generation Christians and companions of Jesus. Now, this could in part be due to relative isolation: for whatever reason, Papias does not seem capable of traveling from Hierapolis, the way we read about other early Christian leaders traveling from their primary locales (I've come to suspect that he might have suffered from sort of disability that limited his mobility), and thus was dependent upon those Christians who came through the city to bring him information. By comparison, if the Lukan we-passages are to be taken as what they seem to prima facie suggest (namely that the author was a companion of Paul), then Luke was in fact in Jerusalem around c. 60 and in contact with at least James (cf. Acts 21:18). But I'm not sure that relative isolation suffices as an explanation. As Bauckham notes, Papias seems to have distinguished between those who companions of Jesus who were still alive and those who were not. It seems to me most judicious to think that Papias was collecting his oral traditions about Jesus some significant time after Luke had done much the same.

This correlates precisely with what we have already said here. One, following Bauckham, that Papias was gathering oral traditions around 80-90, and two, that Luke met with at least one, possibly more, eyewitnesses to Jesus c. 60. In and of itself, such correlation does not necessitate a date for Luke's Gospel c. 60, as argued by Robinson and the later Harnack, but it is certainly not hostile to such a date. Such coherence is an important test of any hypothesis, because the more coherence that we find the reasonable inferences that we might draw from data across a single author and even more from multiple authors, the more difficult it is to argue that these authors have contrived to persuade the readers of things that are not the case. As coherence mounts, arguments for authorial contrivance begin to leave the realm of historical hypothesis and rather shade into the realm of conspiracy theory.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Origins of the Synagogue

My Doktorvater, Anders Runesson, has made a PDF of his own dissertation, The Origins of the Synagogue, available via Published in 2001, The Origins of the Synagogue was the first monograph-length study of the synagogue's origins since the 17th century. Not only that, but I think that Runesson's arguments are basically correct. Certain of his statements in the study are now out-of-date, largely because of more recent archaeological discoveries, but I cannot think of anything that would overturn his basic argument. By any measure, it is a landmark study. It also tends to be read less than it should, probably because--although written in English--it was published through a Swedish publisher.

In order to understand the argument in Origins, one needs to have a sense of where synagogue studies stood in the 1990s, when Runesson was conducting doctoral research and writing the monograph. There were basically two schools of thought on the synagogue. The one argued that the synagogue emerged in the Diaspora, and represented the Jewish equivalent of a Greco-Roman voluntary association (what Runesson calls an "association synagogue" or "semi-public" synagogue). The other argued that the synagogue emerged in the Land of Israel, as a local institution comparable to a village or city assembly (what Runesson calls a "municipal" or "public" synagogue). Runesson's brilliance was to recognize that this wasn't an either/or but rather a both/and. The institution known as the synagogue emerged in the cities of the Diaspora and the villages of the Land more or less simultaneously.

Origins has defined my career in many ways. Reading it as an undergraduate student was a large part of what led me to study under Runesson in the first place. It has defined much of my understanding of how Hellenistic and early Roman era Judaism organized itself, as well as how Christianity likely emerged in institutional terms. I have largely moved "beyond" the arguments contained therein, as of course has Runesson himself. It has been a starting point, a departure, for my own work, rather than a blueprint to slavishly follow. And I really could not have asked for a better starting point.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Date of Thomas

One when picks up Robinson's Redating the New Testament in 2017, one cannot but be struck by a lacuna in the texts that he treats. He considers the entirety of the New Testament, and in a "Post-Apostolic Post-Script" also treats certain of the Apostolic Fathers (notably, 1 Clement, Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas). He does not however treat the Gospel of Thomas, which in light of its position in subsequent scholarship is a notable absence. No doubt, it's because in 1976 the arguments that would place Thomas, at least in its earliest forms, in the fourth or even third quarter of the first century had not yet taken on the prominence they later would. Given the existence of arguments from quite competent and respected scholars that would situate the Gospel of Thomas as coeval or just slightly later than the last of the New Testament texts, it would at the very least be altogether uncollegial to not address the issue of Thomas' origin in a study on the dates of the New Testament written today.

An initial consideration is the matter of "gnosticism." A first observation on the matter: just as recent scholarship has recently argued that the "high" Christology of John's Gospel cannot be correlated directly with a later date, neither could any "gnosticism" detectable in Thomas'. A second observation: the tendency to treat Thomas as a gnostic text has receded in recent years. It's now increasingly recognized that it was slotted into that category in large part due to guilt by association. The complete Coptic text being found alongside the trove of "gnostic" texts found at Nag Hammadi, people supposed that it must fall into the same category. Yes, just as we cannot suppose without argument that the canon espouses a consistent theology, neither can we suppose the same for the Nag Hammadi library. A third observation: it's not clear to me that the wisdom- or gnostic- oriented Christianity on display in Thomas' Gospel is significantly more "advanced" than that with which Paul is engaged in the Corinthian correspondence. Indeed, there is sufficient resonance that it has been argued that his Corinthian opponents included persons influenced by Thomasine thought. Whether that is the case or not with regard to Paul, the salient point is that the conditions necessary for the emergence of something like Thomas' Gospel probably existed by c. 60.

With that in mind, I am struck by two logia in the Gospel of Thomas. One is logion 12, in which Jesus is asked by his disciples who will lead them after he is gone. He tells them that they should go to James the Just. Now, it seems difficult for me to locate the origin of this logion much after the death of James in 62. The later one pushes it past that date, the less useful an answer it is for those who would want guidance regarding post-dominical leadership. What use is it to someone in 150 to hear that they should go to a person dead for almost a century? It's also not clear to what extent after the 60s there were Christian leaders that based their legitimacy upon any sort of Jacobean authority, thus obviating the (really quite speculative) argument that it refers to those who claim that authority rather than to James himself. Certainly, the most natural place for this logion is before 62.

The second logion of interest is the very next one, 13. In this logion, Jesus asks his disciples to compare him to someone. Peter says that he is like a righteous angel. Matthew says that he is like a wise philosopher. Thomas says that he cannot articulate a comparison. What interests me is that Thomas' Gospel singles out specifically Peter and Matthew here. Now, these just happen to be the members of the Twelve associated with those canonical gospels generally held to be the earliest written: Mark's and Matthew's. Moreover, interestingly, they are listed in the order that most scholars suppose they were written. Is this just coincidence? Those who would state that Thomas' Gospel is independent of the canonical gospels would probably have to conclude "Yes," but one wonders whether that is the best judgment or not. Those who see the Gospel of Thomas as dependent upon one or more of the canonical gospels could answer "No, it is not a coincidence at all."

Given the above statements, it must be noted that there are a series of affirmations that only one who dates the Synoptic Gospels early (i.e. before c. 60) can most readily affirm simultaneously. One who dates the Synoptic Gospel thus early one could affirm that Paul is engaging with an articulation of Christianity similar to that found in Thomas' Gospel; could affirm that the most natural reading of logion 12 situates it as a pre-62 reference to James the Just's leadership; could affirm that there is a compelling logic to the selection of specifically Peter and Matthew from among the Twelve in logion 13; and could affirm the recent (and in my mind convincing) arguments that Thomas either knew all three of the Synoptic Gospels or emerged from Christian circles closely related to those which produced the Synoptic Gospels. Moreover, one could do so without positing hypothetical proto-Thomases that pre-date the "final" form. A lower chronology permits a strong synthesis between competing schools of Thomasine studies that are excluded by the middle and higher chronology. The strength in such synthesis does not lie simply in presenting a diplomatic or compromise position, but rather in the possibility that rather than two diametrically opposed schools, one of which is right and one of which is wrong, what we have is two groups of scholars who, coming at the same material with differing subjectivities, are each apprehending vital aspects of the same reality about the Gospel of Thomas. When their respective positions are brought into dialogue, and chronological barriers removed, perhaps the fuller reality becomes apparent.

Now, let me be clear: I'm not arguing that Thomas' Gospel should be dated c. 60. The above is a hypothesis, one which at this point I neither affirm nor reject. I have not yet thought through the issue sufficiently to reach a final judgment. But one who would undertake to argue that many of the texts of the New Testament canon are notably earlier than typically supposed cannot in principle exclude the possibility that the same is the case for some of the New Testament apocrypha. It is thus incumbent upon me to explore such possibilities, considering and vetting hypotheses for such earlier dates. Any other procedure would run the risk of special pleading.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Romans and Critical Realism, III

Okay, says the reader of my previous two posts on Romans and Critical Realism, I can see how Paul thinks that reality is inferred from data (to use Lonerganian and Collingwoodian sort of language); I can see how his antipathy towards idolatry could be a rejection of the intellectual error of confusing data with reality; but what does any of this have to do with the moral dimension upon which he so strongly insists? The answer, I suggest is: Everything.

As we begin, let us consider how Paul progresses through this section. First, he states in 1:18 that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth." He then explicates exactly what it means to suppress the truth in vv. 19-23. Then, in vv. 24-25, he argues that "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!" This is followed by his (in)famous jeremiad against same-sex relations, both male and female, as an example of the degradation. That jeremiad tends to get the attention these days, but I'm more interested in how Paul is constructing the relationship between morality and knowing. It seems that Paul sees a sort of cycle at work: immorality leads to the suppression of genuine knowledge, and in turn that suppression leads to immorality.

Upon reflection, this makes a great deal of sense. Morality is about values. And the resolute will to know truth, whatever it might be, regardless of whether it contradicts and challenges one's current suppositions, is a value. It places the desire to understand our collective world above the personal desire to control that world. It makes in fact a great deal of sense to think that a person lacking robust values might not put much of a premium on truth (one perhaps need only look to Twitter for evidence of that). That's why Lonergan sees moral conversion, i.e. the conversion to placing value before satisfaction, as antecedent to intellectual conversion: valuing, we learn to value truth; valuing truth, we learn how to find it. This additionally explains why Paul can see that the suppression of truth also leads to greater immorality. There is a sort of feedback process between morality and knowing: as we learn to find truth, we come to better apprehend the world; as we better apprehend the world, we better refine our values, including the value we place upon truth; in turns further teaches us how to find truth. But if we do not value truth, then do we not learn how to find it; instead, misapprehensions lead to further misapprehensions; and as our misapprehension of the world grows, we increasingly misapprehend the moral dimension of the world, calling evil good and good evil.

Now, it would clearly be disingenuous to say that Paul and Lonergan independently struck upon similar understandings of the relationship between morality and knowing. Lonergan was a Jesuit priest, a theologian and philosopher who engaged deeply with the Christian tradition. That meant that he engaged deeply with Paul, and with thinkers who engaged deeply with Paul. We should not be surprised to find Pauline valences and indeed citations throughout Lonergan's corpus. We should also not be surprised if our ideas about what is good and true differ from Paul's. We've had two additional millennia to develop the feedback between morality and knowing. But that is a matter for theologians who work in functional specialties other than my own, so I will leave it there.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Romans and Critical Realism, II

Romans 1:18ff. really is a fascinating text. Paul gives what might be reckoned as a thesis statement in vv. 18-19: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them." Here Paul draws a close connection between morality and truth that might be somewhat foreign to modern readers. We would tend to see these as independent variables: a morally deficient person can nonetheless be a great theologian, scientist, etc., and to think otherwise is to dabble in argumentum ad hominem. This is not how Paul reasons, at least not on the matters that concern him here. For Paul, it seems, God has made Godself known so plainly that only willful ignorance can account for the refusal to recognize God properly. This is for Paul a moral failing.

In my immediately previous post, I discussed how Paul understands that God has made Godself known: from the data of God's creation, argues Paul, one can infer God's power and nature (v. 20a). After this argument, he continues, arguing that
20b So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
It is certainly the case that Paul is here displaying a quite unexceptionable Jewish aversion to idolatry. Such a properly cultural argument however perhaps does not quite fully do justice to what is going on here. I would suggest that what is happening is also in part hermeneutical. For Paul, the divine can be inferred from created things, such as human beings and birds and four-footed animals and reptiles; but for Paul's hypothetical idolater, there is no act of inference but rather these are the divine. If created things are the data by which one infers the reality of God, then in taking created things to be God one is mistaking data for reality. As such, it is perhaps not simply cultural differences that drive Paul here, but a particular apprehension of what it means to know. As Lonergan might put it, Paul's hypothetical idolater has confused knowing with looking. This, I would suggest, is part of why Paul can understand idolatry to be not simply a religious but also an intellectual error.

What remains to be explored more fully is what to modern interpreters might well seem to be a non sequitur: Paul's linkage of this (in his mind) intellectual error with moral error. My contention, to be presented in a subsequent post, is that Lonergan offers excellent resources for thinking through this question.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Romans and Critical Realism, I

Critical realism is not always easy to explain. It is, most basically, an insight into the fundamental nature of things. Specifically, it is an insight into the fundamental nature of this thing that is human knowing. It is the fruit of what Lonergan describes as intellectual conversion. In intellectual conversion, the human subject apprehends--not just theoretically, but deep in the bones--that knowing is not like looking. It entails rejecting the empiricist's false conviction that we only what we can look at is real and thus can be known, and the idealist's equally false conviction that the work of looking obviates the possibility of knowing. In historical Jesus studies, my primary area of expertise, these false convictions respectively play themselves out on the one hand in the search for criteria that will exclude from our field of vision that which is not real, and on the other in the recurrent despair of ever being able to apprehend the Jesus of history. Critical realism moves beyond this by affirming rightly that while knowing is not like looking, looking (and hearing, smelling, tasting, touching: experiencing in general) is a foundational and indispensable step in knowing. We infer reality from that which we experience. For those who have experienced this intellectual conversion, critical realism will present as self-evident; for those who have not, it will present as really quite baffling.

Through the work of empirical (not empiricist) inquiry, we come to know that which cannot be experienced by attending to that which can. We call that which can be experienced "data," and that which we can know from experience we call "reality." I was recently reading in Romans, and was struck by the way in which Paul articulated this understanding of knowledge remarkably well, the better part of two millennia ago. In Romans 1:20a, Paul writes that "Ever since the creation of the world [God's] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made." The data: the things that God has made. The inferred reality: God's eternal power and divine nature. Paul's assertion is that while we cannot experience God's eternal power and divine nature directly, we can apprehend it through our experience of God's creation. The crucial step for the critical realist is recognizing that it is this act of apprehension that constitutes genuine knowing. The act of experiencing creation, that is a necessary step on the path to this apprehension, but the apprehension of the eternal power and divine nature is the real act of knowing.

It would take more than the above, quick analysis to suggest that Paul was a critical realist avant la lettre. Even if he were, he would have been one "at the level of this time," i.e. one who operated two millennia ago, without the benefit of the many insights that we have stumbled upon since in our collective project of better apprehending our shared reality. In any case, Paul's consciousness of his own subjectivity and the work of knowing (as interesting as it might be in its own regard) is not really my interest here. My interest is simply in using what Paul wrote to help elucidate the basic insight that drives critical realism. Indeed, Paul could in principle be mistaken in his conclusion about God's power and nature, without obviating the basic understanding of knowing that he evinces. What matters for my purpose here is the work of inferring reality from what is experienced, without falling either into the error of confusing the experience with reality or the alternative error of severing the two completely.