Friday, 23 June 2017

Paradigmatic and Pragmatic Chronology

I've been reading through Israel and Revelation, the first volume of Eric Voegelin's Order and History. The primary motivation for this reading is that Robert Doran, in his Theology and the Dialectics of History, which is a landmark contribution in the development and implementation of Bernard Lonergan's thought, engages significantly with Israel and Revelation. But Order and History is a significant work of 20th-century western thought in its own right, and thus worth the time to read. In any case, there is a fascinating discussion within Israel and Revelation on the significance of chronology in understanding the development of ancient Israel. Given my fascination with matters chronological, this particularly grabbed my attention.

Voegelin distinguishes between what he calls "paradigmatic" and "pragmatic" history, each of which will have its own chronology. The former reflects Israel's own self-understanding of its history: its origins among the Patriarchs who migrated from Mesopotamia, its time spent in and around Canaan before the sojourn in Egypt, the Exodus under Moses, the revelation at Sinai, the return to and conquest of the Holy Land under Joshua, the period of the Judges and the establishment and historical course of the monarchies, the emergence of the prophets, etc. It is paradigmatic in the sense that "the single events become paradigms of God's way with man in this world" (IaR, 121). This chronology is essentially relative, offered through various notices that back-date from significant moments such as the foundation of the Solomonic temple, although with our modern historical knowledge we can give some approximation of the absolute dates that might adhere to these putative events. The latter history, the pragmatic, is not dissimilar to what is often termed "political history": the rise and fall of polities, the movements of people groups, etc. It includes the Hyksos invasion of Egypt, the rise and fall of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires, etc. This history is often expressed by reference to regnal years: in the twelfth year of such-and-such a king, this and that happened. With appropriate reference points, we can usually convert these into BCE/CE dates with relative precision.

In a very real sense, much of the work in the studies over the last two centuries has consisted of thinking about the relationship between these two chronologies, the paradigmatic and the pragmatic. The problems are real, regardless of how much certain persons might want to deny them for ideological causes. If on the basis of the former we have reason to think that Jericho was destroyed c. 1250 BCE, but on the basis of the latter we have reason to think that there was a destruction c. 1500 but none at the later date, then we have a problem demanding investigation. (These numbers are given here as heuristic. Cavils regarding their empirical accuracy would add no light to the discussion at hand). Are one or both these dates mistaken? Is the paradigmatic history simply so unconcerned with chronological precision that it must be dispensed with in regard to such matters? Is paradigmatic history by definition so unconcerned with chronological precision that we must dispense with it in general, not just with regard to the history of ancient Israel but more broadly?

This is a problem that recurs in the study of the ancient world. Herodotus, for example, is also doing what we might loosely call a sort of paradigmatic history. For him, the events are paradigmatic not of God's way with humanity in the world, but rather of the interactions between the "western" world represented most fully by the Greeks and the "eastern" world represented most fully by the Persians. The Gospels, of course, as well as the Acts of the Apostles, are very much engaged in paradigmatic history. With regard to chronology, the central theoretical question that recurs with such materials is how or if we can work with texts whose interest in matters of temporal progression might well be radically different from our own? Or, to return to Voegelin's language, how do we translate the understanding of paradigmatic time immanent in such texts into the language of pragmatic time? And of course, the answer probably is that each text must be first understand in its own right, so as to detect the author's particular understanding of time (although of course such particular understanding will typically be related to broader understandings. One should not be surprised, for instance, if Paul evinces an understanding of time otherwise evident in the Israelite and Jewish traditions). Chronology, after all, is in all its forms a way by which the intellect organizes its contents in a legible and specifically temporal form.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Change, Continuity, and Value

Larry Hurtado recently wrote a post about "How We See Historical Change." As I find increasingly that this is precisely the focus of my thinking, I thought that I would comment upon his arguments here. I begin with the observation that the study of historical change is to be carefully distinguished from the study of a particular time and place. It is perfectly legitimate to study the life of Paul in his particular time and place. In a limited sense, that entails the study of change: the change in his self-understanding and horizon that occurred on the road to Damascus; changes in his practices and policies and thought over the years; short-term changes that he wrought through his operations, such as the foundation of churches. But that is not quite the same as inquiring about Paul in a longer-term perspective, something akin to what the Annales School (notably Braudel) termed history in the longue durée. Braudel helpfully describes the distinction between the shorter and longer terms as the distinction between history at the level of named individuals and history operating a level of abstraction above such individuals. As such, insofar as we can advert to the individual in discussing the long-term, it is because the individual instantiates and embodies processes occurring at a higher level of abstraction.

Once this distinction is grasped, one bristles at the following quotation from Hurtado:
It’s not clear...that Jesus-believers of Paul’s time (ca. 30-60 CE) thought of themselves, their faith and practices as “primitive” or “embryonic” of some more mature and complete form of Jesus-devotion that might be worked out across time. I get the impression, instead, that Paul (for example) thought of the convictions and teachings that he delivered as adequately formed and fully appropriate for his situation. So, if we refer to those early years of the Jesus-movement as embryonic or the seeds of something that developed later, I think that we’re importing a value judgment that isn’t based on the evidence.
Everything up until the final sentence of this paragraph can be granted without serious quibble. Paul and his contemporary Christians do not seem to have understood what they were doing as primitive or embryonic. In fact, one might very well argue that they lacked the conceptual apparatus to do so, as this language of development was not itself fully developed before the nineteenth century (a point made by Ben Meyer in the opening lines of his Early Christians). The difficulty with this paragraph lies in the final sentence, in that it critiques a straw man. When someone says "The early years of the Jesus-movement were embryonic or seeds of something that developed later," that person is hardly saying that Paul or the earliest Christians saw themselves in that way. It's not even implicit in the statement. Rather, that person is saying that when we examine the matter millennia later, we can identify two phenomena simultaneously: one, that what Paul et. al. thought about particular matters is not identical to what later Christian writers would think about the same; and two, that there is nonetheless an observable continuity in what they thought. In other words: we can identify change with continuity. The fact that the historical actors did not apprehend their place in such a long-term process simply speaks to basic human limitations regarding our own place in history.

The central point of Hurtado's post is that we must avoid inappropriate value judgments in our historical work. That is a fair point. This can perhaps be better explicated if we take our earlier distinction between the short and longer terms and rephrase it in light of Lonergan's notion of functional specialties. We can distinguish between interpretation, which is aimed at understanding what a particular writer intends to communicate; history, which is aimed largely at understanding historical events and the sequence of events; dialectics, which is aimed at understanding historical processes; and foundations, which is aimed at taking a stand on the matters raised by these previous specialties, especially dialectics. In interpretation, we ask what Paul meant; in history, we relate what Paul meant to what Paul did; in dialectics, we relate what Paul did to recurrent conflicts and questions; and in foundations we determine our own positions in such conflicts, our own answers to such questions. Hurtado's warning is essentially the observation that interpretation cannot be reduced to foundations. Granted. The problem is that his method, as proposed, reduces dialectics to interpretation. Questions of interpretation require interpretative answers derived by interpretative method; questions of history, historical answers derived by historical method; questions of dialectic, dialectical answers derived by dialectical method; and questions of foundation, foundational answers derived by foundational method. There are no short-cuts here (and invariably, when short-cuts are pursued consistently, they end in a vitiated intellectual life. Perhaps the prime example in the theological realm is the fundamentalist doctrine of plenary inerrancy, which effectively reduces every imaginable question--not just historical, dialectical, or foundational, but also doctrinal, systematic, scientific, etc.--to a question of interpretation, and tends to correlate closely with the anti-intellectualism immanent throughout much of American Protestantism outside the mainline denominations).

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Bultmann and Translation

I recently observed, and briefly participated in, a FB conversation inspired by the following post by Bart Ehrman. This discussion centred upon Ehrman's description of Rudolf Bultmann's program of demythologization. Some of the critiques were aimed at typos ("Rudolph" vs. "Rudolf," for instance). A more substantive critique aimed at Ehrman's description of Bultmann's demythologization as an effort at "stripping away" the myth in the New Testament to bring out its true message. It was observed that this language was problematic. For Bultmann, the New Testament communicates its message through myth, not despite it, and thus in stripping away the myth the theologian does not reveal the message so much as remove the very thing by which we can know it. To Prof. Ehrman's credit, he entered into the discussion himself, acknowledged that the initial formulation could have been written better, and helpfully suggested that instead of the language of stripping away we opt for the language of translation: Bultmann wanted to translate the message of the New Testament from the idiom of ancient myth to the idiom of modern existential philosophy.

Now, this interests me, because such translation is exactly what Ben Meyer understood as a primary motor of development in Christian history. He connects this back to Newman (hence in part my interest in the latter on the development of doctrine), who apparently wrote in the margin of his own copy of The Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine that development is translation. Meyer also uses the term "transposition" to describe such translation, which is useful to note because this is Lonergan's language for much the same (which, of course, given that Meyer was a student of Lonergan's, should occasion not much of a surprise). If I might use as an example of such translation, I will take Ehrman himself. Ehrman, of course, is one of the most significant New Testament scholars of his generation. His primary contribution, I would argue, resides in the area of communication. What he does is communicate the discourses and thought current (now and previously) in New Testament studies from the language (or "horizon," in more precisely Lonerganian usage) of the specialist into the language of the non-specialist. This is incredibly valuable work.

As Meyer observes of any such translation, something is invariably lost in the translation, while other things are gained. Certain concepts and images must be abandoned in order to communicate particular insights, while new ones emerge to communicate the same. Sometimes those new concepts and images will be able to communicate said insights more clearly or more precisely than those of the originating horizon. This, for instance, Lonergan argues is in part what happens with the unfairly maligned movement from Jewish to Greek horizons (which Meyer rightly notes began not with Christianity's movement from the Jewish to the Gentile worlds, but rather from those Jewish believers more grounded in what we might call Hebraic culture and those more grounded in what we might call Hellenistic, here taking our cue--as does Meyer--from the distinction between Hebraioi and Hellēnistai introduced by Luke in Acts 6:1 as components of the early Jerusalem church). This movement allows early Christians to utilize the rich intellectual resources of ancient Greek thought in order to better examine, understand, and articulate their own. There is something of a movement away from the rich narrative tradition inherited from Judaism, and towards the rich philosophical tradition inherited from Greek thought. Something is lost, something is gained.

Unfortunately, Bultmann's particular work of translation largely turned out to be a dead end. Most fundamentally, I would argue, this is because he read the New Testament texts through a history-of-religions framework that has now been almost entirely abandoned, and aimed to translate into an existentialist framework that has largely been left in the past. In short, he translated from what is now a dead language into what is also now a dead language. Add in that the history-of-religions framework with which he worked died because it was in large part refuted empirically (despite mythicist trolls' desperate need to it in order to furnish themselves with the appearance of insight), and that there is some question about the extent to which Bultmann really apprehended existentialist thought, then as a translation of the New Testament writings into modern horizons (Bultmann's real aim) his work probably needs to be judged less than fully successful. That however does not obviate the possibility and indeed necessity of engaging in the ongoing work of translating the insights of the ancient writers into frameworks that can be adequately apprehended by presently living human beings.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Development of Doctrine

In a recent discussion on Facebook, I suggested that one of the tasks still before the Lonerganian tradition is the construction of an adequate account of the development of doctrine from ancient Israel, through Second Temple Judaism, and into early Christianity, thus to connect with accounts that move from the apostolic era onward. This is related to my interest in overcoming what I call the "Rupture Hypothesis," i.e. the hypothesis that Christian origins is defined by a double and radical discontinuity: first, between Judaism and Jesus, and second between Jesus and Christianity (this double discontinuity, given methodological apotheosis in the criterion of dissimilarity within historical Jesus studies, has the double effect of alienating Christianity from its Jewish heritage as well as its dominical roots). When writing about the "development of doctrine," I explicitly have in mind John Henry Newman's landmark Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, although of course the Essay is 172 years young and thus predates the considerable advances in both historical and theological (the latter defined more narrowly as doctrinal and systematic theology) studies over the last two centuries. Biblical scholarship provides the groundwork for the historical corrections necessary, perhaps most notably but not exclusively facilitating access to the tremendous trove of new textual and archaeological discoveries that have redefined our understanding of the ancient Near East, ancient Judaism, and ancient Christianity. Lonergan and those who came after him provide a great deal of the groundwork for the theological corrections that must take place, perhaps the most notable of which would be recognizing that one must respect that the history running from ancient Israel through Second Temple is as much "preparatory" for rabbinic Judaism as it is for early Christianity (I use the term "preparatory" as it is Newman's, who reckons Judaism to be effectively obsolete from the advent of Christianity. On this side of the Shoah, such nonsense needs to be firmly relegated to the trash fire of history. The term "preparation" can only be used now if it refers to rabbinic Judaism as much as Christianity, or not at all).

But there is a deeper problem, a conceptual one, antecedent to the very work of a history of the development of doctrine in ancient Israel and Second Temple Judaism. Sean McEvenue, one of the very few Hebrew Bible scholars to have extensively engaged with Lonergan and Lonerganian thought, helps us identify this problem precisely, arguing that the material in the Hebrew Bible can only most loosely be described as "doctrinal." There are of course doctrines in the Hebrew Bible, in the loose sense of "teachings," but we get a sense of what McEvenue means if we compare, say, Amos to Augustine. One finds in Amos oracles and divine utterances which aim towards the entirety of human consciousness, compared to the more focused aim towards the intellect that we find in, say, De Trinitate. This is neither critique nor praise of either Amos or Augustine, but merely description: there is a place for writings aimed at the whole of consciousness, and a place for writings aimed more specifically at the intellect. Amos aims to move the whole person in a way that Augustine's De Trinitate does not, whereas Augustine's De Trinitate aims to specifically form and inform the intellect in a way that Amos does not. This has to do in large part with their respective locations in the long temporal sequence under discussion.

Thus can we take a lead from Lonergan, who in Way to Nicea argues that alongside the development of the dogma of the trinity, the ante-Nicene church had to develop the very idea of dogma. We can for our purposes substitute "doctrine" for "dogma," and suggest that a history of the development of doctrine from ancient Israel through Second Temple Judaism and beyond would have to address first and foremost the development of doctrine itself before it can adequately address specific doctrines. One would want to look at signal moments in this history, such as Ben Sira and Paul, neither of which can be adequately apprehended as doctrinal or systematic theologians avant la lettre (although there is no lack of trying, especially with regard to the former), but who certainly represent later moments in the development of doctrine qua doctrine than does Amos. One would also need to recognize that the history of development is not simply one of writings that begin to more fully approximate doctrine (in the specialized sense used here) displacing what came before. At roughly the same time that Ben Sira is writing, we find thoroughly non-doctrinal (in the specialized sense used here) Book of Daniel and 1 Enoch being produced. At roughly the same time that Philo is producing his great treatises in Alexandria, the early Christians are producing their again quite non-doctrinal gospels, Acts of the Apostles, Revelation. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Christians produce great systematic treatises, and they also produce stories set in fantasy worlds such as Middle-Earth, Narnia, and the Wizarding World. But it is precisely the fact that we can today recognize that there is a world of difference between the very Christian Catechism of the Catholic Church and the equally Christian Lord of the Rings that speaks to the fact that the heuristic distinction between doctrinal and non-doctrinal writings apprehends a genuine, authentic difference. The historical inquiry becomes one of thinking through how such difference came to be in the first place.