Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Positive Absence

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This is a basic historiographical principle. It is one that requires some qualification, as there is a notable exception: except when one should reasonably anticipate to find evidence of presence. We could go more into the various permutations involved, but the question that interests me here is what happens when the evidence to be sought is literally absence. I'm thinking here of aniconic worship in ancient Israel. Joshua 8:30-35 mentions that Israel under Joshua built an altar to YHWH at Mt. Ebal, and there sacrificed various offerings. Combined with ancient Israelite aniconism and the supposition that the book of Joshua contains at least some usable data relevant to understanding the conditions in ancient Canaan c. 1200 BCE, we can on the basis of this text predict that we will find at Mt. Ebal the remains of a cultic installation dating from around that time that contains evidence of animal sacrifice and an absence of images. And that is precisely what has been found, and it is in fact quite unique among Canaanite sites of the time. Whether this cultic installation has anything to do with Joshua or not is a different story, but the current state of the evidence seems to stand as confirmation of the Deuteronomistic History's report that some but far from all residents of Canaan at the close of the Bronze Age and the transition to the Iron were already engaged in patterns of worship that included an absence of images.

But we are left with a situation wherein the absence of evidence constitutes evidence of presence: the absence of images has confirmed the presence of aniconism, and this because aniconism is precisely the absence of images. It does so however only because we have reason to anticipate an absence of images. That is to say, absence of images on its own is probably not enough to posit aniconic worship. It is the combination of reports that aniconism was practiced by a certain people in this time and place with material remains that are consistent with aniconism which allows us to conclude with reasonable confidence that Mt. Ebal represents a form of aniconic worship present in Canaan c. 1200 BCE. Every time that one finds such convergence in the data one is reminded of the perils of thinking that it is reasonable to think that in an area for which we have such a rich literary tradition it makes sense to ignore that tradition in thinking about its history (and note that it does not follow from this that one should simply affirm that everything in the biblical text is true. The statement "The biblical texts contain data relevant for the study of pre-monarchic Israelite history" hardly entails such a maximalist conclusion, just as the statement "Not everything in these texts pertains to the time that they purportedly describe" entails the minimalist conclusion that there is no data there of relevance for our understanding the pre-monarchic or any other period).

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Return

In Topics in Education, when thinking about the agents of positive change that can reverse processes of social and cultural breakdown, Lonergan writes that he has
spoken simply of the process--situation, insight, counsel, policy, new type of action, new situation, new insight, and the snowball effect of the entire cycle. The agents may be called a succession of creative personalities. The situation can be wholly transformed if there is a succession of personalities who are not simply sunk into the existing situation, immersed in its routines, and functioning like cogs in a wheel, with little grasp of possibilities, with a lack of daring. They withdraw, perhaps even physically, but at least mentally. They are detached; it is because of their detachment that they can see how things could be different. They may be accounted as nobodies while they are withdrawn, but when they return, they transform the world. In their withdrawal they become themselves, and they return with a mission (Topics in Education, p. 51-52).
This is such an incredibly rich passage. From a philosophy of history perspective, Lonergan here has taken great strides towards integrating the genuine insights of the Great Man approach to history, which focused upon agents of change, with the legitimate insights of historiographies that focus more upon broader social and cultural movements. It help us to understand how transformative figures--Moses, Jesus, Paul, Buddha, Muhammad, Aquinas, Luther, Marx, to name a few of particular historical import--manage to transform our concrete human reality. A product of said reality, they consciously withdraw from immanent engagement with that reality, precisely in order to gain what we might describe as a transcendent understanding of its qualities. This withdrawal allows them to cultivate their subjectivity, becoming themselves and thus able to operate fully at the level of their time: precisely what Lonergan defines as genius. When they (or their disciples) begin to more fully engage with the world, they have a sense of what must be changed so as to produce a better world. This, perhaps, is the existential origin of such phenomena as the cult of the saints: the commemoration of past persons who came to operate at the respective levels of their respective times, whose operations facilitated comparable transformative experiences in their successors. It is no doubt the existential origin of the church: in his withdrawal--his years spent as an artisan, the time spent in praying and fasting--Jesus became himself, and upon his return he began to fashion the community that would eventuate in the church. Commemorating Jesus was thus not merely antiquarian, but in fact aimed at transforming the world in the here and now, precisely because Jesus was one who saw not only that transformation was necessary but had an at least initial sense of how that transformation must look. Likewise, the origins of the sangha, the mosque, and the like. Through the operations of such geniuses operating at the level of their times new spaces emerge--spaces in which other persons can likewise withdraw sufficiently to become themselves--and this with the guidance and example of previous transformative figures.

We know such figures from our own or at least more recent times, and not surprisingly many of these hail from marginalized groups (after all, it is easier to withdraw when one has already and unjustly been relegated to the fringes). To name just a few: Sojourner Truth; Frederick Douglass; Susan B. Anthony; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Malcolm X; bell hooks; and indeed Lonergan himself, whose work has released a slew of intellectual energy that is still changing the world. The great story continues: one of redemption from the constant entropy that threatens to overwhelm our social and cultural lives.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Lonergan and Bible at the American Academy of Religion

I am sitting in Boston's Logan Airport as I write this, returning from a fun but--as always--exhausting weekend at the concurrent Annual Meetings of Society of Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion (AKA, SBLAAR). For myself, the highlight of this weekend was a meeting that took place on Sunday night, when a number of us gathered to discuss the possibility of starting a Lonergan and Bible group at SBLAAR. Some highlights from this discussion.

1) It was agreed that there is more than enough will on both the side of Lonergan studies and that of biblical to sustain such a group.
2) It was agreed that such a group needs to operate from the centre (to use a quintessentially Lonergan phrase). That is to say, there are two "movements" here, that will meet in this group: Lonergan scholars with an interest in biblical studies, and biblical scholars with an interest in Lonergan.
3) It was agreed that this operation from the centre can help meet the larger need of bringing together conscientious thought and work in systematic theology with conscientious thought and work in biblical studies.
4) It was agreed that although the initial idea was that this group would function under the auspices of SBL, our aims would be better met if it functioned under the auspices of AAR.
5) It was agreed that we will aim to hold our initial session(s) at the SBLAAR Annual Meeting in Nov. 2018, with the recognition that if this cannot be achieved we can aim for 2019.

As indicated by especially #5, there remains much work to be done. In particular, what we need at this point are persons who are willing to serve on the steering committee. Volunteers for such service would be appreciated. In addition, a long-standing need was identified, namely that of identifying and recruiting persons who 1) have primary expertise in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and 2) are interested in Lonergan. Due to the pioneering work of the Lonerganian New Testament scholar Ben Meyer there is a readily identifiable body of NT scholars interested in Lonergan, but little comparable among HB/OT scholars. Another need identified by the group was that of gender and ethnic inclusivity, as homogeneity is hardly a virtue.

Thanks to Dave de la Fuente, John Martens, and Jordan Ryan for attending the meeting last night. Thanks also to Michael Barber, John Dadosky, Darren Dias, Robert Doran, Bill Heroman, James McGrath, and Jeff Peterson, all of whom expressed an interest in attending but were unable to do so due to other commitments. (If I've failed to mention any others who conveyed their regrets, my apologies). A special mention needs to go to Jeff Peterson, who got this whole ball rolling by suggesting that we think about starting a Lonergan and New Testament group (which quickly evolved into Lonergan and Bible) at the SBL in the first place.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Of Illegitimacy and Inference

Early in David Hackett Fischer's Champlain's Dream, Fischer argues that Samuel de Champlain might have been the illegitimate son of the future Henri IV, king of France. Fischer acknowledges that he has no direct evidence to establish this as fact. He has no birth certificate with Henri's name on it. He has no document in which Henri acknowledges Champlain as son, or in which Champlain acknowledges Henri as father. No one from the time talks about such a father-son relationship between the two. Nonetheless, argues Fischer, if Champlain was indeed Henri IV's son, and if Henri was aware of that fact, then that would explain a host of peculiarities in Champlain's relationship to Henri IV and to the French state more generally. Moreover, he argues that it would explain these peculiarities in a way that no other hypothesis has heretofore been able to do.

There is no need here for us to get into the details about this argument, for it matters not for our purposes. What matters is that this stands as a wonderful exemplar of how one versed in Lonergan's epistemology would proceed. Fischer understands that what constitutes a historical hypothesis is not ultimately our observational apprehension of the data but rather our inferential apprehension of the relationships between the data. That is to say, history is not exegesis: it is not the interpretation of documents followed by pronouncements about whether their claims are true. As such, the fact that Fischer has no document explicitly identifying Henri as Champlain's father is no impediment to his hypothesis. At the same time, Fischer recognizes that the mere fact that by considering those relationships he can construct a hypothesis in which Henri is Champlain's father is not sufficient to establish that this is the case. Anyone can construct hypotheses. What separates the adults from the children is the ability to determine which hypotheses are most probable. Towards that end, Fischer advances a criterion by which to judge whether this is the best hypothesis on the matter, namely that of scope: does this hypothesis explain a greater scope of relevant data than does any competitor? He is cautious: acknowledging that in this case the data is such that he cannot say with certainty that Henri was Champlain's father, but nonetheless presenting it as a possibility that is perhaps to be preferred to its alternatives.