Sunday, 31 December 2017

Aniconism and Atheism

Among very standard rhetoric employed by very ill-informed persons is that the difference between polytheists and monotheists and atheists is a matter of degree: a monotheist simply believes in fewer gods than a polytheist, and an atheist one fewer still. Just a few minutes in the Tanakh/Old Testament reveals that this is simply not the case, or a few minutes looking at monotheism in the Greek philosophical tradition. The difference was qualitative, not quantitative. The Israelite and later Jewish tradition symbolized this through the rejection of images. One could not represent YHWH because YHWH's nature was such that it could not be represented. In the Greek philosophical tradition, Aristotle's "Uncaused Cause" and Plotinus' "The One" are not giant bearded guys in the sky but rather metaphysical accounts for the origin and nature of reality. It is a foundational category error to suppose that in any of these cases the "God" concept was commensurable with "the gods."

Of course, it goes without saying that things were always messy. There were Israelites who urged a strict rejection of all gods in favour of YHWH. This was, I would argue, the fruit of what Lonergan calls "intellectual conversion," i.e. the foundational apprehension that knowing is not like looking, that reality is not what is out there to be perceived but rather what is to be inferred from what can be perceived. Thus the rejection of images flowed from and indeed aimed to concretely communicate an epistemic insight into the very nature of insight. Of course, this apprehension took place at the level of the time, and the level of the time was the Iron Age Levant. This apprehension could only proceed as far as that level permitted, but it advanced that level. Lonergan defines genius as the intellect operating fully at the level of its time, thus advancing the level for future generations to build upon. In that sense, the Israelite prophets perhaps are best conceptualized as geniuses who apprehended the nature of human knowing as clearly as their time permitted. They transcended the common sense of the time--what was affirmed spontaneously and without reflection--to produce insights into the nature of reality so profound that we still read their words three thousand years later. (Note that this does not obviate divine activity, for there is plenty of room for a doctrine of grace as that which gifts the intellect with the capacity to undertake this work, nor does it obviate a doctrine of revelation but rather specifies more precisely the concrete human side thereof. But such concerns are those of the systematic theologian, something I am not). But precisely insofar as such rejection of the gods in favour of YHWH demands that one was operating fully at the level of one's time the vast majority of Israelites found that difficult to achieve. It is not surprising but rather quite predictable that they would continue to function at the common sense level of the time, bowing before that which could be seen as they could not conceive of reality as something apprehended not by the senses but rather by the intellect. Similarly, there continue to be followers of Abrahamic religions who remain unable to distinguish between perception and reality.

Perhaps the reason that this qualitative difference between "God" and "the gods" eludes many today is because they have not themselves apprehended that knowing is not like looking. Supposing that only that which can be perceived can be affirmed, their inner life has more in common with ancient paganism than the level of our own time. Indeed, those who state that they differ from polytheists only quantitatively explicitly affirm that the pattern of their thought is essentially that of the Iron Age. Put otherwise, there can be a reasonable argument for atheism, but one that is unable or unwilling to engage with what other persons actually believe to be the case hardly qualifies as reasonable. If one has rejected only quantitative distinctions between "the gods" and not attended to the qualitative distinction between "the gods" and "God," then one's atheism is inchoate at best.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Why the Monarchy?

On the basis of Judges, it's often been argued that during Iron Age I Israel was organized into some sort of tribal confederacy. When I read Judges, I am struck by how little this is borne out by the text. The text seems to assume that there was some sort of shared identity, but that tells us little about their social organization. We find for instance in Judges 4-5 some expectation that the tribes should act in each other's mutual defense, but a significant theme in these chapters is that this expectation was not borne out in actual practice. Indeed, in Samuel, the lack of such higher-level organization is presented explicitly as a barrier to what we might call "national security," and this is presented as a crucial argument for the introduction of a central authority in the form of the Saulide monarchy (my own tendency is to think of Saul more than anything as a powerful Benjamite warlord than as the leader of a Judahite state, but that still can be thought to represent some degree of growing central authority). This is all quite congruent with the archaeological material, which gives us the sense of a generally decentralized society in the central hill country during the 12th and 11th centuries, followed by evidence of state formation in the 10th (state formation perhaps begins in the south towards the end of the 11th century, and by the 10th century it is quite clearly underway). Evidence of external threat is harder to detect archaeologically, but it is not unreasonable to think that at least some persons in the central hill country considered the Philistine city-states to constitute an existential threat.

My interest is in thinking about this dialectically, specifically as Lonergan and those who have followed him have worked out the functional specialization of dialectic (a specialization that is necessarily informed by feminist, Marxist, critical-race, queer, etc., thought). The lack of security can be seen as a failure to meet the vital needs of the community, for whatever else security might be it is certainly a vital need (i.e. those things necessary in the first instance to survive and more fully to thrive). For Lonergan and those who follow him, this provides evidence of a breakdown in social values. Social values guide our relationships with each other, and thus our organization, and insofar as the ends of organization is to secure the vital needs of the community the failure to meet those needs indicates that something social has gone awry. Whether the establishment of the monarchy was the best way to address this social breakdown is a different question. One could argue that with the attendant monarchy's ills--such as an increase in hierarchy and social inequity--made the cure worse than the disease. Nonetheless, it does seem reasonable to think that at least in part there was an effort to correct a deficiency in social values that was at least felt to undermine the security of the community.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Contrast and Contradiction

Bill Heroman has recently written a post that draws attention to the heuristic distinction between contrast and contradiction (my language, not his. I'm incidentally following Robert Doran in this verbiage). A contrast is an instance in which A and B are irreducibly different and can both be true, whereas a contradiction is an instance in which A and B are irreducibly different and cannot both be true. Bill's discussion focuses upon the differences between the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives, and (to use the language employed here) he notes that while they contrast significantly the only contradiction is where the holy family travels after Jesus is born. I think that he is probably correct on this.

Let's approach this a bit more schematically. Take the example of who visits the family after Jesus is born. Matthew reports that magi come from the east, following a star in the sky. Luke reports that shepherds come, following the instructions of angels. It is an irreducible difference: magi cannot be made into shepherds or vice versa, nor angels into a star. But it is a difference that is not mutually exclusive. Both could be true. Magi could have visited, and also shepherds. Of course, one or both could be false, but that's not the point. The point is that it is a logical possibility that both are true. As such, this is a contrast.

But with the matter of the holy family's travel itinerary, Matthew has them leaving Bethlehem in the middle of the night to flee to Egypt, only to return to Nazareth years later. Luke has them travel from Bethlehem to Jerusalem at a leisurely pace, then settle back in Nazareth. These are not only irreducibly different but also cannot both be true. Affirmation of one excludes affirmation of the other. Again, it could be the case that both are false, but the possibility of both being true is foreclosed. As such, this is a contradiction.

This might seem like a trivial point, but it is something that tends to bedevil biblical scholars. Precisely because contradictions close off the possibility that one can affirm both at the same time, biblical scholars who misidentify contrasts as contradictions have excluded a logically possible hypothesis from the off. In some cases, this will make no difference whatsoever, not least of all because ultimately historians are not in the business of affirming statements ready-made in our primary sources, but in some cases it will. Those will be the cases in which both texts provide generally accurate accounts of what transpired. We cannot know before getting into the weeds whether these cases are the exception or the rule. Programmatic decisions to treat all contrasts as contradictions (the skeptic's erroneous tendency) or all contradictions as contrasts (the credulist's equally erroneous tendency) will tend to obviate genuine historical knowing.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Preserving Judges

On this, the first day of Christmas, I'm thinking about stories written long before that of Jesus, namely those of the Judges. I am thinking about the fact that the majority of the judges come from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Only two judges come from the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and neither of them are particularly significant to the overall narrative. Why is this significant? Well, Judah and Benjamin are the tribes that would later constitute the core first of the United Monarchy and then of the southern kingdom of Judah, while the northern tribes are those which would later constitute the core of the northern kingdom of Israel. This poses a significant problem for those who would argue that Judges is primarily royal or even post-exilic propaganda that is intended not to record the Israelite past but rather to advance ideological claims in the authorial present, a hypothesis that we might describe as the "retrojective." On this retrojective hypothesis, if the authorial present was the United Monarchy or the southern kingdom, then it is strange that there isn't greater jingoistic promotion of the southern tribes in which first the Saulide and later the Davidic kings located their power base. On this hypothesis, if the authorial present was the northern kingdom then it is strange that later Judahite and Jewish leaders would so readily incorporate into their emerging canon a text that promotes northern leadership while devoting so little attention to southern leadership. In the post-exilic period, as Jewish exiles returning to the land and seeking to establish the new province of Yehud found themselves competing with Samaria to the north, it is again strange that they would write and embrace a text that so emphasizes northern leadership to the virtually exclusion of southern leadership.

On the retrojective hypothesis, it seems to me that the core of Judges cannot easily be thought to date much later than the rise of Saul, which would barely make it a retrojection at all. (Indeed, if thinking about the book as a work of propaganda, the book's final line, that at that time there was no king in Israel and each man did as was right in his own eyes, perhaps makes most sense during the establishment of the monarchy, as both sides were arguing over whether or not such a political reorganization was for the best or not). Such a non-retrojection fits well with certain other data. For instance, settlement surveys have indicated that the most densely-populated area in the central hill country during Iron Age I generally corresponds with the areas in which Judges situates the majority of its action, i.e. in the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh. In other words, Judges reflects a reality in which most of what was happening in Iron Age I was happening in this territory because that's where more Israelites lived. For another instance, Judges depicts a non-state society lacking in central organization, and indeed the hill country settlements of Iron Age I suggest precisely such a society. This also corresponds with the evidence of the Merneptah stele, which c. 1208 refers to an entity called Israel presence in Canaan, and designates it not as a state but rather as a people group.

Now, the interesting thing is that if the retrospective hypothesis makes it difficult for Judges to date much later than the foundations of the monarchy, an alternative "preservative" hypothesis would allow for a much later date. The preservative hypothesis argues that the primary purpose in writing a text such as Judges was to record the Israelite past, and that it represents the cumulation of an extended process of such preservation. Of course, this process can hardly be thought to have been antiquarian: the reasons for preserving stories of the past are always located in the present. The preservative hypothesis is simply that these always-present reasons combined with the means to fulfill the preservative aim were sufficient to ensure a high degree of transmission "accuracy" from the period of the judges onward. In principle, as long as such reasons and means existed, the temporal duration is infinitely extendable. Of course, this does not mean that the stories contained within Judges actually happened. They in fact could represent what we might call Iron Age I historical fiction. But in that case they would be historical fiction that originated not much later than c. 1030 B.C.E., and which represent the social and cultural conditions of Iron Age I Israel reasonably well. That said, neither do I think that we can rule out that many if not most or all of the judges described within the book actually lived and served as leaders in Israel, even if one might evince some healthy skepticism towards their more super-human acts.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Bernard and Karl

My interest in Lonergan largely stems from an epistemic exigency, namely a need for higher-level systematization in my understanding of method. I recognized that when it came to studying the biblical texts, their world, and their impact, there were genuine insights in the work of more traditional exegetes, and there were genuine insights in the work of historians of the ancient world, and there were genuine insights stemming from the work of Marxist scholars, feminist scholars, womanist scholars, etc. The problem that I had was how to integrate and coordinate these respective insights into a synthetic whole. Lonergan's notion of functional specialization resolved this, allowing me to situate the insights of exegesis within the specialization that he called "interpretation," of historians within the specialization that he called "history," and of Marxist, feminist, womanist scholars, etc., within the specializations that he called "dialectics" and "foundations." Because these specializations are recursive, with each supposing and building its antecedent--foundations upon dialectics, dialectics upon history, history upon interpretation--I found the rudiments of a way in which to integrate the quite genuine insights that I was discovering in these disparate areas of scholarship.

Recently, I've been returning to some of the Marxist thinkers with whom I engaged earlier in my graduate career, with an aim of thinking through how to best situate their insights within Lonergan's system of functional specialization. I'm currently reading Boer and Petterson's recent monograph,  Time of Troubles, in which they argue that "it was precisely through the symbiosis and integration of polis and chōra that economic exploitation was enabled and made even more efficient" (p. 78). At a risk of bastardizing Boer and Petterson's argument through over-simplification, the argument is that city-dwellers in the ancient Greco-Roman city were essentially parasitic on those labouring in the country-side, extracting the fruits of their labour without providing anything of comparable value in return. There's no doubt much truth in this. For the Lonerganian, this would be an example of group bias at work: the city-dwellers formulate policies that benefit primarily themselves, with inadequate attention to those who work in the countryside. The Lonerganian would also likely grant that it was more specifically the most powerful and wealthy among the city-dwellers--i.e. the elite, following common parlance used today--who formulate these policies, for they would benefit most fully, and likewise identify that as group bias. The Lonerganian could further grant that insofar as this bias begins to distort peoples' psychological life, such that the irrationality of this group bias becomes the condition by which all groups within society process their world, a "dramatic bias" sets in, thus allowing her or him to affirm many Marxist insights regarding the nature of ideology, false consciousness, etc., perhaps particularly as these were developed by the Freudo-Marxist moves of the Frankfurt School. The Lonerganian could further argue that group and dramatic biases are the grounds of (respectively) shorter and longer cycles of decline that eventuate in the need for radical transformation, thus allowing her or him to affirm many of Marxist thought's legitimate insights into the matter of revolution.

There is a question looming over all this, however. That question is whether or not the relationship between country-side and city, or more generally between producers or non-producers, is constitutionally parasitic. Consider an arrangement in which it is agreed that producers will give up portion of their produce, and in exchange they and their dependents will receive access to the best in cutting-edge medical care. The producers would not have access to that medical care otherwise, and thus this could be seen as a mutually beneficial situation. The Marxist might respond by suggesting that while a situation in which producers receive access to the best in cutting-edge medical care might well be preferable to one in which they do not, nonetheless their relationship with the non-producers at the top of the class hierarchy remains unequal, and indeed such an arrangement could be said to constitute a particularly sophisticated and insidious form of exploitation as producers become all the more dependent upon the non-producers for their survival while the non-producers are able to decide which producers receive what level of care. Again, a Lonerganian can happily grant that group and dramatic bias can create such a situation, but would likely raise the question of whether such bias is endemic to the relationship between producer and non-producer.

The question for the Lonerganian raised by such Marxist analysis might be summarized as follows: can there be human societies that are free of systemic group and dramatic bias?

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Lonergan and the Judges

Those of us who are involved in Lonergan and bible tend to recognize that there has been greater output in the area of Lonergan and New Testament than in that of Lonergan and Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. I can identify at least two reasons for this. First, thinking broadly, I suspect that NT scholars are more likely to have an avocational if not vocational interest in Christian theology than do HB/OT scholars. Second, thinking in terms of the specific area of Lonergan and bible, the work of Ben Meyer established a solid foundation for Lonergan and NT that is not paralleled in HB/OT (Sean McEvenue has written on Lonergan and HB/OT, but not as extensively as did Meyer in NT and it would seem without a comparable impact). As someone who has always had an interest in HB/OT, especially in the early period (that of the judges and whatever might have come before in the development and emergence of Israel), this has me increasingly thinking about how Lonergan and HB/OT might look. Indeed, I will confess that my "book haul" at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature this year was almost entirely in the area of HB/OT history and archaeology.

I increasingly have come to the conclusion that the period of the judges is the place to start thinking about such things. It is at this point in Israelite history that the various extant data begin to permit a convergent historical picture. On the one hand, you have the earliest extant extra-biblical reference to a people called "Israel," in the form of the Merneptah stele (c. 1207 B.C.E.), which locates this people in Canaan precisely at a time by which on biblically-based chronologies we can anticipate that Israel was present in the Land. The stele moreover designates "Israel" as a people group rather than as a kingdom or state, which coheres perfectly with Judges' presentation of Israel as a people without a king. On the other hand, you have the archaeological record for the Canaanite hill country, the area that the biblical data presents as the Israelite heartland, which shows that around this time there was a significant increase in settlements in the region, which correlate with a shift in material culture that indicates, if not a new people, then certainly new lifeways among the persons resident in the land of Canaan. This, again, coheres with what we should anticipate on the basis of the biblical data. None of the above of course is to suggest that the stories of the Judges are literal history (a conceptual absurdity that results from identifying texts with events, and which is thus grounded in a naive and ultimately inchoate empiricism), nor is it to deny the constructed and indeed hagiographical character of much of the material. It is however to suggest that Judges is a useful source of data for understanding the general social and cultural conditions of Israel during the period of the judges, which roughly covers Iron Age I, i.e. c. 1200-1000 BCE.

From a Lonergan perspective, and building upon the work of Robert Doran, I would suggest that the historian's ultimate aim should be to define--as best we can--how the normative scale of values were operative among the Israelites during this period. This means considering the dialectical interrelationship between social, cultural, and personal values. Given the nature of the data, the social and cultural are probably easier to define then personal values, although there is I think adequate data for each of these. From this ground, I would suggest that the task is then to move forward and backward. The red thread, I suspect, is the evidence that Israel was slow in developing a monarchy, a slowness that is presented in Judges as well as Samuel as the result of a cultural resistance to the institution. Moving analysis forward into the first millennium BCE, the question becomes how that resistance gave way to acceptance, while moving analysis backwards into the Bronze Age the questions becomes why there was such resistance in the first place. One would want to avoid romantic and triumphalist accounts that present ancient Israel as some egalitarian utopia, especially as we move into the period of the monarchy but also in the period of the judges and earlier (the biblical account itself does not shy away from presenting the pre-monarchical period as something less than pristine), but at the same time one would not want to deny the evidence that there was within ancient Israel a recurring albeit hardly universal suspicion of state regimes. In such an understanding one would not only want to engage with the archaeological and historical work that has been produced in the study of ancient Israel, but more specifically the tremendous amount of Marxist literature on the subject, which has tended to focus upon not just that domain that Lonergan describes as social but as also has expended considerable effort thinking about this domain's relationship with both the cultural and the personal. Indeed, one of the central conceptual tasks of such an undertaking would be to explain what it offers that is yet lacking in such Marxist work. In any case, this strikes me as something worth doing.