Saturday, 27 January 2018

Voegelin and the Late Bronze Age

I haven't posted for awhile, in part because I've been working on a particularly challenging paper to be presented at a conference next month. It will be my first formal unveiling of the project I've tentatively titled Israel and the Dialectics of History, which aims to work out the theory of history developed by Lonergan and those who have built upon his work, especially but not exclusively Robert Doran. In a certain sense, this project entails that I return to much the beginning of such work, as Doran was deeply influenced by Eric Voegelin's Order and History, especially the first volume, Israel and Revelation. In particular, Doran drew upon Order and History to develop the notion that the dialectic of culture entails a dynamic relationship between what Voegelin called cosmology and anthropology, each of which has to do with where we locate the source of social order: cosmology locates it in the cosmos, anthropology in a world-transcendent source such as God or reason. One of Voegelin's arguments is that cosmologically-oriented cultures often transition to anthropologically-oriented cultures when social breakdown is so extreme that the cosmos can no longer function as a coherent model for social order. Voegelin (pp. 44-45 of Israel and Revelation) suggests that Israel appears to be historically unique in that it made the shift from a cosmological to an anthropological orientation without such a breakdown.

Part of what I am arguing in the paper mentioned above is that Voegelin is empirically mistaken. That he is should occasion little surprise. He was not a biblical scholar, and Israel and History is now more than sixty years old and thus not informed by more recent advances in our knowledge. But we now know that the earliest Israelite settlements in the Land were probably those that appear in the hill country towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, c. 1200 B.C.E. This period is a period of collapse throughout the eastern Mediterranean. This Late Bronze Age Collapse triggers the Greek Dark Age, and occasions a sharp decline in Egyptian control over Canaan. By c. 1150 Egyptian suzerainty over the region comes to a terminus, and the New Kingdom itself doesn't survive the next century. The Canaanite city-states largely disappear, and the Philistines (likely an Aegean people displaced by the fall of the Greek palatial system) appear on the Levantine coast. Such systems-wide collapse (for that is what we're dealing with here) does not occur overnight, and indeed there are signs throughout the 13th century of political disintegration and breakdown in the eastern Mediterranean. The Ramesside kings regularly campaign in Canaan, a fact typically taken as an indication of Egyptian strength but perhaps should be better seen as an empire that is having ever-greater difficulty to maintain control over its holdings. Likewise, the great Egyptian building projects of this century should perhaps be seen not as indications of a civilization at its zenith but rather of a faltering state increasingly dependent upon monumental works to give the symbolic illusion of continued greatness. It is precisely in this period that the majority of scholars who still believe in some sort of exodus would locate the event, and also at this time that Israel first emerges in the historical record.

Our knowledge of Israelite religion at this time is limited by the nature of the data. That's life when one does history. But the biblical conviction that Israel's foundation as a people in the Land correlates closely with a shift towards a more world-transcendent understanding of society makes very good sense within Voegelin's theory of history as developed in Order and History. In fact, I would argue that when we recognize that Israel seems to have emerged during a time of significant political breakdown, it perhaps makes even better sense than he himself realized.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Why I am not a Marxist

I love Marxist thought. Always have, at least as long as I've known what Marxist thought is. Perhaps it is because of a grandfather who deeply respected the "Reds," as he called them (he fought in the Second World War, and I don't think that he ever got his head around the idea that Soviet Russia stopped being our allies afterwards), and in fact traveled to the USSR in the early 70s, at the height of the Cold War. Perhaps it is because I could recognize that at their best Marxists are deeply concerned with matters of justice that also deeply concern me. For a number of reasons I would not identify as Marxist, but I nonetheless recognize that as a result of that genuine concern with justice, Marxist thought has generated a host of genuine insights that enrich our understanding of our shared reality.

So, that all said, why wouldn't I identify as a Marxist?

In order to answer that question, I need to take a bird's eye view of the last two centuries or so. Starting around 1800 or so, western knowledge of the ancient past and also of the non-western world exploded. During the course of the 19th century we learned how to read Sanskrit (this actually began a bit earlier), ancient Egyptian, ancient Sumerian, etc. For the first time we really came to seriously study the religions of India. The foundations of scientific anthropology took hold. During that century our understanding of the many different ways of being human--past and present--increased exponentially, up to and including our awareness that humanity isn't even necessarily self-identical with the species that we call Homo sapiens sapiens (were Homo habilis or Homo erectus or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis any less human species than ourselves?). Marx's achievements--spanning much of that period--represent the fruit of those discoveries. But the discoveries were not finished when Marx passed away in 1883 (and being only 64 when he passed, neither was his planned work. In particular, one can only wish that he had managed to write somewhat more about the connections that he saw between his own work and that of Darwin. Such deeper reflections of one of the modern world's most influential thinkers upon the thought of another such thinker would be invaluable). As is inevitably the case with any thinker of Marx's calibre, his thought requires correction by subsequent developments. I have become persuaded that such correction alters Marx's thought on foundational levels, such that what remains can no longer be properly described as Marxist but rather as something informed significantly by Marx.

In particular, I continue to come back to a problem flagged by Lonergan: in Marx, the cause of and remedy for inequity are virtually identical. The cause of inequity is class struggle. The remedy is class struggle. The problem is bourgeois rule. The remedy is to replace this with proletarian rule. The difficulty, as Lonergan noted, is that the remedy simply reproduces the problem. This isn't a new insight: the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin recognized this during Marx's own lifetime, and predicted (correctly, as the twentieth-century proves) that the vaunted communist revolution would simply lead to new forms of oppression. (The split between anarchists--not this Orwellian appropriation of the name by modern Randians but rather the actual anarchist tradition that emerged following the work of Godwin and Proudhon--in fact was over precisely this matter). I would argue that to build upon Marx in the wake of twentieth-century totalitarianism is to recognize that in fact something more radical than Marx's own remedy is needed. Class itself must be opposed as a concrete aspect of what Lonergan describes as group bias. In fairness to Marx, he grasped that class itself is the problem, but I don't know if he fully apprehended the consequences of that insight. I would argue that he erred in thinking that the ascendance of one class over the currently ruling class could bring us closer to a post-class society. In effect, instead of enabling those who built upon him to better combat group bias he enabled them to better promote their own group at the expense of others. (Again, in fairness to contemporary Marxist thought, reflection upon the twentieth-century has led to an increased awareness of this problem. I would simply argue that any genuine correction would so radically change the bases of Marxist praxis as to functionally create something other than Marxism).

Incidentally, my interest here has to do with how to understand the "revolutionary" dimensions of the biblical tradition. Marxist and Marxist-informed scholarship has correctly noted that the biblical tradition is often quite critical of the ruling classes in ancient Israel and Judea, as well as in the broader Near East and (later) the Greek and Roman worlds. The question for me is whether they the people who produced these texts were simply critical of the ruling classes or more basically of class itself. My sense is the latter, which of course remains an instance of the "preferential option for the poor," as opposition to class itself entails necessarily the conviction that there ought to be a more equitable distribution of resources. Perhaps the greatest contribution by liberation theology, with its interest in rehabilitating Marx for theological discourse, has been to recognize that in all-too-often opting preferentially for the rich the church has debased itself by a failure to apprehend that class division impoverishes the ruled materially but the rulers spiritually.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Did King Josiah Exist?

According to 2 Kings 22-23, during the reign of King Josiah (c. 640-610 BCE) the "book of the law" was rediscovered in Jerusalem. This led the king to implement a wide-ranging program of reform, aimed at bringing Judahite religious life into conformation with the strictures of the book. For over two centuries, beginning with de Wette, biblicists have typically supposed that in fact what happened was that this was the time at which at least the core of the Deuteronomistic legislation was written, and the king either duped into thinking it was ancient material or went along with the fiction. Increasingly, the Torah and what came to be known as the "Deuteronomistic History" (i.e. Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1/2 Samuel, and 1/2 Kings) came to be seen as products of the 7th through 5th or even 4th centuries BCE, and their stories projections of contemporaneous concerns on to the ancient past.

I am struck by a remarkable hermeneutical inconsistency in the treatment of the biblical material. There is no direct extra-biblical evidence for the exodus. Therefore, it is often said, we cannot affirm that there was an exodus, and in fact we might have to affirm that there wasn't. Well, there is no extra-biblical evidence for Josiah's existence. In fact, there is more extra-biblical evidence for the existence of King David than for the existence of King Josiah, yet while there remain scholars who doubt David's existence few doubt Josiah's. One could argue that the fact that much of the Deuteronomistic History originates in Josiah's time is sufficient reason to conclude that he existed, but of course that is simply to beg the question of when this material originated. One might argue that the relative temporal proximity between the texts and Josiah versus David and certainly Moses makes the account of Josiah's reign intrinsically more compelling, but that really doesn't hold. Given the text-critical data, these texts could in principle date at least a couple centuries later than Josiah's reign, and any reasonable mechanism that could be considered to have transmitted material reliably over two centuries can almost certainly be considered to have done so reliably over five (we're not dealing with a game of Chinese Whispers here)--and that assumes that the texts should be thought to date so close to their earliest extant copies in the first place (it's hardly unknown for texts to predate their earliest extant copies by several centuries). And even if we grant Josiah's existence, why should we think that the events described in the text have any bearing upon reality? Why should we affirm that with a slight alteration (the text was written rather than "found") this is basically what happened? There is perhaps some shift towards a stronger aniconism in the late pre-exilic era which could be thought to reflect the Josianic reforms, but that convergence between the biblical and the archaeological data is no greater than those between, for instance, the Judges and the settlement patterns of the Iron Age I central hill country. If the Josianic convergence is granted, so too should the Judges convergence be granted.

The above is not to argue that the earlier material reflects the general course of Israelite history. Rather, it is to say that any hermeneutic that allows one to affirm a historical Josiah who was involved in widespread religious reform cannot be abandoned when one turns to other material, and that this hermeneutic will tend to generate a history of ancient Israel that looks much more like traditional narratives than is often granted among contemporary biblicists. One can be methodologically skeptical and one can be methodologically credulous. What one cannot be is methodologically skeptical in the treatment of some biblical data and methodologically credulous in the treatment of other, at least not if one hopes to produce an empirically sound historiography.