Monday, May 5, 2014

Knowledge, Coauthors, and Intended Audiences

(I have a very short follow-up post on the same topic which you can read here.)
We know about the past, to the extent that we know about it at all, primarily through the testimony of others.... We began this section by using the language of "knowledge": how do we know what we claim to know about the past? In truth, however, this question is a concession... What is commonly referred to as "knowledge of the past" is more accurately described as "faith in testimony,"in the interpretations of the past, offered by other people. We consider the gathered testimonies at our disposal; we reflect on the various interpretations offered; and we decide in various ways and to various extents to invest faith in these--to make these testimonies and interpretations our own, because we consider them trustworthy. If our level of trust is very strong, or we are simply not conscious of what we are in fact doing, then we tend to call our faith "knowledge"; but this term is dangerous to use, since it too easily leads us into self-delusion, or deludes others who listen to us or read what we write, as to the truth of the matter. This delusion seems to lie at the heart of the problem with much of our modern writing on the history of Israel. In particular, it is this delusion (among other things) that has led many historians of Israel, in common with many of their colleagues elsewhere in the discipline of history, to make the false move of sharply differentiating in principle between dependence upon tradition and dependence upon "scientifically established" facts.
This comes from a chapter titled "Knowing and Believing: Faith in the Past," in A Biblical History of Israel, cowritten by Ian Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III. The bold emphasis is mine; the italics are original.

The first hundred pages of this three-hundred-page volume are entirely devoted to a defense of biblical history. It's an apology in the face of many scholars who wish (and generally fail) to discard biblical testimony and rely solely on archaeology or other external evidence. I am far from finishing it, but so far it's a compelling, well-written, and entertaining case.

As I read this volume, I have two other things I've recently read--plus one not-so-recent author--bouncing around in my mind:

I. I recently finished Science, Creation, and the Bible by Richard F. Carlson and Tremper Longman III. Although covering very different topics, the two do overlap in certain areas, and I'm struck by the major differences between them--particularly given that Longman is a coauthor for both.

Most significantly, the two books describe the discipline and methodology of science in markedly contrasting ways. The Biblical History volume adeptly and intelligently undermines the ideals of an unbiased, strictly empirical science:
We understand how the myth of 'the neutral, uninvolved observer' has functioned and continues to function as an ideological tool in the hands of those whose political and economic interests it has served.... [Scientists] have became aware, too, of how experiments themselves are, from the moment of their conception, shaped by the theories of the people conducting them. Scientific theories come and go, argue the philosophers and sociologists of knowledge, partly on the basis of their success in prediction and control of the environment, but partly also on the basis of the interests which they serve in a particular culture, whether theological and metaphysical, sociological or simply aesthetic. Scientists cannot, any more than other human beings, escape from this matter of 'interests.' Value-free academic endeavor does not exist.
Compare that with this, from Science, Creation, and the Bible:
...the entire scientific enterprise rests on discovery and not construction from preconceived ideas or a desire for the data to turn out in a predetermined way... science is solely interested in an understanding of the nature of the physical world in terms of experimentally accessible concepts. 
I tend to see these two views as irreconcilable, but perhaps there are good reasons for these differences. In all likelihood, Carlson, a physicist, took the lead in writing the passages on science in Science, Creation, and the Bible. Similarly, Longman was not the primary author of the passage quoted above from Biblical History (according to the book's preface, Iain Provan took the lead). Longman's own views might be somewhere between the two, so that he could be comfortable agreeing with enough of both to sign off on each.

Aside from that, I suspect that the (at least apparently) contradictory perspectives of the two volumes have to do with their intended or expected audiences.

Science, Creation, and the Bible primarily addresses Christian audiences who are having trouble reconciling the Genesis 1 account of creation with the story told by contemporary science.* They want to provide an alternative option for Christians who tend simply to throw out the latter entirely--to dismiss modern science in favor of (a particular reading of) Scripture. Given that end, they must bolster the credibility of science while calling for a kind of hermeneutical humility in regards to Scripture.

In my opinion, they wonderfully succeed at the latter. Instead of encouraging their readers to question the validity of Scripture (as in the many mainstream Christian denominations who have resolved all tensions between Scripture and the contemporary milieu by effectively eliminating Scriptural authority), they ask their readers to take a more humble view of their own interpretations. It isn't that Scripture is errant, they say. Rather, it's that we allow too many of our own assumptions to dominate our interpretation of Scripture. It is our hubristic misreading of Scripture, they suggest, that has created so much tension between Scripture and science.

So far, so good--for me, anyway. But when they attempt to elevate their readers' view of science, they go (somewhat) awry. In their desire, perhaps, to overcome some fundamentalists' suspicions of the scientific discipline as a whole, the authors pendulum-swing all the way into the old myth of empirical science.

Granted, they certainly recognize the limits of science. They point out that science cannot answer questions of theology or philosophy, and they dismiss attempts by scientists to do so as "metascience." But they have too much faith that, so long as it stays within the bounds of the discipline, science remains at heart an empirical exercise. They suggest that science can be methodologically naturalistic without being metaphysically so. While I am not ready to dismiss this concept out of hand, Michael Hanby (author most recently of No God, No Science?) brilliantly articulates the philosophical weakness of that position in his recent MARS HILL AUDIO interview. In short, no human endeavor can truly be metaphysically neutral, as implied by the Biblical History quotation.

Apart from the approach to science, the quality of prose differs dramatically between the two books. Science, Creation, and the Bible is written in a straightforward and rather dry manner--"just the facts, ma'am." At times this makes for cumbersome and tedious reading. This distinction probably has a great deal to do with the mixed authorship. Even so, I suspect this stylistic choice is tied at least partially to their desire to reach audiences who are not necessarily high-level readers. If my suspicion is correct, this is an error.**

The authors of A Biblical History of Israel, on the other hand, write with lively, evocative, and humorous prose. The quality is too good to be aimed solely at an audience of fellow specialists, but I don't think the authors, editors, or publisher expect it to be widely read by a popular audience. They're free from any stricture to write in a simple, straightforward manner--and from any concern that a critical stance towards science will be seized by fundamentalists on an anti-intellectual crusade.

*They intend to "encourage all Christians to ground their theological and scientific beliefs in an impartial search for truth." They do also want to "remove false barriers that discourage non-Christians from considering the Christian gospel." However, I see the latter goal happens in a roundabout way: reading this book will encourage Christians to stop denouncing modern science. Hence, the main audience remains Christians--including, and perhaps primarily aimed at, Christians who are not academic theologians or scientists.

**The journalist and popular historian David McCullough points out the foolishness of this approach to writing children's textbooks. Because publishers thought that kids don't like to read, "they reduced the vocabulary, they dumbed it down...." Writing well--even if the language is more complex--will draw in more readers than the kind of dry and overly simplistic prose that guarantees boredom. "Of course they will read something that is well-written. Of course they will be drawn to a book that is compelling."


II. Andrea recently sent me "The Quest for the Historical Leviathan" by Raymond C. Van Leeuwen. As I understand him, Leeuwen suggests that the truth claims of Scripture are not historical--at least in the contemporary sense of the word, and that they are therefore not accessible by means of historical methodology. In making this argument, he echoes many of the same critiques as Biblical History, but towards a rather more radical end. This is an article I need to reread.


III. And, of course, Lukacs. Here and there they say things that sound like they could have been ripped straight from his pages (though probably none of the authors has ever read him). Compare:

From Biblical History:
These doubts [about our ability ever to find out 'what exactly reality it like'] arise in part because of the inevitable involvement of the observer of the natural world in the very act of observing.
And from Lukacs' Historical Consciousness:
...the observer and the observed belong to the same species.... [understanding] inevitably involves a kind of sympathetic participation...
I am continually and repeatedly struck by how prescient the latter book was, considering its original publishing date of 1968--and how ignored Lukacs is, given that he wrote things in the 1960s that most historians didn't come to believe until the 1980s, '90s, or '00s.