Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"Converted to what?"

Michael Ramsey in The Christian Priest Today:
...both the evangelist and the converts can be in blinkers about parts of the intimate environment in which their Christian commitment must be lived out. My own experience covers many different places in the world. I recall congregations of white Christians who would be antagonized by the presence of black Christians worshipping with them. I recall congregations who are unaware that any questions of Christian conscience are posed by their enjoyment of a very high standard of comfort not far from places of desperate poverty and squalor.... both these illustrations may imply a priest who is blithely unaware that anything is amiss so long as souls are 'converted and 'saved.' 'You see the gospel must always come first.' Is it surprising that in some quarters there grows a seething disconent with both Christianity and the Church? Men ask 'Converted to what?', 'Saved for what?'
...the first priority is to preach the gospel to men and women so that they may be converted to our Lord. But if a person is to be truly converted the conversion must embrace all [the convert's] personal and social relationships.... Be it your wisdom to preach the gospel of conversion, making it clear that it is the whole man with all his relationships who is converted to Jesus as the Lord of all he is and does.

Monday, August 11, 2014

History by non-historians

My last post considered William T. Cavanaugh's article on the "wars of religion." I think it's worth noting that Cavanaugh is a theologian, not a historian. Professional credentialing, however, is hardly necessary to make good historical arguments. It certainly helps with detail and nuance--but I also tend to think it makes academics far too cautious. Today's academic historians instinctively shy away from sweeping claims, hiding instead in areas of specialization where their arguments are less vulnerable. But, as I've argued before, since all historical conclusions--no matter how minute and limited--are tenuous, we might as well make big claims and gesture towards sweeping conclusions too.

Cavanaugh doesn't share the contemporary historian's caution, and I am glad for it.

Wars of Religion or State?

My wife's boss sent me "'A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House:' The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State" (PDF available here) by theologian William T. Cavanaugh.

I can't recommend it highly enough.

Cavanaugh's argument has three basic parts. I find the first part convincing. The second part seems reasonable but is way outside of my knowledge, so my ignorance prevents me from endorsing it. The third part is... well, you'll see.

First, Cavanaugh argues that the classic picture of the "wars of religion" is completely wrong. Typically these early modern conflicts have been depicted as the last gasp of medieval religious violence--wars motivated and fueled by religious zealotry. In this telling, the modern state was essentially invented as a result of the terrible violence wrought by religion. It stepped into religious chaos to become the neutral "peacemaker" standing between Catholic and Protestant hatred.

Cavanaugh argues, instead, that the "wars of religion" are better depicted as a fight between the old ecclesial order of the medieval world and an emerging absolutist state which required religion to be relegated to the private sphere. In other words, the modern state was not a peacemaker between the two sides but was instead itself one of the sides in the conflict--and, as it turns out, the victorious one.

One implication, which he does not make explicit, is that, rather than being the last gasp of medieval warfare, the "wars of religion" are actually the first modern wars and are better lumped in with, say, the world wars of the 20th-century than the Crusades.

His second proposition is that the concept of "religion" as a general term for (private) religious beliefs is a modern invention, and that this innovation came hand-in-hand with the rise of the absolute state. As I implied before, this seems reasonable, but I don't know the period well enough to pass judgment at all.

And then comes the third part. Here's an excerpt:
In an article entitled "War Making and State Making as Organized Crime," sociologist Charles Tilly explores the analogy of the State's monopoly on legitimate violence with the protection rackets run by the friendly neighborhood mobster. According to Tilly "a portrait of war makers and state makers as coercive and self-seeking entrepreneurs bears a far greater resemblance to the facts than do its chief alternatives: the idea of a social contract, the idea of an open market in which operators of armies and states offer services to willing customers, the idea of a society whose shared norms and expectations call forth a certain kind of government." States extort large sums of money and the right to send their citizens out to kill and die in exchange for protection from violence both internal and external the State's borders. What converts war making from "protection" to "protection racket" is the fact that often States offer defense from threats which they themselves create, threats which can be imaginary or the real results of the State's own activities. Furthermore, the internal repression and the extraction of money and bodies for "defense" that the State carries out are frequently among the most substantial impediments to the ordinary citizens' livelihood. The "offer you can't refuse" is usually the most costly. The main difference between Uncle Sam and the Godfather is that the latter did not enjoy the peace of mind afforded by official government sanction.
Whew. More:
The State is involved in the production, not merely the restraint, of violence. Indeed the modern State depends on violence, war and preparations for war, to maintain the illusion of social integration and the overcoming of contradictions in civil society. [...] The use of the Church's own practices of binding and loosing is not, however, a call for the Church to take up the sword once again. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. I have contrasted Church discipline with State discipline in order to counter violence on behalf of the State, which has spilt so much blood in our time. Contesting the State's monopoly on violence does not mean that the Church should again get a piece of the action, yet another form of Constantinianism. What I have tried to argue is that the separation of the Church from power did nothing to stanch the flow of blood on the West's troubled pilgrimage. The pitch of war has grown more shrill, and the recreation of the Church as a voluntary association of practitioners of religion has only sapped our ability to resist. The discipline of the State will not be hindered by the Church's participation and complicity in the "public debate." Discipline must be opposed by counter discipline.
And the conclusion:
We must cease to think that the only choices open to the Church are either to withdraw into some private or "sectarian" confinement, or to embrace the public debate policed by the State. The Church as Body of Christ transgresses both the lines which separate public from private and the borders of nation-states, thus creating spaces for a different kind of political practice, one which is incapable of being pressed into the service of wars or rumors of wars.
Think on that for a while, as I am doing right now, and then go read the whole thing (again, you can get it in PDF form here). Then, consider reading his 2009 book titled The Myth of Religious Violence, which I would love to find time to read myself.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

"...the prophet Jeremiah often used the word 'sickness' of the religious state of God's people in his day, a people secure in their religious practice and yet verging on idolatry without knowing it." -Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today

Friday, August 8, 2014

Reading 'A Biblical History of Israel'

A Biblical History of Israel, the deceptively titled book I have just finished, does not give a straightforward and thorough presentation of Israel's history via biblical sources. Instead, the authors (Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III) actually cover ground at once more narrow and more ambitiously broad-ranging than that. Naturally, this volume appeals to anyone interested in ancient Israel or the Old Testament, but I believe a broader (or, at any rate, different) circle would find attention to it well-rewarded: those interested in the philosophical foundations and practice of history or even those simply interested in epistemology. What the book really amounts to--what it perhaps could have been more accurately titled--is A Defense of Biblical History.

Let me first say that this is a well-written book. Unlike so much academic production, these authors write with lively, evocative, and humorous prose (as I've written before). It has taken me a long time to finish it, but not because it's dry or does not hold my attention. Quite the opposite. A Biblical History of Israel has essentially been pleasure reading for me--and, as is so often the case with such books, I've been reading it off-and-on amidst many other books and projects.

Part I, which covers about the first third of the book, lays out a thorough and compelling refutation of the "scientific" premises undergirding the modern discipline of history as it was invented in the 19th-century. Even now the general public and not a few practicing historians still assume that hard, objective evidence forms the real basis of our knowledge about the past. The authors of A Biblical History pretty thoroughly demolish that assumption. Time and again they point out that what is often seen as objective evidence actually constitutes faith in testimony. That is to say, we do not so much prove that something happened through the accumulation of unbiased evidence. Instead, we place our trust in people and sources, all of which come to us in contexts and from certain perspectives--and this is no less true of non-textual archaeological evidence than of textual accounts.

In Part II, which covers the rest of the volume, the authors put this idea into practice by examining the history of Israel from the patriarchs to exile and return. They do not provide a rigorous and thorough narrative history. Instead they focus on areas of particular debate or consternation--passages in Scripture that have typically been used to argue for the unreliability of the Bible as a historical account--and examine the causes and assumptions behind those difficulties. What you end up with is a series of case studies plumbing the historical reliability of Scripture and a blueprint for reading biblical history carefully.

Certainly the thrust of the argument is in favor of biblical reliability, but it is not strictly apologetic. The authors do not attempt to answer or refute every argument. They never conclude that external evidence has absolutely proved the biblical narrative, largely because doing so involves giving into premises about external verification that they do not hold. Instead, they typically point out the limitations of all forms of evidence and the often errant presuppositions and assumptions readers bring to the text.

To take a small but representative example, one question the volume addresses is the historical plausibility of the Davidic empire described in the biblical literature. The notion of an empire created and ruled by David has often been assumed to be "an anachronistic retrojection by scribes familiar with the Persian empire." The authors acknowledge that the notion of David ruling a completely dominant and authoritarian empire "analogous to the Egyptian empire, or the Assyrian, or the Persian, or the Roman... is simply not historically credible."

But, they point out, "the Bible never ascribes an empire of that sort to David in the first place." The Bible never describes David ruling an absolute and authoritarian empire. Instead, careful attention to the biblical "description suggests a state of affairs in which David's 'empire' comprised territories over which he gained political control by various means and exercised dominion in different ways and to varying degrees." Given what we know of the period, they conclude that this more limited picture is "entirely plausible."

What we have, then, is a true irony. Contemporary scholars and readers accuse the scribes who set down biblical history of anachronistically attributing Persian imperial features to David, but what has actually happened is that, through inattention to the biblical texts themselves, these scholars have inferred Scriptural claims that do not actually exist. In other words, they have inserted their own anachronistic assumptions about what empire into the biblical narrative, and then they have blamed that narrative for importing anachronisms that could not have existed in David's time. That's irony, friends.

The careful and circumscribed conclusion the authors reach in this case exemplifies the volume as a whole. To find David's empire plausible, they point out, "is not the same as claiming that the Davidic empire has been proven, but imagining what might constitute proof is difficult in any case, once the biblical narrative is set aside." In regard to David's empire, as in so many others areas of biblical history, the question the reader has to answer is, "Do I trust biblical testimony?" The authors do not--and, naturally could never--provide proof positive that could force the reader to trust the biblical testimony. Instead, they show how distrust of biblical testimony is often a priori--that is, the distrust exists prior to and independent of evidence.

Their approach reminds me of N.T. Wright's considered response in Surprised by Hope to denial of the Resurrection: “That is fine; I respect that position [of skepticism towards the Christian account]; but I simply note that it is indeed then a matter of choice, not a matter of saying that something called scientific historiography forces us to take that route.”

Indeed, as I've often said before, history never speaks and never forces. We speak on its behalf. We draw our own conclusions. This is not, of course, to say that our conclusions are in any way arbitrary or immune to evidence, but rather that our interpretation of evidence often follows from assumptions and premises we held long before we ever considered the evidence. To recognize this reality does not free us from obligations to the truth--by no means! The real cop-out is blaming some other force ("history/science/evidence forces me to conclude that...") for your own conclusions. It is an attempt to hold a position without being responsible for it, to make an assertion without being its author. Recognizing that our controlling narratives are largely self- or societally-constructed rather than imposed by external evidence imposes upon us a far greater responsibility, and it should make us far more cautious and circumspect in our conclusions.

You don't have to trust biblical testimony, but you should recognize that your distrust is probably not historical or scientific. It's your own. So own it.