Saturday, March 28, 2015

"Any real, authentic community of Christ’s love will provide you with opportunities for great personal sacrifice--that is, ample opportunities to imitate Christ." -Fr. Glenn, Sermon for Lent I (2013).

Friday, March 20, 2015

History and the Exodus

In the past year or so I've become increasingly interested in the historicity of the Old Testament. I have long been thinking about the role of story in the life of the Church more generally, but my interest in the particular nature of Old Testament stories has grown more recently. One question I'm often thinking and rethinking is that of the relationship between those stories and history. Should, more specifically, the Old Testament's historical reliability affect--whether adversely or positively--the Christian's confidence in Holy Scripture? How should the Christian react to claims about the historicity of the Old Testament?

That question is far too complicated for any blog post by any writer, and it's obviously beyond my training and intelligence. But I do think there are a couple of workable "ground rules" from which to operate--or, maybe, a couple of pitfalls to avoid.

To begin with, it is important that we acknowledge our own limitations. We have to start by recognizing that many "problems" of biblical reliability are in fact problems of our own making--due not to the text itself but to our own errant interpretations and inevitably incomplete knowledge. It may be the case, for instance, that the apparent conflict between contemporary science on origins and the Book of Genesis has less to do with Scripture per se and more to do with modernist assumptions inherent in fundamentalism.

To take another example, when we expect ancient authors to use numbers in a consistently straightforward way, we may be anachronistically applying contemporary expectations to a foreign context. Ancient authors' use numbers in symbolic or indirect way--even when we cannot quite penetrate or understand the symbolism--should not be seen as inaccuracy or falsehood. This is analogous to, say, criticizing someone for using the phrase "sunrise" when the "objective truth" of the matter is that the earth is spinning rather than the sun rising. In both origins and numbers the same basic concept is at work: rather than attempting to understand a text on its own historical terms, we superimpose our own expectations of how (we assume) numbers ought to work. And when it turns out that the author is using numbers differently than expected, we're likely to accuse them of inaccuracy and unreliability.*

*Of course, I have objections to a whole set of ideas about "objectivity" at work here--namely, the assumption that "perspective" (the human being watching the sun rise) is irrelevant or inaccurate. But that's for another time.

What I mean is that you must try, so far as possible, to judge Scripture on its own terms, rather than imposing your own modern historical or scientific expectations onto it--expectations that might have been absurd, if not completely meaningless, to an ancient audience.  This does not mean, though, that historical unreliability in Scripture would be insignificant to the Christian. This does not mean, to push to the other extreme, that I am comfortable with the progressive move to reduce all of Scripture to "spiritual truths" that persist even if the claim the text makes is false. If you wish to read a text on its own terms, you have to take its claims seriously. The attempt to "spiritualize"--and thereby neutralize--the truth claims of Scripture is no less anachronistic than the most benighted fundamentalist interpretation out there.

It's with this in mind that I've been reading the fascinating conversation developing around a recent essay in Mosaic Magazine disputing the widespread scholarly dismissal of the Exodus story's historicity. Gerry McDermott's blog, The Northampton Seminar, directed me towards the initial essay, which uses two separate approaches to argue for the historical reality--at least to some extent--of the Exodus story. On the one hand, Joshua Berman, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University, undercuts the premises and assumptions at play in the dismissal of the Exodus story. He then offers up old and new evidence to support the historicity of both the Hebrew sojourn in Egypt and the subsequent Exodus.

Monday, March 16, 2015

"That's Stupid": Dismissal versus Understanding

Do take the time to read John Fea's short post on "Thinking Historically With Pro-Slavery Documents." Sam Wineburg reminds us, historical thinking is an unnatural act. Historical thinking requires my students to understand [pro-slavery] figures from the past before they pass moral judgment. I tell them that such moral criticism is certainly possible in a history course, but it is not the primary goal as it might be in one of their Bible or ethics courses. I want my students to suspend judgment and make every effort, through the help of me and the other historians who they read, to place themselves in the world of the antebellum south. This kind of thinking cultivates virtues such as empathy, intellectual hospitality, and humility--virtues that my students will soon need when they leave the Messiah College bubble and engage a world where they will run into people with whom they do not agree. 
Arguing about Herbert Butterfield's The Whig Interpretation of History with Richard Gamble in Hillsdale inaugurated a transformation in my historical thinking. As an undergraduate, my first impression of Butterfield was that this was some wishy-washy amoral relativist who lacked the courage to name evil where he saw it--a rather hilarious conception in hindsight. Fortunately, Dr. Gamble was willing to set aside a significant portion of his time to discuss the book with me outside of class. Remarkably, I don't recall any eye-rolling or even a hint of impatience in his demeanor throughout what must have been a pretty old-hat conversation.

Later that year, reading John Lukacs' writing--especially Historical Consciousness--instigated the next step, which was grasping that it is not objectivity but understanding that the historian seeks. Lukacs helped me understand that the pursuit of perfect objectivity requires distance from the object of study, whereas the pursuit of understanding (and here is where Lukacs gets compared so strongly with R.G. Collingwood) requires intimacy.

There's much more to be said about all that, of course, but I just wanted to note how much Professor Fea's post resonated with me--even though he teaches at Messiah College, whereas I teach middle school. I find that most of my students have one automatic response to anything unfamiliar: "That's stupid." One of my goals is always to get them to put that judgment aside and seek to understand before dismissing. I make a point of doing so with slavery advocates.

But I've also found that antebellum South is far from the only historical subject that provokes this response. The issue of "state and church" relationships often brings out the same dismissive incredulity. Virtually all of my students assume the givenness--the naturalness and inevitability--of religious pluralism and, perhaps more significantly, the private individualism of religion. That a government would ever feel the need to intrude on private religious practice seems not simply wrong but flat-out absurd. And that a state would not only censure religious beliefs but even execute heretics and pagans is practically inconceivable.

Given that most societies and civilizations in human history have assumed the opposite--that the public has a vested interest in an individual's religious beliefs--this premise naturally creates a certain barrier to historical understanding. Getting students to do the work to understand why so many in the past had such different assumptions--rather than dismiss those differences out of hand as stupid--is the challenge.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

"Against all these aberrations it is necessary to state the traditional doctrine in all its apparent impossibility and to bear the reproach which orthodoxy always invites. For orthodox Christology, in its developed no less than in its Biblical stage, is to the Jews a stumbling-block and to the Greeks foolishness; but to them that are saved, both Jews and Greeks, it is Christ the Power of God and the Wisdom of God." -E.L. Mascall in Christ, The Christian, and the Church