Tuesday, March 30, 2010

History vs. Theology

"One man's theology is another man's belly laugh."

- from Robert Heinlein's The Notebooks of Lazarus Long

"Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows."

- from George Orwell's 1984

Clearly as a Christian I don't really subscribe to SF writer Heinlein's anti-religious bias, but the quote above from his alter-ego Lazarus Long does raise a point about the discipline of theology that I rather do embrace - which is simply that theology (the word literally broken down and translated from its root syllables simply means "talk about God") is fundamentally speculative in its nature and therefore as a source of "truth" is entirely subjective.

Now that the 40 days of Lent are over, I have returned to posting entries to my blog, and of late the issue I have been wrestling with (as my last entry from February indicates) is the age-old dichotomy between faith and reason. We are currently at the dawn of what many in the intellectual community are now calling the "post-modern" age, which in very over-simplified terms simply means that reason - the rational approach to thought and to truth, which has dominated scientific and philosophical dialogue and inquiry in Western civilization since about the 17th century - has gone right out of fashion. It has become the vogue in certain circles these days to suggest that there is "no privileged language" no "grand narrative" for describing reality - not even the language or "narrative" of science.

I am among those who see this development as a serious problem with the potential of undermining our whole civilization, and of very possibly opening the floodgates to any one of an assortment of Orwellian tyrannies either political or religious. It is the nature of totalitarian or theocratic societies - be this the Soviet Union under Stalin, or the Islamic theocracy in contemporary Iran - to re-define truth and reality in terms congenial to the powers that be, even if contrary to self-evident facts. Such societies often even re-write history, "doctor up" records, and deconstruct language to propogate their totalistic world-view and suit their monopoly on power. This was precisely the theme of George Orwell's seminal novel of totalitarian political dystopia, 1984 - first published in England after World War II. Orwell once remarked that "The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history" and in fact our own generation seems given to taking a flying leap from the rational, and to an endorsement of the intellectual suicide of rejecting long accepted notions of fact or of evidence as a foundation for arriving at answers about the nature of reality. A new age of pre-modern superstition threatens to undermine the modern "Age of Reason" of four centuries standing. A new pre-modernism which in the current post-modern climate now enjoys an intellectual currency that would have been laughed out of court in any serious academic circles just a few decades ago.

It's true that since the 60's (a time when modern reason still reigned supreme without a serious rival in the intellectual and academic world) we have already seen the re-emergence and widespread popularity of ancient pagan folk beliefs such as witchcraft and tribal shamanism, astrology etc. and beginning in the 70's the rise of the biblical fundamentalism of the Religious Right that has held a chillingly dominant role in American political discourse for the last 30 years. Meantime, and especially since the 1980's, in the Near East the rise of radical fundamentalist Islam with its wholesale militant rejection of Western modernity threatens the peace of the whole world, and is also actually undermining the fabric of Arabic and Islamic culture itself into the bargain. Yet in this climate and in some very intellectually sophisticated circles one increasingly hears these days about the invalidity of "foundationalism." The notion of any concrete factual or evidentiary basis for any particular belief system is being debunked and discredited. I am fundamentally at odds with this tendency, and at least where the discipline of theology is concerned, this puts me in an increasingly isolated position vis a vis any view of mine having credibility in the current religious intellectual environment.

For the above reasons I am renewing seriously my life-long interest in the the discipline of history. To my way of thinking, even speaking as a Christian of an affirmatively orthodox creedal faith, history has considerable advantages over theology. Christian theology strikes me as largely being a very human attempt to make sense out of the purportedly historical events upon which our faith actually rests. All of it seems to be essentially a body of formulas and abstract human constructs designed to interpret - as best we may - the meaning of reported events surrounding one enigmatic historical figure whom we believe to have been the personal entry of God into our physical human universe. Most of the major doctrines and traditional practices of our faith derive from the attempt of a human institution called "the Church" to try to explain the apostolic testimony and documentary evidence concerning this man, Jesus of Nazareth, and the events surrounding his story and the nature of the message he proclaimed. Even the Trinity - the most central doctrine of our faith - was itself a human formulation, formally asserted only after centuries of debate, by a Church Council of Bishops at Nicea in the fourth century. The Creed that summarizes our basic beliefs is itself a formula articulated by this same Council.

As I see it the weakness of theology is that it is an essentially speculative and subjective kind of discipline, whereas history at least attempts - admittedly not always perfectly or successfully - to employ a more scientific approach, dealing squarely and objectively with documentary evidence, testimony and other kinds of factual source material such as might be available to empirical investigation. Of course witnesses do lie and documents can certainly be manipulated or unreliably recorded - but they can also be compared with other sources of testimony and other sources of evidence such that it is possible to arrive at some reasonably valid conclusions about what the truth might be. Truth derived from sources other than the mere say-so of a human institutional heirarchy intent on self-maintenance and power.

Not to be misunderstood - I am not debunking ecclesiastical authority wholesale. I recognize that Christianity without the Church is impossible, that the very sources of our belief would not themselves exist apart from the maintenance and dissemination thereof by the Church. Moreover, Christian faith and practice is not by its nature individualistic but is intelligible only within the context of a faith-community characterized by certain presumably shared values, such as grace and mercy, and distinct traditional practices, such as Baptism and the Eucharist. But this institution is not without limits, especially as since over the centuries the Church - "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic" has becomed divided and sub-divided into innumerable denominations, each propogating its own distinctive "angle" on the ancient message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It has become all but impossible then to adjudicate between all the competing truth-claims that are dogmatically advanced, and therefore once again, exploring the historical validity of such claims becomes far more helpful than mere theological assertions.

When I speak of history in connection with Jesus Christ and the Christian faith I do not necessarily associate myself with those New Testament historians - such as the theological liberals connected with the "Jesus Seminar" for instance - who speak of the so-called "Jesus of History" as over against the "Christ of Faith." This approach (which I want to make very clear that I emphatically disagree with and which I think is correctly regarded as heresy by orthodox Christians) suggests that the "Jesus of History" was in reality little more than a very spiritually enlightened human being and not "God incarnate" in any meaningful sense, and that the "Christ of Faith" was essentially a theological construct of the early Church (especially the Apostle Paul) that emerged only years after the death of Jesus. The problem with this whole line of thought is that the vision of Jesus produced, as was trenchantly observed by C.S. Lewis decades ago, is essentially un-historical. All of these "Jesuses" of history (and there are many such) - Jesus the Jewish reformer, Jesus the anti-Roman revolutionary, Jesus the Essene monk, Jesus the Gnostic etc. ad nuseam - are all themselves speculative constructs with no historical foundation.

The only substantive empirical evidence we actually have that this man Jesus ever actually existed - apart from the witness of the Church itself, and a few references in passing by the Jewish-Roman historian Jospehus - is the New Testament. Indeed, the Four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John constitute the only historical primary sources concerning Jesus known to exist and are therefore the only basis upon which any substantive claims can be made concerning him. It has long been my position that either these sources are reliable testimony, or they are not - we are left with no other foundation.

The difficulty many people seem to have with accepting the New Testament in general, and the Gospels in particular, as a reliable historical basis for Christian belief would seem to be largely the supernatural content (the resurrection of Jesus, miracles etc.) I find it interesting that in this new "post-modern" age which selectively abandons science (except where useful to its agendas) and has become so amenable to the superstitiously supernatural in so many other areas, there remains still a very "modernist" doubt about the Gospel accounts. Yet, absent the supernatural events, these narratives are certainly no less reliable than many other historical documents of classical antiquity that are generally accepted in the academic world as reasonably valid historical sources. Moreover, if God - whose existence cannot be empirically proved or disproved - is assumed arguendo to exist, why wouldn't the miracles affirmatively reported then be possible? As I see it, either the writers of these first century documents provided a truthful account of the events recorded or they are lying. Obviously I am pre-disposed to think they were being truthful. Perhaps it takes a "leap of faith" to accept that they are honest historical accounts - miracles and all - but it is not an unreasonable leap, whereas to speculatively assume other things about Jesus that have no substantive historical warrant at all is, to my way of thinking, thoroughly unreasonable.

I should point out that when I speak of the Gospels as "reliable" testimony, I am by no means advancing a fundamentalist claim of textual inerrancy. There are inconsistencies in the accounts provided, as there are in all ancient historical documentation. For instance, one has but to lay the four resurrection narratives in the Gospels side by side to see the variations in the details of the story that is told, yet it remains essentially the same story. Any lawyer, police investigator, or journalist, knows that the testimony of multiple witnesses to the same events is always going to have broad variation - indeed if the testimony offered is too tightly consistent one to another this usually suggests collusion which signals them that people are probably lying about something. To my way of thinking, the very inconsistency of detail that can be found in these accounts advances the claim that the writings were not collusive and likely a quite honest account.

My point in all of the above has simply been to suggest that Christianity is ultimately a faith that is not grounded in theological speculation or even ecclesiastical assertions, but in historical claims about historical events. Theological speculation or assertion of either the liberal or orthodox variety that fails to examine the historical sources as historical sources is, in my opinion at least, probably moving in the wrong direction in that it is moving in a direction away from reason.



  1. No comments from anybody (lol!) I'm wonderin' if it's cuz I'm being overly pedantic as usual and flyin' over everybodys head, or just because it has been so long since I've posted anything that nobody is really noticing the blog anymore.
    Or maybe it's just boring subject matter (lol) - oh well, writing this down in such a formal academic tone helps me process the ideas in my own mind, so it was a worthwhile exercise even if only for that purpose.

  2. Actually, you started the section saying you were "wrestling" with something, but what you said (with courtroom flare!) didn't sound like wrestling, and made perfect sense to me. Without denying the usefulness of doctrinal statements made over the centuries (being a good LCMS Christian after all), I too know that the differences in denominations are "quibbling", interpretations of the historical texts from which my faith derives.

    It seems to me that you aren't wrestling with what you believe...but with idea that people are putting more stock into how scripture is interpreted/encapsulated into doctrine, rather than going to the source. Is my understanding correct?

    Lori Marsh

  3. What I am wrestling with Lori - as the article states - is integration of faith and reason. It is becomeing the current intellectual fashion (in BOTH Chistian and secular circles) to suggest that there is no inegrating them and we shouldn't try. That faith is fundamentally non-rational - given that I have a strongly rationalist temperament - and yet have never had much trouble reconciling it with my faith - I find this intellectual trend difficult to swallow.