Friday, June 13, 2003

Blogroll updates

Will at Mysterium Crucis seems to have lost interest in blogging once he became a Real Catholic, so he's losing his spot on the Catholic blogroll to T.S. O'Rama. I've also added 111:2 and Reaching for Zion to the Miscellaneous Monotheists.
If you can't get enough of this stuff...

Lynn Gazis-Sax has read another book by Marcus Borg (this one entirely by Borg) called Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and she posts some thoughts on it. Plus more meta-commentary on Telford and me.
Chapter 4: Spirit of the age

Marcus Borg starts off his chapter on Jesus' doings and teachings by defending his uncertainty about whether Jesus knew he was the messiah. He bases his argument partly on the fact that in Mark, which he believes is the oldest Gospel, Jesus doesn't say that directly, while in parts of Matthew that draw from Mark, Jesus' assertions of messiahdom seem to have been added in.

Again I'm chafing against the lack of methodology: as with Wright, I don't really know how Borg knows these things, such as why Mark is the oldest or how he knows Matthew appropriated things from him. His point also reminds me of something Telford wrote a few days ago, that the oldest source isn't necessarily the truest. Sometimes your understanding of something improves with time. My feeling about is that it depends on the type of knowledge you're talking about. In terms of details of events, like what exactly did Jesus say to Peter on X occasion, I would think having the memory fresh would be better. Time tends to give you perspective: the details fit together in a more coherent picture.

Then again, sometimes the picture you form takes you farther from truth rather than closer, especially if you don't remember the details right. Really, how can we know which happened in this instance?

Also as I was reading this, I wondered why it mattered whether Jesus knew he was the messiah. Personally I'm more interested in the question of whether he actually was the messiah, and whether he lives today, and has any interest in me. (Hey, there he is! Sorry..:-)) But Borg says this relates to whether Jesus specifically wanted people to believe in him, or believe in what he was doing.

I think I see what he's getting at. That relates to my complaint about Wright in the last chapter, when he denied that Jesus' message was really about ethics and religion and instead made it about rallying Israel to its historic moment. It makes it sound like it's mostly about siding with the winning team, whereas I assumed that the whole reason for rallying Israel at that point was religious and ethical. As I asked before: what does it really mean to be "light of the world"?

Borg begins to tackle this question by identifying Jesus' identity and message. First of all, he says, Jesus was a Jewish mystic or "Spirit person." What's a Spirit person? Borg draws upon William James (which I haven't read) and spiritual traditions of other cultures (which I have read, a bit) to draw a broad, and rather appealing, picture of mysticism:
Mystics, as I use the term, are people who have decisive and typically frequent firsthand experiences of the sacred.

The most dramatic of these experiences of the sacred involve a variety of nonordinary states of consciousness. In visions, there is a vivid sense of momentarily seeing into another layer or level of reality. In shamanic experience, one not only sees another level of reality but also enters it and perhaps even journeys within it...

The world looks exquisite, and it may even appear as if there is light shining through everything or bathing everything in its glow. Moreover, the boundary between self and world, which defines our ordinary subject-object state of consciousnes, becomes soft, indeed, less pronounced than a deep sense of connectedness and reunion.

Borg goes on to argue that Jesus was clearly one of these -- his "vision quest" in the desert, his frequent conversations with God, his mystical healings and exorcisms -- and this was foundational to his being and to understanding him.

What bothers me about all this is its attempt to cast Jesus as a typical example of something. In fact, though I didn't mention it last night, Wright did the same thing in his chapter. He argued that Jesus did know that he was messiah on the ground that it was more or less standard operating procedure at the time:
This, I must stress, is not a particularly odd thing for a first-century Jew with a strong sense of God's presence and purpose, and a clear gift for charismatic leadership, to think. Others thought much the same, with local and personal variations...

If Jesus was all the things Marcus says he was, then, in a century that saw many would-be messiahs and royal personages come and go, leading movements, announcing the kingdom, going to Jerusalem, saying and doing things about the temple, it is highly likely that Marcus's "Jewish mystic", if he was indeed a Spirit person, a social prophet, and a movement initator, would have faced the question both from onlookers and from within his own heart and mind: was he, then, the messiah? ... Even Josephus could tell people to believe in him; I can imagine Judas the Galilean and bar-Kochba telling people to believe in them. If Jesus really was, as Marcus allows, a "movement initiator", why should he not have done the same?

The two scholars use essentially the same argument: Jesus resembled people who were X, therefore he was X. Wright draws comparisions to other Jewish messianic types, while Borg draws cross-cultural categories, but they both run into the same question. Was Jesus a typical anything? If he was the Son of God, in one way he was the most untypical being ever to walk the planet. Even if he wasn't, he was a unique individual. People have their commonalities, and people are influenced by their cultures, but they also can be radically different. How much can we really infer by resemblance?

Borg does more of this when he describes Jesus as a "wisdom teacher." He compares Jesus to other teachers of "alternative wisdom," such as Buddha and Lao-tzu, and draws inferences on that basis. He also describes Jesus as a social prophet, speaking against oppression and the institutional reigious powers -- on which points he basically agrees with Wright.

I don't really know what to make of all this. I don't feel like I'm getting much closer to the historical Jesus. I did notice as an interesting little aside, though, that Borg thinks Jesus' healings were not supernatural, but not psychosomatic either:
Inexplicable and remarkable things do happen, involving processes that we do not understand. i do not need to know the explanatory mechanism in order to affirm that paranormal healings happen. And Jesus seems to have been uncommonly good at them.

I don't feel so convinced that paranormal healings happen, but Borg does seem to be agreeing with what I said at the end of this post. You don't have to defy the laws of nature to do amazing things.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Chapter 3: King is coming

OK, I know Telford already blogged through 4, but my time and energy are running low, so I'll blog 4 tomorrow.

This pair of chapters deals with what Jesus did and taught, and this time Wright has the honor off the tee, so to speak. In my earlier post I said I wanted to see how Wright applied his historical method, and I'm still waiting, because I'm not seeing it in this chapter. When Telford first started urging me to read the historical evidence for Jesus I complained that it would take a year, and he claimed it would take only a few weeks. I am thinking now that I was right, because Wright doesn't build his case here so much as make a series of assertions, with footnotes referring mostly to his other works. How he reached his conclusions is not clear.

Still, what he says is interesting. He sets up the mood in Israel at the time: the belief they were being ruled by pagans as a punishment for their infidelity to God, and that a messiah would soon come to restore them to their rightful place by overthrowing Roman rule. There were a number of apocalyptic Jewish sects and claimants to messiahdom at the time; most Jews were looking forward to seeing their enemies humbled through violent conflict.

Jesus, says Wright, came to correct all that. Wright denies that Jesus was there to bring a new religion or ethical code; instead he was there to declare a new eschatology:
Jesus was challenging his contemporaries to live as the new covenant people, the returned-from-exile people, the people whose hearts were renewed by the word and work of the living God... all could practice his way of life, a way of forgiveness and prayer, a way of jubilee, a way which renounced xenophobia toward those outside Israel and oppression of those inside. This is the context, I suggest, within which we should understand the material we call the Sermon on the Mount. It is not simply a grand new moral code. It is, primarily, the challenge of the kingdom: the summons to Israel to be Israel indeed at the critical junction of her history, the moment when, in the kindom announcemnt of Jesus, the living God is at work to reconstitute his people and so fulfill his long-cherished intentions for them and for the whole world.

Wright also has an intriguing interpretation of Jesus' judgment talk:
Many have traditionally read Jesus' saying about judgment either in terms of the postmortem condemnation of unbelievers or of the eventual destruction of the space-time world. The first-century context of the language in qustion, however, indicates otherwise. Jesus was warning his contemporaries that if they did not follow his way, the way of peace and forgiveness, the way of the cross, the way of being the light of the world, and if they persisted in their determination to fight a desperate holy war against Rome, then Rome would destroy them, city, temple, and all, and that this would be, not an unhappy accident showing that YHWH had simply forgotten to defend them, but the sign and the means of YHWH's judgment against his rebellious people.

From my admittedly limited knowledge of these things, that does seem like a more Jewish way of looking at it than the usual otherworldly interpretations. I am having trouble seeing, though, how being "the light of the world" can be something other than an ethical and religious thing. Wright never explains what that phrase means (assuming we already know, I guess), but my impression from the OT is that it's Israel's worship of Yahweh (religion) and following the law (ethics) that makes it the light of the world. It also seems to me that opposing xenophobia and oppression is an ethical position. It may have been extra important at that particular moment, but has there been any time when those things are OK?

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Heavy meta

Telford's already moved onto chapters 3 and 4, which I'll get to tomorrow. In the meantime, I like his post responding to the comments from the Catholic peanut gallery about our discussion. This has got to be one of those cases of infinite blog-regress: Telford and I write a commentary on a book, which brings a commentary over the commentary, with further comments on the commentary on the commentary ...
The space between

Telford remarked in his comment on my chapter 1 post that he was "interested in how you view N.T. Wright's appeal to his historical method as 'scientific'. Does Wright share your respect for leaving room for strangeness?"

I didn't discuss Wright's historical method in my own post on chapter 2, but Telford outlined it in his:
Wright's project is first to see whether the data of history support a picture of Jesus with coherence, explanatory power, and predictive power. These are the confirming tests of scientific adequacy. Here science is operating in its proper sense (not in the materialistic or naturalistic senses that have gained ascendency in our materialistic, naturalistic scientific culture). For Wright, every event of Jesus' life, including his resurrection, is open to scientific inquiry precisely because truly scientific historiography refuses to draw boundaries in advance for what counts as evidence (22).

I agree it sounds good, though I'm holding off until I see how it's applied. I have little experience with the scientific method applied to history, so it's largely theoretical to me at this point.

Telford also makes an interesting point:
Wright is forthright that he is intuiting and proposing pictures informed by his faith – and for that matter his Englishness, his schooling, his gender, and all the rest. The test is how well the picture serves, not where the picture came from. After all, no scientist I know is troubled by the fact that the discovery of benzene's chemical structure originated in someone's dream of a snake biting its own tail, or that the Big Bang theory came from a Catholic priest who didn't buy Aristotle's conviction of the constancy of the physical universe. Why should we be dismayed, or even surprised, if belief turns out to be a helpful source of intuition?

This is somewhat tangential, but it reminds me of the story behind the naming of dinosaurs. Richard Owen came up with the name in 1842, after a few species had been found and their similarities noted. (Later when more fossils turned up, scientists divided them into two separate orders -- saurischia and ornithischia -- so "dinosaur" is no longer a scientific name.)

Although it was a couple decades before Darwin's Origin of Species came out, there were already arguments about evolution. Contrary to popular belief, Darwin didn't invent the idea of evolution; the idea that species change into other species had been around for a while, but how it worked and why remained puzzling until Darwin came up with natural selection. Especially popular before Darwin was the idea that all species could be lined up from "lowest" to "highest," with every animal of the past and present on the chain somewhere. The idea of the branching tree of life hadn't taken hold. (Actually, the "great chain" concept goes on after Darwin -- unfortunately, it's often turned up in Star Trek.) So the popular idea was that all reptiles were below all mammals on the chain. Which makes a certain amount of sense, given the reptiles that live today.

The story goes that Richard Owen, who was an anti-evolutionist, wasn't buying for a minute that the gigantic, complex dinosaurs could have somehow evolved into the primitive mammals of the Eocene. The name "dinosaur" is translated "terrible lizard," but the word "terrible" had a different implication 150 years ago than it does today. Now we tend to use it to mean "lousy," but back then it meant something more like "inspiring terror, awesome." (Think, "I am Oz, the great and terrible...") By naming dinosaurs that, Owen was apparently emphasizing their impressiveness, and digging his elbow into the idea that these were lowly beasts.

What this story tells me, all this time later, is the danger of polarized thinking. Owen was wrong, overall, about evolution, but he was right about this point. No animal alive today evolved from the giant dinosaurs he was looking at. The evolutionists of the time were right about the concept but wrong about the details. If you're trying to assess which side was right, the answer is complicated.

It's something to keep in mind as I'm reading a book representing the "liberal" and "conservative" views of Jesus. The subtitle of the book is "Two Views," and it is indeed that -- two views. I doubt they're the only two views, and I doubt either one of them has a lock on the truth.
Marry me, marry me, marry me

Eve Tushnet, Ginger Stampley and Fr. Jim Tucker have lately been decrying the concept of a big, extravagant wedding. I tend to agree with all their points, though one thing that biases me is that my family seems to have a tradition of cheap weddings.

My mother's parents eloped, actually (her family disapproved, I think) so there wasn't much of a wedding at all. My parents married in the back yard of my grandparents' house, my mother wearing a short white slipdress that she'd made herself. They were both still in school, so there wasn't much time or energy or money to spare. My father married his second wife on the deck of his cottage. I remember my stepmother's story about the day: she got up and went off to get her hair done, and came back to find my father in his jeans, unshaven, laying carpet. When she told me this years later, she was still a little annoyed.

"Well, it was better than sitting around being nervous," my father objected. "I was ready at the appointed hour. And the carpet was down."

The fanciest wedding in my immediate family was when my sister got married, nine years ago. She continued the family tradition of marrying al fresco, in a live-oak grove in West Marin (hey, we're unchurched, so it makes sense). But she made herself a fancier dress and they rented out a women's club to throw a reception. Still, it was kind of a shoestring affair. I remember going to the grove for the rehearsal, thinking I was just tagging along, when my sister pointed out a spot next to where she and the groom were standing.

"You stand there."


"You're the maid of honor."

"Oh. I am?"

Well it was a good thing I found out before the wedding!

What was really cool about it, though, was that many of the gifts that friends provided were contributions to the wedding itself. One friend got herself a license to actually perform the ceremony; another pair with good voices sang them up the aisle (seeing as you can't haul an organ into a grove); another did the cooking, and so on. This was apparently done by the woman in the article that started this discussion, and it was great not just because it saved money but because it added to the communal feel of the event. A lot of weddings seem like a show that the bride and groom put on that everybody shows up to watch, like a movie; but this felt more like a gathering of a community to launch a marriage. It also felt a lot more intimate that nobody there was a stranger. I haven't given much thought to what I'd want my own wedding to be like, but I think I'd like it to be like that.
Been down so long

Wow, yesterday was a great advertisement for Movable Type, wasn't it? Blogger went down for maintenance, Haloscan went down for maintenance, and my enetation comments flickered in and out. It looks like I will be able to move to MT, but there are some arrangements that need to be worked out. More on that later.

Also later, more on chapter 2 of the Jesus book, now that I've read Telford's piece on it. But my day job calls ...

Sunday, June 08, 2003

Chapter 2: To know you is to love you

N.T. Wright starts the second chapter of The Meaning of Jesus by criticizing the attitude that he was brought up with, that faith and history are separate and often hostile camps. He approves of historians' quest for evidence on Jesus and his world, but complains there is too often a "hermeneutic of suspicion":
If two ancient writers agree about something, that proves one got it from the other. If they seem to disagree, that proves that one or both are wrong. If they say an event fulfilled biblical prophecy, they made it up to look like that. If an event or saying fits a writer's theological scheme, that writer invented it. If there are two accounts of similar events, they are a "doublet" (there was only one event); but if a single account has anything odd about it, there must have been two events, which are now conflated. And so on. Anything to show how clever we are, how subtle, to have smoked out the reality behind the text.

This seems to be a phenomenon that afflicts most quarters of academia. You can see how constantly digging out new "hidden meanings" of things can keep the publication opportunities flowing. (I am reminded of some postmodernist scholar, I forget her name now, who claimed to have discovered the fact that a Jane Austen character was masturbating.)

This reminds me of my previous brush with Bible scholarship, Richard Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible? It would be more accurately called Who Wrote the Torah?, because it actually dealt with just the Pentateuch and a couple other OT books. The book laid out the "documentary hypothesis" that the Torah was actually the work of four different authors whose narratives were stitched together later. That seemed quite plausible, and in fact I find the Bible a lot easier to read with that in mind, what with the strange repetitions and shifts in tone. But in order to figure out who those authors were, why they wrote why they did and why they were strung together the way they were, Friedman essentially saw a kind of current-events commentary buried in the texts. If one text seemed to favor Moses and another Aaron, this was really reflecting conflicts between the two tribes that claimed descent from them many centuries later. Any text that prophesized something that actually happened was assumed to have been written after the fact.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach, because people certainly do propagandize their histories. But to my mind, it creates a hypothesis that's unproven and unprovable. It really based on a psychological assumption: the only thing that really motivates people is politics.

Wright complains of similar assumptions in historical-Jesus scholarship: they assume that most of the NT material was essentially propaganda of the early church. This may be true, but scholars often seem to take it as a starting point rather than a possible conclusion:
This ... is often done, particularly by those still wedded to an older liberal picture of "Jesus the teacher" who ... would be shocked to think of himself as, for instance, messiah. I do not know in advance, more specifically, that a considerable gulf exists between Jesus as he was (the "pre-Easter Jesus"...) and Jesus as the church came to know him and speak of him (the "post-Easter Jesus"). We might eventually wish to reach some such conclusion; we cannot build it into our historical method.

Wright then moves on to the role of faith in all this. Along the way, he makes a point very similar to the one I made here about the nature of knowledge:
(Faith in God) is not just "belief." It is natural to say "I believe it's raining" when indoors with the curtains shut, but it would be odd to say it, except in irony, standing on a hillside in a downpour. For many Christians much of the time, knowing Jesus is more like the latter: being drenched in his love and the challenge of his call, not merely imagining we hear him like raindrops on a distant windowpane. (For many, of course, the latter is the norm; hinting, promising, inviting.)

But what does it mean to "know" someone? Humans being what they are, this is a great mystery. It is clearly different from knowing about them. When we "know" a person (as opposed to, say, knowing the height of the Eiffel Tower), we imply some kind of relationship, some mutual understanding. We are used to each other; we can anticipate how the other will react; we accurately assess their wishes, hopes, and fears. We could perhaps have arrived at the basic facts by careful detached study, but when we say we "know" someone, we assume that this knowledge is the result of a face-to-face encounter.

Exactly. These are the two different kinds of knowledge I was talking about. And even though Wright would prefer that history-knowledge and faith-knowledge be intermingled, he recognizes the difference between them. If Christian faith is a relationship, you cannot have a relationship with someone you only know secondhand.
I'm getting there ... eventually ...

I decided not to write a response to Telford's reaction to chapter 1 of the Jesus book, since I didn't feel I had anything helpful to say about these academic disputes. But Lynn Gazis-Sax has jumped in with a good series of posts, first a general statement on the historical accuracy of the Bible, and then part one and part two of a more specific response to Telford's and my posts. Quite impressive for someone who hasn't even read the book!

I'm going to post on chapter 2 later today. Telford has already done so but, in keeping with the original deal, I haven't read it yet.