Friday, February 19, 2010

The Obligatory Jesus Mythicism Post

A couple of weeks ago I waded into an ongoing discussion on James McGrath’s blog concerning “Jesus mythicism”—a topic I know next to nothing about. But a comment I made on one of McGrath's posts on the topic has since been reposted (in whole or in part) on several other blogs (for example, here), and so it seemed appropriate to reproduce that comment here, along with further reflections and elaborations.

For those unfamiliar with the topic, “Jesus mythicism” refers to the Christ myth theory that's currently enjoying a fair bit of popularity among web pundits (especially those hostile to Christianity)—the theory, roughly, that Jesus is a mythical figure constructed by the early church for its own purposes, and that there really was no "historical Jesus" at all.

As someone who isn’t an historian, and hence not schooled in the academic standards of that discipline, I’m not at all qualified to speak to the merits of the arguments put forward by some of the more prominent contemporary mythicists, such as Earl Doherty (The Jesus Puzzle ). But one thing philosophers do for a living is make distinctions, and as I was reading some of the conversations on this topic it seemed to me that it might be helpful to clearly lay out a range of alternative views concerning how the Jesus Christ represented in Church teachings and scriptures is correlated with an historical figure.

One commentator on McGrath's post suggested to me a strategy for laying out such alternatives when he asked, “If it could be shown that there was an actual historical person named Arthur Pendragon, wouldn’t we still think of King Arthur of Camelot as a myth?” Here’s what I said in my comment:

Contrast the following claims:

(1) There was an historic king of the Britons named Arthur, and his life was exactly as described by Sir Thomas Malory in _Le Morte d’Arthur_.

(2) There was an historic king of the Britons named Artur whose impact was sufficiently great that, after being slain by a usurper, those loyal to him would gather secretly to swear allegiance to his bloodline and share stories about him—stories said to come from Artur’s closest thanes. The earliest writings from these communities are by a priest more interested in the meaning of Artur’s life than the details of it. But after a few decades, several followers attempted to write accounts of Artur’s life and sayings based on what their respective communities had preserved. While not historically accurate, they offer clues for anyone wanting to understanding the historic King Arthur.

(3) There was an historic king of the Britons named Artur whose impact was sufficiently great to prompt storytelling about him. This storytelling became quickly severed from actual historic events, becoming interwoven with the creative fancies of bards whose interest lay more in telling colorful tales than in preserving history. Eventually these stories evolved into the legendary figure we now know as King Arthur. But the King Arthur we encounter in the inherited legends has little similarity to the historic figure that inspired the original storytelling.

(4) There was no historic king of the Britons who gave rise to the King Arthur legends. Instead, this figure was wholly an invention of bards interested in creating colorful tales—although the first bard to invent the first King Arthur story borrowed a few of his plotlines from divergent bits of recent events he’d witnessed in his travels, and decided to name his hero “Artur” because he had some vague memory that there was some king by that name who’d lived a generation ago.

Your question gestures to claim (3). As I understand it, Earl Doherty and his followers are making a claim akin to (4) with respect to Jesus. Fundamentalists embrace something akin to (1). Most biblical scholars I know are closer to (2) but allow for elements of (3). The case of (3) is interesting. If we accept it, is there a sense in which there is an “historic Arthur”? I’d say yes, but only in the sense that there is an historic figure who prompted the storytelling—and I’d be quick to add that the character in the stories bears little resemblance to the historic figure. (2) offers more room for dispute about which details are historical.

In subsequent commentary on this set of alternatives, one blogger took issue with positioning biblical scholars in the intellectual space between (2) and (3), saying that the biblical scholars he finds most reliable fall somewhere between (1) and (2). Again, not being an historian versed in the merits of scholars who work in this area, I cannot speak to what view dominates among the best scholars in this area—but as far as my lay impression goes, it appears to fall in the rough vicinity of (2). (I should also note that, in my original comment, I wasn't attempting to make an authoritative pronouncement about where most biblical scholars fall on this issue, but was, rather, simply offering my anecdotal experience with respect to biblical scholars I know).

On another discussion thread, only part of my taxonomy was reproduced—the articulation of (3) and my comment to the effect that if (3) were correct, then the Jesus of the stories would have little resemblance to the historical figure. The discussion that followed seemed to take me as endorsing (3) and therefore as arguing for the conclusion that we can’t learn much about the historical Jesus by studying the Bible.

But this was not my intent. So, in order to help fend off confusion or misunderstanding, let me share a bit about my own view, for what it’s worth. Let me stress again, however, that I am not an historian. I have not systematically evaluated the arguments of Jesus mythicists, nor do I have the credentials to do so. My own view is thus based on impressions that are far less scientific. As such, it is a very tentative position at best.

In outline, my view is that the stories in the gospels have an origin that falls somewhere in a range between (2) and (3). Now both (2) and (3) make room for narratives that are of dubious historicity. The difference is that in the case of (2), the community is intending to preserve stories about a real person that they think are true because those stories are meaningful to them, and there is at least an intent to faithfully pass them on. In the case of (3), something else has come into play--a set of interests that go beyond preserving and perpetuating received stories. In the case of the King Arthur analogy, it's the bards' "interest in telling colorful tales." In the case of gospel writers, it would likely be the interest in making a theological point.

But such an interest can come in degrees. In some cases it is relatively minor, so that the narrative is to a great extent an attempt to faithfully retell an inherited anecdote about the life of one's hero, but there are flourishes of detail that are added (perhaps unwittingly) to emphasize one's theological position. As Bart Ehrman has argued more than once (in my judgment rather convincingly), the portrait we get of Jesus in Mark is decidedly different from the one we get in Luke. Luke's Jesus endures His crucifixion and the time leading up to it with something like serenity, whereas Mark's Jesus seems instead to face it with anguish, even despair. Luke's Jesus models how someone assured of God's providence faces the worst conceivable trials and tribulations (Luke 23:46: "Lord, into your hands I commend my spirit"). Mark's Jesus stands in solidarity with our suffering, even experiencing that pervasive sense of being abandoned by God (Mark 15:34: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?").

But while I get the clear sense that both are theological storytellers, telling the story in ways intended to make their own distinctive theological points, I also get the sense that (at least much of the time) they mean to be weaving together an overall portrait of Jesus that relies heavily on "true stories" about Him preserved by the early church--stories that they wanted to put into their narratives in part so that they could be preserved in that form.

Let me clarify what I mean with another analogy. I'm part of the community of AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project) facilitators. AVP organizes and runs nonviolence workshops in prisons and a range of community settings all over the world, and one of our organizing philosophical concepts is something called "transforming power" (or "TP"--a non-coercive power that can transform negative personal and interpersonal dynamics into positive ones, and which feels less like a power that we exercise and more like one that works through us). Facilitators have their own "TP raps," talks about transforming power and their own understanding of it, informed by stories of TP at work.

There's one particular story that's well known in the AVP community because it so beautifully exemplifies what TP is about...and because it appears in the manual which facilitators use to put together "basic" level workshops. The manual includes several examples of TP raps from some of AVP's pioneers, including that of Fred Feucht. And his rap contains a story about a woman named Marge Swan. According to Feucht, Marge Swan was heading home from the library one evening, walking through Central Park with an arm load of books, when a man approached her aggressively. She turned to him and dumped her books in his arms, expressing gratitude for his timely arrival. He proceeded to walk her home, carrying her books for her. When they got to her building she took her books back from him, thanking him again for his help, and he said something like, "Lady, that's not what I meant to do."

This story was told by one of the facilitators in my basic workshop, and it made such an impression that I've been telling it ever since (meaning for the last twenty years). But although I've been aware that the story comes to AVP largely through Fred Feucht's TP rap in the AVP Basic Manual, I never looked carefully at Fred Feucht's seminal account...until today, when I dug out my basic manual to see what Fred's version looked like.

In the version I've been telling, Marge Swan and her would-be attacker chat as he carries her books for her. That detail isn't in Feucht's account. But it's a good fit with the broader themes of my TP rap. Chatting symbolizes a non-threatening human connection and a mutual recognition of fellow humanity. It's a way of turning the nameless stranger behind you in the grocery line into something more than that. And so, without even realizing I was making it up, I added in that little detail.

But it's quite possible that others add conflicting details. Because of its history, there are many Quakers involved with AVP. Quaker worship is characterized by silence, and there's a strong sense of the transforming power that silence can have. I've heard TP raps that dwell on this point--including discussions of how silence can be a way to clear away the crud that separates us from one another. And I could certainly imagine an AVP facilitator introducing the Marge Swan story into a TP rap in which "the power of silent presence" has been an important theme. Maybe the facilitator envisions Swan and her would-be attacker walking together in silence, simply aware of each other as fellow human beings. And this imagined detail, because it symbolically expresses a point about TP that the facilitator wants to communicate, works its way into the story.

Now I've never met Fred Feucht, let alone Marge Swan. I have no idea how Fred Feucht knows of Marge Swan's story. Did she tell it to him herself, or did he get it second-hand? What details, if any, did he get wrong? Did Marge Swan chat with her would-be attacker, or did they walk together in silence?

I don't know. But when I share Marge Swan's story during AVP workshops and elsewhere, my intention is to pass on a true story--not one I know first-hand, but one that's been preserved within the AVP community, in part because of its capacity to exemplify an important idea that unites members of that community. And the story's truth matters, because a common charge leveled against advocates of nonviolence is that it doesn't work. Here, in the story of Marge Swan, is a case in which it did. The story is preserved in part because here is a real live case of nonviolent methods actually working in the real world to transform a potential crime into a positive human exchange. That's a major reason why this story was preserved within the AVP community. But, as with all such stories, the details vary with the storytellers...sometimes because of simple errors, sometimes because of the broader philosophical or theoretical purposes that motivate the storytelling.

When I read the Synoptic Gospels, many of the stories within them read like that, at least to me. Many don't, but many do. And that's why I'm inclined to treat many of the stories told in the Synoptic Gospels as primarily stories whose origins are of type (2), with elements of (3) creeping in when the theological aims of the authors are particularly at stake.

The Gospel of John is a more complex case, insofar as John’s project seems to be primarily theological. As I read John, his aim is to develop a theology of Jesus by using the “gospel” literary genre, and this theological aim is far more significant to him than the aim of recounting the events of Jesus’ life as accurately as he can. As such, for example, he happily puts into Jesus’ mouth extended theological interpretations of the significance of Jesus’ life and ministry—things it would be hard to imagine being said by the Jesus we encounter in Mark.

This is not to say that the events recounted by John are all or even primarily fabrications—but it does mean, for example, that where John differs from the Synoptics on historic details (such as the timing of the crucifixion relative to Passover), the explanation may lie in John’s theological objectives and the symbolic resonance he achieves by telling the story as he does.

The result is a Jesus who is “mythologized,” not in the sense that John’s Jesus has no foundation in an historical individual whose story parallels the one John tells, but in the sense that John’s narrative is more concerned with theological symbolism than with factual details. As such, my view is that John's Gospel falls more in the vicinity of (3) than (2). That said, I must confess that it's my favorite gospel, precisely because it is the most theological. It may not be good history, but that's not its aim.

For the historian who is concerned with factual details, the question then becomes a matter of sifting through the theological and political aims of the writers, as well as getting past the simple errors that accrue when a narrative is passed down orally within a community for a generation before it’s first committed to paper. While that is going to be hard work, and while that work may very well lead to an understanding of the historical Jesus that differs in many ways from the gospel portraits, I find myself highly skeptical of those who think that once this work is done they’ll find that there’s no historical figure there at all. Once again, however, I must stress that I'm no historian, and these are merely intuitive impressions.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

IS GOD A DELUSION? Named Outstanding Academic Title for 2009

In today’s post, I’d like to take a break from my usual efforts in philosophical theology to…well, toot my own horn. This morning I received an e-mail from OSU’s Associate Dean of Research and Instructional Services congratulating me on having my book, Is God a Delusion? named an Outstanding Academic Title for 2009 by Choice Reviews.

This was the first I’d heard of it—although several months back my editor at Wiley-Blackwell forwarded me a strong review that had been published in Choice—a magazine widely used by academic librarians throughout the US for collection development (touted on its website as “the premier source for reviews of academic books, electronic media, and Internet resources of interest to those in higher education”).

The reviewer said that “Reitan’s execution is truly remarkable” and then listed the book as “highly recommended”—apparently something that is relatively infrequent in Choice, so my editor was pleased (as was I). But I wasn’t sure what it meant to be named an Outstanding Academic Title, so I went to the magazine’s website to find out.

Here’s what it said: “Every year in the January issue, Choice publishes a list of Outstanding Academic Titles that were reviewed during the previous calendar year. This prestigious list reflects the best in scholarly titles reviewed by Choice and brings with it the extraordinary recognition of the academic library community.”

In short, academic librarians of the world love me. I guess they can tell I’m a fellow introvert.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Religion as a "Bifurcated Essentially Contested Concept": Part II

In a comment on my last post, about the “bifurcated essential contestability” of religion, Burk wrote: “So what’s the point? The fact that some concepts are slippery enough to be re-defined to one’s taste, or one’s argumentative predilection, hardly speaks well of the original referent, does it?”

This betrays a misunderstanding, insofar as essential contestability is not merely a matter of a concept being slippery enough to allow one to define it as one pleases or to serve one's argumentative agenda. But I suspect the misunderstanding here is likely to be sufficiently widespread that I want to have another go at the idea of essential contestability. However, so as to avoid having to repeat what I’ve already said, I invite you to read or reread the previous post—as well as my clarifying comments offered as comments to it—before digging into this one.

First of all, essential contestability does offer parameters for the proper use of a term (one can’t simply define it however one pleases). But these parameters are looser than those offered by a strict definition in terms of genus and difference. The purpose of that looseness is to facilitate an ongoing normative dispute--to prevent those who, say, want to apply the term "terrorism" to domestic battery from being shut down by "definitional fiat", without having the chance to make their case for why domestic battery deserves to receive the same sort of condemnation that we attach to, say, the Oklahoma City bombing.

The worry here is this. Suppose someone tries to make the point that domestic battery is a species of terrorism, and thereby argue that the public moral outcry against terrorism (and concomitant political capital and economic resources devoted to its prevention) should extend with equal force to domestic battery, inspiring a comparable devotion of public resources. The worry is that this essentially moral argument will be unfairly silenced by essentially ad hoc definitional conventions. Someone will say, “That’s not terrorism, so shut up and go back to your NOW meeting.” The essential contestability of “terrorism” aims to prevent the invocation of such conversation-stoppers.

Some concepts have a precisely defined set of referents. Some admit of grey areas ("vague concepts")--and as I've argued elsewhere (in an article on the essential contestability of "rape"), essential contestability offers a useful way of understanding what can make a concept vague. Whether a concept has a precise meaning or is vague/contested tells us something about the function that the concept serves in the language. If the function is to regulate a certain kind of descriptive project, then it will have a precise meaning. If its function is to regulate an ongoing normative dispute, then it will be essentially contested.

But here's the thing. There would be little point in making linguistic space for normative disagreement if normativity were conceived reductionistically in terms of nothing but subjective attitudes. If the distinctive wrong of rape were just a matter of taste or nothing but a projection of psychological predilitions ("a rorsach blot," as Burk puts it in his comment), then there'd really be nothing to disagree about between those who say that a husband's cavalier disregard for his wife's disinclination to have sex makes his act rape (even though she's been socialized to quietly submit to his demands), and those who deny this. There'd be no disagreement between them because the former would be simply saying something about their tastes (they just happen to have a certain kind of distaste towards the husband’s behavior) and the latter would be simply saying something about their tastes (they lack the relevant negative attitude). But varied tastes towards the same phenomenon do not constitute disagreement. A disagreement is possible only if both parties mean to say something about the husband's behavior--the former is asserting something about it that the latter denies.

In short, real normative disagreement is possible only if there is more to the normative status of activities, projects, etc., than just the diverse attitudinal projections of different individuals.

It follows that, in order for the essential contestability of concepts to serve the function it is supposed to serve, there must be something more to normative discourse than just expressions of taste and projections of preferences onto the range of entities to which the contested concept actually or potentially refers.

The precise character of the "something more" is going to be a matter of some debate, but at the very least it will require that normative judgments be such that it is possible to offer legitimate reasons in their favor--legitimate in the sense of rendering it rationally fitting for someone to change their mind in the light of it.

Since I am convinced that there is something more to normative judgments than mere expressions of subjective preference, I am likewise convinced that essentially contested concepts serve an important linguistic function.

I am less convinced, however, that the bifurcation of an essentially contested concept--of the sort I see occuring in the case of "religion"--is helpful. Rather, while I think it may be inescapable, it creates problems for clear communication and divides the normative discourse into two communities who then have difficulty communicating their respective normative insights to the other community without being consistently misunderstood.

So, with respect to such concepts, the task is to understand how they operate so that we can better transcend the impediments.

In sum, I think the essential contestability of the concept “religion” has value, but I think that the bifurcation of it limits that value by preventing the normative insights achieved in one linguistic community (which focuses on religion’s paradigms in a purely negative way so as to identify what it is about them that justifies the negative normative judgment) from being effectively communicated to the other linguistic community (which focuses on religion’s paradigms in a purely positive way so as to identify what it is about them that justifies the positive normative judgment).

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Religion as a "Bifurcated Essentially Contested Concept"

It occured to me that at least a few readers of this blog might be interested in the core section of an e-mail that I recently sent to a philosophical colleague--in which I briefly describe the more technical philosophical idea that was percolating beneath the surface of my recent Religion Dispatches article reflecting on the Hitchens-Sewell interview. In briefest terms, I've become increasingly convinced that the concept of religion operates in a rather strange way in contemporary discourse. I've decided to call it a "Bifurcated Essentially Contested Concept."

In fact, the first draft of the RD article included a brief discussion of this more technical idea, but I decided that it didn't work for that venue. I'd either need to go into so much depth expositing the relevant ideas in the philosophy of language that the article would have this distractingly dry academic portion in the middle, or I'd end up underexplaining these ideas so much that they wouldn't be helpful.

But for those interested in the more academic side of my work, the note to my colleague is brief enough to fit in a blog but detailed enought to offer a sense of one of the philosophical projects I'm am developing. So here is what I wrote:

In brief, (the philosophical project) involves an analysis of the concept “religion” that makes use of W. B. Gallie’s notion of “essentially contested concepts.” In case you’re unfamiliar with Gallie, he understands essentially contested concepts to be characterized by (a) a shared set of complex paradigms, (b) a common appraisive meaning, and (c) disagreement over which features of the paradigms justify the appraisive judgment. Since the appraisal has become an ineradicable feature of the term’s use in ordinary language, any proposed definition takes sides in a moral dispute: by fixing the extension of the term, the definition makes a judgment about which entities should be subject to the normative appraisal that goes with the use of the term, and which shouldn’t. According to Gallie, preserving the essential contestability of a concept—that is, characterizing the “language game” of proper usage in terms of (a) and (b) and, arguably, paradigmatic examples of things that fall outside the extension of the term, rather than in terms of a conventional definition—prevents normative disputes from being ended by definitional fiat (and thereby having certain moral perspectives illegitimately silenced).

What I’ve been thinking as I get increasingly caught up in the current “God debates” is that “religion” operates today as an essentially contested concept
with a twist. The twist is that, although there is a shared set of complex paradigms, there are two competing appraisive meanings—one positive and the other pejorative—and hence two communities of discourse—one disagreeing over which features of the paradigms justify the POSITIVE appraisal they attach to the term “religion,” the other disagreeing over which features of the paradigms justify the NEGATIVE appraisal they attach to the term. Thus conceived, Sewell is in the same community of discourse as, say, Pat Robertson, but fundamentally disagrees with him about which features of religious paradigms justify positive appraisal because they are operating from deeply opposed normative frameworks. Hitchens, by contrast, is in the opposing community of discourse, but is operating with very similar normative lenses as Sewell. The result is that her understanding of religion, derived from her culling from the paradigms that which justifies a positive judgment, falls entirely outside the scope of Hitchens’ definition of “religion” precisely BECAUSE it has been stripped of all the things that justify a NEGATIVE appraisal. But they agree about so many things that one might even start to think of Hitchens as a closet Unitarian.

Since this passage from my e-mail explicates Gallie's "essentially contested concepts" rather quickly, without the help of clarifying examples, let me just add two examples for the sake of my readers here. First, there is "work of art." We all agree that DaVinci's Mona Lisa is a work of art, and that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is a work of art, etc. That is, there is a shared set of paradigms that we can all agree fall within the extension of the term. And we all attach a positive appraisive sense to the term "work of art." That is, for something to be properly called a work of art, it needs to exemplify an achievement of a certain sort. So, we agree that the paradigms exemplify this achievement. But when it comes to, say, certain post-modern creations on display in modern art museums, some will call them works of art and others will vociferously disagree. Why? Because to call it a work of art is to say that it achieves something--something of the same sort that the Mona Lisa achieves. Perhaps not in the same measure, but enough so that they both deserved to be classed as works of art.

The result is that you have clear cases of works of art--in which there is general agreement that this or that is a work of art--and borderline cases (which some will call works of art and others won't). Gallie's point is that this is well and proper, because to insist upon a strict definition with precise boundaries would be to illegitimately shut down an ongoing normative disagreement about which features of the paradigms justify the positive appraisive judgment that attaches to the term "work of art."

Here's the second example: the concept "terrorism." This one works in very much the same way, except that the appraisal that goes along with the use of the term is strongly negative. There are, again, a bunch of agreed paradigms--the 9/11 attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing, etc.--as well as a range of contested cases. The disagreement turns on which features of the paradigms of terrorism justify the negative judgment that "terrorism" implies.

So anyway, my working theory, from my observation of the way "religion" has come to be used, is that it fits the model of essential contestability in a number of important ways--except that, crucially, some attach to the term a positive appraisive sense while others attach to it a negative one. This fact may imply other differences. Part of my current work is to tease out in a systematic way precisely WHAT other differences are entailed.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Hitchens' Spiritual Side--New Essay in Religion Dispatches

A couple of days ago, several posts on facebook alerted me to an interview/conversation between Christopher Hitchens and the retired Unitarian minister, Marilyn Sewell. Because I've explored with some care (in an earlier essay for Religion Dispatches) the parasitic and self-serving dynamic that characterizes Hitchens' engagement with religious conservatives such as Douglas Wilson, I thought it would be interesting to explore how Hitchens might engage with a self professing "liberal Christian."

As might be expected, one of Hitchens' early salvos in the interview amounted to strictly defining who qualified as a Christian and who didn't--with the apparent aim of disqualifying Sewell. It was this feature of the interview that put it on the radar screen of many religious progressives. But as I read through the interview, what emerged for me as the most interesting feature of it was just how close Hitchens was to being a Unitarian. The biggest difference was that Unitarians call themselves religious, while Hitchens calls all things religious "poison."

In any event, reading the interview inspired a reflection, "Christopher Hitchens, Religious in Spite of Himself?", that's the feature article in today's Religion Dispatches. It includes some early autobiographical material, for those who can't wait for the "spiritual autobiography" I have yet to compose.