(This ended up being a much longer rant than I thought it would be…)
If you don’t already know, I have neither a philosophy, theology nor history degree. I do admin work in an office. So, I have no academic credibility to speak from about anything.
Awhile back, Jon Stewart interviewed Neil Degrasse Tyson and basically said that if scientists didn’t tell us what was going on, we dum-dums would have no idea. We non-scientists are dependent upon scientists to tell us how the universe works (obviously, to the best of their knowledge – by means of experimentation, theories, peer review, etc.).
This is where most people are at. A position of dependency, if we want to ask questions and get approximate answers.
But, any reasonable person in any field will tell you that we cannot have certainty about almost anything. It actually seems to be the opposite of the spirit of science to shut the process down because we have arrived at “Knowledge.”
If I want to know about astrophysics, I need to know what astrophysicists have discovered. If I want to know about biology, math, and so on.
If I want to know about history, I need to know what – and how – historians think.
I love philosophy and theology because they, at their best, accept what all the other fields have discovered as “the best knowledge we can have” about the given subject, but are able to bring all of that together and speculate beyond each of them individually.
But, sadly, much of philosophy and theology tries to speak for the experts. Philosophers and theologians have a tendency to overreach.
This past few days, I’ve tried to keep up with a debate that was sparked by Tony Jones in response to a blog post by James McGrath. I, and several others, have repeatedly commented that Tony is overreaching, that he cannot say what is or is not historically accurate.
Tony, like all of us non-historians, is dependent upon historians for history.
Now, of course, there is overlap between theology and history. But, my assumption is that theology should never try to speak for history – or biology, or anything else.
This became a huge problem for me when looking into whether or not the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. As a skeptical person, I couldn’t simply take the text for what it says – or I interpret it to say. If the resurrection is claimed to be an historical event, then I need to ask historians what they think. And – surprise! – the only historians (if it’s even fair to the discipline to call them that) who believe that it actually happened are themselves orthodox Christians.
So, Tony’s main criticism with James’ original post seems to be the following:
Like many liberals, he brushes off the deeper implications of the text in order to assuage his modern sensibilities.
In one of my comments, I said that I think Tony had created a straw man, and was actually responding to a misunderstanding of what James was and was not saying in his original post. To which Tony said, “Fair enough, Rob… But I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic about his post.”
But, I also think he misses James’ approach with his main criticism. From my reading of James’ “texts,” he seems to be saying, “Here is what is historically reasonable, and I’m glad because ____” He’s not saying, “I wish this weren’t historically reasonable, because ____.” The latter would, I think, be James actually doing what Tony criticizes him for.
I, for one, greatly value the hard work of historians, and appreciate the theological dialogue between historians and those who accept the texts at face value. I think a lot can be learned from all sides…
It seems to me we should assess the historicity and theological issues independently, letting those assessments inform one another…
But, I’m not sure how much mutually beneficial dialogue is possible when theologians aren’t playing by the rules. If Tony was really committed to this perspective, he could spend his life trying to discount the entire discipline of history.
Count me a fan of history. I’ve read and studied a lot of it, and I continue to. But history has its limits.
I agree, everything has its limits. But, the historical consensus should be consulted when you’re asking historical questions.
There is, of course, a way to approach the text that completely ignores historical questions. But, when you use historical language to speculate about theology, you should expect to get owned by historians. Just like if you get into a debate with a (legitimate) biologist, and your only argumentation is to quote from Genesis 1-3 as historical fact, good luck!
Could this be one reason – among many others – that so many people are finding religion in general to be completely irrelevant?
I, for one, have no problem with seeing the entirety of the Bible as myth rather than as history. Myth, to me, does not mean “lie” or “false.” As Peter Enns defines it, myth “is an ancient, pre-modern, pre-scientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories.” Myth, in many ways, is more important than history.
Tony is right, history was done differently “back then.” But, people also didn’t have the same categories that we do. It doesn’t seem like most people would have asked, “Did it really happen? Can we prove it???” Maybe they would have been more concerned with questions of meaning, or with how a story shapes a person individually and socially?
Tony seems to be saying that historical questions are irrelevant. He says “Wrong question!” and agrees with a commenter who says “I don’t care what you believe!” regarding whether the virgin birth is an historical fact. But, then again, he seems bent on defending the historicity of (certain, not all, events in) the Bible, using historical language.
I – with zero credibility to do so, as Tony helpfully pointed out – call FOUL.
What do you think?