Sunday, April 19, 2009

How to ignore history

Both Ben Witherington and James McGrath are good scholars: I found Witherington's The Jesus Quest, Jesus the Sage and several of his commentaries very useful and McGrath's book John's Apologetic Christology and article on "Two Powers" are must reads for those interested in Christology. They have two different stances on how to do history; see Witherington's massive response to Bart Ehrmann (here, here, here, here and here) and some of McGrath's own views (here, here, here), largely in response to the recent Triablogue incident (for the record, I feel James was treated unfairly). Witherington argues that we need to be open to divine intervention and, "it is narrow-minded rather than open-minded to start with a skepticism about the role of the divine in human history, and write one’s history guided by that skepticism." On the other hand, McGrath writes, "On methodological naturalism, I don't see how historical study can adopt any other approach, any more than criminology can."

Theologically I believe in miracles, the incarnation, bodily resurrection and virgin birth (though this last point is by far the least important, being absent in Paul, Mark and John). But I cannot just appeal to my own private experience to judge history because other people in the discipline don't share that experience, just as I'm not sure Christian scholars would accept Muslim or Hindu scholars claims to demonstrate miracles in their own tradition. I don't know of any other history, classics or social sciences department that appeal to divine intervention as an explanation because these departments seek human explanations for human actions and historical-criticism is based on probability and publically available evidence that can be studied by religious and non-religious alike. I may post on this in the future, but take the resurrection as an example. Historical study may be able to demonstrate an empty tomb and even that the disciples had experiences that defy explanation (they couldn't all have shared a hallucination, could they?). But then historians must conclude, "Using our methods I don't know what happened", but it is that extra leap of faith that says, "God raised Jesus from the dead." So what do you think: can we invoke God to explain historical events?


http://thegoldenrule1.blogspot.com/2009/04/how-to-do-history-two-different.html

“But I cannot just appeal to my own private experience to judge history because other people in the discipline don't share that experience.”

Why not? Does a historian have to share the experience of an eyewitness to a past event? Can a historian not appeal to the private experience of an observer at the Battle of Waterloo because the historian didn’t personally share that experience?

By definition, historians ordinarily appeal to the experience of others–an experience which the historian doesn’t himself share because the experience took place at some time in the past before he was born.

” Just as I'm not sure Christian scholars would accept Muslim or Hindu scholars claims to demonstrate miracles in their own tradition.”

Why not? The Bible talks about the occult.

“I don't know of any other history, classics or social sciences department that appeal to divine intervention as an explanation because these departments seek human explanations for human actions and historical-criticism is based on probability and publically available evidence that can be studied by religious and non-religious alike.”

i) Of course, that’s viciously circular. He’s appealing to methodological naturalism to justify methodological naturalism when methodological naturalism is the very issue in dispute.

ii) Needless to say, not all eyewitnessed events are private experiences. Some eyewitnessed events are public events with multiple-witnesses to the same event.

iii) As I’ve already explained, methodological naturalism can’t treat miracles as inherently unlikely, for that would involve a metaphysical judgment on the possibility or probability of their occurrence.

iv) Why should the rules of evidence be dictated by what someone is prepared to believe (“religious and non-religious alike”)?

For example, the category of “publicly available evidence” is, itself, a theory-laden category. What if you accept Ayer’s argument from illusion:

“For any perceptual state of ours, we could be in a state indiscriminable from it but which did not involve perception of any material object or scene, it being an illusion that there was any such object or scene to be perceived. That is, non-veridical perceptions could share their intrinsic properties with veridical perceptions, this possibility leading Ayer to claim that it was plausible that the object of perception in both cases was (non-material) experience, and not, as naïve realism would have it, the physical objects themselves. As a consequence, ordinary perceptual judgments, those making claims about such objects, go beyond what is ‘strictly available’ in our perceptual experience, and so they form a theory about that which is available to perception.”

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ayer/#3

“I may post on this in the future, but take the resurrection as an example. Historical study may be able to demonstrate an empty tomb and even that the disciples had experiences that defy explanation (they couldn't all have shared a hallucination, could they?). But then historians must conclude, "Using our methods I don't know what happened", but it is that extra leap of faith that says, "God raised Jesus from the dead." So what do you think: can we invoke God to explain historical events?”

Why not? Not only do historians study past events, but they’re also concerned with historical causation. And historical causation often involves personal agency. Napoleon is a factor in historical causation. Churchill is a factor in historical causation. Newton is a factor in historical causation.

Some events can be accounted for by natural forces. Even that is a proximate rather than ultimate explanation.

But other events can only be accounted for by personal agency. The question then turns on the various ways in which we identify personal agency. And what an agent-caused event may reveal about the agent.

How does a casino detect cheating? Some patterns are random, but other patterns suggest rational intervention to tilt the odds.

4 comments:

  1. I am interested just how James was treated "unfairly". Was it because we pointed out that his wooden interpretations are just as misguided and delusional as the back woods fundamentalists that he so despises?

    This seems to be a common strategy of Liberals. Strategy:

    1) Make vague appeals to fundamentalist. The best way to do this is to use pronouns such as "they" and "them" without ever being specific. We are assured that there are vast amounts of "bad" conservative scholarship that only "defends" the bible. However, we never see the antecedent that these pronouns are supposed to point to. This can be seen in a recent post on "apologist and biblical scholars". The writer makes up a strawman ridicules it, and then acts as if he has slain the dragon of conservative scholarship.

    2) If a liberal gets owned by a conservative, then we simply name call and say that the conservative was "practicing apologetics", as if that actually answers any of the arguments.

    3) Finally, simply misrepresent what conservatives say about certain issues, like Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch for instance. Instead of actually dealing with ancient elements in the Pentateuch that would point towards earlier sources (Similarities to Hittite Suzerean Treaties, archaisms, etc.) simply make it sound as if conservatives never deal with critical issues, so that your readership can rest assured that nothing approaching orthodoxy maybe true.

    4) When you are done with this, point out how much conservatives ignore liberal scholarship, and how there is no possible way that anyone could come to the opposite conclusion of an admittedly skimmed down scripture.

    5) If conservatives dispute this with you simply say "you are ignoring all of the contradictions!" When the conservative challenges you on this and asks for specific instances point out that the gospels differ on a few details here and there, or that Paul and James contradicted one another, or, better yet, that Hebrews is a thoroughly Platonic document. When the conservative answers you retrace steps 1-4, then claim victory and act as if you have won an "intellectual battle" and retreat to your ivory tower, so that you can "get back to working on my "scholarly articles".

    Any questions?

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  2. Let me get this straight:
    1.) You're saying that you ”would accept Muslim or Hindu scholars' claims to demonstrate miracles in their own tradition.”
    2.) You would do so because "the Bible talks about the occult."

    ReplyDelete
  3. James Vandenberg said...

    "Let me get this straight...You're saying that you 'would accept Muslim or Hindu scholars' claims to demonstrate miracles in their own tradition'.”

    I'm more than happy to straighten you out. Someone needs to.

    Any religion that doesn't worship the true God is diabolical or demonic. So it wouldn't surprise me if some idolaters can perform demonic miracles.

    And demonic miracles demonstrate the demonic character of their religion.

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  4. James,

    Steve is saying that some of the miracles in other religions may have some truth to them since demonic powers deceived the nations in the ancient past.

    ReplyDelete