Never Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight

I debated whether to make this post a response to some of the comments raised by Greg Jones to my recent blog “Why Religion is Giving God a Bad Name“. As I thought about it however, I realized that certain of the issues raised by Mr. Jones were so important that the response deserved its own blog. How important? In my view, unless we get the notion of “historical faith” raised by Mr. Jones right, we cannot hope to solve crisises like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Shite-Sunni conflict throughout the Middle East or the conflict between the Islamic and western world. That’s pretty important and unfortunately, just about everybody gets it wrong.

Mr. Jones starts his comment with the claim that Christianity is a “historical faith”. I believe Mr. Jones is right if what he means is that Christianity places infinite meaning on events that happened in a particular place at a particular time when viewed through the prism of a particular way of imagining reality. I believe we go astray however, if he means that, as Christians, we have to accept as literally true the “historical witness” of the first generation of Christians. Another, more formulaic, way of phrasing this is, do we believe because the apostles believed or do we believe with the apostles. The distinction is subtle, but, in my view, meaningful. Further, it is not only Christians that have to adequately address this distinction, but also Jews, Muslims and all other believers who make a claim that revelation manifests itself “in history.”

The problem with the second way of formulating the historical nature of Christianity is that it is not true to the task that the writers of the Gospels set themselves when they compiled the Gospels. “History” is a deuce of a word. I think what we moderns generally mean by it is the scientific study of past events in order to reconstruct those events in an accurate way. I think it is fair to say that “history”, in that sense, is a relatively recent invention. Arguably the first modern history was Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in 1776. Before that “historians” certainly studied the past, but the emphasis of such studies was, quite unselfconciously, making a political, theological or moral point about their present. For example, in The Prince, Machiavelli cites numerous examples of both ancient and contemporary rulers and their activities. However, those examples are not cited for themselves, rather, Machiavelli manipulates the facts to make his larger point about the nature of the perfect Renaissance ruler. Even Thucydides himself, in his History of the Pelopennesian War, is clearly more interested in the moral reasons for Athens’ failure than a detracted historical (in the modern sense) study of the war.

Therefore, whatever the Gospel writers were about, they were not about, could not have been about, writing a history of the life of Jesus in the way we moderns would understand the word. Whether or not Jesus literally walked on water or raised Jarius’ daugther or fed the multitudes simply would not have been questions they would have raised or, for that matter, found very interesting. Archeologists and modern historians find those questions interesting and those of us, less eriudite, with a subscription to the History or Discovery Channel find them interesting because, let’s face it, better that than American Idol. However, the answers to those questions are tangential to our faith experience, except to the extent that having the historical and archeological “facts” sheds light on what Jesus preached and how he understood the presence of the Kingdom of God.

If the Gospel writers were not about witnessing to a history of the life of Jesus, what were they about? The Gospels are a record of first century Christianity’s witness to the presence of the Risen Lord in their midst. They are authoritative not principally because they are ancient or because they are literally accurate. They are authoritative because they are theological masterpieces that drew on every first century literary tool (miracle story, apotheosis, scriptural citation, parable and the oral tradition about the words of Jesus) to give voice to the good news that those early Chritians were experiencing in situ, that the man Jesus, born of woman, was dead and was now, shockingly and in a way they couldn’t quite put their finger on, alive and, what’s more, they believed he had promised that they too would share in that life. Further, they understand that this “new wine” involved profound moral consequences and the Gospels helped tease out what those moral consequences were.

Which brings us back to the first way of understanding the historical nature of Christianity. Like those first Christians, we, as believers, have a sense that the story of Jesus of Nazareth is definitive for all times and all places and so our faith is “historical”. Also like those first Christians, we are tasked to make sense of, explain and mediate that reality in the present. With the apostles, we are called to live as if God were King and to struggle to understand what that entails. The Scripture is only meaningful to the extent it helps us to do that, otherwise it is nothing more than the “Law wriiten in stone” and not on men hearts.

All of this calls to mind Fr. Walsh’s Bunn address from 1986 that Mark posted earlier today. Fr. Walsh talked about education as a “conversation”, as engaging other men, in other times and from other cultures with a view to broadening our imagination. That conversation only makes sense if we accept that the other’s imagination might have something valuable for me, might help me to better understand the richness of reality in all its fullness. Such a conversation about ultimate things is simply not possible if I think my scripture, my “history” as handed down, is the last word. Error, after all, has no rights. Our conversation will start to sound an awful lot like the ravings of the lunatics on the Temple Mount or in Nasaria. Ultimately, understanding requires humility.

Now to explain the title of this blog. To the extent “religion” is in a polemic with people like Christopher Hitchens, literalism/fundamentalism hands him his most effective weapons. Atheists of Hitchens’s stripe are fond of using, in the words of the NY Times Review of Books, “Occam’s Razor” to show that religion posits more complex and, therefore, more fanciful explanations to important questions more straightforwardly answered by modern science, history and archeology. The most obvious example of course is that old chestnut, the debate between “creationism” and “evolution”.

If George Bush had never utttered another stupid word in his entire political career, his statement that schools should “teach the controversy” between creationism and Darwinism would have been enough to earn him eternal infamy. If the Gospels are not history, in the same way, the first two chapters of Genesis are not biology. The authors of Genesis and Charles Darwin were asking completely different questions and therefore, their mutual answers take on unique and, in their respective spheres, equally valid forms. When believers use Scripture (be it the Bible or the Koran or the Torah) to answer inherently scientific or historical questions they are, in that great line of Sean Connery, “bringing a knife to a gun fight.”

This has at least two disastorous consequences. First, it makes believers look like fools. Modern science is perhaps the most powerful tool human kind has ever had at its disposal for answering how things happen. The scientific method is vigorous and self correcting. Insisting on the “truth” of Scripture in the face of that unslaught is simply silly. Secondly, and more importantly, it distracts believers from the truly important questions that Scripture raises, ie who is this God, how does he act and how does he expect me to live?

Our answer to Hitchens is not, ultimately, that we have a better explanation for how the universe got here or why murder is a crime, but rather, that if we accept what we say about our God is true, all our anxiety, as a race, melts away.

9 Responses to “Never Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight”

  1. Mark Patton Says:

    Thanks, Dave, for this fascinating post. I found myself wanting to agree, but perhaps unable to answer the objections that kept popping up as I read through this.

    I can agree with the claim that the apostles were not “about” a “history” of the life of Jesus. And I remember enough of my Bib Lit to understand the point that the Gospel’s authors used literary devices to reach their contemporary audience with the Good News. But where do you draw the line between “miracle story” and literal fact? If the Gospels are all “miracle story,” wouldn’t that mean the Resurrection is a fantasy? You seem not to think this, since you characterize the Apostles as giving voice to the news that this man Jesus was dead, and was then astonishing alive again, and promised eternal life to those that believed in him. So, okay, the Resurrection (and presumably the crucifixion) “actually happened” in the sense that it could have been captured on video tape. What about the curing of the lepers? The woman with the “issue of blood?” Or more unsettling, did Jesus actually utter the words (or something very much like it) that we call the Sermon on the Mount?
    I suppose the answer I want to give myself is “the miraculous stuff doesn’t really matter–maybe it happened and maybe it didn’t–it’s the teaching that counts.” But are there recognizable cues in the Gospels that tell us “okay, this bit of wiz-bang is for the kids; we’ll be back to the real stuff in a second?” If not, and if it’s all poetry, then why should we believe that some of it is poetry actually authored by God? Why isn’t it all simply a really well-done morality tale?

    The second objection is probably a product of my own idiosyncratic path to Rome. If we’re not at least in part in the business of believing things because the Apostles believed them, what is the point of Apostolic Succession? One of the things that drove me nuts about my religious upbringing in a rather wild and woolly corner of the Protestant world was that theology and doctrine was something you could make up as you went along. The bigger the emotional response you could get, the bigger your congregation, the better your theology must be. (Disclaimer for those that don’t know me: I know that is not a fair characterization of vast swaths of Protestantism–I’m just describing my old corner.) How are we to know if we are believing “with” the Apostles if we’re willing to say that the Apostles didn’t believe a lot of the stuff that ended up in the Gospels? Is Christianity at bottom about the melting away of our anxieties?

    I realize that posing such questions to someone who did PhD work in theology really is “bringing a knife to a gun fight,” so I ask only that you be Dworkinian in your response.

  2. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Thanks Mark. A couple of quick thoughts.

    1. Boy, having kids has really put a crimp in our Saturday nights, huh?

    2. As you point out, I am fond of practicing theology without a license. As I ran from that particular academic discipline after one semester with my tail between my legs, my views on all this stuff are no more valid than the next layman’s. About all of it I could be very, very wrong.

    3. You ask where I draw the line between miracle story and literal fact? The answer is I don’t draw that line because to pose the question that way, in my view, presupposes that literal truth is somehow more valid than narrative truth. I suspect that just the opposite is true. In an earlier blog, I alluded to what I like to call the Santa Claus Problem, which can be stated thusly, how can I tell my kids that Santa Claus is “real” and not feel guilty that I am lying to them? The answer is that Santa Claus is a device used to convey the joy of Christmas, as is giving gifts, Christmas dinner, It’s a Wonderful Life and all the rest of it. The vessels which convey the reality are a part of that reality but are not coterminous with the reality. If the devices used to deliver the message are to have a prayer of conveying the reality to the hearer, they need to be age, culturally and historically appropriate, because we are beings existentially limited in space and time. This notion, that finite vessels can convey infinite meaning is also at the heart of sacramental theology and, it so happens, all of Hopkins’ poetry.

    All of the Scripture is narrative and should be read narratively. Even the Resurrection stories are narrative. They are the attempts of the Gospels writers to convey a reality (namely, that Jesus, who they knew was crucified, was somehow experienced by them as unmistakeably alive), which was, quite literally, indescribable.

    I have often wondered whether if the Roman soldiers asleep outside the the tomb on that fateful morning, had a video camera they could have captured the Resurrection. My guess is probably not, but I don’t think the answer to that question is particularly important. Revelation speaks to the heart and it is the imagination of the believer that supplies the necessarily limited attempt to make that Revelation present in the here and now. The truth of Revelation is for all times and places, our feeble attempts to understand that Revelation must be formulated anew each time it is experienced.

    None of this, in my view, calls into question the “objective nature” of the reality conveyed. Just the opposite in fact. The reality is so compelling and mysterious, that ultimately, it defies all attempts to completely encapsulate it.

    This is not to say that archeology and history have nothing to add to the faith experience. However, the work of those sciences means little unless it helps bring the reality contained in the Scriptural narrative more fully into focus.

    4. The current experience of the Anglican Communion highlights the ecclesiological wisdom of an authoritative body capable of resolving fundamental disputes about matters of faith and morals. However, query whether truly funadamental theological questions ever get resolved? For example, Nicea was 1700 years ago and, last time I checked, there were a whole hell of a lot of people making a living teaching Christology.

    Much like Scripture, the Magisterium is only truly important if they act to convey the boundless reality of Christian revelation anew to each generation, in a way that generation can understand. Their task is no different from that of the apostles from whom they claim descent and authority. They must help us to stand with them in awe at the depth of God’s love for humanity.

  3. Greg Jones Says:


    Do I understand correctly that you are espousing what is theologically called a dynamic view of the inspiration of scripture?

    The dynamic view is the idea that God revealed Himself historically to a people who wrote down their experiences of this revelation in their own words in what we call the Bible.

    The opposite of the dynamic view of inspiration is the plenary view which treats the Bible as if God dictated each word to the authors. Thus the Bible can contain not even the smallest error.

    The dynamic view allows for the errors in detail as long as they do not corrupt the ultimate message of the text. An example would be how one Gospel states that Christ told the disciples to take staff, sandles, etc. while another says for them not to take these things. Either way, the point of the text is not what Christ told them to take, it was that Christ sent these men out to preach the good news of the Gospel.

    It sounds like you may be going farther than the dynamic view and advocating a metaphorical view of Scripture where the reality of the events is eclipsed by the spiritual meaning’s that can be applied to make us feel better and cope with the world we live in.

    While I believe in the dynamic view of Scripture, I do not go so far as this metaphorical view. I’m reminded of how scientists for years theorized the existence of the nutrino because it explained observations of other experiments.

    However, the absence of empirical evidence lead scientists to aggressively experiment and research until they could actually uncover its actual existence.

    There is something that has been built into us that tells us that our faith must match reality. There is something into all of us that says that this reality is transcendent in that it touches all of us. There is a sense of the absolute that abounds in all of us. The more a person tries to argue against it, the more they affirm it for to argue against it is to say that someone else is wrong and to say someone else is wrong is to infer that there is an absolute transcendent standard.

    I also believe that there is a reason that the disciples insisted on a bodily resurrection. If your metaphorical view is true, they could have simply claimed a “Spiritual” resurrection. After all, it was the physical resurrection that most offended the Greeks and impeded the spread of Christianity.

    You mention Hitchens’ use of Occam’s razor against Christianity and creationism and for evolution.

    Saying that the universe came about as a result of random processes through chance is much more of a complex attempt to answer the question or origins, then to simply claim that God spoke the world into existence in a 7 day week. To be an atheist requires one to believe that the origin of the world came about as a result of eternal processes. It is a much simpler view to see the origin of the world to be the result of an eternal God. Occam’s razor cuts off atheism at the neck.

  4. David Fitzgerald Says:

    What I am saying is that it is precisely the metaphor that mediates the reality but the reality can never be completely captured by a literal understanding of the metaphor.

    Much of what you say Greg is quite well thought out. However, it is also pregnant with artificial categories (“bodily resurrection,” “spiritual resurrection,” Anselm’s proof for the existence of God and the various theories for interpreting the Scripture) if you like, “metaphors”, which are reasoned attempts to understand the mystery that is Revelation.

    Where we get into trouble is when we equate the metaphor with the reality that it is designed to mediate. That, in my view, is, at least potentially idolatrous and shrinks the power of Revelation and its potential influence on the human heart.

  5. marshallroad Says:

    Doesn’t the text of scripture tell us explicitly when metaphors are being used?

    I’m thinking of Jesus when He tells his followers that unless they eat of His flesh and drink of His blood, they will have no part with Him. Later He explains it.

    The book of Revelation explains its metaphors also. For instance, it talks about 7 golden candles in one place and later explains that they are the 7 churches.

    How else can one distinguish between the metaphors and reality? If you dismiss it all as a metaphor, then can’t we even by logical extension claim that every moral admonition and every religious sacrament (prayer, meditation on Scripture, communion) is metaphorical to the point that Christians aren’t really obliged to exercise any of them?

  6. Mark Grannis Says:

    I’m a rank amateur here, but what is the role of community and tradition in all this? If belief “with the apostles” is our touchstone, doesn’t that leave open the possibility that we understand certain parts of the NT to be factual details that really happened because that’s the way the early Church understood them, whereas other parts of the NT might be understood metaphorically because that’s the way the early Church understood those? Might we not acknowledge both that the gospels are not history or biography in the modern sense, but also that the gospels are not 1st-century fiction?

    This would yield few bright lines, of course, which I take it is the reason it makes Patton nervous. And it would make the proper interpretation of scripture depend on what the community thought it said. But hasn’t the proper interpretation of scripture, and indeed even the question of what counts as scripture, always been decided by the community of Christians? We needn’t puzzle, as we do with chickens and eggs, whether it was the Church or the Bible that came first; that question has an answer.

  7. marshallroad Says:

    Dave, with all due respect, I think you have to ignore one of my points in your attempts to turn so much of the Bible into a metaphor.

    I will reitterate this point for your reflection and comment:

    “I also believe that there is a reason that the disciples insisted on a bodily resurrection. If your metaphorical view is true, they could have simply claimed a “Spiritual” resurrection. After all, it was the physical resurrection that most offended the Greeks and impeded the spread of Christianity.”

  8. marshallroad Says:

    And lest I ignore David’s points, let me state that if you think creationism doesn’t hold a candle to evolution, do a google on Hugh Ross and “Reasons To Believe”.

    Whether or not you believe choose to believe in Creation is another blog, but it is just as logically consistent as evolution (arguably more so).

    Logical consistency is one of the three legs of the stool that truth must conform to:
    1. Logical consistency
    2. Empirical adaquacy
    3. Experiential relevancy

    I’d go so far as to say it easily meets all three of these criteria, where evolution may only meet the first 2. For if all of us came from matter, then matter is all that can be believed.

    This leads to an epistemology where, “If I can’t see, touch, feel, taste, smell it, its not true.”. Media technology alone tells us this isn’t true.

  9. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Fully aware that the grave diggers at the horse cemetary are about to start collecting time and a half….
    Just a few quick thoughts:
    1. There is no question that an ecclesia is an essential element of understanding Jesus’ revelation. Jesus himself knew that the kingdom could only be present where two or three were gathered. However, I think that the Church would have as difficult, if not a more difficult time than an individual discerning which parts of the NT the early Church thought “really happened” and which parts the early Church “understood metaphorically.” In fact, the dangers inherent in a literal understanding of the texts are greater within a group because each individual can have his prejudices encouraged and bolstered by the community.
    2. Query whether imposing a dichotomy between literal history and metaphor among first century Christians is not anachronistic? Could a writer in the 1st century write “fiction” in the sense that we, 20 centuries later, understand that concept?

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