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.