Saturday, 9 December 2017

Lonergan and the Judges

Those of us who are involved in Lonergan and bible tend to recognize that there has been greater output in the area of Lonergan and New Testament than in that of Lonergan and Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. I can identify at least two reasons for this. First, thinking broadly, I suspect that NT scholars are more likely to have an avocational if not vocational interest in Christian theology than do HB/OT scholars. Second, thinking in terms of the specific area of Lonergan and bible, the work of Ben Meyer established a solid foundation for Lonergan and NT that is not paralleled in HB/OT (Sean McEvenue has written on Lonergan and HB/OT, but not as extensively as did Meyer in NT and it would seem without a comparable impact). As someone who has always had an interest in HB/OT, especially in the early period (that of the judges and whatever might have come before in the development and emergence of Israel), this has me increasingly thinking about how Lonergan and HB/OT might look. Indeed, I will confess that my "book haul" at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature this year was almost entirely in the area of HB/OT history and archaeology.

I increasingly have come to the conclusion that the period of the judges is the place to start thinking about such things. It is at this point in Israelite history that the various extant data begin to permit a convergent historical picture. On the one hand, you have the earliest extant extra-biblical reference to a people called "Israel," in the form of the Merneptah stele (c. 1207 B.C.E.), which locates this people in Canaan precisely at a time by which on biblically-based chronologies we can anticipate that Israel was present in the Land. The stele moreover designates "Israel" as a people group rather than as a kingdom or state, which coheres perfectly with Judges' presentation of Israel as a people without a king. On the other hand, you have the archaeological record for the Canaanite hill country, the area that the biblical data presents as the Israelite heartland, which shows that around this time there was a significant increase in settlements in the region, which correlate with a shift in material culture that indicates, if not a new people, then certainly new lifeways among the persons resident in the land of Canaan. This, again, coheres with what we should anticipate on the basis of the biblical data. None of the above of course is to suggest that the stories of the Judges are literal history (a conceptual absurdity that results from identifying texts with events, and which is thus grounded in a naive and ultimately inchoate empiricism), nor is it to deny the constructed and indeed hagiographical character of much of the material. It is however to suggest that Judges is a useful source of data for understanding the general social and cultural conditions of Israel during the period of the judges, which roughly covers Iron Age I, i.e. c. 1200-1000 BCE.

From a Lonergan perspective, and building upon the work of Robert Doran, I would suggest that the historian's ultimate aim should be to define--as best we can--how the normative scale of values were operative among the Israelites during this period. This means considering the dialectical interrelationship between social, cultural, and personal values. Given the nature of the data, the social and cultural are probably easier to define then personal values, although there is I think adequate data for each of these. From this ground, I would suggest that the task is then to move forward and backward. The red thread, I suspect, is the evidence that Israel was slow in developing a monarchy, a slowness that is presented in Judges as well as Samuel as the result of a cultural resistance to the institution. Moving analysis forward into the first millennium BCE, the question becomes how that resistance gave way to acceptance, while moving analysis backwards into the Bronze Age the questions becomes why there was such resistance in the first place. One would want to avoid romantic and triumphalist accounts that present ancient Israel as some egalitarian utopia, especially as we move into the period of the monarchy but also in the period of the judges and earlier (the biblical account itself does not shy away from presenting the pre-monarchical period as something less than pristine), but at the same time one would not want to deny the evidence that there was within ancient Israel a recurring albeit hardly universal suspicion of state regimes. In such an understanding one would not only want to engage with the archaeological and historical work that has been produced in the study of ancient Israel, but more specifically the tremendous amount of Marxist literature on the subject, which has tended to focus upon not just that domain that Lonergan describes as social but as also has expended considerable effort thinking about this domain's relationship with both the cultural and the personal. Indeed, one of the central conceptual tasks of such an undertaking would be to explain what it offers that is yet lacking in such Marxist work. In any case, this strikes me as something worth doing.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Positive Absence

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This is a basic historiographical principle. It is one that requires some qualification, as there is a notable exception: except when one should reasonably anticipate to find evidence of presence. We could go more into the various permutations involved, but the question that interests me here is what happens when the evidence to be sought is literally absence. I'm thinking here of aniconic worship in ancient Israel. Joshua 8:30-35 mentions that Israel under Joshua built an altar to YHWH at Mt. Ebal, and there sacrificed various offerings. Combined with ancient Israelite aniconism and the supposition that the book of Joshua contains at least some usable data relevant to understanding the conditions in ancient Canaan c. 1200 BCE, we can on the basis of this text predict that we will find at Mt. Ebal the remains of a cultic installation dating from around that time that contains evidence of animal sacrifice and an absence of images. And that is precisely what has been found, and it is in fact quite unique among Canaanite sites of the time. Whether this cultic installation has anything to do with Joshua or not is a different story, but the current state of the evidence seems to stand as confirmation of the Deuteronomistic History's report that some but far from all residents of Canaan at the close of the Bronze Age and the transition to the Iron were already engaged in patterns of worship that included an absence of images.

But we are left with a situation wherein the absence of evidence constitutes evidence of presence: the absence of images has confirmed the presence of aniconism, and this because aniconism is precisely the absence of images. It does so however only because we have reason to anticipate an absence of images. That is to say, absence of images on its own is probably not enough to posit aniconic worship. It is the combination of reports that aniconism was practiced by a certain people in this time and place with material remains that are consistent with aniconism which allows us to conclude with reasonable confidence that Mt. Ebal represents a form of aniconic worship present in Canaan c. 1200 BCE. Every time that one finds such convergence in the data one is reminded of the perils of thinking that it is reasonable to think that in an area for which we have such a rich literary tradition it makes sense to ignore that tradition in thinking about its history (and note that it does not follow from this that one should simply affirm that everything in the biblical text is true. The statement "The biblical texts contain data relevant for the study of pre-monarchic Israelite history" hardly entails such a maximalist conclusion, just as the statement "Not everything in these texts pertains to the time that they purportedly describe" entails the minimalist conclusion that there is no data there of relevance for our understanding the pre-monarchic or any other period).

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Return

In Topics in Education, when thinking about the agents of positive change that can reverse processes of social and cultural breakdown, Lonergan writes that he has
spoken simply of the process--situation, insight, counsel, policy, new type of action, new situation, new insight, and the snowball effect of the entire cycle. The agents may be called a succession of creative personalities. The situation can be wholly transformed if there is a succession of personalities who are not simply sunk into the existing situation, immersed in its routines, and functioning like cogs in a wheel, with little grasp of possibilities, with a lack of daring. They withdraw, perhaps even physically, but at least mentally. They are detached; it is because of their detachment that they can see how things could be different. They may be accounted as nobodies while they are withdrawn, but when they return, they transform the world. In their withdrawal they become themselves, and they return with a mission (Topics in Education, p. 51-52).
This is such an incredibly rich passage. From a philosophy of history perspective, Lonergan here has taken great strides towards integrating the genuine insights of the Great Man approach to history, which focused upon agents of change, with the legitimate insights of historiographies that focus more upon broader social and cultural movements. It help us to understand how transformative figures--Moses, Jesus, Paul, Buddha, Muhammad, Aquinas, Luther, Marx, to name a few of particular historical import--manage to transform our concrete human reality. A product of said reality, they consciously withdraw from immanent engagement with that reality, precisely in order to gain what we might describe as a transcendent understanding of its qualities. This withdrawal allows them to cultivate their subjectivity, becoming themselves and thus able to operate fully at the level of their time: precisely what Lonergan defines as genius. When they (or their disciples) begin to more fully engage with the world, they have a sense of what must be changed so as to produce a better world. This, perhaps, is the existential origin of such phenomena as the cult of the saints: the commemoration of past persons who came to operate at the respective levels of their respective times, whose operations facilitated comparable transformative experiences in their successors. It is no doubt the existential origin of the church: in his withdrawal--his years spent as an artisan, the time spent in praying and fasting--Jesus became himself, and upon his return he began to fashion the community that would eventuate in the church. Commemorating Jesus was thus not merely antiquarian, but in fact aimed at transforming the world in the here and now, precisely because Jesus was one who saw not only that transformation was necessary but had an at least initial sense of how that transformation must look. Likewise, the origins of the sangha, the mosque, and the like. Through the operations of such geniuses operating at the level of their times new spaces emerge--spaces in which other persons can likewise withdraw sufficiently to become themselves--and this with the guidance and example of previous transformative figures.

We know such figures from our own or at least more recent times, and not surprisingly many of these hail from marginalized groups (after all, it is easier to withdraw when one has already and unjustly been relegated to the fringes). To name just a few: Sojourner Truth; Frederick Douglass; Susan B. Anthony; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Malcolm X; bell hooks; and indeed Lonergan himself, whose work has released a slew of intellectual energy that is still changing the world. The great story continues: one of redemption from the constant entropy that threatens to overwhelm our social and cultural lives.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Lonergan and Bible at the American Academy of Religion

I am sitting in Boston's Logan Airport as I write this, returning from a fun but--as always--exhausting weekend at the concurrent Annual Meetings of Society of Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion (AKA, SBLAAR). For myself, the highlight of this weekend was a meeting that took place on Sunday night, when a number of us gathered to discuss the possibility of starting a Lonergan and Bible group at SBLAAR. Some highlights from this discussion.

1) It was agreed that there is more than enough will on both the side of Lonergan studies and that of biblical to sustain such a group.
2) It was agreed that such a group needs to operate from the centre (to use a quintessentially Lonergan phrase). That is to say, there are two "movements" here, that will meet in this group: Lonergan scholars with an interest in biblical studies, and biblical scholars with an interest in Lonergan.
3) It was agreed that this operation from the centre can help meet the larger need of bringing together conscientious thought and work in systematic theology with conscientious thought and work in biblical studies.
4) It was agreed that although the initial idea was that this group would function under the auspices of SBL, our aims would be better met if it functioned under the auspices of AAR.
5) It was agreed that we will aim to hold our initial session(s) at the SBLAAR Annual Meeting in Nov. 2018, with the recognition that if this cannot be achieved we can aim for 2019.

As indicated by especially #5, there remains much work to be done. In particular, what we need at this point are persons who are willing to serve on the steering committee. Volunteers for such service would be appreciated. In addition, a long-standing need was identified, namely that of identifying and recruiting persons who 1) have primary expertise in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and 2) are interested in Lonergan. Due to the pioneering work of the Lonerganian New Testament scholar Ben Meyer there is a readily identifiable body of NT scholars interested in Lonergan, but little comparable among HB/OT scholars. Another need identified by the group was that of gender and ethnic inclusivity, as homogeneity is hardly a virtue.

Thanks to Dave de la Fuente, John Martens, and Jordan Ryan for attending the meeting last night. Thanks also to Michael Barber, John Dadosky, Darren Dias, Robert Doran, Bill Heroman, James McGrath, and Jeff Peterson, all of whom expressed an interest in attending but were unable to do so due to other commitments. (If I've failed to mention any others who conveyed their regrets, my apologies). A special mention needs to go to Jeff Peterson, who got this whole ball rolling by suggesting that we think about starting a Lonergan and New Testament group (which quickly evolved into Lonergan and Bible) at the SBL in the first place.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Of Illegitimacy and Inference

Early in David Hackett Fischer's Champlain's Dream, Fischer argues that Samuel de Champlain might have been the illegitimate son of the future Henri IV, king of France. Fischer acknowledges that he has no direct evidence to establish this as fact. He has no birth certificate with Henri's name on it. He has no document in which Henri acknowledges Champlain as son, or in which Champlain acknowledges Henri as father. No one from the time talks about such a father-son relationship between the two. Nonetheless, argues Fischer, if Champlain was indeed Henri IV's son, and if Henri was aware of that fact, then that would explain a host of peculiarities in Champlain's relationship to Henri IV and to the French state more generally. Moreover, he argues that it would explain these peculiarities in a way that no other hypothesis has heretofore been able to do.

There is no need here for us to get into the details about this argument, for it matters not for our purposes. What matters is that this stands as a wonderful exemplar of how one versed in Lonergan's epistemology would proceed. Fischer understands that what constitutes a historical hypothesis is not ultimately our observational apprehension of the data but rather our inferential apprehension of the relationships between the data. That is to say, history is not exegesis: it is not the interpretation of documents followed by pronouncements about whether their claims are true. As such, the fact that Fischer has no document explicitly identifying Henri as Champlain's father is no impediment to his hypothesis. At the same time, Fischer recognizes that the mere fact that by considering those relationships he can construct a hypothesis in which Henri is Champlain's father is not sufficient to establish that this is the case. Anyone can construct hypotheses. What separates the adults from the children is the ability to determine which hypotheses are most probable. Towards that end, Fischer advances a criterion by which to judge whether this is the best hypothesis on the matter, namely that of scope: does this hypothesis explain a greater scope of relevant data than does any competitor? He is cautious: acknowledging that in this case the data is such that he cannot say with certainty that Henri was Champlain's father, but nonetheless presenting it as a possibility that is perhaps to be preferred to its alternatives.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Of Saints and Savages in Early Christianity

In the Introduction to his 2008 monograph, Champlain's Dream, David Hackett Fischer (of Historians' Fallacies fame) writes that he
seeks a path of understanding between hagiographers on the one side and iconoclasts on the other....Two generations ago, historians wrote of European saints and Indian savages. In the last generation, too many scholars have been writing about Indian saints and European savages. The opportunity for our generation is to go beyond that calculus of saints and savages altogether, and write about both American Indians and Europeans with maturity, empathy, and understanding.
The struggle between hagiography and iconoclasm is quite acute in early Christian studies, with a remarkably parallel development: where we once spoke about (literal) saints in the form of apostles and orthodox leaders on the one hand and sinners in the form of Gnostic, Marcionite, Arian, and other heterodox figures on the other, a shift occurred where we came to speak about orthodox sinners and heterodox saints. The Great Church went from being one of the great achievements in human history and its opponents shiftless malcontents, to a great coercive force that compelled obedience and quelled push-back from valiant heterodox dissenters. Even those who in principle defied the saint v. sinner--or orthodox v. heterodox--calculus tended to replicate it, with a perhaps-unconscious tendency to give preference to non-canonical or heterodox works. For instance, for much of the late twentieth-century one would be hard-pressed to find John's Gospel very much cited in historical Jesus studies--despite being the only likely first-century narrative that in any explicit fashion claims to eyewitness status--but one could readily find in the same literature prolific references to the Gospel of Thomas; rather than repudiating the orthodox v. heterodox divide, the heterodox had simply been granted the normativity taken from the orthodox. In truth, this shift was probably necessary: only by thinking about both orthodox and heterodox material through both a hermeneutic of goodwill and a hermeneutic of suspicion could we reach the point that we could write about each with maturity, empathy, and understanding. The trick, I would suggest, is now to ask how we can integrate what has been learned into a single, synthetic understanding of early Christianity.

As I think about what is necessary for writing the history of early Christianity at the level of our own time, I cannot but be reminded of Lonergan's famous argument in Collection that over and against a "solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists," and "a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that new development," that "what will count is a perhaps not numerous center, big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transitions to be made, strong enough to refuse half measures and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait." The temptation to err to either right or left is very much before us. On the one hand, we have those who would limit the material to which they attend to the works of the New Testament and the orthodox fathers, pretending that we have not learned that early Christianity was much greater than this. On the other hand, we have those who would ignore the New Testament and the orthodox fathers, dismissing them as ideologically-driven or hopelessly biased. Neither inclination strikes me as particularly fruitful. Each such move is fully a refusal to undertake the pain-staking work of genuine historigraphy.

Concretely, probably no actor in early Christianity was wholly saint or wholly sinner. Paul appears to have been a remarkably successful leader and administrative genius, yet also given to anger--even rage--when his authority was challenged and necessarily given to compromise when he believed himself to be in the right. The emerging Great Church had legitimate reasons to define a normative tradition, but this same normativity also became the grounds for exclusions and schisms that persisted for centuries, even in some cases up until today. Marcion did demand of Christian thought a level of systematization that was relatively rare if not entirely unknown before his time, and such demand probably did help move forward Christian discourse; yet, his particular effort at systematization had legitimate intellectual difficulties that required reasoned repudiation. Valentinus might have been as much the victim of ecclesial politics as anything else, and I suspect that he himself aimed at nothing more than to help elevate the intellectual level of Christian thought. Each of these actors operated at the level of their time, advancing the concrete realities of Christian existence in demonstrable ways even as their imperfections and limitations generated a variety of difficulties (some much more than others, in respect to both advance and difficulty).

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

For the Love of Gord

Gord Downie died today. For more than thirty years, he was the front man of The Tragically Hip, "Canada's band," until they played their final show last August. It is, I think, impossible to describe to non-Canadians what The Hip meant to Canadians, especially Anglo-Canadians. Downie wrote most of their lyrics, and his poetry--because that's what his lyrics really were--perfectly expressed everything that Anglo-Canadians want to be, while never shying away from reminding us of the ways in which we still fell short of our own ideals. His words showed us the people we wanted to be, while revealing the people that we really were. And that combination of ideal and reality was remarkably, profoundly powerful. And more: his life embodied his art. He spent his life advocating for indigenous persons and communities. Indeed, after being diagnosed with the terminal illness that has now claimed his life, he spent much of his remaining time traveling the country, visiting impoverished indigenous communities and advocating on their behalf. During The Hip's farewell concert, a night that was for the rest of us about their legacy and Downie's courage in the face of death, he made it about justice, pointing to Prime Minister Trudeau (who was in attendance) and publicly calling on him to address the ongoing injustices against indigenous peoples here in Canada. He was, quite simply, a good man.

Downie, I think, helps us better understand the thought of another Canadian, namely Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan often spoke of the need for love to transform the human subject into someone who is concerned with the well-being of others. He described such a transformation as religious conversion, and although his focus was upon how this worked itself out in the Christian--and more specifically the Catholic--tradition, he never limited the possibility of such love to said tradition. Indeed, Downie, as far as I know, was not an active member of any religion. Articulated from within the Christian tradition, one might say that he is a testimony to the reality that divine grace is not limited to the walls of any given church. However we might want to articulate it, it is not difficult to see in Gord Downie's life a pattern that Lonergan identified in his work: religious conversion, i.e. falling in love with something much greater than oneself, leads to moral conversion, i.e. the consistent option for values over satisfaction, for the common good rather than parochial self-or even group- interest. And in the final analysis, it was no doubt the presence of such love that attracted people to The Hip.