Tuesday, 15 August 2017

No, Seriously: Racism is Evil

Okay, four posts in a row relating to the events that recently took place in Charlottesville, thus very much breaking my own policy regarding the focus of this blog. But it seems to me, the more that I reflect upon it, that these are the times that try intellectual traditions. Whether the tradition takes its cues from Lonergan or Marx or Freud or..., it is at times like these that the tradition in question reveals the extent to which it is up to the task not only of making sense of our world but also of providing intellectual grounds by which to engage with and change the world. For although we cannot think our way out of the situation in which we find ourselves, neither can we expect that a failure to think will do us much good.

Towards the above end, I will in this post think about a distinction drawn in Robert Doran's remarkable development of Lonergan's thought, Theology and the Dialectics of History. He distinguishes between two dialectics: that of contraries on the one hand, and contradictories on the other. "Contraries," he writes, "are reconcilable in a higher synthesis, while contradictories are not." In short, contraries are both/and, while contradictories are either/or. With dialectics of contraries, human flourishing is advanced through a creative tension between a limiting (or integrating) pole and a transcendent (or operating) one. The integrator holds together the dialectic as an integral unity, while the operator moves the dialectic towards new possibilities. So, for instance, one might conceive society as integrating by spontaneous intersubjectivity, i.e. the way that we naturally and unreflectively interact with one another, while it is moved forward by practical intelligence seeking to alter those interactions towards desirable ends. Fail to recognize the reality of spontaneous intersubjectivity and our efforts to transform society collapse as we do not adequately attend to the range of viable social possibilities. Fail to recognize the necessity of practical intelligence and harmful intersubjectivities are allowed to become or remain the norm. Put more abstractly, one cannot hope to achieve social revolution overnight, but neither can one expect that the world can or should remain unchanged.

But the more urgent matter for us to consider at this point in our history, I think, is the dialectic of contradictories, the exemplar of which Doran identifies as the dialectic between good and evil. When faced with such a dialectic, one must opt for one pole or the other, because between them there is not creative tension but rather destructive antithesis. In our situation, one either affirms the full humanity of all persons, regardless of skin colour, or one does not. One cannot compromise on this. One cannot say "Well, I see that you affirm the full humanity of persons of colour while that guy over there denies that they have any humanity, so we'll split the difference at half-an-humanity." Well, one can say it, but in so doing one has chosen to stand with the racists. One, quite simply, has sided with evil.

Of course, the above is heuristic. It sketches out how things should be in order to begin thinking about why reality so often falls short. In reality, choosing to affirm the full humanity of all persons does not mean that there won't necessarily be situations in which one finds that one's existing beliefs or practices functionally deny that full humanity. It does mean that one becomes increasingly alert to that possibility, and when faced with it as a reality one alters one's beliefs and practices so as to affirm the full humanity of all persons. Making the right choice does not make one perfect, but it does put one on the road to righteousness.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Love in a Season of Hate

I'm violating my own policy here by a third consecutive post on contemporary politics, but as I reflect upon our current situation I cannot help but feel that with the Charlottesville riot (interesting how that word is avoided) perhaps we've crossed some sort of Rubicon. Every generation, it seems, faces a defining moment, a "Nothing will be the same after this" moment. Sometimes they are obvious: the assassination of JFK, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the events of 9/11. Sometimes they are perhaps less obvious, and that might be the case with Charlottesville. But just as 9/11 forced the world to confront the reality of terrorism enabled by a distorted Islam, so is Charlottesville forcing at least the US to face the reality of terrorism enabled by a distorted Christianity. And like it or not, that is precisely what is happening here. Since 9/11, we've lived in fear of a distorted Islam enabled by Muslim-ish leaders who represent something very far from the best of the tradition. Now, we have to live in fear of a distorted Christianity enabled by Christian-ish leaders who represent something very far from the best of the tradition. This is the distorted Christianity of the George Wallaces, the Jerry Falwells, the Franklin Grahams: a Christianity that rose to prominence through the effort to maintain segregation, that cynically exploited the AIDS epidemic in order to depict LGBT persons in the harshest possible terms, that abetted the raise of virulent xenophobia in the post-9/11 era, and that now is quite happily getting in bed with the so-called "Alt-Right." It is to Christianity as Al-Qaeda is to Islam.

It's in this context that I find myself increasingly persuaded of Lonergan's wisdom in placing such emphasis in his understanding of human flourishing upon religious conversion. As I've mentioned in this space before, religious conversion for Lonergan is the conversion to ultimate meaning. It entails grounding one's being not in parochial group interests or narcissistic individualism but rather in something that allows one to see all of humanity, and increasingly all of the cosmos, as valuable and beautiful. In a word, it is conversion to love. It is what distinguishes between distorted religiosity and authentic religiosity, and thus why it can be described as religious conversion. Distorted Islam, distorted Christianity, are distorted precisely due to the absence of this religious conversion. It is the inability of these "Christian" leaders to love--to truly love, in a way that touches and lightens the soul--that drives their hatred and fear of others. Being so far from the best that humanity can be, they suppose that the values of everyone around them are equally decrepit. When you are the worst, you assume the worst.

With the assistance of David Bowie, Queen reminded us that although love is such an old-fashioned word it is still the one thing that makes all the difference. As we live through a season of hate, the necessity of love is all the more evident. If we are to oppose hate we must rediscover love as a civic virtue. In fact, that seems to be the real dividing line today. Not between Right and Left, or between Christian and Muslim, or between religious and irreligious, but rather between love and hate. Those who have been converted to love, whether Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or Jewish or atheist, whether female or male, trans or cis, gay or straight, will stand strong on one side, while those who have not will stand shrieking on the other. And I do believe that in the end the gentle strength of love will win over the violent weakness of hate.

Nazis, Memory, and the Gospels

I've long dreaded what will happen when the Greatest Generation, with its wealth of experience, passes away. And we are fast reaching that point. The last veteran of World War One passed away in 2012, ninety-four years after that conflict ended (the last veteran who saw actual combat died a couple years earlier). Taking that as a measure, the last World War Two veteran should pass away around 2039. The last Holocaust survivor will probably pass away a few years later, as these included children. But we have already reached the point when these women and men are no longer active members of civil society. Towards the end of the war Germany was forcing boys in their young teens into uniform; a boy of thirteen in 1945 would today be eighty-five, likely saw little to no action, and probably retired from his post-war career a couple decades ago. Older veterans--such as my grandfather, who served from '39 through '45--would be well into their nineties (my grandfather volunteered in '39. If he was still alive, would have turned ninety-five this year). A lone Dunkirk survivor showed up, in uniform, at a screening of Nolan's Dunkirk, and made international headlines; he was ninety-two. Again, we have Holocaust survivors who are a bit younger, but still into their seventies and eighties (and those with the strongest memories of that time will of course be towards the upper end of that range; a survivor who was three years old in 1945 would have a valuable story to tell, and we would do well to listen, but it would differ qualitatively from that of a survivor who was fifteen. But even that three-year-old would turn seventy-five this year). In many ways, the Greatest Generation's collective wisdom has already in large part disappeared from public life. At the very least, it's nowhere as prominent as it was when these women and men were in their prime. I am just old enough to have had schoolteachers who lived through those years. No one much younger than me could say the same.

This weekend brought home very strongly what a loss this truly is. Persons present in Charlottesville report that the majority of the Nazi losers who gathered there were Millennials. One friend who was there estimated that persons in that age range accounted for about 90% of the white supremacists who showed up. These are the great-grandchildren of the Greatest Generation, some probably the great-great-grandchildren. And I think that significant. I don't know about anyone else, but I can say that I know my parents and their lives very well (if forced, I could probably tell you almost down to the month what city or town my parents lived in), my grandparents and their lives reasonably well (I can certainly give you the broad outlines of at least what countries they lived in and when), but my great-grandparents and their lives barely at all. In fact, of my eight great-grandparents, I have memories of meeting just one, my mother's maternal grandfather, and really when I think about him all I can recall is a visual image of his face. I know nothing about my great-great-grandparents. And that for the most part is what the Greatest Generation is to the Millennials: people they can barely remember if they met them at all. No wonder such persons do not share my deep, instinctual horror of Nazism. They did not grow up surrounded by the women and men who suffered most from those years, who fought and lost in the struggle to stop the terror.

It is with this experience that I think about a particularly fruitless debate in recent historical Jesus scholarship, regarding how well eyewitnesses remember things. This debate is fruitless in that it rather misses the point of history. The debate views history as a game of Chinese Whispers, wherein the transmission of eyewitness experience is a matter of transcription. The historian's job, under such an understanding, is to identify transcription error in the transmitted information. But of course that's not how it works. When my grandfather would tell me stories about the war, he wasn't just relaying factual information. He was relaying an experience, or really an entire Gestalt of experiences. He was relaying his fears and his convictions about the matter. And frankly, when thought of from that perspective, does it matter if he made small errors, or if I did? I remember him talking about watching tanks burn at the Battle of Monte Cassino. What if that experience actually took place at the Battle of Anzio, and either he or I remember it wrong? Would that make a difference to how I understand the sheer horror that he communicated to me, about his realization that the crews were trapped inside, burning to death? I remember him talking about how my great aunt's first husband died thirty minutes after first seeing combat. What difference would it make if he was killed after forty-five minutes, or twenty-four hours, or three days? I remember being told that he was killed in the Netherlands. But what if it happened in Belgium? What difference would that make? The central point remains: my grandfather had at that point been in and out of combat for  years, and he couldn't get over the unfairness that someone he knew lasted so little time in the war zone. And that survivor's guilt is not a fact subject to transcription error, nor is the message that fascism and hate are awful because fascism and hate are exactly why he and so many of his generation had to suffer through such horrors.

This is one thing that I think that the scholars who work on social memory in the gospels have gotten very right: what matters most is the experience that is communicated, not the minutiae thereof. Of course, the details do matter. For instance, there have been persons who have claimed to be Holocaust survivors, who cynically even sought to profit off of such claims, but whose claims were shown to be false precisely because of the minutiae. That's an altogether different matter. It is an invaluable contribution. It is nothing less than the discernment of truth from error. Equally invaluable is the work of those historians who seek to calculate just how many were killed in the camps, or how the Nazis actually, concretely carried out their genocidal scheme. But none of that can be permitted to obscure the real importance of listening to persons who lived through those times, nor of preserving and passing on their stories. The real importance lies in the dramatic reality of human experience that they sought to convey, the horror and destructiveness of hatred and warfare. Likewise, the gospels seek to communicate a particular set of human experiences, all of which converge on those of Jesus's earthly followers, namely the experience of Jesus himself. These were experiences that changed them, and that change compelled them to change the world. And if history is to be anything more than pain-loving antiquarianism, it is to such experiences that we must attend.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Irrational in Charlottesville

I try to keep this space free of politics, as much I can, but as I watch the images coming out of Charlottesville today I just can't. I'm also currently planning a course on Religion, Violence, and Peace for the fall, which due to current events has become increasingly about the euphemistically named "Alt-Right" (there are other words by which I might more accurately describe such trouble-makers, but neither this blog nor the classroom is a space for such language). As someone who works on Lonergan and scripture, I am naturally thinking through these matters from a Lonergan perspective, and so I'll make some suggestions from that perspective about how one might think about what we see coming out of Virginia today.

Lonergan has a four-fold imperative: Be Attentive. Be Intelligent. Be Reasonable. Be Responsible. Let us take the question: are white persons systematically disadvantaged in the US simply for being white? One attends to the relevant details, such as statistical data. One exercises one's intelligence in an effort to understand the situation via inference from the details to which one has attended. One renders judgment, answering "Yes" or "No" to the question of whether white persons qua white persons are systematically disadvantaged in the US. Then, one operates in conformity with that judgment. In this particular instance the facts of the matter render only one reasonable judgment: No, white persons are not systematically disadvantaged in the US simply for being white. Persons born into poverty and who happen to be white might be systematically disadvantaged, but that is incidental to (and in some very real senses despite) their whiteness. By contrast, if one were to pose the question "Are persons of colour systematically disadvantaged in the US simply for being persons of colour?" the answer must, again, unequivocally, be "Yes." Any other answers to these questions (such as those that invoke such nonsense ideas as "reverse racism" or "white genocide") demonstrate a failure of attentiveness, intelligence, or reason, quite possibly--one suspects probably--all three.

This is where responsibility comes in. If--contrary to fact, intelligence, and reason--I hold that white persons are systematically disadvantaged for being white, and if--contrary to fact, intelligence, and reason--I hold that persons of colour are not, then this distorts my conduct. It renders it impossible for me to intentionally conduct myself in a responsible manner in situations wherein my positions on these matters make a difference. In principle I might end up behaving responsibly, but that would be accidental, and altogether despite my failures of attentiveness, intelligence, and reason. This is all to say that the pathetic losers polluting Charlottesville with their violence are unquestionably quite irresponsible, and they are irresponsible precisely because they are irrational. In turn, they are likely irrational because they refuse to properly exercise either their intellect or their capacity to attend to details. In short, what we see in Charlottesville is not simply a collective moral failure, although we do see that, but also a collective failure of intellect and reason. The cries of the Alt-Right are the cries of the unintelligent, the irrational, and the irresponsible.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Of Gnostics and Trans-Identity

N.T. Wright recently set off a minor dust-up in the blogosphere with the following letter to the Times:
Sir, The articles by Clare Foges (“Gender-fluid world is muddling young minds”, July 27) and Hugo Rifkind (“Social media is making gender meaningless”, Aug 1), and the letters about children wanting to be pandas (July 29), dogs or mermaids (Aug 1), show that the confusion about gender identity is a modern and now internet-fuelled, form of the ancient philosophy of Gnosticism. The Gnostic, one who “knows”, has discovered the secret of “who I really am”, behind the deceptive outward appearance (in Rifkind’s apt phrase, the “ungainly, boring, fleshly one”). This involves denying the goodness, or even the ultimate reality, of the natural world. Nature, however, tends to strike back, with the likely victims in this case being vulnerable and impressionable youngsters who, as confused adults, will pay the price for their elders’ fashionable fantasies.
The Rt Rev Prof Tom Wright
St Mary's College, St Andrews
Others have commented upon whether or not this is an appropriate use of "gnostic," or the extent to which the Rev. Prof. Wright might be misrepresenting ideas surrounding trans-identity. Those are legitimate questions, but not worth yet another blog post on the matter. What perhaps I can contribute is a distinctly Lonerganian response. Such a response is warranted because Wright in his work identifies his hermeneutics as a form of "critical realism." He more specifically identifies this critical realism as that promulgated by Ben Meyer, who in turn is very clear in identifying his critical realism with that of Bernard Lonergan. As such, insofar as Wright to some extent identifies with the Lonerganian tradition, it is reasonable to think about these comments from that tradition. And it just so happens that Lonergan was not silent on the matter of the gnostics.

For Lonergan, as I read him, the gnostic is not necessarily self-identical with the persons that ancient heresiologists described by that term, although certainly he would tend to envision them as some degree paradigmatic of the gnostic. Rather, the gnostic represents an inevitable moment in the dialectical development of human consciousness, where it has been apprehended that symbols (numbers included) can convey meanings, but the criteria by which to adjudicate the relationship between symbol and meaning have not yet been fully worked out. In other words, gnosticism represents a moment in the development of human consciousness wherein partial insights are routinely confused for complete insights. And if we are to accept that definition, then it is difficult to see how we can meaningfully describe trans-identity, whether articulated by transpersons or others, as gnostic. As such, regardless of what one makes of Lonergan's definition of "gnostic," it does seem reasonable to conclude that Wright's usage is not consistent with that found in Lonergan.

The above of course does not speak to whether what Wright says about gnostics or about trans-identity is true or not. Rather, it says that whether true or not, it is not grounded in Lonergan. I think this an important point to make, because while Wright has become virtually synonymous with "critical realism" in New Testament studies, it is worth noting that he frequently departs from the thought of Bernard Lonergan, from whom the critical realism to he claims some degree of adherence ultimately descends. The upshot then is that if one wants to understand Lonergan's critical realism, it is not sufficient to read Wright (or Meyer, or me), but one must rather read Lonergan.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Beyond Concept

I recently read an article by Damon Linker that argues that the real reason there are so few conservatives on campus is because the conservative notion of scholarship tends to foster a recurrent return to the same well-worn themes. He uses the example of Shakespeare: "Love in Shakespeare," "Justice in Shakespeare," etc. We can see simply comparable in New Testament studies. How many new studies of "Paul and the Law," for instance, do we need? What new can be said on the subject?

The reader at this point is probably expecting negative answers. How many new studies of "Paul and the Law" do we need? Not many. What new can be said on the subject? Not much. I'm going to defy that expectation, and say that in fact there is much more to be said, but that--and this is where we can very much see the wisdom in Linker's argument--this new work must be asking new questions. This is not simply a matter of using new methods. There is a remarkably unreflective "New Method Laundry" (to borrow a wonderful turn of phrase from Lonergan) active in biblical studies, which tends to confuse the mere act of defining and describing one's method with reflection thereupon (stating what I do is not quite the same as knowing why I do), but this is not what we're talking about. This is about asking genuinely new questions. When "Paul and the Law" is considered in New Testament studies, it is usually on the level of concept. We are asking "What does Paul mean when he refers to 'the Law'? How does he understand 'the Law'?" If we are particularly enterprising, we might ask "How does his understanding of 'the Law' relate to other Jewish or Christian writings?" We might push beyond Judaism and Christianity into the broader Greco-Roman world, and convince ourselves that we are being innovative. The above are of course all quite legitimate questions, but again, all remain within the orbit of concept.

There is an entirely different set of questions left untouched by such functional conceptualism. They operate on a level properly antecedent to concept, although in operational terms we tend to investigate them subsequently. Keeping with the example of the Law, they begin from the basic question, "What does law do for humanity?" They ask why human societies recurrently create laws. They situate the Jewish Law within that recurrent creation. They consider recurrent difficulties and challenges faced by any system of legal reasoning and practice, and how Paul might be responding to those. For instance, such queries might look at Paul's consistent tendency to play the language of law off against the language of justice (often in English rendered in terms of "justification" or "righteousness," but which have the sense of rendering or making something just), and consider how this relates to recurrent human struggles with the gap between law and justice. By such queries "Paul and the Law" begins to move from an almost-purely antiquarian pursuit of interest almost exclusively to persons whose antecedent theological commitments suppose that whatever Paul says on the matter must be normative for all persons at all times, and towards situating Paul within the great human adventure wherein disparate groups recurrently have struggled with the same sorts of dialectical conflicts.

Such questioning of course takes place. It has characterized the recent explosion, perhaps now showing signs of slowing down, of "postmodern" philosophical readings of Paul, which of course go well beyond the relatively narrow question of Paul and the Law. (With specific respect to Paul and the Law though, José Porfirio Miranda and Theodore Jennings have made some particularly insightful contributions of the sort described above, and the African-American theological tradition has produced a wealth of insights in its existentially-vital efforts to make sense of writings that were used to justify their enslavement). Yet biblical scholars have tended to shy away from asking questions of this sort within our vocation as scholars. In part this is probably because such questioning entails some solid grounding in such matters as social theory or political thought. Returning to the example of "Paul and the Law," this needs to be a grounding that not simply can say "So-and-so says X about the Law, and this relates to what Paul says about the Law," as this is still effectively conceptualism: it is the relating of one set of concepts to another. Rather, it needs to be a grounding that can render and defend competent judgments about what law does for human societies. Such competency tends to be beyond the ambit of the average biblical scholar. Such is not a critique but rather a statement of fact. The reality is that competence takes time and energy to develop, and already biblical scholars must investment much time and energy into developing the competence simply to be biblical scholars. This leaves only so much time and energy to develop competence in other areas. Where someone like Lonergan is of much value is that his investigations into knowledge provide ways by which to "streamline" the process of competence-development. Nonetheless, such competence is perhaps worth developing, as it can help move biblical studies from the ghetto of antiquarian conceptualism.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Method in Theology

If one looks at sites like Amazon for Method in Theology, one might likely find that they are low in stock. Of course, that is often the case with such sites (and I'm not above the cynical thought that these "only one left in stock" notices are just a ploy to get you to order now rather than wait). But in this case, they are meaningful. As some readers of this blog no doubt are already aware, later this year Method in Theology will be reissued in a new edition. This long-awaited new edition will constitute a significant moment in the history of Lonergan studies. In 1985, the year after Lonergan's passing, the Lonergan Research Institute in Toronto was founded, with a mission to preserve, promote, develop, and implement the work of Bernard Lonergan. With that mission in mind, the Institute undertook the herculean task of editing and publishing the Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan (CWL). The aim of the CWL was to publish definitive editions of all of Lonergan's published and (at that time) unpublished work. In some cases this required that his Latin writings, produced while teaching at the Gregorian, be translated into English, and both the original and the translation made available. When complete in (hopefully) 2020, the series will contain twenty-five volumes, of which Method will be the twenty-third to be published (although actually volume 14 in the series). The CWL edition of Insight (also known as the 5th edition) appeared relatively early, in 1992. But a decision was made that Method in Theology--Lonergan's best-known work, alongside Insight--should be scheduled for a later date. A slightly altered printing of the existing second edition of Method appeared in 1990: Lonergan's preface was moved from page ix to x, and an errata was added on p. 406. But the CWL edition of Method in Theology constitutes a far more extensive revision, which not only incorporates such errata into the body of the text but will add appendices that will help readers to more fully grasp what Lonergan is doing in this work.

This new edition is currently at the press, and should be available this fall (I've heard October as a more precise date, but I'm not entirely sure how accurate that is). This has had a slightly chilling effect on my own work, insofar as I am avoiding any citation of Method in any of my writing until I can cite the new edition. But that's all right. There are far worse problems in life than waiting for a new and improved version of what one is working upon.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Rupture, Development, and Chronology

Not infrequently I have described my interest in the dates at which the New Testament texts were composed as the expression of a neurotic compulsion. There is probably some truth to that, perhaps even much truth. Indeed, sometimes when I labour upon the minutiae of the data I can feel Leo Strauss' words against "pain-loving antiquarianism" rattling around in my head. But the truth is that there is more than just neurosis going on, and that precisely because--despite my ironic self-deprecation (a Canadian vice that personally I think makes us quite endearing)--I am in fact driven by more than an antiquarian impulse. As I reflect upon my own work, I increasingly realize that at the heart of my scholarly endeavours is an effort to overcome what I have in print described as the "rupture hypothesis," i.e. the hypothesis that between Second Temple Judaism and the church stands an unbridgeable chasm. Actually, there are in this hypothesis two chasms, two ruptures, such that it should perhaps be better described as the hypothesis of double rupture. The first rupture is typically situated somewhere between Judaism and Jesus (Jesus himself is often identified as the party responsible, although sometimes the Baptist comes under indictment), the second somewhere between Jesus and the church (here Paul is often trotted into the dock). Within biblical studies, these ruptures are conceptualized in various ways, all of which tend in their turn to reveal unhealed biases. Sometimes these ruptures are conceptualized in terms of a contradiction between Jewish law and Christian grace (here we confront lingering but theologically and empirically dubious suspicions that anyone who thinks legally cannot experience divine favour, and that if such a person does experience divine favour such a person will ipso facto cease and desist their legal thinking); other times it is conceptualized in terms of a contradiction between Semitic monotheism and Hellenistic theology (here we confront pernicious yet facile narratives about the Hellenization of Christianity); still other times it is conceptualized in terms of a contradiction between spontaneous charisma and sterile institution (here we confront a whole series of hard-to-kill suppositions regarding the incompatibility of spirituality and routine). But ultimately the identification of such conceptions and generally-correlated biases is not what overturns the rupture hypothesis, no matter how salutary such identification might be. Rather, what overturns the rupture hypothesis is the relevant data. And the relevant data puts to the lie this hypothesis of the double rupture. Quite simply, the data clearly demonstrates that Jesus and his followers were fully grounded in Judaism, and it equally demonstrates that the church is fully a consequence of the operations carried out by Jesus and his first followers. Modern historiography can finally apprehend this dual reality because modern historiography has developed the capacity to conceptualize change with continuity ("continuity with change" being what I would consider to be a succinct definition of development).

So, how does chronology relate to this? I would argue that a lower chronology (i.e. one that tends to date the New Testament texts earlier than the consensus dates) bridges the putative ruptures more readily than any other. The earlier that the earliest extant Christian texts were written, the more plausible it is to identify them as fully Jewish. At the same time, the earlier that the earliest extant Christian texts were written, then the earlier that we can situate the specifically Christian developments evident therein. Put more synthetically: insofar as the most foundational Christian developments occurred while Christianity was most fully within the bosom of Judaism, we are able to more fully and clearly conceive the relationship between Judaism and Christianity as one that entails continuity with change. Of course, this is not an argument for a lower chronology. Such an argument can only be advanced by diligently--in a pain-staking if not pain-loving fashion--sifting through the relevant data. But if such an empirical argument grounded in the data is advanced, and if we judge said argument to be a reasonable hypothesis, and if we find that as a consequence we can more readily build a narrative that more fully appreciates the simultaneously Jewish and Christian character of these texts and the persons responsible for their creation, then barring biases that distort our understanding we should in fact be quite happy to welcome the consequent advance in our knowledge.

N.B. No, the early Christians probably did not regularly describe themselves as "Christians" during that era. Certainly, if they did, that self-description seems to have registered little in our extant data (although one must be wary of the naive supposition that the term could not have been current prior to its first extant use, a supposition that fundamentally seems to confuse knowing with looking). But in any case, as I am not talking about their own self-definition but rather our retrospective understanding of their development, this is a matter which simply does not matter. The decision to refer heuristically to these persons as "Christians" is quite different from and in no way implies the judgment that they referred to themselves as such.

The International Institute for Method in Theology: A Vision

As I have spoken about before in this space, I have the honour of being involved in the development of the International Institute for Method in Theology. It is the next logical step in working out Lonergan’s legacy. Since 1985, much energy in the field of Lonergan studies has been directed at editing and publishing his collected works. This project should be completed by the end of 2020, when the twenty-fifth and final volume in the collection is published. With this project coming to an end, it is time for Lonergan scholarship to turn its attention more fully to the work of promoting, developing, and implementing Lonergan’s thought. The IIMT constitutes a network of institutions and scholars that are working together towards this aim, and indeed towards the broader aim of thinking theologically about a host of contemporary issues (wherein “contemporary” should be taken to include the contemporary study of ancient texts and peoples. And not just biblical texts and the peoples who produced them: although of course they will always occupy a particular pride of place in the work of Christian theology, in principle the lives and thought of all ancient peoples can provide theological insight). At present, the IIMT’s sponsoring agencies consist of the Lonergan Project at Marquette University, the Lonergan Research Institute of Regis College in the University of Toronto, and the Gregorian University in Rome. The scope of this work however is truly international, including scholars from geographically as far from North America and Europe as Australia. It truly is an honour to be labouring in such august company.


Robert Doran--Emmett Doerr Chair of Catholic Systematic Theology at Marquette University, General Editor of the Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, and author of (among other works) the really quite remarkable Theology and the Dialectics of History--is integral to this initiative, as he has been to the preservation, promotion, development, and implementation of Lonergan's thought for the better part of half a century. He has graciously made available online the transcript of a talk that he gave back in March, "The International Institute for Method in Theology: A Vision." It provides a wealth of material not only on this initiative, but on the institutional history of Lonergan studies. Definitely worth a read.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Canaanite DNA and a Failure to Read

Lonergan in his work issues a four-fold imperative: Be Attentive. Be Intelligent. Be Reasonable. Be Responsible. In biblical studies, there is perhaps no attentiveness more foundational than simply reading the biblical text and paying close attention to details. A recent article in the Telegraph, entitled "Study disproves the Bible's suggestion that the ancient Canaanites were wiped out," exemplifies what happens when such attentiveness is lacking. The article reports that a comparison of ancient DNA with that of modern populations demonstrates that modern Syrian and Lebanon populations are descended from Bronze Age Canaanites. It then asserts that this contests the biblical claim that Israel exterminated all the ancient Canaanites. The difficulty is that the biblical text never really makes this claim, and moreover is really quite explicit in stating that the ancient Canaanites were not all exterminated. Yes, as the article notes, the biblical text records the God of Israel commanding the ancient Israelites to destroy all the Canaanites, and we also find in the text assurances that he will deliver them into Israel's hands. That however is not the same as saying that it happened. If you ask me to carry out task X and say that you will help me in doing so, it does not necessarily follow that I will successfully complete task X. And indeed, the books of Joshua and Judges make clear that certain portions of the population were not wiped out, and throughout the subsequent historical writings we again and again see "indigenous" Canaanite populations and persons playing a significant role in Israelite history (the Phoenicians, for instance, are to a large extent just Canaanites in first-millennium drag). The biblical writers acknowledge that the Canaanites were not wiped out. They acknowledge, and they lament--for they see these people of the land as perhaps ultimately the single most significant external threat to Israel's existence. (N.B.: yes, I am aware that the Israelites were themselves in some way related to the Canaanite populations, a fact intimated by not only linguistics--ancient Hebrew being in fact a language of the Canaanite group--but also by an attentive reading of Genesis. I am talking here about the biblical writers' understanding of their own past, and in that understanding Israel is seen as more or less wholly distinct from the Canaanites).

Looking more specifically at the details in this study, we find that the ancient material used to produce the DNA profile came from Sidon. Now, that's really quite significant, as Joshua never reports that Sidon was destroyed, while Judges 1:31 lists it explicitly as a city that was never conquered by Israel. Moreover, Sidon appears repeatedly as a non-Israelite city throughout the balance of the Tanakh. In other words, again, there is no biblical claim that the people of Sidon were ever wiped out and in fact a biblical awareness that they weren't. Far from contesting the biblical claims on the matter, the DNA confirms them. Given what we find in the biblical text, Sidon is one of those places that we should most expect to find genetic continuity. In fact, the absence thereof would require greater explanation than the presence, if the DNA evidence is to be related historically to the biblical narrative. Confirmation of a claim rarely suffices to disprove said claim.

Although I have never made a systematic study of the matter, I am generally impressed by the extent to which various streams of data tend to cohere not just when it comes to biblical history but to ancient history more generally. My favourite go-to example is the founding of Rome. The ancient Roman accounts suggest that the city was founded sometime between the late-9th and mid-8th centuries B.C.E. (753 is the best known but not the only date that can be calculated from these accounts, but all cluster within an approximately sixty or so year range). Interestingly, recent archaeological discoveries have shown that it was at approximately that same time that Rome came into its own as an urban centre, and in fact that it is perhaps only from c. 750ish that we can properly describe it as a city at all. Of course, it doesn't necessarily follow that Romulus and Remus were real persons, nor that they did everything attributed to them, etc., but it does follow that the Romans were able to record with reasonable accuracy the foundation of their city. I have over the years become increasingly convinced that when ancient persons sought to record their history with reasonable accuracy (and of course it is not a foregone conclusion that any given group was interested in such record-keeping, although my suspicion is that such an interest tends to correlate with the movement towards urbanization), they generally had the tools to do so. The DNA evidence reported by the Telegraph seems to further support that this is the case.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

The Virtue of Memory

I recently was involved in a FB discussion regarding the significance of "memory" for historical Jesus studies in particular, and biblical studies more generally. The background for this is the epochal shift in HJ studies that occurred with Dunn's 2003 Jesus Remembered. This led to a surge of interest in the question of memory within the study of the historical Jesus. I should say "renewed interest," because memory had been addressed at various times throughout the two centuries of modern historical study of Jesus' life, but never in as sophisticated a fashion as it has been addressed since 2003. In the work of most notably Chris Keith, Anthony Le Donne, and Rafael Rodriguez there has emerged a focus, borne under the general rubric of "social memory theory," upon the concrete operations of memory. Such focus is virtually unparalleled in the history of historical Jesus scholarship (perhaps only Birger Gerhardsson's work in Memory and Manuscript comes close to evincing such a concerted focus). This should all be celebrated, and the genuine insights found within this work integrated into a more robust understanding of Christian origins.

Nonetheless, I have three concerns, for want of a better term, each of which came out in that FB discussion, and which I would like to give more systematic form here. First, much of what the memory theorists within HJ studies have done is already found in earlier scholarship. In Dunn, for instance, in Jesus Remembered explicitly invokes Meyer as the basis for his hermeneutical approach to the historical Jesus. The question: what does it bring that wasn't there before? Chris Keith, who graciously participated in the discussion mentioned above, provided a quite legitimate answer: it provides a more intelligible framework with which to integrate the insights and concerns of that earlier scholarship (my paraphrase of his statement, but one that I believe to be a fair representation). Insofar as the work of discovery entails the movement from lesser to greater intelligibility, that is a quite compelling answer.

That answer leads to the next concern: how does one integrate the framework of "social memory" into a yet broader framework, one that includes a more comprehensive view in which memory is relativized in the literal and non-pejorative sense of being placed in relationship with other aspects of our human existence? Here let us distinguish between personal, cultural, and social dimensions of human existence (the former more or less corresponding to what we often mean when we use the term "individual"). I would suggest that social memory, as it has been worked out in historical Jesus studies, probably most fully pertains to what we might describe as the cultural dimension, in that it has to do with our collective work of making sense of the world and our place in it. That has entailments for both the social and the personal, but the cultural becomes the locus for its work.

That suggestion leads to a third concern, one that in fact has nothing to do with the work as carried out by such persons as Keith, Le Donne, and Rodriguez. There has I think emerged a tendency to suppose that when these scholars talk about memory they are talking about personal (or individual) memory. We might describe this as a psychological reductionism, wherein properly anthropological (in the sense of the discipline that historically focuses upon culture) and sociological insights are treated as if they were psychological ones. And like most reductionisms, it tends rather to miss the mark, for the simple fact that it is studying the wrong set of relationships: not that between memory and culture or society, which what is what is actually in question when social memory theory is utilized in HJ studies, but rather that between memory and the person. It must again be emphasized however that this reductionism is not present in the work of Keith, Le Donne, and Rodriguez, but in fact precisely the opposite: an effort to overcome a tendency to reduce all memory to that of the individual. And it seems to me that that anti-reductionist spirit is perhaps the single most significant contribution that this work has made.

Friday, 28 July 2017

International Institute for Method in Theology

I have the incredible privilege in being involved in a truly amazing development, namely the International Institute for Method in Theology. This institute has been more than thirty years in the making, since the initial discussions that led to the foundation of the Lonergan Research Institute in Toronto, and finds ground at least thirty years before that in Lonergan's reflections upon his own work in Insight. It is at least sixty years in the making. Moreover, the main force behind establishing this institute, Robert Doran, explicitly envisions the work with which the institute is involved taking centuries. The vision is nothing less than to provide the basis for a new way of doing theology for an age that has yet to come.

I believe that this is urgently needed. I don't think it takes much for thoughtful women and men to apprehend that we are living through epochal events. This is most immediately evident on the level of technology, especially but not limited to the internet and global transportation. I have access at my fingertips, in my own home, to more information than I could ever have found in any library when I was a child. I can be in real-time face-to-face communication with people the world over, again from the comfort of my own home, using a computer that is entirely mobile. I can be at virtually any major metropolitan centre on the face of this planet within forty-eight hours, and many within twelve. The first two of these developments were unimaginable even in Lonergan's day (and he passed away in only 1984!), and the last unimaginable in his youth (fun fact: Lonergan was born on the first anniversary of the Wright brothers' famous first flight at Kitty Hawk). But it goes well beyond the technological, and is often expressed in terms of a global foreboding. These technological advances have come with a cost. Among that cost: we are pushing our biosphere towards the limits of its capacity to sustain human life. Another cost: these technological advances are all too easily weaponized, either in the most brutally obvious ways possible when we build bombers and fighter planes, but also in the capacity to use modern media to police and manipulate populations. And this weaponization points at a deeper malaise, one that Doran, building upon Lonergan, identifies as a largely cultural one but not one without social or personal dimensions.

What is happening, I would propose, is that healing has not been adequately mated with creating. Lonergan talks a great deal about healing and creating in history. Healing works "from above" upon our existing institutions, ways of life, etc., and corrects error (intellectual, moral, practical) contained therein, while creating works "from below" to build new institutions, ways of life, etc. Ideally, these two vectors meet in the middle. I would argue that we have seen much healing in recent times. We have made tremendous advances in ameliorating racism, sexism, and other virulent -isms. This is all healing, and has fruits for society, culture, and persons. It is incomplete and unfinished, but it is healing. In theological terms, it represents ultimately the operations of divine grace in human history, as much as these operations might be mediated through human persons, cultures, and societies (and there we would want to talk about cooperative grace, but no matter). But this healing has not been met by a comparably radical revision in the institutions that define our social lives. Despite the advent of capitalism, we still work with an essentially feudal social formation. The landlord has transformed into the CEO, but the basic form remains: someone else owns that upon which I, the poor labourer, work. This radically hierarchical system--wherein hierarchy is not a functional matter organized to facilitate decision-making but rather is based largely in accidents of birth and must sustain itself through the sometimes overt, sometimes covert, exercise of force--has indeed been healed of many of its more extreme abuses. Nonetheless, this essentially feudal system has extended globally, such that we now have just a few lords who ultimately control most of the capital and leave us billions of poor commoners to eek out a meager living (indeed, it is shocking really to realize how easy it is to think about the global economy as a medieval landscape, filled with lords who control the land, tenant farmers who manage to find a plot that they can rent from the lords, and labourers seeking, but not always finding, employment from those tenant farmers). Such a framework is ill-suited to either accommodate the egalitarian forces unleashed by the healing vector, or to deal with the terrifying reality of ecological disaster. Radically new institutional formations are needed.

In my own understanding, the International Institute for Method in Theology aims to help produce these new formations. It aims to do so by engaging explicitly with what Lonergan describes as the scale of values: vital, social, cultural, personal, and religious. It moreover, and perhaps more importantly in the long-run, is an experiment in the sort of new institutional formations that must come into being. Its decentralized structure perhaps represents exactly what is needed for the future, not just for institutes of this type but of our institutions more broadly. Perhaps such decentralization is exactly what is needed as we learn to think globally. Or perhaps not. One of the great joys of being involved with such a project is that we get to discover whether or not such transformations are needful or not.

Monday, 17 July 2017

The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture

I've been thinking a lot about the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (terms which are not quite identical, as the majority of Christians operate with an Old Testament that includes several books not found in the Hebrew Bible) lately. This is the result of two related realities. One, there has been considerably more concerted Lonerganian engagement with the New Testament than the HB/OT. Two, no NT scholar worth her or his salt can proceed in ignorance of the HB/OT. This has me wondering how a more thorough Lonerganian engagement with the HB/OT might look (clues in that direction come notably from the work of Sean McEvenue, although his more theoretical interests differ notably from my own), and also how my own Lonerganian engagements with the NT might suffer from the relative dearth of such engagement with the HB/OT.

It is with such two-fold wonder in mind that I have been working my way through Yoram Hazony's 2012 monograph, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. I'm just about halfway through the book, but thought I'd share some initial thoughts here. Hazony wants to argue that the Hebrew scriptures contain an "abstract" (his word) philosophy on par with that of the great achievements of Greek philosophy in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. I am sympathetic to this project in principle, as I very much think that it is of significant value to understanding how the Hebrew scriptures (as well as the additional books of Jewish origin that are now found in the Christian Old Testament) fit into the long (and ongoing) development of human thought and consciousness. As a historian, I think this of great value in its own right, and as a historian who often engages with doctrinal and systematic theologians I recognize that this is an area of investigation wherein these disciplines can come into contact in a way that mutually enriches each another. As I ponder such matters, I find significant insights in Hazony's work. But I wonder if Hazony has fully wrestled with the reality and significance of form. He asks whether in Genesis through 2 Kings (which he treats as a single work called "The History of Israel"; we'll leave to one side the propriety of operating in this way, and rather follow his convention for heuristic purposes) there are "arguments of a general nature" (his term). He answers his own question in the affirmative, arguing that the use of doublets, triplets, etc., of similar narratives evinces a series of judgments around particular character types. Judah and Joseph, in his reading, become not simply figures within the narrative, but rather character types who relate to each other as do, for instance, Joshua and Caleb, or David and Solomon. Effectively, he argues, this makes "The History of Israel" a work of political theory. Yet, when I see the question "Does the Hebrew scriptures [with a focus upon "The History of Israel"] make arguments of a general nature?", a more basic question occurs to me: Does "The History of Israel" make arguments at all?

Hazony's particular readings of these figures and their significance might be quite on point. It might be exactly what the writers of the Hebrew scriptures intended to convey. The difficulty though is the amount of work that he has to undertake to get to these readings. By contrast, it doesn't take much to read Plato's Republic as a work of political theory. And I think that this difference is significant. It gets to what Lonergan calls the differentiation of consciousness, a process by which humanity learns to distinguish between commonsense, theory, interiority, and religiosity. In Plato, political theory seems to have clearly begun to develop a sort of autonomy apart from commonsense (defined as the things that a people take as given, without reflection). Precisely because "The History of Israel" is narrative, with little in the way of explicit theoretical reflection and argumentation, that autonomy is less evident in this work. In part, this likely to do with what Lonergan calls the level of the time. Although "The History of Israel" might have been finally brought together more or less as we recognize it around or slightly earlier than the age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, much of the material therein likely goes back to the times of Homer and Hesiod. One should probably then not be surprised to find that it reflects a consciousness more at home at that earlier time than the later one. If we compared Plato and Aristotle to, say, Ecclesiastes, or to Sirach yet later, we might well find the gulf narrowed. And it is precisely this atemporal approach, that ignores the fact that literature of the 10th century B.C.E. perhaps reflects a very different world from literature of the 5th, that I find a bit off-putting in this work.

Lonergan and Bible FB

Hi, all. Towards the end of furthering public discussion of matters related to the intersection of Lonergan and biblical studies, I have created a Facebook group. All are welcome to join.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Lonergan and Space

Any reader of this blog should know that I love the word "development," which I loosely define as "continuity with change." Implicit in that definition of development is the qualifier "over time": development is continuity with change over time. The focus upon temporality has a deep pedigree in the western tradition. The Abrahamic traditions all declare that revelation--whether delivered to Moses or Isaiah or Jesus or Muhammad--occurs at definite moments in time. Things before the revelation differ from things after. While there are similar patterns in other traditions (the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree comes to mind immediately), it seems particularly prominent in the Abrahamic traditions. Yet, as Ben Meyer argued forcefully, the ancients struggled precisely to reckon with the dual reality that in these moments of differentiation there was yet continuity, and that such work of differentiation occurred not necessarily at select moments but rather throughout an ongoing temporal succession (even if particular moments might have been particularly significant in that succession). The intellectual techniques did not exist to adequately apprehend how something could continue to be itself yet be irreversibly and even radically transformed. The great breakthroughs of a Newman or a Lonergan consist not in small part of helping to bring us to terms with that continuity with change.

In this connection, it is interesting to note the extent to which the ancients associated the great moments of revelation with particular spaces. Sinai, Jerusalem, Mecca: all become metonyms for the particular moments of revelation associated with them (Jerusalem in particular becomes overburdened with such metonymy). No doubt this is related to the ancient inability to fully conceptualize continuity with change, or perhaps more precisely continuity with change was conceptualized in large part through concrete, material, spatial expressions. Sinai is always Sinai, even when its actual location is forgotten and it lives only in the imagination. Jerusalem is always Jerusalem, even when inaccessible due to exile or diaspora. Mecca is always Mecca, and the centrality of this space in the Muslim imagination helps accounts for the tradition's capacity to conceptualize itself as the grounds of an international ummah. These spaces become concrete expressions, even if only in the imagination, of continuity. They provide the site in which what Lonergan calls integrators can function, i.e. that pole of any dialectic that provides the necessary limiting factor that maintains the integrity of that which is undergoing change. At the same time, they become sites of change, as buildings and other structures are renovated and constructed to meet exigent needs, as new rituals and practices are introduced and old ones abandoned for a variety of reasons, as pilgrims undergo the transformation of their horizons that results from what they experience and discover in those spaces.

Of course, this happens not just in the great holy sites. It happens in synagogues, in churches, in mosques. These are more than just gathering spaces. We can see this reality vividly when the uniquely spatial dynamics of worship sites are denied or trivialized. The radically low church habit of thinking rented spaces to be sufficient for ecclesial purposes shows a profound dialectical distortion that denies the significance of space in the work of maintaining communal integration. It ignores the way that buildings take on a life of their own, and that this life provides remarkable anchorage for a community. (This of course differs from the communities that must rely upon rented spaces due entirely to exigency. They still cannot avail themselves of what a concrete, permanent space might provide, but in not denying the value of such they do not suffer the dialectical distortion that results from an inadequate understanding of community). There is something quite profound about going to Europe and visiting synagogues or churches or even the occasional mosque that has been in service to the community for centuries (sadly, the number of European synagogues for which that is the case has decreased significantly over the last hundred years). A community without a permanent space is always by definition a community without permanence.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Of Foundations

Writes Lonergan in Method in Theology:
[I]f one desires foundations for an ongoing, developing process, one has to move out of the static, deductivist style—which admits no conclusions that are not implicit in premisses—and into the methodical style—which aims at decreasing darkness and increasing light and keeps adding discovery to discovery.
In this single line, we can apprehend the cognitive deficiency that defines most every fundamentalism: these consist of static deductions which admit no conclusions that are not implicit in the premises. As an example of such deductions, Lonergan offers the following: "One must believe and accept whatever the bible or the true church or both believe and accept. But X is the bible or the true church or both. Therefore, one must believe and accept whatever X believes and accepts. Moreover, X believes and accepts a, b, c, d. … Therefore, one must believe and accept a, b, c, d...." The beliefs at which one arrives are implicit in the premise. Such foundations consist of really nothing but foundations. There is no actual work of building upon that foundation, but rather merely of describing the foundation in more precise detail. One never has more than a basement. Replace "bible" and "church" with "Party" or "Qu'ran," and it makes no cognitive difference. The style of thought remains unperturbed. That style is one that supposes that knowing is like looking: the truth is out there, already formed and ready to be seen; one just has to look in the right place.

By contrast, what Lonergan calls a methodical style defines the search for truth not by the sources to which it turns but rather by the manner in which it turns to the various sources of light that might be available. A methodical style consists at base of being attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible, and this means accepting for oneself the heavy burden of being the ultimate arbiter of what one holds to be true. And that burden is indeed heavy: not everyone is up to it. This is because not everyone has learned how to be consistently and authentically attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible. Such learning Lonergan grounds in conversion: to a self-transforming love that obviates hate and irrational fear; to a goodness that transcends narcissistic and parochial concerns; to an intellect that can readily distinguish between reason and the mere appearance of reason. Only the loving subject who desires the best for her or his fellows and is able and willing to cling to truth rather than error is truly prepared to carry out the methodical work of fashioning for her or his self an adequate foundation by which to most genuinely apprehend reality. Subjects lacking such love, goodness, or intellect might yet make many great discoveries. They might learn many secrets in heaven and on earth. Humanity might be better for their work. But the more excellent truths will remain forever closed to such persons, because hate and fear, narcissism and parochialism, irrationality and delusion, consist insuperable barriers to apprehension.

Becoming a loving subject concerned with the collective good and the apprehension of truth takes hard work, to be carried out in fear and trembling, and the various fundamentalisms of the world are for a large part simply a way by which to justify a refusal to carry out such work. They are the shortcuts preferred by the coward who fears the dark night of the soul. Such persons advert to jingoism rather than argumentation. They substitute all-caps for reason. They prefer bellicosity to dialogue. And frankly, they're the reason for most of our problems these days.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Noah, Abraham, and the Level of the Time

There is a long-standing habit of rejecting the morality of Genesis, and through it the God of Israel. We see it already in Marcion: the God of Israel is a vengeful god and thus cannot be the God of Jesus. We see it today in your more vacuous atheist attacks on Christianity (which often seem blithely unaware that such anti-Christian rhetoric is equally anti-Jewish). Marcion can be forgiven for what is a thoroughly ahistorical approach to reading ancient writings, but the person living on this side of the great breakthroughs in historical thinking achieved by the nineteenth-century cannot, especially when that person claims to stand in a position of moral and intellectual superiority above the single most influential tradition in human history (with its influence on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the tradition of ancient Israel can rightfully claim to have more fully shaped humanity than any other tradition, religious or otherwise). Such an ahistorical approach fails to reckon with a basic reality, namely that Genesis operates at which Lonergan calls the level of the time.

Let's take two examples: the flood and the non-sacrifice of Isaac. Denuded of details, the flood sounds horrific. The God (who will eventually become that) of Israel wipes out all but eight persons via torrential rains and flooding. It has the taint of genocide, as the nephilim--the "giants"--are all killed in the process. But details matter. The Genesis account indicates that the God of Israel did this not out of caprice or malice, but rather out of righteous repentance for creating a humanity that turned its thoughts and actions towards evil (Gen. 6:5-6). He preserves Noah because Noah is the one righteous man among his generation. This moral dimension is highlighted when we read comparable accounts from the ancient Near East. In these accounts, Enlil sends the flood to destroy humanity because they make too much noise. They disturb his rest. The "Noah" equivalent is saved because another god, Enki, warns him, but there is little sense that "Noah" receives this warning because he is particularly righteous. The ancient Israelites seem to have taken a typical pattern of ancient Near Eastern storytelling and invested it with a profound moral reflection upon good, evil, and their respective consequences. Yes, they said, the divine realm did indeed send the flood, but not because humanity was annoying but rather because humanity had turned its collective energies to evil. It was a profound reflection--a sort of early theodicy, really--written at the level of its time, using the resources at hand.

Or take the non-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Certainly, read with a twentieth-century sensibility, the God of Israel comes off as a bit of schmuck. He commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham obeys, which doesn't necessarily make him come off as a particularly caring father, and then at the last minute the God of Israel intervenes by sending a ram to sacrifice in Isaac's place. This seems all quite cruel from our vantage point. But the story was not written from or to our vantage point. It was written from and to that of several millennia ago. And we know that at the very least the ancient Israelites understood that their neighbours engaged in the act of sacrificing their children to their gods. The extent to which such a practice existed in actuality is an open question, but it certainly existed in the Israelite imagination. This story responds to that reality by saying that Israel's God is not a God that requires one to sacrifice one's child. Restricted almost entirely to the device of storytelling to make that statement, the originators of this account must provide narrative action. Indeed, Genesis gives little indication that the persons responsible for its creation were even aware of the device of explication, whereby one relays a story and then says "And this story means X." Narrative action is almost entirely the medium of expression. It would not have been much of a story if the God of Israel just showed up and said "Hey, Abraham, just so you know, I don't expect you sacrifice Isaac." It would have been even less of a story if the God of Israel hadn't said or done anything at all. In fact, when one thinks about the task--convey through a story that the God of Israel does not demand human sacrifice--it is difficult to imagine something far off from what we find in Genesis 22.

The level of the time both enables and limits. The level of the time was such that the ancient Israelites had developed a morality capable of reflecting upon the question of divine goodness. This was a significant breakthrough. In humanist terms, this can be understood as the product ultimately of evolution, which led to the advent of an animal capable of such reflection, and of historical processes that led to ever-deepening reflections upon morality. In theological terms such a humanist understanding can be affirmed, but also understood as the work of divine grace. But the level of the time was limited almost entirely to storytelling as a means by which to conceive and articulate those reflections. Looking back, millennia later, as the inheritors of the moral and intellectual tradition to which they were contributing, these early efforts seem virtually barbaric. Such a judgment however seems quite ungrateful. We might call these early efforts "primitive," in the etymologically precise sense of coming first (or at least early) in a sequence, but that does not obviate the remarkable breakthroughs that are evident in these works. We, the heirs of such breakthroughs, might have moved well past them, but we can only do so because of the advances made by the ancients at the level of their times.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Paradigmatic and Pragmatic Chronology

I've been reading through Israel and Revelation, the first volume of Eric Voegelin's Order and History. The primary motivation for this reading is that Robert Doran, in his Theology and the Dialectics of History, which is a landmark contribution in the development and implementation of Bernard Lonergan's thought, engages significantly with Israel and Revelation. But Order and History is a significant work of 20th-century western thought in its own right, and thus worth the time to read. In any case, there is a fascinating discussion within Israel and Revelation on the significance of chronology in understanding the development of ancient Israel. Given my fascination with matters chronological, this particularly grabbed my attention.

Voegelin distinguishes between what he calls "paradigmatic" and "pragmatic" history, each of which will have its own chronology. The former reflects Israel's own self-understanding of its history: its origins among the Patriarchs who migrated from Mesopotamia, its time spent in and around Canaan before the sojourn in Egypt, the Exodus under Moses, the revelation at Sinai, the return to and conquest of the Holy Land under Joshua, the period of the Judges and the establishment and historical course of the monarchies, the emergence of the prophets, etc. It is paradigmatic in the sense that "the single events become paradigms of God's way with man in this world" (IaR, 121). This chronology is essentially relative, offered through various notices that back-date from significant moments such as the foundation of the Solomonic temple, although with our modern historical knowledge we can give some approximation of the absolute dates that might adhere to these putative events. The latter history, the pragmatic, is not dissimilar to what is often termed "political history": the rise and fall of polities, the movements of people groups, etc. It includes the Hyksos invasion of Egypt, the rise and fall of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires, etc. This history is often expressed by reference to regnal years: in the twelfth year of such-and-such a king, this and that happened. With appropriate reference points, we can usually convert these into BCE/CE dates with relative precision.

In a very real sense, much of the work in the studies over the last two centuries has consisted of thinking about the relationship between these two chronologies, the paradigmatic and the pragmatic. The problems are real, regardless of how much certain persons might want to deny them for ideological causes. If on the basis of the former we have reason to think that Jericho was destroyed c. 1250 BCE, but on the basis of the latter we have reason to think that there was a destruction c. 1500 but none at the later date, then we have a problem demanding investigation. (These numbers are given here as heuristic. Cavils regarding their empirical accuracy would add no light to the discussion at hand). Are one or both these dates mistaken? Is the paradigmatic history simply so unconcerned with chronological precision that it must be dispensed with in regard to such matters? Is paradigmatic history by definition so unconcerned with chronological precision that we must dispense with it in general, not just with regard to the history of ancient Israel but more broadly?

This is a problem that recurs in the study of the ancient world. Herodotus, for example, is also doing what we might loosely call a sort of paradigmatic history. For him, the events are paradigmatic not of God's way with humanity in the world, but rather of the interactions between the "western" world represented most fully by the Greeks and the "eastern" world represented most fully by the Persians. The Gospels, of course, as well as the Acts of the Apostles, are very much engaged in paradigmatic history. With regard to chronology, the central theoretical question that recurs with such materials is how or if we can work with texts whose interest in matters of temporal progression might well be radically different from our own? Or, to return to Voegelin's language, how do we translate the understanding of paradigmatic time immanent in such texts into the language of pragmatic time? And of course, the answer probably is that each text must be first understand in its own right, so as to detect the author's particular understanding of time (although of course such particular understanding will typically be related to broader understandings. One should not be surprised, for instance, if Paul evinces an understanding of time otherwise evident in the Israelite and Jewish traditions). Chronology, after all, is in all its forms a way by which the intellect organizes its contents in a legible and specifically temporal form.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Change, Continuity, and Value

Larry Hurtado recently wrote a post about "How We See Historical Change." As I find increasingly that this is precisely the focus of my thinking, I thought that I would comment upon his arguments here. I begin with the observation that the study of historical change is to be carefully distinguished from the study of a particular time and place. It is perfectly legitimate to study the life of Paul in his particular time and place. In a limited sense, that entails the study of change: the change in his self-understanding and horizon that occurred on the road to Damascus; changes in his practices and policies and thought over the years; short-term changes that he wrought through his operations, such as the foundation of churches. But that is not quite the same as inquiring about Paul in a longer-term perspective, something akin to what the Annales School (notably Braudel) termed history in the longue durée. Braudel helpfully describes the distinction between the shorter and longer terms as the distinction between history at the level of named individuals and history operating a level of abstraction above such individuals. As such, insofar as we can advert to the individual in discussing the long-term, it is because the individual instantiates and embodies processes occurring at a higher level of abstraction.

Once this distinction is grasped, one bristles at the following quotation from Hurtado:
It’s not clear...that Jesus-believers of Paul’s time (ca. 30-60 CE) thought of themselves, their faith and practices as “primitive” or “embryonic” of some more mature and complete form of Jesus-devotion that might be worked out across time. I get the impression, instead, that Paul (for example) thought of the convictions and teachings that he delivered as adequately formed and fully appropriate for his situation. So, if we refer to those early years of the Jesus-movement as embryonic or the seeds of something that developed later, I think that we’re importing a value judgment that isn’t based on the evidence.
Everything up until the final sentence of this paragraph can be granted without serious quibble. Paul and his contemporary Christians do not seem to have understood what they were doing as primitive or embryonic. In fact, one might very well argue that they lacked the conceptual apparatus to do so, as this language of development was not itself fully developed before the nineteenth century (a point made by Ben Meyer in the opening lines of his Early Christians). The difficulty with this paragraph lies in the final sentence, in that it critiques a straw man. When someone says "The early years of the Jesus-movement were embryonic or seeds of something that developed later," that person is hardly saying that Paul or the earliest Christians saw themselves in that way. It's not even implicit in the statement. Rather, that person is saying that when we examine the matter millennia later, we can identify two phenomena simultaneously: one, that what Paul et. al. thought about particular matters is not identical to what later Christian writers would think about the same; and two, that there is nonetheless an observable continuity in what they thought. In other words: we can identify change with continuity. The fact that the historical actors did not apprehend their place in such a long-term process simply speaks to basic human limitations regarding our own place in history.

The central point of Hurtado's post is that we must avoid inappropriate value judgments in our historical work. That is a fair point. This can perhaps be better explicated if we take our earlier distinction between the short and longer terms and rephrase it in light of Lonergan's notion of functional specialties. We can distinguish between interpretation, which is aimed at understanding what a particular writer intends to communicate; history, which is aimed largely at understanding historical events and the sequence of events; dialectics, which is aimed at understanding historical processes; and foundations, which is aimed at taking a stand on the matters raised by these previous specialties, especially dialectics. In interpretation, we ask what Paul meant; in history, we relate what Paul meant to what Paul did; in dialectics, we relate what Paul did to recurrent conflicts and questions; and in foundations we determine our own positions in such conflicts, our own answers to such questions. Hurtado's warning is essentially the observation that interpretation cannot be reduced to foundations. Granted. The problem is that his method, as proposed, reduces dialectics to interpretation. Questions of interpretation require interpretative answers derived by interpretative method; questions of history, historical answers derived by historical method; questions of dialectic, dialectical answers derived by dialectical method; and questions of foundation, foundational answers derived by foundational method. There are no short-cuts here (and invariably, when short-cuts are pursued consistently, they end in a vitiated intellectual life. Perhaps the prime example in the theological realm is the fundamentalist doctrine of plenary inerrancy, which effectively reduces every imaginable question--not just historical, dialectical, or foundational, but also doctrinal, systematic, scientific, etc.--to a question of interpretation, and tends to correlate closely with the anti-intellectualism immanent throughout much of American Protestantism outside the mainline denominations).

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Bultmann and Translation

I recently observed, and briefly participated in, a FB conversation inspired by the following post by Bart Ehrman. This discussion centred upon Ehrman's description of Rudolf Bultmann's program of demythologization. Some of the critiques were aimed at typos ("Rudolph" vs. "Rudolf," for instance). A more substantive critique aimed at Ehrman's description of Bultmann's demythologization as an effort at "stripping away" the myth in the New Testament to bring out its true message. It was observed that this language was problematic. For Bultmann, the New Testament communicates its message through myth, not despite it, and thus in stripping away the myth the theologian does not reveal the message so much as remove the very thing by which we can know it. To Prof. Ehrman's credit, he entered into the discussion himself, acknowledged that the initial formulation could have been written better, and helpfully suggested that instead of the language of stripping away we opt for the language of translation: Bultmann wanted to translate the message of the New Testament from the idiom of ancient myth to the idiom of modern existential philosophy.

Now, this interests me, because such translation is exactly what Ben Meyer understood as a primary motor of development in Christian history. He connects this back to Newman (hence in part my interest in the latter on the development of doctrine), who apparently wrote in the margin of his own copy of The Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine that development is translation. Meyer also uses the term "transposition" to describe such translation, which is useful to note because this is Lonergan's language for much the same (which, of course, given that Meyer was a student of Lonergan's, should occasion not much of a surprise). If I might use as an example of such translation, I will take Ehrman himself. Ehrman, of course, is one of the most significant New Testament scholars of his generation. His primary contribution, I would argue, resides in the area of communication. What he does is communicate the discourses and thought current (now and previously) in New Testament studies from the language (or "horizon," in more precisely Lonerganian usage) of the specialist into the language of the non-specialist. This is incredibly valuable work.

As Meyer observes of any such translation, something is invariably lost in the translation, while other things are gained. Certain concepts and images must be abandoned in order to communicate particular insights, while new ones emerge to communicate the same. Sometimes those new concepts and images will be able to communicate said insights more clearly or more precisely than those of the originating horizon. This, for instance, Lonergan argues is in part what happens with the unfairly maligned movement from Jewish to Greek horizons (which Meyer rightly notes began not with Christianity's movement from the Jewish to the Gentile worlds, but rather from those Jewish believers more grounded in what we might call Hebraic culture and those more grounded in what we might call Hellenistic, here taking our cue--as does Meyer--from the distinction between Hebraioi and Hellēnistai introduced by Luke in Acts 6:1 as components of the early Jerusalem church). This movement allows early Christians to utilize the rich intellectual resources of ancient Greek thought in order to better examine, understand, and articulate their own. There is something of a movement away from the rich narrative tradition inherited from Judaism, and towards the rich philosophical tradition inherited from Greek thought. Something is lost, something is gained.

Unfortunately, Bultmann's particular work of translation largely turned out to be a dead end. Most fundamentally, I would argue, this is because he read the New Testament texts through a history-of-religions framework that has now been almost entirely abandoned, and aimed to translate into an existentialist framework that has largely been left in the past. In short, he translated from what is now a dead language into what is also now a dead language. Add in that the history-of-religions framework with which he worked died because it was in large part refuted empirically (despite mythicist trolls' desperate need to it in order to furnish themselves with the appearance of insight), and that there is some question about the extent to which Bultmann really apprehended existentialist thought, then as a translation of the New Testament writings into modern horizons (Bultmann's real aim) his work probably needs to be judged less than fully successful. That however does not obviate the possibility and indeed necessity of engaging in the ongoing work of translating the insights of the ancient writers into frameworks that can be adequately apprehended by presently living human beings.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Development of Doctrine

In a recent discussion on Facebook, I suggested that one of the tasks still before the Lonerganian tradition is the construction of an adequate account of the development of doctrine from ancient Israel, through Second Temple Judaism, and into early Christianity, thus to connect with accounts that move from the apostolic era onward. This is related to my interest in overcoming what I call the "Rupture Hypothesis," i.e. the hypothesis that Christian origins is defined by a double and radical discontinuity: first, between Judaism and Jesus, and second between Jesus and Christianity (this double discontinuity, given methodological apotheosis in the criterion of dissimilarity within historical Jesus studies, has the double effect of alienating Christianity from its Jewish heritage as well as its dominical roots). When writing about the "development of doctrine," I explicitly have in mind John Henry Newman's landmark Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, although of course the Essay is 172 years young and thus predates the considerable advances in both historical and theological (the latter defined more narrowly as doctrinal and systematic theology) studies over the last two centuries. Biblical scholarship provides the groundwork for the historical corrections necessary, perhaps most notably but not exclusively facilitating access to the tremendous trove of new textual and archaeological discoveries that have redefined our understanding of the ancient Near East, ancient Judaism, and ancient Christianity. Lonergan and those who came after him provide a great deal of the groundwork for the theological corrections that must take place, perhaps the most notable of which would be recognizing that one must respect that the history running from ancient Israel through Second Temple is as much "preparatory" for rabbinic Judaism as it is for early Christianity (I use the term "preparatory" as it is Newman's, who reckons Judaism to be effectively obsolete from the advent of Christianity. On this side of the Shoah, such nonsense needs to be firmly relegated to the trash fire of history. The term "preparation" can only be used now if it refers to rabbinic Judaism as much as Christianity, or not at all).

But there is a deeper problem, a conceptual one, antecedent to the very work of a history of the development of doctrine in ancient Israel and Second Temple Judaism. Sean McEvenue, one of the very few Hebrew Bible scholars to have extensively engaged with Lonergan and Lonerganian thought, helps us identify this problem precisely, arguing that the material in the Hebrew Bible can only most loosely be described as "doctrinal." There are of course doctrines in the Hebrew Bible, in the loose sense of "teachings," but we get a sense of what McEvenue means if we compare, say, Amos to Augustine. One finds in Amos oracles and divine utterances which aim towards the entirety of human consciousness, compared to the more focused aim towards the intellect that we find in, say, De Trinitate. This is neither critique nor praise of either Amos or Augustine, but merely description: there is a place for writings aimed at the whole of consciousness, and a place for writings aimed more specifically at the intellect. Amos aims to move the whole person in a way that Augustine's De Trinitate does not, whereas Augustine's De Trinitate aims to specifically form and inform the intellect in a way that Amos does not. This has to do in large part with their respective locations in the long temporal sequence under discussion.

Thus can we take a lead from Lonergan, who in Way to Nicea argues that alongside the development of the dogma of the trinity, the ante-Nicene church had to develop the very idea of dogma. We can for our purposes substitute "doctrine" for "dogma," and suggest that a history of the development of doctrine from ancient Israel through Second Temple Judaism and beyond would have to address first and foremost the development of doctrine itself before it can adequately address specific doctrines. One would want to look at signal moments in this history, such as Ben Sira and Paul, neither of which can be adequately apprehended as doctrinal or systematic theologians avant la lettre (although there is no lack of trying, especially with regard to the former), but who certainly represent later moments in the development of doctrine qua doctrine than does Amos. One would also need to recognize that the history of development is not simply one of writings that begin to more fully approximate doctrine (in the specialized sense used here) displacing what came before. At roughly the same time that Ben Sira is writing, we find thoroughly non-doctrinal (in the specialized sense used here) Book of Daniel and 1 Enoch being produced. At roughly the same time that Philo is producing his great treatises in Alexandria, the early Christians are producing their again quite non-doctrinal gospels, Acts of the Apostles, Revelation. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Christians produce great systematic treatises, and they also produce stories set in fantasy worlds such as Middle-Earth, Narnia, and the Wizarding World. But it is precisely the fact that we can today recognize that there is a world of difference between the very Christian Catechism of the Catholic Church and the equally Christian Lord of the Rings that speaks to the fact that the heuristic distinction between doctrinal and non-doctrinal writings apprehends a genuine, authentic difference. The historical inquiry becomes one of thinking through how such difference came to be in the first place.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Harry Potter and Conversion

At the heart of Lonergan's discussion of subjectivity and objectivity is the notion of conversion. He identifies three crucial conversions that a subject must ordinarily undergo on the path to objectivity: religious, moral, and intellectual. The first is the conversion to love: in religious conversion (which does not necessarily entail any conversion to a different religion, or to any), I learn to love and be loved. The second is the conversion to value: in moral conversion, I learn to place value over satisfaction. The third is to truth: in intellectual conversion, I learn how to properly apprehend reality as that which I can infer from the data of experience. I have tended in my own thinking to focus upon intellectual conversion, but the other two are crucial and typically indispensable for the subject's ascent to objectivity: love drives out fear and its libidinal investment in paranoid fantasies; value drives out myopic self-interest; truth drives out naivete, allowing for the final transcendence that permits the individual to robustly apprehend reality.

Conversion does not just happen. It requires resources. Typically, one does not learn what it means to love, value, or seek truth unless one sees these exemplified in others. Among the resources most valuable for moral conversion are literature and film. I was part of the Star Wars generation. My moral imagination was shaped by its story of the light battling against the dark. But a generation later a more profound story of good and evil came along, that of Harry Potter and his friends. Millennials get a bad rap, but they are among the most engaged generations in history. What others call whining or being a snowflake or whatever, I call having an instinctive compassion for the vulnerable. That, I suspect, is not a little due to the impact of Harry Potter.

At its core, the story of Harry Potter is a story of love and value. The Boy Who Lived lived because his mother loved him so much that she gave her own life to save his. From Voldemort's perspective, her sacrifice was incomprehensible. Her decision to stand between Harry and Voldemort was, from his self-centred perspective, entirely in vain. She had no capacity to stop him, and at best she bought Harry a few more seconds of life. But that incomprehension was due to Voldemort's lack of conversion to either love or value. He could not understand that love is such that Lily Potter could not have done anything but stand between Harry and Voldemort, and that she was operating from something that transcends self-interest. He cannot comprehend that the same was true of James Potter, who gave his life to buy his wife a few extra moments to escape with their son. But if it was his lack of conversion to love and value that tripped up Voldemort, it was the opposite with Harry. His first triumph over Voldemort came because Harry wanted to find the philosopher's stone but not to use. He was interested in it not for his own self, but rather to keep it from Voldemort. His final triumph came because he was willing to die to save the family he had found at Hogwarts, just as his parents died to save him. It was Harry's love for them, and the fact that he acted entirely out of values that transcended self-interest, that undid Voldemort, who still could not comprehend such power.

This is what millennials learned to aspire towards, when as young children they read and watched Harry Potter. They learned that one stands up to those whose craven pursuit of power destroys and takes lives. Is it any surprise then that in a western world where misogyny, racism, and other vile ills are blatantly attacking decency and goodness in a way that we haven't seen in generations, the Harry Potter generation stands up to the darkness?

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Lonergan and Hebrew Bible

I've been reflecting recently upon the relative dearth of Lonerganian scholarship related to Hebrew Bible. It's not an absolute dearth: Sean McEvenue has done some interesting work at the intersection of the two. But there doesn't seem to be as developed a discourse that we can call "Hebrew Bible and Lonergan" as there is one that we can call "New Testament and Lonergan." Such dearth probably has ready explanations. The most obvious is that both Hebrew Bible and Lonergan studies have a steep learning curve. It takes a lot of energy and time to develop genuine expertise in one, let along both. Whatever the explanations though, the reality is that this Hebrew Bible and Lonergan seems less developed a discourse than even New Testament and Lonergan.

Hebrew Bible thus stands as a major lacuna in Lonerganian thought. Why major? In principle of course, Lonerganian thought is concerned with all areas of human inquiry, and as such any area with which Lonerganian thought leaves unaddresses in practice constitutes a lacuna. But this particular lacuna feels more acute. After all, Lonergan was a Catholic theologian and philosopher, and the Hebrew Bible constitutes the bulk of the Catholic biblical canon. Especially as someone trained to closely relate the study of the New Testament to the study of Second Temple Judaism, this lacuna very much strikes home. After all, the Catholic Old Testament (leaving aside how it relates to this thing we call "Hebrew Bible") contains not a few works that are the product of Second Temple Judaism. And that is before we even start to think about pre-exilic texts and material. Both in terms of the history of the Abrahamic traditions and of the Catholic biblical canon, early Christianity is in fact a relatively late part of the story. A Lonerganian scholarship that more fully explores the texts and history of ancient Judaism and Israel will be one that more fully apprehends the Catholic tradition from which Lonergan and Lonerganian thought themselves emerged. At the very least, it might well help the Lonerganian tradition better understand itself. At the same time, I am fully persuaded that the resources of the Lonerganian tradition are such that they could help elucidate ongoing difficulties in Hebrew Bible studies.

I might better explicate that persuasion by reference to a specific problem that is addressed at length in Meyer's work, namely the question of how to best articulate how the first Christians are both embedded fully in a Second Temple Jewish matrix, thus in many ways of typical of that matrix, yet in many other ways atypical thereof. This question finds a parallel in the reality that earliest Israel was embedded fully in a Canaanite matrix, thus in many ways of typical of that matrix, yet in many other ways atypical thereof. Much of Meyer's reflection upon how best to describe an entity that is wholly Jewish yet distinct from other Jewish groups, and also how to think about the reality that in relative short order it shed its Jewish identity while never fully dispensing with its Jewish past. This can potentially inform how best to describe an entity that is both Canaanite yet distinct from other Canaanite groups. Of course, such work would entail translation, from the particularities of early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism into the particularities of ancient Israelite and Canaanite religion. Meyer's work in turn builds upon a Lonerganian tradition that increasingly explores an ever-growing range of disparate areas in the human sciences, thus facilitating the coordination of insights between the study of early Christianity, of ancient Israel, of psychology and anthropology and sociology, etc. The potential gains to Hebrew Bible studies of consciously Lonerganian investigations are very exciting.