Friday, July 6, 2007

Part 2: Can "A" Dead Body be Raised?

Mr. J.D. Walters has left a comment on my previous resurrection post, a comment that I would like to address outside the comment section. I am addressing it here, because the sentiment expressed by Mr. Walters is a sentiment that is not his alone, but a common theological rationalization. It is a ploy from theology used to dress up the argument for the supernatural, to make it look like a plausible scientific argument. I hear this all the time in my classroom from my students. What it boils down to is this: "Jesus' resurrection is unique. God is all-powerful, he can do whatever he likes, including raising up a dead body. Beginning and end of analysis."

Here is Mr. Walters' comment:
I hope that appeal to biology was not meant to be taken seriously. The facts of biology are based on repeatable events and inferences from statistical data. By definition a unique event like a resurrection does not fall under the biological paradigm. Repeated experience with 'dead bodies staying dead' might produce a strong mental aversion to the idea of a resurrection (as Wright points out, this held for the ancients as much as modern people; ancients knew that when people died, their bodies were just corpses), but it means nothing one way or the other about whether such a thing is possible, which will depend on what one thinks is the ultimate explanation for the existence of the universe.
By definition? The irreversibility of death means nothing? The historicity of the physical resurrection of Jesus simply depends on one's view of the universe?

The more I think about these types of "arguments" (if we can even use such a word for them), the more concerned I become. If the field of biblical studies has been reduced to this, then it is not worthy to be part of the Academy.

For a long time I have resisted the separation of AAR and SBL on grounds that the biblical field is a historical field of study. I have worked for years in the Society, creating and chairing both the section on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism and the seminar called the NT Mysticism Project. Year in and year out I have given papers in many venues, published with SBL press, been a spokesperson for the Society whenever in conversation with AAR scholars. But comments and nonsense like this are making me reevaluate that stance. Perhaps the AAR folks are right in separating from the SBL, in their insistence that all we will ever be are caretakers of the church rather than critics of religion.

15 comments:

Doug Chaplin said...

I'm sure your commenter Walters is missing your point and talking past you, but I think you may be missing his point as well. In discussions of the resurrection, I thin we often talk past each other, and I've offered a few thoughts in relation to this particular conversation.

Danny Zacharias said...

I hope I don't sound rude, but your response was even less "academic" than his. If you disagree with his sentiments then carefully lay out why. Your response consisted of rhetorical questions and a statement on your ideal of what biblical studies ought to be.

John said...

The SBL was founded by people who sought to combine a commitment to "higher" and "lower" criticism of the Bible with a caretaking role, critical and empathetic at the same time, within the religious traditions to which they belonged. Some of them, for example, Charles Augustus Briggs, were put on trial by their churches for their views.

The SBL now includes within its ranks gads of people, just like the AAR, who seek to combine a commitment to one or more academic disciplines (text criticism, history, archeology, lit crit, etc.) with a confessional allegiance to one or more modern ideologies which are self-consciously areligious or even anti-religious. It is one of the most pluralistic environments in American academic life. The SBL is richer for it. Three cheers, to cite examples that have often made news, for John Gager, Hector Avalos, and Jacques Berlinerbau.

Three cheers for you as well, April DeConick. I think you would grow tired, eventually, of the relative monotony of the AAR crowd, careful as that crowd is to rule out of consideration the possibility that God in the classical Jewish or Christian sense exists, while ruling in every imaginable modern ideology as a platform from which to interpret religious texts. I can't imagine you disagreeing that many AAR papers (I've heard or read many myself) are little more than sermons which preach to a choir of choice (fellow femminists, fellow post-colonialists, fellow queers - sorry the examples are so trite, but they are not unrepresentative). From the point of view of the great tradition of scientific reductionism (as LaPlace said, "I have no need of that hypothesis" [God]), an SBL conference goer is merely treated to a wider spectrum of nonsense than is, on average, an AAR conference goer.

(ed.: what an incredibly un-pc thing to say. I'm not up for tenure, so I can get away with it.)

Doug Chaplin is right, that you and your commenter are talking past each other, but I find that instructive in its own right.

JD Walters said...

Dr DeConick,

You have deeply misunderstood my argument at just about every point. It does not boil down to that asinine quotation you produce. Just what exactly is a 'plausible scientific argument', anyway? From what standpoint? Scientific realism? Empiricism? Social constructionism? Bayesian confirmation theory? Your assertion that you have a problem with the resurrection 'because of biology; dead bodies stay dead' is close to meaningless without a deeper understanding of where the facts of biology come from and what they imply for what is or is not possible. You might construct an enumerative inductive argument to the effect that if, in our experience, dead bodies stay dead, then they probably will continue to do so in the future and have also done so in the past. This is very much in the spirit of Hume's argument against miracles. Uniform experience counts against the possibility of resurrection. However, anyone familiar with probabilistic reasoning knows that inductive arguments are not universally valid. Even if every swan you've seen up till now is white, that is no guarantee that there will not be a black one in your next observation.

Furthermore, philosophers of science acknowledge that physical laws are contingent and 'ceteris paribus'. There are no absolute conditions for laws of nature. In the words of Robert Bishop:

"Physics itself does not imply its own causal closure nor is there any proof within physics of its own completeness, so CoP(Completeness of physics) must be a metaphysical principle...Everywhere we look in physics (and other physical sciences), laws, symmetries and properties are always qualified or heavily idealized. Also the whole range of our experimental methodologies are built on the idea of isolation-removing or controlling intervening factors. Given these features of physics...there is no reason to expect CoP to be different and have anything other than a qualified character...as a qualified principle, CoP itself does not rule out the possibilities for nonphysical interventions; it only says what happens IN THEIR ABSENCE" (p.2)

(available at http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/archive/00002415/01/Hidden_Premise.pdf)

This is a secular philosopher of science, mind you. This is not a theologian talking. All this means is that it is perilous to make generalizations on the basis of experience.

And I said that one's view of the ultimate explanation of the universe will control what that person thinks is POSSIBLE. Establishing the HISTORICITY of the Resurrection of Jesus depends on a careful examination of the historical record. One might be an ardent supernaturalist and still think that there is unsufficient historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, as Michael Martin and Jeff Lowder have tried to argue. You have conflated possibility with historical likelihood. They are NOT the same thing, although of course being convinced of the impossibility of the resurrection precludes any further advancement to thinking that the resurrection is historically likely.

As you can see there is far more to the analysis than "God is all powerful, he can do whatever he likes." And I haven't even begun to touch upon the question of whether a theistic God such as that which Jews, Christians and Muslims believe in would be likely to perform an act like the resurrection (for fuller discussion, see Richard Swinburne's "The Resurrection of God Incarnate"). But of course it sure is convenient to think that that is all there is to it if it means not having to do one's homework in the philosophy of science. So unless you can present me with a much more rigorous argument from the epistemology of science as to why 'biology' implies that the resurrection is impossible, then yes, the irreversibility of death means nothing.

Steven Carr said...

Of course Walter would simply laugh at the idea that aliens beamed up the body of Jesus.

But what rational argument can he deploy against that, given his viewpoint that anything at all is plausible for people who will believe in anything at all?

The mere fact that nobody has any evidence of dead bodies being beamed up by aliens is hardly a 'rigorous argument'.

After all, the mere fact that nobody has any evidence of dead bodies being raised by gods is hardly a 'rigorous argument' either, according to Walters.

Tim Henderson said...

Steven Carr said:

"Of course Walter would simply laugh at the idea that aliens beamed up the body of Jesus.

But what rational argument can he deploy against that, given his viewpoint that anything at all is plausible for people who will believe in anything at all?"

I'm sure that Walter can speak for himself on this, too. But one can think of plenty of places where this analogy to the alleged resurrection of Jesus falls short. For example, were their people who very likely ,if not certainly, knew and interacted with Jesus who claimed that Jesus had been abducted by aliens? Were their people who shaped their entire theology and praxis on the basis of their belief that Jesus had been beamed up into a flying saucer or some such alien spacecraft?

This is not to be some sort of proof for Jesus' resurrection, but simply to serve as a way to show how the analogy is inappropriate.

Steven Carr went on to say:

"The mere fact that nobody has any evidence of dead bodies being beamed up by aliens is hardly a 'rigorous argument'.

After all, the mere fact that nobody has any evidence of dead bodies being raised by gods is hardly a 'rigorous argument' either, according to Walters."

There is evidence of dead bodies being raised by gods, but that need not force us to accept the evidence as probative in such a way that it compels belief.

I think conversation on this is impossible if either side labels the other as irrational or unscientific. Surely we can all recognize that intelligent, thoughtful, sincere individuals can arrive at different conclusions when examining the evidence on this.

Steven Carr said...

'For example, were their people who very likely ,if not certainly, knew and interacted with Jesus who claimed that Jesus had been abducted by aliens? Were their people who shaped their entire theology and praxis on the basis of their belief that Jesus had been beamed up into a flying saucer or some such alien spacecraft?'

CARR
How is that an argument against the idea that Jesus was not beamed up by a god, but was beamed up instead by aliens?

We may as well accept that it is historically proven that Prince Philip is a god, because some people's entire theology and praxis is based on that belief.

Walters is unscientific.

He claims we should just ignore all evidence.

'Even if every swan you've seen up till now is white, that is no guarantee that there will not be a black one in your next observation.'

And if the sun has risen every day up till now in your experience, there is no guarantee that the sun has risen every day in the past...


Walters claims 'All this means is that it is perilous to make generalizations on the basis of experience.'

You can forget about rational discussion with people who claim that there is no basis for rational discussion.

Steven Carr said...

WALTERS
Even if every swan you've seen up till now is white, that is no guarantee that there will not be a black one in your next observation.

CARR
And nobody has ever seen a minotaur.

Should we then accept old fables about minotaurs, and consider them to be possibly true?

JD Walters said...

For a long time I've looked for evidence that Steven Carr has actually had an education, but so far I'm coming up very short. Steve, please read and possibly memorize key portions of "Reliable Reasoning" by Gilbert Harman and Sanjeev Kulkarni before you open your mouth again about my stance on the philosophy of science. Bas Van Fraasen's "The Empirical Stance" should also be required reading. You really don't know what you are talking about.

Steven Carr said...

I see Walter cannot provide a rational reason why historians should consider that God can raise a body, but not consider that aliens can raise a body.

Other than that he believes in gods, but does not believe in aliens.

What sort of supernatural explanations do Gilbert Harman ,and Sanjeev Kulkarni and Bas Van Fraasen think are viable when doing history?

Steven Carr said...

WALTERS
And I haven't even begun to touch upon the question of whether a theistic God such as that which Jews, Christians and Muslims believe in would be likely to perform an act like the resurrection ..

CARR
Please do touch upon whether the god that Muslims and Jews believe in would be likely to perform an act like the resurrection.

Why do Christians say their God would be likely to perform an act like the resurrection?

Because the Bible says so.

How do they know that the Bible is relating historical fact here?

Because Christians say their God would be likely to perform an act like the resurrection.

Are such circular arguments to be accepted in academia?

Muslims claim their god would be very likely to reveal scripture to Muhammad.

Does Walters think that this belief of Muslims about what their god would do is even a factor to be considered by historians?

JD Walters said...

Steve,

I'm in a generous mood so I've decided to humor you. I actually am open-minded about the existence of advanced technological civilizations elsewhere in the Universe. For all we know alien civilizations may very well exist. But I don't think that aliens, however advanced their technology, working WITHIN the physical realm as we know it (which could include other dimensions and bubble universes with different physical laws) could have made the disciples believe what they did about what had happened to Jesus. It's that simple. It's not that "I believe in gods but not in aliens."

I did not mention Harman, Kulkarni and Van Fraasen to appeal to their views of supernatural explanations (the first two actually taught the class I took on learning theory and epistemology). I referred you to them to get your ideas straight about what the problem of induction implies about our handling of evidence, since you clearly have very screwy ideas about that.

"Please do touch upon whether the god that Muslims and Jews believe in would be likely to perform an act like the resurrection."

Um, the early Christians got their theological vocabulary from Jewish notions of resurrection. They thought it was an act of the Jewish God vindicating his Jewish anointed one. I'm tempted to belt out a big loud 'duh' but that would be to stoop to Carr's level of rhetoric.

You clearly misunderstood what I meant by referring to the God that Christians, Jews and Muslims believe in. I was talking about a God with certain attributes, such as omniscience and omnipotence, however they are understood. I wasn't referring to the specific theological traditions, which clearly differ in their expectations of what God would do.

And if you think Christians believe God would be likely to perform an act like the resurrection "just because the Bible says so", you desperately need to read Richard Swinburne's "The Resurrection of God Incarnate".

And that's it. I'm tired of responding to this nonsense.

Steven Carr said...

So Walters rules out the possibility of the body of Jesus being raised by aliens, because people 2000 years ago believed in gods , but not aliens.

And because Muslims of today believe in gods, but not aliens.

This seems a strange reason for historians to prefer one ludicrous explanation over another.


The very scholars he chides me for not reading do not allow for any supernatural explanations in history.

Why should I accept something that his very teachers do not accept?


Once Walters gets his way and gods are allowed in historical explanations, you may as well pack in doing history.

Steven Carr said...

WALTERS
Um, the early Christians got their theological vocabulary from Jewish notions of resurrection. They thought it was an act of the Jewish God vindicating his Jewish anointed one. I'm tempted to belt out a big loud 'duh' but that would be to stoop to Carr's level of rhetoric.

CARR
Ignoring the insults, Walters seems to bm to be claiming that Jews of 2,000 years ago thought that God would resurrected indivisual people before the general resurrection.

How else can Walters support his claim that Jews believe in a god who is likely to have resurrected Jesus?

chad said...

April,

At the risk of reheating a now cooled debate and perhaps further riling your confessional Christian interlocutors, who continue to grasp at straws with appeals to philosophy of science, definitions of inductive reasoning, and the like (all, by the way, standard and now tiresome postmodern apologetic tactics) in their defense of bodily resurrection as a "unique" event, I wish to call attention to a more fundamental issue in any discussion of the “resurrection” of Jesus - the arguably problematic modern semantic range of this English word.

As the Greek readers in your audience should know, this word stems (via Latin resuscitāre and resurgere) from two Greek verbs: anistēmi and egeirō (cf. Hebrew qum). From these well-attested verbs in LXX and GNT, we derive the notions of “stand up,” “rise,” “raise up,” “rouse,” “restore,” “set up,” or even “awake” (each usually in the quite mundane sense of things). Of course, such prosaic usages would doubtless have also been imbued with other symbolic meanings. However, I doubt that many Christian commentators - both those with and those without control of ancient Greek - have really pondered these words and their import apart from the KJV-influenced semantic range or even from a non-Christian (modern and/or ancient) perspective. Moreover, I doubt that, in the case of, say, the Corinthians (i.e., “pagans”) and their disdain for a resuscitated corpse, many commentators even consider that folks in antiquity could misunderstand the meanings or semantic range of words (theologically tinged or not) – just as folks do today. This latter point in general is rarely mentioned in studies of Paul or Christian Origins. In fact, the notion of misunderstanding in this sense, it seems to me, must be taken into account in any responsible study (whether confessional or secular) of, say, the so-called “Gentile Mission” or really any first-century dissemination of the Christian “gospel” and its subtleties to those without a “Jewish” or “Christian” mindset. (Anecdotally, I cannot help but think – in a more trivial sense – of "The Life of Brian" with its “Blessed are the Cheesemakers.”) But seriously, it is likely that across the Greco-Roman world the Greek verbs anistēmi and egeirō (and their derivatives) were not wholly refined in the “Christian” sense, but were largely culturally refined. Perhaps, then, some of what we witness in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, for example, is just as much a rhetorical struggle over the “meaning” of the word egeirō(cf. 1 Cor.15:4, 20) as a presentation and reiteration of Pauline “theology.”

Now I am not arguing that anistēmi and egeirō did not or could not signal bodily “resurrection” in the modern Christian sense in the first century. I simply call attention to an issue that is certainly under-discussed, and an issue that would fit well with your suggestion about rethinking the problem of “ante-eschaton” resurrection in first-century Judaism.

Finally I submit that, as much as it may pain some Christians and Christian scholars to do so, the polysemy of “resurrection” in ancient usage must be factored into any modern reconstruction of Jesus’ supposed postmortem appearances.

Thanks.

chad