Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Creating Jesus 2: Ground rules

Before we start on the adventure of determining how a Jewish rabbi became God, we need to establish the ground rules (our method and assumptions).

1. This is a critical venture, not an apologetic one. This is perhaps the most important ground rule we can put into place, and stick by at all costs. What the theologians back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries realized is that for the study of religion to be an academic enterprise comparable to the study of history or literature or the arts, it cannot be apologetic. If we want to understand how any religion comes into existence and grows, we cannot be invested in the promotion or rescue of that particular religion. We have to leave our own theological interests at the door.

2. We cannot grant special privileges to the religion we are studying. This means that we cannot allow for God to perform miracles when it is convenient for our explanations. We cannot suspend what we know to be scientifically true about our world and grant a religion special treatment or supernatural explanations. The critical study of religion is not about proving or defending one's own religious beliefs or the special claims of a particular religious community. It isn't about disproving them either. The critical study of religion does not amount to outsiders attacking what should not be attacked. It is about dealing fair and square with religion in an objective scientific manner using reason that relies on verifiable research, and not allowing for special knowledge of God, revelations, or privileges to be granted to the religion. For those people who want to use the post-modern avoidance strategy and argue that there is no objective truth but only pluralisms, well you need to go back and reread your philosophy and your science. Although the historical enterprise is recognizably subjective, this does not mean that it is unscientific or that it does not result in research that is as objective as possible.

3. We must suspend canonical thinking and boundaries. We must deal equitably with all of our ancient sources, having no preconceived judgments about them based on whether they are in or out of the bible, whether they support or deny traditional theological or christological formulations, and whether they were written by the winners or the losers in the battle over Christianity. There are no heretics or heretical literature, except in terms of how various historical groups may have perceived each other.

4. We begin with the assumption that Christianity did not fall out of the sky one day, but it originated on earth among human beings and developed in complex social, political, and religious environments.

5. The sources that have been left behind were written by human beings and reflect the complexity of the growth of Christianity.

6. Our sources are not neutral. They were not written to report objective factual history. They were written for a variety of reasons including apology and polemic and propaganda. They often reflect a communal interest, and thus do not necessarily tell us what happened but what the community wanted to happen, thought should happen, or wanted remembered about them.

7. Our sources are dependent on the human being, physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, socially. The stories they relate are the consequence of human experience and human memory which itself is a constructive process with many implications. Eyewitness testimony (even in those cases where we might have it in our sources) does not guarantee the "reliability" or "authenticity" of anything reported. Not only is intentional lying a possibility that we cannot simply set aside, but human memory (because it is a social constructive process) has been proven to distort. Social memory likewise.

With these ground rules in place, we will be ready to begin trying to figure out how Jesus became God.

29 comments:

Nick Kiger said...

I think number 4 is the most important, and sometimes the most forgotten!

Pastor Bob said...

"We cannot grant special privileges to the religion we are studying. This means that we cannot allow for God to perform miracles when it is convenient for our explanations. We cannot suspend what we know to be scientifically true about our world and grant a religion special treatment or supernatural explanations."

I certainly agree with the first sentence. The question I have is this: can we allow for the historical possibility that miracles have happened? I know it is impossible to prove a miracle has happened. How does one determine whether there is historical evidence that a miracle has happened? Or is that even possible?

The problem with saying that a miracle cannot happen is that it grants special privilege to a particular "religious" viewpoint. To say that miracle cannot happen is a religious statement. To say, on the other hand, that we cannot comment on whether miracles happened or not because there is no way to measure whether a miracle has happened or not may be a principle for doing history.

Pastor Bob said...

"If we want to understand how any religion comes into existence and grows, we cannot be invested in the promotion or rescue of that particular religion."

Also we cannot be invested in the rejection of a particular religion.

Jerome said...

Excellent! Looking forward to this :)

Nick Kiger said...

Pastor Bob,

I certainly see Dr. Deconick's point about miracles. I think she explains her point in number 7 when she says, "Eyewitness testimony (even in those cases where we might have it in our sources) does not guarantee the "reliability" or "authenticity" of anything reported. Not only is intentional lying a possibility that we cannot simply set aside, but human memory (because it is a social constructive process) has been proven to distort."

It seems the point she is trying to make is that we can only base our research upon what we know to be scientifically plausible. We know it is not possible for a human being to walk on water in 2009, thus we must assume that it was historically impossible for someone to walk on water in the first century. I don't see this granting any privilege to any particular religious view, because all it is doing is making a scientific observation about what is being claimed. Science can't really take a side. To attempt to claim that miracles could have happened takes you out of the realm of science and moves towards making claims based on faith, which is precisely what Dr. Deconick is trying to stay away from.

pascal said...

It appears that Pastor Bob is determined to derail the project at the outset; should s/he have some evidence to produce to prove the existence of events which cannot be explained by the laws of nature then it would be a different matter.

As things stand s/he has not only not produced any evidence of such an occurrence but has also claimed that to challenge the existence of this non-existent evidence is in itself a 'religious' viewpoint.

It isn't.

Just as expecting two sides of an equation to balance is not a 'religious' viewpoint...

Michael said...

I'm really looking forward to the coming conversation, and I do hope that all sides can keep their "gloves" on and pursue dialogue in a charitable manner. And, btw, I have no intention of "derailing" the conversation or getting hung up on miracles.

I'm happy that Dr. DeConick is moving forward with her posts and I find myself in large agreement with all points.

The question I have regards the tendency to bracket out a priori miraculous events as historically possible. Now, I said "possible" not "probable."

I believe that miracles can't be proven, and I think that we should approach the miraculous strands of the Jesus traditions very cautiously. But it seems to me that a more historically responsible response to miracles is a spirit of agnosticism, whether the purported miracle worker is Jesus of Nazareth or Honi MaM'agel (Honi the Circle-drawer).

Mike Koke said...

I'm excited to see your results too. I loved your article in "Israel's God and Rebeccah's Children" but I have some questions for you once you begin to cover some of the same ground later in this series.

pascal said...

It seems to me that the phrase 'a more historically responsible response to miracles' is gibberish; if Michael could provide an explanation of what s/he means by it I would be happy to respond.

Historically, calling upon a historian of any subject other than religion to accept the possibility of one or more miracles as an explanation of events would be met by derision...

Bob MacDonald said...

"They were written for a variety of reasons including apology and polemic and propaganda."

April - delighted to see the ground rules, always so difficult to put the razor's edge to the face...

Re the above - I think we should bear in mind that some stories, myths, miracles, and gospels were formulated because of, i. e., by reason of human joy.

Joy is also not provable, but its effects are seen. It may be misled, but it is a creative and positive reason.

Joy, of course, is also uncontrollable, and the religious might fear that "G-d would deprive the aged of discretion" as Job puts it (ch 12). So joy requires a bottle and a stopper to keep it subject to due order - hence the emergence of the new rules of the game. Joy is also not really shareable so it is suspect, and rules gain traction when the less joyful read the texts of joy and/or the powerful are threatened.

This likewise makes fear a reason for the emergence of a religion.

Michael said...

Pascal: I'll try to flesh out I meant. Here's a short attempt, as I'm overwhelmed with reading at the moment: It seems to me that to assume that this or that is IMPOSSIBLE is to immediately abandon an attempt an objectivity.

What I am hoping for is true objectivity. Bracketing out certain options as possible misses the mark in my opinion.

BTW - I'm not arguing that the miracles in the Jesus traditions are true. All I'm arguing is that the notion must be entertained that they are true, even if that position is later rejected on the basis of the evidence at hand.

Feel free to check out my blog for more of a response.

Steven Carr said...

Is one ground rule in examining how a Jewish rabbi became God, is never to address whether God became a Jewish rabbi?

pearl said...

These ground rules are wonderful.

Regarding points 5, 6, and 7, this might be stating the obvious, but in relation to concerns about reasons, reliability of eyewitness testimony, etc., we should consider the “how”, the vehicle of communication. For example, is a text passage intended to be an eyewitness account or rendering of an actual historical event or miracle, or are we looking at metaphor, mythology, allegory? Attempting to provide scientific or historical evidence for a miracle (or what was considered a miracle with available scientific knowledge at that time) might not be necessary if the literary purpose or device did not require a literal relaying of an actual historical event. And if the author’s intention is not objectively discernable, this could create another layer of ambiguity.

Judy Redman said...

I also reacted to the point about miracles. I think that another way of ensuring that you don't privilege a particular religion in this area is to accept that the people of the time believed that miracles were performed by certain people and to treat all reports of miracles in the same way. Thus, either you assume that no-one can perform miracles or you assume that every religious tradition had effective miracle workers. What you can't do is to say that Jesus and his followers performed miracles but no-one else did.

Even today things happen for which there is no satisfactory scientific explanation. Back then far more things were inexplicable.

If we are looking at how Jesus became God, one of the critical questions is whether divinity was attributed to him in part because many inexplicable things (miracles) happened around him or whether miracles were attributed to him because he was deemed to be divine. Given that other people of the time were also considered to be miracle workers and yet not deemed divine, I think it is probably more helpful to keep an open mind about miracles - no matter who is said to have performed them. And maybe some of the miracles really happened and have a scientific explanation and some were added after Jesus was deemed divine.

I actually don't think this is at odds with April's point 2. She says "we cannot allow for God to perform miracles when it is convenient for our explanation." This is not the same as saying that we cannot allow that things happened that people did not understand.

Nick Kiger said...

Well said Judy.

Michael said...

Ditto. Thanks for saying what I wanted to say better than I could say it.

Steven Carr said...

The miracle stories in the Gospels are perfectly explicable. See my article Miracles and the Book of Mormon for details.

The New Testament stories should be subject to the same checks that the Koran and the Book of Mormon are.

That is one of the ground rules.

There should be no special pleading that Jonah was a type of Jesus.

pascal said...

Judy

You are dispensing with the fundamental tenets of historical investigation with remarkable speed:

'accept that the people of the time believed that miracles were performed by certain people'

which 'people'?
which 'time'?
which 'certain people'?
what constituted a 'miracle'?

are unanswered questions which you apparently feel not to be questions at all.

Sweeping generalisations of this kind are wearily red-pencilled in schoolchildrens' essays; I see no reason to accept a lower standard in this discussion...

Jim Deardorff said...

Regarding rule #2, I agree with Judy's point. We should not say that this or that miracle could not have happened, since numerous but isolated miracles have been reported even in our own day. They're not repeatable, thus not scientifically provable, but nevertheless worthy of full consideration when the experiencers are credible people having nothing to gain from reporting their experience except possible derision. Who's to say that a particular, unique person could not have had the capability of performing what we regard as "miracles"?

mac said...

hanks Dr. DeConick for this new adventure!

Please check out a posting from "The Daily Galaxy" website link below. There you will find an Audio Program link that features an informative interview with Dr.Thomas Sheehan (Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford).

-- affirmation that Jesus was divine first arose among his followers long after his death

The audio link is located at the bottom of the posting and should open Windows Media Player.

Check it out at:

http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2007/03/the_resurrectio.html


Quote on Miracles: “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.”--Albert Einstein

Ed Jones said...

Ed Jones said

Clearly your ground rules counter every conceivable historical circumstantial item of evidence (going beyond even our "historian" author Mark - a Five Gospels quote: "Even the disciples are pictured as stubbon, dense, and self-serving - unable to fathom what he was .about") to suggest the ultimate counter to Eyewitness testimony: "Not only is intentional lying a possibility we cannot simply set aside - - ". Why say more?

mac said...

I noticed that the long URL that I posted earlier was cut off and of course won't work.

To hear the interview mentioned earlier, I modified the URL so hopefully it will work now.

http://snipurl.com/h3gsa

Pastor Bob said...

My point is that we "observe" events. We put our own interpretations on those events.

Nick Kiger says: "We know it is not possible for a human being to walk on water in 2009, thus we must assume that it was historically impossible for someone to walk on water in the first century."

We don't know that. It is the assumption of the scientific method that things always happen in a regular pattern. That assumption is necessary for the scientific method. But we can't prove that things don't happen outside of those regular patterns.

Besides, I'm not suggesting that we try to prove or disprove miracles. Clearly people through most of history, and many people today, believe that things happen that are not part of the regular patterns of the universe, that is what we call natural law. Whether those things happened or not is not part of the study of history because it is unprovable. That people in particular times and places believed those things happened is an important part of the study of history.

Let's look at a non controversial example. Many people in the Roman Empire, (throughout the Empire period before the division of the empire) believed that wearing an amulet protected the person against demons, the curses of others and disease. People outside of that time period and place also believed this but I'm limiting us to one area and one time period. We don't have to agree with them. But that people wore such amulets is a historical phenomena. We can ask a variety of questions about their belief and behaviors that were based on those beliefs.

It's the same thing with miracle stories in a variety of societies, including our own time. The Pope just named some people as saints and part of the process for becoming a saint in Roman Catholic tradition is that miracles happen when someone prays to the saint, etc. We don't have to agree with the Pope or the Roman Catholic Church. But we can observe the phenomena.

Isn't that the historians task: to observe and interpret the data?

pascal said...

Jim enquired

'Who's to say that a particular, unique person could not have had the capability of performing what we regard as "miracles"?'

Asking rhetorical questions is not a part of historical investigation, unsurprisingly, since historical investigation requires the formulation of rational questions.

You are perfectly entitled to hold whatever beliefs about miracles you wish to hold; what you are not entitled to is the acceptance by others that your irrational beliefs are rational...

Michael said...

Pascal: You said, "Asking rhetorical questions is not a part of historical investigation..."

Neither is vociferous rhetoric.

The discussions in these threads would be more effective if we would all keep things a bit more charitable. We don't have to agree, but it would be nice if we were all.... nice.

pascal said...

Pastor Bob enquired:

'Isn't that the historians task: to observe and interpret the data?'

thus omitting the single hardest task of the historian, which is to find the data in the first place.

People may hold a variety of irrational beliefs; anthropologists used to publish papers about the quaint beliefs of 'primitive' peoples until it dawned on them that our own beliefs may look just as quaint to an observer from those 'primitive' peoples. They still publish papers but the scholarship is rather better.

There is an unbridgeable gap between acknowledging the existence of irrational beliefs and concluding that the existence of those irrational beliefs makes them in some way more plausible.

Claiming that the laws of physics may not have applied to someone attempting to walk on water almost 2000 years ago is irrational; no physicist would regard it as anything other than special pleading on behalf of a religious group. And, when it comes to physics, I pay attention to the views of physicists...

CD-Host said...

Hi I always like to give notice when I blog about another blog so here is your notice :-)

Historical / critical method in 8 rules.

CD-Host said...

The problem with saying that a miracle cannot happen is that it grants special privilege to a particular "religious" viewpoint. Not really. There is stronger evidence for the fact that nature obeys laws and that the vast majority of supposed miracles never occurred than there is for most other historical analysis. If we assign a probability of lets say .0000000000001% that a particular miracle actually happened vs. say just rounding off to 0% it won't effect the analysis any.

To argue that supposed miracles are common requires refuting a great deal of data. To argue that a particular miracle happened requires refuting the high quality studies done of other comparable "miracles".

CD-Host said...

Who's to say that a particular, unique person could not have had the capability of performing what we regard as "miracles"? Because they wouldn't be a "person" at all they would be a different type of being that just looked like a person. If they can act like Maxwell's demon and perform high energy reactions without an energy source (like creating food for thousands of people out of raw materials instantly) they don't meet basic definitions of animal life like needing to burn sugar for energy. Why bother burning sugar?