11 January 2009

historicity and faith ...

Posted by at 1:40 PM Read our previous post

I've been monitoring a few discussions about historicity (that of Jesus among other things) and have been meditating on a few things that I'd like to blog (I love the twenty-first century C.E. :) :

Christianity, like Islam and Judaism, is a religion that purports to be rooted in history. Churches have been teaching that the Bible is history for a long time. While the extreme literalism of modern Statesian* fundamentalism is a rather late phenomenon, people throughout the history of the Christian tradition have found no need to question whether Moses or Noah or even Jesus were real people whose stories are basically historical. It was taken for granted.

Then came the scientific revolution, bringing with it more-or-less reliable methodical tools with which to observe, measure, compare, and contrast the data all around and within us: Botany, sociology, physics, archeology, geology, psychology, evolutionary theories . . . telescopes, computers, carbon-dating, historical method... I could go on.

But the once-ubiquitous view that the Bible was basically true in all its parts turned out, once these new methodologies and instruments were turned on these sacred stories themselves, to not be true after all.

So I've been wondering: Why is it that despite the geologists telling us that there very probably was no such thing as a global flood in our human history, and archeologists telling us that there very probably was no such thing as a Mosaic exodus or a Hebraic invasion of Canaan as painted in the ancient texts . . . Despite these and countless other things . . . Why didn't the scientific paradigm lessen the Bible's authority in society? One would expect it to. No?

Perhaps it did not because, despite the best efforts of theohistorical apologists like N.T. Wright, William Lane Craig, Ben Witherington III, Lee Strobel, and others who follow in their wake, people don't seem to require such historical verisimilitude in their faith after all.

Over the last few centuries, people have gradually come to accept that the Bible is a human artifact, subject to the same laws of physics and time and human nature as other artifacts, and they have no problem with knowing that Noah's flood, Jonah's fish, and even Jesus' resurrection, are allegories designed to edify and to pass on moral traditions and not necessarily historical reports. The historicity of Noah is completely unimportant to religion. The fact that it didn't happen in history does not detract from the dramatic, rhetorical functions of the story. The same applies to much in the scriptures. Granted, this gradual process of acceptance is not finished yet, and every once in a while we feel a pang, a tremor in the faultline of our religious commitments (with its accompanying aftershocks—old habits die hard), but, generally speaking, people don't really need their faith to be historically derived.

So why do these aforementioned apologists try so hard to prove things historically? What compels them to go to such convoluted lengths?

Just as the value of St Veronica or St George as symbols does not depend on their historicity—they are not diminished by our deductions that they are very likely legendary fictional characters. The symbol is way more important than the historical matrix that it germinates in. It is the poetry of the narrative that matters. Except among a relatively limited circle of scholars and intellectuals, the modern, scientific, paradigm has had very little impact on religion, as I see it. Higher criticism and its resultant adaption of its christologies and affirmations might be a cool intellectual exercise, but religion is way bigger than the academy. Neither theology nor historiography will help the common earthling raise his kids or order her life, and these more mundane functions the great religions continue to serve, effectively to some degree, for humanity. (Too bad we're still just selfish monkeys - Oh woeful fall! — but i digress :)

I think it is inevitable that religions will continue on for as long as humans are capable of weaving story out of mystery. If the scientific method didn't kill religion, nothing will. And I think that Christianity will survive in some form appropriate to the coming zeitgeist. Eventually, though, I think that YEC fundamentalists (and their Muslim and Zionist counterparts) will go the way of the flat-earthers and phrenologists of old. Bad science, faulty methodology, is just that easy to point out . . . Y'know?

Then again, who can predict these things?

But I think that in the end, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell will be proved right in their relegating all faith systems to the same meaning-seeking impulse in the human heart and mind.

We need stories, even when we know they are just stories.



1 comment:

  1. Sorry to be commenting around your blog on these old posts. It had been a while since I had browsed around and am finding some interesting stuff I didn't notice before.

    "So why do these aforementioned apologists try so hard to prove things historically? What compels them to go to such convoluted lengths?"

    That perplexes me no end. I am even more perplexed by authors I have been reading like Peter Enns and Kenton Sparks who honestly admit the truth about the bible being a human artifact, but hold on to a form of inspired "inerrancy" of the bible in it being God's Word to people. I think the historicity is very hard for many to let go of.

    I have been told by some that it is OK to let go of the historicity of the bible, just believing it symbolically, as long as you believe in the "essential core doctrines." Which I think means you can let it all go literally except for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Which at that point is such blatant special pleading that I could never persuade myself of.


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