Thursday, July 5, 2007

To Babel and back, part 1

This series of posts will introduce the concept of the blog. Part one surveys the history of biblical interpretation in the modern West.

1. The Normative Era:

People used to know things by consulting the Holy Bible. For example, if some scientist told you that the earth was millions of years old, you could whip out your Bible and prove him wrong.

The Bible was normative. Everyone agreed that the Bible was true; and truth can't contradict truth, right? So science had to agree with the Bible.

2. The Critical Era:

Eventually sceptics began to subject the Bible to critical scrutiny. For example, that question about the age of the earth wouldn't go away. New evidence was adduced to show that the earth is older than anyone would deduce from Genesis.

Theologians adapted. Maybe there are gaps in the Genesis genealogies, they reasoned. Maybe one "day" of creation actually refers to an "epoch". But the questions only multiplied:  evidence began to mount that the Bible wasn't absolutely trustworthy after all.

The assault from science was formidable enough, but then came historical criticism. It began to undermine confidence in texts that were critical to theology.

In the Hebrew scriptures, salvation is grounded in the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt. But did the Exodus really happen? All those plagues? The death of every first-born son in Egypt, and no trace of it in secular histories?

(In my view, the Exodus is simply too ancient an event to withstand critical scrutiny. Faith may say that it happened, but there is no independent evidence to corroborate the biblical account.)

For a while, Jesus was sacrosanct. Everyone shrank from criticizing the Gospels. But in 1778, Reimarus opened the floodgates. Critical scholars began to ask, for example, whether Jesus really walked on water.

And did he really claim to be God, or was that merely a myth, introduced later by Jesus' followers? The importance of historical criticism can scarcely be overstated:  it struck a savage blow at the very roots of Christian faith.

3. The Relativizing Era:

First, the assault from science; then, historical criticism; now, globalization. Globalization matters for religion because it exposes us to all the other traditions out there. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, native religions:  a veritable smorgasbord of religious traditions, most of them with a venerable history. And all of it is now available at your local Chapters!

The result:  a descent into Babel. A cacophony of voices, all talking at once, each trying to make itself heard over the others.

Exposure to many traditions has called all of them into question. Christians offer a narrative account of how the cosmos came into being, what went wrong with it, and how God will rescue us in the end. But what's so special about that? The Dalai Lama has a competing narrative; American Indians have one of their own; Mormons have still another; and so on and so forth.

Every religion is equally convinced that its narrative is true. The effect is to relativize all of them:  my narrative doesn't look so special anymore.

Science weighs in with its authoritative opinion, claiming that all of the sacred texts are equally bogus. Science profers a narrative of its own. There is no god; the cosmos is billions of years old; all living creatures evolved from the humblest, single-celled organisms; evolution has no end goal (it is not purposive); human beings are an accident of nature; inevitably, the cosmos will collapse back onto itself, and that will be that!

Science has its own epistemology, too:  reason and the scientific method are the only sure guides to knowledge. But here's where the story takes an unexpected twist:  from a post-modern perspective, the scientific narrative is as suspect as any other:
Science has been under unprecedented attack with the rise of postmodernism. Both in academic circles and in popular culture, we see today a contempt for the sciences that many find hard to understand. Science is viewed as the vanguard of European exploitation, a discipline run amok, the instigators of nuclear and other weapons systems, the handmaiden of big business, and as the defilers of nature.
Postmodernists argue that the ideal of the scientist as a neutral, objective observer is pretentious. There is no such thing as an uninterpreted "fact"; and the interpreter of that "fact" is always biased:
Hypotheses do not simply rise up from raw data. Instead, they originate in the mind of the observer, who then imposes the hypothesis upon the data as a way of organizing it.
In sum, we have all arrived in Babel together:  Christians and Muslims; Mormons and Buddhists; mystics and scientists; theists and atheists. No one's opinion is normative anymore.

4. Triangulating a way out of Babel:

I do not believe Christianity has cornered the market on truth. Nonetheless, I am a Christian:  which is to say, that is the tradition that I operate out of.

My method (which I will explore in subsequent posts in this series) is to rely on three approaches to knowledge.
  • Theological first principles.

  • Careful exegesis rooted in historical criticism.

  • Ultimately, I employ the texts as narratives which provide a necessary counterbalance to the presumptions of the modern, secular West.
Thus there are three elements to my method. We might describe the process as triangulating our way out of Babel, since there are three points at which we will seek to establish our bearings.

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Jamie said...

I like this post. I just started my first ever New Testament course and am for the first time getting an orderly and self-contained overview of the history of NT criticism. It gets awfully deep awfully fast.

Two questions:

What are "theological first principles"?

Are the narratives you employ to "provide a necessary counterbalance to the presumptions of the modern, secular West" more true than those presumptions of the West? Or is it all still relative? (Or do you dislike the question altogether? ;-)

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Or do you dislike the question altogether? ;-)

I dislike all your questions, because they're too darned penetrating. Now I know what other people feel like when I start putting their views under a microscope!

• Re "theological first principles" —
I will come back to that in a subsequent post. When I wrote this post, I was thinking of the core elements of salvation history in the respective testaments.

In the Old Testament, that would be the events associated with the Exodus: deliverance from Egypt, making a covenant, giving the Law, conquest of the promised land. In the New Testament, it would be the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ.

The point is, I find the big picture trustworthy (even if the historicity of the Exodus cannot be corroborated from extra-biblical sources). The supporting details are much more problematic, but Christian faith doesn't turn on those.

Are the narratives you employ … more true than those presumptions of the West? Or is it all still relative?

I wouldn't use the word relative. But I think it's all ultimately uncertain and therefore we are confronted with a choice to believe or not believe.

There is sufficient evidence to make faith reasonable, but not enough to foreclose the alternative possibilities. At some point, we must stake our lives on what we believe to be true, even in the absence of certainty.

Jamie said...

I dislike all your questions, because they're too darned penetrating.

Ha...that's the same sentiment I have just about every time you post a comment on my blog. So we're even! :-)