Thursday, December 18, 2014

On Epistemology and Historicity

I was reading Raphael Lataster's piece in the Washington Post today, and I was immediately struck by two things:

  1. For someone who distrusts the Gospels and the Pauline Corpus as useful in establishing the historicity of Jesus, he quotes from them a bit.
  2. The evidence for his nonexistence is as thin as the evidence for his existence, perhaps thinner.

Of course another thing altogether is this breathtaking dismissal, "Believers, who uphold the implausible and more easily-dismissed “Christ of Faith” (the divine Jesus who walked on water), ought not to get involved." Well, I never like being told what to do ...

But let me take a step back for a moment. It is a perfectly legitimate academic exercise to question to the historicity of religious figures. Did Buddha really exist? Lao Tze? Muhammad? John the Baptist? Herod the Great? More of the latter two in a bit. It is perfectly legitimate to question, because if someone did not exist, that provokes profound questions in and of itself. The first question one has right off the bat is ... if Buddha or Christ didn't exist ... why did their religions come about at all? Dr Lataster seems to offer one possible narratives as to why: the  writers "... eager to promote Christianity," and those willing to edit Josephus.

If Dr Lataster has provided a rubric to test historicity for Jesus, then we should be able to use this rubric with others. I mentioned Herod the Great and John the Baptist. Aside from the Christian Gospels (hmmm....) we only have scant other sources for their existence, and one of them is, you guessed it, Josephus. Cassius Dio is another source for Herod, but as you know ... he was born long after Herod died (160 CE, in fact). John the Baptist is covered a lot more extensively in Josephus than is Christ. Indeed, one wonders if these Christian editors were busy little bees dressing up Josephus and Tacitus, why didn't they edit/excise this oddity? In fact when we really apply this rubric what we're left with is maybe nobody before 37 CE (Josephus' birth) existed. Or perhaps we shall try to apply it to someone else. How about Muhammad? The Qu'ran never actually mentions his name once. There are no eyewitness accounts ... later "biased" writers and so on. Hmm. It seems to me all this rubric really does is show how hard it really is to demonstrate anyone existed (try it yourself on other figures from Antiquity. Are the Phillipics really accurate reflections of what Cicero said, or did he dress them up later after some l'esprit d'escalier? Did he never exist, or did his career as an orator never exist? Especially when you consider some question whether his letters are genuine ... But I could go on and on ). Not, in the end, all that useful, perhaps.

The scholars, it seems to me, have made a conscious choice to take any of these first and second century with a certain grain of salt, but not dismiss them outright either. And in some ways, without realising it, so has Dr Lataster. He dismissed out of hand the "the hypothetical (i.e. non-existent) sources behind them" i.e. Q I must presume, but that same scholarly apparatus that thinks Q must have existed is also part and parcel why scholars think books like Thessalonians were written before the Gospels. He takes those theories with a certain grain of salt, but he still does. Put another way, he himself is guilty of the very thing he chides the other scholars for doing.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Mandos and the Reformation

..and [Manwë] said: ‘...Thus even as Eru spoke to us shall beauty not before conceived be brought into Eä, and evil yet be good to have been.’
But Mandos said: ‘And yet remain evil ...’
The Silmarillion

I think about these lines whenever Reformation Day comes along in the Calendar. For Papists such as I, it is (this year) the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time. But for Protestants of various stripes it is the day to commemorate the Reformation.

It is undeniable that good did come out of the Reformation. We would never have had a Counter-Reformation without a Reformation. Nor would we have had Choral Evensong or Anglican Chant, or a whole host of other things. Much beauty not before conceived has indeed made it into the World. And I do sincerely pray that evil can be turned to good. But to rip apart the Body of Christ no matter how noble the goals or noble the intent is, as Mandos says, still an evil. The Protestant elves felt justified, and certainly in our ballad their reasons were far more profound than Fëanor’s kin were in the book. And neither side will ever agree to whether they left or were pushed. And no one can deny the triumphs achieved by the Protestant elves in our ballad in the collective war against Morgoth.

But the tearing up of the Body of Christ is a kind of kin-slaying. For the Lord clearly desired that we all be one (Jn 17:21). And he provided means of achieving reconciliation (e.g.Mt 5:24) that do not involve taking your things and going elsewhere. Even anathemas (1 Cor 5:5) are meant to be temporary (2 Cor 2:7), ending in reconciliation. Now it ought to be said that should you stick it out even if they are so totally wrong? Is it not better to enter heaven with one eye rather than burn with two? (Mk 9:47) If your brother won’t reconcile with you, what do you do?

The Church throughout the years has adopted a number of different strategies for dealing with those who do not agree with her teachings. Clearly some have worked better than others as the old joke about the difference between Dominicans and Jesuits attests. And it is without a doubt that the differences that divide us still do matter.

Nevertheless, while my Protestant brothers and sisters celebrate, I am sad. I wait for the day when the Protestant elves will sail back across the sea into the West. For whatever beauty may be wrought, and while “evil yet be good to have been,” the wound in the Body of Christ still remains an evil.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Fascinating Debate on Islam

Both Patrick Madrid and David Schütz put me onto this most interesting discussion. The question is whether the only good Muslim is a "bad" Muslim. I strongly recommend it.

Patrick Madrid has a few interesting things to say on this: here.

David Schütz mentions it in a fascinating article on the book mentioned in the debate: here

UPDATE: I updated the link to David Schütz's blog. WordPress rather abruptly took it down, but he's back at a new address.

Pope Issues New Apostolic Exhortation on Scripture

Today, Pope Benedict XVI released an apostolic exhortation titled Verbum Domini: Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. Click here for a link to the document in pdf form. (Catholic Culture is the source I used to obtain the link, from their story here.)

It seems a fortuitous opportunity to let you know about a personal project I have undertaken since All Saints' Day. On November 1st, I started a "Read the Bible in a Year" project that uniquely also ties into the Catechism. You can find the plan here. I highly recommend it.

For my Bible I am using the The New Jerusalem Bible: Saints Devotional Edition, which I acquired several years go. I know the NJB has numerous problems, but this edition does much to mitigate them. Most of the notes and all of the introductions are ditched in favour of very few notes (mostly of the cross-referencing kind, and occasionally of the 'this word could also be X' kind). The real strength is Dr Ghezzi's inserting works by the various saints (not a few of whom are Fathers of the Church) throughout as commentaries on various passages. There are 100 Old Testament commentaries, and 100 New Testament Commentaries. All of them are thoroughly orthodox. It really makes reading the Scriptures an enriched experience, and does much to rescue the New Jerusalem version. One thing though that strikes me from time to time ... It's clear in not a few places that the Fathers and other Saints understood the verses in ways modern scholarship poopoos. So for example "Only-begotten Son" in Jn 1:18 and that sort of thing, which means the commentary has to quote a different version entirely. Somewhat defeats the purpose of the commentaries complementing yours when they have to quote someone else.

To return to the Apostolic Exhortation, when I am done reading it, I will post some observations.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Apologia pro Nostra Aetate

Some time ago, my friend Pr. Lehmann declared that Nostra Aetate (Latin text, English text) was “the most satanic document ever written by the Christian Church.” Now, it will come as no surprise that not only do I disagree, I happen to find it to be an eminently Biblical Document. In fact, it reminds me of one passage in particular; a passage from which it derives its ideas and even its structure. The passage in question is Acts 17:22-33, St. Paul's great speech upon the Areopagus of Athens (the Mars Hill of the Authorised Version).

Let us consider the passage first and then how the Conciliar Document interacts with it. St Paul begins by praising the Athenians for their scrupulous religiosity (the Authorised Version and the Challoner revision* of the Rheims version both imply Paul mocks them for their superstition, but in fact he praises them) by noting that they are so thorough as to worship an “unknown god.” And then he says one of the most startling things, “this god you worship unknowingly, Him I proclaim to you.” This one statement gives the lie to people who assert that either you worship the Trinity or you worship Satan. For Paul himself states it is possible to worship God incompletely and not even have any experience of His revelation in either the Old Testament alone or the Old and New Testaments. For, the Athenians knew neither. And yet, Paul declares that although defective, their unknown god was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. St Paul then goes on to preach to them using Scripture, but not our Scripture. The Scriptures Paul quotes are pagan. “In him we live and move and have our being” is Epimenides of Crete, whom Paul again quotes in Titus (the famous statement that all Cretans are liars) where he describes him as a prophet. “We are indeed his offspring” is from Aratus' Phaenomena . And in this great speech, which converted a number of people like Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris, he mentions Christ never by name, but only in passing. Indeed, he exclusively uses pagan reasoning, pagan verbiage, pagan scripture, pagan concepts, etc.

Now why is this important? Because we are often told, either outright or by implication, that if you're not Christian then you have no truth at all and worship Satan. But the Catholic position, articulated in Nostra Aetate and drawing heavily from Paul's example, is that while other religions cannot save, they are not totally devoid of truth either. God calls out to Man, a point made by Paul, and they grope about for him. Some people get it completely right by becoming Christians, but others, even in their ignorance, can see some parts of the truth, while not grasping it entirely. But it is a foundation that can be built upon. And that's what Paul does. He takes those points of intersection, where the Greeks grasped at but did not yet come to the truth, and Paul pointed them in the right direction. And I still marvel that he did so, he brought people to Christ, and yet never mentioned Christ by name. Indeed, Christ is hardly noted by the people; the point of contention that causes people to mock Paul is his assertion of the Resurrection. Nostra Aetate goes farther even than Paul; Nostra Aetate says very clearly that “[i]ndeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.” Paul doesn't even mention salvation, but Nostra Aetate does, and makes it the central pivot point around which the whole document revolves.

Like Paul, Nostra Aetate talks about those points of intersection between other religions and the Christian religion. It does not, as some assert, claim that other religions are equally as valid, or that they can save. A careful reading shows that these assertions are made about the document but are absent from it. Rather, it notes, for example, that the Muslims are monotheistic, wish to be associated with Abraham, revere Christ (though not as God), have special regard for Christ's Mother, etc. All of these statements are true, and are also points to build upon. The Catholic position is toward “positive proselytism,” building upon the common points where the Other has grasped partially the truth so the Other can be brought to its fullness. At the same time, Nostra Aetate takes great pains to distance itself from mistakes of the past. For example, Nostra Aetate makes this quite clear: “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” The preceding quote being a reference to all the terrible tragedies associated with Blood Libel and the like. In the final assessment, the Council Fathers took the position that emulating Paul would lead more souls to Christ. If the Council Fathers issued a Satanic document, then it is because Paul gave a Satanic speech.

But how can this be? St. Luke, who recorded it, praises it as winning people to Christ. And he didn't say, “many came to believe in spite of Paul's abject surrender to Satan's power.” Clearly, the Holy Ghost, who inspired Luke, thinks that Paul's speech was praiseworthy. But maybe Paul was playing a joke on the people, or maybe he deceived them for some reason. Really? This is how we win people to Christ? By deception? We are left, unfortunately for some, with the clear warrant of Scripture that what Paul and the Council Fathers did was not Satanic at all. Now, I am sure we'll be told that some pluperfect, some preposition, some adverbial phrase in Ephesians or the Gospel of St John says this or that. But I tell you now that's just missing the Gospel Forest for a few grammatical trees. What did Paul plainly do? What did the Council Fathers plainly do in emulating the Apostle?

I can tell you that it involves Satan; his defeat to be precise.

*I have no idea what the original Rheims version said on this point, as I don't have a text to consult.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What's wrong?

After a long hiatus, I'm going to write about an opportunity missed, and why it is part and parcel of what ails us.

Before I begin it is important to note that the readings for Sunday were Gn 18:1-10a, Col 1:24-28, and Lk 10:38-42. These three readings are about the relationship between Faith and diakonia (i.e. ministry, service). Abraham, in the Lesson, serves the three strangers for selfless love of them. He does not know the truth of their identity, and serves them even though he is ignorant. His is a truly selfless love. But it still appears to be primarily about meeting the needs of the "flesh" rather than the "Spirit" as St Paul would distinguish. But the Gospel reading helps make this clearer. It is a commentary on the Lesson. The Gospel reading is very hard on us Moderns. We listen to this proclaimed and are affronted. How unjust for poor Martha! She's busting her mmhmmm to serve Jesus and He seems to snub her. But ... is that really what goes on? This Gospel lesson is not to poo-poo Martha's service per se, it's perfectly salutary to serve others. But the point Christ makes is that it should be done in a context where Faith, and literally listening to the Word of God is central. Mary listens first to the Word, literally, before engaging the world in its toils. And thus the Gospel informs the Epistle. This is how St Paul is able to "fill up that which is lacking in the sufferings of Christ" by service that is Christ-focused and Christ-centered. It started with Christ and returns to Him. And so we come full circle to the Lesson, where we now realise that Abraham's diakonia was worthy of reward because of how Christ-like it was. He who yearned for a Saviour acted most like him in this selfless service, precisely because it did not just meet the needs of the "flesh" but, as it were, proclaimed the Gospel even before it was proclaimed by Christ.


This brings me to what struck me on Sunday. Immediately after we profess our Faith, using the ancient and yet still ever-present formula of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, we then offer up a set of prayers that are supposed to pray for the corporate needs of the particular parish. All of the prayers were ones for God to meet needs of the "flesh." Examples included that political leaders respect the poor and marginalised, that those who are financially distressed receive relief from their distress, that our military in harm's way be protected from harm and come safely home, and that the sick and their caregivers be a source of healing and comfort to each other. These are fine in and of themselves -- who does not want our troops to come safely home? -- but is there anything particularly Christian about them? Could atheists not offer the same sentiments? I'll return to that question. What about something like "... bring them safely home, and may they spread the Gospel wherever they are sent in thought word and deed"? This is not fashionable. I can see the papers decrying our troops being used as missionaries with guns. But that's not what I just prayed for. Rather I want someone out there in the far-flung reaches of the globe to see our troops living the Gospel and thus ask the question "why does he love like that? How can I love like that?" and thus come to be saved.

This is more than just an opportunity lost, although it is certainly that. I ask again the question, could not an atheist or other secular person offer those sentiments? Yes. And that's the problem. That's one of the main reasons so many churches are hurting. Many of our leaders in the Faith are out there involved in protests, activism and so on. And defending the downtrodden, the marginalised etc are certainly within the mandate given us by Christ. But, if that's all being a nun or a priest is ... if that's all being a Catholic is ... just protesting and getting socially aware ... then we don't need to be Catholic, or priests, or nuns to do that. Secular people are just as capable of doing these things. If all we are is a socially-aware group of activists and charity workers, we don't even really need religion for any purpose, right? And so many people realised that very thing that vocations are down (and not just for those reasons, obviously, but it is certainly a major factor). But we do need the Gospel. We cannot be saved but by the Gospel. If we focus on the Gospel while being socially active, that's the one road to living in Imitation of Christ. But that means making the saving of the souls you engage a greater priority than just making sure you march for them. I have seen it time and time again that when the church emphasises the things of the "Spirit" first, and makes things Christ-centered and Christ-focused we have increased Mass participation, an increase in vocations and so on.

Surely there are many problems besides this that the Church needs to address and all of them urgently (obviously the abuse scandal comes to mind). But, in my mind, the single greatest thing the Church can do is to listen to Christ in the Gospel pericope. If our dioceses, religious orders and so on make Christ the focus, and meet the needs of the "Spirit" before meeting the needs of the "flesh" then it seems to me cleaning up other problems will necessarily follow.