Reading: Bart D. Ehrman (or, In Praise of the Historical Jesus programme)

I’ve lately been reading quite a few of the books by Bart D. Ehrman. Ehrman has the same story to set up most of his books, which are mostly about the same subject matter: the historicity of the Christian Bible. Like a bad Vonnegut novel, it starts off with the identical origin story. Ehrman grew up in a not particularly religious household, and then became evangelised as a teenager. Ehrman then went to religious colleges and was warned about ‘secular’ institutions which have course on bible study.


Eventually Ehrman widens his academic horizons and discovers philosophy and literature. Ehrman becomes the bible scholar but finds that his initial evangelical pretentions to the inerrance of the bible are predicated on premises such as: the book that we read today (i.e. what we can buy from bookshops, churches or online etc) has a long historical narrative as to how it came to be.


Ehrman explores the histories of early Christianity and finds a story of how certain narratives won in historical disputes and the result of that is the Christianity that we understand today. As someone reading Gibbon I can definitely recall the disputes of the likes of the Arians and the Donatists, how questions of Christology, Soteriology and Mariology (not the study of an Italian plumber) reveal deep schisms of belief between people and was hardly a dry scholarly issue at the time. The history of Late Antiquity is the story of how our Christianity of today came to be.


Let’s take a bit of a step back. I like Ehrman’s work, even though I haven’t read many of the commentators he’s referring to. I’m currently pacing through DF Strauss’s Life of Jesus Critically Examined at the moment. I find this fasincation with the Historical Jesus utterly fascinating for a few reasons. One is that it shows the success of Kant’s programme on religion. If we are to take the idea of moral religion seriously we have to then consider the historicity of the character of Jesus.


There’s a divide in the so-called apologetics of today where people try to use hokey rational arguments which don’t convince someone with a background in philosophy, and other arguments on the vein of William Lane Craig or William Alston or Malcolm Platinga which applies some pretty heavy metaphysics (which is always very attractive to me) to give arguments for the existence of God. Then there’s the other side of apologetics: claim that Jesus was an Historical figure.


Back in the turn of the 20th Century this tradition might have been called ‘Liberal Theology’ or ‘Protestant Theology’. I find it astounding that Atheist/sceptics have finally caught up with 19th Century Theology in the form of Bart D. Erhman. Many of the atheists of the 2000s had arguments which were no better than Hume in the 18th Century. When it comes to critique of religion, I always thought that the powerful arguments came from Kant, who came from within the spiritual and exegetical tradition to critique the articles of Christian faith. It is one thing to convince someone who has no background or interest in understanding a religion or any religion, but it takes another to see the logical extensions of what it means to have faith and see where it leads. Kant I take it, follows the latter route in his moral philosophy. It is often said that the liberal protestant tradition has come from Kant’s programmatic statements in the Religion within the bounds of Mere Reason work. I find the argumentative strategy in Ehrman’s book refreshing, as if atheism has their own ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’ of their own. As it happens, with the controversies and immense criticisms going towards people like Sam Harris and Bill Maher (on contemporary political issues) or Richard Dawkins (on his, perhaps one should refer to them as ‘social opinions’); perhaps we need a protestant movement within atheist intellectual circles to distance ourselves from their doctrines.


Destre returns from the mists to write this post


#AMDG , or On the Jesuit Pope

We are living in an age of so many unprecedented things it is too much of an effort to keep track of them all. I thought I would care to mention one unprecedented thing of significance to us, and that is the announcement of a Jesuit Pope, the first ever Jesuit Pope.


There are lots of different things I could address about the most recently appointed head of the Catholic Church: the fact that he is from Latin America; the issue of liberation theology, or the other issues that many in the public and the Church congregation which to have the new Pope address, such as celebacy, scandals in the Church or the role of women. I’m going to do the side-stepping thing of not discussing them for the purposes of this post, and only talk about two issues specifically. Firstly – the question of ‘Why Francis I as a papal name?’ and secondly What significance is there to a Jesuit Pope?. It should go without saying that this is a speculative exploration in the exercise of writing this piece.


Why Francis? 


When I heard that the Pope was named Francis the First. I immediately thought of one Saint. Unlike most of the commentators around the Vatican and in Catholic media, I considered Francis to take after Saint Francis Xavier, who is the patron saint of Goa, known for introducing Catholicism to India and Japan and one of the first Jesuits. We at Noumenal Realm considered it interesting that we have a particularly different relationships to Francis Xavier. For I consider him as one of the founders of the Society of Jesus foremost, while Michael considers Xavier as the missionary who brought Catholic Christianity to parts of Asia.


Many commentators likened the name to an association with Francis of Assisi, better known for love of animals and nature. The question of what’s in a name is a significant one – as one is a missionary going to the edges of the known world spreading values, and the other has more of a conscientious connotation. Perhaps it is like me always to overplay the Jesuit connection with everything!


A Jesuit Pope 


Ah the Jesuits, they live in poverty and obedience to the Pope. The Jesuits are sometimes called ‘God’s Marines’ due to their militaristic nature. The Jesuits have placed themselves in many educational institutions and have taken a large part in mission work historically. I grew up with tales of Jesuit adventure and the very real perils that they faced in their work, including beheadings. I also have memories of the Jesuits claiming that they had their own personal views about homosexuality and women being inducted to the priesthood, but must always submit whatever personal views they had to the authority of the Pope. I always saw that as freethinking within limitations. I also respected such freethought from what appears to be a very authoritarian order.


I’ll always have a bit of a rational blind spot about the Jesuits, as they made me who I am in very large ways: inspiring my interest in Classics, Theology and Systematic thinking. The Jesuits also taught me that you should live by ideals, which included adhering to them. One of the things that has been coming out about Francis I is the way that he enacts poverty to his real life. The way that Francis I takes austerity in his own living conditions and behaviour, dress and actions is embarrassing the status quo of how things are done and have been done in the Vatican. No more custom red shoes, no more elaborate stoles and no more popemobile? This is a Christianity that I was grown up to believe in, not one of rock-star like entourages and fancy clothes, but one where a concern with the poor means identifying with the poor in how one lives, eats, dresses and travels.


Living with a minimum, without too much extravagance, and dressing for simplicity was the way that I was taught by Jesuits, and the ideal that I saw Jesuits live by. I was told about how Jesuit teachers had a ‘common pot’ where they put their wages, which were used for things like food, personal travel and clothing expenses. Even my dress sense has been influenced by the Jesuits. Smart, but universal. Simple and utilitarian. Try not to be too flashy. Try dressing to be adaptable. Wear black.


The Jesuits live with orders to have obedience to the Pope, does that make a Jesuit Pope a contradiction? How is it that an individual Jesuit can have complete obedience to himself? This reminds me of that old saying from Meister Eckhart: Can God make a stone so big that he could not carry it?


Perhaps I am being more deferential than I should. It is also the case that there are many critical avenues that people wish to address the papacy. I choose just for this post to focus on the Jesuit angle, because if he’s anything like the Jesuits who taught me, there is definitely space for reform.


I suppose all one can do is keep eyes open. It’s also amusing to see #AMDG trending on twitter!



John Hick (1922-2012)

The news has been going aroud for a few days now that the philosophy and theologian John Hick has died over the last week. Hick’s breadth of topics were wide for a philosopher and the serious interplay between being a philosopher and a theologian (as opposed to one merely interested in issues of philosophy of religion) is very rare these days. My experience with Hick’s work came from his Christology and Eschatology initially when educated by the Jesuits.

At university, many people I was around would often speak of the ‘elephant’ analogy in casual, interfaith and non-theistic circles. The agenda of theologians and religious officials to take seriously the issue of pluralism and the engagement with other faiths was one taken seriously by one of my own theology lecturers at the time, Gavin D’Costa. The issue of other forms of Christianity as well as non-Christian religious believers reflects the ways in which diverse people engage and find common ground between each other, as well as within their own framework of belief, try to establish an understanding of their beliefs in relation to others. By taking a serious interest in the issue of religious pluralism as well as the great influence of his ideas, even among those who would vehemently disagree, Hick has made his historical mark as a prominent philosopher/theologian.

After university, I came across the issue of religious again, as I worked for a period in an interfaith setting, from the initial level of theoria to praxis, I found myself engaging with people who genuinely do find common ground yet disagree, and in their work on the ground in urban areas attempt to address the issue of how to deal with those of different faiths. I heard many experiences of how many faith, cultural and community representatives have come to deal with awkward disagreements or innocent questions from people unfamiliar with their religion.  Although many of the people I worked with engaged with vastly different approaches to religious pluralism to the likes of Hick, his ideas were often in the background.

Links: ‘Valuing the Humanities’ discussion, and Munk debate with Blair/Hitchens

In answering a query made by a previous comment, I submit two links pertinent to the Munk Debate on religion. The motion advanced was: religion is a force for good in the world. Promoting the case was Tony Blair, former UK prime minister and against, Christopher Hitchens. Here is the official Munk foundation webpage and here is a podcast from CBC with what I think is an editorial. The latter is open access and the former asks for a fee to download or stream the full debate.

Another link to put up here. Michael made a post last week concerning the ‘Valuing the Humanities’ panel discussion. The British Philosophical Association has uploaded a downloadable mp3 here with the full discussion.


Interfaith week (or, ‘my change of mind’)

In this post I’m going to be a little bit personal (no not another post mentioning black metal) and talk about something close to what I actually do in some of my real life. For the past few months I’ve been involved (initially just for work experience reasons) with an interfaith organiation. One thing I’ve found as a generality in London is that there are a great amount of similar organisations which often focus around a geographical locus. For instance, for some reason, there are loads of thinktanks in Victoria; lots of the public sector is organised around the general area around Westminster (I suppose that’s for obvious reasons – no need to claim much on taxi fare); and for a reason unbenkownst to me, there are a lot of interfaith organisations and initiatives around Kentish Town.

This week closing was Interfaith week. Interfaith means a lot of things to me, even if I don’t really understand much about it (I mainly help by sorting out their information systems). I used to be involved with a lot of secularist and atheist-friendly campaigning, and to some extent we in Noumenal Realm still keep connections, and are quite passionate about the overlapping interests of the secularists and atheists with issues of science and pseudoscience, scientific method and the public role of the intellectual. Getting involved with an interfaith organisation back in May/June was an odd decision to say the least, especially because someone like me might be considered ‘the enemy’ or if they knew more about my past credentials I’d perhaps feel some hostility from them and possibly vice versa. A lot of this is about misunderstanding, and I suppose, the point of many of these interfaith organisations is to overcome such misunderstandings.

In an environment of Britain today where the ongoing narrative of what was once the ‘War on Terror’ and the so-called axist of evil led to difficulties with marginalising practicioners of Islam, and more distinctively, the ethnic groups that make up the main body of Muslim believers in the UK such as Pakistani and Arab-descent Britons; so-called ‘Islamophobia’ promted in no small part by negative media representation as well as the other issues general to immigrants of integration  and prejudice. In such a difficult climate interfaith relations really makes its mark in the name of social cohesion.

During my incubation years with the Jesuits; I was thoroughly introduced to Catholic approaches to Christian issues and general ways of thinking about the world (there is for instance a distinctly ‘Catholic’ cultural sensibility, or a ‘Catholic’ philosophical way of thinking – perhaps a topic for another post). One of the ‘Catholic’ approaches that I learned about interfaith relations came from a certain University lecturer on I had on Kant and modern theology who was also an international expert on Catholicism and other religions. The Catholic difficulty of inter-religious dialogue was to accept the unique claim to their Christian truth while acknowledging other faiths. This kind of approach was well-meaning in some ways, but also far too intellectualised; involving only theologians and men of the collar. Dialogue between religions is not only a matter of ‘who claims spiritual truths’ and some John Hick-esque parable about an elephant being felt up by blind people; but a matter of real social and political significance.

The issue of religion affects people on the high street level and the proverbial man on the Clapham Omnibus (I hate that phrase, but since I actually live near Clapham I think I’m justified in using it). In recent years, the Islamic community has been a target by various groups who in turn have almost as radical and violent opponents. I find the phrase ‘anti-facist’ just as threatening as a ‘facist’ organisation, as either seem to inevitably lead to violence. So here we see two distinct kinds of approaches. One, intellectualised approach which is not relevant to anyone except people with PhD’s and ‘SJ’ after their name, which strives for understanding in a somewhat genuine level of philosophical and spiritual dialogue. On another, is a non-dialogue of violence which rather than highlights the issues clearly; aggrivates the fact that there is an urgent issue of social integration and a need for peaceful dialogue with those in faith communities and the secular world in general.

Enter the contemporary interfaith organisation. Inter-religious dialogue has moved on a bit since the days of John Hick and my aging lecturer who knew as much about Kant as he did about how to account for other cultural communities.  See this article by Stephen Shashoua for a particular snapshot of contemporary activities. Interfaith organisations target a wider group than university educated priests and theologians who sometimes visit a Gurdwara or Mosque once in a while. Interfaith organisations target groups and geographical areas for which are very sensitive to the issue of cultural integration and social cohesion. Young people from primary schools to Universities are invited to discuss issues and are encouraged to discuss issues from misunderstandings about other religions to real social issues such as social mobility and drugs in a way that is relevant to them and also gives them a wider perspective on the world and how they fit into it, almost religious as it were (if I were a Hegelian I’d almost call such an apprehension to pertain to the geist).

I am writing this post because I find a certain amount of conflict with another public event that had occured this week. In Canada was a public debate between Christopher Hitchens who has been favourably tackled in previous posts by us, and Tony Blair, famous spokesman for Tesco and overpriced public speaker. The question of debate was ‘is religion a force for good in the world?’ After my experience with interfaith organisations, and a wider appreciation of the work they do, I feel unable to think as clearly on such a question as I once did. In a sense, it is a public-intellectual style discussion about ideology and appeal to spiritual beliefs which in a sense is not as helpful. On the other hand, what else is a religion but its beliefs and spiritual components? I suppose there’s a difference between the people and the beliefs.

I must admit that I’ve not seen or heard the debate except for snippets. If anyone reading this has any link to it I’d love to give it a look/hear it fully. There are a great many nuances to issues of how religions and their believers relate to geo-political disputes and difficulties, but this much seems certain to me: faiths can ‘from within’ make an effort to establish greater cohesion and relationships with other communities, and a debate on such issues should appeal more to a localised setting of the people for whom it is directly relevant rather than relying on second hand putative conceptions of religions and the ‘ivory tower’ approach to inter religious dialogue which involves only the intellectual believer. Also, you can be a secularist and support inter religious dialogue. Call me a contradiction if you may.


Three Polemicals: The cultural merit of religious culture

There seems to be two ways (inter alia) in which we can distinguish the views of Dennett, Hitchens and Dawkins.

1. The issue of ‘Brights’

From what I’ve read, it seems that both Dennett and Dawkins believe that it is a good thing to come out as an atheist, agnostic, secular or ‘rationalist’. This is good as a statement of solidarity against religious belief and its prevalence in the world. Dawkins asserts that coming out as a bright is comparable to coming out as a homosexual in the 1960s-70s, in that its a minority affair and people are still stigmatised for it. This is an interesting analogy to make, especially given both the fight that gay rights still has to make, and the progress it has made so far.

Hitchens differs on this issue, stating that irreligiousity is no position at all. To be an anti-theist (the preferred term) is a negative, and it is pointless to be assertive about a thesis that essentially does not have any propositions except negations. Hitchens gives the conciliartory example of Hume, who had friends and amicable relations with religious persons and his views, while challenging through the written word, did not encapsulate him as a person. This is an issue of, what some people call ‘Freedom of the Pen’. Both points seem to be correct, although Hitchens’ justification seems like a red herring here. It is contingently true that in many parts of the world, coming out as a secularist leads to much unpopularity, in that sense, there is a political and ideological significance, at least contingently, for ‘coming out’.

2. Should we abandon religion and religious belief?

Hitchens makes this point very strongly, and so does Dawkins to a lesser extent. What I find interesting and convincing in the argument of Hitchens and Dawkins is the unifying component of the explanatory thesis ‘religion ruins everything’. Dawkins addresses how a lot of evil comes from religious belief, such as New Labour policies, the deleterious notion of ‘diversity’ (although not developed as well as I would have wanted this point to be), and intolerance. Hitchens’ line of thought on this issue is persuasive in that he points out how many of the recent global incidents are related to religion. The violence in Serbia, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and historical Europe are almost entirely fuelled by religious figures, in such a way where it is exceptionally difficult to give the defence of distinguishing between the ‘official doctrine’ and ‘misinterpretation’.

There are ways in which wars are not labelled as religious, and keeps a certain kind of truce in war, by re-labelling the nature of the conflict. Factions divided by ethnicity gloss over the fact that this division is also religion-based. ‘Eth nic cleansing’ is a terrible phenomena, but even more terrible is the fact that it is just as discriminatory against religious groups than it is an ‘ethnic’ one. It is uncouth to acknowledge a religiously based war where there is one, compared to the more packageable and media-friendly ethnically based hatred. There are a lot of other appeals that Hitchens makes, such as the horrors of childhood genital rituals. Hitchens gives the example of how children had died from a circumcision ritual which involved manually removing the foreskin with his teeth; some children had contracted genital herpes as a result.

By making the moral and social corruption of religion total, there is a sense in which Hitchens (and Dawkins) assert that religion must go. It is by trying to argue for the totalising negative effects that such an argument can work; Dennett by contrast, remains agnostic on the issue that religion needs to die. Dawkins does establish that religion has an very important cultural significance; Dawkins goes into great detail to describe how there are many phrases in English which are derived from the King James version, there are also a great many literary references that cannot be understood without familiarity with the Bible. Consider the poem ‘Lady Lazarus’ (Plath), which is an interesting twist on the miracle story of ressurection.  Hitchens is perhaps the most notable in this kind of argument because he almost accepts his own inner conflict on this issue; while religion ruins everything, a life without the reference to the past, and the past’s preoccupation of religion and religious ideas is untenable. Our cultural heritage stems from these many biblical references, and these influences make our culture rich.

Consider the case of Yiddish culture, it has been said and reported on that there is a state of decline in Yiddish culture. Most of Yiddish culture seems to be based around New York City. Although Yiddish culture seems to be fighting for its continuation by the few proponents it does have, there are many influences in New Yorker culture that have been exported, this ranges from inflections or synonyms for male to the music and harmony of George Gershwin. There is a sense in which, our deference to religious culture, in terms of how it has influenced people and still continues to influence us in popular culture or even high culture, is important for the continuation of great music, comedy, poetry etc. This seems to be the biggest concession of the New Atheists; but not one that is harmful to their argument. It is this concession that seems to make the notion of an aggressive atheist seem redundant (granted that they acknowledge this issue).

As a side point, I have heard that many historians of ancient and medieval philosophy tend to have a religious background; Martha Nussbaum being the popular example. This seems to make more sense to me when considering Hitchens’ point that he earlier made, that skills such as biblical referencing, memorising passages are skills of exegesis, that is, the critical, expositional and interpretative abilities that are transferrable from the study of religious texts to say, the works of Aristotle. I’ve found, for instance, that every particular historical thinker has their own set of exegetical problems and issues, here are a few of them:

1. Authorship – as there are questionable authors in the Old and New Testaments, there is also the similar problem of authorship in Aristotle scholarship
2. (mis)Translation – there are issues in Kant scholarship between translation that is readable in english, or translation that is accurately verbose, syntactically complex that genuinely reflects the complexity of Kant’s original German – consider that, with modernising the bible to account for modern english to the point of diluting it.
3. Consistency – Leibniz changes his views throughout the corpus of his work, such to say that a systematic view is difficult or perhaps not desirable. Whether there is a unified view, or a series of works that enable thought and encourage certain ways of thinking is a disputed issue. Why does the work have to be systematic anyway? A similar point can be made in Nietsche studies
4. The significance of writing style/role of interpreters: Song of Songs is a poetic love story, whereas the letters of Paul tend to be more didactic; does the differing writing style entail a different method or presentation of dogma? Catholicism deals with this by stating dogma through the various encyclicals and systematic theologies which present ‘how to read the Bible’ . Another movement attempts to study biblical texts in historical ways. Aristotle studies has a comparible history; there are the interpreters who had seemed to have a high status in disseminating Aristotle’s works with elaboration and guarding a certain kind of reading. Catholicism too has its doctors, like Augustine and Aquinas, who carry the ‘recieved view’ of Catholic beliefs. There are also ‘hereticals’ who interpret differently. Difference in interpretation can be treated with eccentricity, respect, or as a view in its own right, consider the case of Kripke’s work on Wittgenstein.

In short, there is a certain cultrual and educational import, but this is apparently a small concession for the New Atheists, as it is not a concession on beliefs, but the cultural impact of religions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not an argument used ‘against’ atheism.


Why I like Christian Theology

i. An increasing number of analytic philosophers are also Christians; their literature makes for a fusion between the traditional theological literature framed by the often critical conceptual tools of recent philosophy.
ii. It is a subject which is both exegetical and pedagogical
iii. It is a subject that is rarely bastardised in certain areas
iv. It is a subject that addresses issues systematically
v. It has a shared heritage with philosophy; Schliermacher, Aquinas, Augustine…


Is the ‘New Atheism’ for the win?

Like Ozymandias, I look at the world with multiple screens at once with a randomly circulating feed of different sources in my antarctic base (well that’s almost true, anyway). A lot of my RSS fees seem to indivate that there is a gradual success of the new atheist movement.

THe decline in the communal role of religion has the inevitable effect of institutional changes. Declines in numbers of church-goers or clergical members could be said to be based on this grassroots decline. I suspect that the increased interest in institutional organisation, namely, offices, councils, and authorities, is driven by our lack of interest at the local  and communal basis of religious life.

An initial distinction should be made. When we understand the ‘new atheism’. We should distinguish between a cultural mindset whereby we see an increased amount of criticism about supernatural beliefs, against a set of authors. What a Dawkins or a Hitchens belives is not to define those of all atheists and secularists, just imagine the irony of perceiving them as prophets or authorities. They probably see themselves as saying what we are all thinking, and to some extent they may be accurate.

There is some criticism of this movement, and a lot of it is good. I’ve made point of in the past at how the ‘new atheists’ are ignorant of the ‘old’ atheists. They are also putting forward arguments which aren’t particularly hard hitting. Antisophie once wrote that she is ‘Anti-stupid’, and it seems to me that a sense of dogmatism or complacency is made about the argumentative worth of atheism, or a dogmatic acceptance of the falsity of all religious beliefs tout court.

It is an interesting fact that there are a slowly mobilising group of professional analytic philosophers who also happen to be Christians. There are some metaphysicians who are usual suspects of being a Christian in this issue but what has taken me by surprise is that a number of philosophers of language and epistemologists are Christian. Looking at their names and my vague familiarity with their work; they tend to be either do quite formal and technical work, they are foundationalists and are the kinds of philosophers who love to use symbols. In short, they are no fools

It is much to my amusement that I heard that William Lane Craig took part in a debate with Christopher Hitchens. This is a joke. William Lane Craig has written on issues such as the philosophy of time and the relation of physics to Christian doctrine; and Hitchens is famous for being a friend of Princess diana and being an editor for Vanity Fair. While I do not question the eloquence or writing style of the latter, I don’t expect him to have a view about Eternity or perdurantism that is superior to the likes of McTaggart. It’s the pugilistic equivalent of Mike Tyson against a parkinsons-ridden Cassius Clay.


“Barbarous Nations”

One of Hume’s arguments concerning miracles involves a claim that miracle testimonies come from people who are from ‘barbarous nations’. Is this claim true?

The first caveat to make is to establish some interpretations of the claim:

1. Miracle testimonies come from primitive, non-industrial, people (the stupid people appeal)
2. Miracle testimonies come from non-European nations (the Eurocentric appeal)
3. Miracle testimonies come from poorly educated people (the poorly educated appeal)
4. Miracle testimonies do not come from civilised persons (the converse claim)

I would like to be informed if there are any empirical studies on the social stratification of miracle claims; this could clear up issues of:

1. Whether miracle claims originate from certain religious stratifications (Christian, Muslim etc.)
2. Whether miracle claims originate from non-Europeans
3. The educational status of miracle claimants: possible underlying questions about the social background of such persons

I am willing to believe (on my own anecdotal tesimonies from persons I know) that there are intelligent, European descendent (this includes white Africans; Antipodeans; North Americans etc.), but anecdotal evidence shouldn’t be admissable for this kind of argument in any answer to the question: do people believe in miracles, where there is no question of ‘barbarity’ to raise?