Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


The other day, a link on an unrelated topic drew me over to the Commonweal website. I should know better, shouldn't I?

There I came across their review of Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth. Two selections:

I myself have used the Transfiguration more than once to illustrate the limits of historical criticism. For though historical critics, by an overwhelming majority, regard the episode as an unhistorical invention, it is clearly, in literary and theological terms alike, one of the high points of the life of Christ as told in the first three Gospels. Moreover, its un-historicity notwithstanding, the Transfiguration is the occasion for a brilliantly effective narrative assertion-not just that Jesus is the new Moses but also that suffering and divinity are not, or are no longer, mutually exclusive. For Ratzinger, to be sure, the episode is important for all these reasons. But he parts company with the critical majority in treating even this floridly mythological episode as a historical event no more problematical for open-minded historians than Jesus’ birth in Palestine. Any construction of it that would deny that it really happened, we are forced to infer, would be, in Ratzinger’s eyes, a disastrous descent into Gnosticism.
But it is one thing to reread the Bible in a way that makes God or God incarnate once again its central literary character and subject. It is another to claim that unless God’s actions as reported in the Bible-his Incarnation, for one; the Transfiguration of his incarnate person, for another-are historical, they are theologically meaningless. To do that is to make biblical interpretation a subject suitable only for those who approach history without any developed (“ready-made”) philosophy and who are prepared, in addition, to break with science and modernity (the “so-called modern or scientific worldview”). Few, even among the many who freely grant a connection between history and theology, will want to meet these conditions.
A couple things struck me about this.

First, is the author's complaint against the "claim that unless God’s actions as reported in the Bible... are historical, they are theologically meaningless". I suppose it all depends what you mean by "theologically", but if one takes theology to consist of the rational study of God, it seems odd to take something of known human construction and use it as an input for reasoning about God. Given that the author refers to the transfiguration as "floridly mythological" I assume that he contends that the incident was invented by the gospel authors in order to make some larger point about the place of Christ in salvation and in the universe. Clearly it's possible for an author to express some truth(sometimes more more evocatively than through a straight, non-fiction discourse) through a fictional narrative. However, when one makes this claim about a key event in the Bible, one is left to wonder: If this is not an event but something the author tried to evoke via a fictional scene, how did the author know it was true in the first place?

It's not controversial to say that there are parts of the Bible that are in literary genres other than historical narrative. Even among the Gospels, I could imagine some authorial changes that would not interfere with the questions of truth and inspiration. Thus, if some of the parables are in fact conglomerations of the exact ones that Jesus told, or if the settings of certain events are moved (whether words were spoken on a hill, on a plain or in a boat, etc.) I don't think we'd necessarily run into a problem.

But the sheer scale of what's being said with the Transfiguration seems to preclude it's being in any significant sense different than what happened. Something like the annunciation, the transfiguration or to the resurrection strikes me as too surprising to be some sort of evocative fable. If you are an author consciously trying to make a point through fiction, you wouldn't do it through that kind of device.

Second, I was struck by the complaint: "To do that is to make biblical interpretation a subject suitable only for those who approach history without any developed... philosophy and who are prepared, in addition, to break with science and modernity...."

Well, in a sense, yes. If your "developed philosophy" consists of a belief that the incarnation didn't happen, then you're going to run into a lot of problems in regards to biblical interpretation. Of course, if that's your philosophy, I'm unclear why you're messing about with the bible in the first place. I mean, I've skimmed the Koran and some Hindu texts, but I don't sit around devoting lots of time to interpreting them, because I believe the religions they stem from are in great part false.

Also, we see here the "science and modernity" complaint against Christianity. This stems from a basic mis-understanding of what "science" is good at. The purpose of science is to, as efficiently as possible, predict the probable. The scientific mode of inquiry applies to physical, repeatable systems and circumstances. Thus, if the New Testament narratives are true, science would have very little to say about them. The NT does not insist that the incarnation and resurrection were examples of common and systematic events, rather it insists that they were extraordinary. Science is definately able to say "It is not in the nature of the human body to rise after three days" but it has nothing to say on the topic of "Did God choose to become man, suffer, die and rise of the dead?"

It was only as I was at the end of all this that I looked at who had written the review: Jack Miles of "God: A Biography" fame. Now, I haven't read the book, and it's been a while since I was reading the flap about its original publication, but doesn't it seem a rather direct slap in the face for an allegedly Catholic publication to have someone of Miles' type review a book about Christ by the pope?


Deacon Bill Burns said...

It amuses me that he suggests the Holy Father lacks a developed philosophy. The Holy Father simply lacks Jack Miles' developed philosophy.

Anonymous said...

"but doesn't it seem a rather direct slap in the face"

Yes, but let us be charitable. Commonweal caters to catholics who were certain that the Church was going to evolve into a Church of England clone with the Pope as a figurehead with as much power as the Queen of England. Smells, bells, gorgeous ceremonies, but without dogma and actually believing in anything. Alas, God and History had other plans. Let them console themselves with agnostic-lite meditations on scripture as time rapidly passes them by.

Anonymous said...

Few, even among the many who freely grant a connection between history and theology, will want to meet these conditions.

True, few who trust only what they can see, taste or touch will be interested in biblical interpretation. And his point is...? It's like saying, "few vegetarians will be interested in discussing the the taste of steaks".

What's more interesting to me is whether or not a Catholic blogger should support Commonweal even indirectly by linking to it. I don't know the answer is, I just ask.

They are a cause for scandal and giving them bad publicity is publicity. (Ask any publishing house; they appreciate bad reviews far more than no reviews.) Call it the 'don't feed the troll' philosophy?