Monday, July 30, 2012

I Mean This in the Friendliest Possible Way

It's odd for an author to inform the reader that he means something in a friendly way. If someone is behaving in a friendly way, generally speaking, it's apparent, and he doesn't need to point it out. If he mentions it several times within a few pages, suspicion is definitely called for, and if he says it twice in the same sentence you're a damned fool if you believe anything he says without reliable independent confirmation.

In the collection of scholarly papers Jesus in History and Myth, edited by R Joseph Hoffmann & Gerald A Larue, published in 1986, John Hick craps all over the inquiry into whether or not there really was a Jesus of Nazareth, as opposed to the standard position of assuming that Jesus existed, however much or little he may have resembled the descriptions of him in the New Testament. He writes: "The idea that there never was such a person [as Jesus] goes back, I suppose, some one hundred and fifty years and has not been persuasive to more than a very small minority of those who have studied the matter carefully. Its status among historians is no higher than, and I would think in fact lower than, the theory among Elizabethan historians that Francis Bacon wrote the plays of Shakespeare. And if I might offer a piece of friendly advice -- and it is meant as genuinely friendly advice -- to the secular humanist movement, it would be; Don't identify too closely with this kind of eccentric view. For the theory that Jesus never existed is not really a very probable one, and further, the issue is, to say the least, not at the cutting edge of research regarding Christian origins." (p 212). (Emphases mine).

The other scholarly papers in this collection come with many footnotes. Hick's condescending little lecture has none. He doesn't seem to think he needs any. Apparently he believes that you simply will trust in the breadth of his knowledge and the depth of his wisdom, and believe that his avuncular advice really is friendly. And probably some of you will; after all, Hick held more than just a handful of the very most prestigious positions in academic Christian theology.

But if you're more like me, you may have noticed that besides insisting that he is friendly and that his opponents in this little matter are very few and probably -- although of course he just hates to say such a thing, being the big friendly teddy bear that he is -- eccentric, he hasn't really said much about the actual question of the existence of Jesus. (You will find that he has this much in common with Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, Morton Smith and many others who dismiss doubts about Jesus' historicity. Because if you look at it more closely, what is often presented as a scholarly debate between those who think Jesus was a myth and those who think he was an actual person looks more like a professional conflict between those who want to examine the question and those who don't want anyone to entertain any doubts about the matter. Historians versus obscurantists might be a more apt term than mythicists versus historicists.) Hick has accurately described the cutting edge of practice in theological seminaries and departments of New Testament studies when it come to the question of Jesus' existence, namely, that it is treated as if there were no question. And it is the cutting edge in those places just as much today in 2012 as it was when Hick said so in 1986. The question is how much this cutting edge resembles anything which could be legitimately be considered an academic cutting edge. How much does it even resemble the way in which the very same theologians and Biblical scholars treat every single other historical question?

Not at all, is the answer. And by the way, Professor Hick, on page 42 of the very same volume, Jesus in History and Myth, G A Wells addresses your comparison of doubts of Jesus' existence with the theory that Bacon wrote Shakespeare, by mentioning that J M Robertson, who early in the 20th century gave "the complete and knockdown answer to" Oxfordianism, "was at the same time the most powerful contender of his day against Jesus' historicity."

Ouch, John! I mean, just, ouch! But of course Robertson may have been firing on all mental cylinders when writing about Shakespeare and Bacon, and quite eccentric when writing about Jesus. And I mean that in a genuinely friendly way, of course.

And what on Earth do you mean by "identifying too closely with a view"? We just want to investigate the matter of Jesus, with open minds, open as well to that one possibility to which your mind is so tightly shut. You want us to identify ourselves with your view that Jesus certainly existed, and take it from there. I suppose that that might be genuinely friendly advice to anyone with the ambition to follow in your career footsteps, into academic theology. But the rest of us have steadily less respect for you and those who would be like you. We want to look into Galileo's telescope, read that awful book by Darwin, listen to Einstein and Heidegger and Feynman and Greene stray ever farther from Newton and into reality -- you do too, I know. Of course you do. Because you're a thoroughly modern enlightened person. Except when it comes to that one question most closely associated with your career. And I mean that in the friendliest possible way, you smug bloated obstacle to learning.

1 comment:

  1. Only just now discovered this piece. Excellent!

    Yes, we do want to look through that telescope even though we are assured it's all stuff and nonsense.