Friday, January 11, 2013

Somebody's Missing Something (Might Be Me)

For years -- decades, actually -- I was unable to read Immanuel Kant's Kritik der reinen Vernunft. In most attempts -- in the more merciful cases -- I would simply fall quickly to sleep. When I stayed awake I quickly became very annoyed, and wondered when Kant was going to stop prattling about next to nothing and get down to the critique of this thing he called pure reason. Finally, recently, I gritted my teeth and read the whole thing, and I didn't merely hate it. I've enjoyed and felt greatly edified by some other of Kant's works, especially the ones written before the famous Critiques. But I not only hated the Critique of Pure Reason: I wondered whether I was way past everything he said in this, his universally-acknowledged masterpiece. I came to an agonizing, Kierkegaardian Either/Or moment: either I didn't understand what Kant was driving at, and never would, or Kant and his fans were wrong in their belief that he had surpassed Hume. If I'm right, then an awful lot of very smart people who feel that Kant has helped them past certain mental points where Hume had left them stumped are wrong. A third possibility, that I will eventually understand Kant's Critiques as an advance past Humeist (Humean?) impasses, does not strike me as realistic at this point, after I have read so much earlier philosophy to which Kant refers, and so much later philosophy which refers to him. (Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers who refer to Kant negatively, but he does so in passing, in not enough detail for me to know whether his reasons for rejecting Kant resemble mine at all.) (And yes, I do realize that I have not explained my objections to the Critique of Pure Reason at all.)

I say all of the above as preamble to a more recent Either/Or moment of mine: either theologians are writing way above my head almost all of the time, and I will very probably never even begin to understand what they are saying; or I, and Goethe, and not a few others, are thinking at a level way above that not only of the theologians themselves, but of anyone who finds any theologians to be brilliant or finds any reward in reading them. Somebody is missing a whole lot here. Might be me. Might be me and Nietzsche and Goethe and a lot of others. Then again it might not. R Joseph Hoffmann has written many things which I have found to be insightful, witty, profound -- and then he starts writing admiringly of someone like Aquinas, and he's lost me. Somebody's missing something. Might be me. (Might not.) And I might be missing a whole great big bunch of stuff when it seems to me that Hoffmann -- like Ehrman, like Crossan -- has begun to make illogical leaps which I can only describe as theological, in his recent comments on the historicity of Jesus. He is not strictly historicist now, but in several recent posts on his blog The New Oxonian, Hoffmann presents his current take on historicity, which is similar to the current mainstream position of New Testament scholars and authorities in related fields: first they assert that very little, if any, or what the New Testament says about what Jesus said or did can be relied upon as historical. And they add that neither the earliest non-Christian references to Christianity: Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, etc, nor any of the non-canonical Gospels, with the exception of the Gospel of Thomas in the opinion of only a minority of scholars, can be regarded as primary sources, or make up for the deficiencies of the New Testament as an historical record.

And then they add that it is however certain, or close to it, that he did exist, which is where they completely lose me. And they place all sorts of requirements on mythicist arguments before they will consider any of them to be reasonable, requirements which seem to me to be utterly unreasonable, not applied to their own historicist arguments, and basically pulled out of their fundaments.

I expect to be thoroughly puzzled by Hoffmann's upcoming book on the historicity of Jesus, or to have lost all faith in the soundness of his reasoning by the time it is published. I have not given up on ever finding what looks to me to be reason in historicist arguments, but I have taken a step in that direction, and that makes me sad. Not because I want Jesus' existence to be proven -- I continue to maintain that I am actually objective here, and wish simply for understanding to increase, in whatever direction that greater understanding may lead us -- but because it seems Either that there is precious little sound thinking going on concerning the Jesus question, (Don't even get me started on the non-academic mythicists.) Or that I am not particularly bright when it comes to understanding ancient texts and ancient artifacts related as evidence to those texts.

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