Thursday, October 12, 2023

Thinking Rationally about Religion and Violence

Teaching high school kids how to think and do research sometimes drove me to despair. Not because they didn't get it, but because sometimes they did. And then I look at how "successful" thinkers in the Media and often even Academy argue in public, and wondered if I was wasting my time. 

Maybe, after all, sloppy use of key terms, broad generalizations based on anecdotal and impressionistic "evidence," free employment of logical fallacies, and in short, shoddy reasoning that makes emotional appeals to dupes, is how to make a name for yourself and grab your share of the world's approval and financial renumeration. Maybe I was setting kids up to fail by teaching them how to think and argue rationally. 

Such, at least, was my gloomy reflection upon reading Deidre McPhillip's "Religion Needs a Savior: Most people think religion is the root cause of the world's problems, according to an international study," on the US News website. (And a discussion linked to that article at a secularist website that promotes the "future of reasoning.") 

I told students that one of the first things they needed to do to make a sensible argument, was to define key terms. 

So what is "religion," used twice in the headline alone, that multi-tasking pest which allegedly causes most the world's problems? The term is famously tricky. Sociologist Peter Berger divided definitions of “religion” into two kinds: substantive, which focus on the content of belief, and functional, which key in on the use society makes religion. For instance, you can define religion as "Belief in God or supernatural powers," or as "The overarching ideology which a group of people take as fundamental in establishing rules of behavior." (Or Paul Tillich's simpler "ultimate concern," to give another "functional" example. The sociologist Emile Durkheim was probably the most famous "functional" theorist.) 

People ignore this distinction all the time, though it is critical. Secular ideologies often qualify as “religions” under functional definitions. This makes skeptics uncomfortable, because they want to stigmatize “religious” people as inherently irrational, unlike themselves. Functional definitions level the playing field, reminding us that the same psychological and social forces work on us all, whatever we think about God. 

But an even more important, and obvious, distinction begged by the title of this piece is "Which religion?" As everyone knows, including those taking the survey, some Muslims have behaved badly of late. (I finally post this after Hamas' recent murderous exploits were celebrated widely.) 

Yes, so have some Christians, especially if you go back to the Inquisition -- why did you think of that? Because both Christianity and Islam are “Abrahamic religions“ we are told. 

So it does not even cross the skeptic’s mind that, “Yes, but atheists murdered one hundred million innocent people during our grandparents’ life-times." That is the advantage of implicitly defining religion to exclude their own ideology: they need not be hoist with their own petards. 

Asking if "religion" has done the world harm is misleading not only because "religion" is poorly-defined, but also because either sort of definition covers very different things. A fallacy of composition is committed. It is unfair to ask folk about "religion in general" when they invariably have particular religions in mind. 

"Are Lutheran Brethren the root cause of the world's problems?" No? How about Communism? Capitalism? Technology? 

"Is Islam the cause of most of the world's problems?” 

That question won’t fly in Lahore, or else stones will. Go ask police officers in Beijing if the Communist Party has messed up the country, and with luck, you’ll soon be on a flight home. 

And what does "most of the world's problems" mean? 

Take out a scratch pad and list a few serious ones: 

(a) Death.
(b) Cancer.
(c) War.
(d) Mosquitoes and the diseases they bring.
(e) Ticks and the diseases they carry.
(f) Traffic jams.
(g) Bureaucrats.
(h) The threat of nuclear weapons.
(i) The rise of Artificial Intelligence.
(j) Unmelodic music in grocery stores.
(k) Ugly public art.

Your list may differ. But the problem with the article’s title should be obvious. Clearly, most big problems are not caused by religions, however you define the word. (Unless you count Satan’s temptation to “be as gods, eat the apple” as a “religion.”)

In China, where few of the 1.4 billion citizens has a religion in the sense of belief in supernatural beings, and the public, observable effect of Buddhism and Christianity is negligible (while Islam is suppressed even more heavily), I suspect "dropping my I phone on the sidewalk" would rank higher as a source of heartache. (Never mind "unrequited love" “bad air” or "getting fired.")

So why might people answer "yes" to such an inane question as “Is religion the root cause of the world’s troubles?”

Because polls are intended to let people vent, not think. And who are respondents venting at? Not at themselves, of course. At people of other religions.

So much for “the future of reasoning.”

Anecdotal Arguments Against Faith, plus "Expert" Opinions

The contents of the article exhibit do little more to reassure one that post-religious humanity will think clearly or honestly.

"RAISED AS A conservative, Sunni Muslim girl in Canada, Yasmine Mohammed said she was taught to always be in fight mode. 'The first thing Islam teaches you is to not question, but follow,' she says. And what she had to follow was a 'Muslim supremacy ideology' that called for violence against anyone who fell out of line and full armies prepared to join the fight when the caliphate was to rise. "Systematic suppression of critical thinking is what makes Muslims ripe to join groups like the Islamic State group or become suicide bombers without questioning the motives of their directives, she says."

Not to defend Islam, of which I am not fond, but let us not ignore the fact that, as numerous anthropologists affirm, human nature is fundamentally tribal.

And does critical thinking need to be suppressed, or developed?  If it came naturally, I'd have to seek employment elsewhere. And when it comes to job security, the US News article is reassuring. 

"As a radical sect of Buddhist nationalists persecute the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wages on and a film challenging the Orthodox Church spurs violent protests in Russia, it seems that asserting sovereignty is the only thing the world's religions can agree on today." 

Take this line of “reasoning,” for instance. Does the author seriously wish to extrapolate from three instances in which groups of "religious" people quarrel (though Israel is one of the least "religious" countries in the world) to argue that there is some sort of general agreement among "the world's religions" to . . . what? "Assert sovereignty?” Claim power over others?

Aristotle pointed out that "Man is a political creature.” Since politics means assertion of power, clearly the use of power is a universal human (also lupine) characteristic.

So we should generalize from three instances to 6 billion people, while implicitly exempting the "non-religious" billion or two people from that generalization? Never mind the power games that New Atheists play among themselves? Or the fratricidal history of Marxism?

My point, of course, is not that atheists are either more or less violent than Shiite Muslims. It is that McPhillip has deceived herself into thinking she has made a rational argument, when she has not come within a country mile of a clear thought. 

But on she treks: 

"In a recent Best Countries survey of more than 21,000 people from all regions of the world, the majority of respondents identified religion as the ‘primary source of most global conflict today.’ Spiritual beliefs create an inherent “us vs. them" scenario, experts say."

Which experts say that? What are they expert in?

Sports and politics also create "inherent 'us vs them' scenarios. Indeed, every assertion of truth, every scientific or historical or psychological claim, every basketball tossed into the air, also creates an "us vs them:” those for, and those against. Society is constantly fracturing along the fault lines of a billion assertions. Any claim "A" immediately creates a default "non-A" at the other end of the court. Ever line in the sand, saying "This is ours" (Rouseau) creates potential for conflict. 

McPhillip's borrowed "insight“ is thus simultaneously both trivial and earth-shaking: if she applied the same standard to ideas in general, she would have to portray them all as dangerous.  (And maybe they are, for her.)

"’When societies shatter, they generally shatter along tribal lines. People are seeing themselves as irretrievably different from their neighbors,’ says Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher who has published books on Islam and the conflict between religion and science."

The movement Harris briefly helped lead has also shattered along tribal lines. The website Sam Harris and the Future of Reason is a site largely for tribal warfare between atheists who hold differing political opinions.

That's one reason I find it interesting. If everyone offered the same views about the world, it would make me wonder if I were trapped in the world of 1984 or the planet in Madeleine L’Engle where children all bounce their balls simultaneously.

Humans are tribal. Welcome to Anthropology 101.

"The divisions created by religion are deeper and potentially more harmful than those formed through other aspects of identity such as race, nationality or political affiliations because they confront individuals with differing opinions on the ultimate purpose of life, experts say. And more than 80 percent of those surveyed said that religious beliefs guide a person's behavior."

Here come those ”experts" again. Which experts, besides the New Atheist Sam Harris? What are their exact words? What evidence do they offer to back up their opinions?

I'm an expert in "religion." I don't hear my fellow historians, theologians, or students of comparative religion, saying that religion is more dangerous than politics or nuclear physics, for examples.

Indeed, the argument given so far sounds like something a crack-pot psychologist dabbling in comparative religion or intellectual history might say. The impact of ideas in the collective is not a question that can be answered theoretically. (Notice the fudge word "potentially," which is a concession that the author cannot back her point up with solid empirical evidence.)

If you have proof that "religious" people (by whatever definition) are more violent, cruel or mean than people who lack any beliefs or purpose in life, please offer that evidence, so we can crunch the data! 

Or how about if we just cite Swami Sam like good faith-heads? 

"Religion often becomes the master variable," Harris says. "It provides a unique reward structure. If you believe that the thoughts you harbor in this life and the doctrines you adhere to spell the difference between an eternity spent in fire or one spent on the right hand of God, that raises the stakes beyond any other reward structure on earth."

Still just one "expert," Sam Harris (whose expertise lies in cognitive science, not religion), offering armchair theorizing. Odd, if “experts" in general are making this point, that she keeps on citing the same fairly young scholar, whose academic work lay in a field remote indeed from the claim supposedly being supported.

"Tribal tendencies are natural for humans who need groups and community to survive. But the driving forces behind especially alienating, fundamentalist beliefs are a combination of nature and nurture, experts say. 'Any beliefs that concern the sacred are integral to people’s identities,” says Andrew Tix, a psychology professor at Normandale Community College whose nationally recognized research focuses on religion and spirituality. ‘People differ in how much they’re threatened when the sacred is brought into question.’

Maybe we should start a drinking game: bottoms up when the word "expert" is used.

This expert turns out to be a young instructor, not professor, at a community college. 

He does hold a PhD in psychology. But these two comments hardly seem to require one to issue. Your most sacred beliefs are part of who you are! (Bet you didn't know that, Irish Catholics! Or Iranian Shiites! Or Icelandic Wiccans!) And some people get more upset than others when you tell them their religion is wrong! 

Remember, this is expertise talking, so don’t laugh!

"He points to psychology’s Big Five theory in which openness to experience is one of five key personality traits that is influenced by genetics and shaped by experiences. Some people have found ways to 'hold their beliefs more lightly and with a sense of mystery,' he says. They would score high on ‘openness,’ while fundamentalists who hold their beliefs with heavy conviction would more likely score low."

You may want to sit down for these “heavy” revelations. People who are convinced about what they believe, really believe it.

Ponder the implications: if you firmly believe that the Earth goes around the Sun, you will score low in measurements of how open you are to changing your mind to thinking both sun and earth circle the moon. Profound, no? 

But the experts have even more such wisdom to impart. 

"Religious communities teach different ways of responding to criticism of their identity, Tix says, but it comes down to the notion of threatened egotism. ‘The stronger a person’s convictions in their identity – of which religion is often a key part – the more likely they are to be violent when their identity is threatened.’”

You may find it hard to keep up with the flow of earth-shattering profundity. But what this seems to mean is, if you don't care much about your religion, you probably won't lose your cool if someone trashes it.

Are we going too fast?

Also, if you don't care about your country, you probably won't care if someone invades it. If no one cared about anything -- no country to die for, and no religion, too -- why just imagine!

So I am not sure if our experts obtained this vast store of expertise from their PhD studies, or from an old Beatles song. Either way, we soldier on:

"The Muslim identity surrounding Mohammed in Canada's British Columbia was strong. She was beaten for not memorizing the Koran and married to a member of al-Qaida as a teenager . . . But after taking a religion course at college, Mohammed said the unease she had always felt with what she was told to believe finally started to take shape. In voicing her newfound convictions to her family, she immediately became part of ‘them’ instead of ‘us.’ The fight turned against her. She says her family disowned her and threatened to have her killed. She fled to different parts of Canada, changed her and her child’s names and says she feels lucky the death threat has so far only been a threat."

A sad story, indeed.

"It is only in comparison with modern Islam that modern Christianity and other religions appear more benign, says Sam Harris, who is very publicly atheist. 'It’s more than inconvenient that these old [religious] books support things like slavery and the killing of women who are not virgins on their wedding night,' he says. 'None of these books is the best we have on anything we care about. All could be improved with editing, and that should banish any notion that they are the product of omniscience.'” 

I have seen attempts to "improve" the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount. (Cough, cough.)

But we seem to be straying off the path. Wasn’t someone going to make the case that religion is the root of all evil? The title of the piece was "Religion Needs a Savior: Most people think religion is the root cause of the world's problems, according to an international study."

Nope!  It turns out that this title is a lie. The actual question asked was not about "the world's problems" in general. Rather it asked "What's the primary source of most global conflict today?"

Obviously, "problems" is a vastly broader set of issues than "conflicts," especially if you add the adjective "global," then the chronological modifier, "today."

Anyone who doesn't recognize how dishonest it is to conflate these two, shouldn't stand within ten miles of a keyboard. It is like asking people, "What is the most difficult thing about eating a pineapple?" Then when they say, "Pealing off that hard, greenish-yellow skin," you announce, as your headline, "Most people object to mixed skin colors!"

If one were to focus on the present moment in history, Islam is, arguably, the source of most civilizational friction. One could also make a case for the Woke ideology. Look a few years into the past, and it was communism. Look into the future, and the atheist neo-Confucianism of China looms on the horizon.

But death, taxes, cancer, and traffic are all arguably bigger problems for most people. And most religions don't cause much fuss, even those that are passionately believed (what Stark called “high tension” faiths.)

"But religion is not going away."

And if it did, we wouldn't know, since you haven't defined it yet.

"Estimates from Pew Research Center predict that the worldwide population of religiously unaffiliated people will shrink from about 16 percent in 2010 to 13 percent in 2050. In the same time frame, the share of Muslims is predicted to grow from 23 percent to 30 percent of the world’s population."

Pew Research is an expert on what people think in the present, not the future. We have no idea whether there will even be any human beings 27 years from now, let alone what they will believe. A LITTLE intellectual humility on how our grandkids will identity is advisable.

Few predicted the sudden growth of Christianity in China. In recent years, a phenomenon never seen before has occurred in the Muslim world, too -- millions converting to Christ. But in some other countries, the church has suffered sudden reversals.

What path people follow in the future, is up to them, and predicated on numerous variables, many of which themselves are complex or invisible to any human or computer prognosticator. But just a bit more from “experts” before we (finally, yes, sorry) close:

"EXPERTS agree that finding a human connection at some level can help build empathy and bridge the gap between conflicting ideologies and identities. 'In many Muslim-majority nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, religion is directly tied to national policy and politics.' 

As is atheist ideology in China, and Woke ideology in California. 

"For 18 years, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, founded by Douglas Johnston, has facilitated faith-based dialogue to find commonalities in these conflicting sides. ‘What you’re doing is shifting accountability from an ideology or political movement to god. If you do that, you tend to find that people behave nicer,' Johnston says. 'It’s incumbent upon all of us to search our beliefs, our instincts and the rest of it and do what we can to be agents of reconciliation.'”

This quote seems to contradict everything that went before it. "Religion" was the shark in the pool. Now political ideology becomes the real danger, while faith in God can make us kinder and gentler.

Of course, not all religions, especially defined functionally, appeal to God. John Hick tried to get around this by describing a "Real" that is the truth behind surface manifestations in all religions. One eastern critic pointed out that Hick's "Real" was implicitly theistic, while many theists found it rather un-Real. So Hick's attempt to satisfy everyone ended by satisfying almost no one, as such ghostly universalisms usually do.

But I think Johnston is closer to the truth than the other "experts" McPhillip has cited. Of course people can appeal to "Got Mitt Uns" to commit tribal cruelties. Yet anyone who recognizes the image of God on his neighbor, and who hears Jesus tell him that all morality and prophetic writings are summed up in "Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself," cannot go full tribal, then look God in the eye.

I just read part of a doctoral dissertation by an orthodox Jew who noted that the Miao people in China had been fighting the Han people, and losing, since forever. Their conversion to Christianity, he noticed, allowed some Miao to begin to forgive the Han. And his own faith in God seemed to give him something in common with evangelical missionaries and Chinese minorities alike.

So this article fails on all fronts. Religions are complex, varied, and contradictory as the humans they strive to direct. Simple-minded a priori generalizations, inspired by abstract psychological theories and absent careful empirical research discretely analyzed and reported, don't tell us anything. Neither do answers to loaded questions.  

And really, kids, you need to define your terms clearly, make due concessions, quote qualified authorities while recognizing the limits of their expertise, look at the big picture not just a few convenient facts, and think critically about your thesis.  

Which, after all, may be worth learning to do, after all.  

Think critically about religion, and it may not help you get published or elected to office.  But as Kipling put it, do all that, and "You'll be a man, my son." 

Friday, August 05, 2022

Susan and the "Aslan of Oxford"


What really happened to Susan? C. S. Lewis sometimes received letters asking about her fate. (JK Rowling and Philip Pullman also object to Lewis' story on this account.) He replied to one or two correspondents, "I think Susan's salvation is more of an adult story. Why don't you write it yourself?"

So I did, and wove that tale into my new book, The Case for Aslan: Evidence for Jesus in the Land of Narnia. Here's how one chapter, set at Wadham College in Oxford, begins:

Scene: A second-floor office in a functional stone building, with windows overlooking a grassy quadrangle and ornate spires. An elderly man is staring into space, books jumbled in lopsided piles on his desk. A drawing hangs near the door, of two men in old-fashioned wigs, sitting in a wooden boat with feathered wings, flying above the very quad visible out the window. One is smoking a pipe, while the other trails fishing tackle, at which peck a flock of ducks. A basket of apples rests on the cupboard below the drawing: a faint humming sound can be heard from the cupboard.
Knock, knock!
“Come in!”
A young lady of about twenty-five enters. She is stylishly-dressed and attractive, with long black hair and a skirt to match. She smiles, a bit crookedly, as if some weight were pressing on her cheeks.
The old man looks up, and his mouth drops open.
“My dear! So good to see you!”
“Sorry, professor... It’s been... a while.”
“Sit down, sit down! Tea? Coffee?”
“Tea, if it’s not too much trouble!”
“I have been praying for you.”
“Does it hit the ceiling and bounce back?”
The old man glances at his guest with furrowed brows. He nips several tea leaves and drops them in a ceramic mug decorated with a picture of a cat prowling among peonies.
“Here you are,” the professor sighs. The girl puts her hand on his shoulder.
“Sorry, Uncle Digs. But I do wonder. Am I a total lunatic? Did all that— really happen?”

“Crazy? No. But you do look tired. What have you been up to for the past, what is it, four years?”
“Searching for a door back in, I guess. But it seems the Emperor needed my parents beyond the bloody sea more than their daughter did!”
“I am so sorry. If there is anything I can do— anything at all.”
“Well, I wouldn’t mind some sugar. And a few answers, if you can spare them, Professor.
“Even if all those crazy memories were real— horseback rides with centaurs, visits from princes— Rabadash was a dish, you know, I would have loved to see him in donkey ears— the funny way Tumnus danced out of rooms after he scored a diplomatic victory— I can’t believe I’m saying these things out loud to another human being— how would I prove it? Or maybe there’s another way in. Maybe if I could find some clue that Aslan came to our world, I would feel a tad less... alone.
“So I started visiting the Bod.”
“To find... ?”
“If our Aslan is real. I mean, hang it all, half the colleges in this town— Jesus, Christ Church, Body of Christ... hang his name over their entryways.“

“Magdalen for a pert lady disciple.”
“Yes. And a bunch are named for male apostles, too. So I started reading Bultmann. Crossan. Vermes. Meier. Pagels. Ehrman. Piles of stuff, and everyone seemed to find a different Jesus, like the blind men and the elephant.”
“But who did you find?”

“If you don’t mind, professor, let me ask the questions. Sorry. I guess that means, I haven’t made up my mind. Except I think Empress Jadis runs this hell-hole of a planet.” She smiled faintly. “Especially London. London is the worst.”
“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” the professor thought to himself. Still, her sarcasm showed spirit. That had to be a good sign.

Monday, August 01, 2022

Aslan is Loose!


Good morning! You can now purchase The Case for Aslan: Evidence for Jesus in the Land of Narnia, on Amazon!

I think you'll enjoy this book! Everyone else has so far. (See reviews below.)

The Case for Aslan does not, as some guess, merely say the obvious, that "Aslan is Jesus." Instead, first I argue that Lewis' critics (Pullman, JK Rowling, John Haldane, even JRR Tolkien) are wrong: Lewis' imaginative worlds are beautiful, morally sound, and appeal to the mind that searches for truth.

More importantly, The Case for Aslan is a case for Jesus. In some ways, it is my broadest "Case for Christ" so far. But readers to date also agree that it makes also fun reading -- among others, Puddleglum and Pascal, Dr. Digory Kirke on a flight to "CHAZ International Airport" seated next to Philip Pullman, and (what Lewis sort of asked me to write) how Susan Pevensie finally found Jesus, a story which involves Bart Ehrman and Professor Kirke at his office in Wadham College.

Please get a copy on Amazon, and tell people what you think! It would be great to see some thoughtful reviews up. Criticize anything you think I get wrong! My only request is that you make the major theme of the book clear -- some people don't realize how serious, and deep, light-hearted fun of Lewis' sort can be. But warning: like the Wood Between the Worlds, the Case for Aslan can take you anywhere.

My first interview was a three-part series with Justin Brierley, to be posted later this month on his C. S. Lewis podcast. I would love to visit your church or field questions on your podcast over the coming months.

I also hope some people will like the book enough to want to pass extra copies around. Christmas is coming! And I think this book would work well for a book club or group study. I'll let people know when they can order it directly, with group discounts. As for Kindle, DeWard likes people to purchase physical copies, so Aslan can greet them at the coffee table, then make the electronic version available much later.

Here are the first two reviews, and the Amazon link.

"In this fun, breezy, kaleidoscopic book, apologist David Marshall puts Lewis into dialogue with everyone from Plato, Pascal, and Plantinga to the intelligent design theorists to the new atheists. While staying true to the spirit and wonder of Narnia, Marshall helps his readers to see the implications that Lewis’s Chronicles have for philosophy, theology, ethics, and science."

Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence, Houston Baptist University; author of On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis.

"A wonderful exploration of the deeper meaning of Narnia. Beautiful, imaginative, and deeply personal. Anyone interested in the relevance of C.S. Lewis for today will find this book worthwhile.”

—John G West, editor, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society

Sunday, June 26, 2022

NT Wright's Criterion of Double Similarity, Double Dissimilarity

NT Wright
I was recently asked about a criterion for assertaining the historicity of the gospels which the British scholar Tom Wright developed.  I believe that criterion, which he called "Double Similarity, Double Dissimilarity," is a powerful analytic tool for testing the earliest writings about Jesus.  One may also apply it to records about other historical figures, like the Analects of Confucius. 

Here is the description I gave of that criterion from my 2016 book, Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels. This is the whole of Chapter Eight.  You can find Wright's original discussion in Jesus and the Victory of God.  


Chapter Eight: Double Similarity, Double Dissimilarity

Big events do mold us, but aside from death (and then we shall see), after the initial wave passes, life usually regains equilibrium. 

You marry.  A year later, you are blessed with a child.

What has changed?  In a way, everything.  Not long before, you cooked instant noodles over a Benson Burner, let moss colonize the grease on top of the stove, and scoffed with contemptuous detachment at mismatched socks.  Then you met that special person.  You put on your best, learned fine dining or a “great burger joint,” watched your table manners, and stopped wearing old t-shirts, and used them to dust the furniture.  Your face lit up when your lover said “You look nice!” because within the sphere of her luminosity, you did.  The two of you found no end of things to talk about.  Her aura stayed with you when you lay on your back at night, stared with a sigh at the ceiling, and fell to sleep amid pleasant dreams. 

Then she grew about the waist, and your mutual dreams grew, too.  Shopping became a mission from God.  Giving birth was literally an out-of-body experience.  You became “father” and “mother” - words from a myth or ancient prophecy, mysteriously applied now to you.  You were the first creatures visited by this miracle: Adam and Eve in Eden, Christopher Atkins and Brook Shields in The Blue Lagoon.  The planet rotated to a new theme song.  Sun, moon and stars bowed down to the infant in the crib.  King Baby became your sovereign, love, entertainment system, (broken) alarm clock or crazed rooster that heralded the new day while the sun lazily rested in remote firmaments of the sky on the far side of the Earth.

So many changes!  But far out at sea, the boat slowly rights from tsunamis that pass under its keel.  Most of your brain cells remain in place, however reluctantly they clock in.  Once distended and quirky, your stomach reasserts old cravings. 

So there is double discontinuity in marriage and childbirth.  Wedded life is not the same as singleness, and being a parent is not the same as remaining childless.  The content of your Facebook pages from these two periods distinguishes them from the rest of your life.  Yet there is also a double continuity.  The two of you are still “Robert” and “Rebecca” or “Miles” and “Manny,” children of unique parents, moved by Swan Lake or Taylor Swift, with freckles and memories of secret love and childish adventures. 

Jesus had an impact upon his disciples like the founding of a new family, or the landing of a shooting star on a desert floor.  The impact of that life left a crater - like the sudden mixing of meteorite and native sod - impressions, sayings, acts flung into the pages of the earliest records, that distinguish those records from what came before or after. 

Probably the greatest modern English historian of early Christianity, N. T. Wright, has developed a powerful argument for the gospels from this blend of old and new.  Wright taught New Testament at Oxford and Cambridge Universities.  He is author of an epic series on “Christian Origins and the Question of God” that is erudite, lucid, and informed as are few works in the field.  Jesus Seminar fellow Marcus Borg described Wright as “the leading British Jesus scholar of his generation.”  In The Elusive Messiah: A Philosophical Overview of the Quest for the Historical Jesus, philosopher Raymond Martin placed Wright at the forefront of scholars studying the historical Jesus, praising his methodology as unmatched in sophistication.

In light of the problems we have encountered with methodologies for evaluating the gospels, perhaps we can gain from Wright’s perspective. 


Israel and the Prodigal Son

In Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright introduces the argument from “Double Similarity, Double Dissimilarity” by retelling Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son. 

Jesus told this story in Luke 15, in partial response to complaints from unnamed Jewish leaders about the company he kept.  “Why is Jesus eating with sinners?”  This was a natural question, in a religious culture in which the need for holiness meant setting oneself apart from the world.  Aslan was wrong to reduce Jewish tradition to withdrawal from the Gentile world’s impurities, but he was right to recognize that as a central element in the tradition, especially pressing in occupied Palestine.  Jesus told three parables to answer his critics’ challenge: about a lost sheep, coin, and son.  A man secured 99 sheep in the pen to search for one lost on the mountains.  A woman found her lost savings, and called friends over to celebrate.  In both cases, the moral was essentially the same: God rejoices when what has been lost, the “sinner,” is redeemed and brought home, which by implication is what Jesus came to do, “seek and save that which has been lost.” 

Jesus’ third story is by far the longest and most famous, and is an arrow aimed at the caricature of Jewish tradition Aslan perpetrates and to which he seeks to reduce it.  A father had two sons.  The younger tired of working for his father and requested an early inheritance check.  In the context of time and culture, this request must have come as a rude slap in the face to the father: as Wright puts it, it was like saying “I wish you were dead.”  But the father, whom Wright recognizes as the hero of the drama, graciously granted his son’s outrageous demand.  The son took “his portion” of the family wealth and ran.  In a distant land, he used up those funds, and was reduced to hiring himself out to a Gentile to watch pigs: lower than a beetle’s knees, in Jewish thinking.  Then the thought crossed his mind: “If only I could work as one of my father’s servants!  They are at least decently fed!”  (Reminding Jesus’ hearers what kind of man the father was.)  So the lad straggled home, preparing a properly apologetic speech as he trudged along.  But before he reached the estate his father, ignoring the stoic proprieties placed upon the pater familius in Jewish and Roman cultures, ran down the road and embraced his lost son. 

To this point, as with the stories of the sheep and the coin, Jesus was simply answering his critic’s question: “Why are you spending time with these miserable sinners?”  He answered them in the context of Jewish history.  As Wright explains, “This is the story of Israel, in particular of exile and restoration.  It corresponds more or less exactly to the narrative grammar which underlies the exilic prophets, and the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and a good deal of subsequent Jewish literature.“  But then the redemptive story Jesus was telling, and the knife, took a twist, as Wright notes: “For there is a second son, an older lad, and he represents the people who asked Jesus this question.” 

And with that twist, Jesus’ judges somehow found themselves in the defendant’s seat:

“This is an explosive narrative, designed to blow apart the normal first-century reading of Jewish history and to replace it . . . this tale subverts the telling of the story which one might expect from mainstream first-century Jews . . . “ (126)

What Jewish story is Jesus challenging?  Israel was defined first by its captivities to Egypt and Babylon, and as fragments of Greek and Roman Empires, then by promises of return and reconciliation with God:

“Exile and restoration: this is the central drama that Israel believed herself to be acting out.  And the story of the prodigal says, quite simply: this hope is now being fulfilled - but it does not look like what was expected.  Israel went into exile because of her own folly and disobedience, and is now returning simply because of the fantastically generous, indeed prodigal, love of her god.  But this is a highly subversive retelling.  The real return from exile, including the real resurrection from the dead, is taking place, in an extremely paradoxical fashion, in Jesus’ own ministry.”

The older brother represents Jesus’ self-righteous critics, “virtually Samaritans.”  They are “defining themselves as outside the true family,” Wright explains.  Jesus has flipped the national narrative like a giant pancake on the griddle, as the prophets so often had done before him.  Only with this further spin: the spotlight falls now not on some vague but glorious future, an ideal and as yet unrealized “Suffering Servant” or “Son of David,” but on the man standing in front of Jesus’ critics: the preacher accused of hanging with outcastes and lowlifes.  And the whole world (a mission calling mentioned throughout the Old Testament, but never seriously followed) would finally be brought into Israel’s story:

“It is time for the Gentiles to come in, because Israel’s exile is at last over, and she has been restored.”

For Jews, restoration should mean God’s return to the temple.  Jesus cleansed that temple, a symbolic act Aslan confuses with mere sedition.  Jesus was not just causing a ruckus: he was reminding Israel that divine visitation was a call to repent.  Wright points out that Luke could not have invented the ever-so-Jewish, but subversive, theme of a rebuilt Temple that is laced throughout early Christian literature.  Yet the theme of Israel’s Messianic restoration, then mission to the world, was “held in common with all the other major early Christian writers” (128).

Thus, “like a great pincer movement,” we “work inwards towards Jesus” from Jewish context and early Christian theology.  The “simplest solution” to explaining this mass of complex but converging data (having added a dialectical alloy, Wright’s method thus strengthens the concept of coherence) - the meteor’s impact, the birth of a new family - is “that Jesus himself believed that he was the agent of his strange return from exile.”  The resurrection would be God’s stamp of approval upon his ministry.  All this - resurrection, forgiveness, restoration, return, the rule of God - was occurring “under the noses” of the “self-appointed stay-at-home guardians of the father’s house” (128).

God thus proved kind as the prophets predicted, but prodigally kind, kind in a revolutionary, even threatening way.  Israel “could say to her god ‘I wish you were dead,’ but this god would not respond in kind.  When, therefore, Israel comes to her senses, and returns with all her heart, there is an astonishing, prodigal, lavish welcome waiting for her” (129).

The Prodigal Son thus does not merely teach, in an abstract sense, it embodies or incarnates truth, it “creates a new world.”

This is why Jesus’ story, drawing in the whole ministry that the tale encapsulates, felt to some listeners like a sucker-punch to the gut:

“It is not a matter . . . Of Jesus offending some petty scruples here or there, or of an abstract challenge offered by one timeless religious system to another.  Jesus is claiming to be ushering in Israel’s long-awaited new world; and he is doing it, apparently, in all the wrong ways.  Jesus is enacting the great healing, the great restoration, of Israel.  And he interprets his own actions in terms of the fulfillment, not of a few prophetic proof-texts taken atomistically, but of the entire story-line which Israel had told herself, in a variety of forms, over and over again” (130).

Wright begins with the Prodigal Son, but argues that this algorithm draws in the whole gospel story of redemption.  “Dramatically, historically, theologically, the parable fits perfectly into the ministry of Jesus . . . Jesus is reconstituting Israel around himself” (131).

The world loves the story of the Prodigal Son.  It is the sort of tale a 19th Century novelist would make hay of.  (And come to think of it, Charles Dickens also loved this story and borrowed its plot, for instance in Great Expectations.  Forrest Gump’s prodigal love towards Jenny can be read the same way.)  To say this story “coheres” with the rest of Jesus’ ministry is an almost comical understatement.  The Prodigal Son draws Jesus’ ministry around it like a well-tailored suit.  It is a perfectly-chosen final chisel stroke that gives the Thinker’s eyes their intensity, the fingers almost touching as God reaches out to Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. 

What does this master stroke of a rhetorical gambit have to do with historical evidence?  Simple.  The gospels are “Facebook postings” from a particular period in Christian history, testable and datable debris scattered from the impact crater of historical causation.  Wright explains:

“The parable only makes sense as a retelling of Israel’s story; but it also only makes sense as a profoundly subversive retelling of that story . . . As a parable, not least in its manner of concluding one scene too early, it makes sense precisely at that moment in history when the possibility of Israel’s redemption happening in this fashion is being controversially mooted, not when it is being climactically and publicly celebrated.  The parable thus fits exactly into the gap between Judaism and early Christianity . . . It is thus decisively similar to both the Jewish context and the early Christian world, and at the same time importantly dissimilar . . .” (131-2, Wright’s emphasis)

From this discussion emerges Wright’s criterion of double similarity:

“When something can be seen to be credible (though perhaps deeply subversive) within first-century Judaism, and credible as the implied starting point (though not the exact replica) of something in later Christianity, there is a strong possibility of our being in touch with the genuine history of Jesus.”

Already Wright is hinting at a second and complementary half to the criteria.  Even stronger evidence of historicity is found when not only does a given story or scene fit like hand in glove within a duel historical context - say, between falling in love and having a child - but when part of the story differs doubly from “before” and “after” contexts as well.  (And thus is “deeply subversive” of what came before, and not an “exact replica” of what comes after, either.)  Your honeymoon was a distinctive era of your life: you were no longer merely your parents’ child or a lonely single, but neither had the baby arrived.  But that life made no sense apart from your own parents, and the subsequent growth of your family and its smallest members is best explained as the fruition of that union. 

Later Wright argues that “double similarity and double dissimilarity must characterize any analysis that claims historicity” (226).  This seems a bit much.  As Wright says about the Prodigal Son, “one swallow does not make a summer,” and we shall host a large flock of evidences for the gospels in subsequent chapters.  But Wright is right to recognize DSDD as a sweeping pattern to which much of the gospel material does indeed conform, and which supports the historical truth of that material.  Consider even the famous phrase “The Kingdom of God,” which Aslan supposes is code for La Revolucion.  Jesus announces in Matthew and Mark, “The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe in the good news!”  Wright points out that even here, Jesus’ words are almost unprecedented:

“No one in Judaism had said quite that before, but the sayings make no sense except in a firmly Jewish context.  Equally, the early church, venturing beyond the borders of Judaism, did not announce the kingdom in these terms - they would have meant nothing to Gentiles - and yet the announcement they made, and the life they led, are unthinkable without this kingdom being believed to have come in a still very Jewish sense.  They were not, after all, offering ‘a different religious option’ to a world already sated with such things.  They were announcing that the one true god, the creator, had fulfilled his purpose for Israel and was now, in consequence, addressing the whole world” (227).

Jesus did not “address” the world as a military conqueror, as Aslan supposes.  Wright sardonically notes a similar proposal that predated Aslan by some 23 years, “The authors are to be congratulated on finding yet another new way of making Paul the corrupter of the religion of Jesus” (450n).  Rather, in the face of cruel Roman imperialism, Jesus called Israel to repent of her “militaristic nationalism.”  Israel’s true calling was not to merely kill Roman soldiers and set up a new mega state, but to bring light of a new sort to the world:

“One of the key elements in Jesus’ perception of his task was therefore his redefinition of who the real enemy was; then, where this enemy was actually located; then, what this enemy’s strategy was, and how he was to be defeated . . . (this theme) looms large in the gospels.  It is comparatively scarce in other early Christian literature, and is very differently treated in non-Christian Jewish literature of the time.  At the same time, it is a thoroughly Jewish perception of reality, and makes excellent sense as the presupposition of what we find in early Christianity.  It thus meets the test, which is of course only ever applicable in a broad-brush way, of double dissimilarity and double similarity” (450).

Again and again, even the most “ace” among our ACE detectives adopts schemes of interpretation that simply ignore large swaths of historical data.  Aslan and Carrier go so far as to pretend that Jesus didn’t even tell his followers to love their enemies.  Wright’s dialectic, by contrast, has the merit of preserving contrasting shards of evidence within a coherent whole.  Yes, Jesus was “a Messiah,” as Aslan argues.  But “Messiah” took on new meanings in light of his personality and mission.  (As the word “Sage” [聖人] would gain new meaning in the wake of Confucius’ life - another great thinker whose historicity is I think supported by DSDD.) 

Wright noted that scholars are coming to recognize that the Messianic awareness permeating the gospels can hardly have been pure Christian novelty.  Why would Jesus’ first followers make up a “Messiah” so far at odds with the expectations of the Jewish people?  “Why bother to invent passages, sayings, and above all a title that would be at best beside the point and at worst dangerously misleading?” (488-9) Jesus was a Messiah whom Jews did not expect, but who could not have appeared anywhere else.  He was the savior Christians would worship, but more complex, edgy, even quirky, and unpredictable than the simplified figure of later Christology - yet only such a person could produce such a creed:  

“We may suggest that the portrait of Jesus as Messiah in the synoptic gospels is not only significantly different from what the Jewish context would have led us to expect (though is makes sense only within, and as a key variant upon, that Jewish setting).  It is also significantly different, both in context and in the tone of presentation, from what we find in the early church (though the church’s proclamation of Jesus as Messiah makes sense only if we presuppose something like the gospels’ picture) . . . As in other cases, the picture the gospels paint is both continuous and discontinuous with non-Christian Judaism on the one hand and the life of the early church on the other, in such a way as to force the historian to postulate that we are here in touch with Jesus himself” (489).

How much of the gospels does Wright’s method for seeking historicity vindicate?  Most of the framework and quite a bit of the finish, I think.  The gospels are deeply Jewish.  Even Luke cannot be understood in any other cultural context.  Yet they break with Judaism - no break is not the right word - Jesus does not abolish, but he fulfills on unexpected terms and with surprising force.  No one predicted the sort of fulfillment whose characteristics I shall describe.

It may sound like a joke to ask, “Are the gospels Christian?”  They are the founding texts of Christianity, its Magna Carta, Bill of Rights, and Constitution rolled into one.  The past two thousand years are the impact crater of this missile: Augustine, Francis, Thomas Aquinas, cathedrals, universities, missions, stained glass windows, Handel’s Messiah, the names of Hispanic baseball players (and my two sons) - all derive from these four small texts. 

Yet Christianity never produced anything like them again.  Read the hagiographies that Ehrman reproduces of Paul, Peter, John, or Thomas.  The atmosphere has changed.  We have crossed a great frontier.  The child in the crib has graduated from college and gone out into the world. 

The power of Double Discontinuity, Double Continuity lies in its scope.  It does not cover a few random verses, or one or two analogies.  The gospels are deeply Jewish, yet stand out dramatically from Hebrew tradition.  They are the origin of Christian tradition, yet could not have been, and were not, written again, after those first few years of life. 

The rest of this book may, if you like, be read through this grid. 

Saturday, April 02, 2022

My Censored Review of John McWhorter's Woke Racism

Several months ago, I posted a three-star review of John McWhorter's Woke Racism which was doubly incorrect: for approving of his attack on the New Racism, and for disapproving of his attacks on Christianity.  It was a thorough, evidence-based critique, and became the most popular on Amazon's page for that book.  But then it disappeared.  I asked why, and was told it would be reinstated.  But then it disappeared again.  I prodded again, but it did not reappear, so far as I know.  

Perhaps it disappeared into the Woke Zone. 

Anyway, here it is, by request.  Hopefully this corner of the Internet is still untouched by censors.  

I have thought about sending McWhorter a copy . . . he responded in a friendly way to a previous inquiry.  And maybe I should see about publication elsewhere.  

*  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

McWhorter is such a lively writer, so lucid and sharp, and his argument here is so important (or would be, if only), that one must justify giving the book but three stars.  I will not do so by echoing the reviewer below who calls this "right-wing whining:"  McWhorter echoes too many Democratic talking points for my taste.  Yet he has much to say that should be heard.
Pity he almost ruins it by dropping so much poorly-aimed ordinance, stupidly taking out potential allies, including me, as collateral damage.  
"Stupid" is not normally a word one would associate with this brilliant scholar.  But McWhorter is a linguist, dabbling here in religion.  I am a philosopher of religion, who dabbles in language occasionally.  The problem with religion is, everyone thinks they're an expert, even if they are as weakly-informed on the subject as Sigmund Freud, Steven Pinker, or Richard Dawkins.  McWhorter attacks it with the same ignorance and arrogance.    
Should one call woke ideology a "religion?"  That depends on how you define the word (see Peter Berger): the odd thing is, McWhorter doesn't give a definition, despite the importance of this classification.  By some definitions, McWhorter would also qualify as a religious person, and his own beliefs -- which he proselytizes here, apparently thinking others should agree with him, though he describes those as marks of religion -- are potentially subject to some degree to the same criticism he levels on his targets.  He criticizes Manicheanism, but edges towards a Gnostic view of society, with the Enlightened faithful battling legions of the superstitious and cognitively lazy.    
If you're writing a book to convince people to oppose a popular new faith, why spend so much time attacking people who might prove to be your allies?
And so ignorantly!  Cotton Mather is a byword for blind faith?  Actually he was keenly interested in the sciences, which pious Christian thinkers did much to create, and helped stop small pox in its tracks in Boston.  Ben Franklin credits him for inspiring his own good works.  No, religions are not all the same, even so-called "Abrahamic religions" (a dubious category), any more than all writing systems are the same.  No, blind faith or "unempirical" beliefs are not the necessary hallmark of Christianity: in fact, almost every sermon to pagans in the Acts of the Apostles is highly empirical.  Nor is it true that early Christians simply "thought of themselves as bearers of truth, in contrast to all other belief systems."  Again, read Acts, and see how Paul interacted with Stoic philosophers in Athens.  Or Justin Martyr, Origen, St. Augustine, after him.  I wrote my doctoral dissertation on how Christianity sees other faiths, mostly in the Chinese context, but with reference to other civilizations as well.  (Fulfillment: A Christian Model of Religions.)  McWhorter continually takes irrelevant shots at a version of Christianity that a child should not hold.  And does he not think himself a bearer of truth?  If not, why write?  It is irritating to buy a critique of a modern ideology that the author understands, and get so much of a attack on an ancient ideology that he clearly does not, in a field not his own, with so little self-criticism.      

McWhorter's epistemology is also dubious.  He decries the "suspension of disbelief" in religion.  But really, conflicts between opposing authorities -- say, your eyes, and what your best friend tells you -- are inherent in the human condition.  The only rational way to act in this world, is by ignoring some doubts, most of the time.  
At the end of the book, McWhorter tells readers, "If you wish to expel religion, Sigmund Freud, The Future of An Illusion."  But as Kevin Williamson put it recently, "As a scientist, Sigmund Freud was a man whose name was one vowel away from being the perfect aptronym . . . "  At best, on religion, I find "Fraud" an amusing crackpot.  That McWhorter thinks he's the go-to guy, is astonishing.  
McWhorter also assumes that "religions" are essentially the same thing -- even if he doesn't bother to define the word.  But every object in the cosmos larger than a small protein is unique, for those who study that class of objects.  Religions are far more varied than snowflakes.      
McWhorter does mention one difference between religions: Wokism has not developed a concept of forgiveness yet.  But as I explain in "Letter to a 'Racist' Nation," woke concern for those on the margins is a fragment off of Christian theology, introduced by Jesus.  You don't easily find it in Greco-Roman civilization before that: read Suetonius, or Tom Holland's Dominion.  Nor do you find it in Aztec or Nazi religions.  As Chesterton put it, isolated from Virtue as a whole, compassion has gone mad in modern American society, with results that McWhorter well describes.      
Another valid link between Christianity and Wokism is explained by Rene Girard, whom McWhorter 
does not mention: the notion of scapegoating.  For Christians, Jesus took the sins of the world upon himself.  Girard points out, however, that he also subverts and exposes all attempts to scapegoat.  Jesus was thus the historical antidote to Cancel Culture, Girard argues.  
While I'm being one-sided, I should also mention McWhorter's mild support for BLM and less mild criticism of the police.  It's not just that my brother's a cop, and he's saved lives (of what color, it doesn't matter) in many ways, while as predicted, BLM protests were again followed by a huge upsurge in murders.  But also, I visited CHAZ.  Just to the west of the Seattle East Precinct I found "Blue Lives Murder" graffiti.  By the front door to east, protestors had hung a poster of 29 African-Americans killed by police in WA state in recent years.  (Ignoring Whites, Asians, Natives, and Hispanics.)  I researched those and other "victims" of police shootings (see Letter to a "Racist" Nation) and found almost all were aggressively wielding guns or other weapons.  Some of these "victims" had already murdered someone.  In fact, some 3000 innocent Americans die of medical errors, for every one killed by Law Enforcement.  It was a witch hunt, in 2020.  Dr. McWhorter needs to treat BLM propaganda more critically.  
McWhorter is in over his head in religion.  He is much better when describing culture, psychology, and faculty gossip.  His prose floats like a butterfly, then stings like a bee.  Unfortunately, this butterfly floats over the wrong target, and the bee wastes too many stings on a Rock that has worn out whole hives of hornets and yellowjackets.  While wonderfully readable, this book is ill-conceived, and to me, rather irritating.