Saturday, July 26, 2014

Is Jesus a Rank-Raglan Myth-Hero? (Or is Carrier a Scholar-Legend?)

Is Jesus a myth?  Or is Richard Carrier a scholarly legend in his own mind (and just a legend elsewhere?)

Chapters four and five of Richard Carrier's On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt, are dedicated to what Carrier describes as 48 "elements" of background information about Jesus and his times that he believes scholars need to come to grips with, to decide whether or not Jesus ever really lived. (Those of us who lack the imagination to conceive of that as a real issue, will nevertheless find all kinds of interesting materials in these chapters, some interesting for reasons Carrier himself fails to perceive, as we have already begun to see.)  This "elements" section is a huge part of the book, running almost 180 pages, with hundreds of footnotes.  Clearly, Richard Carrier thinks these supposed facts are vital to the case he is making.

The crowning "element," and the topic of today's post, is number 48, the "Rank-Raglan hero-type."  Heroes who conform to this type, Carrier maintains, are all fictional, yet Jesus fits in perfectly, or almost perfectly.  But no (other?) historical person is known to conform to that type, while many mythical figures do.   Therefore, this "coincidence" creates a high prior probability that Jesus himself will also prove fictional, just like all the other Rank-Raglan heroes. 

Carrier assigns great importance to this argument.  He not only assigns it pride of place, he spends six pages explaining and defending it.  And then he refers to it on twice as many more pages later in the book, according to the index.  He concludes the section by saying the claim that Jesus ranks higher than almost any mythological figure on this scale, "is a stunning fact, which must be considered, and accounted for." 

Indeed, in the following chapter on prior probability, Rank-Raglan proves to be the cornerstone of Carrier's argument that the prior probability of Jesus existing is no more (and probably less) than one third!  (This number itself, he more or less throws out at random, under the conceit that he is "rounding up" to give historicity every chance!)

I have to say I deeply enjoyed Carrier's argument for Jesus as  mythological hero.  And not just because it is likely to prove Carrier's Waterloo, in the eyes of many scholars.  Bad arguments, weak references, and errors of logic and historical fact are already numerous enough in the Carrier oeuvre: a few more need not prove his undoing.  (And anyway, I rather like the guy -- more so than, say, Bart Erhman, who generally has more sense.  His outbursts, such as calling me "dishonest" while telling falsehoods about me, are of course adolescent, but why should that bother me?)

But there is a serious and important point about Christianity that emerges (to Carrier's apparent ignorance) from the discussion, as we shall see.  And there's also some comic relief, as it appears that on his own premises, Carrier himself might turn out to be a "Scholar-Legend," who may not actually possess any credentials as an historian, if we take prior probability into account. 

I. The Argument

Let us quote some good, solid chunks here, to get it right:

"Finally, the most ubiquitous model 'hero' narrative, which pagans also revered and to which the Gospel Jesus also conforms, is the fable of the 'divine-king,' what I call the Rank-Raglan hero-type . . . This is a hero type found repeatedly across at least fifteen known mythic heroes (including Jesus) -- if we count only those who clearly meet more than half of the designated parallels (which means twelve or more . . . ) . . . "

Carrier then names 22 "features distinctive of this hero-type:"

"1. The hero's mother is a virgin.
2. His father is a king or the heir of a king.
3. The circumstances of his conception are unusual.
4. He is reputed to be the son of a god.
5. An attempt is made to kill him when he is a baby.
6. To escape which he is spirited away from those trying to kill him.
7. He is reared in a foreign country by one or more foster parents.
8. We are told nothing of his childhood.
9. On reaching manhood he returns to his future kingdom.
10. He is crowned, hailed or becomes king.
11. He reigns uneventfully (ie, without wars or natural catastrophes).
12. He prescribes laws.
13. He then loses favor with the gods or his subjects.
14. He is driven from the throne or city.
15. He meets with a mysterious death.
16. He dies atop a hill or high place.
17. His children, if any, do not suceed him.
18. His body turns up missing.
19. Yet he still has one or more holy sepulchers (in fact or fiction).
20. Before taking a throne or a wife, he battles and defeats a great adversary (such as a king, giant, dragon, or wild beast).
21. His parents are related to each other.
22. He marries a queen or a princess related to his predecessor."  (229-230)

Carrier emphasizes that "applying the criteria must be reasonably rigorous to be meaningful."  Doing so to Matthew's gospel, in fancy if not (as we shall see) in fact, yields Carrier the following scores:

1. Oedipus (21)
2. Moses (20)
3. Jesus (20)
4. Theseus (19)
5. DIonysus (19)
6. Romulus (18)
7. Perseus (17)
8. Hercules (17)
9. Zeus (15)
10. Bellerophon (14)
11. Jason (14)
12. Osiris (14)
13. Pelops (13)
14. Asclepius (12)
15. Joseph (ie, the son of Jacob) (12)

Carrier argues:

"This is a useful discovery, because with so many matching persons it doesn't matter what the probability of scoring more than half on the Rank-Raglan scale by chance coincidence . . . if a real person can have the same elements associated with him . . . then there should be many real persons on this list -- as surely there are far more real persons that mythical ones.  The number of real persons in the course of antiquity must number in the hundreds of millions, whereas the number of mythical persons invented over that same course of time will be in the thousands at most."

And this is Dr. Richard Carrier's crown jewel, the argument that is not only going to overthrow Christianity (a trivial pursuit, in Carrier's eyes, since it is self-evidently absurd anyway).  It is also going to overturn the historicity of Jesus, and perhaps most importantly, finally establish Carrier in the front rank of historians in the eyes of the envious herd, where he belongs. 

But what a minefield of special pleading, tendentious exegesis, and unexamined assumptions!  And how hollow (and dangerous to Carrier himself) the reasoning! 

Let us begin with "minor" or rather general problems.  Then let's analyze the list of characteristics themselves, and see whether or not Jesus really matches them.  Then we'll see if there's any logic behind the argument, anyway -- and whether the actual logic here might not rather support the historicity of the gospels (Jesus' historicity is for me, by contrast, too trivially obvious a fact to bother arguing for).  Finally, we'll look at the danger here to Richard Carrier's own reputation as a historically-extant and credentialed student of history.

II. Initial Problems

A. Carrier emphasizes that the Gospel of Mark is the first Christian record, and the source (as far as we can tell) of the Christian myth.  On Carrier's own account, Jesus only meets 14 of these criteria in Mark.  So why does he use Matthew for this analysis, instead?   Is it "rigorous" to jump from one book to another, because one early source gives you a better result (20, in the case of Matthew, allegedly) than another? 

B.  Suppose we have a case where an early text is written about a figure which most scholars agree is largely historical.  Suppose legends and myths later appear about this figure -- which of course they will, if he's important.  (Francis of Assisi, George Washington, Mao Zedong, etc.)  Should those later accounts work retroactively to undermine early accounts?  Wouldn't that be a form of anachronism?
Consider the Analects of Confucius.  Scholars generally agree that there is a historical core to the book.  (Though as I showed years ago on this site, the historical evidence for the gospels is far stronger.)  Later, both Confucianists and Taoists made up stories about him that display mythical or legendary qualities.  Does it follow that the original is somehow undermined b these later tales?

I don't think so.  And evidently, neither does the vast majority of scholarship, since historians just don't reason that way.

C. Carrier errs in supposing "the number of real persons in the course of antiquity" is relevant to our question.  We don't know about those "hundreds of millions," therefore they don't count, for our purposes.  They may well have had fancy stories told about them, which are lost. 

D. And how many mythological characters were there in antiquity?  Were there really just "thousands?"  Carrier defines myths as "factually untrue stories that are historically improbable but symbolically meaningful." (390) I think that definition begs all the questions in Carrier's way, but let take it for granted. 

How many such stories have you told, in your lifetime?  As a writer and educator, I have probably told hundreds.  I invented one just this week, about aliens escaping from the Empire in Star Wars and coming to Earth. 

One of the first myths I remember being told, was about the boogeyman.  My brother probably told it to us just to scare us, but maybe also for the meaningful value of creating fear of strangers, and the need to secure ourselves at night. 

Let us suppose the average person, in his or her lifetime, invents just 100 such stories.  From that it follows that the number of "myths," as Richard Carrier has defined the word, is 100 times that the number of PEOPLE who lived in antiquity.  There were BILLIONS of myths in antiquity, as in the modern world.

But we are comparing ghosts, since we have neither reports of the vast majority of those people, nor of their mythological narratives.  It is useless to appeal to convenient ghosts one has never met, especially if one insists on ignoring a larger crowd of inconvenient ghosts. 

But these are minor problems, compared to what is coming.  Now let's look at the characteristics of allegedly mythological figures that Carrier names, and see if Jesus really does match them. 

III.  Is Jesus a Rank-Haglan Myth? 

Even looking at Matthew, it seems to me the "rigorous" application of these terms to Jesus, that Carrier demands of other historical figures, yields a much smaller number.  (Still smaller if we apply it to Mark, as would be more consistent with Carrier's over-all argument, which is why he mentions Mark here -- he seems to realize that he's cheating, here.)

 "1. The hero's mother is a virgin."

Sure.  In the birth narratives.  But I have always maintained that the birth narratives are less historically-secure, simply because they refer to much earlier events, which could not have come to Luke and Matthew from so many potential sources.  Even if they were mistaken, as ancient historians often were mistaken about the circumstances of their heroes' births, that should not much effect the record of Jesus' public ministry years.  +

2. His father is a king or the heir of a king.

God is a metaphorical, not literal, king.  Webster's defines king as "A chief ruler; a sovereign; one invested with supreme authority over a nation, country, or tribe, usually by hereditary succession . . . "

God is also described as a "ruler" or "sovereign," but he is not "invested" with that power, certainly not by heredity, nor is that power limited to a nation or tribe or other political entity.  Again, calling God a king is purely metaphorical: he rules, yes, but as God, like a king in some ways, unlike in others.  (Such as being God, not man!)  And Joseph was not even that.  It would hardly be  "rigorous" to interpret king metaphorically -- like Felix Hernandez, "the King," or Burger King.

So we must reject this element. --

3. The circumstances of his conception are unusual.

Sure.  Again, if we read Matthew or Luke -- not Mark -- and limit ourselves to birth narratives, Jesus fits.  +

4. He is reputed to be the son of a god.

OK, though of the God, not of a god.  +

5. An attempt is made to kill him when he is a baby.

Again, there is nothing in Mark about this, though there is in Matthew. +

6. To escape which he is spirited away from those trying to kill him.

As above.  +

7. He is reared in a foreign country by one or more foster parents.

Mary was his real mother, who reared him along with Joseph, according to one gospel.  This item is thus at best ambiguous, even in the birth narratives. + / --

8. We are told nothing of his childhood.

Carrier tries to discount Jesus' trip to Jerusalem, on the grounds that at 12, this was his bar mitzvah, making him an adult!  If we're going to be technical, though, he wasn't an adult yet when he left.  And there's also the story of Jesus as a baby in the temple.  But we're not counting that, because he was a baby, not a "child?"  Nah, this is too much special pleading.  Carrier should at least have admitted he was pushing it on this one: in fact he pushes it way too far.   --

9. On reaching manhood he returns to his future kingdom.

On reaching manhood, according to Carrier, Jesus returned to his down-country home and was obedient to his parents.  Was Nazareth his "future kingdom?"

Or are we now changing the meaning of manhood to fit Carrier's elastic argument, and talking about the beginning of his ministry?  That was in Galilee, on fishing boats and in meadows and among beggars.  So we should use a pretty broad definition of "kingdom?"

Only a lot of special pleading, not "rigor," will save this item for Carrier's model.  --

10. He is crowned, hailed or becomes king.

Jesus was an itinerant evangelist, according to the gospels.  "My kingdom is not of this world."  In other words, in the gospels, he remains a metaphorical, not literal, king.  --

11. He reigns uneventfully (ie, without wars or natural catastrophes).

Jesus held no political power whatsoever (at least Confucius' disciples could exaggerate his political position, without undermining his historicity, however), and all his career was highly eventful.  --

12. He prescribes laws.

Jesus gave moral teachings, as did Socrates, Plato, Zeno, Epictetus, Confucius, Lao Zi, Mo Zi, and many others.  They did not gain the force of law within centuries of his lifetime, and after that, only indirectly. -- 

13. He then loses favor with the gods or his subjects.

Jesus had no subjects, using language rigorously as Carrier instructs us to do, and did not believe in "the gods." --

14. He is driven from the throne or city.

Jesus sat on no throne.  And he was not driven from Jerusalem, he was publicly whipped in that city, then taken outside it (apparently) to be crucified.  This one seems a stretch, at best. -- / +

15. He meets with a mysterious death.

What does that mean?  Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate.  Carrier thinks it was mysterious because Jesus died so quickly, relatively speaking.  But given his heavy flogging beforehand, and his own reconciliation to death, this is no great surprise.  --

16. He dies atop a hill or high place.

Finally, a clear victory, related to the years of Jesus' ministry.  +

17. His children, if any, do not succeed him.

Irrelevant, since Jesus was not a king, and he had no children.  (Except metaphorically, again -- as all teachers might.) --

18. His body turns up missing.

His body turned up alive.  --

19. Yet he still has one or more holy sepulchers (in fact or fiction).

What, in Mark?  Or Matthew?  Or are we jumping centuries forward, now?  --

20. Before taking a throne or a wife, he battles and defeats a great adversary (such as a king, giant, dragon, or wild beast).

Jesus took neither throne nor wife.  (Carrier says, well, the church was sort of his wife, right?  Which is not in Matthew, and not rigorous semantically -- the Church is a metaphorical lover, as in the OT, not an actual woman with a ring on her finger in a church.) 

Jesus' defeat of Satan is also spiritual, not physical.  In a sense, we all "defeat Satan" simply by resisting temptation.  So if we stretch the term in this way, it can apply to everyone.  But if we're going to be rigorous again, as Carrier admonishes, this is yet another strike against Carrier's theory, as well as his representation of the data and therefore his credibility.  --

21. His parents are related to each other.

Carrier does not count this one in the main part of his discussion, but tries to work it in later, anyway, by showing some remote link between the two families.  Well, there is an at least remote link between every two families.  This is especially probable in an ancient rural farming community.  --

22. He marries a queen or a princess related to his predecessor.  (229-230)


So by my count, even considering Matthew, Jesus' "score" is a whole lot lower than by Carrier's count -- he meets between six and eight of these criteria.  And if we consider Mark, or ignore the birth narrative, he meets only two or three. 

So this argument is a complete failure, if we apply its wording rigorously, as Carrier demands.  (When it suits him, to eliminate other historical personages.) 

But the argument is NOT a complete failure for Christians.  In fact, I see two major items of value here: first, it helps us recognize the true nature of the Gospel, and second, it demonstrates (tongue in cheek alert, for the humor-challenged -- we have had fun at his expense before) the potentially fictional nature of Richard Carrier as a scholar.  

IV.  Or Was Jesus a Myth -- a True Myth? 

The weird thing about Carrier's argument -- one of the weird things -- is how myopic it seems, in light of Christian thought in general.

C. S. Lewis, the most famous Christian thinker of our time, said he became a Christian not because the Gospel was totally unrelated to mythology, but that it was related in a particular way.  The Gospel does indeed share some characteristics of myth.  But it is myth become fact, telling psycho-spiritual truths played out in the real world, for our salvation.

This has been a dominant Christian concept for thousands of years, beginning in the gospels themselves, as I show in my doctoral dissertation, and will be showing in a book to be published later this year.  (My longest statement of that model on this site is here.)  God has planned human history in such a way that Jesus could fulfill the deepest truths not only of philosophy and the rational search for understanding (that, too), but also of mythology, and our intuitive search for insight. 

If this is true -- and it is the dominant Christian model -- it is rather arrogant, or perhaps lazy, of Carrier to entirely neglect this possible explanation for genuine similarities between fictional myths, and "the Word made flesh, and dwelling among us, full of grace and truth."

I have said much more about this in my books, and here again, and need not repeat all that implies now.  But let me just emphasize that if God is even possibly at work through Jesus, then all bets such as Carrier is placing here, are off.  God may "take up" myth into his true historical revelation, as C. S. Lewis put it, and as I argue elsewhere in detail.  

I have also shown empirically, in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, that while Jesus does display some of the "theological" traits that mythological heroes enjoy, he also displays dozens of traits in common with historical figures.  This backs up Lewis' claim that Jesus is, in some ways, like a mythological figure, while in others (far more), like an historical figure. 

Those traits, indeed, imbue Jesus with far greater mathematical odds in his favor, than Rank-Raglan would, even if it applied to Jesus very well -- which it does not.  And that takes far more of the evidence into account -- the parts Carrier recognizes, AND those he overlooks.  But more on this later.

V. Does this argument make Richard Carrier a Legendary Scholar, or the mere Legend of a Scholar?

Now let's try Richard Carrier's method out on his person, now.  (Again, this is meant in fun, not in heart-felt hostility.  He insults a lot of people, and I dont' take his insults of me too personally.  But still, turn-about is fair play.  And notice that there is actual logic to MY argument, though I will leave that implicit, for present.)

There is a type, let us call it the "Rank Scholar-Legend" type, which brings together the following elements in one "person:"

(1) They deny the historicity of Jesus. 

(2) They frequently defame the character of eminent scholars who do not share their views, in public.

(3) They become very upset when you challenge their views, and attack you personally.  (As Carrier has done to F. Ramos and myself, on Amazon, and as he habitually does to others on-line.) 

(4) They command large and enthusiastic followings of equally energized followers on-line.

(5) They boast frequently of credentials and crow crassly and frequently about alleged victories in staged debates.  (While ignoring detailed written rebuttals by those they claim victory over.)

Here's my question.  Can you name a single terminally credentialed historian who meets all five of these conditions?  (Besides, allegedly, Richard Carrier?)

Robert Price meets the first criteria, but not so much the other four, so far as I know.  He seemed like a pretty classy guy, in my limited experience.  The only people who do seem to meet all or most of these criteria, as far as I know, belong to what we are calling the "Scholar-Legend" type, legends of scholarship in their own minds and propaganda, but who lack actual credentials as historians.  I've personally run across quite a few of these. 

By contrast, there are tens of thousands of genuine historians who do not meet these criteria. 

It seems to follow, then, that there is a prior probability of at least tens of thousands to one, against the claim that Richard Carrier has an actual doctorate in the History of Ancient Science from Columbia University. 

Now it is possible, admittedly, that consequent probabilities will make up this gap.  But perhaps Sheffield Phoenix Press should have asked to see his certificate before publishing his book.

Not that I am at all sorry that it was printed.  More, later.    

Friday, July 25, 2014

Richard Carrier's Mystery Religion Unravels (Carrier Chronicles II)

In his much-anticipated (and I must admit, interesting) new book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, Richard Carrier offers a long list of 48 basic assumptions ("elements"), what he thinks are facts about early Christianity.  He justifies those elements he thinks are in dispute as he explains them.  One of the most crucial of these is Element 11: "The earliest definitely known form of Christianity was a Judeo-Hellenistic mystery religion."  This point is echoed in subsequent "elements," and Carrier seems prepared, so far as I have read to date, to make much of it.  So let us analyze his argument for this point, and try to figure out what he means, and why he means it.  

The first mystery here is why Carrier defines the known (Christianity) by the unknown (something called "Judeo-Hellenistic mystery religion.")  Usually the procedure works the other way around: if I find a fruit tree on a distant planet, I tell my superiors at Mission Control, "It's shape and taste are like those of an apple, but is the color of a banana."  I do not tell them, "It may surprise you to learn that apples are actually the shape of a Malacandria hackabush, but taste a bit like an over-ripe Pelandrian obscumart."  

The point is that analogies from the unfamiliar to the familiar are more likely to confuse than enlighten.  We KNOW what early Christianity is, if we open our New Testaments.  That it is purported to belong to some larger class of which we only have a vague conception (Mithras?  Osiris?), and perhaps a mistaken one, may SOUND meaningful, but it may not be very enlightening, and may instead act to confusing the reader.   
As, indeed, Carrier's description turns out to do. 

Carrier argues that Christianity "conforms to four universal trends distinctive of Hellenistic mystery religions, and is therefore unmistakably a product of these same cultural trends:"

Before we analyze the four characteristics Carrier thinks Christianity has tellingly in common with "mystery religions," it seems to me the phrasing of this argument is also worth a little preliminary attention. 

If these "trends" are "distinctive of" Greek mystery religions, that means they distinguish them, set them apart either from other mystery religions, or from other religions in general.  So is Carrier claiming that no other religions bare any of these marks?  Or that no other religion bares all of them together?  And is he confining himself to the Greek, or at most the Greco-Roman, worlds?  Does that mean if some religion outside of those geographical spheres, say in India or China, also shares one or more of these traits, the "fact" that Christianity allegedly shares them would be at best only very weak evidence that Christianity derives in some sense from Greek mystery religions?  In other words, what would it take to falsify Carrier's claim that this alleged similarity gives evidence of influence? 

And what does Carrier mean here by "universal" trends?  If these trends occur only with Greek culture, how are they "universal?" 

Keeping such semantic "mysteries" in mind, we plunge into the characteristics of mystery religions themselves.  Here is how Carrier describes them:

"1. syncretism of a local or national system of religious ideas with distinctively Hellenistic ideas (and the ideas of other nations and localities whose diffusion was fascillitated by Hellenism);

"2. a monotheistic trend, with every mystery religion evolving from polytheism (many competing gods) to henotheism (one supreme god reigning over subordinate deities), marking a trajectory towards monotheism (only one god);

"3.  a shift to individualism, placing the religious focus on the eternal salvation of the individual rather than the welfare of the community as a whole;

"4. and cosmopolitanism, with membership being open and spanning all environments, provinces, races, and social classes (and often genders)."
Four characteristics is not many to define a class, still less to prove that a particular item belongs to that class.  But that depends in part on how common or "distinctive" those characteristics are, and how well the item really does share it.

Let us take these four, one by one. 

1. Syncretism, in the sense of joining ideas and customs from different sources into a new system (in Carrier's words, "the creative merging of religious ideas, borrowing and adapting elements from several religions to create something new"), is indeed universal, and therefore fails to distinguish of any theoretical framework in the world of religion (see James Thrower), philosophy, or even science.  Buddha was a syncretist: he joined the revolt against Vedic ritual, the mystical search of the forest assetics, the moral teachings of the Axial Revolution, and so on.  Confucius and Lao Zi were syncretists, as Carrier defines the word.  Plato was a syncretist.  So were Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler, and Chairman Mao.  Richard Carrier is himself an intellectual syncretist in that sense, whether or not he is Greek, still less a member of an ancient Greek mystery religion.   

So the joining of disparate influences, even across cultures, into a new system does nothing to distinguish anyone.  We are down to at most three meaningful characteristics. 

2. If Christianity began among Jews, as it did, then how can it be described as participating in a "monotheistic trend?"  Carrier means that many Greeks focused their attention on one god, as Christians focused on one God.  Yes, of course they did.  Again, this seems rather universal among intense "cults," it is not restricted to the Greek world.  See, for instance, the Lotus Sutra's focus on Avalokitsvara.  But Jews, on Carrier's account, were heading in the OPPOSITE DIRECTION: from strict monotheism, to belief in satans, angels, and then a Triune God, in a few cases.

Well that just ruins Carrier's story.  He is pretending that movement in opposite directions is the same.  Christianity clearly does not fit the second plank in Carrier's definition.  There is no "monotheistic trend" visible in Christianity, because the first Christians already believed in God. 

Anyway, as the eminent sociologist of religion Rodney Stark shows, henotheism is the normal form that belief in God takes.  Theists HAVE to believe in an opposing spirit or spirits of some sort, to explain evil.  This was true in Judaism: indeed, most secular scholars would say that even the appearance of monotheism is a late development is Jewish religion.  Of course angels are not conceptually the same sort of thing as God at all: they are created beings, not the Creator of all.  Ontologically, they are closer to ling cod or fungus, in other words, than to the Creator.  So the word "god" for both sorts of beings is just confusing, and perhaps meant to confuse.

And we are down to two traits. 

3. In early Christianity, of course there is no contrast between "salvation of the invididual" and "welfare of the community."  No text takes more concern for loving others, and therefore for communal welfare (both among Christians, and also towards the world) than the earliest Christian documents.  Indeed, it is one of the very earliest, I Corinthians (which Carrier cites in this passage, wrongly, as we shall see) that the great Hymn to Love appears.  And Jesus is most obviously concerned for the social virtues, in a revolutionary way, in the Synoptic Gospels, which skeptics assume came first. 

The truth behind the third plank in Carrier's argument is that like the Greek mystery religions, Christianity was an unsponsored sect.  The government did not pay St. Paul to preach -- to put it mildly.  So unlike early established religions, which Stark describes in fascinating but rather depressing detail in Discovery of God, grassroots faiths were not just excuses for kings to prop up their power, or vehicles to appeal to the gods on the eve of battle or in the midst of a famine.  They were instead market religions, selling their intellectual wares as Carrier sells his, appealing to individuals.  Again, this is no proof of influence, but only demonstrates that the Greco-Roman world still retained a small, if suppressed (Stark again) market for competing religious beliefs.  The same, of course, is true wherever such markets develop, whether in Singapore or Seattle.  Kings are obsessed with state power, but ordinary citizens need not be.  Therefore sects not founded by politicians, are unlikely to be obsessed with politics.

And we are down to one potentially meaningful trait. 

4.  Cosmopolitanism is also, in part, a function of market, along with ideology.  If you're selling something, of course you generally want as large a market share as you can get, unless snob appeal is part of your sales pitch -- whether for automobiles, or faiths, or anti-faiths.  Indian religions were restricted by ideology from appealing beyond certain caste boundaries.  Some forms of the New Atheism tout their appeal to "brights," in contrast to "dims" who go to church.  But the Hebrew prophets promised that the Messiah would be for all peoples.  So it is no surprise that when the Messiah finally appeared, the earliest records indicate that he did, in fact, reach out to Gentiles as well as Jews, women as well as men (more than anyone else, Carrier's prior arguments aside), and sinners as well as saints. 

And in fact, Mithraism was for men, mostly army men, not for women. 

So Carrier's definition of an apple turns out to define an orangatang just as well.  Christianity found truth in other ideologies, because there IS some truth in other ideologies.  Christians worshiped God, and recognized other spirits, just as their Jewish neighbors, and much of the world, did.  Christianity cared for individual salvation, because it was not a totalitarian kiss-up cult for the emperor's personal piety and post-mortum benefit, but it also cared deeply for the community.  (Paul is emphatic about paying taxes, for instance, and praying for rulers.)  And existing in a cosmopolitan environment, to which kitty dozens of tribes had made intellectual contributions, as Clement of Alexandria details, and following the universal promises of the prophets, OF COURSE Jesus transcended boundaries of class, gender, caste, and tribe -- as had long since been promised. 
While four defining characteristics is pretty thin to begin with, in fact NONE of these traits both define Christianity, and place it in a single narrow class to which "Jewish-Hellenistic mystery cults" even somewhat exclusively belong.
So that's not much good. 

But Carrier does not rely solely on these four alleged commonalities to make his case.  He also points out that Paul sometimes speaks of "mysteries," as did Christians in later centuries.  And he also has some Pauline verses to throw at us, which allegedly strenthen his case.

 Oddly, though, Carrier lays a lot of stress on a few passages from Origen and Clement and other much later Christians to make his case.  He claims Clement, for example, described a four-stage ranking system for Christians, which he thinks reflects or even demonstrates influence from mystery religions of some sort. 

I'm not going to bother checking whether Carrier gets 2nd or 3rd Century Christians like Clement and Origen right.  He often misrepresents early Christians, as Tim McGrew and I show in True Reason.  And I don't think he gets Origen right on this, either: Origen is not arguing that one has to rise in the ranks before being given secret knowledge, he is probably just noting (as he does elsewhere) that not all Christians are intellectually capable or have the time to learn all the deeper details of Christian thought. 

Still, given the failure of his definitional argument, and given the fact that the issue here is FIRST CENTURY Christianity, there's not enough prima facia cause to bother chasing those quotes down, right now.  Arguing from writings 150 years later would commit the sin of anachronism.  But notice the "argument" that Carrier relegates to a remarkable footnote on page 113, to preempt this standard historian concern.  I highlight four points of particular interest:

"Though we do not have conclusive evidence that Clement's four-stage system was already in place under Paul, I believe  (1) it is not unreasonable to suspect (2) that it was, or something approaching it.  That is not necessary to my point (since we do have conclusive evidence of at least two stages in Paul's time and that's sufficient to establish this element as fact (3), but the existence from the very start of the system Clement describes should be seriously considered.  Not only because such systems might already have been employed in earlier Jewish sects (and thus simply been adapted to the new gospel), but also because this is how religions develop: their originators elaborate systems and hierarchies within a matter of years, not centuries.  Hence I should not have to respond to the objection that developed systems and hierarchies within Christianity didn't arise for another century. (4)   That assumption has always been implausible on its face . . . "

Here lie some amusing ironies. 

(1) Carrier's former editor, the atheist John Loftus, says he has no "beliefs."  He merely notes the probability of things, believing nothing.  Carrier, obviously, is not so squeemish: he cops to having beliefs.  But based on what?  Not on evidence, clearly. 

(2) A genuinely world-renowned atheist, George Orwell, railed against the "non-un" construction.  I think he had a point, here.  "It is not unreasonable to suspect."  Which means, it is reasonable to suspect?  I suspect not. 

(3) Carrier's "evidence" of two stages of secretiveness in early Christianity consists largely of repeating Paul's words about "milk" for immature Christians, and "meat" for mature Christians.  He seems to simply ignore Paul's own clear explanation that he is talking about spiritual growth, not some proto-Masonic hierarchy of ranks.  He claims "there were levels of teaching kept hidden from lower ranks of Christians."  This is based on I Corinthians 13:2, which actually says:

"13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing."

Carrier's here is a prodigy of bizarre interpretation.  Love trumps “knowledge,” implies that there are many “mysteries,” and “only the most advanced knew them all?”  And therefore Christianity was one of a class of “Hellenic-Jewish mystery religions,” and therefore a natural product of religious evolution and readily deconstructed by internet atheists with doctorates in ancient science from Columbia?

No, there is nothing of the sort to be seen in this verse.  It is entirely imaginary.  On the contrary, Paul is speaking, as he often does, of SPIRITUAL GIFTS given by God to individual Christians, for the good of all.  He often makes it plain that people receive different gifts by God's good will, so that believers can act like organs in a body, each helping one another in unique ways.  These are not stages in the pilgrimage of a single Christian from peon-status to Grand Feeba status. 

Besides which, Paul makes it clear that LOVE trumps all the rest.  And love is a matter of kindness, patience, long-suffering, and so forth.  "By their fruits you will know them," as Jesus put it. 

Yet Carrier has the gaul to cite this verse, without quoting it's actual words, as if it somehow supported his doctrine.  

What this sort of interpretation really means, is one cannot  trust any of the thousands of footnotes in Carrier’s book.  One has to check them, one by one, and rely on none on trust.  (Not a new phenomena -- I noticed this pattern already the very first time I began reading Carrier, on the advice of one of his more kindly fans.  And as we shall see, there are more like this one where it came from.)  
But here comes the coup de chutzpah: 

(4). “Hence I should not have to respond to the objection that developed systems and hierarchies within Christianity didn't arise for another century.

Carrier seems to half recognize how weak his case for early Christianity as a mystery religion really is, in the end.  But who needs facts?  “Why should I have to bother with the objection that my scheme is anachronistic and lacking in evidence?”  Uh, because you’re writing as an historian? 
It is revealing that he relegated such audacious mendacity to a footnote.  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Newsflash: John Loftus calls Peter Boghossian a "pseudo-intellectual" (sort of)

To give Peter. Boghossian credit, he managed to remain mostly polite with my friend Tim McGrew during their debate on the Unbelievable radio program, even while his arguments were being ripped to ribbons.

The central question they discussed was one we have often discussed here: "What do Christians mean by faith?"  Boghossian, as I have mentioned here before, was gung-ho for the Blind Faith Meme, the idea that Christian faith is unrelated to evidence by definition, implicit or explicit.  Tim cited the definition he and I worked out for a chapter in True Reason

One flaw in the argument on both sides, in my opinion, is that neither gave adequate evidence to back up their claims about what Christians mean by "faith."  This is, after all, an empirical question. 

Four kinds of evidence are relevant: (1) What the Bible says about faith and reason; (2) What leading Christian thinkers have said; (3) What ordinary Christians think or say; (4) How dictionaries define the word.  The fourth is, in my opinion, least important: in this particular situation, it is an Argument From Authority.  The first two sources are also authorities, but also themselves important primary sources in relation to the basic question -- what Christians think.  And the third, ordinary but mature (I would add) Christians, also constitute primary sources in relation to the question, "What do Christians think about faith and reason?" 

Tim did offer an Oxford definition of faith (4) during this debate.  As I recall, he also spoke to (1) and (2).  He and I also show that great Christian thinkers have generally agreed that faith demands evidence (2), in Chapter Eleven of True Reason.  (I have previously given additional supporting citations on this site.)  Separate chapters by Peter Grice and by myself in that book also show that faith and reason are intricately interwoven in the pages of the New Testament itself (1).  Furthermore, in the very first chapter of The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I seven years ago already, I showed (1), (2), AND (3), to a reasonable extent. 

So far as I know, NO atheist has overturned these three vital bodies of evidence with contrary evidence.  (Never mind personal attacks and other distractions.)

This is, of course, continuingly ironic.  The Apostles of Reason and Evidence make a major claim, that Christians don't demand evidence for their faith.  The Christians give fulsome evidence to back up their claim; the Apostles of Reason and Evidence never do.  As usual, fairly tested, the Gospel beats its critics at the very game they insist upon playing.  (Or upon pretending they are playing.)

Now  let's see how John Loftus (and James Lindsay, who also chimes in) deal with their pal's palpable failure to back up his faith position on faith positions:

John Loftus Rides In

There's a lot of blathering about Tim McGrew's so-called trashing of my friend and colleague Peter Boghossian. For the record, I view myself as Boghossian's bulldog . . . Randal Rauser's headline is this: Tim McGrew gives Peter Boghossian an unbelievable public drubbing. On the other side, James Lindsay carefully reviews their debate. You can listen to it on the program Unbelievable right here. I think he did well but McGrew threw him for a loop once or twice . . .  

More than that.  The problem with Boghossian's book is that it is based entirely on the conceit that Christians buy into the "Blind Faith Meme."  But he gives no evidence in that book, aside from a few personal anecdotes or extrapolations from his supposed experience, that we do.  He also gave no evidence in this debate.  He also has failed to interact with evidence, such as that published by myself or even by his opponent (writing with me), Tim McGrew, or hardly any other Christian scholar, refuting his core assumption that we Christians fail to offer evidence for our beliefs.  Therefore, his thesis hardly even requires refuting.

Furthermore, Loftus himself writes in an Amazon review of a book by Christian scholars:

"I consider a pseudo-intellectual someone who does not take on the strongest criticisms of the thesis being proposed, and the authors in this book do not do this."

Neither does Peter Boghossian.  He tries to persuade the ignorant, while ignoring Christian scholars as much as he can.  He is, then, by John Loftus' own definition, a "pseudo-intellectual."

Boghossian uses rhetoric to his advantage.

Considering that he got thrashed in the debate, I fail to see the advantage to him -- though we Christians certainly see a sort of advantage in being challenged by such weak opponents. 

I like it because I agree with him that Christianity is baseless. He’s writing to motivate those of us who agree with him. I like that too. The problem is that Christians don’t agree with us that Christianity is baseless. His book is not intended to convince Christians because they are not his target audience.

The issue is not whether Christianity is baseless (Boghossian doesn't even pretend to establish that), it is whether Christians understand faith as not requiring any basis.  To conflate these two issues, is to misunderstand the debate.  PB was debating a Christian, on a Christian radio station, and he talks endlessly about how to talk to Christians -- here was his chance to show how it's done.  So yes, Christians were obviously his "target audience" on the air.   

So all this blathering about definitional apologetics is just that, blathering. If Christians want to engage books that argue against their faith they exist. Until then, the ONLY valid criticism of the main point of Boghossian’s book is one that can successfully argue his proposals to change the religious landscape won’t work, or on second thought, that if they work it would be bad for the world. 

If when you actually engage Christians, using the principles PB advocates in his book, you get your head handed to you because you don't know what you're talking about, how is that going to work in your avowed goal of talking Christians out of the blind faith they deny holding? 

As for being "bad for the world," that is another worthwhile point, indeed.  John claimed he left Christianity in large part because it was bad for women.  I showed that in fact, the Gospel  has done more to elevate the status and living standards of women around the world, than anything else.  What have I heard back from John in response?  Crickets.  And just for the record, here again is my bibliography of about 130 texts that show how Christianity has blessed the world.

He did well. My advice to him is to not listen to the Christians. They wouldn't have liked what he had to say anyway.

Heck of a plan.  A professional philosopher writes a book telling atheists to preach "doxatic openness" and the principles of reason by interacting with believers the way Socrates did, asking questions.  Then when he tries to talk with an informed Christian, his assumptions about what Christians think are soundly disabused.  So John tells the  professional philosopher to crawl back into his cave, lick his wounds, and ignore what all those nasty Christians are saying. 

Doxatic openness.  Heck of a concept.  A little scary for some people, though. 

And not just for John Loftus, either.  

James Lindsay:

 I also won't comment about winners because I think the idea of winning a conversation is stupid to the point of being embarrassing for people that we make a sport of it. (Full disclosure: I think the debate was a draw because the substantive point of the matter could not be settled because the relevant data concerning how Christians and other religious believers use the word "faith" is not available.)

Well, that sounds like a comment about winners -- there wasn't one, says Lindsay. 

I agree that "the relevant data" about how Christians use the word faith is extremely important.  I actually gave some of that data already seven years ago, in The Truth Behind the New Atheism.  And I challenged Peter Boghossian to debate the meaning of faith before his book came out; he went out of his way to tell people he would not debate me.  So he knew who I was, and where to find opposing arguments on the subject. 

So the relevant data is available, and it is easy to find more where that came from.  But for all their talk about "doxatic openness," even the atheists who bother to read what they're cursing at, don't seem to read it very well, most of the time.  And that, let me suggest, is probably a self-defense mechanism.  

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Richard Carrier's bizarre preemptive personal attacks: my response

I am a Christian scholar who has tangled with Richard Carrier in the past, both on-line (search "Christ," "Tao," and his name), and in person (a debate last year at the University of Huntsville in Alabama).  Before and after our debate, Richard was civil, even friendly.   And even during the debate, aside from a few "Gee, normally I don't answer all my opponent's lame challenges so quickly, now what do I do?" moments of preening (justified by the glib certainty, but not the quality, of his rebuttals), he was mostly civil as well. 
In general, I am also treated by fellow scholars with respect.  My books have been warmly reviewed by eminent scholars at schools like Oxford, Yale, Marquette, Penn State, etc, while leading scholars in philosophy, history, scientist, sociology, and theology have worked with me on various projects. 
So when I began posting comments on the Amazon site for Richard Carrier's new book questioning the historicity of Jesus, I was taken aback by the nasty, even childish, tone of pre-emptive attacks:

(1) He tells his readers, actual or potential, not to read my comments, because I am an "apologist."

(2) And therefore dishonest by definition.

(3) He claims that, being a poor apologist, Marshall "repeatedly gets badly defeated in debates, and then claims to have decisively won, and goes around to places like this making such claims."

(4) Meanwhile Carrier himself crows crassly about how he allegedly beat me in that debate.  And why (the logic seems to go) should anyone pay attention to anything someone who (allegedly) lost his first public debate in an hour on stage ever has to say?   

This is all particularly bizarre because my comments there have so far not even been particularly critical of Richard.  I haven't received my copy of the book, yet.  I have asked about a few details, expressed tentative skepticism about a couple probably minor points.  But I also supported Richard's dismissal of Acharya S and made positive comments about the intelligence of ancient Greeks and Chinese, with which I doubt Richard strenuously disagrees. 

Let me first respond to Carrier's attacks, then guess at what might be behind them. 

(1) Am I an apologist?  Should apologists be ignored? 

Someone made up a list of the world's 100 leading apologists, and to my surprise, I found myself on it, so I can't much blame Carrier for calling me an apologist.  And I have written or edited six books that argue for the truth of Christianity, which is indeed apologetics.  My academic training lies in history and comparative religions.  I think of myself (as Carrier no doubt thinks of himself) primarily as a seeker after truth. 

Of course Carrier is also an apologist, in all these senses, for his own beliefs, and for the beliefs he shares with the skeptical community.  Furthermore, if you are looking for marks of intensity in belief, such as dogmatic claims and blanket dismissal of critics, vitriol or bombast, I think you will find much more of that sort of thing in the writings of Dr. Carrier than of myself.  

Should people who hold strong opinions be ignored?  I don't think so.  That's why I read Carrier, along with dozens of other antipathetic writers, from Reza Aslan to Howard Zinn, and often find elements of truth in their writings. 

Coming from someone so self-possessed and opinionated as Richard Carrier, this criticism is just weird. 

(2) Are Christian apologists dishonest by definition and therefore not worth listening to?

Of course not.  Who would that illiminate from the history of thought?  Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Descartes, Pascal, Locke, Boyle, Ricci, Legge, Chesterton, Lewis, Plantinga, and Collins among others, thinkers far more eminent than Carrier or me, who have contributed vastly to human thought and understanding, in many cases known for their balance, integrity, and probity -- each is a Christian apologist.
Richard Carrier has, in the past, complimented my honesty himself.  As he should.  I bend over backwards to be honest, even with writers with whom I disagree.  As I will be with Carrier's new book, whatever fits Carrier throws in the meanwhile. 

(3) Do I really go around various websites claiming to "have decisively won" my debates?

I don't recall having made such a claim even once.  I have always been careful, for instance, to admit that Carrier's rebuttal arguments, while glib and deeply mistaken, were rhetorically effective.  ‍Also that I did not respond well to his positive argument from the Problem of Pain -- partly because it is also a problem for me, and partly because I left my notes on the table when I went to the lecturn!

Neither have I made such a crass claim about other debates -- even if I thought I did well, as I think I did with Duke, I would be embarrassed to speak in those terms.  In fact, I did not do well in the rebuttal portion of my debate with Zuckerman, either -- though I do believe my positive arguments were powerful, and went unanswered.  Zuckerman was also effective rhetorically at times, especially with his "Gish Gallop" at the end, which I could not respond to in five minutes, and also close my own argument. ‍ Unlike Carrier, however, he did not claim to have defeated my positive arguments.

So unless Carrier can back up his claim with some evidence (a link? direct quote?), one has to suppose this is yet another glib and false "shoot from the hip" historical claim from Dr. Carrier. 

(4) What about the logic, "I (allegedly) whipped this guy on stage, so just ignore anything he now says?" 

Well the first premise is wrong.  Carrier dismissed my three main arguments, including my argument for the gospels, but never seriously came to grips with any of them.  For the latter, he offered ridiculous parallels, such as the Book of Tobit, Apollonius of Tyan, the Golden Ass, and Hercules.  I could not analyze these in debate in the detail they deserved -- the satire his claim that they are serious parallels to the gospels deserves -- though I had already analyzed Apollonius in detail, in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus.  I later offered detailed analysis of these other books on my blog, Christ the Tao. 

The important point is, whether defeated on stage or not, Carrier's arguments fail utterly.  Carrier is not only wrong in claiming those works share "all" the characteristics of the gospels, in fact they share hardly any of them, as I show.  The very fact that someone as widely-read as Carrier can find no better parallels in the ancient world to the gospels, is itself tremendously revealing, as it the fact that he thinks these parallels are just fine. 

But the logic here is even worse.  I do not claim to be a trained or experienced debater.  I do claim to be a trained and experience writer. In my own element, I am confident of winning this or any other debate on select important topics.  On stage in a few minutes, I can make no such guarantees.  I am not William Lane Craig; but then, neither is he me.  Our differences do not bother me, nor should they bother him. 
And if (alleged) loss in debate means a scholar should be ignored, by Carrier's logic, we should now ignore all the eminent skeptical scholars whom Craig has defeated in debate.  (And also, in the eyes of most witnesses, Carrier himself.) 

That will simplify the debate considerably.  But Richard Carrier appears to be conflating scholarly debate with the hockey playoffs. 

II.  So why does Richard Carrier want us to ignore "apologists?" 

Reading Dr. Ramos' thorough review on Amazon, it is evident that I am not the only person Carrier tells his readers to dismiss because they argue for Christianity.  This appears to be his considered position.   Let us consider possible reasons he may take this position -- even while espousing a theory far more marginal than those of, say, NT Wright or Ben Witherington‍ -- or myself:

(1) Richard Carrier wants to marginalize most Christians, to make his own position more respectable.  Often the most effective way to join a group, is to point to someone else outside that group, and tell‍ the people in the group how much you oppose the despised outsiders.  So Carrier wants to depict the debate as one between "us serious scholars," some of whom believe Jesus lived but was just a man, some of whom think Jesus never lived at all.  Since many liberal scholars dislike "fundamentalists" anyone, he seems to think excluding them from the club is the best way to get himself included.

(2) Likely he knows his argument is highly vulnerable, and so doesn't wish it to get rid of some of his toughest critics a priori. 

(3) A special species of scoffing is Carrier's stock in trade, with the attitude of a village atheist, added to the prestige of a Columbia University PhD, distinguishing his brand from those of Acharya  S or Freke and Gandy.  "Dr.." Carrier is in that respect like Hector Avalos, only with a weaker academic pedigree: the small dog barks louder. 

(4) Maybe he also suspects we're going to have a fun with this book.  ‍(See, for precedent, my Christ the Tao transcript of the debate among ancient philosophers over whether Richard Carrier exists.)

In any case, "All truth is God's truth."  I still look forward to reading Carrier's new book, because despite -- even because of -- his extreme rhetoric, I am sure we "apologists" will find that book full of interesting truths, intended and perhaps unnoticed by Carrier himself. 

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

How Religions Relate: The Case for Fulfillment Theology

I argued in a previous essay that the most popular contemporary models of world religions have failed, even as the need for a clear and judicious survey has grown.  Pluralism proves narrow, confused, and morally conflicted.  Exclusivism is either uncharitably crabbed and severe (if it means no truth is found in other faiths), or tautological (if it means that I see what I believe as truer than what I deny).  In searching for a model that combines clarity with compass and charity with penetration, the term ‘inclusivism’ is often bandied about, sometimes giving honorable (or dishonorable) mention to ‘the Fulfillment School.’ 

The term comes from the Sermon on the Mount. Having gone ‘up the mountain’ (like Moses), Jesus stated the principle by which his teaching would relate to the commandments from Sinai:

‘Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and Prophets.  I come not to abolish, but to fulfill.’

Jesus then unleashed a series of aphorisms that would sweep the world like ethical tsunamis.  They would touch the hearts of desert monastics, provoke ancient commentaries, convert Germanic warriors, move Francis of Assisi to extravagant charity, and inspire Sufi mystics, Tolstoyans, and the followers of Gandhi, King, and Benigno Aquino.     

All this was somehow implied by the word ‘fulfill.’  

In essence fulfillment is as simple as drinking  a cup of wine. The English word ‘fulfill,’ and the Greek plerou, both originate as concrete descriptions of how pliable materials like water are held by solid reservoirs like a cup, valley, or (less concretely) one’s spirit within one’s body. 

Fulfillment thinkers argue that the story of Jesus in some sense consummates, crowns, or perfects key truths not just of Jewish religious heritage (the ‘Law and the Prophets’), but of Gentile tradition as well.  (‘The Gospel in Indian cups,’ that Indian mystic Sundar Singh requested.)  Christ ‘fulfills’ by being that in which acknowledged truth (what sociologist Rodney Stark called ‘religious capital’) is more fully invested, or in answering riddles within pagan traditions: the Pharaoh’s dreams, words on a Babylonian wall, an altar to an unknown god. 

Fulfillment theology has occasionally been mentioned as an alternative to conventional models of religions. Its best-known modern proponents have, however, been criticized for naivite, Victorian mummery about religious evolution, or for a subtle form of cultural imperialism.  John Hick argued that the arguments of such schools were ad hoc, like the epicycles of Ptolemaic astronomy.  Yet the term attaches to great names and compelling visions.  Those visions appear as historically ambitious as City of God, Everlasting Man, or Tiananmen Square philosopher Yuan Zhiming’s Christ-centered revisionist history, China’s Confession.  They are argued with the erudition of James Legge’s forty year translation of the Chinese Classics, or the High God concept Wilhelm Schmidt borrowed from Andrew Lang and developed into an anthropology.  Dante, Spenser, and Milton tip their hats to fulfillment, though it is more boldly embraced in Grimm forests, Middle Earth, and C. S. Lewis’ Greek hinterland of Glome, his Venus, and Narnia.  Fulfillment schools arise in every great branch of the Christian tradition and over many ages. 

Most often, contrary to Hick's assumption, fulfillment insights appear not as knee-jerk reactions against cultural discovery, but at its pioneer edge, on mission fields. 

I think the idea merits renewed and closer consideration.  Let’s begin with key modern proponents, then examine six implications that are implicit to fulfillment thinking.   


The Crown of Hinduism

Early modern Europe was the product of a peculiar historical sequence: isolation of ‘Christendom’ from competing civilizations, long, bruising conflict with Islam, followed by sudden, universal, intoxicating (but temporary) triumph.  James Thrower depicts the fulfillment school as a nineteenth century echo of the approach Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Origen took to Greek philosophy (Thrower 1999: 42). Modern fulfillment may then be seen not as a series of ‘epicycles’ attempting to rescue a failing orthodoxy, but (in part) as a return to a more orthodox model after long diversion.

The return is announced most dramatically in Mateo Ricci’s late 16th Century apologetic, True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven.  The book takes the form of a dialogue between a European and a friendly Chinese intellectual.  ‘Western Scholar’ argues that the Christian ‘Lord of Heaven’ was, in fact, Shang Di, the Supreme God whom the ancient Chinese had worshipped, canonized in the Five Classics every literati drank in with his mother’s milk.  Despite the geopolitical threat that Europe already posed, Ricci’s bad habit of identifying a crudely idealized Europe with Christianity, and his wholesale dismissal of Buddhism, his sketch of the Gospel as fulfillment of Confucian tradition aided in the conversion of perhaps 300,000 Chinese, including a few top-level Ming literati.  Carried to Korea by diplomats, Ricci’s book also inspired a small movement to Christ in that country.  Alexander De Rhodes borrowed from Ricci’s work to write a Vietnamese catechism, aiding hundreds of thousands of converts. Later French Jesuits applied the same method to other elements in Chinese tradition: Taoist philosophy, the Yi Jing, Chinese language itself.  Roberto De Nobili also built parallel bridges to Brahmins in India, justifying his ‘adaptations’ by pointing to Christian borrowings from pagan European cultures.  Such methods were, however, largely curtailed within the Catholic Church after Clement XI decided against the Jesuit approach in 1704. 

In Ivan Satyavrata’s in-depth study of Protestant Fulfillment thinking in India, Krishna Banerjea emerges as a prescient pioneer (Satyavrata 2001). Banerjea argued that the figure of Prajapati, the primordial Supreme Being who sacrificed himself for the salvation of humankind in the Rig Veda, was realized in the life of Jesus (Satyavrata 2001: 137). Thus the evangelic call to modern Indians should be recognized as coming from their own ancestors:

‘Embrace the true Prajapati, the true Purusha begotten before the worlds, who died that you might live, who by death hath vanquished death . . . You will find in Him everything worthy of your lineage, worthy of your antiquity, worthy of your traditions . . . ‘ (Satyavrata 2001: 145)

But John Farquhar’s Crown of Hinduism, published by Oxford University Press in 1913, proved the most influential colonial-era theoretical statement of fulfillment thinking. Grounded in orthodoxy, ambitious in ‘breadth and scope’ (Satyavrata 2001: 75), Farquhar helped define what became a prominent model of religions.

Farquhar’s stated goal was to describe the ‘real relationship of Christianity to other religions’ (Farquhar 1913: 15), of India in particular.  While the ‘science of religion’ had helpfully revealed much about the universal character of religion, one must not just understand, but make practical judgments. Objective evaluation, Farquhar recognized to some extent, was impeded by confusion between ‘Christianity’ and European civilization, and by increasingly sophisticated Indian reaction against imperialism. 

Farquhar and James Legge (the great China scholar whom Thrower plausibly pairs with Farquhar) helped take the serious approach the Jesuits had developed towards Asian religions to a deeper level.  Their goal, as orthodox and missional Christians, was to ‘do justice’ to Indian and Chinese traditions, respectively, as Legge put it.  Both occasionally echoed Victorian triumphalism, and Farquhar could indulge in ‘evolution of religions’ rhetoric.  But like the French Jesuits, Farquhar in particular attempted to unify different threads of pagan tradition around Jesus. 

Farquhar conceded that non-Christian religions have often trained people in goodness and brought them closer to God (Farquhar 1913: 28). Each great civilization contained elements of inestimable value, but also internal flaws that prevented it from offering the ‘highest service to the whole world.’ Not only individuals, but religious traditions, too, must seek life by dying to themselves: ‘Each must . . . die before it can bear fruit in all the world and find its highest aspirations truly fulfilled’ (Farquhar 1913: 49-50). Jesus did not destroy Jewish religion, but made Yahweh and Jewish Scripture ‘the heritage of the whole human family’ (Farquhar 1913: 45). Citing Clement of Alexandria, Farquhar argued that Christianity adopted Greek and other European culture for the good of the world. He conceded that Christians must also die to some aspects of Western religious tradition. Only by entering this dialectic could India become part of world redemptive history. It was in light of this universal pattern that Farquhar issued the potentially misleading call for Hinduism to ‘die into Christianity’ (Farquhar 1913: 51). 

Farquhar then described Hinduism in relation to the family, rebirth, caste, monism, asceticism, idolatry, major traditions (especially Vedanta, Buddhism and Jainism), and guruism. In each case, he set out what he saw as positive and negative qualities, then argued that the Gospel ‘crowns’ each facet of ‘Hinduism’ by fulfilling what was best in it, and reforming what is false or harmful. In a companion volume published two years later, he described how Hinduism had already begun to reform in response to Christian influence from 1828 to 1913 (Farquhar 1915: 445). (Closing by taking note of a new star in the Indian firmament: ‘Mr. M. K. Gandhi, who did such excellent service in the struggle with the South African Government for justice for the Indian . . .’)

Lin Yutang
A galaxy of other such thinkers emerged, some highly influential.  In China, one could cite after Legge, the reformer Timothy Richard, John Ross (founder of the Korean Protestant church, though he worked in north China), Lin Yutang, China’s great man of letters, John Wu, the Constitutional lawyer with a taste for Catholic mysticism, even Sun Yat-sen.  Figures are still rising from the post Maoist ashes of Tiananmen, like philosopher Yuan Zhiming, who co-wrote the River Elegy that inspired the Democracy Movement, but later retold the story of China casting Jesus as its central character.  The thinking of Lamin Sanneh, Leslie Newbigin, and sometimes Gavin D’Costa bears affinities to this school, and John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Faith hails it.  But what does fulfillment mean?  How does the concept help us understand non-Christian traditions?  A clearer explanation than has yet been given is, I think, still required. 


The Meaning of Fulfillment  

The word fulfill implies at least six things: a sequence of events or story (a cup is manufactured, purchased, cleansed, filled, then drained); selection (one shakes out debris before pouring); purpose (cups are made for drinking, and wine and tea for being drunk); persuasion (‘Bottoms up!’); utility (‘Drink a little wine for your stomach’s sake!’), and the unity of unlike elements (solid and liquid, thirst and object of thirst, oxygen and tea leaves or grape residue).

These characteristics, I believe, are imbedded in the structure of Christian theology and together suggest a coherent, richly explanatory model of religions. 

a. Fulfillment first of all implies story, which since it transcends particular lives and traditions, may be called meta-narrative.  Fulfillment thinkers at least implicitly offer an overarching tale of humanity of the sort post-modernist Jean-Francois Lyotard decried.  But the fulfillment story is neither ad hoc nor modernist, since it begins with the words of Jesus himself, if not with the Law and Prophets he invoked. 

That early Christians interpreted every strand of the story of Israel in terms of fulfillment is obvious. As N. T. Wright put it, Luke ‘told the story of Jesus as a Jewish story, indeed as the Jewish story, much as Josephus told the story of the fall of Jerusalem as the climax of Israel’s long and tragic history,’ indeed, ‘as the fulfillment, the completion, of the story of David and his kingdom’ (Wright 1992: 381). Nothing is clearer in the gospels, Acts, and Hebrews, than that the life of Jesus was quickly seen to ‘fulfill the Law and the Prophets’ in the sense of consummating and making sense of Jewish history.

Salvation then poured into wider  circles: from the Twelve, who represented Israel, to Jerusalem, Samaria, and the ends of the Greco-Roman cultural sphere.

Virgil taught the Romans to seek meaning through story.  For the mature Augustine, whom Sabine MacCormack calls his ‘most intelligent and searching ancient reader,’ Virgil served as a critical dialogue partner.  Jesus’ life, death and resurrection drew the story of Rome up into the universal tale of the City of God.  Augustine forecast that awareness of God would be found among pagan nations in all directions.  Paul suggested that not just indigenous cultures, but creation itself ‘groans’ anticipating a hope analogous to childbirth (Romans 8: 18-25). 

From the first, then, fulfillment invoked progress over time, as the redemptive story filled wider and wider spheres. One follows this thread through the conversion stories of Justin and Augustine, the Nestorian stele in Tang China, even into fairyland, as the Gospel expanded into personal, national, mythic and imaginative worlds.  To adapt that beautiful early Medieval fulfillment poem Dream of the Rood slightly, the Gospel is like the Germanic World Tree, ‘brightest of all beams,’ spreading roots into all soils, morphing into a cross (‘an earlier, wretched ordeal’) and thence into something like a Christmas tree (‘shining, beautiful, arrayed in gold, covered with gems.’) 

b. As Farquhar well recognized, fulfillment also means selection, or dialectic.  Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote of the ‘dialectic of negation, affirmation, and redemptive activity’ that Christian tradition represents.  This comes from the gospels themselves, and the concept of fulfillment. 

Matthew’s story begins with a dialectic of repentance.  Sins are symbolically washed away at the Jordan River, because the Holy Spirit cannot fill what has not yet been cleansed. Matthew revels in the dialectic irony of his story, beginning with a refugee infant who is king, and a prophet in camel’s hair, progressing towards a crucified Messiah. The Beatitudes describe fulfillment dialectically: blessed (somehow) are the poor and those who mourn, blessed are you when men revile you.  As a cup (or temple) is cleansed before being filled, so weeds grow with wheat, and some bridegrooms miss the wedding.  .  Wright infers a chiastic relationship between the ‘Sermon’ and Jesus’ final End Times discourse, Matthew weaving Moses’ ‘covenantal choice’ of life and death ‘into the very structure of the Gospel.’  

Dialectic distinguishes fulfillment from syncretism, on the one hand, and iconoclasm, on the other.   

Alvin Plantinga criticized what he perceived as John Paul II’s simplistic affirmation of Greek philosophy: ‘Aren’t there Democritus and Lucretius as well as Plato and Aristotle, and isn’t the Cross foolishness to the Greeks?”’ Gavin D’Costa wrote, ‘Christianity (or Hinduism, or whichever religion) . . . is regarded as the fulfillment of other religions.’ (D’Costa 2000: 21)  Both I think underestimate the dialectical quality of fulfillment. Farquhar’s talk about Hinduism ‘dying into Christianity,’ does seem to envision ‘Christianity’ fulfilling rival bodies of thought.  But Christianity is not the dialectical goal of fulfillment, Christ is.  And it is not ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Greek philosophy,’ but God’s truth in diverse traditions that Christ fulfills. 

A religion is generally defined in reference to three sources: (a) the life, teachings, and example of its founder or a charismatic guru, master, or prophet; (b) canonized teachings; and (c) developed tradition. Fulfillment should not be taken as a variation of inclusivism, or alternative to exclusivism or pluralism, not only because it cannot tell us ‘Who will be saved?’, but also because ‘Christianity’ does not fulfill ‘Judaism,’ ‘Greek philosophy,’ ‘Stoicism’ or ‘Hinduism.’ Rather, Jesus is seen as fulfilling central truths within Jewish, Greek, Indian or Chinese traditions. 

As both Farquhar and John Paul II recognized in practice, in every tradition one finds gross errors about God, man, happiness, and justice, along with systematic evils like caste, sati, and human sacrifice.  To all these, in unredeemed forms, the Gospel says ‘No.’  Wine is poured into a glass, leaving the cask (except for trace elements) behind.  While the Gospel undoubtedly picked up aroma (good and bad) while ‘aging’ in the cask that was European civilization, figures like Ram Mohan Roy and Gandhi insisted it was Christ himself India wanted, not ‘beef . . . liquor, and . . . European costume, including a hat,’ as a young Gandhi objected.  Identifying truth too closely with Western culture prompted either undiscriminating acceptance (cargo cults, Marxist heresies, Madonna in Beijing) or too wholesale a rejection (Boxers, Boston bombers).  Fulfillment sifts every tradition as it sifted Europe.

Dialectic thus allows us to taste the full horror of Shang burials, Mesoamerican pyramids, or Auschwitz, alongside the full glory of Song painting or ahimsa, fitting each within a coherent scheme.  But Jesus’ stories of the seed buried in the ground, yeast in bread, or marriage, do not merely juxtapose good or bad.  Soil is life precisely because it is death.  Seed (thesis), buried in muck (antithesis), draws life-giving nutrients to form a tree, in which birds settle (synthesis).  Male joined to female leads to procreated synthesis: emergent qualities that neither sperm nor egg encompass.  Jesus does not just reveal the evil of scapegoating, but transmutes the cross into redemption.  Resurrection is not merely the negation of death, it brings a kind of life. 

c. Fulfillment also offers utility, which among social creatures, means reform.  Most great missionaries were also great reformers, and fulfillment missionaries (Justin, Ricci, Farquhar, Richard, Wu, Yuan, the Samurai Christians in Japan), are often in their top rank.  As truth pours into wider circles, the individual is too small a vessel to contain its full blessings.  Jesus was a threat to Powers That Be because in him, ‘the Kingdom of God is near,’ promising to transform not just individual hearts, but power and gender relations in a hierarchical, cruel empire, bring slaves out from under the thumb of Aristotle, and redeem the metaphysical status of Samaritans, children, lepers and beggars. 

d. Fulfillment also implies purpose, or telos. Society is prepared (cultivated) as soil is tilled before planting.  A cornerstone is set according to blueprints.  The prophets are not mere celebrity endorsements for an aphoristic Cynic-sage.  They remind us that God has planned every phase of Jesus’ career: good news and healing for the marginalized, sacrifice, resurrection, and redemption to the ‘ends of the Earth.’  Telos begins at a promised time in a Promised Land.  But as the prophets foretold, the Messiah was prepared for all peoples.  Matthew thus begins his gospel with a star in the east, and ends it with the Great Commission. So not only has God prepared a savior for all humanity, but He may speak to other peoples directly as well as through mortal messengers.

e. Seeds of Logos constitute evidence for the truth of that message, implying apologetic.  The evangelists appealed to the minds of their readers, by historical investigation, rational argumentation, miraculous ‘signs,’ and realistic depictions of Jesus’ often baffling actions and the true to life reactions they provoked.  Fulfillment was an integral part of the case that Jesus’ first followers laid out.  One common objection is that gospel writers may have invented Jesus’ acts to fit the prophecies.  But if Jesus also fulfills altars to an unknown God, the Vedic Prajapati who sacrifices himself for the world, Mencius’ promise that a Sage will appear 500 years after Confucius, and the Peace Child of the Sawi in New Guinea, one can hardly blame the evangelists for that.  Fulfillment thus meets conditions Hick sets for an effective model of religions, by comprehending and helping explain even the most surprising bits of religious data.  

Fulfillment also implies unity of unlike elements, or synthesis.  Just as a seed takes in nutrients by shooting out roots in many directions, so Matthew draws on every accepted element in Hebrew tradition, from Adam to John the Baptist. 

f. Synthesis thus begins with Israel.  The Sermon on the Mount has been described as a ‘Messianic Torah’ delivered from a new Sinai (Davies & Allison 1988: 427).  Matthew uses a patina of Old Testament allegory, types, theological tropes, and prophecies to present Jesus as fulfillment of the full panoply of Jewish tradition. The name ‘Joshua’ is an implicit promise to bring God’s people into the Promised Land.  By Jesus’ genealogy through Abraham and David, and geographical markers (Egypt, Mount Sinai, the Jordan River, Jerusalem), Jesus is ‘recapitulating’ events in the life of Israel, as Davies and Allison remarks.  Titles like Christ, Immanuel, Son of Man, and King of Israel focus ancient national expectations. The calling of the Twelve to be ‘fishers of men’ implicitly compares Jesus’ entourage to the patriarchs and tribes: they are Abraham’s seeds, broadcast to the world, prepared for death and new life. 

Tillich recognized that with pagan cultures, as well, the Gospel becomes a ‘crystallization for all positive religious elements after they have been subjected to the criteria implied in this center.’ 

Paul healed a lame man among rural polytheists in Lystra, then preached Natural Theology.  In Athens, to an intellectual audience, he reversed the order, beginning with natural theology (‘in him we live and move and have our being’), then announced the Resurrection.  This came at the very spot where according to playwright Aeschylus,  the god Apollo himself had said, at the trial of Agamemnon’s  son,  ‘When a man dies, the earth drinks up his blood.  There is no resurrection.’  So Paul united the social strata that Gibbon found dismembered, offering both fulfillment of what they had long hoped, and what they dared not even dream.    

Clement explained how the Gospel also synthesized different threads of Greek philosophy by reminding readers of the playwright Euripides’ even more sordid tale of the King of Thebes.   The women of the kingdom were going to the mountains to worship Dionysius.  Suspecting orgies, the king banned worship of the new deity.  In revenge, Dionysius drove the women mad, and they tore their king from limb to limb.  Clement explained:

‘So the sects both of barbarian and Hellenic philosophy have done with truth, and each vaunts as the whole truth the portion which has fallen to its lot.  But all, in my opinion, are illumined by the Dawn of Light.’

Dawn fills a landscape with light, revealing rivers, bridges, deserts and fruitful fields.  Christ likewise illumines not only the character of each teaching or sect, but its relationship to the holistic Truth that Hick reminds us to seek. 

In this ancient vision, then, religions need not relate in one dimension as on an acrostic bumper-sticker, or (on the other hand) like ducks at a shooting range.  Fulfillment provides a four-dimensional map of faiths across time, with Christ at its interpretive center, leaving room for diverse phenomena, knitting the bones of truth together in a resurrected body of realized universal humanity.