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Friday, May 04, 2012

Shroud III: Cognitive Dissonance for Skeptics

Bonk Relativity: not all insights
under apple trees are
equal. 
One of things one has to appreciate about Thomas De Wesselow is the honesty, even naivite, with which he tells his story.  (Or expounds his theory -- The Sign is argument composed of interwoven threads of personal, scientific, and religious narrative -- a bit like the Shroud itself.) 

At the beginning of Part IV, Seeing Through the Shroud, DW tells us about the distress he felt upon realizing, as a secular person, that the Shroud seemed to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus.  His account reads like a classic conversion tale:

One hot, bright morning in the early summer of 2004 I ambled out into the orchard behind my house in Cambridge, lay down on the grass and immersed myself in The Turin Shroud by Ian Wilson.  Overhead, white blossoms clustered along the sparse branches of the apple tree in whose shade I settled . . .



As an agnostic . . . I was extremely uncomfortable with the with the idea that the Shroud might be an authentic marvel . . . I couldn't avoid the conclusion: from a purely historical point of view, the death and burial of Jesus seemed to be the best explanation for the Shroud.

For a skeptical agnostic, this was a suffocating thought . . . It was as if the Shroud, backed by the vast weight of Christian tradition, was pressing down on me, threatening to stifle my secular worldview.  Instead of enjoying a quiet lull in the summer sun, I found myself battling with a fierce metaphysical adversary, like Jacob wrestling with the angel. (192) 

Thomas' story combines, to this point, motifs of conversion -- "It is hard for you to kick against the goads" -- with a classic story of scientific enlightenment, Newton under his apple tree.  The scientific motif seems to win out:

It was then that I glimpsed, for the first time, the potential significance of the relic . . . Maybe the Gospels contain descriptions of the Shroud that no one has recognized as such since the days of the apostles, because it appears in their legendary narratives not as an image but as a supernatural person.

DW leaps up, shouts "Eureka!" (almost), and rushes into his house to see if the Gospels can confirm his interpretation. 

He recognizes it had been a close call:

For a split second I saw the Shroud as it would have been seen before the Enlightenment, the 18th Century Age of Reason that cuts us off from our more suggestible forebears.

Thomas fails to notice the irony.  Far from being less "suggestible" than Christians, in this passage DW confesses his own extreme auto-suggestibility.  He is groaning within at the thought that Christianity might, surprise, surprise, be true.  He squirms.  He wiggles.  He fidgets.  And then a bright path of escape suggests itself, and off he shoots -- he's through the gap in a second like a running back, and his career path and possible fame glimpsed the instant he "sees daylight." 

Eureka!  Maybe this is a true moment of scientific discovery.  Or maybe it is a moment of conversion, after which, to quote Tristram Shandy, speaking of his eccentric father:

It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates everything to itself, as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by everything you see, hear, read, or understand . . .

DW's theory of the Shroud as Resurrected Christ is, indeed, a rapacious monster, that bids to devour the rest of the book, and early Christian history, with it.  The theory was conceived before the book.  And like a star as it is formed from an accretion disc, the more it swallows, the more powerful its grativational pull grows, at least on the mind of the believer.  The influence of DW's idea, birthed in a moment of faith critis, is already evident in Part I, as we have seen.  In Part II, "The Historical Riddle," which we will now review, that influence begins to chew up the evidence. 

The titles of the five chapters in this section give one a rough idea of the subject matter, the rough historical oak in which DW proposes to frame his idea: "Judaism before Easter," "The Testimony of Paul," "The Impact of Easter," "The Gospel Stories," and "The Way Ahead."

This last chapter gives a statement of DW's faith (in skepticism, in science, etc), his intention to solve the riddle of the Shroud, and of early Christianity, so that that faith will be preserved, and the gist of how he proposes to solve it.  But before that, he needs to establish three things: (1) That Paul is on his side, and should be interpretted to say that Jesus did not rise physically, but just spiritually, which for DW means, not at all.  (2) That Paul is closest early Christian to the facts of the matter, and therefore should be preferred over the Gospels.  (3) That the Gospels are mostly legendary, though no doubt they contain elements of truth (ie,data that feed DW's theory, with its growling and expansive stomach.)

We consider these three points, and DW's faith affirmation, in that order. 

(1) The trouble with claiming that Paul did not believe in a physical resurrection, one would think, is that DW has quoted the great NT Wright many times already, as indeed he should.  And almost 200 pages of The Resurrection of the Son of God are devoted to analyzing, in close historical detail, what Paul thought about resurrections in general, and the resurrection of Jesus in particular.  And Wright concludes:

But we have said enough to round off our treatment of Paul with the clear understanding that he believed he had seen the risen Jesus in person, and that his understanding of who this Jesus was included the firm belief that he possessed a transformed but still physical body. (RSG, 398) 

This is not boasting.  Wright has, indeed, shown this from the whole pattern of Paul's thought, from his hopes, from how he sees God working in the world, and from his explicit remarks in many passages.  He has also shown what beliefs about resurrection in the ancient world were in general, and situated Paul within that historical frame.   

Noting all the citations of Wright in DW's index, I was curious how he would deal with Wright's arguments and painstaking analysis of the Pauline and other texts.  Wright is, after all, a formidable opponent to take on, in his own field. 

It turns out DW dedicated a single chapter to Paul's thought about resurrection, a mere twelve pages long. 

De Wesselow finds an eloquent way to respond to Wright, though: complete silence

He quotes Paul in I Corinthians at length, the key passage being: "The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven . . . " Thomas explains:

His defense is basically this: arguments about reconstituting physical bodies are irrelevant, because the faithful will be resurrected not in their flesh-and-blood bodies, but in 'spiritual bodies.' Resurrection is not about corrupt flesh being reconstituted and revivified; it is about God giving his people entirely new bodies, of a kind suitable for a new, perfect Creation . . . The Corinthian heretics have failed to grasp the crucial idea of the spiritual body and, fools that they are, have slipped into the trap of conceiving resurrection in terms of flesh and blood. (56)

And that, DW emphasizes, is from our earliest source, and therefore that is how we should understand the rest.

But Wright, or a wider, more open-minded reading of Paul directly, show that this is not true. 

(2) One's voice gets hoarse repeating this, but there is little reason to privilege Paul over the Gospels, when it comes to reports about Jesus' life.  Yes, Paul almost certainly wrote first.  But people are not may flies.  We do, often, manage to survive the rigours of Planet Earth for several years, with luck, even decades.  There is no chronological or historical reason why a disciple named John could not have written most of his Gospel, and much cause in and out of the Gospel to credit it to an eyewitness.  (Perhaps including the fact that he described the linen gravecloth of Jesus accurately, as DW admits.)  I personally know many people who can accurately recount events that happened to them at an even greater distance of time.  So much more for Mark and Luke's close second-hand accounts. 

The ancients died more quickly than we do, yes.  But that was mainly because of childhood diseases.  Adults in a population MUST survive for a reasonably long period of time, for that population to remain stable, let alone increase, as the Roman population tended to do.  (Which is why so many wars and murders were required, to keep it stable.)  From this it follows that, having reached the age of young discipleship (most traveling revolutionary bands consist mainly of youths), if the disciples managed to avoid military service, and (for the women) survived childbirth, they would have a reasonable chance of living to the age in which Gospels were to be written -- and many certainly would have.  In a tight-knit community of faith, it would have been easy to find these "elders" who were also eyewitnesses. 

And the Gospels show every sign of being, not "legendary," but close second-hand and sometimes first-hand accounts of genuine historical memory that has been well-preserved, for the most part. 

(3) We need not trouble ourselves with DW's analysis of the Gospels, much more.  He has simply not bothered to deal either with scholars who think the Gospels are fairly accurate accounts, or to attend to internal evidence in the Gospels themselves, that have forced many clear-minded readers before him (Pascal, C. S. Lewis, M. Scott Peck, and finally AN Wilson, among others) to that conclusion. 

I would, of course, have been nice if he'd read my book analyzing the 50 characteristics that define the Gospels, and showing why many of them secretly confirm the historicity of the story, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could.  But that book is not widely known.  He should, however, have read Richard Bauckham's better-known Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, before claiming that the Gospels are "corrupt" (whatever that means) or largely "sophisticated fiction." 

A few specific points:

* "The famous tale of Doubting Thomas is equally dubious.  It, too, is missing from the First Creed and from three of the four Gospels, which completely undermines its historical credibility . . . Like all legends, (such stories) may incorporate elements of tradition based on authentic memories."  (81)

The purpose here, of course, is to find a way for DW to have his cake and eat it, too: toss out what the Gospels say happened on Easter morning, yet make use of whatever flotsam and jetsom of data that may be fed into DW's own theory. 

But our own "doubting Thomas" is making a bad historical argument, here.  Arguments from Silence should only be made with great caution, which he does not show.  The Synoptics are telling the story of the greatest man in history (they believe, and so it has proven): his appearance, great teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection, over a period of a few years, in a few pages.  No doubt Jesus' resurrection appearances are particularly significant.  But why on earth should one assume that if they exclude one particular conversation from their story, a scene that Peter, Mark's primary source, might not have paid much attention to, that conversation could not have taken place?  As historical arguments go, this one is a touch bizarre. 

* Even when they agree on a basic story, the Evangelists disagree about the details. (79)

Or more strictly, they often give different details.  Should that cause us to doubt them? 

But in Helter Skelter, his account of the Manson murders, prosecutor Vincent Bugliossi points out that such is precisely the pattern that one looks for to establish historical facts: agreement on important facts, differences on details. 

* Numerous different gospels were produced, each bearing the ideological imprint of the church for which it was written.  Over time, four of them . . . assumed special status . . . The rest were consigned to oblivion.  Fortunately, fragmentary remains of these forgotten gospels have survived here and there in ancient libraries and in the dry sands of Egypt, giving us an inkling of the early Christian stories that were suppressed.

The nefarious influence of Elaine Pagel's discredited myth-making lives on in these comments. 

(4) In the final chapter of this section, before offering his solution involving the Shroud of Turin in the next section (sorry to keep you waiting, Shroud fans -- and thanks for the visits from your interesting site), DW repeats what appears to be his own root metaphysical dogma:

Taken at face value, the idea of a heavenly, resurrected man appearing to a series of eyewitnesses seems utterly incredible. But why do we have to take them at face value?  Perhaps there is a way of understanding the appearances non-literally -- and thereby interpretting them rationally . . .

Yes, that secret interpretation, the solution that DW admits has so long eluded skeptics, is indeed the Sorceror's Stone, the Holy Grail of the Enlightenment.

A philosopher might remind DW that valid reasoning and true premises are two different things: belief in miracles might be an error, but not bad reasoning per se. A Christian might find it a strange definition of "rationality" that excludes the likes of Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, C. S. Lewis, or Alvin Plantinga, simply because they doubt the universe is a closed system. 

What DW is doing here, is indeed to posit radical discontinuity between people who accept his own, Enlightenment consciousness, and the consciousness of all "pre-rational" human beings.  Dissing the ancients is the key to solving the Riddle of the Resurrection.  He is rather nice about it, all in all.  These people were not rational, as we moderns are.  They believed six incredible things before breakfasting with Jesus by the Sea of Galilee.  But we moderns go bonkers and shout at our TV screens, too, from time to time.

Who is the more suggestible?  Re-read our own Doubting Thomas' account of his conversion story, and DW's hypothesis, which he will now explain and defend, seems a textbook case of cognitive dissonance, an all-consuming belief grasped at a moment of existential desperation. 

Or as the apple might have said to Sir Isaac Newton:

"Bonk!"

August Postscript: I was planning a fourth post on DW's book, describing and evaluating his interesting theory of how the image formed on the shroud.  But frankly, I began to develop the impression that DW not only was not interested in the truth, and not only had barackaded himself into Fortress Enlightenment with the stones of materialistic dogma, but (on checking into things) he simply hadn't bothered to do much homework into his favored theory.  For one thing, apparently the chemical reaction he favored required temperatures in excess of 120 degrees F, whereas the all-time high temperature in Jerusalem is 99 degrees. Naturally it would be cooler in a tomb.  And it seems there is little sign of the Maillard reaction posited by DW on the cloth.  I lost interest, frankly.  I give DW credit for getting us going, but the world is full of more plausible arguments. 

3 comments:

A Lesser Son of the King said...

Some of his comments sound much like sections of "The Da Vinci Code." That doesn't count in his favor, as that book was full of bad scholarship as well.

Deepak said...

That was very insightful, thanks!

David B Marshall said...

You're welcome!