Jesus Mythicism: Ehrman and Price

I hate being salt in the wound, but one of the more funny things to do, as someone with a background in biblical studies, is watching the flailing and blind waffling of Jesus mythicists.

Mythicism is what happens when untrained, undereducated (in the particular subject being discussed), ideologically naive people gather into walled off groups and discuss the fanciful while pretending they are circumventing the ideology of the academy at large (assuming NT studies is corrupted by Christian practitioners).

Because of the bizarre nature of such debates, I decided I had to stay up until midnight (London Time) on October 20th to watch a nearly three hour event, a debate between Bart Ehrman and Robert Price. At times I was intrigued, but mostly I knew perturbation. That feeling probably peaked when Price had the gall to suggest that Paul didn’t write Galatians. What?!

I, obviously, had a side. I’m a Pauline scholar with a background working on, particularly, Paul and his reception and possible uses in political philosophy and critical theory. Because of this, I do often find myself in a strange spot where I rely on biblical studies and defend it, while still occupying a marginal space on the boundaries of the discipline.

But, I am also aware of the limitations in method for the work on the historical Jesus. These have been pointed out by plenty, including Ehrman, Crossley, R. Myles, D. Kirkman,  and scores of reasonably skeptical scholars (who note problems with, for instance, criteria like “embarrassment” or dissimilarity)

Because of this, I actually was looking forward to some interesting pushback, either through Price’s grappling with Ehrman, or through the audience Q & A. Instead, I found myself messaging a friend, lamenting that I had stayed up so late (he felt mutual). I also paid £6. I could have gotten 3 beers from Tesco and had enough change leftover for candy. Probably would have resulted in a more fun night.

Every point brought up by Price was easily countered by Ehrman (though he did make some mistakes, and acted a bit authoritative on points that aren’t quite concrete, like the ethnicity of Mark). The audience questions, likewise, were just silly. The type that could easily have been cleared up by reading a few surveys instead of getting one’s feet wet in the subject by  picking up mythicist literature.

Here, then, we can come to the crux of the issue. This is purely ideological, through and through. It isn’t really about scholarship, or finding Truth, or some other romanticized notion. It’s about forming scholarship that finds its guiding touchpoints through the broader cultural form of certain types of atheism.

There was, however, an enjoyable breakdown of the evening with scholars on an online podcast, consisting of James McGrath and James G. Crossley. This was the highlight of the night as they were given chance to discuss the some of the details of the debate. Several minutes in a mythicist joined the ranks, so at times it felt like a second mini-event. This was, perhaps, the saving grace of the evening. 

Review of: The Poetics of Grace: Christian Ethics as Theodicy

The amazing book on Christian ethics by Jeph Holloway.

This blog has a LOT of purposes, which perhaps contributes to its downfall. Nonetheless, I have to include a plug for one of my former professor’s book which came out last April. If you care in the least about subjects in the realm of theology, philosophy, ethics, or ecclesiology you should pick up the book. It is not that expensive, especially if you want an electronic copy.

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Holloway’s book on ethics centers squarely around theodicy. Now, I know what you may be thinking: theodicy is, primarily, a philosophical topic taken up by, usually, apologists (though, it seems most often the hard work is done by those scholars like Van Inwagen and then disseminated by rank-and-file apologists). After all, considering the existence of deity in the face of seemingly insurmountable natural and moral evil is becoming a rather stark task, one that the Christian should rightly confront and not shy away from.

Holloway, however, is not particularly concerned with discussing theodicy as some sort of difficulty in the face of God’s reality; rather, he starts by pointing out, quite rightly, that despite the insistence that Augustine (the bishop usually associated with the origination of the term) is concerned with proving God (and the goodness of God) existed in light of evil, the notion is just contextually naive. Augustine was concerned instead “as a pastor to instruct members of the faith community–the church– as to the nature of evil and God’s response to it. (3)”. This is the starting point for Holloway, and what he seeks to do as well. No defense of belief in God (others have done this, and this is not the point or scope of the volume) as would be assumed by the reliance on theodicy.

God is doing something about Evil. That is the assumption, and God doing something about evil (theodicy, God’s justice in the presence of evil) is the foundation for the ethic to be explored in this volume (and subsequent volumes to hopefully be released within the next year or so). Primarily, Holloway echoes often the following phrase throughout the book: God, in God’s redemptive work, is creating a people whose lives, sustained in worship, bear witness to God’s purpose for creation. In this phrase Holloway packs several themes that he finds intimately detailed within Ephesians, characteristics that are crucial for properly doing Christian ethics. Thus, Holloway sees Christian ethics as needing to be theocentric, redemptive, ecclesial, liturgical, and eschatological, and he explores these themes in conversation with partners as diverse as Nietzsche and Niebuhr, MacIntyre and Gustafson, and virtually everyone else on the spectrum of ideas. In this respect, the name-dropping can be sometimes overwhelming; nonetheless, the resources are invaluable to the argument. This is truly an interdisciplinary volume, marrying quite rightly philosophy, theology, ethics, and biblical studies. The use, more explicitly, of scripture and biblical studies is a much needed corrective to those like Hauerwas who often seem to know the Ethica Nicomachea a bit more thoroughly than the New Testament.

Truly the importance of theodicy is convincingly applied as a starting point for a Christian ethic, especially one indebted to a view of scripture as a grand narrative, as is becoming more popular in light of Wright, Hauerwas, Long, and others. Turning the term on its head and asking the question, “What is God doing about evil?” rather than “How can God and evil coexist?” is not only more contextually interesting, it also helps to marry theology and ethics (too often separated in modern theology) and put a certain amount of burden on the Christian. God is redeeming the world, in this understanding, through his people, and God is a deity of work, and thus calls for his people to worship through their work to redeem.

If one is looking for a usual book on ethics, one that posits various questions or situations and employs a decisionistic enterprise then you had better look elsewhere. However, if you are looking for a volume that delves into scripture (primarily Ephesians, as the theme of the book is centered around it), sifts through recent ethical theory and philosophical inquiry, and challenges the theologian and lay Christian then you should certainly pick up the volume. It is excellently written, rather than excruciatingly dry, and unusually convincing in argument.

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If you are interested in checking out the book click here

 

Look for a forthcoming interview with Dr. Holloway concerning the book, Christian ethics, philosophy, and Pauline theology. Oh, and maybe jazz.

 

Thanks for reading!

The Walking Dead and Ethics: Hershel as Virtuous

(WARNING: SOME SPOILERS CONTAINED)

The Walking Dead is an immensely popular show with a large fan base of people who are attracted to either the deep personal and emotional drama, the post-apocalyptic setting, the blood and gore, or perhaps a combination of several of the above.

As with all television, you can really just watch passively without even a modicum of interest in anything beyond a mere surface level of engagement. I think a lot of people do that, which is evident from  responses to those episodes that seem to drag along with no zombie action (though, this is judging from mere individual accounts I hear from people in my personal life). Television is naturally a passive medium of entertainment, one that beckons the watcher to “relax and enjoy the ride.” We all need those moments, sometimes.

Just some survivors survivin’.

But, I think The Walking Dead is ripe for the picking when it comes to philosophical, ethical, and theological questions. Perhaps that is why half of the Religion profs at my university are hooked on the show, some even incorporating ethical questions, and philosophical questions about the nature of the self mined from the show, into class. There are numerous avenues and areas to explore (what does the concept of “zombie” say about the metaphysics of the writers? To what end do we follow in order to survive? Is surviving more important than retaining humanity? Can one be properly human in the face of infinite consumption? Is killing a zombie “murder”?), but I want to focus primarily on Hershel as a sort of guardian of the ethical, and as following a sort of ethics that is counter to modern utilitarianism and contemporary “decisionistic” models that one finds in some circles.

Let us start by identifying “utilitarianism” and “decisionistic” ethics quickly, and perhaps identifying some TWD characters that can be classed into these categories, then we can contrast them with Hershel.

Utilitarianism can be summed up by the cliche adage: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” or, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.” Here, of course, there is no transcendence, no actual right or wrong, except in regards to the overall end “number” of pain or pleasure. Of course, this requires  quite laborious calculation, what one could call hedonistic calculus, or “felicific calculus.”  The ethical agent takes into account various variables coming to an ultimate conclusion about which action to take; after all, it’s just the rational thing to do.

Look at the character of Shane. He commits unspeakable acts and threatens to throw away the humanity of the group in order to, hopefully, survive. He kills Otis because the action, perhaps, saves him and Carl and also keeps Lori and Rick from feeling infinite pain. The problem is the “perhaps.”

We cannot calculate these things.

Recently we can see Carol take the same route. She murders two members of the community because they are sick. If she eliminates the source of the illness then everyone lives. If she doesn’t, then everyone will get sick.

Not.

She’s wrong and everyone gets sick anyway. We don’t live in a pretty mechanistic universe where we can account for all of the variables, tidying the up into a pretty package like a nice little accountant. It doesn’t work like that. Utilitarian ethics is not a workable path because we do not have sufficient knowledge; but also, it does not work because even if we were able to break the epistemic (dealing with knowledge) problems we have a larger problem. When there is no “good,” or the good is primarily defined as “whatever makes the greatest number happy or safe” almost any thing can be seen as rightly justified, whether the calculations hold true or not. This is moral fiction, as Alasdair MacIntyre would say.  Perhaps the primary sin is emotivism, or, the appeal to manipulation or power in order to justify the “right” path.

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Hershel in the sick zone.

And then there is Hershel. Before Hershel we had good ol’ Dale, the seemingly sole moral voice in the zombie apocalypse. Only he stood up against the desire to murder. He was killed off and Hershel became the medium, trying to guide the temporarily insane Rick during season three.

There is a direct contrast between Hershel and Carol in season 4. When the plague hits, Carol murders in order to “save”; Hershel sacrifices his self in order to save.

The context is dark. Almost everyone in the prison camp is sick, dying from this strange and quite catch-able flu. Entering the quarantine area almost certainly means sickness and probably death. But, Hershel is a healer and knows that he is not currently sick and that the sick need his help.  Hershel enters a situation that is unthinkable and works, slowing down the sickness with a tea concoction. There is no real calculation on Hershel’s part ; he does not excuse his behavior with vacuous”greatest good” talk; it is quite obvious he does this because of his character, and because he has a certain “good” in mind, the good of sacrificing oneself in order to provide service to the dying, whether they die or not, and despite his possible infection. He is a healer and so stays true to a character of healing and care, much like Jesus sacrificing his safety to cure the lepers, another people of contagion. He believes in an actual “good,” that human beings are worth it, that all life is valuable (that last point is important; he isn’t suicidal).

In the end of the mid-season finale Hershel is murdered. But, his murder is in the face of peace. His impact, the ethical transumptive echo seen through Rick’s requesting the unthinkable to the face of his enemy, brings death. But Hershel smiles in the face of death, a smile of peace because the ethical impact of his character has truly changed Rick.

Part of me wanted to lambaste Rick for not giving into the demands of the Governor; if he had maybe Hershel would be alive. What I did not immediately see is that Rick did not pick the route because he saw the death of one equating to goodness for the greater number, he picked an infinitely difficult third option not mentioned: peace. Co-existence is possible, both Rick and Hershel saw it and believed it.

Sometimes the correct path is a much harder road, one fraught with epistemic uncertainty, difficult trials, and perhaps even death; but, perhaps correct action is not resolutely attached to supposed empirical ends but is found instead in truths that go beyond frenzied survival.

Hershel just before the Governor murders him. He smiles, proud that Rick calls for peace between the two factions.

What do you think of utilitarianism? Have you noticed that you too often justify actions through unknown calculations in order to determine your actions as right? Do you think there is a different foundation, or non-foundation, to ethics? What would that foundation be?

Why I am Neither Liberal nor Conservative.

It is rather unfortunate that in the wake of Gospel enaction the new head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, is labeled in highly divisive political categories by naive and ignorant reporters. The handling of religion by journalists is generally notoriously bad (want a sample and critique? Head over to getreligion.org) not least because journalists usually deal in generalization and have rather surface level understandings of religion in general, but also  because there is a larger narrative being woven through these markets; journalism is a commodification machine, for the most part,  looking for an angle to sell wherever such an angle can be excised and highlighted. And so, Pope Francis is a flaming liberal. I mean, obviously, right?

Simple statement. But, how true is this? Is this even a part of the Catholic narrative?

Hardly, least because dealing within these categories is just a mishandling of what Christ has called his followers to be/do.  Politics pervades, but to create such a binary opposition between liberal/conservative is both naive and highly contingent. But, contingent upon what? When we speak of contingency we are speaking of a resting on another thing, being dependent on. This binary opposition, a way of orienting public speech and action, depends on something larger that comes before it. it is not that reality is firmly and resolutely defined and oriented around these two terms, liberal and conservative; and further, it isn’t that politics is a way of being within one of these two categories.

The political life is dominated by the liberal tradition coming in after the slowly encompassing Enlightenment narrative, a narrative of autonomy and individualization.  In this understanding of life all humans are radical individuals, unencumbered selves with the ability, and often duty, to abstract themselves from the particularities of their social formation. Individuals are called to this understanding because, since it is an abstraction from outer realities and particularities, it is universal. It’s universality is dependent on total abstraction and “neutrality.” Of course, this understanding is itself highly contingent, and in this there is a sort of delusion that the individual is able to break away and enter into a total abstraction.

Humans are contingent beings, and our adoption of the Enlightenment story is just that: the adoption of another story, one which provides a narrative of abstraction and universality while having its basis within contingency and particularity! As Stanley Hauerwas notices: “Ironically, the most coercive aspect of the liberal account of the world is that we are free to make up our own story. The story that liberalism teaches us is that we have no story, and as a result we fail to notice how deeply that story determines our lives.” While this is a simplification (this is a blog post after all…), it is a fair, in my mind, understanding of the modern political system.  This is the modern liberal West, a politicization based in political abstraction, decisionism, and economic market capitalism.  And Christianity cannot fit within either one of these categories properly. Now, both sides of the same coin will co-opt Christian rhetoric in order to further their agenda, and many of those who co-opt religious language believe themselves to be staying true to Christianity, but the problem is that they have given into a very different metaphysic. Choice is the answer. Decision is the key. The abortion debate, for instance, is often syllogistically displayed with reference to primacy of choice. In either decision someone’s possible choice is contradicted. Either the unborn child, or the female, who is considered as an abstract entity who is to be granted the privilege of choosing, based on a deontological ethic, what is correct.  In the case of the Pope being anti-abortion, the reason has very little to do with this deontological ethic. It isn’t on the horizon, I would think.

Religion has, also, been a consistent commodified reality, particularly since the alignment of conservative capitalists and neoliberals with big Religion.

When it comes to the poor, it also has very little to do with a modern liberal-democratic understanding of what is right. Instead it is based on tradition in light of the work of the Christ of the Gospels who exhorted his followers to care for the widow, the orphan, the leper. There is no prior political point, when we speak of the liberal politic. But, there is a political point when we consider that politics (communal formation) is Christianity. As Hauerwas, Stephen Long, David Horrell, Doug Harink, John Milbank, MacIntyre, Yoder, and others have shown in the years of post-liberal theology, there is a primacy of communal moral formation that is found within the narrative of Christ. I cannot find myself within this usual spectrum of “liberal or conservative” because it is a narrative I eschew based on my prior allegiance to a different Kingdom. This Kingdom is of peace, something the modern liberal order continually breaches. The poor, the hungry, the widow, the uncared for, the broken, the dalit, the “illegal,” the confused, the dying, the meek, the powerless; they are the kingdom of life.  They represent what the liberal and the conservative never can bcause these post-Enlightenment political orders are concerned with domination and the commodification of persons; their priests are the economists, their sacred writings of justice are found in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Locke, and Rawls; their lives oriented around false universals.