Saturday, October 27, 2007

History is now, Revelation is Now

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I find one thing that is sadly lacking in the New Atheists, while they are bright and engaged and eager to take on the world, they seem a bit myopic.An illustration of what I mean is seen in the works of John Loftus, atheist author and commenter on our blog, is fond of making the statement:
God Chose A Very Poor Medium To Reveal Himself!

By this he means History as the medium. As a would be historian, and history of ideas man at that, I feel moved to comment. Loftus, a former student of Willian Lane Craig, certainly has a good deal of knowledge in the world letters. Loftus is anythhing but an ignorant man. yet he seems to have left out an understanding of the liberal revisionary tradition of Christian theology, which is what I mean by "myopic."

In a previous blog entry, here, I asked why so many professed Christians disagree with each other when interpreting the Bible.

As a former Christian I had difficulty with why there were so many different ways that professed Christians interpreted the Bible. I could never answer that question. I just put it on the backburner of things I didn't know, and I proceeded to try to come up with what I considered the correct interpretations, because that's all I could do.

It will always puzzle me how these guys can be so anti-diverse. One would think an atheist would understand about diversity and why it's a strength and not a weakness. But these guys seen truly threatened by the fact that there are many views in the church. This is odd because it would antithetical to the definition of "free thinking" that everyone must think the same thing. He goes on:

What I now believe is that history is not a reliable "point of contact" for God to speak with man, assuming God exists.

My first reaction here is what choice do we have? If God declared himself in central park on world wide television tomorrow he would being doing it in history. Anything God does in the temporal realm is done in history, if humans exist at the time. God did not create history, people did. History is a cultural construct. It is not history its time we call it history because we segment it into periods, the time before us the time after us, and us! Whenever God choses to deal with us, he's dealing in history and it needs must be. Ah but there's a method to Loftus' madness. He's going to try and juxtaposed modern understanding of historicism to ancient world understanding of the divine. This is yet another version of the age old strategy "ancient people are stupid and modern progress is anti-God." It is not surprising to me that he would take this tact because the whole of the new atheist movement, so far as I can see, is rooted firmly in the nineteenth century. they try to pass themselves off as cutting edge, but their way of thinking about religion, life, truth, progress, science, the world belongs with the 1939 world's fair. He's going to make is sound more sophisticated but in a sense he's just saying "God should reveal himself now so he can use computers and ware a white lab coat, then I would respect him."

Anyone who studies the philosophy of history knows that history (and historical writings) should be interpreted in light of the historian's present perspective.

Do we know that indeed? I would like to know where John got his idea? All the historians I ever worked with were trying to, or saw themselves as trying to understand the way people who lived in their formers times thought. To do that they had to put themselves in their perspectives. One of the fundamental lessons I learned as a historian is not to expert ancient people to hold the same values that I hold. It's an absurd mistake to assume that people in 700BC should have learned better at Woodstock. I am telling you from experince, that sort of concern is far more in the minds of historians than any abstract notion about understand our perspective.

When it comes time to make the point he waxes obtuse:

Why? Because that's all we can do...we cannot do otherwise. So women gain rights in Christian countries and Biblical historians (theologians?) interpret the Bible to say what they have come to believe on other grounds, and so forth, hell being another doctrine.

hu? Why is he jumping from women's rights to the doctrine of hell? We have to use our own perspective because that's all we can do, so we give women rights (I guess he means in spite of the Bible) and who cares what the bible says? then suddenly, bam! here's hell! So? what's it doing there? Why can we only think about history form our perspective? Why can't we seek to understand the perspectives of the past? It seems to me that's job of a cultural historian at least.

Besides, practically any event in history can be rationally denied, even if that event actually occurred! And this goes for non-miraculous history, so how much more does it apply to purported miraculous claims in history? If God chose to reveal himself in history, then he chose a very poor medium to do so.

So what he seems to be arguing. if I get him, is that we should ditch the bible because it's old fashioned, we are modern and we don't dig old fashioned? But there is no period in which he could manifest himself without this problem. Because anything in time is in history. But the real problem with this argument is its chronocentrism. He's just assuming that our time must be special because it's modern. Modern is good and ancient is bad. Any historian worth his salt would laugh himself silly with this stuff. Shades of Hegel! Forget Hegel, shades of Fukuyama! I remember back in the 80's when capitalism was the end of history, now it's the New Atheism. This is the kind of historical romanticism that most historians have worked since Namier to forget. Serioulsy, this guy is falying in the face of the whole historical acadmey since the advent of the 20th century.

This is not new atheism, this is the sort of old nineteenth century stuff we outgrew with the whigs. I am not surprised Loftus resorts to this, most new atheists I've seen are stuck firmly in the nineteenth century. This is jut another reason why atheism is outmoded. This is really the cherished myth of the whole atheist truth regime: the evil clerics with their cruel tyrannical regimes kept poor defenseless scientists burning because they weighed the same as a duck. Along came the noble liberators, D'Holbach! They freed humanity from evil superstition. Everything modern is good and old is bad. It's pretty clear Loftus is not aware of the flow modern historicism or historiography.

Another major problem I find with this view point is the lack of knowledge he displays concern modern theologians. How can anyone talk about God's relationship to history without discussing books like C.T. McIntire's God, History and Historians? (Oxford, 77). The theology of Wolfheart Pannenberg Revelation as History. (1968. coauthored with Rolf Rendtorff, Trutz Rendtorff, and Ulrich Wilkens. New York: Macmillan. Trans. David Granskow of Offenbarung als Geschichte. G` ttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1963).Or, let us think of Jurgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope? So much as been done on theological historicism, the big meaning of history in relation to theology and we don't seem to get a clue that Loftus has even heard of it even though history is the major theme of an argument he makes constantly. Surely in trying to understand history as a medium of revelation it would behoove us to think about God's revelation in history in relation to a theory of the meaning of history?

That leads to the major problem, the New atheist understanding of revelation, as exemplified by Loftus. OF course the major argument is going to be that we can't trust anything historical which comes from the age before science and historiography.On this misunderstands just about everything that pertains to it.since atheism is to Christianity as anti-communism is to communism, the Dawkinsians can't think of anything but the fundies, the flip side of them, the heads to their tails.

(1) His argument applies to views such as verbal plenary inspiration and completely misses all the ferment of views like Models of Revelation by Avery Dulles.

(2) they assume that revelation is static. It's given one historical period adn that's it. This forces the concept of chronocentrism because it lures them into the argument that surely if God was real he would favor our time.

(3) they see revelation in the memo from the boss model.

All of this forms the underpinning and ground of assumptions for teh major upshot of the argument, if God was going to reveal himself why would he do it back then int he time of superstition when we today (since we are the truly important people) can't trust the historicity of the revelation because its formed in the old bad superstition time. OF course this assumes all of the bad assumptions above, the most important of which is the antiquated model of verbal plenary which even the likes of Carl Henry did not support.

Revelation is not a static thing that was given once from on high and goes int the pages of a book. Like time itself, history is fluid and moving, revelation cannot help but be in history since we are in history. Its' not as though God had a choice to have time bound corporeal creatures and not reveal to them in history. Moreover, revelation is not so much the word from on high as it is the encounter between human and divine. The bible is a collection of wittings that were made without knowledge that they would someday be in the bible. These are of many different kinds, different genres and they speak to us in different ways. What they tell is not the memo from the boss, or the "owner's manual" but they speak of how people encountered God and what happened. God uses narrative because it speaks to people. WE need to know about these encounters so that when we have our own we can have some idea of what to expect. The idea that we are going to prove that some literal event really happened in history because the document in which it is recorded can be trusted as actual history is purely secondary.

Like most of the NA's that I find Loftus is doing battle with the fundies, while ignoring the direction of Christian theology over the last 500 years. For example what he says about historicity and miracles, quoting Lessing:

Miracles, which I see with my own eyes, and which I have opportunity to verify for myself, are one thing; miracles, of which I know only from history that others say they have seen them and verified them, are another.” “But…I live in the 18th century, in which miracles no longer happen. The problem is that reports of miracles are not miracles…[they] have to work through a medium which takes away all their force.” “Or is it invariably the case, that what I read in reputable historians is just as certain for me as what I myself experience?”
But Moltmann in Theology of deals with the problem of the supernatural and the historiographical. He argues that the unique nature of the revelation (resurrection) argues for a rules change. The resurrection is not historical, but history making. By the same token Lessing is wrong. Miracles are not static. They are not merely in the past. We can experince the divine today, now. I have done so. If miracles happen now they could happen then. The argument, while I sympathize with and the admire the philosohpical attempts that went into it, is based upon a too limited understanding of both history and theology.


Anonymous said...

Joe, in case someone stumbles here who didn't see my responses to what you wrote, here they are. It'll provide you with some additional arguments to deal with.


Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

ok that's cool

akakiwibear said...

Great blog Joe – excellent posts, really thought provoking.

I feel it is polite, having visited and availed myself of your hospitality and wisdom to leave a comment buy way of appreciation.

Like most of the NA's that I find Loftus is doing battle with the fundies, while ignoring the direction of Christian theology over the last 500 years.
There is a fundamental intellectual dishonesty about fundie bashing and then drawing an unsubstantiated connection to all Christianity.

Criticism of this behaviour on the DC blog site draws a sharp response that the site exists to debunk evangelical Christianity. It must be so convenient for JWL and associates to have your target held stationary for you.

But I marvel at the faith of the atheist evangelists’ belief (and it is just that), it being so reliant on discrediting religious positions that they have trapped in a time warp of their own making.

One reads of the frustration of atheist evangelists in the failure of being able “deconvert” Christians using reason and logic. I can’t remember the source of “It is hard to remove from the mind with logic, that which was not put there by logic” and I guess it is what they encounter.
Indeed a belief in God is so much more than logic alone. But since it is equally hard to “reconvert” atheists using logic alone one has to appreciate that their atheism is a faith based choice – often with its roots in unpleasant religious experiences. Certainly many exhibit all the enthusiasm of the “born again” as they deny having either a belief or faith or a God, any God.

Anonymous said...

Dear Bro. Joe,

You have put together a very fine article here. I will be sure to include it in my own teaching array. It very clearly answers questions I've had from students in past Bible studies I've taught.

As far as Loftus' comments and challenges, hasn't he pretty secured his right to be ignored these days? (ethics violations) I know I have no intention of violating his rights, how about you? :-)

Laterness . . .
C. David Ragland, Jr. Layman Trouble Maker :-)