Wednesday, April 7, 2010

On Christian Pessimism

As an atheist, one quickly has to get used to the idea being frequently charged with pessimism and nihilism by believers. If one does not accept the idea of a deity, so the logic goes, one's life becomes inherently meaningless, one's outlook necessarily lacking optimism. Many ministers have recently elected to use the occasion of the resurrection of the Lord of the universe to re-emphasise their feelings about what certain people just don't happen to believe in (I mean, what else could they possibly have to talk about at this time of the year?). Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen, for instance, attacked the "the secularist philosophy" for "invit[ing] us to invent our own lives and... undervalue commitment to other human beings" (link). From my own perspective though, I would argue the opposite is true.

I was reminded of this through a post recently made by Fred Clark on his slacktivist blog. Normally Clark is especially adept at avoiding the more egregious excesses of Christian thought (indeed, he's normally an extremely articulate denouncer of them) but the idea of the hopeless futility of the Godless life is apparently so ingrained in the Christian ethos that even its most reasonable and egalitarian adherents cannot help but reproduce it.

Clark begins with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.

Now to most I'm sure that this triadic formula (to use the language of Biblical Scholarship) represents nothing more than a rather beautiful explication of the hopefulness of the Christian philosophy. For Niebuhr, the fragile obscurity of man is countenanced by the infinite and glorious power of the divine. In the face of our mortal limitations, we can rest assured that all that is worth acheiving can and will be acheived through the will of the immortal Lord. Surely no grander statement of optimism could be conceived?

Well, not really. My qualm rests in the almost reflexive dismissal of human potential inherent in Niebuhr's world-view. "Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime" - what a horrible sentiment! Where does that leave us, then? Are we all to simply lapse into fatalistic despair? Perhaps Mandela might just as well have stayed in prison, or Rosa Parks might just as well have moved seats, or Neil Armstrong might just as well have stayed in the space capsule if "nothing worth doing" can be completed during the course of a human life? What does that say about the Christian philosophy's "commitment to other human beings", given our apparent incapacity to ever acheive anything worthwhile in our lives?

But the fatalistic despair grows: "Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history". While it is true that sometimes the grandeur of human acheivement can take time to be duly appreciated, that in no way means that it is impossible to immediately discern the "true", "beautiful" and "good" when and where it happens. Even if a philosophical case could be mounted for the impossibility of objectively discerning what is "true", "beautiful" and "good" (which I don't think Niebuhr was going for) to proceed as though such objective discernment were possible is probably a necessary basis for meaningful human action. I shudder to think what human action might look like if we dispose with any pretense of concern for that which is "true", "beautiful" or "good".

And finally: "Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone". In actual fact I have some sympathy for this passage: no man is an island, as that old cliche goes, so man necessarily requires the formation of community with other human beings to acheive anything at all. We are biologically social animals for whom, I suspect, all higher functions (consciousness, emotion, logic etc.) are entirely predicated on our capacity for interaction with others. However, I'm inclined to think that this impression of biologically determined sociality was not quite what Niebuhr was aiming for, and his intention was probably rather to simply engage in a crude assault on human individualism. His claim that "nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone" belies that fact that individuals throughout history have indeed acheieved great things as a consequence of their own, individual volition. Some such as Gallileo acheived what they did in spite of the interjection of the community around them, certainly not because of it.

Now while we mustn't overstate the representativeness of a single passage from a single author, it seems quite apparent to me that this almost general, almost casual disdain for humanity is indeed endemic to to Christian thought more generally. Neitzsche writes that "Christianity finds man sick so that it may offer him the cure"1, continuing:

"It was Christianity which first painted the devil on the worlds wall; It was Christianity which first brought sin into the world. Belief in the cure which it offered has now been shaken to it's deepest roots; but belief in the sickness which it taught and propagated continues to exist'."2

In other words, it was once necessary for Christians to emphasise the "sickness" of man - how small, and fragile, and unworthy he is - in order to convince him of the need to accept the cure: namely, salvation through Jesus Christ3. While the proclamation of soteriological exclusivism has diminished in public Christian thought in recent times (all religions are, afterall, just different means to the same end - whether you believe in Jesus or Buddha, you'll still get to heaven) that fundamental belief in the sickness of man remains. This is the malaise that undergirds all in Christian philosophy that can be found to be abhorrent.

Now, though, it finds itself confronted with a newer philosophy: a philosophy which asserts the ethical trascendence of humankind over and above the cold, dead universe into which we are all born. To the Christians, of course, such a proclamation represents "a form of idolatry in which we worship ourselves", borne of our "resentment that we do not in fact rule the world" (link). But the humanists think nothing of the kind. The general, overarching philosophy of humanism can be expressed in a single line: all that is that is good in the universe both begins and ends with a human being. Simple, powerful and completely impervious to misinterpretation or corruption.

Perhaps, though, the Christians recognise the weakness of their own position and the strength of our own. Perhaps, as Sartre put it, they resent the humanists "not [for] our pessimism, but the sternness of our optimism"4. A person optimistic about the human capacity for goodness and self-determination, of course, has less need for the salvational myths sold to them by those who hold a far dimmer view of humanity.

So I say leave the Christians alone with their delusions of a sick, deficient human species completely enslaved by the inexorable fate into which they were born. I, however, can only assert my belief in the potential in every human being for overwhelming acts of good, and the power of each of us to alter for the better the course of human history. If that makes me a pessimist, so be it.


1 - I'm struggling to find a source for this, but I'm almost certain I didn't make it up. Perhaps my memory has twisted the words in my mind enough - while retaining the general sentiment of the passage - that it no longer resembles the original passage enough to be able to find it through Google. Perhaps, as an aside, this is a good analogy for how the sayings of Jesus were remembered and transmitted during the 40 years period prior to the penning of the gospels.

2 - From Human, All Too Human in Volume Two: The Wanderer and His Shadow, p. 329.

3 - As Jesus himself is reported to have said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." - Matthew 9:12.

4 - From Existentialism as a Humanism.

Five Criteria for Assessing the Historicity of Jesus in the Gospels

When we're dealing with the historical Jesus, we're not so much dealing with facts as we are "probabilities". The gospels are plainly of dubious historical reliability because they were written a long time after Jesus' death and, in any case, they have all clearly been written through a particular theological prism, which throws the objectivity of their authors into grave doubt. Put simply, these are not "historical" documents, and I don't think that any of us who advocate a historical Jesus have ever claimed otherwise. Nonetheless, so long as one proceeds carefully with the above facts in mind, I think there are clearly elements of the gospel narratives that are far more likely to be historically true than not.

Devising a completely objective, fool-proof methodology for separating the historical gospel material from the non-historical gospel material is obviously beyond the powers of the historical-critical method, but some attempts have still been able to come pretty close. One of the better attempts at devising a set of criteria for determining the historicity of Gospel material was that of J.P. Meier. He argued that five primary criteria could be used to determine how likely it was that facts or events in the gospels had a historical core. They are:

  • Embarrassment: A fact or event that appears to cause embarrassment to the theology of the gospel authors is less likely to have been invented by them than a fact or event that bolsters their theology.
  • Discontinuity: A fact or event that does not appear to have had any basis in earlier tradition is less likely to have been invented by the gospel authors than an event that may have been predicated in an earlier tradition.
  • Multiple Attestation: A fact or event that appears to have been preserved down multiple lines of independent tradition is more likely to be true than one that is only preserved down a single line.
  • Coherence: A fact or event that appears to be consistent with our present understanding of the historical context is more likely to be true than one which appears to be at odds with it.
  • Rejection and Execution: A fact or event that looks as though it might provide an realistic explanation for the rejection or execution of Jesus is more likely to be true than the more tendentious explanations offered consciously by the gospel authors (e.g. divine providence, the Jews being in league with the devil etc.). (This criterion is less strong as it presumes historicity of the execution to begin with, but given that the execution of Jesus appears to satisfy each of the four previous criteria, it's based on a fairly solid foundation so far as second-order criteria go.)

Now there are very few facts or events in the gospels that appear to satisfy all of these criteria, which is why we can say very little with any certainty about the historical Jesus. However, a fact such as Jesus being from Nazareth - an otherwise, minor or incidental fact - appears to be one of those facts that we can state of Jesus most certainly because it does happen to satisfy each of these criteria:

  • Embarrassment: The fact that Jesus came from Nazareth was inconvenient for those who accepted the OT prophecy that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). Matthew and Luke had to invent convoluted (and entirely contradictory) accounts to reconcile these two "facts" and even John appears to be aware of the theological difficulties concerning Jesus' origins in Nazareth (Jn. 7:41b-42).
  • Discontinuity: There was no tradition in the OT - or any other Jewish literature - about the messiah hailing from Nazareth, or anything else of any significance concerning that town - in fact, the town of Nazareth does not appear once in any context in the OT. This discontinuity was plainly an embarrassment to Matthew who was required to invent a prophecy concerning Nazareth as a means of obscuring it (Mt. 2:23).
  • Multiple attestation: This fact is recorded down at least four independent lines: Mark (Mk. 1:9), M (Mt. 2:23), L (Lk. 2:39) and John (Jn. 1:45-46).
  • Coherence: It's consistent with our understanding of Jesus as an outsider, or a "Marginal Jew" in the words of J.P. Meier.
  • Rejection and Execution: The fact that he came from such a backwards and inconsequential part of the world may have contributed to his being rejected as a messianic figure by many. John appears to suggest as much (Jn. 7:52).

Now again, none of this is foolproof, but it surely makes the competing suggestion - that the place of Jesus' birth was "made up" somewhere along the line, for want of a better expression - extremely difficult to accept.

In any case, what these criteria really allow us to do is make comparative probabilistic judgments concerning the historicity of various events in the gospels. Where Jesus' birthplace appears to satisfy all five of Meier's criteria, an event like the Last Supper appears to satisfy two (multiple attestation and coherence, with regards to Jesus' use of bread as a spiritual metaphor throughout the gospels) and fail two (it does not represent any kind of discontinuity because it appears to have predicates in both Jewish and Gentile tradition, and it fails the embarrassment criterion because the Eucharist is something that the early Christians would have been motivated to trace back to Jesus). At the other extreme we have plenty of events, such as the raising of Lazarus, that appear to fail all five criteria: there would have been a clear motivation for early Christians to invent stories like this, there are clear predicates in earlier traditions (e.g. Elijah), the story is presented down just one tradition (i.e. John), the story is at odds with any realistic historical context and it doesn't appear to offer any coherent reason as to why Jesus came to be rejected or executed by the Jewish authorities (cf. John 11:45-54).

Now none of this is to say that Jesus was definitely born in Nazareth, that he might have presided over the first Eucharist and that he definitely didn't raise Lazarus from the dead: we are incapable of making such definitive judgments. It is true, in one sense, to say that all content in the gospels may or may not be true: the mythicist is as justified in rejecting the Nazareth accounts as the fundamentalist is in accepting the Lazarus accounts. However, I think an objective methodological approach to the gospels - such as this one set out by Meier - can only lead us to the conclusion (for whatever it is worth) that the Nazareth accounts are far more probable than the Lazarus accounts, and that the Nazareth accounts are far more likely to find their origin in some historical memory than in the imagination of some early evangelist.

(Adapted from my RS post here.)