Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: Part 13
Written in the genre of Henry David Thoreaus travel-thinking essays, Rick Kennedy's Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: An Academic Excursion is the story of a three-day climb into the Evolution Range of the High Sierra mountains of California (click here to see a map of the mountains). Mount Darwin stands among other near-14,000-foot-high mountains that are named after promoters of religious versions of evolutionary thinking. Using the trek as its framing narrative, this series branches off to explore the complex and at times even murky spaces at the intersection of Christian faith, ancient and natural history, and observational science.
We did not make it to the top of Mount Darwin. No story of triumph here, intellectual or physical. The story is one of companionship and recognition of academic strengths and weaknesses. Christianity’s intellectual foundation—the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection—is weak at universities. It is weak in the way ancient human history is a weak academic discipline. It depends on social methods of knowledge. Being weak, however, does not mean wrong.
There is a story of Peter in the sixth chapter of John in which some of the disciples desert Jesus because of hard teachings. Other disciples are grumbling, and Jesus upbraids them: “Does this offend you?” He then turned to his core twelve and asks, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter’s answer is not full of triumph; it recognizes that our hope is in weakness, the weakness of words from one who, himself, became weak.
Tomorrow morning all four of us will be back in our classrooms where, as students and teachers, we engage in similar companionship and recognition of relative strengths and weaknesses. Classrooms are where we learn rationality, but there is also the higher hope for learning broader, vaguer, principles of reasonableness. Dave and I teach ancient world history, a rather hodge-podge and wimpy subject where the straight lines turn crooked and generalizations break down when applied to particulars. Our only real encounter with the past is in the crooked lines and inconsistencies of listening to words from dead people. Ancient history has no hope in academic philosophizing—no hope in Plato. Ancient history has to cling to an Aristotelian reasonableness, an understanding that what is social knowledge has to be worked with as social knowledge.
Natural history is rational. It is powerful. But should its confidence wash over into human history, negating the quirky fact that we have strong eyewitness and hearsay testimony that Jesus walked on water, calmed a storm, and rose bodily from the dead? Is natural history so powerful with its inferences drawn from observation that it has veto power over facts learned from the fellowship of people?
Clinging to Words
I follow Peter who listened when God told him to listen to Jesus. Like Peter, my reply to the question of abandoning Jesus is, “To whom shall I go?” Peter recognized that he has to cling to someone or something. There is no personal, independent truth in himself strong enough to save him. Like Peter, I see no hope for me in myself. Like Peter, I cling to words—words communicated with all the limits and frailties of human communication. Worse! Peter at least got to cling to words straight from Jesus. I have to cling to words translated, words written down in Greek, words passed from eyewitnesses through hearsay. Jesus looks at me and asks if I want to leave him like so many others. My answer is that I cling to him through his words as recorded.
I cling to his words in two ways: a church way and a university way. Among the fellowship of believers, I share the tradition and collective experience of two thousand years of believers who, at the core of Christian orthodoxy, believe in the Holy Spirit’s oversight over the writing of the whole Bible and that when its authors declare themselves bearing communications from God I must listen as carefully and conscientiously as if Jesus stood with his hand on the shoulder of every author. The Bible is an extension of the incarnation, the stooping down of Truth into mere words. God communicates, but God humbles himself to communicate through chosen authors and helps us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to read and listen. I believe this in a church way, sharing in a fellowship of prayer and belief. On the other hand, in universities, where the traditional standards of academic disciplines rub against each other, I cling to Jesus’ words and deeds as history, as well-attested reports.
History departments, by tradition and common practice, pride themselves in “practical realism” and recognize their “post-heroic situation.” We, by traditional rights, have a role in universities as the discipline most oriented to studying human words reporting past events and people. Modern archeology and the social sciences have been developed to avoid the weaknesses of words. However, traditional history is a social study, not a social science. The stronger university disciplines strive to discover things that are independent of the frailties of people. History departments, however, are mired in people, especially the words of dead people.
Natural historians can begin by making observations then move independently to historical assertions and even prediction of the future. Natural history is strong and deserves respect. However, natural history can’t tell you about Cleopatra. Archeology and history work very well together, but archeology can’t help us understand Julius Caesar’s goals and policies. Pick up any freshman history textbook and what distinguishes it from an archeology text is the amount of people that are named, the specific description of events, and, most importantly, phrases such as “Alexander desired . . .” or “Pope Gregory realized . . .” or “Although Caesar Augustus presented himself as the savior of the Republic, he was actually . . .” Natural history can’t credibly offer phrases like those. Historians are needed at the university banquet. No other discipline is so methodically devoted to investigating, analyzing, and assessing the thoughts, words, and actions of individual people in the ancient past. No other discipline is as devoted to listening to reports about people and events. Historians cling to these reports. Historians cling to words. It is a precarious position, but it’s the basis of the contribution we make to the whole university.
Christianity is rooted in ancient words. God became human and used human words. Paul told the Corinthian church that the foundations of their faith were the words of the eyewitnesses reporting an event. Paul, wanting to ground the Corinthian church’s intellectual claims in the Greek culture of his time and place, pointed to an historical event, the resurrection.
We Christians are told to be prepared in our Greek-influenced university-honoring culture “to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Paul tells us the foundation for that reason: Jesus’ resurrection. Paul reached for the weakest link in comprehensive Greek reasonableness: historical knowledge. Jesus had humbled himself to become human. Jesus humbled himself so much as to have his message embedded in the frailty of human words passed among humans over time. He humbled himself to have the intellectual strength of the faith embedded in the weakest of Greek intellectual methods. Jesus rigged Christian apologetics to be weak. Given all this humbling, all this weakness and frailty, Christians should never expect to win debates. Paul did not win in Athens. Christians won’t ever win in universities. Our Christian responsibility in universities is to claim our place at the foot of the university table, a place long established for us by the tradition of reasonableness that reaches back to Aristotle.
From Herodotus to the modern historians, the wisest practitioners of our discipline have not tried to pretend to strength. The wisest historians expect good readers to criticize the evidence even after we have shown that it is the best we’ve got. Barry Cunliffe, in The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek (2001), gathers all the bits and pieces of written and archeological evidence for a voyage to Iceland in the generation after Aristotle. Cunliffe’s is a beautiful book of common-sense historical pragmatism. We don’t have Pytheas’ whole book, just pieces quoted in other books. Furthermore, even writers in the ancient world attacked Pytheas’ account. But Cunliffe, like the best of historians, walks readers through the range of evidence, opposed and supporting, weak and weaker, and reaches for phrasings like this when promoting the possibility that Pytheas made it all the way to Iceland: “This is clearly an imaginative scenario—a fairy story, perhaps; a product of wishful thinking. Yet, returning firmly to the hard evidence. . . . It seems appropriate to take [Pytheas] at his word.” Jesus humbled himself to human history reported in ancient words. This is the resurrection’s best foothold in universities.
Extraordinary claims, whether from Pytheas or Luke, always come down to the “hard evidence” and the need to trust someone. It was common for historians in the Roman Empire such as Luke, Josephus, and Eusebius to offer a preface to their book stating their goals and method of research. In essence, each of these authors makes a plea to the reader: “Trust me, I have done the best I can with what I have to give you the truth.” In the historical tradition, the reader is then under obligation to read critically while also giving the author the benefit of the doubt.