Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: Part 2
In Part I, Dr. Kennedy, lays out his plans for the series. It is about the reasonableness of biblical Christianity in universities, especially as seen through the eyes of a historian. . By reasonableness, he means the warranted credibility, if not the persuasiveness, of Christian claims about ancient history. He reflects on this in the context of a weekend excursion into the Evolution Range of California’s Sierra high country, where he has opportunity to reflect on Darwin and the historical impact of his theory. As Part I came to a close, he and a historian friend, Dave, were in the car on their way to Mount Darwin. Like all good academicians, they were ruminating on the effectiveness of what those in their particular discipline do—in their case, history.
UFOs and The Ark
There is serious academic work on UFOs by scientists, psychologists, and historians. Any report of past events is grist for a historian’s mill. Part of our job is handling the wild stories that get reported. The classroom goal in such cases is not so much a conclusion about what did or did not happen; rather, the goal is methodical and consistent thinking about reports of wild happenings. Historians working within the longest traditions of their academic discipline have an obligation to be open-minded, hear the evidence, take into account context, apply scales of reliability, and come to tentative conclusions that are socially acceptable. Being reasonable about history is always negotiated. The goal is a “best explanation” or set of “best explanations”—with “best” being a general agreement among respectable people.
Dave and I discussed the evidence for UFOs flown, presumably, by extraterrestrial life forms, that we have heard about from TV shows, grocery store magazines, and a few books. The problem is not a lack of evidence. The problem is in methodical and consistent thinking about the evidence. David M. Jacobs is a model historian on the subject. He teaches at Temple University and wrote Secret Life: Firsthand Accounts of UFO Abductions (1992). In the first chapter, he explains his method of inquiry and argues for the academic reasonableness of his conclusions. He gathered a large number of abduction accounts and analyzed the diverse testimonies for consistencies. He then assessed the character and bias of the testifiers. Consistent with the Aristotelian-humanist tradition, he advocates that readers should not dismiss hard-to-believe testimony of abductions without first seriously looking into the character and circumstances of the testifiers. The most dubious aspect of his method is that he uses hypnotism to get into the subconscious of the testifiers. He justifies using hypnotism by noting it is increasingly used in jurisprudence and other academic fields such as psychology. (The book is endorsed by a professor of psychology at Harvard University.) After making a case for the reasonableness of his methods and the reliability of his sources, he sticks his neck out to say that the evidence warrants belief that alien abductions are occurring.
Frankly, I don’t think his case is persuasive or even offers a probable account for the evidence. Deep in the argument is the speculation that the aliens want to keep their presence secret, thus justifying the need for the researcher to use hypnotism to get the needed evidence. I am willing to believe a lot of weird things. I think history is wilder than is presented in textbooks. However, I draw the line at secret conspiracies where the lack of evidence is evidence. We have a hard enough time getting at what people want to flat-out tell us. If an alien conspiracy of silence requires the use of hypnotism to be revealed, I am not convinced. On the other hand, I liked the book, learned a lot, and appreciated the methodical inquiry. Books like his make it exciting to be a historian.
Dave and I teach world history to people who often have wide-angle openness to information, theories, and assertions. We ourselves want to be such people. We want to encourage such openness. But we also have a duty to teach students to think in well-disciplined, methodical ways.
The story of Noah’s flood comes up in our history classes because it is the wildest reported event of natural history that comes down to us as an ancient oral tradition eventually written down in our ancient written sources. Along with the Genesis account of Noah’s flood, we have an account with striking similarities found in The Epic of Gilgamesh that, like the Bible, is the story written from the perspective of a survivor saved by divine mercy. Natural historians have long sought confirmation in geology for the written reports. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries some of the most important natural philosophers of Europe worked to harmonize the Bible’s story with what was known by geology, astronomy, and archeology. Scientists today at the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego still work to find connections between natural history and the ancient accounts. The trouble with the project is that it is harder to do than it should be. Explaining the event is one thing; explaining why the event is not more geologically evident is even harder.
We Christians believe the Holy Spirit played a role in the writing and compilation of the Bible, but we have never agreed on the intent of the Holy Spirit in all the parts of the texts. Much of the Bible is intentional history, but much isn’t. History, myth, and legend sometimes mix fact and metaphor to tell us things that are not exactly meant to be taken as reliable reporting of events. Noah’s flood, the dialogs of Job, and the book of Esther all point in historical directions, but may not be meant for the teaching of actual history.
The most interesting historian who has inquired into the historical Noah is John Warwick Montgomery, who published The Quest for Noah’s Ark; a treasury of documented accounts from ancient times to the present day of sightings of the ark & explorations of Mount Ararat with a narration of the author’s successful ascent to the summit of Noah’s mountain (1972). Montgomery gathered all the written and oral testimony available with the archeological goal of finding a piece of Noah’s ark high in the Caucasus Mountains. He gathered together local oral traditions, narratives of earlier exploration, and possible sightings such as a 1916 speculative report by a Russian pilot. Most of the work for Montgomery, as always for historians, was in dusty archives. Making this all the more exciting, Montgomery was working during the Cold War in the borderlands with the former USSR. Montgomery is a spark plug of a scholar. I met him at a conference of Christian historians in 1996. The Quest for Noah’s Ark is a good book by an adventurous historian. That he is searching for something stuffy professors might laugh at makes the book all the more edgy. The problems he faces only get more complex as he digs deeper. He struggles with getting evidence, frustrated about the weakness of so much of it. He wrestles with all sorts of problems—even that we are not sure which mountain is the traditional Mount Ararat. Leaving the libraries, he picks one of the mountains, dons his climbing boots and trudges up into the ice to see if he can, himself, find the ark. Even better: he takes his son along with him for the trek, and the investigation becomes a family adventure.
That the book concludes with the ark unfound and the evidence still weak makes it all the more an example of a conscientious scholarly project. The academic world is better off because Montgomery has clarified some issues, organized and analyzed some evidence, done his best, and left it up to the next inquirer to take the adventure a step further. Montgomery himself believes that remnants of the ark are probably somewhere up high in the mountains because of his trust in the authority of the Genesis account; however, his religious commitments do not make him play false with his evidence or conclusion.
Montgomery and I were presenting papers in 1996 on the academic handling of reports of miracles. I felt honored to sit next to him. When I was a freshman in college I read his book History and Christianity (1965), which emphasizes the academic historian’s role in affirming Jesus’ resurrection. He obviously feels called as a historian to justify Christian history to the professional academic guild. To do so requires reminding the historical profession of its tradition of open-minded listening and inquiry into wild stories.
With my elbow in the breeze and a long, straight, high desert highway ahead, Dave and I were free to think about all sorts of historical issues. The classrooms we work in are also places where freedom rings. If it is reported to have happened in the past, then it is fair game for historical investigation. There are few things more enjoyable than a serious academic discussion in which students and faculty lose themselves in strategies pursuing understanding. The discussion is not free in the sense that anything said is equally valid; rather, the discussion is free because all reasonable options are assessed for their weaknesses and strengths. Much of any academic inquiry will move quickly into the realm of speculations based on assumptions. Such flights are to be expected. The work is in assessing the persuasiveness of these flights, pursuing the award of “best explanation available,” and always humbly recognizing what we don’t know. The university is at its best when it encourages such freedom. It is at its worst when it tries to restrict reasonable methods and conclusions.
I claim the freedom of my reasonableness. I also extend that same freedom to Darwin. I find Darwin to be a reasonable scientist whose methods and evidence support his speculations. It would be fun to have Darwin in the back seat with his elbow in the breeze. I hope that as we climb his mountain we will be able to feel close to him. He enjoyed climbing mountains in South America during his years on the Beagle. Like many of his class, he enjoyed rambling through the Alps on vacations.