Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: Part 2

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December 12, 2011 Tags: Education

Today's entry was written by Rick Kennedy. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

Rick Kennedy received his BA, MA, and Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara and is professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, California. His books include A History of Reasonableness: Testimony and Authority in the Art of Thinking (University of Rochester Press, 2004), Aristotelian and Cartesian Logic at Harvard (Colonial Society of Massachusetts and University Press of Virginia, 1995), and Faith at State: A Handbook for Christians at Secular Universities (InterVarsity, 1995).

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Bilbo - #66509

December 12th 2011

I’m curious whether Rick Kennedy thinks it important to offer an alternative account or hypothesis for the testimonial evidence of UFOs that David Jacobs gleaned, albeit using hypnotism in order to do so.  Afterall, even if the means of obtaining that testimony is suspect, I assume there are numerous consistent accounts of UFOs presented.  What other explanation would Kennedy offer for that?  Or does he think it is reasonable to reject the testimony outright, without being able to offer an alternative explanation?

R Kennedy - #66527

December 13th 2011

Since your question is addressed to me I will give you an unsatisfactory answer.  Is it important to offer an alternative?  I think it depends on the context.  This book is about being in a university, and I think it is important in universities to encourage further inquiry by offering and analyzing altenative accounts.  On the other hand, assent or rejection of testimony (as in a courtroom) always has a “gut-factor.”  It is appropriate honesty to simply say to any testimony: “I am unconvinced” and offer nothing but a smile.

Argon - #66537

December 13th 2011

“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.)”

Your friend Dave may want to read up on the problems with ‘recovered memories’ before completing the second edition of his book. For example, just a decade or two ago, many people were sentenced to years in jail by juries convinced by psychologists that ‘recovered’ memories of satanic rituals were legitimate (but it turned out they weren’t true by a longshot, just implanted).

In fact, I recall reading about one researcher who used UFO abductees as the control group for people who clearly had false recovered memories—to compare them to others who had recovered memories of other things, like abuse in childhood. The push-back at psychology conferences was: “How do you know that the people weren’t abducted by aliens?”

KevinR - #66519

December 13th 2011

I wish the author a great journey of discovery. I also hope that he’ll be able to answer questions such as “given the irreducible complexity we see in cellular biology, would Darwin be gracious enough to admit that his theory has failed?”, based on his own admission that should there be a case which could not arise from step-wise change his theory would be undone.

Furthermore, whilst in the valley of evolution, if the author does not come across any reptile changing into a bird or some other such miraculous transformation, would he then conclude that evolution from a single organism to all of living lifeforms is impossible? OK, I’m being facetious, but the fact is he will not come away having observed the fabled evolution with his own eyes. In truth, no one has ever observed it and most probably never will because it is a fable - not because it takes millions of years. Whilst he is in the valley of evolution, will he come across any fossil or multitudes of fossils showing clearly demarcated transitions between different kinds of living organisms? I suggest that he won’t. For the same reason as mentioned above. Evolution is a fable of the first kind. If it were true, we should be observing an enormous amount of rapid changes in just about all living organisms as random changes occurred. The reason that there should be large amounts of changes is that in order to reach the one beneficial and more adapted kind of transformation, large numbers of try-outs need to be made and discarded [ by natural selection]. There just aren’t enough. And of those extremely few which do occur, none results in a different kind of organism, only more of the same but crippled in some way [stripes, colors, etc. not withstanding]. Please contradict  me on this with some concrete examples should you be so lucky to find any.

R Kennedy - #66529

December 13th 2011

Read on.  You are right about my trip, and I will certainly offer nothing to contradict you.  It would be fun to have you at a campfire in Evolution Valley.  Late night around a campfire—imagine one with John Muir, Joseph LeConte, and Louis Agasiz sitting with us—we could mull over your statenment that “Evolution is a fable of the first kind.”  Scientific talk of gravity has always seemed to me a fable too.  Scientific talk about magnetism and microwave ovens, let alone talk of “forces” and “fields,” are fable-like to me.  Even Newton admitted that gravity might somehow be occult.   

I invite every reader to my campfire—but let’s not be snippy.  Universities are at their best when they are a campfire-talk.  But at their worst when people are being snippy.

beaglelady - #66540

December 13th 2011

Scientific talk about magnetism and microwave ovens, let alone talk of “forces” and “fields,” are fable-like to me.

So true.  As Arthur C Clarke said,
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

“Even Newton admitted that gravity might somehow be occult.”   

He was genius who was surprisingly very big on occultism. 

Bilbo - #66564

December 14th 2011

Hi Rick,

You write: “<i>On the other hand, assent or rejection of testimony (as in a courtroom)
always has a “gut-factor.”  It is appropriate honesty to simply say to
any testimony: “I am unconvinced” and offer nothing but a smile.</i>”

I guess the problem is that different people have different guts, and maintaining a genuine smile is not always easy.

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