DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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History  (Continued)

The "head in the sand" movement  Well-known in this category are those who either ignore the methods of contemporary history, or reserve the methods of history for only part of their lives.

The former are pejoratively called "fundamentalist." I won't here pay much attention to them, except to say that their position is logically incompatible with all contemporary knowledge. As Van A Harvey writes [2], the historical method cannot in itself be reconciled with the type of thinking which produces traditional Christianity. To say both that the Bible is beyond historical investigation and that you believe that Jesus existed as a matter of history is a self-defeating argument.

Those who do try to sustain the latter approach seem to be able to deny the validity of historical research when it comes to religion, but allow it when reading about, for example, the Second World War. They appear able to hold within their cognitive frameworks what seem to me to be two completely incompatible ways of perceiving the world.

Of more immediate interest, however, are reactions to methods used very recently by the Jesus Seminar of the Westar Institute to arrive at what they hope is an irreducible residue of historical New Testament material. This is material which by their account would probably be recognised as good history even by secular historians.

Their findings have been dismissed by a large swathe of Christian opinion as laughable. The main ground for this verdict appears to be that the 200 or so scholars of the Jesus Seminar "voted" on what material should be retained and what shouldn't.

This response shows, I think, a woeful lack of understanding of current historical methods. Scholarly consensus worldwide is achieved, as far as I can tell, by the emergence of an informal but nevertheless widespread opinion which dismisses patently bad history more or less out of hand. This process can take many decades.

Good history is accepted when it has been discussed, modified, quoted and used as reference material. Some history turns out to be so good and to meet so many of the tough standards of scholarly debate that it becomes essential reading for student historians and others.

Perhaps aware that this process can take a long time (in some special cases centuries), the Seminar, after detailed discussion of material, has achieved a limited consensus very quickly. It has done so by using a weighted average to assess the degree of consensus among its members at a point in time. 

This can be caricatured as "voting." Or it can be recognised as a device which understands that, in line with history's built-in provisionality, historians increasingly state their conclusions in a statistical manner. 

On matters for which the data are extremely strong, the modern historian will say, for example, that an interpretation or explanation is "almost certainly" the case. Instead, therefore, of bluntly stating that the resurrection didn't happen, the modern historian is more likely to maintain that if the resurrection "really happened" it must have been an unimaginably rare historical event.

None of this renders the Seminar's findings absolute or final - though it seems to its critics that the weighted scores and subsequent ratings are claiming both. I doubt very much that the Seminar's conclusions are understood by its members as anything but provisional. Those who mock its findings apparently have no understanding of what was attempted and what has been achieved.

The provisionality of the historical method has proved unpalatable not only for traditionally-minded Christians, but also for some secular minds.

The latter have turned to what is called "historicism" - an attempt to use history to explain more about the world than it is able. They have searched for laws of historical process. Such laws would allow clear and certain conclusions about the past on one hand, and predictions about the future on the other. 

That is, they have tried to sever any links between individual choice and events unfolding on the larger canvas of social history. Their direction is strongly deterministic.

Chief among these attempts was the "historical materialism" proposed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (usually called "materialism" because it contrasted with the "supernaturalism" of Christianity). Not only has Marxism proved untenable as an historical hypothesis, but it appears to have been overtaken by events of the late 20th century.

However, its failure lies at a deeper level. Marx and Engels did not comprehend the almost infinite complexity of the systems of cause and effect which comprise what we somewhat blithely term "history." The complexity is so great that no historian can claim any more than a surface knowledge or understanding of its details. On the larger scale, observations are always highly abstract, and depend for their validity and usefulness on an often problematic step down into the details which back up the broader conclusions.

The most an historian can claim is to understand an event as a "guiding thread" for the future, something which might provide a sufficient condition for an event to occur. It's significant that Marx and Engels evolved their socio-economic theories at roughly the same time as physicists were proclaiming that Newton's laws were definitive for all of reality. Marx and Engels appear to have hoped that their analysis of history and society would have the same characteristic.

Newton's laws have been shown to apply only in limited conditions. All laws, including Newton's laws of motion and thermodynamics, have exceptions. To put this another way with regard to history, all so-called historical laws will be shown to be wrong if contradicted by even a single historical event. Marx, Engels and their disciples imposed on historical processes a degree of order and certainty they can never possess. Significantly, this absolutist political dogma closely resembles absolutist Christian dogmas. Both have brought great misery to humanity.

Yet again, if laws of history do exist then there is a class of historical events which are not unique but repetitive. The existence of a law of history implies that an event will always occur when certain conditions exist. What we now know is that no event is ever repeated. Indeed, there is no such thing as an historical "event". We only separate "events" out from the seamless flow of history for our own convenience. An event is merely an abstract device we use so that we can talk about the past. No "event" has objective reality.

If this is not recognised, then history becomes a search for a complete system of laws rather than the study of what really happened. Discover all the laws, it is supposed,  and the future becomes completely predictable. History as we know it then becomes redundant - at least in theory.

If there are no laws in history, but only rough and uncertain guidelines, is it possible that some events are in a class of their own? 

One of the strongest historical arguments for the resurrection of Jesus after death is that it is a unique "event" in history. It can be argued that even though our evidence for the resurrection appearances isn't the best, it's sufficient to persuade a reasonable person that this event could have happened if it was of a kind that happens only once. 

Uniqueness, it might be said, is an essential characteristic of history. It appears that time flows in only one direction, just as water always flows downwards. This conclusion is in turn derived from, amongst other things, Einstein's discovery that time and space are inseparably linked in a space/time continuum. When you and I say, "I am here" we are also saying something about a particular time. And when we say, "It is now," we are also maintaining that we're at a particular point in three-dimensional space.

As far as we can now tell (all knowledge being provisional) if two identical events exist, they cannot either occupy the same space at the same time, nor occur at the same time in the same space. Two otherwise identical events must therefore mean something different in the seamless web of history because their contexts are different.

In this sense it is possible that there has only ever been one resurrection from death. There may have been only one human being who, like Jesus of Nazareth, could be described as belonging to both the natural and the supernatural realms. The debate about the usefulness of the historical method for Christianity might cease here - if it were not for one important, if not critical, consideration.

Historians are experts in a single field of knowledge. That field, however, can be classed as "field encompassing." It can and does use any datum from any other field of knowledge to help gain greater certainty. All historical conclusions are provisional because, according to contemporary thought, they state not absolutes but degrees of probability. The greater the range of data which support an historical conclusion, the more likely it is to be true (that is, highly probable).

However, history can only be field-encompassing if the nature of Truth (with a big "T") is the same across all fields. If evidence from chemistry, physics, medicine, archeology, biology, astronomy, linguistics is to be validly used in historical research, what applies to one must apply to all. In saying this I accept that Truth is, and has always been, a human invention. This implies that Truth today will not be the same tomorrow (but the implications of this are too wide to be dealt with here).

Let's assume now that the resurrection of Jesus is a stand-alone event in all of history, past and to come. The assumption can stand only if all the findings of all modern disciplines indicate that such a thing is possible. But if they lead to the conclusion that such a unique event is impossible, then only the brave or foolhardy historian will assert that the Resurrection is something "which really happened, but only once."

Further, it is argued by many historians that what applies now (if only provisionally) must always have applied. Physics as we know it today, for example, would have yielded the same kind and degrees of truth if it had been possible in the 1st century. Atoms, for example didn't come into existence only when we discovered them - they have always been there. The value of gravity has always varied according to the square of the distance; its dimensions and nature have always existed.

Similarly, modern doctors, if they had been members of Alexander the Great's entourage, would have been able to inoculate him against the virus which many historians (but not all) suspect killed him in 323 bce. As it turned out, inoculation came some 2 300 years too late for this unfortunate adventurer.

A result of this line of thought is that historical proof that something happened only once would have to be cast-iron proof. It would have to survive not only the torture of its sources, but also the verdicts of all or most of the scientifically-based disciplines which inform the modern age. Extraordinary historical claims require an equally extraordinary degree of proof. No reputable historian is likely to demand anything less for an event as out-of-the-ordinary as resurrection from death. Historical evidence for the supposedly unique resurrection of Jesus from death does not remotely match this extremely demanding, but essential, degree of certainty.

In short, unless there is an equivalence of understanding across all knowledge today and all knowledge over the whole of time, history as we know it is impossible. Just because historical methodology was crude two thousand years ago doesn't mean that what we today use is wrong. Nor will our history be invalidated in the future if historical methods improve greatly. Some conclusions will fail, perhaps, and some methods will be seen as inadequate. Unless this equivalence exists, nobody can say that two differing events occurring at the same time operate according to the same processes.

Human death, for example, is now what it has always been. If the principle of equivalence is wrong, and death is one thing for Jesus and entirely another for Napoleon, the word "death" doesn't have a single meaning. We are forced to say that Jesus died one kind of "death" and Napoleon another.

So if I say that death is the irreversible cessation of cellular activity in the human body, I must change that definition for the death of Jesus. If I do that, who is to say that Napoleon died the same kind of death that his adversary Wellington died? Even if there is only a single exception to the nature of death, the historian must allow the possibility of infinite variability in kinds of "death". 

In such a situation, what can be said about history as a seamless web of interlocking events? We must conclude in this case that every historian is free to make his or her own idiosyncratic version of history, without check or correction by others - if only because there is no way of establishing common ground whenever an event is addressed historically.

One final possibility remains. It is that the background assumption of our forefathers that the supernatural (God) can, as it were, invade and impact the natural world in fact applies. This appears to be an invincible position to hold - and it is indeed held by many. How is anyone ever to demonstrate that a supernatural dimension or world doesn't exist?

But I think it's difficult to hold this position and put any trust in modern history. History as we know it explores and interprets a seamless web of events. Even to talk of an "event" is strictly speaking to distort reality since the flow of what we call "cause and effect" is without break. The isolation of an "event" is artificial, made so that we can talk about a more general flow of "events."

Let's suppose for argument's sake that God, operating from the supernatural into the natural, invaded or otherwise decisively influenced the United States' President Truman when he finally sanctioned the dropping of the first atom bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. If this is what really happened, then the seamless web of normal history was broken at that point. Something happened which was not caused by events preceding it. 

In a very real sense, therefore, the entire course of history as a seamless web would have to begin anew at that point. The only reason for studying the history came before God's intervention in 1945 would be to know how it ended before the point of intervention. And the only true history remaining to us would be that after President Truman's momentous decision (which, when all is said and done, wasn't really his, but God's).

If one multiplies God's interventions to any great degree, it seems to me that history becomes essentially  the art of detecting when the supernatural has impacted the natural. If God is totally in charge, if every event derives from outside nature, then cause and effect as we normally suppose them to operate in history, disappear. God becomes the only direct cause of everything from microsecond to microsecond.

In that case, how I am able to tell whether anything I encounter is supernatural becomes an absolutely critical question. What are the criteria for differentiating between supernatural and natural events? If I'm to know anything about history I must be able to detect when God has intervened and when not. Perhaps God intervenes only when necessity dictates, or only when normal history reaches certain critical points. If that is so, how do I tell when God has intervened?

Those who assert a supernatural key to the historical process, who tell us that God intervenes in the systems of the universe, must know the answers to this question. If they don't know, I question their conclusion that a supernatural dimension exists and that God does in fact intervene in history. Is their statement that God is in charge of nature and therefore of history founded upon observation? Or do they rely for their assertion upon some indisputable authority or other? Or perhaps they know it through a communication direct from the supernatural - which in traditional theology is usually called revelation.

Historians must be told the answers to these questions, or they cannot distinguish natural events from supernatural ones. Nor, if they cannot differentiate between the two, can they write history of any sort.

To sum up:

  • Christianity is an historical faith, derived from the life of a real man who actually existed in history just as we all do.
  • History is the study of "what really happened."
  • The Bible as the infallible revelation of God direct to humankind was once the definitive source of historical truth.
  • Modern knowledge is characterised by a break from revealed truth accepted on the say-so of authority.
  • The fundamental characteristics of modern history are shared by all branches of contemporary knowledge.
  • Two defences against historical truth are the "faith is all" and the "head in the sand" movements.
  • Historicism attempts to use history for purposes to which it is not suited. One example is the historical materialism of Marx and Engels.
  • It is possible that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are a unique series of historical events. Even the most rigorous historical method must allow this possibility - but the cost is high.
  • Another possibility is that some historical events in time and space result from interventions out of a supernatural dimension. But if so, difficult questions remain to be answered.
  • The principle of historical equivalence (analogy) requires that truth is the same all through history. If this is so, even unique events which contradict the entire body of modern knowledge are suspect.

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