Reynolds Price is not best known for his writing on religion, but most people familiar with his fiction will recognize the importance of ChristianityReynolds Price is not best known for his writing on religion, but most people familiar with his fiction will recognize the importance of Christianity within it – an importance that looms just as large as it does in O’Connor, McCullers, or Faulkner. This very short volume is just one more that Price has dedicated to a several-decades-long quest to understanding what he believes to be the historical Jesus, and his continuing legacy in the tradition to which Jesus gave his name.
Price tetchily but accurately points out that today it seems like everyone (at least most Christians) fervently know what Christ would have done in any number of ethical dilemmas which we were not recounted in the Gospels. As he repeatedly reminds the reader here, he finds himself stuck between the rank theological illiteracy of the “What Would Jesus Do?” tribe (replete with their conspicuous, ubiquitous bracelets, almost always worn by people much too young to even understand how serious these questions are) and, on the other hand, the archliteracy of the Jesus Seminar, with whom Price has major methodological quibbles. Price’s lack of presumption is appreciated. As a Christian, though an admittedly unorthodox one, he begins here: that Jesus Christ really lived, and really rose from the dead. According to some scholars, because of this he has already gone too far. But we must all begin with axiomatic assumptions and if that’s where a self-professed Christian wants to begin, I wouldn’t necessarily begrudge the point.
Unfortunately, what follows is the worst of milquetoast ethics from the dregs of bland, uninspiring, twentieth-century Christianity: Jesus never would have condemned homosexuality and the essence of Christianity is “God loved us; we must love one another.” I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with either one of these assertions – except for the fact that Price happens to be a homosexual himself, and his own celerity to exonerate himself in the eyes of his Jesus smacks of the same Christian presumption which I mentioned above.
Price doesn’t contend to be a religious scholar or have any formal training in anything he’s talking about here. To his credit, quite the opposite is true. He’s just a passionate Christian trying to make sense out of his world. And who can hold this against him? If I’m going to subscribe to theological, it can’t be as toothless and lovey-dovey as this. You end up getting a Heaven that resembles something like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” where everyone has a golden ticket. Universal grace and forgiveness rest at the heart of the most attractive kinds of Christianity. Yet just as central to the religion is a body of proscribed behaviors transgressions against which we must be punished for. Where does the stress fall? Now this is a question that can be taken up in one of hundreds of different denominations and, ultimately, only in the human heart.
Price’s attempt to provide answers will satisfy some readers (most likely those who identify as liberal Christians), but it was less appealing to me – an open-minded atheist with a longstanding interest in Christian history, ethics, and Christology. ...more
Anyone who has ever tried to dip their toes into the waters of medieval theology can quickly be overwhelmed by its complexities and occasional rank obAnyone who has ever tried to dip their toes into the waters of medieval theology can quickly be overwhelmed by its complexities and occasional rank obscurantism. Wilken, much to his credit, knows his subjects so well that he can distill their most important ideas in historical context (especially important as this book covers a period where much of the known world begins as Roman and pagan and ends several centuries later, when both the Empire and its paganism were gone) and explain how they were important in the development of Christian intellectual history – all while remaining extraordinarily accessible for the reader with no formal knowledge of patristic theology.
At the heart of the book are two major messages. First, to separate evidence and sensory knowledge from pure faith – very much a temptation for those of us who have been born since the Enlightenment – would have made no sense to the early Church fathers. From the time of Origen and Tertullian, earthly evidence and divine faith were both seen as necessary, and even to feed into one another. Thinking is part of believing, and vice versa. Second, the series of practices that we recognize as early Christianity are undoubtedly social and communal in nature. Wilken stresses over and over again that even the monks would lived in desert confinement for decade after decade, still saw Christianity, at its root, as love for fellow man and community.
The thinkers that he covers are all very important, and range in time from its first couple of centuries to approximately the eighth century, covering the entire harvest of early Christian thought. The most important among them include Justin Martyr, Origen, Clement (and Cyril) of Alexandria, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor – and perhaps the greatest mind the Church has ever known, Saint Augustine. To assist the reader who has minimal familiarity with this rich history of thought, Wilken arranges his discussions topically, with chapter names drawn from an appropriate epigram which opens each chapter. “Founded on the Cross of Christ” discusses how we come to know God, “An Awesome and Unbloody Sacrifice” references worship and the sacraments, and “Seek His Face Always” picks up Trinitarian themes (Trinitarian discussions, as fundamental as they were to early Christology, are not relegated to this one chapter alone). For me, the most fascinating chapters were on a couple of the first Christian poets, and another on importance of the Bible and how the shape and texture of its writing so differed from Greek and Roman literature that it profoundly refigured the ideas of the early fathers.
While the author covers a wide range of topics that are often considered dry, the overall effect of the book comes across as the passionate history of a fascination with the people Wilken writes about. His vim and vigor for the fathers of the early Church is clear and unmistakable, so much so that the historical figures he presents almost seem whitewashed – pure and almost superhuman. His orthodoxy perhaps results in a lack of thorough criticism on some points where it would have been welcome. However, if you’re looking for critical responses to the fathers, these should not be difficult to find. However, as pure contemporary apology for a centuries-old intellectual tradition, this book stands above many others I have read....more
The Scope Trial (occasionally referred to with both contempt and fondness as “The Monkey Trial”) has a life of its own, and much of that life has littThe Scope Trial (occasionally referred to with both contempt and fondness as “The Monkey Trial”) has a life of its own, and much of that life has little or nothing to do with what actually occurred in Dayton, Tennessee during the summer of 1925 when William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow met to defend the merits of the case. Lawrence and Lee’s 1955 play “Inherit the Wind” and the film based off it five years later form much of the basis for popular (but ultimately false) ideas about the trial. And of course it doesn’t help matters that the topics of science and religious have been held to be, at least in the popular imagination, mortal enemies.
In “Summer for the Gods,” Edward J, Larson retells the story of the trial stripped of all the mythology, without compromising readability or interest for the layperson. Larson is both a law and history professor, so he’s in a unique position to clarify the historical content and the legal matters. He does a stupendous job of doing both.
Not that the idea of media sensationalism is anything new, but one of the things I liked most about this book was that it shows exactly how the trial was, in many ways, a Potemkin village. As soon as the Butler Act (the statute which prevented the teaching of evolutionary theory in science classrooms in the state of Tennessee) was passed, the newly founded ACLU offered to defend anyone prosecuted by the state for breaking the law. Their plan – for the case to work its way up through the courts and eventually find itself in the Supreme Court docket – didn’t go exactly as planned.
The trial ended up bringing names that spelled the worst kind of boosterism for the beleaguered small-town residents of Dayton who had probably never seen the likes of the media circus they witnessed for those several days – two of the country’s best-known attorneys, Clarence Darrow for the defense and William Jennings Bryan heading up the prosecution. Darrow was fresh out of defending accused murders Leopold and Loeb, whose trial had only a year before also been breathlessly called in the media “the trial of the century”; Bryan was a decade out of his two-year stint as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State, from which he resigned due to the international buildup of the First World War. He was a staunch progressive – back when “progressive” meant, among other things, supporting prohibition and belief in Biblical literalism. How times change.
The issues on the table? Well, they weren’t anything resembling what recent similar cases – say Dover v. Kitzmiller – argued. Bryan’s legal arguments really had very little to do with the merits of science or evolutionary theory. Instead, he argued on majoritarian grounds that if a state law is passed, it was obviously the will of the people and, having gained the appropriate number of votes in the legislature and being signed by the governor, it was constitutionally legitimate. It was much more of a states’ rights, or even a people’s rights, approach than the imagined epic battle between science and religion. The lynchpin of the defense was to get Bryan to testify and ultimately push him into a corner about the proclaimed literal truth of Genesis. A little spoiler alert: despite Darrow’s attempt to utterly embarrass and confound Bryan by getting him on the witness stand and grilling him on the timeline of the events in Old Testament (probably the most historically accurate part of the trial that people would remember) the trial ends in a way that most people who don’t know much about it wouldn’t anticipate. The presiding judge dismisses Bryan’s testimony as irrelevant, and Scopes loses. And since the Bryan’s purpose isn’t to shame Scopes or even make him a personal target, he magnanimously offered to pay the $100 fine for Scope’s conviction, which never had to be paid anyway, since the fine was overturned by a higher court.
Being one of the many whose sole knowledge of the Scopes Trial was based mostly on the play and what was casually bandied about in high school science books, I appreciated Larson’s approach, as full of it is of equanimity and balance. Larson says a few things that make it rather obvious where he falls in the “debate” insofar as there is one (and among professional biologists, there really isn’t): he can look down condescendingly on Bryan on the witness stand trying to defend his ultra-literal view of Genesis, but those of us who credit science where it is due have a hard time not having a little fun at Bryan’s expense. Go read, then watch “Inherit The Wind.” Then as a good counterbalance, and some reliable history, read this. It’s one of the best books on science and religion I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a while....more
For several years, I’ve had Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society” and “The Nature and Destiny of Man,” by far his two most well-known booFor several years, I’ve had Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society” and “The Nature and Destiny of Man,” by far his two most well-known books, resting on my bookshelf, but never felt it urgent enough to read them any time soon. In some ways, Charles Lemert’s book about the elder Niebuhr brother changed this. This book’s main strength is Lemert’s hagiographic voice, one that is almost always prepared to mount a passionate and reasoned defense of Niebuhr’s views; its main weaknesses are frequent and somewhat lengthy jeremiads into political and social issues Niebuhr was never able to address himself, because they took place after Niebuhr’s death, and which often come across as sanctimonious grandstanding on the part of Lemert.
Niebuhr was born in Missouri, the son of German immigrants. His father was a German Evangelical pastor (which was absorbed into the United Church of Christ in the 1950s). His origins were austere, but there must have been something truly special going on in the Niebuhr household: not only did Reinhold become a leading theologian and ethicist, his brother Richard taught the history of religion at Yale, and his sister Hulda was a vocal proponent of Christian education and professor of divinity in Chicago at a time when women were still rarely afforded the opportunity to attend university, let alone be awarded teaching positions.
After attending Yale Divinity School and taking his M.A. (but never the terminal Ph.D.), Niebuhr took became a pastor at a small church in Detroit where he quickly became enamored with the culturally and economically liberal message of the Social Gospel, and spoke out against what he thought were the abuses and greed of Henry Ford. Lemert discusses Niebuhr’s roots in concepts of social justice, his activism, his ever-patient pastoral care while in Detroit, and his eventual move to Union Theological Seminary in New York. While, as we’ll see in a moment, Niebuhr soon abandoned his political liberalism (understood in the contemporary sense of socially and economically progressive), his early experiences undoubtedly shaped one of the questions that would continue to shape his life’s work: How can one balance individual liberties and issues of social justice?
Niebuhr went to Union Theological Seminary to teach in 1930 where he would remain for a generation. Soon after arriving, his avowed Marxism slowly started to change into what we would recognize today as Christian Realism. His earlier liberalism (here understood in the broader sense of the word) affirmed humanity’s ability to better itself through the application of reason, technology, science, and legislation, whereas Christian Realism posits that societies are corrupt and – and here is perhaps the most damning part – that people are unwilling to admit these deficiencies to themselves because of sin. Niebuhr thinks of sin not so much as a theologically or ontologically unchanging category. Rather, he saw it as the inability of people to recognize their own limitations - probably something an atheist could get behind, even if they are wary of the word “sin.”
Soon after he arrived at Union, Niebuhr published “Moral Man and Immoral Society” (1932), a trenchant critique of American liberalism (again, the broad sense). He says that while individuals are often capable of moral behavior, nation-states and societies rarely are because their actions are so tied up with various interests which complicate to the point of impossibility ethical action. Niebuhr courageously takes their ideas to their natural conclusion: National values – sometimes, though not always expressed by those chest-thumping “patriots” – must be corrupt. This is a daring suggestion, and one that Niebuhr would maintain throughout his life which spanned much of the Cold War, a time when such chest-thumping was popular. What is the solution? Increased devotion or time in church? Not really. His critique of the Church was just as harsh. In “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” Niebuhr says of the religion and the Church that they “encourage love and benevolence … by absolutizing the moral principle of life until it achieves the purity of absolute disinterestedness and by imparting transcendent worth to the life of others” (p. 61). In other words, they have a bad habit of making otherworldly (or “transcendentalizing”) very worldly concerns, allowing us to focus on them less and less. Niebuhr’s later book, originally a set of Gifford Lectures published in 1943 as “The Nature and Destiny of Man,” is a truly sobering account of human beings and their place in the world which touches on some of the same issues and more fully develops them.
It may be clear why skeptics or even atheists can see something to agree with in the corpus of Niebuhr’s thought. There used to be, and it still might be around, a group that identified themselves as Atheists For Niebuhr. Morton White, the American philosopher and historian of ideas, wrote this about them: “Those who applaud his politics are too liable to turn to his theory of human nature and praise it as the philosophical instrument of Niebuhr’s political agreement with themselves. But very few of those whom I have called “atheists for Niebuhr” follow this inverted logic to its conclusion: they don’t move from praise of Niebuhr’s theory of human nature to praise of its theological ground. We may admire them for drawing the line somewhere, but certainly not for their consistency.”
In a time when the United States is probably the most religious of first-world countries, it’s more than curious why a figure like Niebuhr would be marginalized as much as he is. It may be because most American Protestant evangelicals are politically conservative, whereas Niebuhr, even the later Niebuhr, was progressive regarding secular issues. Or maybe, especially after 9/11, our naïve ideas about national innocence and purity are too unquestioned to spark a sincere appreciation for and conversation with a thinker who derided cheap patriotism and national exceptionalism. But if the United States ever develops something resembling a left-wing cultural evangelicalism, its founders could do worse than to look to Reinhold Niebuhr – a thinker whose willingness to criticize both his own intellectual roots and those of his country was never weakened by a felt need for conformity or popularization.
Lemert’s personal polemics and grudges sometimes come through in the book, but those faults are his own. His exposition of Niebuhr, however, made me curious to pick up Niebuhr’s original work and finally – finally – read him for myself. ...more
“Return to Reason” is a valiant effort in trying to hold down the fort for post-Enlightenment, rational belief in a God. For a short book, it covers a“Return to Reason” is a valiant effort in trying to hold down the fort for post-Enlightenment, rational belief in a God. For a short book, it covers a lot of territory, including an argument against natural theology, and a critique of foundationalist epistemology (for definitions of these terms, see the second and third paragraphs respectively). It’s a great undergraduate text for what philosophers call “reformed epistemology” (again, see below) and introduces some of the most popular names in this tradition. Unfortunately, I found this book to be tragically flawed in several respects, and in the end, a terrible failure, both of the imagination and of philosophy.
Clark begins off on a solid footing with a thoroughgoing critique of natural theology – that is, the idea that a belief in God can be derived from logical propositions that all rational beings can agree upon. The most recognizable of these arguments are seen in Aquinas’ five proofs, including the argument from design and the cosmological argument. He rightly argues that different (rational) people can use different standards of evidence and only think these standards apply in certain situations. For example, regarding the argument from design, some people think that the argument from sufficient reason applies to all things within the universe, while others – namely the people who find the design argument convincing – think it can apply to the universe as a whole itself. Some astrophysicists have recently asserted that the Big Bang itself may not have had a cause (I’m thinking here of Lawrence Krauss), which would blow the entire lid off of the cosmological argument as we know it. Because of this, natural theology seems like a failure on all fronts: using only the tool of classical Enlightenment reason, it’s not the case that all people will agree on the positive truth value of God claims.
Because this relentless need for evidence and reason, which Clark terms “evidentialism,” cannot prove the existence of God, he sees it fit to critique foundationalism, the belief that all inferential beliefs are based on more basic beliefs. Instead, thinking that he’s offering a detailed critique of foundationalist epistemology, he really just goes on to flatly state that when you want to believe in something, you can “just do it.” In fact, in “Faith and Rationality,” Nicholas Wolterstorff states this flatly and unashamedly. “A person is rationally justified in believing a certain proposition when he does believe unless he has adequate reason to cease from believing it. Our beliefs are rational unless we have reason for refraining; they are not non-rational unless we have reason for believing” (Clark, p. 147). I’m sorry, but this simply isn’t the way that rationality works, and it’s relatively easy to see why. Say I want to belief that an Invisible Giant Meatball Sandwich causes things to fall to the ground, not gravity. Try proving me wrong.
Instead of changing his worldview in the light of insufficient evidence, like most philosophers would do, Clark followed in the footsteps of an unfortunate yet storied philosophical tradition known as reformed epistemology (so named because of its roots in the Protestant Reformation, especially in the theology of John Calvin), but recently revived by the likes of Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and William Alston. Reformed epistemology holds that belief in a God is both basic and proper, or what philosophers call “properly basic.” “Basic” here means without recourse to being explained by something else (it’s a primary belief which doesn’t need explanation itself), and “properly” means that a belief is justified. In other words, reform epistemologists believe that God is both something that is justified, but also doesn’t have to be explained. Well, isn’t that just precious – and convenient. It seems obvious to me that reformed epistemology is simply a way of trying to smuggle in the back door what you can’t get in if you actually follow the rules of the game of philosophy: you know, like evidence, reason, and logical methods. Does anyone know of a reformed epistemologist who also happens to be an atheist?
Crickets. I hear crickets.
I’m by no means uncritical of the Enlightenment, or the traditions that flow from it. But what I find most dishonest about this book is not that it feels that it can dismiss centuries of philosophical thought in 150 pages, but that it makes the tremendously intellectually dishonest move of trying assert (note that I didn’t say “prove” or “demonstrate”) totally ad hoc a belief that can be introduced by no rational means. I’m also not someone who thinks that philosophy should necessarily in any way resemble science in content or method, but one really is treading ground when you import the word “rationality” here, leading people on to believe that it’s anything like the rationality of science. Clark, Plantinga, Wolterstorff and other reformed epistemologists haven’t really critiqued anything. They’ve skirted the issue, and have thereby created a whole new welter of problems for themselves. I can understand when someone asserts that their belief in God is basic – that it is primary, and can’t be explained by anything else. But saying that it’s properly basic – that these kinds of beliefs are justified – is simply not reasonable or rational. There’s a reason why they call it Calvinism. And it should stay in the sixteenth century where it belongs. ...more
If anyone out there is looking for a one-stop introduction to early Christianity, this might well be it. In fact, I usually use an index card to try tIf anyone out there is looking for a one-stop introduction to early Christianity, this might well be it. In fact, I usually use an index card to try to organize what I want to say in reviews, but about one hundred pages into the book, I realized that there was just so much information here that I would never be able to do justice to everything “From Jesus to Christianity” has to offer. Don’t let the “By The Featured Expert on the PBS Special ‘From Jesus to Christ’” sticker on the front fool you, either. I haven’t seen the PBS special, but I can certainly assure you that this book has more scholarly rigor and vastly more detail than any television program ever could.
I found the first quarter of this book which includes a rich, detailed account of the ways in which ancient Judaism informed both the thought and practice of nascent Christianity (or, as White calls it, the “Jesus cult,” since Christianity wasn’t a word available to the earliest Christians). We get a quick history of post-Davidic Israel with an emphasis on the cultural, social, and political strife that was occurring at the time, including a history of the various imperial occupations with which Jesus dealt, and the radical politics this occasionally spawned.
White then goes on try to construct the historical person of Jesus by looking at the four Gospels and the Pauline corpus. This is where White starts to include a little more rigor than even the more interested readers might want. We get charts detailing the intricacies of the synoptic problem, including the “Two-Source Hypothesis,” “the Two-Gospel Hypothesis (the Griesbach hypothesis,” and the “Farrar-Goulder Hypothesis.” There is another detailed table on page 136-137 discussing the content of the Q source, a.k.a. the “synoptic sayings source.” What are the Two-Source Hypothesis and the Q source? Before reading the book, I couldn’t have told you in any real detail, but White lays it all out beautifully and in context.
I don’t mean any of this to say that the book is hopelessly obscure. It’s not. White gives a detailed account of Paul’s Aegean travel, and an analysis of his letters to various new Christian communities (again, replete with numerous charts). There is a wonderful discussion of the Jewish apocalyptic tradition and Jewish sectarianism and how people dealt with the Gospels in the first century A.D. Thankfully, White includes not just canonical texts, but also non-canonical ones like the Gospel of Thomas.
In later generations, White discussions the development of various Christological controversies and the rise of what he calls “normative self-definition.” How did Christian communities define themselves in relationship to their (often) Jewish past? In relation to Hellenism? For interesting questions to these questions answered through the spectrum of morality and ethics, I heartily recommend another book I recently reviewed for this site, namely Wayne Meek’s “The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries.”
I tried to think of some aspect of New Testament history, ancient Christian society, or the literature that White didn’t at least touch on, but couldn’t find one. The material is presented in chronological, which makes things extraordinarily easy to find. This might not be exhaustive for someone interested in the minutiae in, say, the dating controversies of certain books or hermeneutic approaches, but this book provides a more than solid introduction, and has the virtue of having thirty-five pages of endnotes. If there is one thing this book is missing, it’s a chapter-by-chapter reading list, although some of the aforementioned charts do have recommended ancillary reading material. All in all, you can’t really go wrong with using this book as a stepping stone to studying this material. ...more
Ernest Gellner (1925-1995) was a French-born Czech-Englishman whose interests are as varied as his string of ethnonyms would suggest. In addition to hErnest Gellner (1925-1995) was a French-born Czech-Englishman whose interests are as varied as his string of ethnonyms would suggest. In addition to holding well-known chairs in sociology, anthropology, and philosophy, he was also interested in the methodological foundations of science, the political culture of Islamic societies, and dismantling what he considered to be three of the biggest con-games that have taken in intellectuals of the twentieth century: postmodernism, Freudianism, and Marxism. Perhaps his best-known book is “Plough, Sword, and Book.”
This is an imprint from the University of Wales called “Political Philosophy Now,” and aims to summarize Gellner’s oeuvre. Lessnoff does a competent job at this, even if his approach isn’t nearly as witty and sharp as Gellner’s notoriously was. His delivery is flat and academic, but he’s clearly very familiar with Gellner’s work, and especially the conversations in which Gellner was intellectually engaged. Since I haven’t read any of Gellner’s original work, I can only assume that his interpretation of Gellner is accurate. He’s certainly not an apologist for Gellner, and openly criticizes him when he feels it is necessary.
I won’t discuss all of the topics here, but I thought that some of Gellner’s work deserved particular attention. The best part of the book is the last chapter of the book called “Relativism and Cognitive Ethics.” Cognitive ethics is, as I understand it, essentially Gellner’s way of defining intellectual honesty, and is loosely synonymous with the scientific standards of testability and falsifiability in the Popperian sense. He accuses Freudians and Marxists of lacking this cognitive ethic, because imbedded in these systems are ways of deflecting all criticisms. If you’re not a Freudian, you’re simply in a state of false consciousness (note the similarity to Marxist rhetoric); you’re in denial of Freud’s truth. If you deny Marxism, you’re a useful idiot for the bourgeoisie, blind to the alienating effects of capitalism. Basically, all these systems (he goes on to critique postmodernism along the same lines), have internally coopted all criticisms, and therefore completely protects itself from attack. They’re unfalsifiable, and therefore necessarily unscientific – which is a problem when many of their practitioners wear the cloak of scientific respectability.
There are also chapters on nationalism, Gellner’s theory of history (as presented in “Plough, Sword, and Book”), politics in modern society, and a blistering attack on the linguistic philosophy popular at Oxford during the middle of the century, especially that of Wittgenstein (found in “Words and Things”). The only chapter that I didn’t find convincing was the one on Islamic society in which he states, quite oddly, that theocracies are particularly adept at conforming to modernist ideals and suggests a distinction between high and low Islam. This was counterintuitive at best.
Lessnoff’s book is a great survey of Gellner’s life’s work. I would certainly suggest this for anyone in reading one of Gellner’s books, which many of which seem difficult but very rewarding. ...more
Many religious people choose to focus on those things that make their religion unique, ahistorically separating it from the cultures and other religioMany religious people choose to focus on those things that make their religion unique, ahistorically separating it from the cultures and other religions in and around which it originally formed. It makes sense that several kinds of contemporary Christianity would do the same. For those looking for a scholarly, well-argued position against the singular historical uniqueness of Christianity, Luke Timothy Johnson provides an excellent one in “Among the Gentiles.”
Johnson feels that illustrating lines of continuity between Greco-Roman paganism, Jewish traditions, and nascent Christianity opens up the possibility of dialogue, as well as providing a space where the comparative history of religions can take place stripped of the limiting, often judgmental assumptions of contemporary conservative Christian apologetics. Any project with this type of scope requires tools which allow for the analysis of those types of continuity at which Johnson is looking.
Methodologically, he proposes a fourfold religious typology which claims will be useful in looking at all of these traditions; even though Johnson teaches in a school of theology, he avoids any theological language in any of these. What he calls “Religiousness A” is the participation in divine benefits, including “revelation through prophecy, healing through revelation, providing security and status through Mysteries, enabling and providing for the daily successes of individuals, households, cities, and empires.” This type of religious practice is optimistic in believing that the world is a stage for divine activity, and pragmatic in that “salvation involves security and success in this mortal life.” Johnson says that Greek orator Aelius Aristides embodies this type. In several of Aristides’ orations, he singles out for praise Serapis (who protected him on his journey to Egypt) and Asclepius (who bestowed the gift of oratory upon him).
Religiousness B is moral transformation, which exemplifies the belief that “the divine [spirit] is immanent within human activity and expressed through moral transformation.” The pagan example here is the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, whose Enchiridion is quite literally a “handbook for the moral life,” detailing how to manage desires and emotions and learn one’s social duties.
Religiousness C attempts to transcend the world, since “the divine is not found in material processes of the world but only in the realm of immortal spirit and light. Salvation is rescuing the spark of light that has fallen into a bodily prison and returning it, through asceticism and death itself, to the realm from which it first came. It is triumph through escape.” Johnson selects as an example of Religiousness C the Poimandres, a selection from the Corpus Hermeticum (a complex set of texts of Egyptian origin associated with the revealer-god Hermes Trismegistus).
Religiousness D tries to stabilize the world, consisting largely of “all ministers and mystagogues of cults, all prophets who translated oracles and examined entrails and Sibylline utterances, all therapists who aided the god Asclepius in his healing work, all ‘liturgists’ who organized and facilitated the festivals, all priests who carried out sacrifices, all Vestal Virgins whose presence and dedication ensured the permanence of the city.” Johnson chooses Plutarch, the biographer, priest, and philosopher as the epitome of Religiousness D. Plutarch accepts the responsibility of exercising civic magistracies, shows a commitment to maintaining Apollo’s temple at Delphi (as well as serving as a priest there), and expends a lot of effort in returning the temple to its former grandeur. Plutarch is a student of the social dimension of religion, and obviously is most concerned with how religion affects the reigning social order.
Johnson says that types A and B were already at work in the Christian world in the first century; he looks at type A in the apocryphal Gospels, Acts, and Montanism; type B is discussed in Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Polycarp. Religiousness C, “transcending the world,” Johnson argues, does not appear until the second century, where its predominant idiom is found in the Gnostic writings discovered at Nag-Hammadi, and especially Irenaeus’ refutation of Gnostic doctrine in “Adversus Haereses.” Religiousness D, stabilizing the world, first became recognizable after 313’s Edict of Milan, which marked the beginning of Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the official imperial religion, and grew even stronger after the appearance of political and communal power within the bishoprics around the Christian world.
If there was one criticism I have of the book, it would be that the fourfold typology is sometimes applied too strictly to situations where it doesn’t apply as well as others. It is clear from the way Johnson phrases the language of the four types that he anticipates the rise of Christianity, and therefore molds them to accommodate it. Also, Johnson represents the types as if they were compartmentalized and essential, when in fact they bleed together and inform each others’ practice. Surely transcendence was sometimes thought of as a gift bestowed by the gods, or that moral transformation can stabilize society, and so forth. Surely Johnson realizes this, but he has already performed quite the feat in establishing his thesis in a mere 280 pages.
Johnson is a Catholic, and his scholarship in this book truly is in the spirit of the “Nostra Aetate,” the Second Vatican Council’s rallying exhortation for a thoroughgoing ecumenism. The truth is that Johnson does have an agenda: one of inclusion, one whose goal is the “embrace of a catholicity of religious sensibility and expression.” At the heart of Johnson’s book is a call for Christians to embrace the fullness and complexity of their past, and to view this as a means of starting a conversation instead of stopping one.
I have simplified and adumbrated some of the arguments that Johnson makes in the book, because they really are too rich and fully textured to give them the treatment they deserve here. I recommend this highly for anyone with a catholic (lower-case c) attitude toward Christianity and Christian history, and anyone who wants to learn about the ways that Christianity borrowed from paganism during its first few centuries. ...more
Modernity was a troubling thing for those who had to live through it. Pure, objective, unassailable science was quickly supplanting religious ideas, aModernity was a troubling thing for those who had to live through it. Pure, objective, unassailable science was quickly supplanting religious ideas, and paring those ideas down to what they were – mere myths perpetrated on us by those who wanted to exert social and cultural control. Or at least this was the conclusion reached by many who, with the advent of a new way of approaching universal truth, now wanted nothing to do with that old-time religion. But not everyone felt the same way. This very short book introduces the thought of Rudolph Bultmann, one of the leading German theologians of the early twentieth century and proponent of “demythologization,” and Karl Jaspers, the well-known German existentialist and philosopher. First, there is a very capable introduction by R. Joseph Hoffmann, followed by an opening statement by Jaspers, a reply by Bultmann, and then a closing reply by Jaspers. Jaspers and Bultmann both being dyed-in-the-wool Heideggerians, it is interesting to read about their intellectual justifications regarding the respective virtues and weaknesses of hermeneutics as applied to religious myth.
As I mentioned earlier, toward the latter part of Bultmann’s career, he started to talk about something called demythologization, in which he attempts to divest religious meaning and intent from the original myths in which they are couched. For Bultmann, the Ascension and the Virgin Birth (just to name two highly representative religious myths) mean something, but the fact that the religious content is ensconced in the language of the miraculous is a serious stumbling block for the modern man whose mind has come to see the miracle as ridiculous and impossible. Therefore, these myths need to be reconfigured – divested – of their Biblical form and given a structure which is makes getting at their meaning and significance possible for someone living in the twentieth century.
Jaspers, however, sees the element of myth as indispensable from the content of religious belief itself. Jaspers claims that “reading” these myths without their mythical structures is impossible. He rejects the idea that any religion can be understood apart from its mythical origins. The topology of the origins themselves, he argues, is essential to our understanding. Religious myths are not there to provide us with a decoding project; their cutting away cannot happen without the simultaneous disappearance of any possibility of a religious message. Myth is, for Jaspers, das Umgreifende (the Great Encompassing) by and through which we can escape the worn dualities of subjectivity and objectivity, and achieve a sort of transcendence.
Jaspers saw Bultmann’s project of demythologization as a sanitizing one, one that failed to understand myth as an essential vehicle for apprehending and describing the transcendent. Jaspers comes close to the one that Northrop Frye constructs in “The Great Code: The Bible and Literature,” in which he suggests that modern attempts to read the Bible are often foiled because we no longer read and write in the mythical; rather, he thinks, following Vico’s tripartite theory of language, that our system of writing has since taken on empirical, positivistic concerns. While Frye thinks that one cannot read the Bible without myth since it is written in myth, Jaspers respects the mythic, and asserts that the religious person must come to terms with it. Jaspers accuses Bultmann of a scientism which sees itself as being responsible for not be accused of foolish mythologies.
I would like to include a word about the construction and editing of the book itself. It has a wonderful introduction by R. Joseph Hoffmann which provides one of the greatest contexts and explanations of the rise of liberal theology in the nineteenth century. However, Jaspers’ first parry in the conversation includes a lot of material from his Existenzphilosophie which is completely unnecessarily for the overall understanding of the text and the content of the argument at hand. This part of the text includes explanation the reader could have done without, like “We cannot think unless something becomes an object for us. To be conscious means to live in that clarity which is made possible by the split between I and the object. But it also means to live within the walls constituted by the split between the I and something known to be an object.” And so on. If this language had been excised, the book would have made its argument in tighter, more cogent terms. Also, of the 88 pages devoted to the back-and-forth of Bultmann and Jaspers, Bultmann is allotted a grand total of 12 pages, which makes me think the editor may have had a slight bias. In any case, the substance of the debate is fascinating, but these weak points to detract from the overall rating. I would recommend a close examination of these ideas for anyone interested in the shapes and trends of liberal theology in the twentieth century, but one can probably find another publication whose editor is less clumsy in communicating them. ...more
In an effort to be very fair, I will review this book for what it is, and not what I wanted it to be. What is it? A highly serviceable introduction toIn an effort to be very fair, I will review this book for what it is, and not what I wanted it to be. What is it? A highly serviceable introduction to the lives, thought, and influence of the four titular historical personages. I cannot stress the word “introduction” enough here. Unless you have had no exposure to the figure that you are curious about, you will be hard-pressed in learning anything new about him. This, however, wasn’t my first encounter with any of the four figures.
What did I want this book to be? Considering the reputation of Jaspers, I was expecting something more scholarly, yet I should have known better from the length of the book (just under 100 pages, not including the endnotes and bibliography). Considering he is mostly known for his “Philosophy and Existence,” I thought that he might try to take a syncretic approach, blending his own brand of thought with these paradigmatic figures of the past. No such luck. I also thought that it might have had something other than strictly a “summary” type of feel that it did. It reads like lecture notes in that it’s somewhat disjointed, a lot of the thoughts he explores do not go fully developed, and you are left wanting more.
Unfortunately, much of the stuff here is derivative and fails to shed any new light on the material it covers. Since this series pulled together from a variety of different sources in Jaspers’ own writing (edited by his mentee, Hannah Arendt), it is difficult to tell whether or not this is the way he intended it to be. However, as I mentioned above, the book is not without its audience. It would be very suitable ancillary material for an introductory course in world religions. ...more