Friday, 11 March 2011

Why? You Tell Me Nothing

It strikes me as paradoxical that theology is used to ask about some of the deepest things of life, and yet it is also the most corrupt form of 'knowledge' that still has a foothold in the universities. In terms of the Christian tradition, it is as if it comes up with the answer before you even ask the question. It is not like a set of methodical rules, that demand a proper regime of tests before you can claim to have discovered something regular in return. Rather, it is that only if certain answers are achieved have you asked the right questions.

There are rules about historical documents, about research, and problems about representation.

One rule about documents is that they ought to be primary - that is produced for the purpose of their subsequent examination. If they are so unavailable, then you have to be careful. For example, a history book in school of the Romans is not a primary document about the Romans but is a primary document about education today. So the documents of the New Testament are, or would be, documents about the beliefs of the early Churches, and not about the subject matter they address. They can only become that by a lot of sifting through, and never satisfactorily. So those documents are always the beliefs about 'what Jesus was doing', not 'what Jesus was doing'. I maintain a link to the thoughts of April DeConick on this blog, and do so because she is someone who takes a historical approach to the various documents from the early Churches, though she is interested in how traditions are generated in culture and recently she is talking about this. Even if there is no neutrality, there remain rules.

Secondly there is research, and social scientific research acknowledges that it cannot be like science. So there is science-similar research, which is to get big numbers sending back repeat results and these are considered to be reliable. The trouble is, questions asked inhabit the world of meaning. Meaning is subtle, and so the other approach is among small numbers asking open and continuous deep questions usually through observing narratives and doing so without interfering too much. It seems to me that theology employs none of these, and if it did validity research then it would only to ask whether a church meets an existing doctrinal measurement or not. But if neither of these are relevant, then what is to stop one saying that the original tradition is simply made up? What form of knowledge is it at all?

One of the key problems of valid based research comes in representation. To go somewhere different in space we can do, but the same applies to go somewhere different in time, which we cannot do. This is why history is so rule bound and limited. But since Malinowski, a social anthropologist has had to go into the field, to learn the language, absorb the culture, and then somehow write it up so that the academic world can represent it. But it turns a culture into an essay. But when people go back in time, to a period of very different understandings and expectations, what are they saying when they simply give the tradition's representation of what is going on? They are, I suggest, misrepresenting it, whether they can represent it at all. Well people have a go at it, but it often turns out rather different from what the tradition would like us to think. There is a world of difference, then, between April DeConick and what she produces and Tom Wright, the Anglican bishop now employed by the University of St. Andrews.

This is also relevant for phenomenological approaches to other faiths: unless I take part in them, how can I know anything about them. I have attended Baha'i firesides and Buddhist sessions (including more than just meditation classes) and it gives insight into other beliefs more than book descriptions that so frequently cut corners (the worst are RE textbooks). Of course my longest stay has been within Anglican and Unitarian settings, as well as a bit of Methodism.

I keep a link to Larry Hurtado, who is a Christian but whose work is historical, and who pushes the thesis that there was a rapid acceleration in how Jesus was understood by the early Church into a binitarian form - still one God, but Jesus the messianic figure who is attracting divinity and becoming a one gateway. But the point is obvious: it is all after Jesus's death and what a community thinks according to a charismatic (that is, fast changing) tradition. Whether you agree with this or not is subject to argument: belief has nothing to do with it, or at least should not. Of course there is continuation between the language of the early Churches and that of the prophetic figure and his few, but none of this is about whether any of this is true or not. It was true for them, and the discussion is about rapid change and continuity.

So when I hear Tom Wright make that leap between some of this material and his own beliefs, and those of others, but talks as if sealed within their world, I have to ask, "So what?"

See, if I ignore a piece of scientific discovery, then I lose out at explaining and also the technology won't work to do something science explains. If I don't do social science research, or fail to gather it in (for example, the sort that shows there is no such thing as a universal family) then I make mistakes about humans coming together and their institutions. If I don't get deep into other cultures or faiths, then I am in danger of making crass errors. But if I don't do what Tom Wright suggests in his biblical thought-world, then is there any loss at all? Why should I, for example, using his language, follow Jesus in what this text is saying?

There is no means by which anyone can tell me what is lost.

Now a recent blog entry shows Rachel having a go, but she simply didn't get the radical difference between her and me on this. All she can tell me is how good it feels to have her salvation religion, and no doubt I could do a pretty good essay. In fact, I have already (within my Ph.D) She cannot see an alternative in simply wishing to value what there is in how it is. This is my purely voluntary religious task. No one has to do it, nor come to the same conclusion. I'm saying that there is a benefit in coming to terms with loss, including your own at the very end. It is semi-Buddhist, and I can say that having observed and had explained, and I know the differences too. I can generate similar feelings of delight and awe in the now, and of course there is always entertainment. Indeed a lot of religion is entertainment with holy language. Beyond all that 'Holy Spirit' stuff there is then the Bible, but again it just is a record of a set of beliefs rolling over and evolving, even becoming revolutionary, for a time - but it adds no critical knowledge whatsoever. I get cosmic awe listening to Professor Brian Cox ("Why are we here?" "Where do we come from?" - and he goes on to say, "Nothing lasts forever"), or biological insight reading Richard Dawkins, not by reading Genesis. It tells me zero of interest, and indeed Jesus is only interesting regarding his reverse ethics. But I do not make a guru of him; I would only use him or others as a means of reflection. And as for God (to finish the pack) this is really just about qualities and possibilities, values and whether there are transcendences. To have these, we need the universe as we have it.

It is a pity that theology is not just about science as it is, and presents itself, and social science as it goes, and has an overall view. It is stuck with its ready-made answer, stuck in largely a past tradition and thought-world, and all I'd say to Tom Wright is "Why?"

Meanwhile, I've spent much time cartooning and I am saving them for about three weeks time. I'll upload some to Facebook to give a clue and I must revisit my new Flikr area (for later website changes too) with my piccies. But it will be something to do with ordaining women and based around a fashion show...

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