Thursday, January 27, 2011

Julius Wellhausen, the Academy, and the Church

Just read a significant chunk of Julius Wellhausen's Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel for a class I'm taking this semester.  The book mostly deals with the source hypothesis for the Pentateuch and is actually quite well written.  Wellhausen gets a lot of flack for being "anti-Catholic" in his rhetoric, I'm attempting here to give him a more charitable reading. 

Wellhausen lays out his hypothesis for the composition of the Pentateuch, which builds on the work of several earlier German scholars who had argued that various sources of material were worked together, probably sometime during the late Kingdom or after the exile, into a single canonical text that we now possess.  Wellhausen's main argument has to do with the nature of the source-texts.  One, known as "J" (from the German transliteration of the divine name YHWH as Jehovah) Wellhausen argues is the earliest and represents the earliest stage in Israelite religion in which religion is much more individualized and much less structured.  Wellhausen gives a preference for this form of religion.  A second source is Deuteronomy, which likely stood more or less as an independent text before its incorporation into the Pentateuch.  This represents a middle ground in the development of Israelite religion, Wellhausen argues, marking a movement toward centralization but not its completion.  The final source is the Priestly source, which Wellhausen claims is the latest because it demonstrates the most structural development, the most emphasis on ceremony and presupposes a centralized hierarchy.  This form of religion is stifling, Wellhausen claims, and destroys the moral and social fabric of Israelite culture embodied in the "J" source.

I'm simplifying Wellhausen a little, so two brief caveats.  Fist, Wellhausen is aware of a fourth source, "E" (from another name of God- "Elohim") but he thinks that this source has largely been combined with "J" and so separating the two is very difficult.  Second, while I am using the modern abbreviations for the sources, abbreviations that Wellhausen also uses, many of the source divisions are understood differently now.  My point in this post is not going to be to attempt to defend Wellhausen's theory about source divisions.  I am merely wanting to note something about Wellhausen's intentions that I think has been helpful for myself in terms of relating scholarship to my faith.

What I want to note is this: Wellhausen's book reads like a sermon.  Now, doubtless it is a Protestant sermon.  There seems to be little doubt that Wellhausen did really have the Catholic Church in mind when he wrote about the Priestly source and its stifling version of religion.  As I write this I am on a train coming back from a conference in which I might very well have been the only Protestant present, so there is a little bit of guilty pleasure in reading Wellhausen and his not-so veiled criticisms of Catholicism.  But putting aside my Protestant defensive mechanisms, I do think Wellhausen is being unfair to the Catholic faith.  So I'm not going to defend him on that count.  However, I think if we read him a bit differently, and I'm granting that on the level of "authorial intention" I think this is an incorrect reading, his sermonizing is actually quite valuable.  Wellhausen is worried about any form of religion that has become all ritual and that exists for the purpose of elevating the power of a particular priestly class.  He holds up instead a religion that is deeply connected to the social and especially the familial life of the community as the ideal.  To him that is a much more pure expression of religion, a much more true form of worship.  It lacks many of the rules of the later Priestly code- sacrifice is not restricted to Jerusalem, it need not be performed by a priest in any particular manner.  It can be done in the home as a familial act of worship and thanksgiving.  In that way, the worship becomes an extremely important aspect of these people's lives, it becomes much more personally meaningful and significant.

Whatever our agreements of disagreements with Wellhausen's scholarship, both on the point of the finer details of where to make the source divisions and on the more significant questions of his anti-Catholic bias, I think this reading provides a valuable model of how scholarship can interact with the life of the Church.  Scholarship does not need to exist in isolation from the questions that face the life of the Church.  Instead, it should address these problems.  This calls for a careful balance- we should not rewrite the history of Israel to support our particularly theological bias, which is what many accuse Wellhausen of doing (though interestingly, the basic outline of his theory is still the working model of most Old Testament scholarship today).  Neither, however, should studying the history of Israel be devoid of implications for how we view our own theology and worship as the contemporary Church.  Scholarship of the first kind tends toward some sort of fundamentalism- either on the right or the left end of he political spectrum.  Scholarship of the second kind tends toward isolation of the academy from the Church.  The goal should be to strike a balance between the two and do responsible scholarship that is still relevant to the Church of our day.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Publication Announcement

An updated version of a paper I presented at a conference last year has just been published by Glossolalia, a peer-reviewed student journal put out by Yale.  The article is entitled "Re-framing the Free-Will Debate: An Epistemological Perspective."  Check out some of the other articles (particularly the one right after mine, which was written by a very dear friend), there are several good ones!

Basic Beliefs

Our third axiom was that people communicate.  This is really not a very precise statement for a number of reasons.  To communicate seems to imply community- we need a recipient and a communicator.  We might be tempted to say that built into that axiom is the assumption that other people exist.  Built into that might be the assumption that a world beyond ourselves exists.  But for anyone who knows anything about the history of philosophy since the Enlightenment, these assumptions would be unacceptable because one of the principle questions since Descartes has been "on what basis can we claim to know these things?"  I'm going to give a whirlwind history of Modern Philosophy based on that question:

Rene Descartes marks the starting point of Modern Philosophy.  He argues that we can, via the rational process, move from a starting point of certain knowledge- that I exist- to the existence of everything else that we "know" to exist.  We can construct rational arguments that establish with certainty the existence of the material, external world and other persons with whom we communicate.  The problem is Descartes reasoning is circular and few have accepted his arguments.

Baruch Spinoza follows Descartes in claiming that we come to our knowledge by the "rational process" of constructing arguments.  But he modifies the conclusion a bit- we don't have knowledge of a world of matter existing outside our minds, we have knowledge of a world of ideas in our minds (think the Matrix).

John Locke isn't satisfied with Descartes.  He thinks we come to all our knowledge not by reasoning but through our empirical/sensory experiences.  But through those experiences we really do know the external, material world as it is.

George Berkeley offers a critique of Locke that ends up with a similar conclusion as that of Spinoza- our experience doesn't show us an external, material world, it shows us a world of ideas in our minds.

David Hume critiques this entire project by claiming that the categories necessary for us to put together our "knowledge" of the world cannot be demonstrated rationally or empirically.

Immanuel Kant responds to Hume by acknowledging that the categories cannot be demonstrated empirically to exist beyond our minds but then claims that they are part of our subjective experience- we understand the world through the grid our minds create using these categories.

Now, this whirlwind tour is based on a rigorously academic method called "squinting" (technical term given by Miroslav Volf).  There are a lot of details left out of this story and that's because for our purposes right now the details aren't as significant.  There are just a couple of things that I want to draw attention to.  First, I want to note the back and forth between "realism" and "idealism" that happens in this history- the claim that we can really, with certainty know what the material, external world is like using a particular method gives way each time to a weaker claim- we can know a world of ideas through that method.  Both Spinoza and Berkeley want to argue that this world of ideas is the real world, but with Kant we get a change: the world of ideas that our minds put together is not the same world as the external world that exists beyond us.  The difference between the two creates a "transcendental divide" between our experience and reality- we always know our experience, we do not know the world beyond our experience.  This has essentially gotten us back to the first axiom

Second, I want to notice what Kant suggests about the categories through which we understand the world.  First I have to acknowledge that there are some differences of interpretation here.  Some of Kant's followers, such as Hegel and many of a more analytic persuasion, want to extract from Kant a way of knowing what the "real world" is- Hegel by means of an idealism not entirely unlike that of Spinoza or Berkeley (at least on my best attempt at reading Hegel, who is a strong contender for most confusing philosopher ever), others by means of something like what Locke and Descartes wanted to do before Hume got a hold of them.  I think in both of these cases that the project is headed in the wrong direction and the essential insight Kant gives us has been missed, the first axiom ignored or overlooked.  Perhaps this is because on the basis of that axiom it does not really seem like we can know anything- my first person experience could be a complete illusion, like Descartes feared.  If I am only able to know my first person experience, how will I ever escape the possibility that it is an illusion?  I think what Kant says about the categories is actually extremely helpful in answering that question.  What Kant seems to suggest is that we cannot operate in a "world" in which that possibility is true.  In other words, there are some beliefs that are so central to our understanding of the world that we have to accept them even if there is no definitive (or empirical) proof of their being true.  By writing his Meditations, Descartes betrays that he believes an external world exists that contains people who can understand what he wrote.  He may hypothetically call that world into doubt, but he has not really doubted it so long as he continues to write for it.  That Hume picks up a pen to write his critique of causation betrays that he actually believes in causes, else why does he think that the ink will actually reach the page?  Before I am accused of a logical fallacy here, the point is not that such assumptions invalidate their arguments about our hypothetical doubt of these things.  The point is to give credence to the idea that we simply cannot do anything without these assumptions being present.

The conclusion of this is that while we are viewing the world subjectively, from a first person perspective that could in fact be an illusion, the possibility of it being an illusion, the possibility of it being completely false, is one that we need not entertain seriously.  There are certain beliefs, beliefs we might call basic beliefs, that are so central to our understanding of the world that we simply must believe them if we want to make sense of anything else.  So our third axiom can stand- we can believe that there is a world beyond us and that it contains people with whom we communicate because without such beliefs we simply cannot make sense of anything in the world.  It will be up to a later post to explore a bit more what the third axiom might imply and how we might use it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Existential Project

We do things for reasons.  This is not quite an axiom, but it seems to be a pretty fair description of how most human behavior works, particularly "higher level" tasks.  I don't just build a house on a whim without any intention of ever using it.  Likewise, I think we study certain topics and ask certain questions for reasons.  I don't just wake up one morning and compulsively research the chemical make up of six different amino acids.  If I should ever find the desire to know such information (not very likely), there would be some reason motivating that quest.

This all, I think, follows from the second axiom I laid out.  We as people think about the world that we experience.  Thinking is a worthless activity if it doesn't make some sort of sense.  We don't think strings of meaningless syllables, we think words and sentences, we think in a way that we "understand," and wrapped up in that concept is the idea of coherence.  For us to meaningfully understand the world, to think rationally about it, we have to organize our thoughts in some way that makes coherent sense.  Sometimes that drives us to study something more, to ask questions that as of yet we don't have answers to, to engage in some sort of academic exercise to "fill in" gaps in our understanding of the world.  As a product of our observation, the questions that people will ask and seek the answers to are often very different from one person to the next, a reinforcement perhaps of the first axiom.

A very basic question that we might ask is "why?"  Why do we seek knowledge at all?  Why do we try to understand the world?  Why do we ask questions?  Why am I even asking this question? This "why" question I think is what justifies the philosophical enterprise.  Some have answered that we seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  That to me sounds like the pretentious self-justification of someone in an ivory tower with no connection whatsoever to the real world.  But perhaps I am just not profound enough a thinker.  A better answer seems to me to be that we seek an understanding of the world because that understanding helps us to do things in the world.  But what things exactly are we trying to do?  I teach a group of fourth graders, and when I ask them why they might want to go to college someday the answer is usually some derivative of "so we can get smart and make lots of money."  In their mind, knowledge aids us in acquiring wealth.  That is certainly not an uncommon conception.  But is it a good one?  To me it seems very shallow and self-absorbed.  Admittedly, this is my predisposition as a Christian toward a particular conception of ethics in which helping others is more important than acquiring wealth for myself.  Perhaps that conception is wrong, perhaps Nietzsche is right and such ethics only results in my weakening myself and shackling myself down.  Perhaps we posit instead that the reason we pursue knowledge is because it allows us to gain power and influence over other people.  One critique of knowledge offered by some Post-Modern thinkers is exactly along those lines- knowledge is just a tool used by the powerful to oppress the weak.  As a graduate student studying theology and philosophy, I have a bit of a hard time buying that one, but perhaps that is just self-serving.  Perhaps I am the oppressor and I resent someone calling my bluff.  Another suggestion might be that we seek an understanding of the world because it helps us to solve our problems, to fix things, to end conflicts, etc.  This was the battle cry of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries.  If we look at history since then, two world wars, several genocides, and the atomic bomb later, it doesn't seem like many problems have been solved.  But perhaps I'm just being too cynical.  The most ancient proposal, and the one that I find the most compelling, is that we seek an understanding of the world because such an understanding allows us to be moral people, to live a moral life.  It is important to note that moral does not just mean for the ancients things like not lying or not killing your annoying neighbor and her cat (I don't have such a neighbor, just to allay any suspicions).  For them it is rooted in the idea of a "telos" a goal toward which we are moving.  We all have such a "telos," they would argue and the moral life is the one that steers us toward fulfilling that goal or purpose for our lives.  The critic will argue that anyone who believes such silliness is being overly spiritual.  Who can really believe that everything or everyone has a purpose?  That's just an ancient myth, our modern conceptions know better.  We can build atomic bombs now, we don't need to appeal to such stories to tell us how to live our lives.

The conclusion that I am about to reach (if I want to keep my new years resolution to make these posts shorter) is in some ways not a very happy one.  The conclusion is that because we are subjective, we cannot start off with a ready answer to this question.  There is not another axiom to be found here that would take the form of "the pursuit of knowledge is for purpose x."  That, it turns out, is one of the questions that we must each wrestle with as we attempt to make sense of the world.  What purpose does the knowledge we seek hold for us?  At its heart, however, I think this question pushes toward a deeper question: what sort of person am I that I want this knowledge?  What is it that I want to do that requires this understanding?  That question points toward a project we can call "existentialism"- the project of shaping our own existence, of determining the kind of person that we are going to be.  To do this requires that we have an understanding of the world and our place in it, it requires a "philosophy" in the very general terms that I have sketched it.  But it also requires that we take ownership for the shape of that philosophy, for the way in which we approach the world, for the knowledge that we seek.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Three Axioms

I think perhaps the most fundamental philosophical statement that can be made, an axiom , if you will, that must be assumed at the very start of our philosophical endeavors, is that people are subjective.  By this I mean that we always see things from a first-person perspective.  I cannot exit myself and understand things in a perfectly objective way.  The story I tell is always "my story" from my perspective.  I think this is one of the most important insights that we can glean from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.  So while I believe that there is a world "out there" beyond myself, and that this world exists objectively in a certain way, I also believe, following Kant, that I do not have access to that world directly.  I only have access to my perspective on that world.  And that perspective will always be my subjective, own perspective.

So far, this sounds like a case for a pretty drastic relativism.  But that, I think, is a bit too quick of a conclusion, and I believe that if we really follow such relativism to its end it actually negates the value of our selves and our perspectives and results in a kind of nihilism in which everything becomes meaningless.  But I don't think that is the only option- another axiom I might claim is that we as humans are rational beings.  By rational I don't mean anything particularly specific, I'm not attempting to describe a system of logic or analysis.  I am merely wanting to say that we are thinking beings.  We don't just react to stimuli, like a worm being prodded with a stick, we actually think about the world we experience and the way we are going to act.  Not always do we think well about it, not always can we articulate our thoughts about it in anything that resembles a clear manner.  But we do think about it.  Part of what it means to think about things, I would argue, is for our thoughts to make sense (if only to ourselves), to be coherent.  Thoughts are not just random jumbles of information, we do in fact "systematize" them in a certain way.  Again, not trying to argue that we always do this by a particular logic or that we always do this well.  But I would argue that as rational beings we think about the world, and our thoughts form some sort of coherent understanding of the world from which we operate in our first person, subjective experience.

This idea of coherence is, I think, the way from which we escape a complete, nihilistic relativism and what gives rise to the philosophical enterprise.  Here we have to assert another axiom- that we humans are capable of communicating with one another.  That does not imply that communication is always perfect, that misunderstandings do not arise.  Nor does it say anything about the form of that communication, whether or not it follows a particular pattern, etc.  But on a whole, we are able to communicate in a way that is meaningful, in a way that allows the communication to be constructive and to continue.  In this communication, we frequently talk about the world we experience, from our own subjective points of view, and discuss the differences between these points of view.  This communication adds a new layer to our understanding- we now have more input about which we have thoughts that must be worked into our system in some way.  As this process continues, it turns out that coherence becomes more and more rigorous of a standard so that certain ways of thinking about the world become much more favorable than others- we call these  particular systems "schools of thought" or perhaps "worldviews."  Given that we are all subjective, our own understandings will be nuanced, but broadly speaking will fall under the umbrella of some such "school."  We will each hold to our particular system of beliefs because it "makes the most sense to us" from our first person perspective- in other words, it seems the most coherent with our experience of the world.  We may have reasons or arguments for thinking this way and reasons or arguments for thinking another system is not coherent enough.  We now have a full-fledged philosophy.

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