2007-06-01

bauckham vs enlightenment (rev)

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by Neil Godfrey

(i have wondered if the more grammatically correct heading should be “bauckham vs the enlightenment” — but the more i think about it the more i realize that “bauckham vs enlightenment” is the more accurate.)

For those who are not history buffs, by Enlightenment I mean the rise of a rational/naturalist/’humanitarianist’ approach to knowledge, science, and religion that marked especially the 18th century. Think Newton, Franklin, Voltaire, Boyle, Hutton, Harvey, Linnaeus (300 years old this month– big celebrations in Sweden!), Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Kant, Louis XIV, Catherine the Great, Frederick ditto — not eastern mysticism.

When I first began reading Bauckham’s Eyewitnesses I simply assumed I would be engaging with a work by someone with a normal academic acceptance of normal scholarly standards. Some who read my chapter by chapter commentaries would have noticed by slow realization and dismay that that was not the case at all, and that I was reading an author who did not accept the reality of naturalism but actually seriously believed in the miraculous as reported in the Bible. By accepting the miraculous one scarcely needs any academic argument at all for anything said to be contingent upon that miraculous. “Scholarship” will be reduced to a mere collection of possibilities and could-be’s and speculations that garnish any naive hypothesis attached to that belief in the supernatural. The bible speaks of miracles so they must have happened because it speaks of them and the simplest explanation therefore is that the eyewitnesses told the gospel authors about them. Merely counting names and looking at their relative positions in the gospels and classifying them in different categories and allowing for this and that to explain discrepancies in the pattern the author tries to establish becomes “serious evidence” for this hypothesis!

Help from Michelle Goldberg

Bauckham is one of those authors whose last chapter I would have done well to have read first. It is there that he finally lowers his guard and clarifies where he was coming from all along. But even when I first read his final chapter I initially could not quite believe what I was reading — it is only since reading Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming, a journalistic report on the state of play among the fundamentalist Christian set in the U.S., that I can finally accept that I was not imagining things when I read Bauckham’s attack on the values of the Enlightenment and extolling of medieval methods of scholarship!

(I did not realize just how lucky I am to be living in a country where there is absolutely no social stigma to being an atheist, and where fundamentalist “alternative parallel universes” are kept “parallel” and not yet crossing over and stuffing up “normal reality”. I knew things were different in the U.S. but I had not really appreciated how seriously rationalism, naturalism, the very values of the Enlightenment themselves, were under direct attack.)

On page 476 of Eyewitnesses Bauckham speaks negatively of “the individualism bequeathed to philosophy by the Enlightenment“. That still dismays me. To me it was the individualism bequeathed by the enlightenment that did much to spawn our values of human rights. The rights of the individual vis a vis the State. How can anyone speak derisively of that? Well Michelle Goldberg has woken me to the reality that there are Christian extremists who really do even want to deny the principle of legal rights of privacy, and to establish communal theocracies that do deny individual rights. They started out as looney fringes in 1920’s Germany and in some Middle East nations not many years ago too.

But Bauckham of course is referring immediately to the “individual” perspectives of epistemology. Yet he makes his comment as if it were a principle that extends beyond just epistemology. Besides, the nature of epistemology is under constant review by enlightenment inspired and naturalistic thinkers and has in many quarters been extended to explore the nature of social and cultural knowledge, too. And Coady’s work on which Bauckham relies is not, I am sure, the result of a fundamentalist rejection of the values of the enlightenment.

Return to medievalism

On pages 483-4 Bauckham writes: “In the medieval period scholars could think of themselves as dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants, able to see further than the ancients only by virtue of depending on the ancients.” And modern scholars don’t? Or is Bauckham lumping all modern scholars with the extremes of postmodernists? Of course, what Bauckham really means is that we should return to some of the naivety and less critical thinking of earlier generations. How else will we ever learn to take the Bible as “the word of God”! I don’t think he’s really serious, however. I suspect he would not want to continue to stand on the shoulders of Ptolemy and interpret what dwarvish astronomers see within the core of the Ptolemaic framework.

On page 485 he writes: “The individualist epistemology of the Enlightenment cannot, Collingwood concedes, be practiced in everyday life . . .” And the implication from the context of this suggests that “individualist epistemology” is not valid in itself. Bauckham indeed confuses various kinds of knowledge under the one term and arrives at simply invalid conclusions as a result, and I will discuss that in more depth when I resume my discussions of his final chapter. (Real life has simply kept that final push at bay till now.) Suffice for now to remark that there is a difference between social knowledge, or everyday knowledge that we pick up from our associates, family, friends etc, and the knowledge that comes from reading an uncertain text whose provenance and author and purpose are at best speculative. This argument involves the very nature of society and humanity itself as a social being, as well as the nature of certain tools that have been devised to solve questions that are quite separate from social knowledge. Bauckham conflates both in the interests of his desire that the bible be taken essentially at face value in the same way we would take at face value a neighbour telling us he is going away for a week and asking us to keep an eye on his house.

On page 486, Bauckham says: “As in other fields, Enlightenment individualism has led to postmodern skepticism.” What a statement! One might as well say it has also led to ideological fanatical belief systems. And indeed that IS exactly what many fundamentalist Christians also assert. The Enlightenment has spawned both black and white and every other shade in between and colour hues when one travels in the other direction. (Of course those who attribute Nazism to “secularism” ignore the deeply mythical trappings of Nazism and the unique church-state infrastructure in Russia cum Lenin’s suppression of the many early communes that sprang up in the wake of the revolution. Not to mention many views that the mass movements that culminated in totalitarianism are attributable by historians of philosophy to that earliest reaction against the Enlightenment — Romanticism! Specifically Rousseau and his Social Contract!)

The hypocrisy of this is revealed particularly in Michelle Goldberg’s book which also observes how fundamentalists ride the piggyback of postmodernism to justify their inclusion as equals alongside other more established knowledge such as evolution. If postmodernism will reduce evolution to a mere political interpretation of certain data then how convenient for the creationist who can claim a minimal “equal” standing as just another belief system beside it.

When I began my review of Bauckham’s final chapter I commented about B being a strange bedfellow with postmodernism. It is reassuring to read with Goldberg that my views are not idiosyncratic.

Modern history the metaphoric equivalent of barbaric torture!

And Bauckham does literally equate at least one modern rationalist method of working with historical evidence as the morally reprehensible equivalent of torturing a human being (page 483). He’s serious. He keeps repeating the charge. On what basis? Because an historian can test and examine bits of evidence in a way that they will yield information “in spite of themselves” — a phrase historian Collingwood took over from lawyer, and torturer, Bacon. I would never have thought that anyone could ever interpret a figurative use of a term could possibly imply that the original literal meaning of that term was ethically valid in its figurative use — until I read Bauckham’s final chapter of Eyewitnesses. One might burst out laughing if one failed to remember that so many seem to take Bauckham seriously!

Let’s knock this silly nonsense on the head immediately. A trained decent counsellor, even a church one, will look for and interpret evidence of a client that may well yield information in spite of the intention of that client. A parent will know how to interpret the body language and other signs of their young child so that they yield evidence of what is in their minds and feelings “in spite of themselves”! When an historian speaks of evidence yielding evidence in spite of itself when subject to certain tools of the trade she means no more than this. To even remotely equate the treatment of inanimate documents with the treatment of tortured victims is to trivialize and obscenely diminish the significance of our fellow kind!

Cheated (again)

Like that academic who repeatedly insisted I read F. F. Bruce to come up to speed with the Josephus passage on Jesus, the academic who wrote this book has left me feeling cheated. I was not even engaging on the same playing field — a pity that Bauckham did not make his position clear in the preface — and explain he was only writing for those who believe in miracles and reject the inheritance of Newton, Franklin, Voltaire, Descartes, Kant, Hobbes, Hume, Sponoza, et al, and save me the bother of even giving his hypothesis the time of day!

I simply don’t know how to engage in a discussion with anyone, or any work, that dismisses the inheritance of the Enlightenment, and extols the scholars who subjected all thought to the glory of their god.

Such a person is only talking to those who share the life of his ‘parallel universe’. Such a view of reality surely needs to be fought by those who do believe in reason and humanity to be the match of the irrational minority — in dedication, vigilance, and endurance. If my experiences of little battles on local levels is a guide, I know it is all too easy for the mainstream to throw hands up in despair and get on with their lives. But what sorts of lives will we be permitted if a few fanatics and anti-humanist rationalists drag the leadership of our institutions back to the middle ages?

The John Birch Society and medieval giants

Unless Michelle Goldberg had written about the John Birch Society (conspiracy theorists par excellence) in the same book, I would never have thought to compare Christian fundamentalism with such a paranoid out-of-touch-with-reality scary group. She points out how Tim LaHaye and David Noebel once were actively involved members of the JBS and demonstrates that their “Christian work” is but a continuation of that craziness.

Is not all this part of the same “alternative reality” as Bauckham is implicitly backing when he condemns (the) enlightenment and, identifying himself with a dwarf, calls on the giants of the dark ages to help him see all he needs?

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