Rationalist Hitchens vs Eyewitness Bauckham

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by Neil Godfrey

Any encounter with Christopher Hitchens’ talent with words is always a richly rewarding experience. And while reading his newly published “God is Not Great” I was at times painfully reminded of my failure at this point to have completed my review of the last chapter of Bauckham’s Eyewitness book on this blog. (I really will complete that soon, promise.) Not that I have any reason to think Hitchens has read Bauckham, but some of Hitchens’ plainest observations about religion and reason reminded me by contrast of the convoluted nonsense twisted through the keyboard of Bauckham as he attempts to justify branches of medieval and ancient scholarship against post-Enlightenment rationalism.

Eyewitnesses of a Medieval Miracle!

Hitchens tells the story of Thomas Aquinas leaving a document on the Trinity he had written laid out on the altar at the Notre Dame so that god himself could scrutinize it and offer some opinion. “Aquinas later found that god indeed had given his treatise a good review — he being the only author ever to have claimed that distinction — and was discovered by awed monks and novices to be blissfully levitating around the interior of the cathedral. Rest assured that we have eyewitnesses for this event.” (p.278)

Bauckham, of course, must give credence to these eyewitnesses, and dismiss modern scepticism as churlish or willful ignorance.

Hume on Eyewitnessing Miracles

On the matter of miracles Hitchens reminds us of Enlightenment philosopher David Hume’s discussion, especially his introduction of free will in the question. Thus you seem to see armed soldiers and chariots running around in the clouds above you and surrounding cities below (a miracle Josephus reports as fact on the basis of eyewitness reports) or hear a donkey talk or see a person raised from the dead (miracles faithfully recorded in the Bible). “If you seem to witness such a thing, there are two possibilities” writes Hitchens, referencing Hume. “The first is that the laws of nature have been suspended (in your favour). The second is that you are under a misapprehension, or suffering from a delusion. Thus the likelihood of the second must be weighed against the likelihood of the first.” (p.141)

“If you only hear a report of the miracle from a second or third party, the odds must be adjusted accordingly before you can decide to credit a witness who claims to have seen something that you did not see. And if you are separated from the ‘sighting’ by many generations, and have no independent corroboration, the odds must be adjusted still more drastically.”

The Art of the Resurrection Miracle

Hitchens reminds readers that “miracles” such as bleeding statues, levitation, spoon bending etc can be performed by any modern conjurer without modern observers having to assume some supernatural force at work. The resurrection miracle, however, has not been performed for some time, or at least not repeated in a way to withstand challenges of any doubters. Hitchens asks: “Has the art of resurrection died out? Or are we relying on dubious sources?”

As for the stories of Jesus raising Lazarus and the daughter of Jairus, “nobody seems to have thought it worthwhile to interview either survivor to ask about their extraordinary experiences. Nor does anyone seem to have kept a record of whether or not, or how, these two individuals ‘died’ again. . . .” (p.142)

Of the account of the resurrection of Jesus, Hitchens concludes: “Having no reliable or consistent witnesses, in anything like the time period needed to certify such an extraordinary claim, we are finally entitled to say that we have a right, if not an obligation, to respect ourselves enough to disbelieve the whole thing.” (p.143)

The Vividness of Eyewitness Detail, and the Multiplicity of Witnesses

Hitchens discussion of the UFO phenomena has particular relevance to some of the key arguments regularly used to support the historicity of the New Testament gospels and Acts — that the vividness and detail of narrative, even multiplicity of “eyewitness” sources, is evidence of eyewitness veracity:

“I have interviewed some of the hundreds of thousands of people who claim to have had direct encounters with spacecraft, or the crew of spacecraft, from another galaxy. Some of these are so vivid and detailed (and so comparable with other depositions from other people who cannot have compared notes) that a few impressionable academics have proposed that we grant them the presumption of truth. But here is the obvious Okhamist reason why it would be utterly wrong to do so. If the huge number of ‘contacts’ and abductees are telling even a particle of truth, then it follows that their alien friends are not attempting to keep their own existence a secret. Well, in that case, why do they never stay still for anything more than a single-shot photo? There has never been an uncut roll of film offered, let alone a small piece of a metal unavailable on earth, or a tiny sample of tissue. And sketches of the beings have a consistent anthropomorphic resemblance to those offered in science-fiction comics. . . . . The only responsible decision is to suspend or withhold judgment until the votaries have come up with something that is not merely childish.” (p.144)

On the Shoulders of Giants

Bauckham in one of his frequent bizarre efforts to place higher value on pre-modern pre-scientific methods writes glowingly of medieval scholars that they “could think of themselves as dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants, able to see further than ancients only by virtue of depending on the ancients.” (p483)

Bauckham continues by setting up a straw man “modern” method for poor contrast: “The more characteristic modern attitude is to celebrate . . . a kind of triumph over the past . . . ”

So it is interesting to read beside Bauckham the rationalist Hitchens write that the metaphor of standing on the shoulders of giants was not a medieval one but came from enlightenment scientist Sir Isaac Newton (p.270).

And then even more interesting to study a “modern attitude” at work, when rationalist Hitchens sees himself on shoulders of giants: “But there is a great deal to be learned and appreciated from the scrutiny of religion, and one often finds oneself standing atop the shoulders of distinguished writers and thinkers who were certainly one’s intellectual and sometimes even one’s moral superiors. Many of them, in their own time, had ripped away the disguise of idolatry and paganism, and even risked martyrdom for the sake of disputes with their own coreligionists. However, a moment in history has now arrived when even a pygmy such as myself can claim to know more — through no merit of his own — and to see that the final ripping of the whole disguise is overdue. Between them, the sciences of textual criticism, archaeology, physics, and molecular biology have shown religious myths to be false and man-made and have also succeeded in evolving better and more enlightened explanations. The loss of faith can be compensated by the newer and finer wonders that we have before us, as well as by immersion in the near-miraculous work of Homer and Shakespeare and Milton and Tolstoy and Proust, all of which was also “man-made” (though one sometimes wonders, as in the case of Mozart).” (p.151)

Francis Bacon and Torture

Bauckham speaks ill of both the imagery and experimental methods used by pioneer scientist philosopher Francis Bacon, one of the pioneers of the modern scientific method. He takes exception with Bacon’s discussion of evidence, that on being questioned in a certain way, can yield information “in spite of itself” — in other words, it can tell us more than its surface meaning might have originally intended. This phrase, “in spite of itself”, is taken from the practice of torture, with which Bacon himself was directly involved. Bauckham uses this as an argument to attack the ethics of certain modern scientific (especially textual) enquiries!

Hitchens on the other hand reminds us of something not breathed by Bauckham, that Bacon followed Tertullian in glorifying faith as being at its noblest when its teachings most defied reason!

In other words, Bacon was not a modern rationalist but was one of those few giants who were beginning in their small limited ways to bring humanity out of its dark past and were themselves inevitably still part of the superstitions and ignorance of their times. Bauckham, to be fair, could more honestly have linked Bacon’s image of torture to its traditional practitioners, the Church. The fact that Bauckham chose instead to use it to taint the ethics of scientific and textual studies says more of Bauckham than it does of Bacon.

Attack on Enlightenment Values

But my deeper concern is to respond again to a book that has considerable popularity among “the religiose” and attempt to expose its absurd and dangerous attempts to turn back from enlightenment values to something medieval.

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