Daily Archives: 2012-04-13 13:51:57 UTC

Jesus Agnosticism: Believing vs. Knowing

What we can and cannot know

Huxley at about 55, scanned & cropped slightly

Huxley at about 55, scanned & cropped slightly. Note: The photo was cropped, but the sideburns were not. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I confess I have often shown little patience for people who hide behind the label of agnosticism when asked whether they believe in God. It smacks of evasion, since it answers a question concerning belief with an assertion about the state of knowledge. That is, it redirects our attention to the axis of knowing — how much we know or can know — instead of telling us where one stands on the axis of believing.

So you can perhaps imagine how annoyed I’ve become at myself lately for describing my own position on the historicity of Jesus as “Jesus agnostic.” Have I fallen into the same trap as atheistic agnostics, too timid to answer the question that was asked, so I answer one that wasn’t?

Does agnosticism describe anything meaningful?

Most atheists are also agnostics. We lack the belief in God in the same way that we lack the belief in many things we can’t definitively disprove. However, we hold the existence of a supernatural being that fits the description of God to be so unlikely that we operate under the assumption that he does not exist.

Do we actively believe God does not exist? Actually, no. It takes no effort at all to lack a belief. For example, if you grew up as a Christian, you probably lack the belief in the transmigration of souls. Same here. People might reincarnate after they die, but I think it’s extremely unlikely. So I can truthfully say, “I don’t believe in samsara.” But I don’t spend any time thinking about it or actively disbelieving in it.

If by knowledge we mean rational knowledge based on human reason and physical evidence, a good many Christians are also agnostics. They believe without proof — “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29b, KJV) They have made the “leap of faith.” Should they claim to have any knowledge at all, they will maintain they possess a knowledge of the heart, a feeling of the divine presence.

So if a great many of us — theists and atheists alike — agree that we can’t know whether God exists, is the term “agnostic” all that meaningful? Well, it is if you mean it in the loose, vernacular way that the popular media often intends it, namely as a description of someone who cannot decide. Perpetual fence-sitters, they simply can’t make up their minds. read more »

2. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: Chapter 1

This second post addresses the opening pages of Ehrman’s first chapter. It continues from the last words of the first installment.

Here Doherty examines

  • Ehrman’s appeal to Schweitzer and the problems faced by both Schweitzer and Ehrman
  • The logical improbability of Ehrman’s reconstruction of an historical Jesus
  • Ehrman’s appeal to pre-Gospel sources and his failure to notice the problems that will have for his own reconstruction
  • Ehrman’s treatment of the history of mythicism and the contradiction his observations present for common claims about mythicism among mainstream scholars

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“But as a historian I think evidence matters,” says Ehrman. Let’s see how he handles evidence, and those who interpret that evidence in a different way.

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Chapter 1: An Introduction to the Mythical View of Jesus

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Ehrman begins by quoting the great Albert Schweitzer. On the one hand, says Schweitzer:

There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus. The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence.

On the other hand, says Ehrman,

toward the end of his book he [Schweitzer] showed who Jesus really was, in his own considered judgment. For Schweitzer, Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who anticipated the imminent end of history as we know it.

This of course is a “judgment” dear to Ehrman’s heart, because he himself subscribes to it and has written a book advocating such a picture of Jesus. It is a mantra in New Testament scholarship these days, in agreement with Schweitzer a century ago, that immense difficulties abound in the effort to unearth the real historical man from beneath the Christ of faith. And yet scholar after scholar, from Schweitzer and before him to Ehrman and no doubt after him, can claim that they have done so, and have usually disagreed with each other on what the result is. Both Ehrman and Schweitzer can acknowledge the difficulty of getting beyond the faith literature—Ehrman and more modern scholarship have benefited from the realization that there is no “history remembered” in the Gospels, and that virtually all of it is midrashic construction out of scripture—and yet both declare certainty in their knowledge that the Jesus character (whatever he was) did indeed exist. read more »