2013-12-25

Making of a (Christian) Mythicist, Act 5, Scene 4 (To Believe Or Not To Believe the Parable) — Conclusion

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by Neil Godfrey

brodie3Brodie’s final chapter* is essentially an attempt to justify religious faith or belief. How can one believe in the New Testament (or God)? (This is the final post on this book: the complete series is archived here.)

He begins by suggesting it is quite possible to believe the New Testament’s message “as a parable”. One can “believe a parable”, he writes. He means that one can believe that its story conveys “an ultimate truth”. The details of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son stories are not true but “we believe” their message. One can even accrue some reassurance from reflecting upon all the witnesses of countless others who have believed through the ages.

Recall John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus. As pointed out here over three posts Crossan argues that the Gospels are not historical reports but theological “parables” about the meaning of Jesus. One may wonder if he is stretching the meaning of “parable” to breaking point, but larger argument is really not very distant from Brodie’s. Naturally readers will ask themselves whether Jesus himself is a parable if all the stories about him are parables, so Crossan reassures readers that yes, Jesus was historical nonetheless. Indeed, it was his remarkable character that inspired all the parables about him. John Shelby Spong argues the same (Liberating the Gospels and Jesus for the Nonreligious). No doubt Crossan and Spong are not the only scholars to have settled upon such a view.

Virtually all the stories about Jesus are judged to be adaptations of Old Testament narratives in the judgment of Crossan and Spong (not too far from Brodie’s own argument) but Jesus himself was real. Jesus is real even though he is the central character of “parables” and “theological fictions” and his own name is itself a pun on his role in those “Gospel myths”.

Unlike Crossan and Spong, Brodie has concluded that the character Jesus is just as “parabolic” as any other person in the Gospels. (Even the historical Pilate was turned into a fictional character of “parable” in order to fit the theological agendas of the different evangelists.) In the same sense that he can “believe” the parables of the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son he can “believe” the parable of Jesus Christ.

What good is Reason?

Brodie acknowledges the “struggle” many have with believing in a deity or spiritual dimension and this leads him into a discussion of belief and reason. Of course we know reason alone is not enough to create a good society, but Brodie appears to assume that what is missing is a spiritual dimension. For Brodie, the big questions revolve around reason and belief.

(It’s interesting that such discussions assume that “belief” or “faith” is the natural complement (or diametric opposite) of “reason”. Surely there are many other attributes that could be considered good complements. Any of the emotions or mental states would surely do. Why not love, affection, a sense of community? Surely those states go a lot further than “religion” and “faith” in tempering the sharper edges reason has given us.)

But since our history has given us the religion-science dialectic it is within that framework that Brodie writes. (And I’ll continue to keep my own views down to whispered asides.)

For Brodie, reason provides “clearance” for belief. Reason can tell us if something is possible or probable, so we can thus be “cleared” to believe. (I would ask, Why not just accept something as “possible” or “probable” and wait for confirmation?) Brodie goes further, however, and suggests we might find “possible” or “probable” the idea that there is a “higher power” and Jesus is a “true symbol of that higher power”. (Now Brodie has me stumped. I tend to exclude from “possible” and “probable” fantasy concepts like imaginary sentient beings.)

Reason can prove something is impossible. That has to be respected. It makes no sense to believe in something that is impossible. (Like life after death; miracles.)

Reason can balance the probabilities. (Yes, Bayes!)

Some say Reason can prove the existence of “a higher power”? But not all are convinced of this, Brodie adds. (Why the circumlocution of “higher power”? Why not be up front and say “God”?)

Reason can also provide “confirmation” of belief. (Confirmation bias?)

After a person has believed, reason may find indications or signs that the belief is true, that, as symbolized in the figure of Jesus, the higher power — God in shorthand — did make humans for a purpose. (p. 220)

(There are a lot of enormously complex hypotheses in there: a “higher power”, a higher power “who”, a higher power who “makes”, a higher power who makes “humans”, ….. for a purpose. . . )

Brodie holds up “two such signs”: the universe itself and the human mind. Most readers here no doubt wonder how either of these could be considered “signs” for the existence of a human-creating God, but Brodie goes on to explain that he really means something else. He is referring to some sort of “connection” between the human mind and whatever lies at the “base” of the vast universe in which we live. (Recalling here Douglas Adams’ lovely “parable” of the “proof” that a grand Designer is behind all of this, “the puddle!”: the water in the hole in the ground fits perfectly every bumpy contour of that hole! Perfect design!)

Anthropomorphic universe

Brodie’s first point is that the “cosmos is tuned for us”. Brodie has another dig here at Richard Dawkins and the supposed “randomness” of evolution. (Evolution is not simply a random process according to any variant of evolutionary theory I know of so I suspect Brodie’s objection here is disappointing.)

Brodie’s idea that “we” and “ours” are somehow the goal and purpose of the Big Bang also falls flat. Anything in the universe can make the same claim for being the product of “special intent”. The Goldilocks principle enters here. If this or that little force had been a micro-whatever either way different we would not be here. True. Nor would anything else as we know it. Egocentric? And what of other universes with those myriad alternate forces — if ours is the only one lucky enough to have produced (against incomprehensible odds) sentient beings, does that mean “God Got Lucky Here!”?

Mind tuned for the cosmos

Brodie appears to believe that human minds “are tuned for the cosmos”, are somehow “connected” or have a longing to be connected to the higher power that generated the cosmos.

He looks at “three stages of history” through which “humans” have perceived the human mind. He limits these historical stages to

  • ancient Greek classical philosophy, in particular Aristotle;
  • “modern science” since 1900 as typified by his understanding of Freud and Dawkins;
  • “present day science”.

Aristotle wrote that “The soul (pscyhe) is in some way all things” [De Anima, III, 8, 431b.21] and Brodie quotes a passage from novelist Marilynne Robinson that concludes:

Our energies can only derive from, and express, the larger phenomenon of energy. And there is the haunting compatibility of our means of knowing with the universe of things to be known.

Thus Brodie follows the thoughts of “spiritual explorers and writers, including scriptural writers” who have, in some way similar to the ancient Greek philosophers, concluded that

we are built for connection with the supreme reality or presence underlying everything. (p. 222)

Brodie laments what he calls “the next stage” of “modern science” that has

tended to flatten the mind, to reduce it. (p. 222)

He points the finger at the likes of Freud and Dawkins! Once again he does not quote Dawkins but quotes fell0w-spiritual-traveller Robinson’s interpretation of Dawkins. (Robinson attributes the “authority” of Dawkins’ ideas to successful publicity and popularization.) He even asserts that the science of Dawkins, being “reductionist”, is “woodenly sure” and lacking in a “sense of wonder”. (Had he read Dawkins himself and not relied upon Robinson’s filtering he would have known Dawkins has written much over the years about “the sense of wonder” that we find him addressing in the video posted here recently.)

Brodie appears to have some hope that “present day science” will somehow provide insights into the some sort of connection between the mind and the universe. Here at last we find a science that is imbued with “a sense of wonder”. He writes

To begin with, the larger world, with its quarks and photons, is emerging as much more mysterious than had been thought, and if we are part of that larger world, then it is not easy to reduce us to one dimension. Beside, present-day science is now uncovering a new picture of the brain, mind and soul (sic!). . . . Some neuroscientists claim we are ‘hardwired for God’. However, so far the scientific evidence is not clear. (p. 223)

Brodie appears to be hoping that “modern science” is thus not “antagonistic to believing” in the way Dawkins personally is.

Perhaps . . . science and religion, instead of being seen as enemies, will emerge as the allies that they are by nature. (p. 223)

For Brodie, we are even engaged “from birth” in “believing” as is apparently evidenced by our “trusting things [and] people”. (Babies don’t “believe” anything.)

Further, “we also seem to be built for connecting with the heart of the universe.” We do this through “reason” to a limited extent, but more importantly for Brodie there is something deep within us that is supposedly oriented towards “the infinite, towards God”. Here he refers to various writings of Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner.

Allowing that orientation to blossom is central to becoming a Christian: ‘The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all‘ (Rahner 1981: 149). The mystic’s journey is not to the top of the Himalayas or to a distant planet, but, as Rahner goes on to say, to the core of our own being; it means ‘a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence‘. This is down to earth stuff (sic). (p. 224)

So for Brodie the mind is “made for connecting to the source of all things“, and this connection brings the Johannine promise of a more “abundant life”. Those of us who go through life without this believing are “missing out”.

And that’s how I read Brodie’s “memoir of a discovery”

And that’s it. That’s how I read Brodie’s book. I find it most interesting that he appears to have come quite independently to his view that Jesus did not exist and that the New Testament constructs are derived from his symbolic meaning that was itself largely the product of reflections upon the Jewish Scriptures. It is particularly interesting that his faith in God was strong enough for it not to have been shaken by that discovery. I am sure there must be Christians who have gone along with Albert Schweitzer’s recommendation for Christians to go beyond resting their faith in an historical event and to be founded instead in a new “metaphysic”. Brodie naturally quotes fellow Catholic thinkers more than Schweitzer but within my limited range of reading in this field I have to say Brodie is the first I have encountered who has actually done the sort of thing Schweitzer advised.

Another aspect that comes through the book, one that is not unexpected but disappointing nonetheless, is Brodie’s painful awareness for years that he could never come out publicly to unambiguously point to the logical conclusions of his studies. The conclusion is potentially more shattering for believers than the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo were over 400 years ago. Brodie’s final chapters are attempts to soften the blow for his fellow believers.

It is understandable that his final chapters in his “memoir of a discovery” should be addressing most directly the spiritual and religious concerns of the faithful. One can understand and respect him for making the effort. It is probably a little unfair for me to be injecting my own contrary thoughts into this final chapter as I have done, but I think on the whole I have attempted to do justice to Brodie’s views and it is surely not wrong to make clear where I myself also stand, especially for the sake of new readers who don’t know this blog’s orientation. I hope I have done so respectfully.

Ironically, among some scholars who do embrace the historical Jesus assumption or faith there are far more savage and damning things written about Christianity and the Gospels than one will find in works by “mythicists”. Just read Burton Mack’s Myth of Innocence for starters!

The other Christ Myth theorist Brodie reminds me most of is Paul-Louis Couchoud. While not a believer himself he did nonetheless go to lengths to express his highest respect and admiration for the Christian religion. (I posted a lengthy series on his particular case for mythicism that has been archived here.)

The Parable of the Gospel Jesus

So since this post opened with Brodie’s view that perhaps we can still believe the Gospels “as parables”, I choose to quote Couchoud making the same point in a response to M. Loisy in his day:

How did the Gospel, which was an apocalyptic revelation in the first century, become, in the second, a narrative in legendary form? If the transition escapes us, the persistence of the word “Gospel” through both phases is an assurance that the change was of form only. Between the time of the Apocalypse and that of the Gospels an entire generation, of which we know next to nothing, had passed away. Masses of men had entered the churches for whom a new presentation of their faith had become necessary.

A medium was found in the Parable which was, along with the Vision and the Precept, as we may see in Hermas, one of the familiar forms of inspired catechesis. By means of the Parable narrative form can be given to spiritual ideas and the colour of reality to spiritual truths. Hermas sets out to put the work of Jesus, whom he conceives in a way of his own, but not historically, into a long and formless parable. In the Gospels, among the parables preserved as such, many incidents seem to have been parables in their origin: walking on the waters, cursing the fig-tree, the resurrection of Lazarus. The whole Gospel narrative is, as it were, a synthetic parable admirably conceived and executed.

To one who makes a comparative study of the Gospels the creative liberty which each author allows himself is a matter for continual surprise. Matthew with Mark under his eyes recomposes, displaces, cuts down, and adds at his pleasure. John takes even greater liberties. He radically alters the type of the Gospel — setting, narratives, discourses. Is it not obvious that the manner of the evangelists throughout is not the manner of historians but of inspired catechists? They are composing on a theme, and feel themselves masters of their material, on condition always that faith in the God-Man is exalted by their treatments.

Shall we raise the cry of fraud? We know nothing of the life of religion if we do. Fraud would indeed be there if the foundation of the Gospel were a real biography neither malleable nor extensible. But if faith herself created the story of Jesus she can develop it endlessly and always renew it. Were all to be written the world would not contain the books, as one evangelist says (John xxi. 25).

The Gospels are different because they answer to the religious life and liturgical practice of diverse Christian provinces. . . . (“The Historicity of Jesus”, Appendix II in The Creation of Christ, 1939, pp. 445-446. My bolding and formatting)

* After this chapter Brodie has an Epilogue reviewing Bart Ehrman’s attempt to rebut the Christ Myth theory and argue for the historicity of Jesus. I wrote on that in Thomas Brodie’s Review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?

 

8 Comments

  • 2013-12-25 10:36:10 UTC - 10:36 | Permalink

    THanx for the tour of Brodie

  • Doug Shaver
    2013-12-25 13:05:18 UTC - 13:05 | Permalink

    Good job, Neil.

    “It is probably a little unfair for me to be injecting my own contrary thoughts into this final chapter as I have done, but I think on the whole I have attempted to do justice to Brodie’s views and it is surely not wrong to make clear where I myself also stand, especially for the sake of new readers who don’t know this blog’s orientation. I hope I have done so respectfully.”

    As best I can tell without having reading Brodie’s book myself, your presentation of his views has been eminently fair. And, I think you have been consummately respectful in the way you have injected your dissenting opinions.

  • Clarke Owens
    2013-12-25 14:56:35 UTC - 14:56 | Permalink

    Neil, in discussions of this kind, one of the things I always bump up against is the use of the word “God.” I once read that for the ancient Greeks, a “god” included any very high-impact sort of experience, such as seeing an old friend again after a long absence. This is obviously a foreign concept for us today. The western mind has been influenced by two millennia of monotheism and anthropomorphism, both of which have severed the concept of [a] god from the phenomena of nature. Thus, it is virtually impossible to argue on the same terms with someone whose concept of ‘god’ does not include other concepts of ‘god’ from both previous and other cultures. The problem is our imaginations. Perhaps you could discuss this issue in future posts. By the way, thank you for your kind words about my book, ‘Son of Yahweh.’ Best wishes, Clarke W. Owens

    • Neil Godfrey
      2013-12-26 00:17:49 UTC - 00:17 | Permalink

      I like much of your way of accounting for the crucifixion narrative. Various posts recently have been leading me down new reading alley-ways and I’m trying to keep several topic plates spinning here at the moment but I’ll certainly be discussing more aspects of your book in future posts. I’ve been arguing for the primary importance of understanding the nature of the literary work before knowing what sorts of questions can reasonably be put to it. It’s most helpful to read your scholarly approach to the same types of issues.

  • 2013-12-26 09:54:28 UTC - 09:54 | Permalink

    Thanks so much for this! It’s great to read along with someone who is also reading along. It’s like I get two books worth of material for the price of one!

    If I could ask one more thing, it would be a single blog post or page with links to each blog post in this series, in order. The category link is presented in reverse chronological order, with only a few posts per page, so even to start reading through this series again requires and extensive click hunt. When I read through the posts together previously (when you were about half way through reviewing the book) I was using my phone, so simply went back in the whole archive, loaded every post by page and skipped the non-Brodie ones. There has to be an easier way!

    Catch you later,

    Luke B.

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