The Discovery of History

From The Morality of History (© 2014) R. Joseph Hoffmann

The fundamental discovery of the Enlightenment was the discovery of history or rather, of a historical consciousness. History had, of course, been written for two millennia. The Hebrews wrote it. The Greeks wrote it. The Romans wrote it. Often it was intertwined with interest in legend and legendary beginnings, making important men into great men or demigods; making bloody battlefield victories into providential triumphs; making stubborn evangelists and confessors into saints.

The idea of a history that could be detached from the parochial interests of writers and patrons cannot flourish when the patrons are kings and popes, who want history told in a certain way, a way consistent with giving glory to the sovereign, or glory to God and his holy church. The idea of a history faithful to impartial description and free of the demand for exaggeration and outright falsehood that characterizes the work of every writer from Herodotus, the father of history and the “father of lies,” to the Islamic histories of the self-proclaimed descendant of the Prophet, Ibn Khaldun in his over-praised Muqqidimah in the fourteenth century—that kind of history is unknown.

It is not surprising or accidental that it is unknown; it is totally explicable within the context of declining ecclesiastical power and the decline of sovereign authority. The death of sovereign opinion heralded the birth of a democracy of ideas. That is to say, the Enlightenment showed us that history has a history, and more important, that ideas, languages, societies, economic systems, and organic species have histories.

The spillover of these recognitions into the 19th century will take us from Lamarck to Lyell and Darwin—who, by the way praised his predecessor as “the first to see the probability of all changes in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law, and not of miraculous interposition.” They take us in economics from Adam Smith to Marx, in history from a fulsome Gibbon to the more empirical Van Ranke—one of the first to base history on primary sources.

Theology and biblical studies are not an exception to the pattern:
If conservative scholars slaved away to defend the church and the Bible from the predations of a new scientific outlook, the theology faculties were also filled with young and older Turks, students and professors, proclaiming the death of the old faith and the rise of the new, taking us from the eminently civilized Schleiermacher to Feuerbach, Bauer, and Strauss, where religion is “nothing else than the consciousness of the infinity of the consciousness; or, in the consciousness of the infinite, the conscious subject has for his object his own nature and where God is nothing else than man: he is, so to speak, the outward projection of man’s inward nature.” (Feuerbach).

And it is almost unimaginable in faith-based America circa 2014 that the following words were penned in Germany in 1840, though by an admittedly provocative biblical scholar: “We save the honor of Jesus when we restore His Person to life from the state of inanity to which the apologists have reduced it, and give it once more a living relation to history, which it certainly possessed” (Bruno Bauer).

The Enlightenment, of course was not one thing but a congeries of ideas that flowed confidently together into a single stream. Progress was the buzzword—all the philosophers used it: it meant many things at the same time: developing an understanding of the natural world, the ability to manipulate the world through technology; overcoming dogmatic restrictions on knowledge, bred of religious superstition—often associated with religion itself; overcoming human cruelty and violence through social improvements and political structures.

Blocking the progress of that stream was religion—or to use the opprobrious word of 18th century thought “supernaturalism,” as philosophers as diverse as Spinoza first and Locke and Hume later would understand it–a childish dependence on improbable disruptions of natural law. “The priest speaks very ill of the philosopher,” wrote Diderot; “The philosopher speaks very ill of the priest. But the philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers…The priest’s system is a tissue of absurdities and by it he secretly maintains ignorance; reason is the enemy of faith, and faith is the foundation of the priest’s position.”

Neither the historical method nor the scientific outlook spring fully fledged from the head of Lady Wisdom, however. What the Enlightenment provided was an opportunity to move a certain kind of thought—thought that demanded evidence in advance of conclusions rather than a priori conclusions—that it to say doctrines–that needed to be supported by argument—into the light of day. What crumbled under the weight of the new intellectual disposition were old habits of mind: the ancient belief, for example, that truth is a function of longevity, that what is old is true—as we still say when something “has stood the test of time.” Or the diehard belief that truth of a certain sort was parceled out in flashes of revelation, something the Christian Neoplatonists learned from the pagan Neoplatonists, so that history was the unfolding of a grand design, climaxing in the past, in the act of salvation, and now moving toward the denouement of judgement and eternity.

Bluntly put, neither the antiquarian view, which locates truth in the past, nor the providential view–itself a rationalization of the ancient apocalyptic view–of history could be accommodated to the spirit of learning. Indeed, these views began to tumble when Pico della Mirandola tried in the 15th century to solve problems of history through the study of language—not only Greek and Latin, but Hebrew and Aramaic, and not only the Platonist philosophers but Aristotle and Ibn Rushd as well.

To the end of his beleaguered life, Pico failed to understand why Pope Innocent VIII condemned his 900 theses as heretical. But a look at his famous 1486 Oration on the Dignity of Man gives a clue: in it, Pico justifies the importance of the human quest for knowledge: Man exists not as a slave of sin, but as the crucial link in a system that runs from god down to the worms; we are not only sentient but smart beings whose existence is required to explain the world—a doctrine less about intelligent design than intelligent perception. God does not change, and all other forces of nature are the result of some outside force acting on whatever undergoes change. But human beings change themselves through free will. His reading of history persuaded him that philosophies and institutions were always undergoing change; and this suggested in turn that humanity’s potential for self-transformation and intellectual progress, rather than God’s control of the world, was the only constant.

The exercise of reason becomes a human responsibility; the failure to exercise reason throws us down the chain to the vegetative state. It takes a Pico, or his close contemporary and hoax-buster Lorenzo Valla, to explain the dizzying succession of “achievements” that come after them: Erasmus’ New Testament in 1516-17; the vernacular Bible movement of the 16th and 17th centuries; the anti-Trinitarian movement—which flows naturally from attempts to collate doctrines with texts, ranging from Faustus Socinus to Miguel Sevetus to Thomas Jefferson and the amateur musings of a Tom Paine in the 17th and 18th century. When I list these as achievements, we should recall that in the hinterlands of the world there are people who regard achievement as regression, as failure, as evil. Even the great church historian Philip Schaff began his 8 volume church history by saying there were three divisions of history: divine, human and satanic. So as recently as 1910, the achievements of the Enlightenment could be described as the work of the devil and the whole project a failure.

What all of these seemingly disparate flourishes have in common is the radically new idea that doubt—which along with pride in a religious context will only get you into hot water—is the wellspring of knowledge. To know something in a meaningful way is to examine the evidence for it, the development of it, and the context in which it occurs.

With very little change of mindset, not to say skill-set, the same questions could be posed about an idea, a tradition, a language, a social construct or an organism. If democracy has a history, then why not a religious book? If a religious book, why not the earth and the system in which it exists? If the history of the book is not a sufficient explanation about the history of species, the human species, for example, then why not search for better explanations. If ideas have histories and God is, at minimum, an idea, then why not—indeed–a history of God? The grand synthesis of the Enlightenment was the synthesis of evidence and explanation, and its single most critical achievement, elevating doubt, or refined doubt, skepticism, to the status of a principle. The old synthesis, Thomas Aquinas’s noble effort, to bring faith and reason together, had been displaced in all departments by the quiet conclusion that faith had to go because reason needed other partners.

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Obstacles to Enlightenment

A. Religious Literalism

We stand on the other side of that transition, even though the conceptual outcome is not universally accepted. Some of us entertain doubt more freely, perhaps more comfortably, than others in the same way that some of us are happier reading and writing than in playing board games or watching infomercials; some of us are quite content to apply doubt to the things of Caesar but not to the things of God, echoing Tertullian’s discomfort with using Athens as a way of understanding Jerusalem. Recall that Descartes’ cogito begins with the dubito: The need to doubt in order to affirm. It means that skepticism is at the core of modern life, modern thought, ethical reflection, and, at least theoretically, social and political action. For some of it is may be an acquired habit and for others a natural inclination; but the Enlightenment made skepticism and doubt impossible to ignore as criteria for knowledge and truth.

The chief obstacles to this hard won reality, which Habermas has called the “unfinished project of Enlightenment,” this brave new way of understanding a very old world, are twofold: first, the obstacle of religious extremism, which we often describe, or hear described, as “anti-intellectual.” In fact, that is only half right, and half right is all wrong. Christian fundamentalism, the regressions of Conservative Judaism, and Islamic extremism all have long intellectual traditions. It’s not that the defenders of young earth theory, or the literal virginal conception of Jesus, or the six days creation story or the rapture, or the uniqueness of the Koran don’t write books. It is rather that their books are devoid of constructive skepticism, the habit of mind Santayana called the “chastity of the intellect.” Even their suspicion of historical method, which stems from a moral judgement about the motives of their opponents, is an intellectualism, or creativity, devoid of skepticism. And by skepticism I mean the ability to turn a critical eye on one’s own beliefs not only a disapproving eye on the views of your opponents.

The gift of the Enlightenment is that it was a rare moment of the West, that much maligned bastion of arrogant Euro-centrism, looking at the sources, the only sources, of its own historical past, its own beliefs, and its own intellectual achievements. And therefore different from the age of faith that preceded it, where truth was defined primarily as the opposite of what heretics, pagans, and infidels held to be true. It’s important not to lose sight of the element of self examination, self-criticism; because the essence of what Tennyson called “honest doubt” is exactly that, an attempt to be true to the natural disposition not to believe something at first flush, or on the basis of insufficient evidence.

But the world we inhabit is not a world in which the intellectual principles we subscribe to are without a price tag. The war of ideas or the clash of civilizations or whatever overwrought and hackneyed phrase one prefers to describe the social space we occupy as human beings is a world in which the values of the Enlightenment—whatever the shortcomings of that era, however wrong its assumptions about progress and the nobility or perfectibility of the human spirit—are dominant.

But there is scarcely anyone who has not been affected by the general transition in western thought from believing in order to understand, to the maxim that insufficient evidence will always impose an obligation on reasonable people to doubt their beliefs and where necessary to question the sources, textual and institutional of those beliefs. Recall, the role of the internet in terrorist bombings, the ongoing and persistent cynical use of technology to undo the world that technology has made possible. The fundamental difference between an aspiring Palestinian martyr and a secular Palestinian may or may not be that one believes he is going to reap the material rewards of paradise through jihad while the other believes he should work for rapprochement with Israel. Or that one hates America while the other learned to love it as a graduate student at Michigan. Both have been affected by the same cultural forces, but in different ways, with different intensities, and with different reactions. What extremism almost always expresses is a failure of doubt, the absence of skepticism applied to one’s own tradition. I might add to this the corollary that skepticism is always the source of humor and irony about one’s own situation in the world, one’s own religious opinions. The unconverted Chesterton described a good religion as one which can make jokes at its own expense.

If we turn to skepticism as a general habit of thought in historical scholarship to the uses of doubt in the study of Christianity we see that the Enlightenment project has a long way to go. For centuries Christian theologians argued that the story of the church had to be told by people who believed in the truth of the story because the Bible is the church’s book, the narrative therefore being a narrative of the results, so to speak, of that relationship. So from the first church historian, Eusebius, if not Luke, the gospel writer, to the time of Philip Schaff in the nineteenth century, history has two sides, a divine and a human.

Schaff wrote in his preface,

On the part of God, it is his revelation in the order of time (as the creation is his revelation in the order of space), and the successive unfolding of a plan of infinite wisdom, justice, and mercy, looking to his glory and the eternal happiness of mankind. On the part of man, history is the biography of the human race, and the gradual development, both normal and abnormal, of all its physical, intellectual, and moral forces to the final consummation at the general judgment, with its eternal rewards and punishments. The idea of universal history presupposes the Christian idea of the unity of God, and the unity and common destiny of men, and was unknown to ancient Greece and Rome. A view of history which overlooks or undervalues the divine factor starts from deism and consistently runs into atheism; while the opposite view, which overlooks the free agency of man and his moral responsibility and guilt, is essentially fatalistic and pantheistic.”

You won’t find that kind of language in the writings of most twentieth century church historians, not in Martin Marty, or Ahlstrom, or George Williams, or Jaroslav Pelikan. But you will find it, and find it frequently, in the books required in conservative Christian seminaries and colleges, because the light of the Enlightenment does not shine in all corners.

What this suggests is that when it comes to religion we are often dealing not only with different ideas of truth, but different standards of knowledge, and that these differences have a great deal to do with our perception of history. It is a difference we can trace all the way back to Pico, with his belief that things change because change is an expression of free will, versus the religious perception that God is the Lord of history and sovereign over choice and action: after all, salvation history depends on the “grand view” that in the will and purposes of an omniscient God, both the fall from grace and redemption were there—as Augustine puts it—simultaneously and in a single moment. History, for the conservative Christian, will always rhyme happily with mystery.

On this view, skeptics are the sad victims of their inability to see the unity of history because they lack any sense of purpose and meaning. The same argument can be applied to the evangelical understanding of morality or even of our perception of the natural world; lacking the pivotal role of God at the middle, all movement and all knowledge becomes purposeless. “If God does not exist,” says Ivan Karamazov “all things are lawful.” And yet for the skeptic, the reward of doubt is a higher standard of knowledge, even though that knowledge falls short of giving humanity back a world awash in purpose.

This may be the source of a certain theme in conservative religion and book religion in general, that to sacrifice the authority of the book in any area—historical, scientific, moral, theological, is to deprive life of meaning. And so much flows from that conclusion. But as Susan Hecht has said, the religious and the skeptical approaches to truth lead us in different directions; doubt she says has a relationship to truth that is rigorous sober and when necessary resigned, and it prizes this rigor above the delights of belief. (493).
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To switch tack slightly, it was not just the history of the church but the church’s book itself that came under scrutiny in the 18th century. There were glimmers of it long before—Erasmus’ discovery of the Johannine comma at 1 John 5.7-8 being the most overworked example of a breakthrough in biblical history. I suppose the best way to characterize the story of biblical scholarship in the 19th century and the greater part of the twentieth is frenetic: beginning in 1809 when the Codex Vaticanus was first examined, right down to the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls some 60 years ago or the Coptic gnostic gospels from upper Egypt in 1945, it would be easy, if facile, to see the story of biblical scholarship as one of uninterrupted progress–an enlightenment ideal.

But as the New Testament scholar James Sanders once said, people don’t read the Bible because they want to know about the dates of manuscripts; they read the Bible because they think it’s true. And it is true that we know immeasurably more today about dates, and buildings and cities and customs and words and the dates of papyrus fragments and the religious world of late antiquity than we did in 1807. The achievements of biblical criticism high and low has reinforced the heirs of Bauer and the heirs of Charles Spurgeon in unequal measure; but the fundamental habits of mind that guided the greatest contributors—men like Constantin Tischendorf, the editor of the best example of a critical text of the Greek NT in the 19th century for example, was a commitment to skepticism and a reliance on evidence:

“The text is only to be sought from ancient evidence he wrote. “A reading which is altogether peculiar to one ancient document is suspicious; as also is any, even if supported by a class of documents, which seems to evince that it has originated in the revision of a learned man. Readings, however well supported by evidence, are to be rejected, when it is manifest (or very probable) that they have proceeded from the errors of copyists.”

It seems small beer today, but in 1849 the suggestion that the received text has suffered from corruption and copying errors was no small thing. And without belaboring the impact of what was then known as the lower criticism—investigation that deals with the accuracy of a text—on “higher” questions of content and factuality, assume that it was profound. The questions of dating, canon-formation, order of the gospels, sources of the gospels, the relation of the synoptic gospels to the fourth gospel, literary interdependence, the influence of heresies, the nature of the early community—the tip of the iceberg. Rumbling beneath the surface was a question that would not go away: who was Jesus and what was he after, a question which Schweitzer answered to no contemporary scholar’s satisfaction: “He comes to us as one unknown.”

It was not a single shot fired at the gospels that caused the crisis in their divine welfare, but the application of a whole new range of critical approaches: synoptic, form, literary, redaction, all asking about the reasons why a certain bit of narrative might have been written rather what it means for the life of faith. The image of Jesus, wrote Schweitzer, has not been destroyed from without; it has fallen to pieces, cleft and disintegrated, by the concrete historical problems which came to the surface one after the other, and in spite of all artifice, art, artificiality and violence refused to be planed down to fit the design on which the Jesus of the theology of the last hundred and thirty years had been constructed.” (QHJ, p.398).

If I can simplify, the methods of biblical criticism arose sequentially to deal with the concrete historical problems to which Schweitzer refers. But—contrary to conservative thinking on the topic—they did not arise to do violence to the life of faith; if that was the effect it was not the intent, and the famous solution in NT study—the artificial division of Jesus Christ into a Jesus of history eligible for examination and a Christ of faith who rises above historical scrutiny can now be seen as what it was: a theological defense mechanism that did its own violence to texts where the division is not natural. Historical criticism was devised after the Reformation largely for the purpose of giving solid historical warrants for the unassailable truth of what they already believed to be true. But, as many in this room know painfully well, those same methods were not ideally suited for the kind of truth the Bible was thought to possess. It turned out to be a human creation, a record of the beliefs of an ancient religious community living in a particular corner of the world, influenced by the religious currents and ideologies of their day. Much of the work of NT scholarship since Schweitzer has been fighting over the scraps, beginning with the view that the core premise of Schweitzer’s work—the radically eschatology of Jesus—his belief the world was grinding to a halt and rushing toward judgement—was mistaken. And once that anchor is pulled aboard ship, the quest can take you anywhere: Jesus can be a cynic, a stoic, a peasant, a revolutionary, a bandit, a social reformer, a libertarian, a cipher a myth. He might have said a lot or a little or 18% of the things attributed to him by the gospel writers. Or he might be, once again to return to Schweitzer, one unknown—a man about whom we can say virtually nothing, not even that he certainly existed.

All of this is, to a certain degree, beside the point. One can quibble with Schweitzer’s eschatology without dismissing his very accurate perception that the old supernaturalism was a casualty of the age, and that in peeling back the layers of paint from the original picture of Jesus we get not a clearer image but a less certain one—the image scholarship has left us. It was Loisy—the famous liberal ex-Jesuit scholar’s view of the famous Protestant theologian Adolph van Harnack that the Jesus you get is the Jesus you see, and it will always be a reflection of your own face—your own conclusions. That may be true; a certain Jesus authorized by church and tradition as the son of god and savior of the world now gets us only lengthy discussion of savior gods, messianic cults, and the imperial use of the term filius dei. But there is no going back to the Jesus whose certainty is only a dictum of the church. Skepticism has made the delights of belief less delightful. Whoever else Jesus is, he cannot be something that existed apart from his context, apart from a particular religious environment. That is where skepticism has brought us. There is no way out of it. Except one.

2. Postmodernism:

The second obstacle to the Enlightenment project is the constellation of procedures in philosophy and literature we call Postmodernism: post-structuralism, deconstruction, multiculturalism, neo-relativism, neo-Marxism, gender studies and literary theory.

It’s often pointed out that postmodernism simply absorbs the critical attitude of enlightenment thought, and as a critique of the modern expresses the same skeptical position toward the past that modernism took toward the pre-modern period.

But this, it seems to me, misrepresents the core of the postmodern critique, especially in relation to biblical religion. The Grand Narrative which constitutes the common view of the Bible for those who read it beliefully dissolves, for example, on Lyotard’s view that in an age of incredulity, we can only talk about communities of meaning, not meaning itself, the meanings of knowledge, but not certainty. But incredulity is not skepticism; it’s boredom, ennui, a dowager sitting in a café in Salzburg with a cup of coffee and no appointments to keep. Postmodernism’s disapproval of modernity is closer to the fundamentalist’s disapproval of doubt; and if fundamentalism’s relationship to scripture is text without context, then postmodernism is all about context without the centerpiece of text.

In a sense, of course, Lyotard is prophetic; the various quests for the historical Jesus were grand quests in search of a narrative that would explain how Jesus should be understood, who he essentially was, what his relevance ought to be. What they produced were a series of “micro-narratives” that even when added up did not constitute the solution of a puzzle.

In erasing the distinction between words and things, signifier and signified, subject and object, particular events and random occurrences postmodernism challenges the distinction between fact and fiction—indeed Foucault does this explicitly. Thus a discourse which claims to be describing reality, such as history, has no greater relationship to its referent than fiction. Both history and fictional narratives are substitutes for reality rather than good copies and bad copies of it.

The weakness of post-modernism is simply that we do not need postmodernism to tell us this: in dismissing the “universality of reason,” as Kant had understood the phrase, the criteria for judging the success or failure of any experiment are relocated. They belong to private judgment, perception, attitude, language, or to communities-—a condition imposed by our “atomization.” Truth becomes negotiable, a state of mind subject to the flow of conditions. Applied to literary sources, the Jesus of the New Testament, the Jesus of the Gnostic gospels or the Jesus of apocryphal sources may blend and blur, or split and recombine like yeast under a microscope. The ancient celibate prophet becomes the lover of women. The earthy parable teller is a teacher of arcane wisdom. The sharply partitioned canon opens its doors to the exotic sources of Upper Egypt. The perfume is intoxicating.

An abundance of narratives emerges to satisfy our craving for new Jesuses. St John meets Leonardo. If there is anything objectionable in this procedure, it is that the skepticism applied to the grand narrative is not equally applied to the residual narratives, which suffer equally from absurdity and ahistoricity. The whole has been demolished and the parts fight for breath.

I have tried to do something pretty simple in this little excursion. I have tried to suggest that the Enlightenment formulations of skepticism are a work in progress, if Habermas’s idea of a “project” strikes you as too orderly and contained. Fundamentalism, as a train of thought opposed to self doubt and self criticism, rejects skepticism.

But then as Salman Rushdie has said fundamentalism isn’t about religion, it’s about power–as the oafish immunity of political and religious leaders to self criticism shows.

Skepticism also asks us to distinguish between non-negotiable forms of truth and falsehood. It is cynicism, or neo-cynicism, rather than skepticism that makes postmodernism alluring—the recrudescence of an ancient philosophy that takes us beyond questions to the motives for asking them and a certain indifference to the way they are answered.

As a habit of mind wrested from the credulity of the religious past skepticism will always oppose the fideism of power and the fideism of the self, but its victory over credulity is not assured. This is the basis for the following claim by Michel Foucault: “I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions. I do not mean to go so far as to say that fictions are beyond the truth. It seems to me that it is possible to make fiction work inside of truth.”

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One thought on “The Discovery of History

  1. Yes, it has always seemed to me that there was and continues to be a great fear of doubt present, even in the liturgical churches. This could be another reason why they are still holding onto most of the misogynistic and anti-gay views. Francis I really knows how to move those shells around the table. I have no side (I am not Christian, Muslim, or Jewish) except the human side. I think that if people have to silence doubters, they are cowards. In addition, they are thricely cowards in that they are not examining themselves. We are all weighed down by our petty hypocrisies; however, we need to be sure that we keep them under lock and key, that we do not become the Sophists we excoriate.
    I hate the word “relevance.” I also dislike the post-modernists, the de-constructionists (the destroying Hun-types, which most of them are), the School of Ayn Rand, etc. I think I quite dislike the existentialists as well. I do not need to prove that the Gods or a God exist. They don’t need to prove that They don’t exist. Argument null. Clear the auditorium. There will never be proof — at least for any number of billions of years. I would love to shoot all fundamentalists — of any kind — into Plutonian space. Now, that would be fun.
    The next thing I would like to do is either name all quasi “Holy” Books (including said Bible and Q’ran) Holy: ie: Holy Theogony, Holy Iliad, Holy Epic of Gilgamesh, etc. OR remove said Holy from these book titles, so: ie: Bible; Q’ran; Theogony; Iliad; Epic of Gilgamesh.
    Ah, since I will never rule the Universe, I thought I would at least bring a smile to one of my favourite bloggers today.

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