When I began reading Bart Ehrman’s new book on the historicity of Jesus, I expected that it would reflect the kinds of scholarly controls that I am familiar with in his other books. However, all one has to do is to turn the next page in his Jesus book to be confronted by another example of bias. I’m not really interested in the historicity of Jesus. To me the question is largely irrelevant. The sources are too tainted, and should be acknowledged to be so, to qualify as sources of reliable historical data. The idea that there was a man who was actually, as Christians have claimed for two thousand years less a decade or two, a representative of a god, is about as implausible as Santa Claus making his once yearly journey to the homes of all the boys and girls in the world. So, whether there was an historical person at the centre of the myth — and that needs to be stressed — at the centre of the myth – of the Son of God, is completely irrelevant to anything that should concern you or me. If there was such a person, he lived a long time ago, and is only loosely connected with the mythology that Christians built up around him. If there wasn’t such a person, the myths remain roughly the same, and have the same import. The mythical Jesus of miracles and profound teachings (most of them, as it happens, borrowed), and his questionable morals, is forever beyond the reach of history. If there was a man, he would not recognise the mythology that grew up around his single human life. The birth and the passion stories are almost entirely prophecy historicised. The rest of the story is composed of sayings and deeds which can only with difficulty be ascribed to a human being. The importance of Jesus is the importance of the mythology that grew up around the name of a man who may or may not have lived in first century Judaea. Trying to pin it on a man is a hopeless gesture of faith or faction. I see no point in it.
I have just finished reading, for the first time (and without taking any notes), Philip Kitcher’s new book The Ethical Project. Kitcher’s take on ethics is practical and naturalistic. He calls his kind of ethics pragmatic naturalism, and links it closely to the pragmatism of Dewey and James. He assumes that ethics started out in tribal conditions where altruism failures were a problem. According to Kitcher, the ethical project got its start by establishing roles and rules designed to correct altruism failures. Furthermore, he suggests, with considerable reason, it seems to me, that contemporary ethics is a developmental extension of those first rough attempts to produce, first, a form of behavioural altruism, which was then, by necessity, extended to a truly psychological altruism. (Careful definitions of behavioural and psychological altruism are provided.) When I have reread the book more closely I will get back to what he is proposing in more detail, for what he does propose, it seems to me, might help to break the logjam caused by the many metaethical proposals that are still in play, from the intuitionism of Moore to the emotivism of the logical positivists.
Alongside Kitcher I am also rereading (after many years) Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which starts from the very odd premise that modernity was a mistake, and that to reestablish ethics on sound foundations we have to return to Aristotle and Aquinas. An interesting sidelight on the publication of After Virtue is that the first edition of the book was published shortly after MacIntyre’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. And an interesting comment on that is that the woman who was his wife at the time of his conversion was his third! Since the Roman Catholic Church holds that divorce is impossible, and that the marriage bond is essentially indissoluble by anything but death, it was an odd choice of religious allegiance, except that, in After Virtue, he more or less takes the position of Pope Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti (otherwise known as Pius IX) with respect to modernity, and assumes that it is largely a logical and cultural mistake. (At least that’s the way MacIntyre’s argument seems to me. If only we had retained the virtue ethics of Aristotle as perfected by Aquinas, transitions to the scientific world view would have moved more smoothly, as well as being more intellectually respectable.)
In the first chapter of After Virtue, “A Disquieting Suggestion,” MacIntyre suggests a thought experiment. It is not clear to me that the thought experiment is even entertainable, since it does not explain clearly enough on what basis governance is to be continued in the conditions supposed. He asks us to imagine a time in the future when people have got fed up with science, have removed science from the curricula of schools and universities, killed or imprisoned all the scientists, and then government is carried out — well, how, exactly? Since science is not only physics and math and chemistry and biology, but a fairly strict methodological approach to information, how would a government function where fact checking was ruled out, and decisions were based on pure whim? MacIntyre seems to forget that science is not only composed of lists of facts, but is tied together by theory and based on experience, and that that process can scarcely simply disappear when we stop teaching the sciences. However, imagine it done for the purposes of argument. Now, says MacIntyre, we are to suppose that a generation comes along which is opposed to this science-destructive world outlook. However, during the anti-science period the scientific tradition had been virtually destroyed. There are fragments left, a book here or a page there, and a few memories of phrases and scientific terms, like the periodic table without any sense of what it was once about. But now we are to imagine people trying to reconstruct science in the absence of any understanding of what science was once really about, so they begin using scientific language without really understanding what the language was for, or what it really signified. Science, for this new generation, is a bunch of disjointed technical terms thrown out more or less at random, and repeated pointlessly in a form much like some postmodernist free association.
Over at the London Times ”Articles of Faith” section, there is an article by Sahar Khan about women in Islam. She goes on a bit about how Muhammad liberated women (tell me the old, old story!), and then this:
It is the Qur’an’s differing treatments of men and women in relation to inheritance, testimony and marriage that are viewed as inequalities; some of these teachings have been misinterpreted to justify Islam’s unjust treatment of women. It is myopic to assume that being treated differently is being treated unequally. Where the Qur’an does make a distinction; it does not mean that men are favoured over women. On the contrary, the Islamic law seeks to protect the interests of the woman. For example, the disparity in inheritance is consistent with variations in the financial responsibilities designated to a man and woman. A woman has no financial responsibilities even if she possesses wealth of her own; whereas a man is required to provide maintenance for the wife, children and close female relatives. Based on this, a man will receive twice the portion of a woman. This is not absolute in all cases though, in some situations men and women are allocated exactly the same shares.
In my opinion, women’s liberation should not be about competing with men and wanting to ape them, gender differences should [be] accepted; women should cherish their femininity as distinct and unique to them.
Think about the misogyny so clearly expressed in that, and then continue to the rest of the post. You probably see more wrong with it than I do, but I was horrified! And Sahar Khan thinks it’s Western stereotyping!
Which should be a good thing, I should have thought.
The Huffington Post reports that the “Pontifical Catholic University Of Peru Stripped By Vatican Of Right To Call Itself Catholic.” It doesn’t measure up to the standards expressed by Pope Wojtyła, the last pope, in his Apostolic Constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church). According to HuffPo:
The university in the Peruvian capital, Lima, was founded in 1917 and has been identified with liberal, progressive thinking for decades.
The liberation theologian Gustavo Gutteriez taught at the university for years, but the Vatican withdrew its right to call itself Catholic for unspecified reasons. “[T]he break came after the university had several times unilaterally modified its statutes and had “gravely prejudiced the interests of the Church”. It did not elaborate.”
However, in the Apostolic Constitution at the heart of the dispute between the Rector of the university and the local bishop, there are fairly obvious reasons why there might have been a breakdown. It is often said that the contemporary university grew out of the educational needs of Christians in the mid to late medieval period, and much credit is given to the church for the establishment of institutions of higher learning. I don’t know enough about the history of education to be able to comment, though, as I understand it, the origin of the universities originated with the students, who developed learning cooperatives to which scholars were attracted as teachers. The later control of universities by the church may signal an effort by the church to exert ecclesiastical control, rather than providing evidence that the universities came to birth in the church’s bosom – a case more of post hoc ergo propter hoc, than of the origin of universities in any deliberate plan or purpose of the church. Indeed, some famous universities in Italy (Padua comes to mind, though I stand to be corrected) did not originally have faculties of theology at all.
Reading through the earlier part of Ex Corde Ecclesiae provides pretty clear evidence why universities might have been suspicious of ecclesiastical involvement. In paragraph 8 Wojtyła says:
Having already dedicated the Apostolic Constitution Sapienta Christiana (Christian Wisdom) to Ecclesiastical Faculties and Universities, I then felt obliged to propose an analogous Document for Catholic Universities as a sort of “magna carta”, enriched by long and fruitful experience of the Church in the realm of Universities and open to the promise of future achievements that will require courageous creativity and rigorous fidelity. [my italics]
It is surely the “rigorous fidelity” that would turn out to be the sticking point, for Wojtyła had already said this (quoting from himself):
A Catholic University’s privileged task is “to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.” [paragraph 1; my italics]
And then, of course, he expands on the role of the already known fount of truth in the search for truth:
By means of a kind of universal humanism a Catholic University is completely dedicated to the research of all aspects of truth in their essential connection with the supreme Truth, who is God. It does this without fear but rather with enthusiasm, dedicating itself to every path of knowledge, aware of being preceded by him who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”, the Logos, whose Spirit of intelligence and love enables the human person with his or her own intelligence to find the ultimate reality of which he is the source and end and who alone is capable of giving fully that Wisdom without which the future of the world would be in danger. [paragraph 4; my italics]
The reader will not have missed emptiness of the words, but the presumptuous and unfounded (and perhaps unfoundable) claims that are being made for the church’s claim to truth, and the priority of that presumed truth to the search for truth that the university is devoted to carrying out with impartiality.
For the last couple months I have dipped my toes, from time to time, into the enticing waters of the myth-history question about Jesus. I find the issue at once fascinating and repulsive, for, while it seems that the entire issue is so set about with difficulties and imponderabilities that it can never be settled, it also arouses fierce passions in those who are engaged in the dispute which I find it hard to understand. I had begun to read Bart Ehrman’s book, as well as Robert Price’s and Richard Carrier’s, but each time that I approach them I find that I reach a point at which I find it difficult to go further. I try to attach significance to this — other than a natural tendency to start on projects and to give them up for lack of interest — and, to a large extent, it seems to me that the problem for me lies in the jello like consistency of the materials involved in the discussion, written materials, traditions, and authorities which give a sense of substance to the discussion, indeed, but which also, I am afraid, simply refuse to stay put.
Let me take an example. I am reading R.Joseph Hoffman’s piece “Controversy, Mythicism, and the Historical Jesus,” which he has put up at on his blog. It is his contribution to a consultation on the historical Jesus called The Jesus Process. When I read it first it seemed very convincing. Especially convincing, it seemed to me at the time, were his comments about the contest between history and myth in early church tradition. He contrasts what he calls the “Hollywood parody of the second century church” with
the leaders of a young religious movement struggling against a tide of religious mythicism. The living tradition that Irenaeus defends is historical tradition,
extending from Jesus to John and the very early church fathers like Papias, and the defence against the mythicisers like Marcion and Cerinthus. Hoffmann goes on to suggest that this early historiography of the Jesus movement
includes before the fourth century a critical element that rivals anything in secular historiography.
And here he refers to Papias’s on the evangelists and Eusebius on Papias’s ability as a reporter.
Having mentioned Haggis in the last post, I want to add here so pictures which he and his wife Isobel took on their recent trip to the Med. Isobel has already appeared here on choiceindying.com, in a guest post of her email to the Scottish Parliament, as recently as April this year. One thing they especially wanted to see was the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Designed by Antoni Gaudi, building of the church — according to Wikipedia a Basilica and Expiatory Church — began in 1882, and it is still far from finished, although confidence has been expressed that construction will be complete by 2026, the hundredth anniversary of Gaudi’s death. I suggested to Haggis, when they left, that I would like to have pictures taken by people that I know — if only on the net — and he kindly obliged by sending a few of his photos. The fantastical, almost fairy-tale building, festooned with figures and Art Nouveau curves and living shapes, has, at its foundation, a gothic structure of arches, buttresses, and soaring towers. Here is a picture of the completed North facade:
And here is a closeup of the detail on the same facade:
And then, of course, there are Haggis (Colin) and his wife Isobel themselves, with the same facade in the background.
Isobel continues to undergo treatment for cancer, and we wish her all the best in this fight of her life. Both Haggis and his wife are in the forefront of the Scottish struggle for the right to die. The pictures are used by permission. Thanks to both Colin and Isobel for their kindness.
… one may smile and smile, and be a villain.
Thanks to Haggis for the link to the story in the Scotsman. Here is Philip Tartaglia, archbishop-elect of Glasgow in the Roman Catholic Church, presently the bishop of Paisley. Nothing special about that and not really worthy of note at all, but his truly idiotic remark about the death of a Scottish MP is really beneath contempt. These guys think they have the right to speak on any pretext whatever, if it helps to get their regressive morality noticed. It should actually get him sued for libel, since he attributed David Cairn’s death to his gay lifestyle. According to the Scotsman report:
Philip Tartaglia’s suggestion prompted criticism from friends and the partner of the late David Cairns, a former priest, who claimed the Catholic leader had suggested the politician’s death at the age of 44 was somehow connected to his sexual orientation.
One of my most vivid memories of school — a religious boarding school in the North of India (still going strong) by the name of Woodstock — is of the repeated expression of, and warning against, the sin against the Holy Spirit. The warning appears with slight variations in each of the three synoptic gospels. In Mark (chapter 3) it takes this form – Jesus is speaking:
28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”
In Mark this warning comes in close proximity to the rejection of his family, an ironic commentary on later sentimental conceptions of the Holy Family (which reminds me of something, to which I will return towards the end — but see the photo at the beginning):
31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
So those Christians who idealise the Christian family as, in some sense, the cement of society, get scant support from the Lord they adore.
Now available in Polish at Racjonalista.
Thanks to Veronica Abbass we have the delight of reading a bunch of tripe from some so-called “religion experts” giving us their take on what the “renewed debate” tells us about the sanctity of life. According to Helga Kuhse, the Australian bioethicist, the Sanctity of Life Principle can be expressed as follows:
It is absolutely prohibited either intentionally to kill a patient or intentionally to let a patient die, and to base decisions relating to the prolongation or shortening of human life on considerations of its quality of kind. [The Sanctity of Life Doctrine in Medicine, 11; italics in original]
Now, the Ottawa Citizen (here) thinks that asking a group of “religion experts” how the debate over assisted dying is affecting our conception of the sanctity of life would be a useful exercise. In general, of course, you might as well just ask the pope, because so-called “religion experts” are not likely to stray very far from the usual religious line that life is sacred. Indeed, while not all of the Ottawa Citizen’s “religion experts” are actually religious experts at all, in general all of them are reluctant to stray away from things they take to be revealed. Almost all of them return a firm non placet so far as assisted dying is concerned. We are not surprised. (It is perhaps worth adding, parenthetically, that the contributors are not really “religion experts” at all, a form of words which suggests expertise in the study of religion. One of the contributors (Kevin Smith) does not seem to have any religious affiliation at all. The rest are supposedly “religious experts”, that is, religious believers whose religious faith gives them moral prejudices of one kind or another based on supposed revelations or authoritative religious texts.)
What is more surprising, perhaps, is that the Ottawa Citizen should end its article with the words of a Roman Catholic priest:
We can do better as a society than killing those who suffer but that requires that we begin with the awareness that all human life is sacred.
At least I think these words come from the priest contributor. Whether these are the words of the last person on the Citizen panel is not altogether clear, but since the Citizen deemed it appropriate to ask only one apparently nonreligious person to comment, there seems to be an underlying assumption that religious people are in some sense moral experts, whose views not only need to be heard and respected, but are the principal sources of our moral understanding. As such this doubtless expresses the editorial position of the newspaper itself. The Citizen has a long history of printing Margaret Somerville’s obiter dicta on the subject of assisted dying (and other ethical issues, but especially those emphasised by the Roman Catholic Church) from time to time. I assume these views are concordant with its own editorial position on the matters in question. But to suppose, as the Citizen apparently does, that “religion experts” have anything pertinent to say on the matter is simply to accord to religious leaders an expertise that they do not possess. Religions think they have insight into the minds of their gods, but there is no reason to think either that what supposed gods think on moral issues should concern us, or that we should pay any attention to those who think that they know what their gods think. It’s time to rid ourselves of the uncritical respect paid to religions and their leaders.
I’m not going to give an extensive response to my title question, for that would take me too far afield into political philosophy, and that is something that I have not kept up over the years. However, I do want to make a brief comment on Giles Fraser’s response to the criticism of his “This German circumcision ban is an affront to Jewish and Muslim identity” article. In a short article entitled “No, I am not a liberal – I believe that community comes before the individual” he undertakes to respond to a tweet which said “Giles Fraser’s opinions are fucked up, moronic & unfit for planet Earth”. Well, I’m not prepared to go to such lengths, but I do think he has misunderstood the foundations of liberalism, and simply does not understand why liberals value personal autonomy.
Fraser thinks that the personal autonomy that liberals value is valued at the expense of community. Here’s how he puts it:
All of which presents an opportunity to clear the decks and say why I am not a liberal. No, I’m not a conservative either. I’m a communitarian. Blue labour, if you like. But certainly not a liberal. What I take to be the essence of liberalism is a belief that individual freedom and personal autonomy are the fundamental moral goods. But I don’t buy this. What we need is a much more robust commitment to the common good, to the priority of community. It is intellectual laziness and a form of cheating to think we can always have both.
So, given the choice, he chooses community. The unfortunate thing is that he confuses community with commitment to the common good, as though the common good (which is what Fraser seems to mean by ‘community’) were something that could be achieved by prescinding from autonomy. However, there is simply no reason for believing that that is true. Personal autonomy is not something that can be simply divorced from conceptions of the common good, as
James (sorry!) John Stuart Mill recognised so clearly. One’s autonomy must be consistent with the greatest liberty for all, and so the community is always, from this point of view, a restriction on the scope of autonomy.
The liberal commitment to personal autonomy, as I understand it, is not pure libertarianism, which, as I probably inadequately understand that point of view, seems to me to suggest that the freedom to act is not limited by (at least many of) its deleterious effects on others, and even on oneself. According to libertarianism it is possible, as the Oxford Companion to Philosophy puts it, that “libertarian rights may work against our individual interests” (qv. libertarianism, political), since, according to libertarianism, autonomy (and the right of individual choice) precedes, or is antecendent to, community. Liberalism, however, for which I would take John Rawls’ conception of the original position of choice — where no one knows what position in society he will occupy, thus making it more likely that he will choose a maximin strategy for distributing both goods and freedoms — as in some sense definitive, includes community as an essential aspect of the exercise of autonomy.
Thus, if we think of children as participants in community — as I think we must — then we must take what is reasonably held to be their (would be) choices in mind when deciding how the community, which includes them, will act towards children. And from this point of view, where both community and individual autonomy are valued — as they are in liberalism — it seems that the children’s interests would not be best served by the kinds of things done to assure cultic identity. Indeed, given the difficulty of undoing commitments made on behalf of children in respect of their subsequent cultic identity, not only is community not best served in this way, but such narrowly cultic commitments has enormous implications for the wider community in which religious cultic identity can be seen to play an often destructive part. So, if Fraser is really committed to community, he must at least accommodate the kinds of personal autonomy with respect to subsets of community (such as religions and other ideological associations) that he denies in favour of continuing to favour ancient, and often barbaric practices by which membership in those subsets of community is acquired or symbolised. It seems unreasonable for him always to favour community over autonomy, since this in itself would be destructive of community, because, in plural societies, forcing membership in subcultural communities inevitably, in the long run, not only fractures lives, but also the wider community in which moral, as opposed to merely cultic, commitments should predominate.