Rejecting the Supernatural?

In my two recent posts I briefly questioned the assumptions associated with the term “supernatural.” From a philosophical standpoint I would argue that what is needed is not so much a rejection of the supernatural as a redefining thereof. On the other hand, I am not a philosopher but a historian of ancient Judaism and early Christianity. In that role the charge I most often hear from readers who identify themselves as Christian “believers” is that historians “reject the supernatural.” In other words, historians begin with what are labeled as “naturalistic” presuppositions and thus end up rejecting a priori, the very possibility of the incarnation, the virgin birth of Jesus, his miracles, his atoning death, his bodily resurrection, and his ascent to heaven–in other words all the theological affirmations of the Apostles’ or Nicean Creeds. I have addressed this issue quite recently here, but want to expand a bit in some different directions.

Prof. Ronald Hendel has an interesting piece in this regard in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, “Critical Biblical Scholarship–What’s the Use?,” challenging those who would question the value of historical critical study of the Biblical texts as Christian philosophers. Hendel is the one who opened this “can of worms” back in August, 2010 with an op-ed in BAR titled “Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies” (36:04, July/Aug 2010) in which he lamented the increased participation and influence of evangelical and fundamental Christian scholars in the Society of Biblical Literature meetings, many of whom openly oppose standard historical critical methods in favor of a ‘faith based” Biblical scholarship. You can read an on-line version here, and some SBL responses here. I would particularly direct readers to Kenneth  Atkinson’s insightful response here. Hendel’s charge is that essentially folks are mixing categories here, confusing the role of faith with that of reason–that is the scientific investigation of texts and other historical evidence–“Biblical” or otherwise. Hendel wrote:

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” This famous line from Pascal’s Pensées draws a wise distinction between religious faith and intellectual inquiry. The two have different motivations and pertain to different domains of experience. They are like oil and water, things that do not mix and should not be confused. Pascal was a brilliant mathematician, and he did not allow his Catholic beliefs to interfere with his scholarly investigations. He regarded the authority of the church to be meaningless in such matters. He argued that “all the powers in the world can by their authority no more persuade people of a point of fact than they can change it.”1 That is to say, facts are facts, and faith has no business dealing in the world of facts. Faith resides in the heart and in one’s way of living in the world.

I have to side largely with Hendel on this issue. As I often tell my students, good history is never the enemy of informed faith, but I don’t see my job as a historian of religions to sort out the faith issues for people–or even to deal with them at all. This is not to say that people who hold such faith are stupid or uninformed, but rather that faith and history are separate ways of looking at religions. Other than a few clerics, every major scholar of whom I am aware in the field of “studies of the historical Jesus,” shares the same basic historical methods and presuppositions. This is not to say we all agree on conclusions, but we are clear on the methods of historical research and what counts for evidence.

It is quite easy to confuse the roles of the academic historical study of religions as contrasted to Christian faith or theology, but alas, such confusion is quite common. I teach at a state university and serve as chair of the Dept. of Religious Studies. That means our funding is “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and when it comes to the academic study of religions we take that most seriously. Obviously, like any large department of Religious Studies, we cover a range of religious traditions including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, and so forth. In considering the history, development, and practice of these faiths in all their manifold variety it is absolutely essential that we take an objective academic approach–the very opposite to that of some readers, who obviously think that Christianity and the “truth” of Jesus’ resurrection, virgin birth, divinity, and redemptive role as Savior of humankind are historical facts, self-evident to any “true scholar.” Of course similar claims of other traditions to valid supernatural experiences are viewed as false, or perhaps “demonic.”

Historical descriptive work in the area of religions is not in the business of evaluating truth claims, but in honestly and objectively tracing and reporting the rise and development of such views. In other words, it is not my role as a historian to say “Yes, Jesus rose from the dead, and those testimonies in Paul’s 1 Corinthian letter, and at the end of Matthew, Luke, and John are verifiable historical truth and I urge others to believe them so they can have eternal life.” Such personal testimony of faith would surely not make me a “true scholar,” in fact it would be quite the opposite. Imagine if a professor teaching the history of Islam began a class by endorsing Allah as the one God, Mohammed as his infallible Prophet, and the many “undeniable proofs” of the Koran’s perfection. One could hardly call such an approach “history” and any good university would never hire such a teacher, and rightly so. The historical investigation of Christianity, or any religion for that matter, should be no different.

There are many places and situations in which such faith affirmations are appropriate but certainly not in the academic study of religion. Both my two latest books, The Jesus Dynasty, and The Jesus Discovery,  reflect the methods and assumptions with which historians commonly operate as they describe and trace the history and development of a religious tradition. Our job is not to evaluate and endorse spiritual truth, but rather to offer the best possible account we can of the history and development of a given tradition.

In point of fact, I do not “reject the supernatural,” (so much as “redefine” it) but such personal philosophical or theological views have nothing to do with my work as an historian. The guiding question of my recent work has been–what can be responsibly said about the historical Jesus? Affirming a belief that Jesus had no human father or that he rose bodily up to heaven in the clouds following his death, would take one totally out of the realm of what can be investigated historically. In my books I wanted to “come clean” with the reader in this regard and be clear about the differences between history and faith.

What is rather frightening is to imagine such views of the supernatural becoming a part of the wider academic world–or God forbid, our Republic government, where Christian faith and dogma are treated as historical fact, and thus “required” as part of legislation and curricula. Thank God for the Enlightenment and the skeptical “deism” of our founding fathers and mothers in formulating the 1st Amendment. Unfortunately about three quarters of the world has still not learned the lesson of separating “religion” and the “state,” and even in Europe, which is surely proud of its secularism in contrast to the United States, still nonetheless has retained the fetters of a Church based system. Ironically, as witnessed by our own culture, a “secular” Republic does not mean the end of religion–far from it. In fact the free exchange of all ideas allows religions of every stripe and measure to thrive. Thank you John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and all the rest.