The Myth of Modernity

As a child, I greatly enjoyed fantasy fiction.  Dragons, witches, elves, sorcerers, vampires (before Twilight gave those a teen angst transfusion), werewolves, magic swords, ancient curses, were all great fun.  (I wasn’t sure about the gnomes – dangerously curious – but who wouldn’t love the hobbits?)  The movie Willow was the sort of adventure I enjoyed.  Dungeons and Dragons was where I learned social interactions.  (Sad, perhaps, but common enough.)  Of course wiser heads than mine ensured I could distinguish between make-believe and reality, and I never thought such fantasies were real.

The standard story, duly educated into me, was that people used to believe in witches, dragons, alchemy, demons, etc., but the Enlightenment and modern science had shown that there were no such things.  The world revealed by science was sometimes bizarre, certainly (not only quarks are strange), but it bore no resemblance to such legends and medieval superstitions.  “Everyone knows,” I well knew, that “there’s no such thing” as a dragon.

Except, of course, that there is.  The Komodo dragon is the largest lizard in the world (although not the largest reptile: crocodiles get larger). (more…)

The Problem with Prolegomena

The problem with prolegomena is that they are out of place.

Prolegomena are the things that must be said at the very beginning, before anything else.  They are the intellectual throat-clearing before meat of the matter, the logical foundations upon which later assertions will be based.  Karl Barth defined prolegomena as the explanation of the path to knowledge (in his case, in the field of dogmatic theology, but it could be taken more generally).  The prolegomena explain how the study of a subject ought to proceed, with what method, on what assumptions, in order to succeed at its intended task.  But the problem, with due apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, is that we never do start at the very beginning. (more…)

The Old Testament and the Ancient Near East: A Christian Historian’s View

As a historian, I am struck by how much of the Old Testament consists of historical narrative, over a third of the total (and it’s a big volume!).  On the other hand, I am also surprised at the lack of historical method (as distinct from the methods of textual scholarship or archaeology) applied to these biblical narratives.  It seems that most Old Testament scholars have concluded that there is nothing historical in the text to which historical methods might be applied.  Yet I wonder whether the experts have not too quickly pre-judged the matter (always a dangerous conclusion for a non-expert such as myself to come to).  Indeed, I find myself in the rather unenviable position of distrusting the experts, and this post is an attempt to explain one portion of why I think that is, and to suggest an alternate approach to the issue. (more…)

Am I a Presbyterian?

I am having an argument with a Christian friend.  He asserts that I am a Presbyterian.  I assert that I am not.  He is not insulting me; he himself is a Presbyterian (on that we both agree).  His argument about my being Presbyterian is very simple: I am a member of a church, that church is Presbyterian, therefore I am a Presbyterian.  My argument is somewhat more complex. (more…)

Judging Christians

Judgmentalism is unattractive in modern, liberal, western culture.  After the accusation that all Christians are hypocritical, the notion that Christians are judgmental (and its frequent companion, closed-minded) is one of the reasons I have most frequently heard for why non-Christians have no interest in Christianity.  Some of the cleverer non-Christians, and many of the more liberal Christians, have even learned to cite Jesus himself, who said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1).  So judging is always wrong, right?

The issue of Christians exercising judgment is not so simple.  While the criticism that (most) Christians are too judgmental has merit, I think it is rather that Christians sin by judging in the wrong direction.  Jesus also said, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24).  Not only does Jesus command not to judge, he also commands Christians to exercise judgment correctly.  Hateful judgmentalism makes obvious a lack of love, but what judgment’s “cultured despisers” often fail to realize is that refusal to condemn sin can itself be a failure to love fully.  But what does it mean to judge “correctly”? (more…)

Sins Big and Small?

One of the issues on which Protestants and Roman Catholics have often chosen to disagree is whether there are gradations in sin.  As Holy Saturday comes to a close, and as we prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection tomorrow, I thought this subject might be worth a few words.  In short, I think both are right, as long as not overstated. (more…)

History Without Witnesses? A Question of Apostolic Knowledge

I love a good question.  It can provide an opportunity for new thinking, and new insights.

Many people presume that because I am an academic in a “secular” discipline, that there must be some tension between my Christian faith and my intellectual activities.  I know of none.  While I certainly don’t have all the answers I would like to have, I do regard Christian faith as fully intellectually satisfying (as well as, more importantly, spiritually salvific), and I regard the biblical texts (rightly interpreted) as first-class historical sources.

Recently I was asked how I, as a historian, deal with episodes in the gospels which specify that the apostles were not there.  I mean, we may regard the apostles as eyewitnesses in a general sense, but how could the authors of the gospels know what they themselves admit that they could not have witnessed?  The result of this line of thinking surprised me. (more…)

Worshiping the Unseen

My last post suggested that part of the difficulty in adjudicating the debate whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same God is that we mean so many different things when we say “worship.”  But there is another problem: how do we know what someone worships?  In grammatical terms, “worship” is a transitive verb; it takes a direct object.  But how do we know what the actual direct object is of any particular act of worship?  The first answer would seem to be that someone is worshiping whom or what they claim to be worshiping.  And in cases of frank idolatry, that is undoubtedly sufficient.  When an ancient Greek claimed to be worshiping Aphrodite, or a modern Vaishnava Hindu worships Vishnu, there is no reason to doubt them.  The greater difficulty is determining the object of worship when people of different religions claim to be worshiping simply “God,” or even “the God.”  This question takes us to the center of some tricky problems about meaning and language, especially the meaning of language describing non-physical realities. (more…)

What is Worship?

My last post mentioned the dispute as to whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, and suggested some reasons why the answer is not obvious.  These in particular have to do with the range of meanings given to the verb “to worship,” and the difficulty of determining precisely the object of worship when that object is unseen.  I think the result is that Christians who believe the same theology may nevertheless answer the question differently, depending on the contextual meanings of the words and the philosophical underpinnings.  Therefore I suggest we should avoid being dogmatic on this question.  I am not opposed to dogma on other questions, such as the “three-ness” (Trinity) of God or the deity of Christ, but it seems to me that whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God is not a question which admits of a single correct answer, nor is it a question whose answer is essential to the maintenance of Christian faith. (more…)

“Same God” for Muslims and Christians? False Starts

Recent events at Wheaton College have once again raised the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  This is a question which I have faced with some regularity, given that I have a small amount of theological training and that I study the mixed society (including Muslims and Christians) of the medieval Middle East.  With due regard to Biblical authority and the many learned people who have weighed in on the question, I find the issue to be rather more ambiguous than anyone likes to admit, and dependent upon certain non-obvious answers to tricky questions regarding the nature of worship and the relationship between sense and referent when speaking about spiritual beings, including God.  In other words, contrary to what everyone would like to be the case, the answer is not obvious either way.
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