Friday, August 21, 2009

Are Historical Religions Better?

This is my response to the second issue raised by a "thinking friend"(TF) on August 13 (and repeated in different words in another e-mail message of August 20). My response to the first issue was in "Is There One Christian Story" posted on August 18.

In part, my TF wrote: "There seems to be a hint of judgment in noting the story-less tradition of Buddhism as compared to our 'decisive' faith story. Is an 'historical' religion better? If so, why?"

Regardless of what I think about the merits of "the Christian story"--and I continue to maintain that in spite of all the differences there is an overarching story which not only unites all Christians at some level but also definitely makes Christianity a historical religion--I in no way think that being historical in itself makes Christianity superior to non-historical religions.

On the other hand, those who are adherents of non-historical religions (or a mystical, non-historical version of "Christianity") are usually clear in their contention that religious faiths focussing on "eternal truths" are superior to any religion based upon historical events. The Buddhist scholars with whom I regularly had dialogue in Japan left little doubt about direct contact with Ultimate Reality bring better than any reliance upon historical events.

As I write in the seventh chapter of my forthcoming book "The Limits of Liberalism," "Gotthold Ephriam Lessing (1729-81) was one of the outstanding philosophers of the Enlightenment era. In an essay published in 1777, he wrote that 'accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason,' and he went on to declare that such a situation is 'the ugly, broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.'”

In other words, Lessing denies that historical events can lead to universal or ultimate truths. And so do many who are not adherents of a historical faith such as Christianity.

So, regardless of my personal beliefs, Christianity has through the centuries been considered a historical religion by most people who have a thorough understanding of it. This says nothing, though, about the relative value of that position. It does mean, though, that many who have a non-historical religious faith are often dismissive of Christianity partly, or largely, because it is a religion based upon a historical story.


  1. I think that we've crossed a boundary in this last response to the question of "historical religions." And that is by allowing the lines between story (the subject of the previous post) and history to become blurred. One of James Barr's many contributions was in helping us to keep these distinctions quite clear.

    Quoting from his book entitled, "Biblical Theology," he quotes from his own "Old and New in Interpretation," as follows: "The Old Testament tells acts, events, speeches, thoughts, conversations, and all sorts of varied information, in a hightly varied complex. Within this complex, however, certain relations receive particularly clear marking, and one of the clearest is that of temporal sequence. It is characterized by chronological data, by family genealogies, by references back to earlier events, and by an unmistakable progresion. This is like history, in that it reads in a temporal progression and tells a story which is cumulative from the beginning along a temporal scale. The nearness to history, however, should not be exaggerated."

    Now, I simply want to say that story is one thing; history is another. To be strict in our conversation about story, we really should not confuse the two, but should more carefully define the differences as we think.

  2. Continuing from my last post, when I say that I cannot get away from "the story" in reflecting upon my own personal faith (a statement I made last week in my Bible Study class a bit too autobiographically), I do not necessarily mean that I think the biblical story is itself historical in every (even in necessarily very many) respect(s).

    My holding to story without history reminds me of when I get together with my sister at family reunions. She is the real story-teller of the family and half the fun for me is seeing how her stories have developed over the years. The same stories she told 25 years ago, and that involve me, my friends and relatives, now have different details, purposes, and outcomes. Her memories are so different from mine. In fact, she will modify a story in multiple narrations for different family members at the same family reunion. It's extraordinary. Her story-telling really does depend on who is in the room, how she is reminded of the story, and what the purpose is. Most of the time it's to have fun, but even when the mood is serious, the actual historical details matter little to her. What's even more intriguing is, she accuses me of the same thing; and, I suspect she's quite right.

    What's even more amusing is that for years I tried to tell her to get her stories right. I finally realized that historically right is not necessarily the main aim of a story anyway, certainly not her (or my?) stories. And so I have come to think about possible analogies to the biblical story (which I try to read as one continuous story, including the New Testament, as I am Christian) which is similar in at least the relative disregard for the contemporary criterion of historical veracity. Stories are powerful just because they are history-like, not because they are historical.

    So, if we keep the boundaries between historical and history-like in mind, I wonder whether the distinction between so-called "historical and non-historical religions" is really valid. Ultimately, even Jewish, Christian and Muslim "stories" are just history-like rather than historical. We appropriate their stories better as stories rather than as history. What is more, religions that have only stories, and those that pretend not to be history-like, are also embraced as story. In a word, the story (and not history) is the thing.

  3. The Christian Story (and I want to start differentiating between Story and stories) is more important that history, but I believe the Story cannot be separated from history--and that makes Christianity different from non-historical religions. The Story is irrevocably linked to historical persons and events.

    The stories MPH's sister tells, however embellished and/or changed, are, no doubt, based on historical people and events. They would have a whole different meaning if they were just made up with no historical basis.

    That is what I believe about the Christian story--even more so. The historical people and events are not just real (even though the stories about them get embellished and changed from time to time), they are central to the Story.

    I will write more about this in my next post, which will be about the Christian creeds.

  4. Not to spend all my powder on this one topic, because you've given us so much to think about already on other worthy topics. Still, I might just mention that once we begin using the category of history, we've opened the Pandora's box for biblical interpretation and for theology, haven't we?

    Regarding the example of my sister, I was indeed implying that she makes non-historical things up. That's why her stories are so much fun. And, while she'd never admit it, people in the room know it. That's becuase they were there for the particular events and remember them. Nevertheless, her stories don't fail; they accomplish their tasks despite the non-basis in verifiable history.

    But isn't that like Genesis 6's story of the intermarriage of gods and humans? Must that be a historical narrative to be true? I don't think so. Or how about the legend of Samson's tying 300 foxes' tails together with torches between them to burn up the enemy's barley? These are obviously legendary--based upon a real person, as far as we can tell, but clearly non-historical. What about the creation story itself? When we hold it to the criteria of history, just the one that we exist with on an everyday basis, it fails. It's mythology. It works as story; it forms the basis for our theological reflections, but as history, it won't do. We have other stories that are far more historically reliable, even though they are themselves historically flawed.

    Once we let history as a category in the conversation, at least in some of its meanings, we've let the camel's nose under the tent and the tent is coming down. If story must be historical, then it must be common to all civilizations. Ancient Israel's history must be common with that of the Ancient Near Eastern civilizations, no? Unfortunately, the story is trying to make just the opposite point for theological reasons. And, in fact, trying to say that God is "in" ancient Israel's story (that is history-like), but not necessarily "in" that of others. This is problematic to me. The criterion that is supposed to apply to all cannot be precisely because the history-like story of ancient Israel.