Friday, May 12, 2006

Philosophical Issues and Methodology in Jesus Research (Part 6)

(Be sure to read the previous parts of this essay: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

3. The Approach of Critical Realism
As we have seen, approaches to the question of the historical Jesus necessarily involve philosophical presuppositions about how one understands the relationship of faith and reason, theology and philosophy. The historical-critical method which first emerged with Spinoza and gained ground during the Age of Enlightenment operates with a certain bias against the supernatural, the miraculous and the theological. The result of such study is necessarily reductivist.

Yet, for the most part, Jesus scholars have held off on laying out a philosophical method as the basis for their work. B. F. Meyer and N. T. Wright are two refreshing exceptions. Meyer has influenced Wright in applying the philosophical hermeneutic of “critical realism” to historical Jesus research. In this part of the paper we will do two things. First we will look at the critical realist position. Then we will turn and see how N. T. Wright applies this method to Jesus studies.

3.1. Critical Realism
As we have seen, with the elevation of reason came a preoccupation with “objective” truth. To put it bluntly, this view entailed the idea that the meaning of a given text is found entirely on the page. Through critical reason all could come to “pure” truth. In this view, then, there is a perfect one-to-one correspondence between language and the world.[1] This view has come to be known as “naïve realism.”[2] Kant exposed the error in this view, explaining that human knowledge is arrived at only through conceptual categories of the human mind.[3] The work of Kant gave rise to the idea of phenomenalism, that is, that all a person can really know is one’s own experience of the object. Hence, whereas the naïve realists imagined knowledge in terms of a simple line of knower to object, the phenomenalists’ understanding could be described in terms of a line drawn from knower to object which then returns back from object to knower. [4]

“Critical realism” stands between these two views. This method acknowledges the objective reality of the thing known (reality), while asserting that it can only be accessed through a “spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (critical).[5] Meyer explains that understanding is not like sight wherein “seeing is immediately present to what is seen.”[6] In understanding, the very presence of the to-be-understood does not immediately cause understanding. If this were the case school children would never have problems with comprehension—all would immediately understand the lesson presented.[7]

Wright goes on to explain that critical awareness reveals three things about the process of knowing. First, that the observer always views reality from a certain point of view. There is no such thing as a “god’s-eye” or “detached” view of reality. Secondly, our understanding is peculiar to our own worldview, which functions as a kind of lens for understanding. Finally, the how I understand is in large part defined by the community to which I belong. Wright goes on to draw upon the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, who argued that worldviews are embodied in communities through the concept of “story.”[8]

MacIntyre lays out his argument in his now classic book, After Virtue. He writes, “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”[9] It is through stories that a community imparts to its members its worldview. Through stories they learn how to function in the world—how to live out their story. Through fairy tales young children learn how to define “good” in the context of the world they have been born into.[10] He writes, “Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions in the world.”[11] These stories define and transmit the values of one’s own community.[12] They do not impart strict universal principles but, rather, impart “an ability to face with courage and to find one’s way through the hazards and tragedies of life by means of the ‘map’ of a living tradition.”[13]

Continue on to Part 7 here...
[1] Kevin Vanhoozer, Is there Meaning in this Text?: The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 48.
[2] Wright, The New Testament, 35; Ben F. Meyer, Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship: A Primer in Critical Realist Hermeneutics (Collegeville, Minn. The Liturgical Press, 1994), 2-4.
[3] Vanhoozer, Is there Meaning?, 49.
[4] Wright, The New Testament, 34-5.
[5] Wright, The New Testament, 35.
[6] Meyer, Reality and Illusion, 6.
[7] Meyer, Reality and Illusion, 6.
[8] Wright, New Testament, 38.
[9] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (2nd ed.; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978), 216.
[10] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 216: “It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world, and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on ritous living and go into exile to live with swine, that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are.”
[11] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 216. Also see Nelson, Narrative and Morality, 52.
[12] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 222.
[13] Nelson, Narrative and Morality, 53.

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