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A new look at methodology?

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  • Bob Schacht
    Things have been quiet here on XTalk for a while, and I ve read some things that relate to some old threads, so maybe its time to revisit some of those issues.
    Message 1 of 3 , Jul 1, 2004
      Things have been quiet here on XTalk for a while, and I've read some things
      that relate to some old threads, so maybe its time to revisit some of those
      issues.

      Here's my thumbnail sketch of the status quo: The moderate mainstream on
      this list is somewhat in line with what has been called "critical
      scholarship", which I consider to be (in philosophical terms) an adaptation
      of scientific method into historical scholarship. That is, when claims are
      made, they must be supported by evidence, and amenable to disconfirmation
      by contrary evidence. Furthermore, the stance of critical scholarship tends
      to be objectivist-- that is, to "stand back" from the data at hand,
      regarding no data as privileged except by commonly accepted rules of
      evidence, such as that early sources are privileged over later sources,
      other things being equal. The most common criterion for accepting a claim
      is the "preponderance of evidence" standard.

      Of course this is not the only position. There are some on this list who
      hold to a position explicated by Collingswood and others, but I am not
      competent to summarize those positions. We have had debates about the
      merits of post-modernist criticism of the impossibility of objectivism, etc.

      Recently I have been reading a book on Servanthood (Bennett J. Sims, Cowley
      Publications, 1997), which makes a number of claims about the kind of
      leader Jesus was. Bypassing those claims for the moment, I want to take a
      look at some of his claims regarding science. He credits a kind of
      reductionism attributed to Descartes and Newton for much of scientific
      progress, and describes it as atomizing and individualizing-- a kind of
      "take it apart and see what makes it tick" approach. I realize that this is
      a highly compressed and not entirely valid summary, but I'm less interested
      in his characterization of 20th century "normal science", in Kuhnian terms,
      than by what he wants to contrast with it. He criticizes this old paradigm
      as follows:
      * Most of us have been taught an approach to knowledge that discounts
      any reliance on the spirit-- any intrusion of the "subjective" into strict
      "objective" observation. In this approach, relational knowing is considered
      inferior and undependable.
      * Feelings cannot enter into scientific processes since the only things
      that count are what can be counted. Such an approach to knowledge is the
      reverse of a "relational" understanding of truth. Spirit is out of bounds,
      and this is the foundation of the long-standing divorce of science from
      religion.
      * The quest for "objectivity" carries with it a hidden component of
      fear: in simplest terms, the epistemology of objectivity is fearful of
      losing control.
      Most of this is ground that we've covered before. What might be new here is
      Sims' emphasis on the "relational" aspects of knowledge.

      To him, the critical question is "How can we arrive at dependable
      knowledge?" This is an important choice of words, and we could spend some
      time discussing what we might mean by "dependable".

      Sims claims that the new epistemology is being birthed by science itself.
      He cites the story of the geneticist Barbara McClintock, who won a Nobel
      Prize for her work. Her methods were somewhat unorthodox, so when someone
      asked her how this kind of science was done, she replied, "You have to have
      a feel for the organism." She's not saying that we should throw out the old
      paradigm, but that "factoring" and "feeling" are partners in the search for
      knowledge-- "that measurement and mystery belong together. Computation and
      intuition serve one another, and the highest science is one that depends on
      'relational' knowing." (p. 140).

      Let me amplify his point by relating some information about anthropological
      field work, which is something I have knowledge about. When studying
      another culture, an anthropologist must make a fundamental decision: Should
      I attempt absolute objectivity, viewing the people of that culture from a
      distance, and avoiding all attempts at relationship in order to maintain
      that objectivity? Some have actually attempted to do this. They record
      observational knowledge, as inobtrusively as they can, and then try to make
      sense of it later.

      A second option is to become a "participant observer." Instead of
      attempting complete objectivity, the anthropologist seeks to learn the
      language of the people, and become acquainted with people in the community.
      By doing so, he/she can gain insights into the people's motivations, ideas
      about their universe, and many things that would be impossible for an
      outside observer to understand. But by participating, they also change what
      it is they are observing. The normal fabric of relationships changes, in
      order to encompass the anthropologist. The mode of investigation is
      inherently relational, and will usually involve "subjective" elements. The
      setting is no longer completely natural. And the friends that the
      anthropologist makes will probably NOT be an unbiased sample of the
      community. Instead, those friends will most likely be drawn from
      half-breeds, or other people of marginal social status, who may have other
      links to the outside world. Nevertheless, the participant observer ideally
      maintains some neutrality. He/she collects information on the people's
      beliefs and alliances, without necessarily accepting those beliefs or
      becoming part of an alliance, although the extent of this neutrality varies
      from one case to another. Ultimately, the participant observer leaves.

      A third option is to "go native." All pretense of objectivity is abandoned.
      One might marry a member of the community, or join one of its alliances,
      becoming a member of the group being studied, professing allegiance to
      their beliefs.

      Translated to our tasks on this list, the first approach, although
      preferred by some here, results in relatively shallow or incomplete
      understanding, IMHO. The third stance, with regard to one's persona on the
      list, is also discouraged in that faith statements are not accepted as
      persuasive. For our purposes, the best advantage is the second: to become
      participant observers. This means, to me, becoming sufficiently involved
      with Christianity to understand it from the inside, even if one declines to
      make any faith commitments in that regard.

      Christianity has usually been conceived not as a philosophy, but as a
      relational endeavor: the relationships between the Christian and "Christ",
      and the relationships among Christians are an important part of what it
      means to be Christian. But does that affect us, in this List?

      Mark 8:29 (//Matt & Luke), [He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?"]
      still resonates, no matter what our theology (or supposed lack thereof),
      even though the Jesus Seminar thinks Jesus never said it. Our answer to
      that question will ultimately form our response to the subject matter of
      this list, one way or another.

      But my purpose in raising this issue is not to arrive merely at the same
      old destination, but rather to inquire again about the possibilities of a
      relational epistemology that encompasses not only our individual responses
      to this question, but also to how we can discuss those responses with each
      other in a way that actually communicates rather than excommunicates, to
      coin a phrase <g>. I see this relational epistemology as one of engagement,
      rather than disengagement in the name of "objectivity," even though my
      normal personality pattern often feels more comfortable with disengagement
      and objectivism.

      One of my favorite Biblical stories is Luke's unique report of Zacchaeus,
      and especially the line from the 19th chapter,
      5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus,
      hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today."

      Zacchaeus hadn't even asked a question. He was just trying to be neutral,
      objective, "above it all," just wanting to check out this guy named Jesus.

      Bob





      Robert M. Schacht, Ph.D.
      Northern Arizona University
      Flagstaff, AZ

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    • Stephen C. Carlson
      ... That s pretty thought-provoking, Bob, but I think that the fundamental difference between the kind of anthropology I am understanding you to be describing
      Message 2 of 3 , Jul 1, 2004
        At 03:31 PM 7/1/2004 -0700, Bob Schacht wrote:
        >Things have been quiet here on XTalk for a while, and I've read some things
        >that relate to some old threads, so maybe its time to revisit some of those
        >issues.

        ...

        >Translated to our tasks on this list, the first approach, although
        >preferred by some here, results in relatively shallow or incomplete
        >understanding, IMHO. The third stance, with regard to one's persona on the
        >list, is also discouraged in that faith statements are not accepted as
        >persuasive. For our purposes, the best advantage is the second: to become
        >participant observers. This means, to me, becoming sufficiently involved
        >with Christianity to understand it from the inside, even if one declines to
        >make any faith commitments in that regard.

        ...

        >But my purpose in raising this issue is not to arrive merely at the same
        >old destination, but rather to inquire again about the possibilities of a
        >relational epistemology that encompasses not only our individual responses
        >to this question, but also to how we can discuss those responses with each
        >other in a way that actually communicates rather than excommunicates, to
        >coin a phrase <g>. I see this relational epistemology as one of engagement,
        >rather than disengagement in the name of "objectivity," even though my
        >normal personality pattern often feels more comfortable with disengagement
        >and objectivism.

        That's pretty thought-provoking, Bob, but I think that the fundamental
        difference between the kind of anthropology I am understanding you to
        be describing and the historical-critical study of early Christianity is
        that there is no first-century Christian group in which any one of us
        can become a "participant observer" in. There are only twenty-first
        century Christian groups. Some of them may more closely approximate
        various aspects of early Christian groups than others in some respects,
        but all of them are at some remove from the social reality of the early
        Christian experience(s).

        Yes, of course, there are some commonalities between current Christian
        groups and those of the past, but there are also some differences, too.
        The whole question of the historical-critical enterprise is sorting out
        those differences and similarities. There is always a risk, no matter
        who we are of assuming that what is true for us, particularly in
        ontologically subjective things like social arrangements, is also true
        for people in the past in the same way. No one is really immune, whether
        they are religious (e.g. Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc.) or unreligious.
        I suspect that atheist scholars less apt to understand religious motivations
        of people and concentrate more on political, social, and economic factors,
        while religious scholars are more in danger of reading their own personal
        religious experiences into those of the past. Since no single one of us
        is fully able to bracket out our preconceptions and prejudices (though
        some, I'm sure, are better than others), scholarship can only benefit
        from a diverse mix of people from various backgrounds and perspectives,
        each describing their part of the elephant as best they can. Don't get
        me wrong--I'm not saying that everyone is equally situated with respect
        to the object of study, but in order to satisfy me that your or mine
        experience or non-experience with Christianity or any other faith is
        sufficiently commensurate with that of the early Christians, you would
        pretty much have to do a historical critical analysis and we're back
        to where we started from. I don't know we can short cut that process.

        Stephen Carlson

        P.S. I'm not sure I like the term "objectivist" -- it sounds too much like
        Ayn Rand's philosophy, which does not appear in view here.
        --
        Stephen C. Carlson mailto:scarlson@...
        Weblog: http://www.mindspring.com/~scarlson/hypotyposeis/blogger.html
        "Poetry speaks of aspirations, and songs chant the words." Shujing 2.35
      • Bob Schacht
        ... I agree, that we must be cautious about anything resembling anachronism. But we do have some tools here. We do have some contemporary or near-contemporary
        Message 3 of 3 , Jul 2, 2004
          At 11:29 PM 7/1/2004 -0400, Stephen C. Carlson wrote:

          >That's pretty thought-provoking, Bob, but I think that the fundamental
          >difference between the kind of anthropology I am understanding you to
          >be describing and the historical-critical study of early Christianity is
          >that there is no first-century Christian group in which any one of us
          >can become a "participant observer" in. There are only twenty-first
          >century Christian groups. Some of them may more closely approximate
          >various aspects of early Christian groups than others in some respects,
          >but all of them are at some remove from the social reality of the early
          >Christian experience(s).

          I agree, that we must be cautious about anything resembling anachronism.
          But we do have some tools here. We do have some contemporary or
          near-contemporary documents that describe, to some extent, what these first
          century Christians were thinking.

          >Yes, of course, there are some commonalities between current Christian
          >groups and those of the past, but there are also some differences, too.
          >The whole question of the historical-critical enterprise is sorting out
          >those differences and similarities.

          Agreed.

          > There is always a risk, no matter
          >who we are of assuming that what is true for us, particularly in
          >ontologically subjective things like social arrangements, is also true
          >for people in the past in the same way. No one is really immune, whether
          >they are religious (e.g. Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc.) or unreligious.
          >I suspect that atheist scholars less apt to understand religious motivations
          >of people and concentrate more on political, social, and economic factors,
          >while religious scholars are more in danger of reading their own personal
          >religious experiences into those of the past.

          That, surely, is the normal tendency.

          > Since no single one of us
          >is fully able to bracket out our preconceptions and prejudices (though
          >some, I'm sure, are better than others), scholarship can only benefit
          >from a diverse mix of people from various backgrounds and perspectives,
          >each describing their part of the elephant as best they can.

          Agreed. To put that old fable to more use, we can see (as you imply) that
          they can only get a good picture of the elephant by *accepting* each
          other's testimony as having some value, rather than by calling each other
          names, and telling each other how wrong they are.

          > Don't get
          >me wrong--I'm not saying that everyone is equally situated with respect
          >to the object of study, but in order to satisfy me that your or mine
          >experience or non-experience with Christianity or any other faith is
          >sufficiently commensurate with that of the early Christians, you would
          >pretty much have to do a historical critical analysis and we're back
          >to where we started from. I don't know we can short cut that process.

          Well, I didn't mean to suggest that we could "do" participant observation
          in the First Century. I was simply pointing out that participant
          observation involves an intermediate level of engagement between extreme
          detachment and total commitment. The way we do this with respect to the
          historical Jesus is to be able to enter into the world of the text as much
          as possible.

          To do so, we need a methodology and a way of discussion that does not
          banish the world of the Spirit from consideration. It is something of
          importance to Paul and virtually all others, so we can't really enter into
          their world without learning to understand how *they* understood it. The
          best we have been able to do so far is to accept testimony that "J. was
          reported to receive the Holy Spirit", without requiring that every scholar
          believe that the holy spirit exists. We need to be able to do more. For
          example, we might be able to triangulate by starting with what the
          contemporary writers are reporting, and what anthropologists and others are
          reporting about various kinds of spirit possession in various
          circumstances. What makes this different from anachronism is that the
          ancient sources provide a check on the modern sources. We also ought to be
          able to use ancient sources, e.g. on Dionysian rites, etc.

          Second, we need to pay more attention to *relationships*. Again, we don't
          need to rely on modern sources to do this. Of course, we have to try to
          differentiate between historical relationships, and relationships that are
          merely narrative devices created by the authors. But I don't think that
          enough attention has been paid to this subject. Again, we need to do this
          by trying to enter into the world of the texts. Some notes:
          * All sources agree that Jesus had companions (disciples). It even
          appears that he called them into relationship ("Follow me"-- e.g., Mark
          1:17, 2:14, 8:34, 10:21). He just didn't wander around on his own.
          * Paul usually traveled with companions. Like Jesus, his companions
          were friends, not random clumps of strangers.
          * Although they were not necessarily traveling companions, women were
          often included in gatherings by both Jesus (e.g. several Marys, Martha,
          Samaritan woman, Syro-Phoenician woman) and Paul (e.g., Priscilla, Aquila,
          Phoebe). They were important parts of their ministries. Karen King proposes
          that Mary Magdalene was a disciple; Paul described Phoebe as diakonos of
          the church at Cenchreae.
          * We have the tradition in Luke, at least, that Jesus' companions were
          sent out to spread the good news not as solitary evangelicals, but in pairs.
          * Jesus seems to have promoted distinctive relational attitudes and
          behaviors such as forgiveness, and love. In fact, love (agape) was to be
          virtually the trademark of his followers (John 13:35), who were expected to
          love not only friends, but enemies (Matt 5:44//Luke)-- which even the Jesus
          Seminar recognized as probably historical.
          I think focusing on these relational attitudes helps us to enter into the
          world of these texts.

          Bob
          Robert M. Schacht, Ph.D.
          Northern Arizona University
          Flagstaff, AZ

          [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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