Friday, November 30, 2007

The seductive power of adjectives

Reading Jonathan Kirsch's God Against the Gods last night I spotted an especially peculiar use of historical sources in his discussion of the tumultuous fallout of Constantine's death in 337. The only descendants and male relatives of Constantine left alive after Constantius II's purge, were his brothers, Constantine II and Constans, and his young cousins, Gallus and Julian (later known as Julian the Apostate). Kirsch notes how systematically Constantius II purged possible competitors for the throne, and comments on how he ended up splitting the empire with his brothers, who co-reigned in the west, while he reigned in the east. At some point, Constans battled and killed Constantine II but was murdered in a coup by the Germanic general, Magnentius.

Kirsch notes that the only people completely spared in Constantius II's purge were Gallus and Julius. He says that, according to a "fanciful story preserved by Christian sources, … one or both of them were spirited away by a sympathetic [Catholic] priest through a secret passage" (p. 196), but then he proceeds to say a "more plausible explanation is that the two young boys … were so frail and young that neither was regarded as a serious threat" by Constantius II (Ibid.). Not only is this not in keeping with Constantine's precedent, whereby he killed his own wife and baby son, but it is also sheer and utter conjecture. Are we really to imagine, without any documentary support, that Constantius II was too squeamish to have Gallus and Julian dispatched? Moreover, Constantius II had both boys raised as Christians in his palace, so he could have easily killed them once they matured into politically sensible (and cunning) young men on the always tempting threshold of the throne. I found it incredible Kirsch would pretend a move like that is good history. In effect he's saying, "I know what the extant historical records actually say, but, come on, surely there's a more 'plausible' account. Anything but taking a Christian story at face value!" In Kirsch's book, I guess, intriguing plausibility trumps actual evidence.

The trick is to use alluring adjectives which paper over his historical conjuring act. We can see how hollow his scholarship is on this point if we transform his claims from flair to prose. "According to a fanciful Christian tale…. A more plausible explanation is…." becomes "According to the historical record…. An intriguing but totally unsubstantiated alternative explanation is…." I seized on this example because it is indicative of Kirsch's entire method in God Against the Gods. He's a lawyer, so he knows making a psychologically compelling case is always superior to sticking to the bare facts. As such, time and again, he presents the documented "Christian" account of the facts, and then challenges them with a sexier, more sinister plausibility. If not documented NOT to have happened, I suppose Kirsch thinks any plausibility is thereby rendered most likely. Presumably, only if an 'objective' pagan source had explicitly stated Constantius II had in fact ignored Gallus and Julian as threats, would Kirsch take the "fanciful Christian tale" for what it is: concrete historical evidence.

Such is the fallen mind at work. Enclosed within the present, fallen aion (Greek: age), the fallen mind can only clutch at historical straws to reconstruct any coherent picture of the past in the absence of incontrovertible evidence. Incontrovertible evidence is, of course, a philosophical assumption, based on an uncritical assumption in the coherent goodness of the world, despite a lack of pure evidential support for it, an assumption, moreover which can only hold if rooted in a transcendent faith in an all-good Creator and Pilot of the historical world. If history is truly everything, which is what naturalism amounts to, then there is no 'higher perspective' from which to look at history (or wave functions) to give it (or them) integral coherence. From a sharp oblique angle, Shakespeare on the page looks like black smears; but from above, he looks like, well, Shakespeare. Much the same goes for history. From within the page, as we look across the printed field of history, everything can feasibly be read as a meaningless smear or as a beautiful epic. Kirsch can barely stifle his divinely implanted instinct for historical transcendence, which is why he feels free to overstep the limits of sheer evidence in order to float plausible counter-narratives, as if the evidence could be reinterpreted based on a grander knowledge of, or about, History. Presumably, history proves people are not as nice as the priest who protected Gallus and Julian, and, presumably, history proves purges stop only out of laziness or distraction. But this is a meta-historical claim which tries to give a secondary layer of meaning to the facts of history. Only if there is, first, a realm of being beyond the page of history, and only if, second, agents in that realm have intervened on the page, can we hope to discern and propagate transhistorical meta-narratives. We can give this much to postmodernism: there really can be no secular meta-narratives.

Such, then, is the value of Revelation in historical terms: it is the plane of truth which gives an essential extra dimension to history, so that humans, in history, may have a depth of vision by which, and a lens of knowledge through which, to interpret history. A dogma like the Assumption of Our Lady is not an historical truth, but a revealed truth in history. Of the dogma of the Assumption, Pope Pius XII says the following:

From the universal agreement of the Church's ordinary teaching authority we have a certain and firm proof, demonstrating that the Blessed Virgin Mary's bodily assumption into heaven––which surely no faculty of the human mind could know by its own natural powers, as far as the heavenly glorification of the virginal body of the loving Mother of God is concerned––is a truth that has been revealed by God. … Various testimonies, indications, and signs of this common belief of the Church are evident from remote times down through the course of the centuries…. (Munificentissimus Deus, §12–13, emphasis added)

The point is that, while there are verifiable historical 'echoes' of God's revelatory acts in history, the truth of revelation is not coextensive with, or reducible to, the bare facts of history. All that history can do with revelation is show that something certainly did not happen; it cannot prove revelation could never happen. Moreover, history does not prove a miracle did happen, which is why Pope Pius XII could spend so little time enumerating the "hard evidence" for the Assumption. The supposed failure to provide hard historical evidence for the Assumption is what leads Protestants to deny the Assumption. This rejection is, alas, based on a deeper flaw in the Protestant (historically positivist) conception of revelation and divine authority. If history were adequate to reveal God to humanity, there would be no need for revelation. De fide dogmas do not profess to be historical truths, only to be truths which enlighten other surrounding historical data from within.

Revelation can illuminate history, as a filament brightens the bulb, because it is formally, but not materially, distinct from history. As Xavier Zubiri put it:

…[I]t is essential to underline that the concept of tradition we have used here is not an historical concept; it is a theologic concept. From the point of view of a historical science[,] tradition is understood as the continuity of a documentary proof. Is there a tradition that Pythagoras may have discovered the mathematical theorems attributed to his name? Not an extensive one, some have said no, and others have said yes. However, they are in the Elements of Geometry of Euclid, and clearly we do have an historical continuity of this. However, this is not the concept of tradition we are discussing here. The concept of tradition here is purely theologic; it is the reactualization of the revealed deposit. …

[W]ith hindsight anything can be fitted into a syllogism, including reading these pages. But this does not mean it was the way to discover it. The great masters of speculative theology did not admit the Immaculate Conception. On the other hand, a few poor Franciscans felt the devotion to the Blessed Virgin as the Immaculate Conception. And it is there where the truth of the deposit of revelation was. The revealed deposit, and therefore, the progress, is inscribed in a situation of the whole man, and also in a religious situation.

(Christianity Copyright 2001-2005 by Joaquín Redondo, used with permission granted on his website) [I added this paragraph and quote on 14 Dec 07]

As bizarre as these ideas may seem, the truth is, we ourselves are all revealed beings. Our identity is, analogously, a revealed dogma to ourselves, which we carry each day as an article of faith. Who we strive to be and who we believe are, as sacramental embodiments of our moral ideals and highest truths, is not reducible to the facts of our past. Rather, the dynamic, ever-present coherence of our Self is that which gives an inner light, a coherent structure, to the disparate facts of our past. Who we are, like what the Church, as the historical-mystical hypostasis of Christ, teaches, is not based on history, but is only a dramatic synthesis of a handful of facts which hang together in connection with a higher, trans-factual center of value and beauty. Dogma is not simply the "glue" that holds together the Church's historical (and geographical) appendages; dogma is not simply the story the Church tells itself to fall asleep at night. Rather, because all personal identity exists only in conjunction with an other-identity––the I, Thou, We dynamic of human nature––, the Church's dogmatic self-identity is an endowment given by its sacramental receptivity to the Word (immanent Voice) of God. We do not simply patch an ego together from our experiences, and neither does the Church. We, like the Church, which is the iconic ideal for our own lives in Marian terms, discover and perfect who we are in connection with our neighbors (which in the Church's case, are the Divine Persons). The voice we hear in our own head––or, the voice of the Magisterium in the Church––only makes sense because it receptively converses with the voices outside our heads––or, the pneumatic self-disclosure of God in worship and in word.

In huge areas of our lives, we are quite literally subject to what others tell us about ourselves. Such interpersonal subjection is the basis for the Church's paradoxically weak stance as an autonomous authority on sheer (autonomous, naturalistic) grounds, and its rock-like infallibility as a vessel of truth disclosed to it by God. We do not and cannot know ourselves without others, and we certainly cannot speak about ourselves or what we know outside the field of collective language. In a similar way, the Church does not and cannot speak for itself, about itself or otherwise, without the "input" of God and the divinely inspired "field of discourse" provided by the Scriptures and Tradition. Who we are is by and large not subject to a critical deconstruction of what we can certainly know about our past, and this, because who we are is not in fact based on only what we certainly know. Revelation is the agent-driven, value-ascribing force in history that gives a sufficiently personal (hypostatic-narrative) shape to history so that humans can reasonably say and feel they "fit" in history. Without a transcendentally personal dimension in, and over, history, which Divine Revelation proclaims there is, humans are perpetually alienated from themselves, both as members of an inexplicably exceptional species in a cold, inhuman cosmos, and as personal, social beings in an impersonal, amoral historical record. Ultimately it is a question of which adjectives we live by: unrevealed plausibility or revealed truth, impersonal amorality or personal transcendence.

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