Thursday, July 19, 2007

The World is Not So Compartmentalized

Before Mark left for Texas he gave me a link to a debate on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman. I hadn't read the debate but, I think, if memory serves, we agreed - Craig being a philosopher and Ehrman an historian - that the two by and large talked past one another. After some interaction about the debate I made that assessment and Mark affirmed it.

I recently had the occasion to read the debate and can now talk about it more knowledgeably. I won't completely revise my original assessment but I'll make 3 points, a few of which will alter the original significantly. Those who wish to read the debate for themselves can do so here.

Caveat: I am a huge William Lane Craig fan and consider him an outstanding debater. I admire his overall clarity and unswerving commitment to evangelical Christianity and am jealous of his intellectual rigor. His concise manner of debate and the ability to directly address issues keep a debate on focus (as far as it is in his ability to do so). Maybe I think he won the debate because I like him when, in fact, Ehrman was the clear winner. I am open to that possibility ... but I don't think it is probable.

Point 1 - I'll start with my one criticism of Craig. I mentioned above that he likes to keep a debate focussed. A few times in the debate Ehrman brought out his methodological trump card, "Because historians can only establish what probably happened, and a miracle of this nature is highly improbable, the historian cannot say that it probably occurred." This is a claim about historical methodology. Craig rightly pointed out that this is a methodological claim and does not directly deal with the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Ehrman talked extensively about this, time which could have been better spent dealing with the evidence. I know much more about Ehrman's methodology after the debate than about what he thinks about the evidence for Jesus' resurrection. This is not to say that he didn't deal with the evidence, but he could have done a better job.

My criticism of Craig is that he seems to have hid behind his ability to stick to the point in order to avoid dealing with a question about inerrancy that Ehrman raised. Granted, the question was loaded - Ehrman proposed that if you believe a historical document contains no errors then you have forfeited critical objectivity - but Craig could have answered it rather than ignoring it because it was off topic. We all hate debates that are unfocused but, if a question comes up, you should do your best to answer it. Ehrman's bold claim deserved at least an attempt at refutation.

Point 2 - Craig made some sharp remarks directed at Ehrman (i.e., naming his criticisms of Ehrman, "Ehrman's Egregious Error" and "Bart's Blunder") but they were nothing compared to Ehrman's personal disparagements of Craig. At one point Ehrman said, "Bill is, at heart, an evangelist who wants people to come to share his belief in Jesus, and he's trying to disguise himself as a historian as a means to that end." Ouch! That sounds like the sophisticated way of calling someone a "poser". Not very respectful, academic or accurate considering that Craig has devoted much of his career to researching the historical evidence for the resurrection. Then, in the question and answer period, Ehrman attacked Christian philosophy as a whole.

Ehrman: I am sorry. I have trouble believing that we are having a serious conversation about the statistical probability of the resurrection or the statistical probability of the existence of God. I think in any university setting in the country, if we were in front of a group of academics, we would be howled off the stage -

Craig: That's not true.

Ehrman: Well, that may not be true a the school you teach at, but at the research institution I teach at -

Craig: Well, what about Oxford University, where Professor Swinburne teaches?

Ehrman: Well, Swinburne has shown that there's a 0.97 percent probability. And how many people has he convinced of this exactly? These are the kinds of arguments that are convincing for people who want to be convinced. They're not serious arguments to be taken by people so they can actually say, "Oh yes, now I am going to believe because there's 0.97 probability factor!" In fact that's nonsense; you can't demonstrate the existence of the supernatural by statistical models.

From this exchange - the sophisticated way of calling a whole academic discipline a "poser" - we see that Ehrman thinks that no respectful university in the country would put up with an academic dialogue about the statistical probability of anything supernatural. Yet, I think it is safe to say, that it is only in an academic setting where such dialogues are taking place. It is academically embarrassing to mock a whole discipline, and those engaging in serious research in that discipline, just because you don't happen to know anything about it or because it doesn't fit into the confines of your own discipline.

From these two examples, I propose that one of the reasons Ehrman lost the debate is because he had to resort to name calling, albeit in a sophisticated form. If you refute an argument by demeaning the arguer (ad hominem) you at least leave open the possibility that you can't deal with the argument itself.

Point 3 - This one is simple, but it is my main point. Throughout the debate, Ehrman basically made distinctions between what we can know historically and what we can know theologically. This distinction fuels his idea stated above that we can't know if a miracle happened historically because history deals with probability and thus miracles, being improbable, can't be known historically. Similarly, God, being supernatural, cannot be addressed by the historian because history deals only with the natural. These are all reasons whey Ehrman believes that the resurrection is not historical. It may be true theologically but, it can't be true historically.

All I'll say is that our world is just too interconnected for that. To decide the parameters of a discipline is one thing. To say that I can't know something (no matter how much relevance, influence, evidence and interconnectedness there might happen to be between that thing and a discipline) because my particularly defined version of the discipline methodologically won't allow for it is a sign that a methodological revolution is in order. "The resurrection isn't historically true because I have methodologically ruled it out a priori." If I weren't trying to be so sophisticated, I think I might be inclined to use the "p" word.

1 comment:

Mark McD said...

I want to take a slightly different view on this (Eric, we may have talked about this already). Is it possible to say that something actually happened in history, but that it cannot now be proven historically? Part of the reason I ask this is because I don't think that Ehrman's complaint (if I remember correctly, it has been awhile) is simply that the resurrection did not happen. My concern is that when arguing about the historicity of the resurrection or Jesus' miracles, we want to have the supernatural element in the mix. The problem is that if we allow it for us, why would e also not have to allow it for the Muslims (re: Mohammed and the Koran) and the mormons (re: Joseph Smith whose book of Mormon has the testimony of many 'witnesses' who like him saw the golden plates of Moroni. Now obviously I am not a muslim, and I certainly don't think that any angel appeared to Mr. Smith and gave him the 'third' testament. But methodologically, I don't see how I could refuse their claims to supernatural intervention. Therefore, I am content to say that according to the normal canons of historical research, the resurrection of Christ cannot be proven. However, that does not deny the historicity of the resurrection, that it actually occurred. It simply says that historical research is one tool among many that we use to learn about the real world. It is not an infallible tool, and it cannot be used to learn about everything. It has limitations.