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B. A Moral Imperative?

Van Harvey proposes another reason for pursuing Troeltschian scholarship and preferring it to traditional biblical commentary;513513   I think the argument is intended to support Troeltschian HBC; it could also be used, however, to support Spinozistic or (less plausibly) Duhemian HBC. his reason is broadly moral or ethical. He begins514514   NTS pp. 194ff.; a fuller (if older) and influential presentation of his views is to be found in his The Historian and the Believer (above, fn. 475). by referring to a fascinating episode in Victorian intellectual history515515   Described with insight and verve in James C. Livingston’s monograph The Ethics of Belief: An Essay on the Victorian Religious Conscience in the American Academy of Religion’s Studies in Religion (Tallahassee: Scholars Press, 1978). I thank Martin Cook for calling my attention to this monograph. in which certain Victorian intellectuals found themselves wrestling with a problem of intellectual integrity. As Harvey sees it, they “believed that it was morally reprehensible to insist that these claims [Christian claims about the activities and teachings of Jesus] were true on faith while at the same time arguing that they were also the legitimate objects of historical inquiry” (NTS, 195). Now I think this is a tendentious account of the problem these intellectuals faced—tendentious, because it makes it look as if these intellectuals were endorsing, with unerring prescience, precisely the position Harvey himself proposes to argue for. The fact is, I think, their position was both less idiosyncratic and far more plausible. After all, why should anyone think it was 408immoral to believe by faith what could also be investigated by other sources of belief or knowledge? I am curious about your whereabouts last Friday night: were you perhaps at the Linebacker’s Bar? Perhaps I could find out in three different ways: by asking you, by asking your wife, and by examining the bar for your fingerprints (fortunately, the bar is never washed.) Would there be something immoral in using one of these methods when, in fact, the others were available? That’s not easy to believe.

It wasn’t just that that troubled the Victorians. Had they been confident that both faith and historical investigation were reliable avenues to the truths in question, they surely wouldn’t have thought it immoral to believe on the basis of one of these as opposed to the other or both. Their problem was deeper. They were troubled (among other things) by the German scripture scholarship, about which they knew relatively little; still, they did know enough to think (rightly or wrongly) that it posed a real threat to the Christian beliefs that for many of them were, in any event, already shaky. They suspected or feared that this scripture scholarship could show or would show or already had shown that essential elements of the Christian faith were just false. They were also troubled by what many saw as the antisupernaturalistic and antitheistic bent of science: could one really believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles in the era of the steam engine and ocean liner? They were troubled by the advent of Darwinism, which seemed to many to contradict the Christian picture of human origins. They were convinced, following Locke and the whole classical foundationalist tradition, that the right way to hold beliefs on these topics is by following the (propositional) evidence wherever it leads; and they were deeply worried about where this evidence was, in fact, leading. They were troubled, in short, by a variety of factors, all of which seemed to suggest that traditional Christian belief was really no more than a beautiful story: inspiring, uplifting, perhaps necessary to public morality, but just a story. Given our scientific coming of age, they feared, informed people would regretfully have to jettison traditional Christian belief, perhaps (especially on ceremonial occasions) with an occasional nostalgic backward look.

On the other hand, many of them also longed for the comfort and security of serious Christian belief; to lose it was like being thrown out of our Father’s house into a hostile or indifferent world. And of course many of the Victorians had strong moral opinions and a highly developed moral sense. They thought it weak, spineless, cowardly to refuse to face these specters, to hide them from oneself, to engage in self-deception and double-think. All this, they thought, is unworthy of a serious and upright person. They abhorred the weakness and moral softness of the sort of stance in which you suspect the bitter truth, but refuse to investigate the matter, preferring to hide the truth from yourself, perhaps hoping it will somehow go away. Many of them thought this was precisely what some of the clergy and other educators were doing, and despised them for it. Far better to face the sad truth with intellectual honesty, manly courage, and a stiff upper lip. So it wasn’t just that they thought it reprehensible to believe on faith what can also be addressed by reason or historical investigation. It was rather that they suspected and deeply feared that the latter (together with the other factors I mentioned) would undermine the former. And they scorned and detested a sort of willful head-in-the-sand attitude in which, out of timidity or fear or a desire for comfort, one refuses to face the facts. Reasons such as 409these account for the moral fervor (indeed, stridency) of W. K. Clifford’s oft-anthologized “The Ethics of Belief.”516516   First published in The Contemporary Review 29 (1877); reprinted in Clifford’s Lectures and Essays (London: Macmillan, 1879), pp. 345ff.

However things may have stood with the Victorians, Harvey proposes the following bit of moral dogma:

The gulf separating the conservative Christian believer and the New Testament scholar can be seen as the conflict between two antithetical ethics of belief. . . . New Testament scholarship is now so specialized and requires so much preparation that the layperson has simply been disqualified from having any right to a judgment regarding the truth or falsity of certain historical claims. Insofar as the conservative Christian believer is a layperson who has no knowledge of the New Testament scholarship, he or she is simply not entitled to certain historical beliefs at all. Just as the average layperson is scarcely in a position to have an informed judgment about the seventh letter of Plato, the relationship of Montezuma to Cortez, or the authorship of the Donation of Constantine, so the average layperson has no right to an opinion about the authorship of the Fourth Gospel or the trustworthiness of the synoptics. (NTS, p. 197)

“The layperson has simply been disqualified from having any right to a judgment regarding the truth or falsity of certain historical claims”: strong words! In an earlier age, priests and ministers, often the only educated members of their congregations, would exercise a certain intellectual and spiritual leadership, hoping the flock would come to see, appreciate, and believe the truth. On Harvey’s showing, the flock doesn’t so much as have a right to an opinion on these points—not even an opinion purveyed by the experts! Harvey complains (p. 193) that many students seem unreceptive to the results of scripture scholarship. If he’s right, however, the students don’t have a right to believe the results of scripture scholarship; they are therefore doing no more than their simple duty in refusing to believe them. One hopes Harvey remembers, when teaching his classes, not to put his views on these matters in an attractive and winsome fashion; after all, if he did so, some of the students might believe them, in which case they would be sinning and he himself would be giving offense in the Pauline sense (Romans 14, not to mention 1 Corinthians 8:9).

Suppose we sadly avert our gaze from this elitism run amok: why does Harvey think that only the historian has a right to hold an opinion on these matters? Clearly enough, because he thinks the only way to achieve accurate and reliable information on these matters is by way of Troeltschian scholarship. And that opinion, obviously, presupposes the philosophical and theological opinion that there isn’t any 410other epistemic avenue to these matters; it presupposes that, for example, faith (and the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit) is not a source of warranted belief or knowledge on these topics. If the latter were a source of warranted belief, and if the “average layperson” had access to this source, then presumably there would be nothing whatever wrong with her holding views on these matters on this basis. “Just as the average layperson is scarcely in a position to have an informed judgment about the seventh letter of Plato, the relationship of Montezuma to Cortez, or the authorship of the Donation of Constantine, so the average layperson has no right to an opinion about the authorship of the Fourth Gospel or the trustworthiness of the synoptics,” says Harvey. The only way to determine the truth about the seventh letter of Plato is by way of ordinary historical investigation; the same goes, Harvey assumes, for questions about the life and ministry of Christ, whether he rose from the dead, whether he thought of himself as a messiah, and the like. What lies at the bottom of this moral claim is really a philosophical-theological judgment: that traditional Christian belief is completely mistaken in taking it that faith is, in fact, a reliable source of true and warranted belief on these topics.517517   As he says in The Historian and the Believer, “Faith has no function in the justification of historical arguments respecting fact” (p. 112), and “Believers have no distinctively Christian justificatory warrants for ascertaining whether Hitler was mad . . . whether Jesus was raised from the dead” (p. 242).

This view is not, of course, a result of historical scholarship, Troeltschian or otherwise; nor is it supported by arguments that will appeal to anyone who doesn’t already agree with him—or, indeed, by any arguments at all. Harvey’s view is rather a presupposition, a methodological prescription of the pursuit of Troeltschian historical criticism and proscription of traditional biblical commentary. So it can hardly be thought of as an independent good reason for preferring the former to the latter. What we have are different philosophical-theological positions that dictate different ways of pursuing scripture scholarship. A way to show that the one really is superior to the other would be to give a good argument either for the one philosophical-theological position or against the other. Harvey does neither, simply assuming (uncritically, and without so much as mentioning the fact) the one position and rejecting the other. He assumes there is no source of warrant or knowledge in addition to reason. This is not self-evident; millions, maybe billions of Christians and others reject it. Is it sensible, then, just to assume it, without so much as acknowledging this contrary opinion, without so much as a feeble gesture in the direction of argument or reason?


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