A Few Words on John P. Meier

John P. Meier, the Catholic priest and Biblical scholar, passed away a couple of weeks ago at the ripe old age of 80. His last academic post was the University of Notre Dame, though he had made a name for himself during his tenure at Catholic University of America with the publication of A Marginal Jew, a massive five-volume work on the so-called “historical Jesus” that was never completed. Meier was working on the sixth volume at the time of his repose.

I make mention of Meier’s passing for two reasons. First, his magnum opus has been on my reading list for some time and so in “honor” of his legacy, I read the first volume and am currently engaged with the second. The second, and maybe more important reason I bring this up in a brief post, is that I am increasingly perplexed at the fever-pitched hostility many of my coreligionists have for that field which may generally be called “critical-historical studies.” Granted, much work on the “historical Jesus,” particularly in the 19th century, was animated by an “Enlightenment spirit” that often carried deep anti-Catholic, to say nothing of anti-Christian, prejudices. (Old Testament scholarship during this period and on into the 20th century exhibited strong anti-Jewish biases as well.) As Meier notes throughout the first volume of A Marginal Jew, “historical Jesus” studies in the early-to-mid 20th century were colored by existentialist philosophy and no doubt Meier’s own work, and the work of his contemporaries, carry ideological baggage. What is refreshing about Meier’s study is how open he is about all of this. With more than a touch of humor and engaging stylistic flourishes that are sorely missed in academic prose, Meier makes his case for a plausible, but always tentative portrait of Jesus of Nazareth based on the limited, but not insubstantial, sources available to us. As Meier routinely reminds readers, the “historic Jesus” of A Marginal Jew (or any other critical-historical work) is not and cannot be the “real Jesus,” that is, Jesus as He actually was in all facets of His life on earth. And just in case you were wondering, Meier does not, and adamantly maintains he cannot, say anything for or against the “Jesus of faith,” that is, the Anointed One of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

So, what value does a work like Meier’s have for a professing Christian, particularly a professing Catholic? Before I answer that question in detail in future posts, let me “warn” anyone thinking of engaging with Meier’s work that they are apt to uncover some “impieties” to the extent that Meier rests his often-tentative case on what the limited historical record may show us. Several cornerstone elements of the Gospels, such as the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke, are not, by Meier’s lights, historically reliable and therefore cannot adequately demonstrate that Jesus was born outside of Nazareth. Similarly, the references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters indicate that they were His biological siblings—a conclusion that runs up against the Church’s longstanding profession of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Alongside these revelations, which may startle some, are needful refreshers such as the fact Jesus’ skillset almost certainly included more than working with wood; that His mundane vocation required him to be physically robust; and that while He came from an obscure backwater town, Jesus was likely literate and probably even knew enough Greek to engage in commerce.

Nobody has to believe any of this, of course. Meier tells what I would call a “good story” backed up by a defensible methodology conservatively applied to a particular set of texts and secondary material. It would be foolish for anyone to take Meier’s learned word as gospel truth, rejecting along the way the vivid image the Gospels portray of the Son of God. Meier is not out to challenge the Faith even if what he concludes can, at times, be challenging for those reared on a form of Biblical literalism that is less defensible than the pious but unlikely theory that Matthew, not Mark, was the first Gospel written. Certainly, Meier’s work, like the work of most critical-historical scholars, is open for misinterpretation and abuse. Meier does a better job than many trying to undercut that opportunity, but he could only control what he could control. What readers can and ought to manage is their own expectations for what Meier’s works can tell us while tempering any temptation to overact against a fascinating though necessarily imperfect academic undertaking.

David Bentley Hart Is Not a Marcionite

Far be it for me to get too embroiled in one of many online fisticuffs over the works of David Bentley Hart, the recent fallout over Tradition and Apocalypse is as baffling as it is ridiculous. Tradition, which at its core is a critique of Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine, also features what I have elsewhere dubbed an “iconoclastic critical-historical reading of the Fall narrative.” This, along with some of Hart’s earlier remarks on various Old Testament lessons, has prompted some mental midgets to accuse Hart of—wait for it…—Marcionism!

Marcionism, in the popular polemical lexicon, is an empty-headed rejection of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) that was vanquished successfully in the early centuries of Christianity. Marcion of Sinope, that deeply religious man who promoted what he believed to be the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ as found in a large portion of the Pauline corpus and an edited version of St. Luke’s Gospel, is the ancient villain; his contemporary disciple is apparently Hart. Others who are either accidentally or intentionally ignorant of the Old Testament are sometimes accused of Marcionism as well. Indeed, I have heard at least one Orthodox cleric chide his co-religionists for being de facto Marcionites. Perhaps he has a point, though what I think this priest is actually lamenting has less to do with an ancient heresy and more to do with general ignorance of the Scriptures.

The problem with accusing Hart or almost anyone of Marcionism, particularly when the concern is that a person either rejects the Old Testament or, in reading it, submits it to a critical-historical interpretation, is that it ignores Marcion’s own views. Marcion did not deny the historicity of the Old Testament; he believed it to be literally true. In his groundbreaking monograph Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, Adolf von Harnack goes to great lengths to demonstrate the degree to which Marcion took the Old Testament books seriously with nary a thought given to the possibility that they were distorted through alterations and interpolations as Marcion believed much of the New Testament had been. Moreover, Harnack also reveals that despite his low view of the judgmental “creator-god” of the Old Testament and his inferiority to the merciful “alien-god” of the New, the Old Testament remained a source of instruction.

Hart, by his own lights at least, falls into the orthodox Christian exegetical tradition where allegory and typology can have their say. These abominable interpretive twins were anathema to Marcion. Equally critical is the fact that Hart has never posited two deities, and despite accepting the findings of critical-historical scholarship concerning the origins of certain Old Testament narratives, he makes clear in Tradition that these stories are not without theological value. If anything, Hart appears much more interested in where these narratives, regardless of their “empirical” origins, fit within the story of salvation history rather than casting them aside as irrelevant myths that need not occupy serious Christians.

It is all but impossible to be a Marcionite in any legitimate sense without accepting Marcion’s unqualified belief that the creator-god of the Old Testament is not the alien-god of the New, that is, the merciful and loving Father of Jesus Christ. Although there will always be limits to what we can confidently believe about Marcion’s true thoughts, enough remnants of his intellectual work remain in the extant writings of his most rabid theological opponents for us to be sure that Marcionism had nothing to do with a radical rejection of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Some might opine that this is all beside the point. Hart is dangerous, unorthodox, misleading, corrupting, vile, and so on and so forth; it matters not if he is truly a Marcionite. Maybe. If Hart were a Marcionite, presumably he would stay in line with the movement’s namesake by telling all with ears to hear about the higher alien-god of the New Testament, the one who remained hidden from human history until he revealed himself exclusively through the Gospel preached by St. Paul and kept, following some precise excisions and emendations, in Luke. A rhetoric of love, mercy, and peace would likely flow from Hart’s fingertips, not vitriolic dismissals carrying enough scorn to make the creator-god blush.

Hart, like most of his followers and critics, remains thoroughly Christian, however.

A Banner Day

Hulu’s recent adaption of the John Krakauer true crime/religious history bestseller, Under The Banner of Heaven, generated mixed but overall positive reviews. Opting for a “poetically licensed” examination of the savage murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty with flashbacks to Mormon history, the television series has come under fire from Mormon faithful. McKay Coppins, a staff writer at The Atlantic who adheres to some form of the Mormon religion, attacked the show for presenting the “idea…that Mormonism is at heart an oppressive and violent religion whose mainstream adherents are ever perched on the brink of radicalization[.]” Further, “the show has managed to offend or at least alienate most of the Latter-day Saints who have given it a chance, including the most sophisticated viewers.” According to Coppins, some unspecified element of his confession now looks at Mormon history with a critical eye. It stands to reason, however, that professing critics of the Mormon religion are few and far between; they do not represent the mainstream.

While Coppins has several complaints about Banner, one of them is exceedingly silly: Mormonism is a persecuted minority religion in America. Sure, there may only be approximately 7-8 million Mormons in America, which places their numbers well north of observant Muslims and Jews. And despite not being a Christian religion, Mormonism in America is six to seven times larger than Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Mormons continue to have a stronghold on Utah society and politics, and Mormon adherents can be found in all walks of political, social, and popular American life. Due to Mormon doctrinal plasticity on issues that have landed them in hot water, including polygamy and overt racism, they have been able to “get by” in the United States despite harbor an array of religious opinions that can be sourced to a charismatic 19th century charlatan named Joseph Smith.

Mormons may be nice people (many are) with a general moral code that broadly adheres to the shared views of many folks until recent times, but one of the unsettling elements of Krakauer’s book (and the Hulu series) is how central polygamy (or, to use the Mormon term, “plural marriage”) was to Mormonism at the outset and remains critical to the religion’s fundamentalist wing. (The mainline Mormon religious institution, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), routinely denounces its estranged fundamentalist brethren as existing outside the LDS church.) Joseph Smith’s centrality to Mormonism has not waned in nearly two centuries. So why is it wrong for Krakauer or a plethora of other writers, scholars, and polemicists to peer into Mormonism’s history to expose not merely that plural marriage was practiced, but was actively promoted as essential for salvation? The LDS church may find all this embarrassing, but it is not wrong.

There is an argument to be made, of course, that fundamentalist Mormons are simply staying true to historic Mormonism, the sort which was allegedly revealed by God to Smith and later prophets before becoming politically inconvenient. Moreover, when following the thread of strict Mormonism to its logically illogical and perverse conclusions, is it surprising to find plural marriage, pedophilia, rape, spousal abuse, and incest running rampant in fundamentalist circles? Whatever good came out of the mainline LDS church condemning these practices does not wash over that it shares a common history with the more extreme or, should I say, strictly observant branches of the religion. The fundamentalists await one “strong and mighty” to restore pure Mormonism. The LDS, for its part, have never produced anyone “strong and mighty” enough to suppress those who represent an arguably more authentic form of Mormon belief.

Lilla on Liberalism – Prologue

Mark Lilla, whose attitude and intellectual posture generate equal parts admiration and annoyance for more than a decade, is never short of things to say. Whether its dismantling the cult of Derrida and introducing Americans to the “European” Leo Strauss in the pages of The New York Review of Books or chronicling the deep theologico-political problem afoot in contemporary France, Lilla rarely fails to bring his erudition to bear. Unfortunately, he sometimes brings his obnoxious arrogance as well. For instance, his review of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation was an unfortunate blend of generalizations and dismissals even if Lilla’s observations on narratives of decline wasn’t entirely off the mark. And that’s the thing: Lilla is seldom off the mark entirely; he just sometimes overlooks (or omits) arguments and facts unhelpful to his positions. Consider, for example, his brief book The Stillborn God. Ostensibly a critical history of the intersection of religion and politics in modernity, the work is guilty of the “slight oversight” of leaving out the Catholic Church.

Now Lilla returns with a bit of political soul searching, The Once and Future Liberal. Lilla, who self-identifies as a liberal in the largely American sense, believes that liberalism has foregone a vision of the common good in favor of tethering itself to identity politics. At the same time, it is also a critique of the individualism of contemporary liberalism, specifically where politics is bound up with the self and what is good for the individual based on his preferences, whims, orientations, etc. The Once and Future Liberal is as pithy as it is powerful; it is a call to action, nay, repentance for American liberalism, one which will no doubt be difficult to hear at this juncture in history.

Not being a liberal in any sense whatsoever, I approached Lilla’s work with integralist, but not unsympathetic, eyes. It is rare that any political, social, or religious movement comes to terms honestly with its own failures in the hope of building itself back up. While portions of Lilla’s book contain obvious finger pointing, it is not unfair finger pointing. Liberal elites within the Democratic Party and society at large should be held accountable for the bad ideological bets made since the collapse of the New Deal-Great Society project in the 1970s. The question now is whether there are liberals with Lilla’s knack for self-criticism and imaginative rethinking who are willing to take up his call for a refreshed liberalism.

In the next four web-log posts, I will consider Lilla’s argument in The Once and Future Liberal on a chapter by chapter basis, including the Introduction. Are there important details Lilla omits from his work? What, if any, lessons can Catholics faithful to the Church’s social magisterium take away from Lilla’s observations? And, above all, is Lilla’s hope for liberalism renewed even desirable at this stage in history? Or does his critique ultimately point beyond itself to what comes after liberalism?

More From Lilla on France (and Manent)

A couple of weeks back I linked to a New York Review of Books article by Mark Lilla on France’s decline. He has now returned with a follow-up piece, “How the French Face Terror,” which is actually a review of four recent publications on the problem of Islam and terrorism in France. (For what it is worth, I also offered a few remarks on Lilla’s forthcoming book on political reaction here.) One of the books under review, Pierre Manent’s Situation de la France, comes under fire from Lilla for its apparent nostalgia and schadenfreude. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

Lilla’s Forthcoming Shipwreck

After an eight year hiatus, Mark Lilla has a new book coming out this September, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. (Apparently a post at Columbia University comes packaged with a less demanding publication schedule than one might expect from Lilla’s former home, the University of Chicago.) Here’s the description:

A sense that history has taken a catastrophic course and attempts to recover a lost philosophical or religious tradition characterize the twentieth-century intellectuals whose work Mark Lilla investigates in The Shipwrecked Mind. From Franz Rosenzweig, who sought to lead assimilated Jews back to the sources of Jewish tradition, to Leo Strauss, who tried to recover the Socratic tradition in philosophy, to Eric Voegelin, who wrote a multivolume universal history to explain human consciousness, to the rediscovery of Saint Paul by former Marxists, Lilla traces the craving for theological-political mythmaking, for grand—if imaginary—historical narratives that explain why we feel shipwrecked in a decadent present and how we can escape it. In the 2015 attacks in Paris and their aftermath, he finds political nostalgia on both sides: the terrorists’ longing for a glorious Muslim past that they hoped to recreate in a modern caliphate and the cultural pessimism of French intellectuals worried about the decline of France. Reactionary illusions of a lost golden age, Lilla argues, continue to have potent effects in our own time.

Anyone who has kept tabs on Lilla’s output at the New York Review of Books won’t be terribly surprised by the list of thinkers Lilla chooses to examine nor his interest with France. With respect to Rosenzweig, Strauss, Voegelin, and more recent critical theorists enamored with St. Paul (e.g., Badiou and Agamben), Lilla has penned essay-sized reviews of their works over the last decade, meticulously noting how each offers an ostensible “escape” from late modernity through a return to some semi-utopian past. The problem posed for Lilla is that “escape” may not really be what the thinkers he considers were after, particularly Voegelin and Strauss who, despite appearing to superficially romanticize the past, always had their eyes set on the future. They weren’t seeking to escape modernity an its various iterations; they wanted to overcome them, and they believed — in very distinct ways — that those who came before had managed to chart a pathway beyond. That’s not exactly a new thought, mind you. Roll back the clock more than half-a-millennium and one finds any number of medieval philosophers and theologians casting a long gaze back at pagan thought in order to both unlock some of the most pressing puzzles of their times and, to a possibly more limited extent, overcome the limitations of their age. No, neither St. Thomas Aquinas nor Moses Maimonides thought a “better future” lay in a more “glorious past”; but both were broad enough in their respective thinking to know that that the past, or more specifically a particular past and the great minds it produced, still had much to say well over 1,000 years after the fall of classical civilization.

Of course, Lilla deserves a fair hearing, but “fair” doesn’t mean “blind.” Recall, for instance, that Lilla’s last scholarly effort, The Stillborn God, was rightly panned for its radically incomplete treatment of religion and politics for choosing to omit Catholic thought altogether. And notice that once again Lilla seems to be intentionally side-stepping Catholicism, choosing instead to focus on secularized Jewish, atheistic, and religiously ambiguous figures (e.g., Voegelin). Could it be that this time out Lilla is giving quiet credit to Catholicism for producing thinkers who were not “political reactionaries” in his limited, polemical, sense? If only that were true. However, anyone who has perused Lilla’s hard-hitting critique of Brad Gegory’s The Unintended Reformation knows full well that Lilla believes Catholics are quit capable of engaging in their own form of historical (and hysterical) myth making in order to both critique modernity and, in some sense, escape it.

Maybe he’s right. Contemporary Catholicism is shot through with a very amateurish form of myth making, one that posits a glorious Catholic age in the not-so-distant past while suggesting, nay, advocating that the resurrection of certain pieties, to say nothing of liturgical forms, will help usher it back into existence or, absent that, protect “the remnant” from the pathologies and temptations of the present age. Then there is that other, most liberal, form of myth making, the one that claims that every renovation, innovation, or flat-out insurrection against anything and everything recognizably Catholic from within the Church herself has some sort of historical antecedent, a connection with a more “pristine age” of Christianity where love and mercy flowed freely and the intolerance of dogmatization and legalistic thinking had no place whatsoever. What are the political consequences of this dueling myth making? I doubt Lilla knows, or cares.