Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Resurrection and Plato

I have written on this blog numerous times (here, here, and here) about the Greek view of reality as expressed in Plato.  There is a strong dualism in Plato's thought that splits reality in two: the material reality and the non-material reality.  Corresponding to this dualism of reality, humanity is also split in two: the material body(soma)/flesh(sarx) and the non-material soul(psyche)/spirit(pneuma).  In this view of the world, there is little if any interaction between these two levels of reality.  Any influence seems to be in one direction, from the non-material reality (what Plato called the world of forms(idea)) to the material reality.  That influence was actually minimal, as the material reality is said to be merely a shadow of the world of forms.

Many Christians take Plato's dualistic worldview and subscribe to it as an accurate, truthful, and even "biblical" view of reality.  They then take Christian/biblical terminology and map it on to the Platonic worldview.  For example, for many Christians, the created order (earth) is Plato's material reality and Heaven is the non-material reality.  Thus, while on earth humans have bodies (soma) made of flesh (sarx), but these bodies are inhabited by the non-material soul (psyche) and spirit(pneuma).   After the death of the body, the non-material self (psyche/pneuma) go to the non material reality, heaven.  Well, this works well enough if one does not look too closely at the biblical material.  Yet, when one looks closely at the language of the Bible, it does not map neatly onto the Platonic worldview.  The following is just one example.

First Corinthians chapter 15 contains Paul's most complete teaching on the resurrection.  The chapter is 58 verses long and contains numerous interesting passages, all related in some way to the concept of resurrection.  At one point in Paul's argument, he poses the question to himself as follows:
35 "But someone will ask, 'How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?'" (NRSV)
So, Paul is wondering what sort of existence will there be after the resurrection.  Well, to line up with Platonic thought, Paul would have to posit a material/physical existence on this side of death, followed by a non-material/spiritual existence after the resurrection.   Enter 15:44-46, where Paul says:
44 "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, 'The first man, Adam, became a living being'; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual." (NRSV)
So, there you have it.  Paul agrees with Plato, right?  Before death it is a "physical body" and after death it is a "spiritual body."  Here is how the NIV translates the same verses:
44 "it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”[a]; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.
There again, Plato.  Before death, "natural," after the resurrection, "spiritual."  But, and here is the big but, Paul doesn't actually say what the NIV or NRSV translations say he says.

Interestingly, the word translated as spiritual here is, as we would expect, spiritual (pneumatikos, for which you can see the resemblance to the Greek for spirit, pneuma).  No problems there.  But, the word that is translated as physical (NRSV) and natural (NIV), is not the Greek word that means physical or natural (physikos), but instead, the word used there is, for lack of a better word, "soulish" (psychikos).  Here it is the soul (psyche) which characterizes existence on this side of death and the spirit (pneuma) which characterizes existence post-resurrection.  Now, it looks like Paul might not line up so nicely with Plato after all.  Plato firmly placed soul (psyche) and spirit (pneuma) in non-material reality, but here, Paul says that soul (psyche) is on this side of death, and that spirit (pneuma) is post-resurrection.  This is not even to mention the fact that body (soma) which for Plato is on the material side of reality, exists in both of Paul's realities.  There is a "soulish" body (soma) before death and a spiritual body (soma) after the resurrection.

I will have some further thoughts on this matter in a follow up post.  But, for now, what do you think?

Friday, February 12, 2016

Proximity Does Not Breed Understanding

I want to share something that happened recently in an ethics class that I teach.  I will not reveal the identities of any involved, other than myself.

A bit of background is needed here.  First, I teach at a university that has a racially diverse student body.  I do not have the exact numbers, but the following are close: 70% African American, 25% Caucasian American, and the other 5% are made up of other ethnic groups, both American and international.  (Interestingly, my class follows this breakdown pretty well.  Out of 38 students, 63.5% are African American, 31.5% are Caucasian American, and 5% are of other ethnic groups).  Now, I consider this diversity a blessing, and one that I believe is quite rare on college campuses across the country.  I also naively thought that this close proximity of different groups would somehow foster greater understanding between the groups, but this assumption was shattered the other day in my ethics class.

Here is what happened.  We were discussing social contract theory and what Thomas Hobbes called the "coercive power."  In his social contract theory, people give up some their rights in order to gain mutual protection in a society.  This society then creates laws to be followed.  In order to ensure that the citizens follow the laws, there is the need for a coercive power that will enforce the laws and punish those who break them.  At this point I always bring up the fact that in Hobbes' social contract (which, BTW, is the model for government in the United States), the role of the coercive power (i.e, the executive branch of government from the President on down to local law enforcement) is to protect the citizens.  Well, over the past couple of years, this statement, that the role of law enforcement is to protect the citizens, has had around two thirds of my class bristling.  Of course, this bristling came from the two thirds of my class that are African American.  And, it is no shock to me why they did.  Right now, in much of the African American community, many certainly don't feel like law enforcement is there to protect them. Can anyone blame them? I could give a litany of highly public incidents from recent years in which a Caucasian police officer has killed an unarmed African American citizen.  Some of these have been caught on shocking video.

Now, here is where my shock came: not at the fact that the African Americans took issue with my statement, but that the Caucasian students pushed back and did not understand how their fellow students felt.  One African American student bravely shared that when he gets pulled over by a police officer he has a deep sense of fear.  To which, a white student responded, "well, don't we all?"  It was this comment that shattered my naive understanding that proximity of these different groups yields understanding. Of course, we all get that twinge of fear when we see flashing lights in our rear view mirror.  Yet, that fear, for me, a Caucasian male, is the fear of getting a ticket and draining my bank account just a bit.  There is also that sense of fear and shame of getting called into the principal's office. Yet, my fear ends there.  It does not for my African American students. Their fear is deeper.  I asked the student what he was afraid of, and his only answer was "anything."  He is fearful for his personal safety.  I would have thought that at such a diverse school, there would be a greater sense of understanding between these different groups, that there would be a greater sense of sensitivity, but alas, it is not so.

It appears as if we need more than just proximity.  We need interaction. We need compassion.  We need to have conversations, even if they are difficult.  We need to listen.  But, unfortunately, the problem gets ignored, as if it is no problem at all.  The groups remain largely segregated, even if it is a self imposed segregation.   I wish I had constructive solutions to offer, but I don't.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Trusting Expert Consensus

Following up on yesterday's rant, which was not really meant to be a rant, and which was not directed at anyone in particular, I want to talk today about expert or scholarly consensus.

While I said in my last post that one should not disagree with experts if one is not qualified to do so, I should give the following caveat: what I was really talking about was expert or scholarly consensus. Individual experts may not be correct. A particular scholar may hold an idiosyncratic, minority, or fringe opinion.  Individually, experts are often wrong on particular issues. Yet, there is something called scholarly consensus which non-experts have no ability to judge adequately.

A scholarly consensus is when the vast majority of experts in a given field, with the relevant skills and knowledge, agree that the evidence points to one conclusion. Depending on the field of study, scholarly consensuses can be quite rare.  Experts within any given field disagree on plenty of issues. Scholars are not inherently prone to agree with each other.  Therefore, when the vast majority in a given field do agree, non-experts ought to respect that scholarly process that led to the consensus. Why these consensuses ought to be trusted is that what is being claimed when a consensus is reached is that, of all of the people with the relevant skills and expertise, looking at the same evidence, the vast majority reach the same conclusion. Scholarly consensuses are hard-fought and contentious matters and are not reached lightly.

Another reason scholarly consensus ought to be trusted by non-experts is because, built in to the very fabric of the scholarly world is a strong motivation to overturn consensus.  Most scholars, myself included, want to be respected by one's peers.  Because scholars spend their lives thinking and producing ideas, we want those ideas recognized for their merit by other scholars. One of the best ways to gain notoriety and respect in one's field is to successfully challenge a scholarly consensus. If that occurs, what it means is that a particular scholar has gone against the majority opinion of experts, and has been able to convince the vast majority that his or her position is correct. He or she as caused the majority of experts to change their mind.  Therefore, there is a built in motivation for scholars to challenge consensuses. And, this does happen.  Long-held consensuses are often challenged.  Most of these challenges are not successful because the evidence does not support them.  But, sometimes they are successful, and the consensus is overturned, a new consensus is formed, and the collective knowledge of experts in the field grows.

Now, let me give a very brief (and surely oversimplified) overview of such a development in my field of synoptic gospel study.  The synoptic gospels are the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and it has been recognized almost since the birth of Christianity that these gospels bore a special literary relationship.  In fact, it was clear as early as Augustine, that these gospel writers had copied portions of their gospels. I often tell my students that if Matthew, Mark, and Luke turned in their gospels to me, I would turn them in to my dean for committing plagiarism. Augustine proposed the following order of composition: Matthew, Mark, Luke (also the canonical order).  He also noted that Mark copied portions of Matthew, and Luke copied portions of both Matthew and Mark. This view was held for over 1000 years without any serious contention.  Then, in the 1700s a German scholar named Johan Jakob Griesbach argued for a different order of composition: Matthew, Luke, Mark.  In his view, Matthew wrote first, Luke copied portions of Matthew, and then Mark condensed both Luke and Matthew into his shorter gospel.  This hypothesis, called the Griesbach hypothesis, then won the assent of the majority of scholars for nearly 100 years, thus forming a consensus on what was called "Markan Posteriority" (the view that Mark was the latest gospel of the synoptics).  Over the next 100 years or so, several challenges to this consensus were presented in scholarship, and the consensus began to crumble in the 1800s with the works of scholars like Christian Hermann Weiss and Heirnrich Holtzmann.  Then through the late 1800s and early 1900s, a new consensus was formed that held a different order: Mark, Matthew, Luke.  This is the theory of Markan Priority and this has been the consensus view in New Testament scholarship for about the last 100 years.  This consensus has been challenged many times over the past century, but none have succeeded in persuading a large number of scholars.  Thus, the consensus of Markan priority is still very much in place in New Testament studies.

So, this example should tell us several things about scholarly consensuses. 1) Scholarly consensuses are not always right.  2) They are often challenged. 3) Some challenges fail and are forgotten. 4) Some challenges succeed and often form a new consensus. 5) Scholarship is always progressing and learning more. 6) Rarely, if ever, do consensuses return to previously overturned majority opinions (i.e., scholarship rarely goes backwards).  Once a view is discounted, it is usually not resurrected. 7) Scholarly consensuses fall because other experts with the relevant skills and knowledge challenge them.  They do not fall because non-experts do not like certain scholarly conclusions.

All of this is to say that when the vast majority of experts in a field agree on certain conclusions (scholarly consensus), then non-experts ought to trust that they are right, or at least that they are more likely to be right than the non-expert.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Trusting the Experts

The world needs experts.  This may sound like a trivial claim, but I think we see too often people scoff at experts. Take any number of issues in the news these days and you get non-experts scoffing at the hard wrought opinions of experts.  The internet has made the airing of one's opinion on various matters both easy and ubiquitous.  And thus comes with one of the most vexing problems of the internet age: how to tell if what you read on the internet is coming from someone who actually knows what s/he is talking about. 

So, how do we even define the term expert?  Well, how about this definition from Google:
An expert is, "a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area."
That sounds like a good working definition to me. I find the terms "comprehensive," and "authoritative" to be the key words in that definition. An expert knows the breadth of his or her field and can make authoritative claims for that field.

Now, something needs to be said here about limiting the fields of expertise. The 20th century gave us the term "renaissance man," which referred to someone who had developed their intellectual abilities across multiple fields. The quintessential renaissance man was idealized in Leonardo da Vinci. Now, as noble as the idea of a renaissance man, or woman for that matter, may be, in our current world it is impossible to master multiple fields.  Human knowledge is too vast to be mastered by any one individual. We have to specialize. In fact, we have to specialize to a high degree.  For example, my Ph.D. degree is in Religion, yet I am not an expert in all things pertaining to religion.  Moreover, my focus was in Biblical Studies, but neither am I an expert in all things pertaining to the Bible.  Further, my specialization was New Testament, but I am certainly not an expert equally in the whole of the NT. I further specialize in the gospels, and my only publication is on the Gospel of Luke and Rhetorical Criticism.  One might say that I am one of the world's foremost experts in the extremely narrow field of rhetorical figures of speech in the gospel of Luke (but who cares).  In our world, to truly be an expert, means one has to narrow the focus of one's expertise.

Once one has achieved a level of expertise in a subject, his or her hard wrought conclusions ought to be trusted, at least by those with no business questioning them.  We ought to trust that those who have put in the hard work of learning the depth and breadth of their field know what they are talking about when it comes to their conclusions in their field.  Yet, since the internet seems to democratize all voices, many feel it their duty to inform the public that the experts are wrong.  This is a shameful practice and one that ought to be ignored.  Yet, all too often people listen to those spouting on about things they have no business spouting on about. Is there a good solution to this problem, or is this the price one pays for the convenience of the internet?  What do you think?