July 15, 2003
Mind games

At long last, this weekend I read Telford's comments on chapters 5 and 6 of the Jesus book.

Back when I started this, I suspected that a lot of this was going to hinge upon people's assumptions about human psychology. And this has turned out to be true, pretty much. There's a lot of, "Why would anybody do X unless Y?" kind of thinking going on, and Telford's post is loaded with it:

To regard the great mass of Gospel teaching as the creation of the Christian community seems to posit a marvellous effect without a plausible cause. Here is what may fairly be claimed as the greatest literature of all time, yet supposedly created by the imagination of an undistinguished community. It seems far easier to suppose that the Jesus of the Gospels created the community than that the community created the Jesus of the Gospels...

In liturgiology the central words of a rite are generally treated as the most stable and resistant to change, not the most pliable...

Who else but Jesus would have had the audacity to invent these words long before Paul, the ability to represent them as spoken by Jesus in the presence of the Twelve, and the authority to enforce them as early and as widely as apostolic Christianity ever went?...

And so on. I don't single out Telford for this; Borg does loads of the same thing, but he makes different assumptions and comes to different conclusions. (Wright may be doing it, but his methods are so opaque it's hard to tell.)

But that's essentially the problem. Everyone thinks he's an expert on human nature, and yet everyone seems to have different ideas about it. And I find human nature is a terribly hard thing to be sure of. Even my own nature I'm not terribly sure about; I look back at some things that I've done, that I would have said I'd never do, and I'm still not sure why I did them. Who am I to say what a person would or wouldn't do, especially a bunch of religious fanatics in first-century Judea?

One interesting, if rather discouraging, thing about getting a psychology degree is how it acquainted me with just how little is known about human nature. Psychology is a young and faction-ridden science and is quite limited itself about human nature. But one impression it left me, which has only been reinforced by my own experience, is that there's a pretty serious gap between most people's ideas about themselves and others, and what they actually do. The problems with eyewitness testimony and memory that I mentioned earlier are one example; people tend to think of their own and other people's memories as more reliable than they actually prove to be. Other social-psych experiments that it would take too long to describe here -- on obedience, attribution, cognitive dissonance, stereotyping -- cast similar doubt.

Apart from that general point, I wanted to respond to another thing (also a psychological assumption, really):

Borg's Jesus is a champion of the underdog, an opponent of oppression, a charismatic and spiritual personality, a healer of bodies and cleanser of psyches. What's not to like? (Can we book this guy for the next PBS pledge week?) By contrast, Wright's Jesus is eminently rejectable. He is the Chosen One among the Chosen People. He acts as if all this significance of the cosmos is folded into his life. He is someone one would go out of the way to meet, or go out of the way not to meet. He is more than a political threat to the Roman status quo; he is an existential threat to anyone who encounters him and would rather remain unchanged. This Jesus warrants every negative reaction recorded in the Gospels. He is someone worth betraying, worth denying, worth ignoring, worth condemning, worth disowning, worth crucifying (100-102) and, if he is genuine, worth following. Much more than Borg's Jesus, this Jesus is memorable.

Well -- I should point out that people who seem boringly virtuous to the upscale Left Coast PBS-watching WASPdom that both of us come from are usually a lot more polarizing in their own contexts. To steal an example from Lynn (I tried not to prejudice myself by reading her post, but when I was linking this caught my eye), Martin Luther King may be a civic saint to you and me, but in his day (and still in some parts) he was charismatic and divisive enough to inspire people to die and kill for his cause. It doesn't help matters that Borg uses these dull phrases like "challenge the domination system," but that doesn't mean that what he's actually describing is dull.

Posted by Camassia at July 15, 2003 05:54 PM | TrackBack

As for the comment that the gospels represent "the greatest literature of all time", first, although I don't read ancient Greek, I'm led to believe that, as "literature" the gospels, at least, are rather crude writings. Certainly, however, some of the letters of Paul contain passages of pure brilliance, which speaks to the point of the community being "undistinguished". Any community is undistinguished, except by those few outstanding individuals who serve to distinguish it. Paterson, New Jersey, is pretty "undistinguished", but for William Carlos Williams. It is not the books of the New Testament that are great, it is rather the mythic life that they describe and its import as an exemplar for our own lives that is crucial (pun fully intended). Again, there is not one syllable of reliable history in the entire bible: so what?

Posted by: Rob on July 15, 2003 06:21 PM

Hey, you. A couple (to some extent conflicting) thoughts:
1) Agree re difficulty of telling what's really "in character" for oneself. I've been thinking about this a lot, lately--the gaps between who I "really" am, who I think I am, and who other people think I am. Neat and hilarious movie on this subject: "Election."

2) On the other hand, if we really believed character was as opaque as you're portraying it here, a certain (IMO legit) breed of literary criticism would be utterly unjustified: "[NAME OF CHARACTER] would never do that!" A huge amount of our ability to sniff out bad literature is based on the belief that in bad lit, characters act for unjustified/random reasons. Thus we must have some notion of what constitutes believable human action, no?

These are merely meant as suggestive thoughts, not as syllogisms or whatever. I throw them out a) to see if they are helpful to you, and b) because I've been thinking a lot lately, also, about my deep-seated belief that art is not a falsification of life ("la bella menzogna" as somebody or other called it) but a distillation of life.


Posted by: Eve Tushnet on July 15, 2003 07:02 PM

My problem with the whole "human nature explains it" is that it is essentially a "Just So" story. "Why is it like this?" "Why, it's because of human nature!" There's no insight gained, no truth exposed. The magician announces that the Secret will be revealed. He pulls away the black cloth and Voila! An empty box!

Another problem is that people often define it too narrowly. "Why monks cannot possibly be celibate and chaste. It's against Human Nature!" (There's a Big Book up there, a kind of owner's guide that says "this is what your human being can and can't do.")

Related to this is the problem that arises when we write the most accurate and inclusive definition of what human nature is: Human nature is what drives human beings to do what they do. OK, people do a lot of things and no one goes living the same life, responding the same to every situation. If a situation repeats itself, they may act differently. Human nature indeed moves to them to do all these things, but again we end up with the empty box that doesn't really explain anything.

We will never the precise form and limits of human nature for the same reason that no one will be able to draw a complete "tree of life" showing all the species and what gave rise to what: the evidence is scattered through the entire history of the human species, it includes every person, and the moment that someone is motivated to do something, s/he might very well forget what made her/him act. There's no fossilization of motivations. The job's ever so much harder than that of the paleontologist who at least has a few bones to piece together.

Posted by: Joel on July 15, 2003 07:48 PM

You know, one of the great things about blogging is all the good stuff that materializes while I'm off watching TV.

Eve: That's a good point about literature. Certainly it's true, though, that people react to these things differently. Somebody may think a character is totally real and profound who just does nothing for me, and vice versa. But you're right that bad characterizations are usually easy to identify.

One thing that's hard for me about reading the New Testament is that it doesn't bother to draw most of its characters in a way that gives me a feel for them. Though I try not to bring in my modern expectations of narrative and yada yada, I agree with Rob that they mostly aren't great literature. (I think when I was blogging Acts, I described the style as like a guy telling a story in a bar: "We went to Athens with X, and he said ... and the people there were all ... and then Y came in and said ... oh yeah, Y is X's sister...") Which makes it even harder for me to get a feel for their experience with Jesus.

Joel: I totally agree with you about the way people have used a narrow definition of human nature to justify all kinds of crap -- oppression of women, homosexuals, deviants of all kinds, etc. The annoying thing is they tend to draw from a grain of truth -- I think there are inherent differences between men and women, for instance, but I don't like the way people boil it down to these men-are-from-Mars platitudes. (Not that I don't indulge in that kind of thing myself, but I try not to take it too seriously.)

Actually, for me, the mystery of God and the mystery of self are closely related, and so the search for one is in a way the search for the other. I don't really expect to solve them in my lifetime, but it leads me on an interesting journey.

Posted by: Camassia on July 15, 2003 10:16 PM

"Actually, for me, the mystery of God and the mystery of self are closely related, and so the search for one is in a way the search for the other. I don't really expect to solve them in my lifetime, but it leads me on an interesting journey."

That paragraph, IMO, demonstrates both a pure expression of one persons "human nature" AND it's GREAT (albeit short)LITERATURE TO BOOT!

Thank you Camassia. I think I'll go watch some tv for a little while...

Posted by: David on July 16, 2003 09:02 AM


Posted by: Jim Tayler on November 3, 2004 03:45 PM
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