Philip Davies on Minimalism and Mythicism

April 20, 2014

A few posts back I wrote reviews on books by Bart Ehrman and Thomas Brodie that debate the question of whether Jesus ever existed as a historical person.  I’m currently revising and expanding the scope of those posts to create a review article on the subject for an online journal.

An interesting aspect of that topic is the parallel between the debate about Jesus’s historicity and the debate about the Old Testament patriarchs’ historicity. Forty years ago it was as scandalous to assert that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were strictly literary characters as it is today to say that about Jesus.  But in the course of a few decades, such views about the patriarchs became commonplace.

There are, of course, scholars who still want to believe in the historicity of the Genesis narratives, and they have branded those who don’t agree with them as “minimalists” (i.e., those who see minimal historically accurate narrative in the Old Testament). In my research I ran across some great Internet articles by one of the so-called minimalists, Philip Davies.

Much of what Davies says about the Old Testament historicity debate applies equally to the New Testament equivalent, as he himself points out. The following quotations come from these articles:

For starters, Davies points out that the “minimalism” debate as well as its New Testament “mythicism” equivalent is ultimately driven by personal agendas more than disinterested scholarship. This can be seen from the emotional dismissive language employed by many people who decry “minimalism” or “mythicism”:

What else explains language like “dilettantes” (Rainey 1994: 47) or that minimalism is “a passing fad” (Dever 1996: 8), “trendy” (Dever 2001:25), or ‘twaddle” (Rendsburg nd)? What else leads to the claim that it is motivated by anti-Judaism, anti-Zionism, or anti-Semitism?

… surely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case, and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous.

Such attacks today against “mythicism” correspond to attacks a few decades ago on “minimalism”:

This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. The ‘amateurs’ are now all retired professors, while virtually everyone else in the field has become minimalist (if in most cases grudgingly and tacitly). So, as the saying goes, déjà vu all over again.

Today the common view among scholars even goes beyond the narrow rejection of historicity for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:

The mainstream view of critical biblical scholarship accepts that Genesis-Joshua (perhaps Judges) is substantially devoid of reliable history and that it was in the Persian period that the bulk of Hebrew Bible literature was either composed or achieved its canonical shape.

And this view was not new in the late 20th century:

“Minimalist” positions were common early in the 20th century; perhaps American scholars just need to read more German! If one takes the mid-20th century “biblical archaeology” movement as a temporary departure and not as the new direction, we can easily see how “minimalism” is resuming the older agenda (one that never disappeared, anyway) …

As far as Old Testament narrative goes, Davies questions the historicity not only of Genesis-Judges but also of Israel as a nation and David as one of its kings. What is especially interesting here is the way in which he questions their historicity:

The point at issue is not whether an Israel ever existed, but rather whether the historical ancient Israel was like the portrait in the Bible. But perhaps the distinction is for many not so important. It was, after all, the Biblical Israel that was chosen by God, given a covenant, and promised the land west of the Jordan. Are these things true of the historical people or state that went by the name of Israel? If not…? Well, let us ask “what if not” since the question has to be faced, as Ze’ev Herzog recently did in an article in Ha-Aretz.

Baruch Halpern and Steven Mackenzie each wrote books recently about David. Each one said that a David existed, but not the one described in the Bible. This position is not that far from mine, except that I don’t share their faith in our ability to separate a “historical” one from a “biblical” one. But we can continue to debate (and I am good friends with both). At least we all agree that when we speak of “David” historically we are not speaking of the biblical one.

You could frame the mythicist debate in the same terms. Ultimately what separates “mythicists” from those who dismiss them as cranks is one’s degree of faith in scholars’ ability to separate a historical Jesus from the biblical one. From the ongoing disarray in the historical Jesus field, it’s hard for me to see how a strong faith in that ability could possibly be justified.

In any case, pretty much everything Davies writes makes sense to me, which is something I can say of relatively few biblical scholars. I highly recommend the three articles listed above as well as his books to anyone interested in the question of Bible and history. Other Old Testament scholars who offer a similar perspective and who I also highly recommend include Thomas Thompson, Keith Whitelam, Niels Peter Lemche, Kurt Noll, and of course Paul Nadim Tarazi.


Book Review: Revel and Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher

January 7, 2014

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The Monk and the Philosopher shows how religious disputes can and should be conducted, with the utmost mutual respect and civility. The dialog in this book presents a head-on clash between radically different understandings of the nature of reality, with a very religious Buddhist monk (Matthieu Ricard) on one side and a very non-religious academic (Jean-Francois Revel) on the other. They happen to be father and son, but that can’t be the only reason for the courteous character of the debate. Disagreements like these often elicit expressions of disdain or frustration even within families.

Lately I’ve been following another religious dispute where some deny what others take as obvious self-evident truth, and the picture in that case is quite different. I’m speaking of the debate in print and online regarding whether Jesus existed a historical person or not. In that exchange many on each side vilify the other, blithely throwing out accusations of incompetence, ulterior motives, and even insanity. I’ll be publishing an article about that firestorm in the upcoming months. Those combatants are mostly either Christian or closely connected with Christianity. Does Buddhism inspire more civility and respectful behavior, and less self-defensive reactivity about beliefs, than does Christianity? Indeed, at one point in this book Revel suggests that historically, religious intolerance arose with monotheism (115). Whatever the explanation, this debate between a monk and a philosopher can be held up as a shining example of how to thoroughly yet respectfully probe and dissect an alien belief system.

Revel, the “philosopher” in this dialog, is not partial to any religion and is skeptical of any metaphysical beliefs, but he’s curious and open-minded. He’s skilled in asking the right questions and in calling out inconsistencies, convoluted logic, and fallacies  in the monk’s answers. He learns a lot about Buddhism in the process, and the reader of the book is along for the ride.

But I do not recommend this book as an introduction to Buddhism for someone who knows nothing about it. Like any major religion, there are many variants of Buddhism. Some Buddhists are more “religious” in the sense of devotion to metaphysical beliefs and ornate ritual practices. For others, Buddhism is a reservoir of practical wisdom for living a happy and fulfilling life, and a community of like-minded individuals who support you along that path. The monk in this dialog stands at the extreme religious end of the Buddhism spectrum, which creates one serious problem: he presents his variant of Buddhism as the only true Buddhism (and you thought it was only Christians who do that Smile). For example:

[Ricard] There is a school of Buddhism called the ‘Mind Only’ school which says that, in the final analysis, only consciousness exists, and everything else is a projection of consciousness. But it’s a monism that’s been refuted within Buddhism itself. (120-1)

The other school of thought was “refuted” and thus is to be dismissed as a heretical sect. Ricard’s branch of Buddhism that refuted the other one is “Buddhism itself” or the only true Buddhism.

Throughout the book, Ricard uses phrases like “Buddhism speaks of …” and “according to Buddhism …” but when he does so you can never tell for sure if the statement really pertains across the board to Buddhism writ large or applies just to his own variant or what he himself considers to be normative Buddhism.

Ricard never uses phrases such as “I believe …” or “Buddhism believes ….”  He avoids the word “believe” like the plague because he considers his beliefs to be knowledge based on “evidence” gained from “contemplative experience.” He talks this way about what most of us would consider highly speculative metaphysical beliefs, such as reincarnation, streams of consciousness passing through people and things from one life to another, people suffering now from the result of things they did in a prior life, and so forth. Anyone who is inclined to see Buddhism as not a religion will be disabused of that notion by reading this book. Ricard is as tightly tied to an extensive metaphysical belief system as is any Christian priest, prelate, or seminary professor.

One of those core beliefs is reincarnation. I’ve always wondered: if there is no self, what is reincarnated?  I’ve read books by learned Buddhists explaining the doctrine but have never found it explained in a way that makes sense. Revel sees this problem too and drills into the same logical inconsistency. Ricard is unable to address it and tries to skirt the issue.  This exchange is a great example of how one of them tries to evade a question and the other can see the evasion, makes a very respectful attempt to call it out, and good humoredly abandons the line of argument when he sees his interlocutor has no good answer.

[Ricard] First of all, it’s important to understand that what’s called reincarnation in Buddhism has nothing to do with the transmigration of some ‘entity’ or other. It’s not a process of metempsychosis because there is no ‘soul’. … Over successive rebirths, what is maintained is not the identity of a ‘person’, but the conditioning of a stream of consciousness.

[Revel] But doesn’t metempsychosis exist in Buddhism? I thought the migration of souls was one of its most basic doctrines.

[Ricard] Buddhism speaks of successive states of existence; in other words, everything isn’t limited to just one lifetime. We’ve experienced other states of existence before our birth in this lifetime, and we’ll experience others after death. … Moreover, since Buddhism denies the existence of any individual self that could be seen as a separate entity capable of transmigrating from one existence to another by passing from one body to another, one might well wonder what it could be that links those successive states of existence together.

[Revel] That’s pretty hard to understand.

[Ricard] In fact, it’s seen as a continuum, a stream of consciousness that continues to flow without there being any fixed or autonomous entity running through it.

[Revel] A series of reincarnations without any definite entity that reincarnates? More and more mysterious. (30-1)

How to explain evil is another area in which Ricard’s Buddhism doesn’t have a good answer to one of Revel’s questions.  When Ricard’s response dances around the question without answering it directly, Revel lets that slide and simply responds to what Ricard’s response does say.

[Revel] If man’s essentially ‘good’, how can you explain that there’s so much violence in the world?

[Ricard] The idea of man’s true nature can be understood as a state of balance, while violence is a state of imbalance. The proof that violence isn’t part of man’s deep-seated nature is that it causes suffering in both victim and perpetrator. Man’s deepest wish is for happiness. … No murderer has ever felt even the slightest peace of feeling of fulfillment after indulging his hatred by killing — at most there’s sometimes a rather short  and unhealthy feeling of jubilation. In the longer term, it’s quite the contrary – murderers often find themselves in a state of profound confusion and anguish that sometimes leads them to suicide.
It’s also possible to become desensitized to crime … Isn’t it said of inveterate killers that ‘there’s nothing human left in them’? …

[Revel] I’m personally a bit less optimistic than you are about the remorse of great criminals pushing them to the point of suicide. Remember that Stalin, Mao, and Franco all died in bed, and Hitler killed himself because he’d been beaten – not at all because he felt the slightest remorse for the crimes he’d committed. … (180-1)

Revel goes on to offer his own answer to the question.  You might not agree with him, but at least it’s a direct answer. Ricard doesn’t put Revel’s view down but just puts in a plug for his own.

[Revel] I’m very pessimistic about the eradication of evil. Unlike Rousseau, I believe that humans are bad and that it’s society that makes them good, as long as society is constituted according to law. From time to time, some types of society can make man a little less bad. Why? Because evil’s irrational.

[Ricard] And against nature, too. (181)

On the other hand sometimes Revel has no good answer to a query from Ricard. In such cases he’s up front about it, and Ricard doesn’t gloat. The exchange regarding the meaning of life is an example. Revel openly admits he doesn’t have a solution. He asserts that there are three main ways that people in the West find meaning in life:  philosophy, religion, and utopian social revolution. He asserts that the second two of these have lost their power to provide meaning. Social utopias such as communism have failed, and so has religion:

[Revel] Well, of the three ways of finding some meaning in it all, religions, or at any rate Western religions, are simply no longer truly practiced. … It’s no longer possible to maintain that the hope of an afterlife can compensate for social suffering, unemployment and the disorientation of youth. There are no longer any priests who can go and gather together the young on the public housing developments and tell them that if they’re good they’ll be spared two years of purgatory. That doesn’t work anymore, it’s over. … (294)

To Revel all that’s left today is philosophy, and that has a fatal flaw:

[Revel] So what’s left? A return to wisdom according to the good old recipes of the past. …

[Ricard] In the end, we more or less agree that what gives meaning to life isn’t just an improvement in material conditions, as we’re not just machines. Nor is it just some rules of conduct, as a façade alone isn’t enough. It’s a transformation of our being through wisdom.

[Revel] Not quite. I believe that all the systems of wisdom with which we try to make life bearable have their limits. The biggest limit of all is death. … That always brings us back to the fundamental difference between wisdom doctrines or quests for life’s meaning with a secular connotation and those with a religious one.

[Ricard] … if you find the wisdom that gives meaning to this present life, the same wisdom will give meaning to future lives. …

[Revel] … But I still think, all the same, that there’s a huge difference between that attitude [focusing on the present] and the idea that your existence can be prolonged into future lives. That implies a totally different view of the cosmos.

[Ricard] … Giving meaning to life through wisdom and inner transformation is to achieve something outside time, just as valid in the present as it will be in the future, whatever that might be.

[Revel] What you say is doubtless true for Buddhism, which isn’t a religion based solely on the hope of an afterlife. But it’s obvious that a Muslim only lives in the idea that he’ll go to Paradise if he respects the divine law. Like all Christians by definition, whether Catholics or Protestants. … (295-7)

After some more give and take Revel states plainly what he believes is possible and its limits:

[Revel] I don’t believe in the immortality of the soul so I actually don’t think any true fulfillment’s possible. I don’t think that any human being who knows himself or herself to be mortal and who doesn’t believe in an afterlife can experience a feeling of total fulfillment. Relatively, perhaps, it’s possible, in terms of some temporary objectives that don’t rule out a degree of consummation. But I think that complete solutions to the meaning of life simply don’t exist — outside the great transcendent solutions, whether religious, para-religious, or political, in which I myself can’t believe.

[What is feasible is what] I’d call the wisdom of resignation, which doesn’t mean one of sadness, and is based on the opposite idea – the feeling that this limited life is all we have. It’s a wisdom of acceptance, and consists of building oneself up in this present life using whatever means are the least unreasonable, the least unjust, and the least unethical, but knowing perfectly well nonetheless that it’s only a temporary episode. (298)

He ends this whole discussion not by asserting the last word in the argument or by discounting anything Ricard has said, but with a good-natured expression that they have agreed to disagree. To Ricard’s final statement asserting that “Buddhism adheres to the idea of a continuity of successive states of existence …” Revel responds:

[Revel] Well, there you are. And since your hypothesis is more optimistic than mine, I’m sure our readers will feel better if I let you have the last word. (299)

The book covers a wide variety of topics, and these are just a few representative examples of the character of the dialog. My overall assessment of what I learned from the dialog parallels that of Revel:

[Revel] I have become more and more appreciative of Buddhism as a system of wisdom, and more and more skeptical about it as a system of metaphysics. (301)

Many Christian theologians leave me amazed at how much metaphysical drivel they can write with absolute confidence in the rightness of their beliefs, but it somehow seems out of place in Buddhism. Of course I have seen that before in some Buddhist writings, but it stands out starkly here in the light of cross-examination by an incisive interlocutor.

Nevertheless, I also agree with Ricard’s approach to assessing the value of any “system of wisdom” or religion:

[Ricard] Once we are committed to a spiritual path, it is essential to check that over the months and years we are actually freeing ourselves from hatred, grasping, pride, jealousy and above all from the ego-centeredness and ignorance that cause them. That is the only result that counts. (309)

The instructor of a meditation class I once took had a similar answer for the question of what’s the point of meditating and how do you know if you’re actually accomplishing anything by meditating: she said that you judge your success by whether or not you’re becoming a kinder person.

Buddhism as a way of life helps take you in that direction, and the metaphysical beliefs such as they are don’t hinder that. The story seems to be more mixed for Christianity. Revel has a point about monotheism: there’s a tendency in monotheistic religions such as Christianity for people to develop a degree of intolerance for other viewpoints, more so than in Buddhism. But that’s another topic for another time.

If you’re interested in Buddhism or in discussions of religion and the meaning of life in general, you can hardly go wrong reading this book. But if you’re new to Buddhism, be aware that there is much more diversity within Buddhism than Ricard would lead you to believe.


Announcing Hallowed Be Thy Name

October 5, 2013

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This month my new book Hallowed Be Thy Name: The Name-Glorifying Dispute in the Russian Orthodox Church and on Mt. Athos, 1912-1914 was published.  The book tells the story of a theological controversy in the Russian Orthodox church that was resolved by means of fist fights, bayonets, fire hoses, and the exile and imprisonment of those who defied church authority. 

Bruce Clark, writer on religion and public policy for the Economist magazine, has this to say about it:

For anyone wanting to understand an extraordinary and important episode in the modern history of Christianity, Tom Dykstra’s excellent account, which is both meticulous and highly readable, should be an indispensable starting-point. It brings alive a passionate argument over the holiness of the Name of God which shook the Tsarist and Balkan world on the eve of the first world war. Better than any other chronicler of the tragedy that came to a head in the main monastic stronghold of the Christian East, he combines a clear view of the theological stakes with a keen sense of the politics, both secular and ecclesiastical, which determined the outcome. Dykstra also manages to situate the Imperial Russian quarrel over sacred names in the broader sweep of the history of monotheism.

The book begins by describing one of the episodes in the history of the name-glorifying controversy:

On July 3, 1913 some four hundred monks of the Athonite monastery of St. Panteleimon fled to one of their dormitory buildings and set to work barricading the entrances with bed boards. Bayoneted rifles in hand, sailors of the Russian Imperial Navy surrounded the building while their officers exhorted the unarmed monks to give up peacefully. To no avail. Prepared for martyrdom but hoping in God’s help, the monks sang, prayed, did prostrations, and took up icons and crosses to defend themselves. Finally the trumpet rang out with the command to “shoot,” and the calm of the Holy Mountain was rent by the roar … not of firearms, but of fire hoses. After an hour-long “cold shower” dampened the monks’ spirits, the sailors rushed the building and began to drag recalcitrant devotees of the contemplative life out of the corridors. (p.13)

Another episode is described colorfully by an eyewitness:

They began to drag out of this heap [of fighting monks] one person at a time into the corridor, where the brotherhood stood in two lines, receiving the booty and passing it (Jeromeites) on: one by the hair another by the side and with a command, another they would beat for something to teach him a lesson. In this way they brought them to the stairs and then they let them down the stairs variously as each pleased: some went head first and some went feet first, counting the steps with the back of their head. They led them to the church square, then ceremoniously took them by the hand and led them out the gate.  (p.91)

As I explain in the preface, the controversy described here persists to the present day:

This year is the 100th anniversary of the most sensational events in this story, the expulsion of the Russian monks from Mount Athos. But the publication of this account is timely for other reasons as well. After lying dormant for decades, the theological controversy behind the tragic events that happened in the early twentieth century has re-ignited within the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Church hierarchs can no longer command military forces to rout their theological opponents by means of fire hoses and bayonets, but the hostility expressed today over the Internet matches what was expressed earlier in ecclesiastical journals.  One need only do an internet search for the keyword “name-worshiping” to find several web sites and web pages that decry in no uncertain terms the 100-year old “heresy.”  For that reason, the publication now of this account is especially appropriate because it puts a human face on the “heretics” and offers a sympathetic interpretation of the “heresy.” (p.xi)

The book is an adaptation of a Master’s thesis written at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 1988. It remains the most comprehensive account on the subject written in English.


Literature, History, and Rorschach Blots

June 13, 2010

In Mark 3:21 and 31-35 Jesus’ family is presented in a very negative light (in typically Markan “sandwich” fashion, 3:22-30 is a digression; Mark often begins a story, then relates a different story, then returns to finish the story he started earlier).

And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is beside himself.” … And his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting about him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

It is interesting to see the interpretive legerdemain some commentators get into as they try to read this as though it was actually not meant to reflect negatively on Jesus’ family. One I read recently tries to argue that the Greek phrase hoi par autou in 3:21 should not be translated “family” — although that is a common meaning of the phrase and is clearly the appropriate one since Jesus’ “mother and brothers” are the people who actually show up after hoi par autou “go out” to seize Jesus. The translators of some English versions get into this act as well, translating elegon gar (“for they were saying”) as “for people were saying” to try to make it sound as though it was someone other than Jesus’ family who thought Jesus was out of his mind.

This is the sort of thing that Spinoza had in mind when he criticized biblical scholars’ common practice of distorting meaning “in order to make it conform with some truth already entertained.” That quote appears in Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy in a discussion where Kermode criticizes biblical scholars for what he sees as futile efforts at historicizing. He argues that biblical scholars go astray when they “ignore what is written in favor of what it is written about.” (119) Or to use the terminology of Spinoza, they try to focus on the truth of texts rather than what they mean.

Clearly in one respect he is right and the text from Mark ch.3 is a great example of that. These interpreters are so focused on what the text is apparently about and linking it to what they think they know about Mary in particular (after all, Luke says she knew all about Jesus, right?) that it becomes impossible for them to accept the plain meaning of what the text actually says. To solve this problem Kermode says we must read the texts as literature and not as history; we must focus on what they mean, not on whether or not they are true. We must give up entirely on trying to ascertain the historical basis behind the texts or finding the truth of the matter:

Insofar as we can treat a text as not referring to what is outside or beyond it, we more easily understand that it has internal relationships independent of the coding procedures by which we may find it transparent upon a known world. We see why it has latent mysteries, intermittent radiances. But in acquiring this privilege, the interpreters lose the possibility of consensus, and of access to a single truth at the heart of the thing.

However, Kermode, and with him many modern scholars of literature (that is his specialty; he’s not a biblical scholar himself), are throwing the baby out with the bath water. They treat literary texts as elaborate Rorschach blots – i.e., for them a text has no intrinsic or intended meaning, or if it did have an intended meaning, that meaning is so inaccessible as to not be worth even trying to ascertain. In effect, a text is an elaborate ink blot into which people read their own personality or desires, and they are perfectly justified in doing so. Anything anyone finds in a text is just as valid as whatever anyone else finds in it.

The “possibility of consensus” is something that people I’ll call non-historians take for granted about history in general. Non-historians assume that not only is consensus possible, but when consensus is achieved you have certainty about the “single truth at the heart of the thing.” Not so. When I taught introductory world history one of the hardest tasks I had to accomplish was to instill even the vaguest appreciation for just how uncertain are the historical reconstructions that students find in their history books. I tried to foster a realization of this by comparing history to a criminal trial.

In a trial, the jury tries to decide a simple matter of fact to which the answer is little more complicated than “yes” or “no.” The jury itself is a panel of people carefully chosen for their lack of bias. They listen to a long train of witnesses who live in their culture and speak their language. They look at evidence which is readily understandable because it is drawn from their own culture. The events they are learning about occur within their own lifetimes. The circumstances are absolutely ideal for attainment of consensus and ascertainment of truth. And yet trials sometimes end in hung juries and all too often it is discovered years later that the jury convicted John when Jane did the murder.

If the nearly perfect setup fails and consensus even there is no guarantee of truth, what about when the deck is stacked against an accurate determination of “what actually happened?” And what about when the attempt is not to determine simply what happened but the far more difficult and complex question of why it happened, which is what historians are always trying to do? With history no living eyewitnesses who can be cross-examined and we are typically dealing with texts that were written from only the winning side of some of historical struggle. Our evidence comes from a foreign hard-to-understand culture from halfway across the globe and from texts written hundreds to thousands of years old written in a dead language. We often don’t even have the original manuscripts of these texts because we only have handwritten copies of copies of copies with thousands of errors deliberate and accidental in them. Add to that the fact that historians themselves are not exactly a massive worldwide jury chosen specifically for lack of bias. This last point is especially an issue in biblical studies because many or most of these scholars desperately want the text to mean something that confirms their own religious persuasions. In this situation, consensus is bound to be elusive, and even if you could get to consensus, that would be no guarantee of truth.

So is Kermode right, then? Are texts, especially biblical tests, best treated as elaborate Rorschach blots? Should we use a text as a fun-house mirror that reflects back to us bits and pieces of our own personality and desires? Should we forget about whatever historical reality might be behind it? Certainly it’s true that consensus is elusive and any understanding anyone reaches about human history is not objectively verifiable and is thus uncertain. History is not an objectively verifiable science; it’s more like a belief-based religion such as Christianity is commonly assumed to be. Historians are like religionists who are attempting to win over converts to their “faith.” Some are more successful than others because they can put together their arguments more effectively, and some more than others because they tell people what they want to hear. But in the end it’s all a belief game.

Belief games are not just games, however. The course of every human being’s life is determined at every moment by his or her conception of the past. Every action I take today is based on my understanding of who I am. That is determined not only by what I remember about my own past but also by what I know about the human culture and human society in which I live. And that in turn is determined by what I understand about the history of my culture and my society. No matter how much we try to live in the present, we are who we are and we do what we do based on our understanding of the past. It behooves us to try to correctly understand that past, lest we make choices that take our lives on a course that some day, looking back, we might wish had been otherwise.

For many people, religion is a key determinant of their actions, so religious history is especially important in determining life choices. So for example, if today at age 25 I treat the texts of my religion as Rorschach blots that confirm my current belief system, what will I think if at age 75 after I have gradually learned to see them as historical texts that actually show some of my earlier beliefs to have been mistaken? Will I at age 75 look back over my actions over the past 50 years as being ill-considered? On the other hand, what if at age 25 I listen to a historical analysis of biblical texts that makes me rethink some of my beliefs and change some life choices as a result – will I not at age 75 look back and have a better chance of concluding that I made the right choices?

Real people wrote the biblical texts. Real people with human motivations and emotions and intentions. An attempt to understand those real human beings may have no guarantee of success but it’s a worthwhile effort. Certainly more worthwhile than analyzing texts as Rorschach blots. Both approaches may well be no-win games, but one of the two games has a better chance of helping us make choices that we won’t have to regret later.


Oliver Wiswell

May 15, 2010

Your first speech in the Toastmasters Competent Communicator series is called the “Ice Breaker” because in it you introduce yourself. In my Ice Breaker I introduced myself not by talking about my personal background or my career but about my life goals. Most people tend to define themselves by informing a new acquaintance that “I am a computer programmer” or “I am a salesman” or “I am an engineer” as if the job defines what is most important about their identity. Maybe that is true for some people, but in my case it is not. And so I would introduce myself not by my current day job title “programming writer,” but as a historian who aspires to write historical fiction.

Why historical fiction? The idea came to me when I was around twelve years old. My brother-in-law recommended to me the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts, and I read them, not really to learn about history but as adventure novels, much like kids today read the Harry Potter or Eragon books. But it happens that Kenneth Roberts’ books are about the American Revolutionary War period and are meticulously researched and historically accurate. And so they bring the people of that period to life in a way that history books can never do. One of those books did more than bring the people to life. The one titled Oliver Wiswell radically transformed my views about the basic character of the American Revolutionary War.

Oliver Wiswell is a book that tells the story of the American Revolution from a viewpoint that many of us have not seen before: the viewpoint of a Loyalist. I don’t know how schools portray the American War for Independence today, but in my day it was presented as a justified struggle against foreign tyranny. The people who helped to incite it, such as Sam Adams and John Hancock, were shining examples for lovers of liberty everywhere. They were called Patriots, a word imbued with positive connotations. The people who opposed the Revolution were short-sighted, misguided, or just plain traitors. They were not Patriots; they were Tories, a word imbued with negative connotations. The general who began on the side of rebellion and changed sides halfway through was vilified as the blackest of traitors. To this day, the name Benedict Arnold is virtually synonymous with treason and treachery in American culture.

You get a radically different picture from reading Oliver Wiswell. You learn that many of the so-called patriots who incited armed rebellion were opportunists with economic motivations. Sam Adams and John Hancock were smugglers who stood to profit from a break with England. Benedict Arnold was a great man who inspired loyalty in all who served under him and who acted upon deeply held convictions. You and I would share many of his convictions if we knew what he knew. You begin to see that the Revolution was incited by people who would shoot and lynch people for no other reason than for holding contrary political views. You see that slogans like “taxation without representation” were excuses to kill people over petty political disagreements.

After reading Oliver Wiswell, I no longer saw the American Revolutionary War as something to look back on with a sense of civic pride. Not a glorious and honorable beginning to our nation, but rather in many ways a shameful one. That was a radical change in viewpoint effected in a remarkably short time, and the understanding developed further in later years. I learned somewhat later about how differently India achieved its independence from the same British Empire, and today I see that struggle for independence as one whose inner dynamic and execution was substantially just and honorable in way the American one was not. And I wonder if events like today’s Iraq war is in some way an echo of the way our nation was founded and the way it was kept from splitting apart. Today I go so far as think of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi as greater political leaders than George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. This is not to denigrate Washington and Lincoln, for we owe much to them and they had elements of greatness in them – but organized non-violent resistance, the way of Gandhi and King, is the better way to oppose oppression.

If my goal is to be able to help transform other peoples’ historical misperceptions though historical fiction, as Kenneth Roberts did for me, one might ask, why fiction? Why not nonfiction? I can cite at least three reasons. First, nonfiction is limited to the available source data. The sources are often just too scanty to give the ordinary reader the feel for living life through the eyes of a real person of the period. Second, for most periods of history the remaining sources are all written by the winners of a conflict. You rarely even get direct evidence of the losers’ side of the story. Even today, nonfiction history tends to be written from the perspective of the winner. Third, nonfiction history does not reach very many people. Historiography tends to read like an encyclopedia article. Few people read it aside from those who are forced to do so in school or in college, or those who make it their career, such as university professors.

So far I have accomplished the first part of my goal – becoming a historian. After starting my career programming computers I went back to school. I got a Bachelors degree in Russian language and history; a Master of Divinity from a Russian Orthodox Seminary, focusing on church history; and a Ph.D. in medieval Russian history. I taught undergraduate and graduate courses in Russian history. I published a book based on my dissertation which is the definitive guide to the monks of the Volokolamsk monastery in Russia in the 16th century. I continue to research and write articles and books.

But until now I have only written nonfiction. I am a historian but not a novelist. After all these years I am just getting started writing fiction, and it seems to be a daunting task. That is why I can introduce myself as a historian but only as an aspiring historical novelist.

So what does all that have to do with my blog theme “mandatory for decent human life” (see my first post for an explanation of the origin of that title)? Peoples’ behavior in the present is affected by what they think of the past. I have seen this most in the area of religion, and that is where I am turning my attention at the present. I am convinced that the more people in any religious tradition can see the heroes and villains of their own tradition as human beings — and in the process appreciate the flaws of the heroes and the goodness of the villains — they would become more tolerant and more, shall we say, “decent,” to people in other traditions. The lack of such tolerant attitudes led to events such as the Crusades and the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers. And in today’s world of increasing technological means for destruction, you never know if by changing the attitude of one person you could be preventing a nuclear or biological conflagration that could destroy a city or poison the earth. That is the sense in which books like Oliver Wiswell are mandatory for decent human life. They use accurate portrayals of historical human beings, presented in a form appealing to ordinary readers and not just specialists, to help defuse human discord and conflict and thus make “decent human life” possible for all.