The Study of Religion and the Teaching of History

AHA Session 267
Sunday, January 6, 2013, 11:00AM-1:00PM
Roosevelt Ballroom II (Roosevelt New Orleans)

Today is the feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation or appearance of God.  Today Christians celebrate the revelation of the Son of the Most High in the person of Jesus Christ.  Traditionally, in the West, the day was marked by the story of the visit of the Magi; in the East, it is marked as the day on which Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by his cousin John.  Both were instances of revelation, of God's becoming present to the world, not mystically or spiritually, but actually, in the body of a baby born of a woman, in the body of a man anointed by the Holy Spirit and acknowledged by a voice from heaven as God's Son.

So what?  What does this feast have to do with us, sitting here in this hotel conference room rather than in the pews of a church?  Is it appropriate to call our attention to the fact that in the Christian calendar, today is one of the holiest days of the year, perhaps not as holy as Christmas or Easter, but nevertheless one of the great feast days upon which Christians are meant to remember that God entered into time, passed through the veil dividing heaven from earth, thus taking on flesh and becoming visible to the world?  How many of you, teaching on such a day, would call your students' attention to this fact?  Would you suggest to them that there might be another way of thinking about this day as an instant in time, one that bound it to the great cycles of sacrament and remembrance upon which the liturgical year turns?  Or would you simply mark it as "January 6, AD 2013," eliding the fact that we cannot even speak about what year it is without (implicitly) invoking this liturgical sense?

Those of us working in the social sciences, including history, like to believe that we are working outside of such strictures in time.  We take the view from the outside, the analytical, objective, non-judgmental, non-partisan, non-confessional point of view.  We take no sides, champion no causes, preach no truth, espouse no faith.  We argue no values other than tolerance, even as we indifferently apply our various interpretive lenses to the varieties of human behavior and thought.  We compare only to contrast, never conclude; we may empathize, but only so as to reduce to the lowest common denominator of "things human beings do."  Everything brought under our gaze is presumed to be explicable in terms external to its own claims of reality; we are suspicious, and rightly so, of anything for which we cannot adduce concrete evidence.

And yet, are there not times when we begin to suspect that possibly we are missing out?  Think of all the work that has been done of late on emotions and empathy, the latter by definition the desire to somehow share in the former of others.  Think of how breathless colleagues in the humanities and social sciences become when they begin to talk about studying the physical senses, almost as if they hoped that there were something to discover beyond what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched.  The study of mysticism has been a cottage industry within numerous fields ever since William James attempted to describe the "varieties of religious experience," as if there were such a thing as "religious experience" other than what people believed when they prayed.  We know that there is something else out there, inside us; every human tradition insists upon it.  But objectively it eludes us.  We cannot agree on how to talk about it.  We don't know whether to credit it as a source of truth.  We do not know how to discern whether it is beneficial or harmful to us.  Above all, we aren't even sure whether it is real, or just something our species made up.

So how on earth do we teach it?  Or, I should say, teach about it, since the one thing we seem to be sure about is that, as historians, we do not teach our students religion, we only teach them about religion.  But there is a cost.  If we do not teach them (if nobody teaches them) religion itself as a vision of the real, then what have we taught them other than that there is only one way (our objective, external way) to view reality?  What, indeed?  Let me tell you a story that may perhaps help clarify what I am asking here.  Once upon a time, some sixty or seventy years ago, a man was standing in his toolshed.  As he told it:
The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam.  From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place.  Everything else was almost pitch-black.  I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.  Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes.  Instantly the whole previous picture vanished.  I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam.  Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun.
The man was, of course, C.S. Lewis, and his conclusion in meditating on this experience was a profound, if simple one: "Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences."  Which distinction, once realized, raises a much less simple question.  "[If, in Lewis' words] you get one experience of a thing [love, thinking about math, dancing in a fertility ritual, having a toy break] when you look along it and another when you look at it, which is the 'true' or 'valid' experience?  Which tells you most about the thing?" Even in Lewis' day (which was very much his point), the assumption had already been in place for the better part of fifty or so years that if you wanted "truth" about something, it could only be had by looking at not along the beam.  More specifically, Lewis observed: "It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists; that if you want the true account of sexual love you must go, not to lovers, but to psychologists; that if you want to understand some 'ideology' (such as medieval chivalry or the nineteenth-century idea of a 'gentleman'), you must listen not to those who lived inside it, but to sociologists."

For Lewis, such a situation smacked of the worst kind of intolerance (although he didn't quite put it that way): "The people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten.  It has even come to be taken for granted that the external account of a thing somehow refutes or 'debunks' the account given from inside."  You will say that we have come a long way since 1945 when Lewis published his "Meditation in a Toolshed" in The Coventry Evening Telegraph.  But have we?  Are we any more willing than Lewis' social scientific colleagues to admit not just a difference of viewpoints between those looking at the light-bearing beam of religion or faith and those looking along it, but a difference in access to truth?  More to the point, are we willing, as Lewis went on to insist, to allow that those looking along the beam may be able to see things (the green leaves, the sun) that are really there, but invisible to those of us who spend all of our time looking only at the beam itself?

Let's take an example of such a beam, one with which many of us are at least glancingly familiar: Christianity.  What if we were to look along the beam rather than only at it, what would we see?  A human figure seated in heaven on a throne borne up by four living creatures, on a cloud filled with lightning and thunder, surrounded by cherubim and seraphim singing his praises, with another figure like a tree or a lamp standing near him, and a river running out from the throne into a sea of glass.  Not what you were expecting to see?  It is what Jesus Christ saw when the heavens opened at his baptism and the Spirit of God came down on him like a dove and a voice from heaven declared: "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased" (Mark 1:10-11; cf. Matthew 3:16-17; Luke 3:21-22).  At least, this is the account given by the synoptic gospels Mark, Matthew, and Luke.  According to John, it was John the Baptist himself who saw the Spirit descend as a dove and who heard the voice saying to him: "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit."  As he testified: "And I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God" (John 1:32-34).

So whose vision do we trust: Jesus' or John's?  The vision along the beam of a heavenly throne, or looking at the beam, the vision of a man standing in water with a bird on his head?  Well, it rather depends on who you think the man was.   After all, this is the big question, isn't it?  Who was Jesus?  According to the historical way of thinking fashionable since the early eighteenth century, Jesus was "actually" only a simple carpenter, a carpenter, to be sure, with some rather interesting things to say about how human beings should behave towards each other, but a carpenter nevertheless who managed to get himself executed under highly dramatic, if historically explicable circumstances.  Nothing especially surprising to see here--other than the fact that certain of the people who knew him during his lifetime seem to have been convinced that he was rather something else, something a little harder to explain simply by looking at the beam of his biography.  Were they simply deluded?  Overcome by grief?  Where on earth did they get the idea that Jesus the carpenter was the Son of God?  They made it up, of course, out of bits and pieces of the Greco-Roman culture around them; historically speaking, that is the only explanation possible.  Or is it?  What if, instead, the earliest Christians were in fact looking along a beam towards a reality that we, sophisticated beam-looker-atters that we are, simply cannot see?  What if they were not so much looking at Jesus as looking along him, seeing by his beam things that were really there, e.g. a throne in a cloud surrounded by angels accompanied by a river and a tree?

Hard to believe?  This is the argument that Old Testament scholar Margaret Barker has made on the basis of nearly thirty years of work on the sources of the Christian tradition.  Her argument (and it is a stonker, if you haven't come across it yet) is that, no, the early Christians weren't just making it all up, all that stuff about the Son of God and the angel throne and the tree; they were, in fact, the heirs to a much older tradition, a tradition going back to before the time of King Josiah's famous seventh-century BC religious reforms, a tradition in which the temple, not the Law, was at the center, according to which the LORD was understood as the great angel manifesting the presence of the Most High in the person of the priest and king, who sat enthroned above the cherubim in the holy of holies and whose glory filled the temple like a cloud as the temple musicians played and sang.  This, Barker has argued, is who the earliest Christians thought Jesus was: the great high priest "who has passed through the heavens," and who is seated now "at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty" (Hebrews 4:14, 8:1).  This is what it meant to say that he was the Son of God, which is why he was called LORD.  What do we make of this argument as historians?  We could simply say, "Fine, they weren't making it up, but so what?"  So what, indeed?  So what if Christianity, instead of being an invention of the first and second centuries AD is in fact a restoration of an even older tradition going back further than the tradition upon which Judaism as we now understand it was founded?  What if Christianity, rather than Judaism, is the older tradition?  What happens to our narratives then?  Particularly when--as Brad Gregory has shown so persuasively in his The Unintended Reformation--the very narrative upon which our present culture depends is one of supersession, the new replacing the old, the modern making tradition irrelevant?  What do we do if the early Christians were right to insist that they were the ones who understood the Scriptures properly, or, at least, according to the way in which they were originally intended to be read?

Perhaps nothing.  Perhaps we simply adjust and continue to look at the beam, never wondering about what we might see if we stepped inside it and tried looking along it.  What would we see if we did?  The green leaves of the tree of life standing beside a radiant sun-throne?  How would we know that they weren't, in fact, real?  More to the point, what do we tell our students if they have the courage to step into the beam?  Do we then insist that what they have seen isn't really there? Which is ultimately right, looking at or looking along?  Both? (This is what Lewis suggests.)  Neither?  Perhaps it is not for us to decide, but we at least need to give our students the possibility of seeing not just the beam dancing in the darkness, but the sun.

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