Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Real Expelled

Several years ago, it was claimed in the "documentary" Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed that those in science departments were persecuted by their academic counterparts because they held creationist/intelligent design views. Those arguments failed on the merits that they were not true. Nonetheless, the movie showed a common view among creationists: scientific heretical views are purged from universities and research institutes.

However, it is starting to look more and more like psychological projection. This year there are two interesting stories on this point from the evangelical community. First, we have John R. Schneider, a theologian who earned his degree at Fuller Theological Seminary and had taught at Calvin College in Michigan since the 1980s. He had published an article about genetic science and how it relates to the story of Adam and Eve. The gist is that modern genomic research makes the belief that there was ever just two humans untenable, and that a new theological approach is needed compared to the Augustinian view of the Fall of Man. And the result of his attempt to help update evangelical beliefs about this part of the Genesis account? He was effectively kicked out of Calvin College, a forced early retirement (for similar recent cases, see here).

So, here we have a case of origins research, and it is the person taking the mainstream scientific view that is loosing an academic position. Literally, this is the Expelled thesis in reverse. More importantly, as can be seen from Schneider's article, he is not saying that science has proven that the Incarnation and sacrifice of Jesus was in vain because the Genesis story is not literally true, but that the theological position needs to be reconfigured with the new science, not unlike how Christians had to be used to the Earth moving about the sun rather than vice versa. So the question if not about biblical authority but about interpretation, yet that was enough to get Dr. Schneider into how water.

And this isn't the only example this year. Perhaps more egregious, at least to me, has been the recent treatment of Mike Licona, a respected apologist who has written a giant tome defending the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus. While I don't come anywhere near agreeing with Licona's position, he certainly proves to have done his scholastic homework, and his work had received praise from other big names in biblical scholarship such as Stanley Porter, Craig Evans, James Charlesworth, and Gerd Theissen, along with big names in apologetics such as William Lang Craig, Gary Habermas, and more. However, apparently among the inerrantist community of Christians, those that believe every single sentence of the Bible is true and authoritative, they found a problem, a T that was not crossed.

In Licona's book, he discusses the odd story of the dead saints rising from their graves at the death of Jesus and coming into Jerusalem to be seen by many as recounted in Matthew 27:52-3. It's a story that many point to as unlikely historical (and even laughable). Since Dr. Licona is part of evangelical Christianity that affirms inerrancy, his treatment of this passage ought to have been to affirm its historicity and move on. Instead, he compares the story to other tales outside of the Gospel, especially in the Greco-Roman literature of the time, and figures that the story more likely was given for its symbolic value rather than its historical value. And that is a view that I can get behind, and his supporting materials are helpful to any academic who wants to look into the issue.

However, inerrancy is not a stable construct, because if any support, any verse is found to be questionable, it is viewed as undermining the entire position and theology collapses. Actually, it is more complex that this, as described by Robert M. Price in Inerrant the Wind. Evangelicals have been arguing what the authority of the Bible really is and what must be taken as literal and what is not.

Nonetheless, Licona stepped on an evangelical landmine, especially with the open letters from Norman Geisler, a well-known apologetic author. After a few open letters and a response by Dr. Licona whose response appears like bet-hedging yet holds to his view that it is reasonable to read the account as metaphorical, he is also now out of his job as reported by Christianity today. Licona had received support from others in another open letter signed by a number of popular apologists (the link includes responses by Geisler and Licona), yet the Christianity Today article quotes Paul Copan saying that others support Dr. Licona but are afraid to do so publicly.

This is quite amazing to me. There is a wide-spread fear in evangelical scholarship of getting the right answers, so much so that it causes them to cower away from supporting a fellow academic. Jeffery Jay Lowder similarly notes that this indicates that such scholars cannot follow the evidence where it goes. The incident also shows that the view of the historicity of the Resurrection is not historically defensible but is instead dogma; Licona was brow-beaten into submission, and when that failed he was forced out of his job and the evangelical society he was in; his talks have been cancelled, and who knows what will happen next. Was a case of the historicity of the dead saints presented to Mike? It certainly wasn't done so by Geisler, who simply made his own Condemnation of 1277 against Dr. Licona. The argument against him was simply he came to the "wrong" conclusion. All this is is a modern witch hunt, as characterized by another evangelical, Craig Blomberg, in the Christianity Today article.

Both Drs. Schneider and Licona proved to be courageous in holding to their views even under the pressures on them, and I wish them both well. Nonetheless, these cases demonstrate all too well that the epistemology employed to the branches of Christianity these men belonged to is a failed one which cannot handle even the slightest re-examination by its own members (let alone from outside of it). And when they kick out great minds, especially relatively young folks such as Licona, they are dooming themselves to nonexistence in a short period of time. In the end, the prosecutors shall themselves be expelled, as the last will become the first, and the first become the last.


Mark Erickson said...

Checking out your blog after reading your supportive - and true! - comments on Joel Watts' blog. Boy, I'm still amazed at how this guy can be the second most popular blog at biblioblog (but the #1 Christian).

Good post here. I think Licona got another job, but surely his career will suffer. Another instance was Anthony LaDonne.

With the strong growth of SSA at colleges and HS and the acceptance of gay rights by most young people, evangelical colleges are really going to be scraping the barrel for the next generation of professors. Fine by me.

Aaron Adair said...

Thanks for the kind remarks. I don't think Joel goes off into territory he doesn't really know about, and the posts I tend to read from him can be entertaining. He also does seem to have a decent sense of humor. It just seems that on certain subjects, especially if it can relation to mythicism, it puts him into a ranting mood.

As for Licona and the future of evangelicals, I'm betting that the old guard is doing everything it can be become a dying bread. In a couple of decades, the gay-rights culture war will be over, and evangelicals will be hardly recognizable compared to today. That is at least the impression I get talking to the Christians I talk with, and I hear similar anecdotes from others. And the polls show the young are more tolerate and less dogmatic, so there is some science to back it up.

Still, very happy the SSA is growing, making a community for non-believers. It is slowly but surely helping us all go in the right direction.

Mark Erickson said...

Yeah, mythicism makes many NT scholar see red. It's hard to blame them though. If Jesus didn't exist, they're screwed. As Upton Sinclair said "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."