Friday, December 26, 2008

The Gospels and Perturbation

Christopher Hitchens is filled with Christmas cheer:

If all the official stories of monotheism, from Moses to Mormonism, were to be utterly and finally discredited, we would be exactly where we are now. All the agonizing questions that we face, from the idea of the good life and our duties to each other to the concept of justice and the enigma of existence itself, would be just as difficult and also just as fascinating. It takes a totalitarian mind-set to claim that only one Bronze Age Palestinian revelation or prophecy or text can be our guide through this labyrinth.
Obviously people will agree or disagree with this assessment, so count Ross Douthat in the disagree column:
I'm not entirely clear on Hitchens' meaning here - whether he means that everything would be the same for himself, and other committed skeptics, in the event that the Christian story was inarguably discredited, or whether he wants to make the more sweeping claim that even if one takes Christianity seriously it has nothing to offer on the Big Questions that hasn't been said and thought and wrestled with elsewhere ...

[F]undamentally, the Christian story is evidence for a particular idea about the universe: It recounts a series of events that, if real, tells us something profound about the nature of God, and His relationship to His creatures, that we couldn't have been expected to understand or accept in precisely the same way without the Gospel narratives. [emphasis mine]
Well, no, the Christian story is not really evidence for anything, save perhaps for the fact that people write stories featuring the feats and sayings of gods.

But that aside, yes, the Gospels represent a particular formulation of god and god's relationship to mankind that has perturbed the subsequent course of thinking about those subjects. It's equally true to say that the Aeneid has perturbed the subsequent course of thinking about Rome's founding and that The Canterbury Tales has perturbed the subsequent course of thinking about walking tours of the English countryside.

Everything in Virgil's and Chaucer's great works had been "said and thought and wrestled with elsewhere" -- strictly speaking, it would be hard to argue that either came up with anything genuinely unprecedented -- but the actual stories they told, and how they told them, and when, made them remarkable and enduring nevertheless.

And so it is with the Gospels, but Douthat, of course, dropped in to disagree because he wants more than that. His "if real" is carrying considerable freight here, but it merely begs the question. If real, the Odyssey and Moby Dick tell us potentially significant things about marine biology. But of course they're not real, and yet they remain worth reading, and moreover everything they touch remains "just as difficult and also just as fascinating."

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