Theological history 1 and 2

Every discourse is in tension between its ideal type and actual practice. In History this tension is between (1) what happened in the past and (2) a rational account of what happened in the past given available evidence interpreted relative to certain assumptions.

The division between history 1 and history 2 creates turf battles for historians everywhere, since asking how close 2 can get to 1 is simply to ask how far history is possible. But this only links up with my own field when people try to construct or debunk historical theologies, and I’m genuinely confused about what to do with the efforts.

The defense or debunking of historical theology needs to explain how it isn’t bungling the distinction between history 1 and history 2. Sure, all Abrahamic religions rest on historical (1) claims. Christianity needs the resurrection as a historical event, Islam needs the Koran to be written relatively quickly and without significant later additions, the Catholic liturgy needs miracles to establish which persons can become a part of the liturgy itself, but the extent to which these 1 claims can be grasped by 2 – or, again, the question of the possibility of history – has special considerations that kick in whenever one discusses supernatural events.

The in-principle argument against miracles (proposed first by Humito in The Enquiry) can be taken as the family of arguments that try to drive a wedge between 1 and 2 whenever the supernatural is in play, stating that the assumptions of 2 rule out the miraculous events even if they occurred in history 1, and so our belief in the supernatural can never be rational or grounded even if true. Defenses of the claim arise either from our certitude of the regularity of nature relative to any degree of extant historical evidence, or from  a consideration of cognitive bias on the side of those who provided the initial evidence: i.e ancient sources had more reason to believe supernatural story X than to deny, say, that Herodotus wrote the histories, and so history 2 needs to take a more skeptical view of supernatural story X even where it is better attested to than the fact that Herodotus wrote the Histories.

All these debates are reprises of the earlier Scholastic disputes that collapsed into the Pascalian desire to divide the God of Abraham from the God of the Philosophers. In this narrow sense we might take Bultmann as the new Pascal – or perhaps the new Luther.

One Thomistic defense of this Pascalian desire could be borrowed from the notion of faith: faith involves fixity and certitude, that is, whatever we have faith in is given a power to trump all other evidence or objects of a similar kind. Being faithful to your wife means to reject now and forever the possibility that the goodness of any other woman will be worthy to unseat her, and being faithful to your order or Church or country or sports team means to take these objects of faith in the same way. But it’s hard to see how we can avoid making either reason submit to the testimony of a Church or vice versa, depending on whether we have faith in the precise sense discussed now* in reason or sacred testimony. Faith is a trump card, and the game makes no sense when two trump cards can be laid down.


*Please, for the love of all that is good and holy, do not confuse how I am using faith here with the tired claim that “everyone has faith in something” or “everyone has faith in his own worldview”. I am not saying that all proof depends on what is unproven but that human life demands multiple kinds of fixed and certain belief.

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