Friday, June 20, 2014

On Being Human

What are we—we creatures that rule over the earth?  Our scientific designation is homo sapiens (the sagacious primate); we are the surviving species of the genus "homo" (man) of the primate family.  We are mammals, and hence broadly speaking animals.  In polite company we generally refer to ourselves as human beings.  We tout ourselves as "made in the image of God" (Gen 1:26), a "little less than God" (Ps 8:4-8), and believe that we have, or are, an "eternal soul."  On the other hand, we are capable of unimaginable inhumane atrocities.  Two questions arise in my mind: what exactly, besides our brains, distinguishes us knowledgeable primates from the rest of the animal kingdom?  What distinguishes our better self from the egregious evil aspects of our own nature? Or putting the second question another way: could it be that some homo sapiens are actually less than human?
            One way to begin is by asking: what characterizes the species homo sapiens from other mammals?  Here are a few.  Perhaps to some slight degree some of these have been recognized in other mammals as well; nevertheless, it is only the homo sapiens that is characterized by things such as these:
Discovery and use of fire, invention of language, invention of writing and reading, abstract thought, curiosity, problem solving, inventiveness, invention of the family and the state, respectful disposition of our dead, mathematics, geometry, poetry, music, pursuit of science, space travel, etc.
            The word "human" comes from a Latin adjective: humanus: that is, aspects of or characterizing "man."  The word primarily is used of the finer aspects of our nature: humane, philanthropic, gentle, obliging, polite; of good education, well-informed, refined, civilized.  The word and its use suggest that someone can be homo sapiens and yet less than what we characterize as human.  The trajectory of our species from our "animal origins" to a "rage for knowledge" suggests that there are likely degrees to being human.  Apparently not all members of our species have either the capacity or the inclination to achieve in the areas noted above.
            The accomplishments of homo sapiens have generally benefitted our species.  And that feature (i. e., benefitting the common good) might be considered one standard for distinguishing the human among us from those who should be characterized as "less human."  In other words some homo sapiens are more controlled by the animal aspects of their nature than by their humane aspects.  While all of us are homo sapiens, not all of us are human in the sense of behavior embodying, or aiming to embody, the higher aspects of our nature.  Hence, an ethical distinction exists between the members of the species homo sapiens.  Some are clearly human in that they behave according to the higher aspects of their nature; others are less human because they do not; and still others may be said to be only marginally human because they behave in accord with the animal aspects of their nature.
            If these observations have any merit, they raise questions about how we educate and provide treatment for those in society who live by the laws of the jungle.
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Basic Problem of Historical Jesus Studies: “Criticism—to make judgments in the light of evidence”

This essay appeared in a revised form in The Fourth R 28.1 (January-February): 21

Everyone interested in Jesus of Nazareth should be interested in this short essay.  I am not certain who first stated the basic problem of historical Jesus studies in so many words, but any historian who works comparatively and critically with the gospels today immediately becomes aware of the problem.  Here is how the German scholar, Wilhelm Wrede, formulated the problem in 1901: "How do we separate what belongs properly to Jesus from what is the material of the primitive community" (Messianic Secret, 4).  Wrede may even have been the first to state the problem in this way.  Albert Schweitzer, who critiqued all the scholarly lives of Jesus in German and French written from 1778 through 1901, was in the best position to have recognized the problem, but in fact did not.  Schweitzer rejected Wrede's literary-critical analysis of Mark in 1906, and assumed that the earliest two gospels were historically reliable in what they reported.  He also was less than critical in what he generally regarded as authentic Jesus traditions (J. M. Robinson, "Introduction," to Schweitzer, Quest of the Historical Jesus, xix).  After Schweitzer's book, no critical studies of Jesus were written until 1956, in part because of the difficulty of separating Jesus from the church's beliefs about him.  An axiom of critical Jesus studies is this: the gospels contain some reliable historical information about Jesus, but it must be separated from the basically faith descriptions of Jesus where they are concealed.

               Recently it appears the situation has changed to judge from the spate of critical Jesus books published at the end of the twentieth century.  In spite of scholarship's failure to solve the basic problem, scholars have again begun writing "biographies" of Jesus.  Some confidently combine an extensive "course of life" with psychological analyses of Jesus.  Nevertheless, these studies do not first lay out for readers exactly where they draw the line between the good-intentioned machinations of the early community and Jesus himself.
               Actually in the two-hundred and fifty year history of history-of-Jesus research only once has it happened that a large group of scholars (The Jesus Seminar) has convened to address formally the basic problem of Jesus research.  The Seminar did its study in the public eye (not behind the ivy-covered walls of academia), reached a consensus (that did not please everyone), and published a report to the public (The Five Gospels, 1993), which included their findings and the reasons for their findings.  One would have supposed that this report would have become the basic point of reference for all future Jesus studies.  Scholars could cite the report by adding or subtracting sayings and giving the reasons for their judgments.  But the report was generally treated at best with benign neglect by the guild of scholars, and Jesus studies continued apace without first carefully sorting out "what properly belongs to Jesus" from the "material of the early community."  In other words the basic problem of Jesus studies is routinely ignored.
               How should we regard books on Jesus of Nazareth that: (1) do not recognize this axiom of critical Jesus studies: that not everything attributed to Jesus in the gospels originated with Jesus; (2) do not include a specific list of the historical raw data on which the author bases his/her description of Jesus; (3) do not include a justification for regarding such raw data as historical; and (4) do not carefully distinguish between the data and their own interpretation of it.
               It is easier for me to respond by describing the extremes.  At their very worst such studies are romantic and devotional, and are intended, either consciously or subconsciously, to buttress the faith of the believing community.  Hence they are not critical studies, but fall into the category of propaganda or devotional literature.
               On the other hand, at their very best they are still flawed studies because they confuse the raw data with their analysis, and fail to justify what they do use.  Hence at best they are unreliable and misleading.
               What do you think?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University