Literary invention or lived experience?

More than a few apologists have noted that there is a tension between debunking explanations which appeal to sheer invention to account for stories of religious experience (perhaps in the service of some societal or political ambition) and those which accept that certain people have had what they thought were 'real' religious experiences but which try to nevertheless account for them pathologically, most often today using neuroscience. It seems that in skeptical circles the balance between the two is tipping more towards the invention end of the spectrum, and it is not hard to fathom why: human experience is notoriously tricky to judge as 'genuine' or 'false'. Even if there is confidence in naturalistic explanations of religious experiences, having to accept even the possibility that they are nonetheless genuine would probably put more of a burden of proof on the skeptic than she would like to bear. It seems much easier to explain away the Resurrection encounters, for example, as literary fictions drawn by imitation from other religious texts (and where did the encounters in those texts come from, one wonders?) than to try to explain naturalistically how two disciples in Emmaus broke bread with their risen Lord who then vanished from their sight.

In any case, Robin Lane Fox has some comments specifically on the Resurrection narratives which are worth pondering: "In the pagan world, visions of a person soon after death were not uncommon...Christians, however, advanced the extreme claim that the object of their visions had risen physically from the dead...These [resurrection] stories were very explicit and had no pagan counterpart." (pp.377-378) To be sure, Lane Fox accepts the possibility that they were deliberate fictions designed to counter skepticism that the apostles had just seen another ghost from the grave. Concerning Matthew's observation that even after the appearances some of the disciples doubted, he asks: "is this unexpected note of doubt historical, or was it contrived to answer the charge that the beholders had been convinced too easily?" (ibid.) It might be interesting to compare the charges levelled against the Christians which we find in the apologists and the pagan criticisms which have survived with the charges which the Gospel stories are supposed to be countering. If they match up well, we might have more reason for suspecting apologetic shaping of the narratives. But if the criticisms were largely different, what reason have we to assume that the Gospel stories are necessarily polemical?

In any case, with regard to an early Christian visionary text, the Shepherd of Hermas, Lane Fox makes some comments on the charge of literary invention of visionary experience: "Like Revelation, [Hermas'] writing has been studied for literary precedents, as if traditional details in small parts of his visions prove the inauthenticity of the entire work. Visions, however, are not 'fictitious' because they draw on their seer's own learning...The contrast between traditional imagery and 'original' truth is misplaced." (p.381) Later on he asks, "Can we really believe the sequence of these visions...? Each of his visions arose out of the onewhich he had seen before, but their connection is no argument against their reality...The book, the angels, the sensations of fear and trance are all traceable to apocalyptic texts, but...they do not explain the particular, personal quality of Hermas' visionary odyssey." (p.386)

This is not to say that Lane Fox believes that the Resurrection experiences or Hermas' visions were actually of the risen Lord and heaven respectively. In fact he would deny both, since he is an atheist. The point here is simply that he is uncomfortable with the tendency to ascribe to literary invention what is best explained in terms of personal experience, however the latter is accounted for (as he also shows with respect to stories in the Acts of the Apostles: "[a]lthough Acts' author has been given some odd disguises, none is odder than that of a man who knew fragments of Ovid and their Greek sources and distorted them to suit his picture of St. Paul." p.100, in reference to Acts 14:8-18). I would have to agree. I think there is something cowardly and even misanthropic about stamping 'invention' on any unusual experience which would otherwise be rather hard to explain (or explain away). I would even say this with reference to alleged religious experience which I find challenging, like Joseph Smith's visions of the Father and the Son or the angel Moroni. I would not call it 'invented' or Joseph Smith a liar unless I had darn good reason to (I may reject the veridicality of these experiences on other grounds, though, such as the conviction based on good historical and philosophical arguments that the mainstream Church is not in apostasy or that God was not once flesh and blood like we are).

This is not to say that concocting of tall tales does not happen or that such stories are not later embellished or that it is always easy to tell the difference between real lived experience and derivative invention. But I am prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to those who say they have had such experience, if otherwise I know them to be trustworthy (I would be more than a little suspicious of someone who claimed to have seen an angel with a personal message for me and then said, "Now all I need is your credit card number"). And I certainly do so with respect to the Resurrection narratives, which as far as I can tell are some of the most compelling accounts of religious experience there are, and well able to support the believing trust placed in them by the sincere Christian.


Peter Bruin said…
I completely agree that the sceptical strategy of labelling dramatic examples of religous experience as 'inventions' is rather cowardly and even misanthropic. One of the reasons that I take such experiences seriously is that some examples are so clearly unnatural that rejecting them practically has to mean accusing the witnesses of lying, even when there is no reason to doubt their sincerity apart from the extraordinary character of their experiences.

It remains tempting to identify certain oddities in the other people's experiences as "debunking characteristics". Lane Fox's remark about that caught my attention: "Visions, however, are not 'fictitious' because their draw on their seers own learning…The contrast between traditional imagery and 'original' truth is misplaced." This reminds me of (then) Cardinal Ratzinger's commentary on the so-called "Third Secret" associated to the Marian apparitions at Fatima, where he suggests that the imagery of the vision had been influenced by things the children had seen in prayer books, and emphasises that revelation is never perceived directly but always through the filter of one's own state of mind. That means that determining whether a religious experience is really from `outside' is often a subtle matter.
midacamp said…
Recently I came across the passage of Acts 14:8-20, where Paul is stoned, presumed dead, and yet survives. The interesting thing about this passage is the close parallel between Paul and Christ. Both have healings that are similar. Both won over crowds, only to have those same crowds turn on them. But then the parallel abruptly breaks off. Paul is stoned, but *presumed* dead. He turns out ok. Paul doesn't claim to die (2 Cor 11:25), nor is it presented as such in this passage. If there was ever a time to "enhance" or "invent" or "fudge the facts" it would be here. It would have been easy for Paul, or another disciple, or the author, or a later copyist, to claim that Paul had died, and also rose from the dead, just like Christ. After all, it would fit in the context of the passage. And yet, this claim is not made.

Why is this important? Personally, I think this just adds to the overall case of the trustworthiness of the witnesses at the time.
Anonymous said…
That's an interesting observation, Midacamp, and leads into another rather interesting question with respect to the 'Jesus myth' thesis: it must account for why these 'mythical' stories of Resurrection, etc. coalesced around someone named 'Jesus' and not someone else who was arguably more important to the early Christians: why not Paul, for that matter? Or Peter or James? Over time we see a consistent refusal to attribute to anyone else the character, deeds and exaltation of Jesus Christ, though legends certainly sprang up around saints and apostles aplenty. Why not have multiple savior gods who rose from the dead?

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