Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Ties that Bind

I sympathize with the Traditionalist currents in the Roman Church to some degree. Although I now keep the Roman hierarchy and Roman Catholicism in general at arm's distance, I cannot help but still have some concern for the current state of things.

Part of my decision to situate myself in the Orthodox Church was the result of having lost the desire to expend energy trying to make sense of a series of paradoxes related to Catholicism's foray into modernity with the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath. The years of investing much of my life into such pursuits have declined with the sunset of age.

There are things one cannot explain. Among them, how any religious leadership could willingly take their religion down a path of deconstruction amid a seeming resurgence. My wife was reading the forward to a book on that council written by a former professor of hers. This professor began by noting the teaming life of the Roman Church, especially its institutional vitality. This professor, an ardent supporter of the more deconstructionist schools, noted the filled seminaries, the filled Catholic schools, and the almost universal grasp of what it meant to be Roman Catholic on the eve of the Council. She then rhetorically asked, " how could there be a need for a reform?" What followed were the written praises of the glorious decomposition of a once vital religion and profound spiritual tradition.

Conservatives often commit themselves to intellectual acrobatics to defend that council. Even though Joseph Ratzinger offered a more sober assessment of the council, he could not resist the proposal of a hermeneutic of continuity, a principle which actually demonstrated how relativist Roman Catholicism had become at its authoritative core.

Liberals, meanwhile, exude relish for the deconstruction of their religion, pushing it on towards a sort of secular ethics club, displaying an almost pathological hatred for the first 1960 years of their religion.

It is hard to avoid that things changed. It is even harder to avoid that things changed at the behest of  Roman authority. It is foolish to spend most of one's religious experience attempting to understand and explain those changes while trying to assert that nothing foundational changed. Catholicism has walked off with modernity. Most Catholics are largely content with this decision, the more astute of them realize that accepting modernity demands a reinterpretation of their religious myth. The only dissent pertains to how the myth should be recast, the extent of its modernization.

So, why do I care? Where is the liberation I had promised myself from Catholicism? The reality is, Catholicism formed me. I learned much from it. I, of course, would claim that all of its best parts went into my formation, an assertion that would no doubt be filled with partiality and perhaps a bit of dishonesty. Whatever the case may be, Catholicism formed me; much to my own misfortune, it was a Catholicism that had been discarded by the Roman Church before my birth, before I had ever known it existed. Regardless of where the journey to the eternal should lead, Catholicism is, in a very true sense, my point of origin, having a clear place in the continuity of my life and producing an effect that extends through the course of my existence.

In the above light, the charted course and reaped fortune (for well or ill) of the Roman Church is a concern. There is so much that ought not diminish into a footnote of religious history that is indeed threatened with extinction. Having read the Instrumentum Laboris of the upcoming Synod on the Family, including its pockets of vague, nearly Orwellian "new speak', analogous to the worst moments of the documents of Vatican II, it would appear that the October meeting has the potential to determine the course of the Roman Church.

Nothing  may well come of the October Synod. Then again, the sides are positioning themselves. True, the institutional lethargy of the Roman Church could well draw any ideological wars to a stalemate. Yet, it seems equally possible that the Roman Church could carve out a very definitive path amid the long project interpreting itself in the wake of a council that, at least in the West, has failed to produce a meaningful renewal.

Jesus' Wife : The Final Chapter?

Heading into Holy Week 2014, Professor Karen King of Harvard University seemed to have been redeemed. The much maligned Coptic fragment purporting to mention Jesus' Wife appeared to have been validated by a round of scientific testing. The media sweep was occasioned by a press release from Harvard Theological Review. The press release, from a scholar's perspective, was somewhat wanting. Little to no data was disclosed about the testing pool nor other pieces in the cache of documents acquired by King. Of course, King and the journal performed due diligence in noting that the document revealed nothing about the historical Jesus, rather that some sects of Christianity entertained the idea of a married Jesus. The irrelevance of the fragment to the historical Jesus was demonstrated by the probable date of the papyrus itself, landing from the late seventh to early tenth century. So things rested, at least for the general public, the media, and, momentarily, for Karen King.

Yet, the world of Biblical scholarship and textual studies is extremely cut-throat, populated by the somewhat fragile egos and strict skepticism. Any discovery that is not one's own is met with rigorous peer review; in a short time, one's reputation can be either enshrined in tribute monographs or symposiums, or it can be battered by rounds of repudiation until one is sufficiently humbled for the remainder of one's career. In sum, roughly two weeks later, the other shoe dropped.

I won't go into all of the details of the analysis which seems to leave little doubt that the text is a forgery, although, as one who knows Coptic, this excerpt struck a particularly relevant chord,

Then last week the story began to crumble faster than an ancient papyrus exposed in the windy Sudan. Mr. Askeland found, among the online links that Harvard used as part of its publicity push, images of another fragment, of the Gospel of John, that turned out to share many similarities—including the handwriting, ink and writing instrument used—with the "wife" fragment. The Gospel of John text, he discovered, had been directly copied from a 1924 publication.
"Two factors immediately indicated that this was a forgery," Mr. Askeland tells me. "First, the fragment shared the same line breaks as the 1924 publication. Second, the fragment contained a peculiar dialect of Coptic called Lycopolitan, which fell out of use during or before the sixth century." Ms. King had done two radiometric tests, he noted, and "concluded that the papyrus plants used for this fragment had been harvested in the seventh to ninth centuries." In other words, the fragment that came from the same material as the "Jesus' wife" fragment was written in a dialect that didn't exist when the papyrus it appears on was made.

This has been a nearly three year saga, during which the reputation of both King and Harvard University have been cast in a dim light within the field of Biblical/Early Christian scholarship. Now, it looks like, barring a desperate push from King, the saga has come to close and the field can go on wondering when it will have the next Dead Sea Scrolls or Nag Hammadi codices.

In retrospect, there are several points to reflect upon when considering the saga of Jesus' Wife.

First, the media is, by and large, absolutely unqualified to report on any development in religious or theological scholarship. Yet, despite the glaring iincompetence, the media continues to function as the primary filter for most of the general American public perception of reality, including religion. The media swooned all over this story with tantalizing articles and flattering photos of Karen King as "the scholar at work." The scholarly community has aptly demonstrated the document is an orchestrated hoax, a common ooccurrence in the antiquities. Yet, the general public will likely only recall the media blitz and swooning and will base its opinions on said blitz and swooning. From a scholar's perspective, this is astounding. The public is prone to have its opinions about religion and who and what God must be, but the public is largely unqualified to have an opinion in so far as it is largely uneducated. More importantly, however, an institution has established itself as the reference point for information on subject areas it is woefully unable to cover. The media is the nexus from which the public largely draws its perception of reality. Clearly, however, in matters of religion or religious scholarship, the media is unable to discern what information carries credibility from what makes a good story. Although, shame on the public for not having the integrity to sort that distinction out themselves.

Second, it remains to be seen how Karen King, Harvard Theological Review, and, to some extent, Harvard University itself, could have ignored a cascade of suspicious earmarks that surrounded this document. Plainly, this scrap of papyrus was surround with things that are supposed to raise red flags for scholars. From unknown origin to reproducing textual errors found only in an online edition of a text, to the presence of a Coptic dialect that had ceased being used before the time the papyrus itself was harvested, to the doubtful authenticity of the other documents in the cache acquired by King, it is astonishing that these pieces of data were not caught early on. The antiquities market is a shady place. There is good amount in the hands of private dealers, untracked by local governments, that eventually makes its way into the hands of private collectors. Some of materials are genuine finds, others are well constructed forgeries. We have, thus far, been treated to summaries of the transaction that brought King into possession of the document. I suspect there is more information about how King was made aware of the collection that we do not know, perhaps because in the rush to publication, these details have been thought superfluous. Yet, that is where the future story of this fragment, if there is one, resides.

Third, in due time we will know just how much damage this has done to King's reputation, both short term and long term. For full disclosure, I met King briefly about two times. Again, very brief, very informal, nothing substantial. I found her to be professional and I found she avoided the dramatic flavor of Elaine Pagels and Marvin Meyer. Even when she first "revealed" the fragment, King cautioned that it did not actually disclose anything about Jesus of Nazareth. Be this as it may, she associated herself with something that, no matter what qualifying she did, was sensationalist. We are left wondering how someone who had previously shown such scholarly sobriety could do something so reckless. Academia is cut throat and mistakes are not easily forgotten; Karen King may well spend the rest of her scholarly career attempting to salvage what is left of it.