Thanks to a link from the blogger NT Wrong, I found a description by James Crossley of his experience presenting a paper to a conference on the current Pope's book about Jesus. The conference attendees apparently included a fair number of Catholic theologians and various high ranking Catholic figures. Crossley noted that "this conference revealed what seems to me (and others) a significant and very interesting tension between theology (probably more precisely systematic theology) and biblical studies (more precisely historical criticism)." He somewhat casually made the rather significant observation that "many theologians wanted historical criticism to give them the answers they wanted for theology and discard views that were not helpful." (emphasis added).
In a nutshell, that captures what I think is a common problem. Considering what is at stake, it doesn't surprise me. When you base a religious faith on dogmatic assertions about historical events, then any research that is done in the service of that theology is inevitably going to start from the dogma and work backwards to find evidence to support it, lest the very foundation of the faith more or less collapse. This approach is not, of course, particularly scientific, but it seems inevitable given what is at stake. Neither the Catholic Church, nor any other church that is similarly invested in the outcome of such efforts, is likely to to lend support to any research that undermines its own tenets. I can think of analogy from the political world, when the CIA was pressured by Dick Cheney a few years ago to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This is not unlike the Catholic Church telling its theologians to go do biblical studies that support the party line. When you have decided the answer in advance, and only seek out the evidence that supports your position, you naturally (big surprise) get the answers you want. Ultimately, religious faith becomes equated with a willingness to affirm belief in spite of possible evidence to the contrary. This is not a very appealing definition of faith for people who like to think of themselves as rational. This one reason why religion ends up being so unappealing to large numbers of people.
I am reminded of a quote from the wonderful book The Fidelity of Betrayal by Peter Rollins. It is a long quote, but I think it explains very well why it is problematic for Christianity to base itself on the literal truth of extraordinary claims about events that allegedly happened as depicted in the Bible:
As soon as Christianity is thought of as something that makes claims to a set of facts that exist in the world, then it becomes subject to a whole range of critiques. This does not in any way imply that we must reject specific claims in the Bible, any more than it implies that we must embrace them; this is another question entirely, one that can be approached in relation to the best evidence that we have. It merely points out that if we take such claims as the "truth" of faith then we predicate that truth upon claims that will always be open to question. Of course within the Bible there are various claims to historical events; the point is that these claims, like all claims, are open to question, and so, if the truth of faith rests upon them, then it is also open to question.From this I think one can infer at least two rather unappealing responses to the problem of these sorts of truth claims. One response would be to ignore any evidence that contradicts the claims. This would seem to be intellectually dishonest, but it would ensure the continued commitment to the faith. Another alternative would be to make one's faith provisional and dependent on the latest findings, as Rollins describes in the above text. That would be intellectually honest but it would take away the possibility of any real commitment to the faith.
Thus the truth affirmed by Christianity ends up being treated like any other set of factual claims, claims that are provisional and open to being proven wrong. Even if one believes that the various claims within the Bible are wholly accurate, it is always possible that a new discovery in archaeology, history, or biblical scholarship will overturn the current body of evidence. Apologetics, in its attempt to defend the factual claims of the Bible through the use of reason, thus implicitly affirms the very philosophical outlook that undermines its own project, placing the truth of Christianity in the realm of rational reflection and thus into the realm of reasonable doubt and provisionality.
This has the effect of placing the Christian idea of truth upon a very tentative and fragile foundation, one that could not possibly justify an individual's unconditional commitment--one that would not be able to embrace Jesus' statement that one ought to lay one's life down for one's faith. Such an approach to the truth affirmed by Christianity would effectively mean that the believer would have to bow down before the academic researchers who are able to discuss which biblical texts are authentic, when they were written, by whom, and for what purpose. The believer would need to study all the available evidence and ascertain facts such as whether or not the Gospels record the writings of people who were eyewitnesses to the events they mention, and if not, whether they knew the eyewitnesses.
To be a believer would thus require some hefty subscriptions to the latest academic journals in order to see if the truth claims of Christianity could still be regarded as plausible, or even possible. Philosophy journals would become a stable diet for the preacher who would , in fear and trembling, be working out whether belief in Christianity is still rational. Journals dealing with biblical scholarship would become the norm in home groups, and psychological journals would need to be read as an integral part of our devotional meditations (helping us to work out whether our religious experience was likely to have descended form heaven or whether it really welled up from the depths of our unconscious.) (p. 92-94)
To maintain one's intellectual honesty and one's commitment to faith would require that faith not be dependent on these sorts of contingent truth claims. As Marcus Borg likes to point out, it whether or not Jesus was literally resurrected from the dead should not really matter to the Christian faith. What should matter instead is the deeper truths that the story of the resurrection points to. As he writes in his book Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary:
Seeing the Easter stories as parables need not involve a denial of their factuality. The factual question is left open. A parabolic reading affirms: believe whatever you want about whether story happened this way--now let's talk about what the story means. If you believe the tomb was empty, fine. Now, what does the story mean? If you believe that Jesus's appearances could have been videotaped, fine. Now what do these stories mean? And if you're not sure, or even quite sure they didn't happen this way, fine. Now, what do these stories mean?
A parabolic reading insists that the importance of these stories lies in their meanings. An empty tomb without meaning ascribed to it is simply an odd, even if exceptional, event. Only when meaning is ascribed to it does it take on significance. This is the function of parable and parabolic language. Parable can be based on an actual event (there could have been a Samritan who did what the character in Jesus's parable is reported to have done), but it need not be. Indeed, it may be that the most important truths can be expressed only in parable.
In any case, asking about the parabolic meaning of biblical stories, including the Easter stories, is always the most important question. The alternative of fixating on whether they report literally factual happenings leads one astray. And so, as we turn tot he stories of Easter in the gospels, I highlight their meaning as parable, as truth-filled stories. I leave open the question of how much of this happened, even as I affirm that their truth does not depend upon their public factuality. (pp. 280-281).