Tuesday, July 25, 2017

John Dominic Crossan and Post-Modern Structuralism - Part II of II

Jon posted a very thoughtful comment and question in response to my article on John Dominic Crossan.

First, Jon's question .

Jon said...
"...Crossan believes that there is no history beyond language—history is not a concrete reality consisting of actual past events, but rather is constructed through language about past events."

Can you provide a quote from Crossan to support this? While I do not have a great familiarity with Crossan or structuralism, what little I have read seems very inconsistent with your argument here. That is, they do not deny that there is a reality and history independent of language, but that our understanding of history and reality are dependent upon and limited to the structure of our language(s).

Very well put, Jon.  
In my last post, I outlined Crossan's views on language, metaphor, history, and reality.  Now, I'd like to expand upon that, and consider how Crossan's structuralism impacts his historical Jesus research, particularly his study of Jesus's resurrection.  Again, this material is derived from my dissertation, which is accessible here.

Hermeneutics, Presuppositions, and
the Resurrection
Crossan’s structuralism directs his conclusions regarding the historicity of Christ’s resurrection.  First, Crossan insists that reality is linguistically structured.  There is no expressible reality outside that constructed by story.  Second, language is essentially, inherently, and unavoidably metaphorical in nature.  The metaphorical does not flow out of an originally literal story; rather, literal constructs emerge out of what was originally metaphorical in nature.  Applying both tenets to the Christian proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection leads inevitably to the conclusion that the resurrection is a metaphorical construct.  Not untrue, not fictional, but metaphorical.  It does not refer to a reality “out there in the world.”[1]  We cannot conclude that the resurrection refers to an actual event in ancient history, because we have access to it only through the inherently metaphorical medium of language.
Donald Denton notes a fundamental tension between Crossan’s structuralism and his historical Jesus research.  On one hand, Crossan’s structuralist hermeneutic “brackets the question of history in relation to the interpretation of the text, because language is seen as a closed, self-referential system.”[2]  Thus, one cannot take ancient texts to be objectively referring to actual events or persons.[3]  On the other hand, Crossan’s historical-critical methodology, which is operative in nascent form even in his earliest work,[4] “seems impervious to these hermeneutical and ontological moves, and continues to operate on the assumption that what is sought is a real historical, extra-linguistic referent, the authentic words of the real historical Jesus of Nazareth.”[5]  That is, throughout his early work on structuralist interpretation of Jesus’ parables, Crossan assumes that there are real, historical parables uttered by the real, historical Jesus of Nazareth, which he as a historical Jesus scholar can at least tentatively recover and decipher.  Essentially, Denton argues, Crossan “embraces a hermeneutic that denies the historical referent, and an ontology that denies extra-linguistic reality, along with a historiography that assumes both such a referent and a reality.”[6] 
Denton concludes that the tension between Crossan’s relativistic structuralist hermeneutics and his objectivist historiography became untenable; hence, the later Crossan abandons structuralism altogether.[7]  It seems, however, that Crossan’s later historical Jesus research does not abandon structuralism, so much as assumes, incorporates and moves beyond it.[8]  Many of the tenets of structuralism remain essential to Crossan’s research and writing.  Thus, Crossan insists that his reconstruction of the historical Jesus is neither final nor authoritative.[9]  Instead, he insists, “there will always be divergent historical Jesus-s, that there will always be divergent Christ-s built upon them, but I argue, above all, that the structure of Christianity will always be: this is how we see Jesus-then as Christ-now.”[10]  Historical Jesus research and resulting portraits, for Crossan, are inherently polyvalent, just as his earlier scholarship insisted that Jesus’ parables were inherently polyvalent.  There is no such thing as the historical Jesus, arrived at finally, conclusively, and authoritatively.  Instead, there are only reconstructions which update the Jesus of history into the Christ of faith for that day. 
Furthermore, Crossan’s commitment to recovering a portrait of the historical Jesus is not a new arrival with The Historical Jesus.  Rather, it is present from the beginning in his structuralism as well.  In the Preface to In Parables, Crossan insists that he is interested in recovering the historical Jesus.  The historical Jesus, however, is understood in thoroughly structuralist terms. 
The book is not concerned, however, with either the religion of Jesus or the faith of Jesus.  Neither is it concerned with the psychological self-consciousness or even the theological self-understanding of Jesus.  The term ‘historical Jesus’ really means the language of Jesus and most especially the parables themselves.  But the term is necessary to remind us that we have literally no language and no parables of Jesus except and insofar as such can be retrieved and reconstructed from within the language of their earliest interpreters.  One might almost consider the term ‘Jesus’ as a cipher for the reconstructed parabolic complex itself.[11]
The historical Jesus, then, is known by his words, particularly his parables.  And his parables are always treated by Crossan as inherently paradoxical, metaphorical, and polyvalent, in accordance with his structuralist literary theory. 
Crossan’s commitment to objective historical-critical biblical scholarship is clearly enunciated in the preface to Raid on the Articulate.  After insisting that he situates his own scholarship “within this challenge posed by structuralist literary criticism to the monolithic ascendancy of historical criticism in biblical studies,”[12] Crossan states that he “also presumes, acknowledges, and appreciates the results of historical investigation into the teachings of Jesus.”  Thus, he will “never use texts except those supported as authentic by the vast majority of the most critical historical scholarship.”[13]  Throughout Crossan’s scholarship, then, there is a mutual interface between structuralist hermeneutics and historical-critical methodology.
It is instructive, however, to inquire as to the purpose and focus of Crossan’s hermeneutics, particularly the direction of his deconstructionism.  In his autobiography, Crossan acknowledges that the decade of the 1960s marked a period of intentional questioning.[14]  His doctoral and post-doctoral studies had trained him to “think critically,”[15] and the Vatican II era fostered a questioning of hierarchical authority and teaching.  Crossan openly acknowledges that he actively questioned and challenged official Catholic sexual morality and ecclesiastical authority.[16]  Along with morality and authority, however, Crossan questioned established church doctrine.  Two doctrines in particular which Crossan rejected, at some unacknowledged point in his questioning decade, are the core worldview tenets of life after death and religious particularity.[17]
Throughout his published works, Crossan consistently rejects the possibility of life after death.  In The Dark Interval, Crossan identifies the unbreakable limit of “our inevitable mortality.”[18]  According to Crossan, Old Testament Judaism rightly rejected the myriad of afterlife possibilities expressed in other ancient cultures and religions: “Immortality, eternal life, reincarnation, or any idea which negates the terminal finitude of death as the end of individual human existence.”[19]  Hallucinatory drugs seek to bring a sense of pleasure and meaning when there is none; in the same way, Crossan argues, belief in an afterlife acts solely as “a narcotic theology to stop the pain of meaningless suffering and of hopeless persecution.”[20]  Life ends at death, period.
My concern in this is a conviction that only by a full and glad acceptance of our utter finitude can we experience authentic transcendence.  Immortality, no matter how carefully qualified as divine gratuity, strikes me as a genuflection before our own hope, a worship of our own imagination.[21] 
Crossan’s rejection of Christian particularity (exclusivism) and his commitment to normative religious pluralism emerges early in In Parables.  Crossan explains the participatory nature of metaphorical parables, insisting that they are particularly helpful when people “seek to express what is permanently and not just temporarily inexpressible, what one’s humanity experiences as Wholly Other.”[22]  Reflecting on the experiences of mystics in various religious traditions, Crossan suggests, “the specific language of religion, that which is closest to its heart, is the language of poetic metaphor in all its varied extension.”[23]  Hence the significance of Jesus’ metaphorical parables: Jesus expresses his intimate religious experience of the Wholly Other in the only language available—metaphor and parable.[24] 
In The Dark Interval, Crossan insists that experience of the transcendent is only available on the boundaries of language, and identified transcendent referents (e.g., the Judeo-Christian God) are either internal creations (and hence idols) or unknowable external mysteries.[25]  Thus, the slamming door in Dickinson’s poem represents, as Crossan opaquely implies, the death of the classical Christian conception of God.[26]  The death of God refers not to the extermination of an objectively existent supernatural being, but rather the acknowledgement that the concept of God is merely a linguistic construct designed to bring order out of chaos, meaning out of emptiness. 
There is, indeed, a divine reality which Crossan can alternatively call “the Holy,” the “transcendental,” the “Wholly Other,” or “God.”[27]  But the divine reality is inherently inexpressible; attempts to define or describe human experience of the divine inevitably break down.  Thus, the only language appropriate to such attempts is poetic metaphor, i.e., parable.  Accordingly, particular expressions of and religious responses to the Holy are equally valid: 
Religion represents, for me, some response to what I'm going to put down in the widest terms I can use, ‘the mystery that surrounds us.’ . . . I see religions as very much like languages.  English and Russian are equally valid languages, equally valid to express whatever they want to express.  I see . . . that religions are equally valid ways of experiencing the Holy.  But they're also equally particular, just like a language.[28]
The world’s major religions are equally valid responses to the Holy, and use different metaphors to describe and relate to the Holy.  As a consequence, Crossan holds that the metaphors and parables used by various religions should be accepted on the same terms.[29]
In summary, Crossan’s hermeneutical structuralism holds that language is the sum of reality and is inherently metaphorical.  Parable is the only available way to express human experience of the inexpressible divine.  Thus, when religions describe transcendental experience, they necessarily use metaphorical parables.  The metaphor of God incarnate, then, speaks of early Christians experiencing the unutterable divine presence through the person, ministry, and mission of Jesus Christ. 
Most significantly for present purposes, the metaphor of Jesus’ resurrection speaks of early Christians continuing to experience that divine presence as they sought to live out his parabolic Kingdom of God in community together.  Crossan’s fundamental worldview presuppositions—the validity of various religions as authentic expressions of transcendental experience, and total human extinction at death—rule out the historically orthodox understanding of Jesus’ resurrection as a supernaturally-wrought bodily resurrection.  Crossan’s structuralist hermeneutic, with its stress on metaphorical parable as the only available language to express divine experience, inexorably drives Crossan to a metaphorical understanding of Jesus’ resurrection.  Crossan’s elaborate historical Jesus methodology will flesh out his resurrection reconstruction, but the die has been cast by the combination of his theological worldview and structuralist hermeneutic.

[1]Crossan, The Dark Interval, 37. Emphasis original.
[2]Denton, Historiography and Hermeneutics in Jesus Studies, 40.
[3]“Any reference to historical persons or events is imposing an illegitimate extra-linguistic referent onto language.” Ibid.
[4]E.g., Crossan, In Parables, 3-5; Crossan, Raid on the Articulate, xiv-xv. 
[5]Denton, Historiography and Hermeneutics in Jesus Studies, 40.
[6]Ibid., 40-41.
[7]“It is difficult to avoid the impression that Crossan himself became aware of difficulties encroaching upon his historical method as a result of his post-structuralist hermeneutic. . . . after [Cliffs of Fall], post-structuralist theory effectively disappears from Crossan’s historical work.” Ibid., 41.
[8]In places, Crossan’s later work explicitly embraces his earlier structural literary theory. “Keep . . . at the back of your mind . . . the suggestion of the great Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges that ‘it may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ Is it possible that we can never escape metaphors, the small ones we readily recognize and the huge ones we do not even notice as such but simply call reality?” Crossan, The Greatest Prayer, 32.
[9]“This book, then, is a scholarly reconstruction of the historical Jesus. And if one were to accept its formal methods and even their material investments, one could surely offer divergent interpretative conclusions about the reconstructable historical Jesus. But one cannot dismiss it or the search for the historical Jesus as mere reconstruction, as if reconstruction invalidated somehow the entire project. Because there is only reconstruction. For a believing Christian both the life of the Word of God and the text of the Word of God are alike a graded process of historical reconstruction, be it red, pink, gray, black, or A, B, C, D. If you cannot believe in something produced by reconstruction, you may have nothing left to believe in.” John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 426. Emphasis original.
[10]John Dominic Crossan, “The Historical Jesus in Earliest Christianity,” in Jesus and Faith: A Conversation on the Work of John Dominic Crossan, ed. Jeffrey Carlson and Robert A. Ludwig (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994), 20. Emphasis original.
[11]Crossan, In Parables, vii.
[12]Crossan, Raid on the Articulate, xiv.
[13]Ibid., xv.
[14]John Dominic Crossan, A Long Way from Tipperary: A Memoir (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000), 75-77. 
[15]John Dominic Crossan, “Exile, Stealth, and Cunning,” Forum 1, no. 1 (1985): 61. He laments, however, the tendency of his critical thinking to get him into trouble with ecclesiastic authorities!
[16]Crossan, A Long Way from Tipperary, 76.
[17]It may not be fully accurate to suggest that at some point Crossan rejected core Catholic doctrines. Crossan embraced Catholic Christianity, as he puts it, uncritically in his youth—he believed, but without examining or evaluating the content of his beliefs. So far as I am aware, he never explicitly identifies a conscious moving away from these core doctrinal stances—rather, he just states that he does not accept them. Crossan does not indicate that at one point in time he did consciously embrace either doctrine, so it is entirely possible that Crossan never believed in life after death, and that the first time he encountered the doctrine he found it lacking and did not accept it.
[18]Crossan, The Dark Interval, 13.
[19]Crossan, Raid on the Articulate, 146.
[20]Ibid., 148.
[21]Ibid., 148-49.
[22]Crossan, In Parables, 12.
[23]Ibid., 18.
[24]Ibid., 22, 33.
[25]Crossan, The Dark Interval, 40-41.
[26]“In that ‘sham’ one hears the chilling slam as the door closes on the classical vision of a fixed center out there somewhere. . . . with the loss of credibility in a fixed reality independent of us, there soon followed the loss of faith in a God whose chief role was to guarantee that reality’s validity.” Ibid., 43.
[27]Crossan calls divine reality “the Holy” in Raid on the Articulate, 44; the “transcendental” in The Dark Interval, 46; the “Wholly Other” in In Parables, 12; and “God” in In Parables, 33.
[28]Crossan, quoted in James Halsted, “The Unorthodox Orthodoxy of John Dominic Crossan: An Interview,” Cross Currents 45 (1995-1996): 517.
[29]Crossan emphasizes the fundamentally metaphorical nature of language about God throughout his academic scholarship. In his most recently published work, a meditation upon the Lord’s Prayer, Crossan writes, “First, I look at the role and power of metaphor in general, but especially in religion and theology. Can we ever imagine God except in metaphor—whether it is named or unnamed, overt or covert, conscious or unconscious? And is it not wiser to have our deepest divine image publicly expressed, so it can be recognized, discussed, criticized, and maybe even replaced?” Crossan, The Greatest Prayer, 31-32.

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