Is dedication to not believing in miracles sort of racist?

As part of some recent fieldwork among scholars, I stumbled upon this interview with Craig Keener who has just published the massive (1248 pages), Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. The interview was conducted by Michael Licona, who has written on why the resurrection really did happen, including his own massive book. The interview concerns the nature of miracles. However, I am not interested in the truth claims about whether miracles happen or not. Remember, this is fieldwork…

There are many ways we might approach this. One might be to work with some of the things that turn up in the interview and which would interest BW16, Roland Boer or, were he not retired, NT Wrong. Another might be one for Hendel or Berlinerblau:

CK:…a colleague and I prayed for one of the presenters at SBL who wasn’t going to be able to present his session the next day, he was going to have to go home cos he was really sick. We prayed for him and I didn’t bother going to the session cos I knew he was really sick. My colleague went, sure enough he was there. ‘Yeah I got healed when you prayed for me…’

Instead, I want to look at a favourite theme in recent years involving claims of ethnocentrism. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of the following but it struck me as being a little peculiar:

CK: He (Hume) dismisses other cultures, calling them ignorant and barbarous nations. Ultimately, when he speaks of uniform human experience, it comes down to his own circle’s experience…

ML: I guess the thing I’m trying to say with the Allison thing [Dale Allison having some sort of visionary experiences] when Hume says these really only happen with barbarous people, here we think of third world people running around naked down in the Amazon or, in, y’know, it’s not just barbarians [very brief nervous laugh] or the uneducated who are claiming that there are miracles that are happening in the world, there are very highly educated people like yourself [CK: yes] who can testify to miracles…I can tell you of an experience I had…

ML: …these are modern day examples, they’re intelligent people. I mean, you’ve got your PhD from Duke. They’re from intelligent people who are aware of these things. So how [can] Hume assume that his experience was comprehensive enough to rule out other people’s claims of experience? …

ML: You had mentioned earlier that Hume dismissed other cultures as being ignorant and barbarous; why was he so strong against [inaudible]?

CK: [Sigh] Keep in mind…I’m about to quote something that Hume said. If this sounds offensive to you, it really sounds offensive to me. My wife is from Congo in Africa. I don’t take kindly to language like this. But anyway

ML: You’re definitely white?

CK: Yes

ML: She’s definitely black?

CK: Yes. Hume says, quote, “I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all of the other species of men, for there are four or five different kinds to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilised nation of any other complexion than white.” He also said that none of the slaves, out of all the slaves, none of them ever achieved learning…Hume’s arguments in favour of slavery and his arguments in favour of racism made it harder for the abolitionists; they had to contend against him. And he cast a long shadow, there were a lot of people who appealed to Hume’s prestige in support of racism as well, so when he dismisses the views of other nations as those of ignorant and barbarous peoples, that comes out of a very ethnocentric perspective and that should simply be, not permitted today, that should simply be dismissed today from any credibility.

ML: …What happens if we take into account the testimonies from other countries? So, Hume, because he was a racist, was unwilling to do that. You had to be white. You had to be Caucasian, in order for your testimony even to count…What happens today if we take into account testimonies from other cultures?

CK: [talks about how many non-Western Christians and ‘hundreds of millions of claims’ about miracles etc]…Hume’s appeal to uniform human experience at this point is simply irrational, it’s simply not uniform.

There is part of me that would like to ditch the term ‘ethnocentric’ in scholarship because it is typically used in the sense ‘you are ethnocentric but I’m not and therefore I’m more right in my historical reconstruction’ and because I am yet to be convinced it is possible for anyone not to be ethnocentric. In this instance, and probably every other instance in scholarship, the very fact that such debates are framed in Western scholarly terms is immediately ethnocentric to some degree. That’s not necessarily good or bad but it is inevitable (and in certain cases it can be endorsed…but that’s for another day).

Licona’s questioning was particularly striking, aside from the questions about being white and black (which sounded odder to me than they look, to me, in print). In particular, there was this:

…Hume says these really only happen with barbarous people, here we think of third world people running around naked down in the Amazon or, in, y’know, it’s not just barbarians [very brief nervous laugh] or the uneducated who are claiming that there are miracles that are happening in the world, there are very highly educated people like yourself [CK: yes] who can testify to miracles…I can tell you of an experience I had…

In the audio it is not at all clear there was any irony implied but even so there is still the clear enough contrast of the ‘very highly educated’ (included the interviewer and interviewee) and the others who are accepted. What also comes out in Licona’s interview questions and in Keener’s answers is that we should take seriously the ‘testimonies’ of ‘hundreds of millions’ on miracles. This is an old claim (Bultmann is regularly cited as the fall guy, as he was in passing in this part of the interview) but one which strikes me as being a piece of classic liberal multiculturalism and acceptance of the Other without (too much) Otherness, accepting those bits that are useful and can conform to contemporary (liberal) positions, and repackaging older and harsher dichotomies with a more acceptable liberal ones (see, of course, Žižek on all this). How far does this concern for the views of ‘hundreds of millions’ go? There are, presumably, ‘hundreds of millions’ of people who testify to things, practice things and believe things Licona and Keener do not like…? Anyway, note, for instance, how Licona is explicit in condemning Hume for holding racist views. Hardly anyone is going to disagree with that. But, with racism being constructed as something that other people do, recall how, for Licona, the clinching argument works, perhaps unintentionally, with certain distinct categories: there are the clever people and the rest, even if they are, on another level, all together in their agreements. There is truly neither Amazonian nor Academic in Christ, at least as much as there was and is neither male nor female, slave nor free…

All this reminds me of the debates I did with Mike Bird in our joint work/debate. He argued that much of the ‘peoples of other cultures in Africa, Asia and South America’ do not share Bultmann’s ‘Eurocentric’ scientific objections to the miraculous. Here the argument was designed to support Bird’s case for the miraculous and, again, it is probably not going too far to suggest that many of the aforementioned ‘peoples of other cultures in Africa, Asia and South America’ do not believe half the things Bird believes and many of them will no doubt practice things Bird dislikes. The Other is brought in only when useful. This attempted use of Other People to contribute to an argument also comes up in Craig Blomberg’s incredibly positive review of Keener’s book where he claims:

All the more astounding is the extent to which scholars like Van Harvey, Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, Gerd Lüdemann, and many others rule out at least the most dramatic miracle accounts of the New Testament via a Humean naturalism in this age.  This is an age in which we have otherwise come increasingly to appreciate the contributions of all the major cultures of the world, especially in the Majority World.  Hume’s anti-Jewishness has been documented elsewhere, and his views that non-Western civilizations were “ignorant and barbarous” would be given no hearing in most of the same circles today who otherwise appeal to Hume…

So where do we draw the line in what is good and right about this big block called the Majority World? What are the implications of this argument concerning those who do not accept (certain) beliefs of the Majority World?

Anyway, whilst the critique of Hume is right, something else is going on in these arguments and I’m not convinced the ideological position is as wholesome as is being presented.

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4 responses to “Is dedication to not believing in miracles sort of racist?

  1. Those two questions about being black and white stopped me in my tracks, too, while I was reading through your quotations. Licona has a curious interest in establishing boundaries, for somebody so opposed to racism. But as you say, his interests appear to lie elsewhere than empathy with the Other.

    One thing I’ll note about this self-centred use of the Other is that it has a long pedigree in Western scholarship, well before this latest trend of ‘tolerating’ the Other (with all the ethical-political ambiguity of that stance). Keener draws attention to Hume’s dismissive attitude to other cultures. But mingled with this is a use of other cultures and peoples as examples to oppose traditional European values, religious orthodoxy, and Christianity – not only in Hume, but also in Voltaire, the Chevalier Ramsay, John Holwell, Johann Gottfried Herder, William Jones, as somewhat contemporary examples. Notably, their (pick-and-choose) respect for the Other took the form of respecting it to the extent it provided fodder to oppose orthodox Christianity, etc. So the tendentious sampling and limited respect of non-Western cultures is nothing new – although Keener and Licona and friends might be commended for taking it to a new level.

  2. I liked this bit of the interview the best:

    CK: …He [Augustine] had originally believed that miracles ceased in the days of the original apostles but then he had some eyewitness experience with it…a more dramatic example he cites is a friend of his named Innocent who had anal abscesses…there was something still there that was very painful…Augustine said to himself, “God, if anything can move you surely this man’s anguished cries can move you…they removed the bandage that they put on the day before…

    Can’t beat pious folk talking about anal abscesses and their bandages.

  3. Pingback: Biblioblog Carnival February 2012 « Cheese-Wearing Theology

  4. Pingback: Fossilized Footprint of God Found! Evidence of Biblical Giants Discovered in South Africa!! Those Who Deny it have Western Enlightenment Presuppositions!!! | Remnant of Giants

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