Is it possible that a historian could invoke divine agency as the best explanation of past events such as the reports of an empty tomb and post resurrection appearances that we find in a number of the documents collected into the New Testament?
Robert thinks not. In the thread on “Heathenism, Naturalism, and other unstated premises” he writes:
“When scholars say that the best explanation is God Did It, I think they are making that leap too. They are really proposing that Yahweh did it – not Allah or Krishna or Ra or Ba’al or all of these gods combined. But even if they were not proposing a particular God, I still don’t see how God Did It is under the realm of “methods of historiography”.”
Robert raises two objections here. I addressed the second in the thread. But let’s begin with the first here which, for lack of time, I didn’t initially address.
Apparently Robert’s first problem is that it is hopelessly arbitrary to select one god over another as an explanation. Even granting there is evidence that Jesus was resurrected, why think Yahweh raised Jesus rather than Allah or Ra (or an Allah-Ra consortium)? (I give Robert high marks for not mentioning the Flying Spaghetti Monster.)
This is a really puzzling objection. Just this morning my wife was looking for my daughter’s water bottle. It was in the kitchen yesterday evening but it was missing this morning. So you know what my wife did? She immediately invoked an agent explanation: “The child moved the water bottle,” she intoned sternly.
Had Robert been in our kitchen this morning he could have interjected: “Mrs. Rauser, why say that your daughter moved the bottle rather than her elementary school principle, or the neighbor, or her friend, or all of these people combined?”
Context Robert. Context. If her water bottle went missing in the classroom at her school a different range of explanations for its disappearance would suggest themselves. (Teacher? Janitor? Friend?) But in the present context the best explanation of the bottle’s disappearance is my daughter herself. And if Jesus came to Jewish people proclaiming teaching about the Jewish God, then if he appears to have been resurrected, who do you think is the most likely divine agent candidate to explain the purported resurrection?
In the thread I focused on Robert’s second objection which was even bolder. Here Robert seemed to say that “divine agent” is an inappropriate type of explanation to explain events in history. This is what I wrote in response:
“This assumes some sort of methodological naturalism, I take it. Do you have some sort of justification for this premise, i.e. for the claim that it is improper to invoke divine agents to explain data? Or is that just a stipulation that one has to accept by faith to play in your sandbox?”
Robert responded as follows:
“My reluctance for God-Did-It as the best explanation is that it explains everything and nothing at all. It is a curiosity stopper. e.g. How did that lightening work? God Did It. Done.”
Frankly, this response reminds me of the old “Chatty Cathy” doll. Cathy had a set of stock phrases like “Let’s play house” and “Please change my dress.” And you could tell they were stock phrases when you tried to have a conversation and then pulled the string.
Child: “Cathy, I’m going to school now. Be good.”
Child pulls the string and Cathy replies: “Let’s play house.”
See? It’s a stock phrase. It doesn’t really fit. So now we have a Chatty Skeptic doll.
Child: “Skeptic, I think ‘God raised Jesus’ might be the best explanation of the empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances.”
Child pulls the string and Skeptic replies: “Goddidit explains everything and nothing at all.”
Child, puzzled: “But Skeptic, I don’t understand. I’m not trying to explain everything. Just the empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances.”
Child pulls the string and Skeptic replies: “Goddidit is a curiosity stopper.”
Child angrily hurls the poor doll against the wall. “Dumb old skeptic doll. I’m getting a Veggie Tales plushie.”
Robert then provided a link to the common sense atheist, Luke Muehlhauser, to back him up. While it is a long post, this is part of what Luke said:
“theism as an explanation has much in common with what we know to be really bad explanations from pseudoscience and superstition, and almost nothing in common with what we know to be really good explanations from the physical sciences. So why should we think theism is a good explanation like those from science, rather than a really terrible explanation like those from pseudoscience and superstition?”
Here’s a response. There are two basic kinds of causal explanation: agent causes and event causes. Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that Jesus made a statement to his apostles predicting that he would die and then be resurrected by God. Then let’s say that the apostles saw Jesus brutally crucified and later they saw him alive again at which point he said “Told ya so!”
I ask you to consider whether the disciples could reasonably conclude the following:
(1) Jesus came back to life
(2) God was the agent cause of Jesus’ coming back to life
Clearly they could conclude that (1) is true based on the evidence before them. But could they conclude (2) as well? I already noted that the context would support this conclusion. So everything depends on whether God is among the agents we could reasonably invoke to explain a given phenomenon. In this case, it seems there is excellent reason. Surely they could conclude that God raised Jesus.
Now let’s pull the string of the Skeptic Doll: “God used to be invoked to explain lightning and thunder.”
Yes, and when my daughter was younger she thought I made the sun rise in the mornings. The fact that she once held that false belief doesn’t mean she can’t now conclude that I drove her to school today! And the fact that people once erroneously attributed lightning and thunder to direct divine agency doesn’t mean they cannot now invoke divine agency to explain other events.
So again, there is nothing wrong in principle with the disciples believing God raised Jesus from the dead.
But what about a historian? Is it possible that a historian, while seeking the best historical reconstruction of the events based on the data available to her, could also come to believe Jesus rose from the dead? Of course. If it is possible in principle for the disciples reasonably to believe it, it is also possible for a contemporary historian to do so. And that means you can’t claim that historiography excludes in principle appeal to divine agent causes.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a slightly worn Skeptic Doll that I need to drop off at the Goodwill Thrift Store.
For more on how “Goddidit” functions rhetorically to shut down particular types of explanation see my article “Health Care Reform, Intelligent Design, and Public Debate.”