I’ve gotten a few questions from some of my long-time readers about my series, A Philosopher Loose in Church. Most of you know me as a philosopher, and you probably know that I’m perfectly comfortable as a conceptual atheist. But a few of you have reached out to probe (very tactfully) into my motivation for the series. Let me help you with the real question you’re trying to ask: Have you become religious?
The short answer is no. I’m still the poster boy for conceptual atheism, a position I hold not as a form of activism or a life policy, but because that’s where the philosophical search for truth has taken me.
But I have a longer response I’d like to share about my motive for the series, and in particular, for the posts analyzing Jesus’ parables. It all goes back to my philosophy grad school days.
I became fascinated with Herakleitos (Heraclitus, whatever you prefer), and I decided to take an independent study to sort out my questions about his philosophy. Herakleitos is so weird that even Aristotle has trouble making sense of what he’s up to. And then there’s Herakleitos, Aristotle wrote, the philosopher of the flux. But who could hold views like these? Talk about dismissive. (Which just goes to show that even a great philosopher can be mistaken.)
Herakleitos’s writings have been lost, so we only know about his philosophy through scattered quotations and commentary by later philosophers. I ended up identifying 90 of the 130 or so extant quotations as genuine (the rest are often clumsy paraphrases), and I invented a card game. We know that Herakleitos wrote a book about nature, so I wrote those 90 fragments in Greek with my painstaking translations on notecards, and I sat for many, many hours on my living room floor arranging and rearranging those cards, trying to get a glimpse of some structure that might have organized his book.
Believe it or not, I’m not foolish or arrogant enough to claim that I found the hidden organizational structure of his lost book, but I am arrogant enough to tell you that I think I understand something at a deep level about what Herakleitos was up to, and I chalk my insight up to the Herakleitos Card Game.
The two essential features of this card game are (1) I took the fragments completely out of the context of the narratives of the people who quoted him, and (2) I read the fragments, as much as possible, only in juxtaposition with the other fragments. The value of this, I argue, is that I ended up clearing away much of what other people thought he was up to so I could just read the words of the fragments and let them speak to me.
Of course, this isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. I had to do plenty of research — for instance, on exactly what a particular Greek word means at a particular historical moment, how it changes, etc., etc. It was actually pretty hard work, but the payoff — I argue — is that I know something about Herakleitos’s worldview that I would never have been in a position to know.
Now, here’s the weird thing about Jesus: We know about Jesus’ teachings because other people quote him. Sound familiar? Those other people, like the editors/authors of the synoptic gospels, have their own agendas and narrative goals. It occurred to me a year or so ago that Jesus’ parables are in a situation similar to Herakleitos’s fragments. In other words, Jesus’ parables need to be excavated and freed from those narrative contexts so the words could speak for themselves. So that’s what I set out to do.
I’ve translated most of the 37 parables reported in the synoptic gospels, prioritizing those that have parallels in other gospels, canonical and otherwise. My assumption is that, if a parable is quoted or closely paraphrased by more than a single source, there’s a higher probability that that parable does actually go back to Jesus’ teaching practice.
I spent a lot of time with these parables, in an interpretive dance similar to the Herakleitos Card Game. In the process, I think some themes and concepts emerged that don’t always square well with gospels. In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that some core ideas in Jesus’ teaching have been domesticated by traditions and institutions who are happy to speak on his behalf, for their own narrative aims. I’m not saying it’s a conscious conspiracy; I’m saying that Jesus’ worldview isn’t necessarily a Christian worldview (using the latter term as an oversimplification of the variety of sects and belief-communities under that umbrella).
If you want to know what I think Jesus is up to, just click on A Philosopher Loose in Church and browse for some parables.