Blogs > Cliopatria > Worthwhile Discussions

May 3, 2005 6:53 am

Worthwhile Discussions

I don't think any of us can be objective about our own claimed objectivity. -- Daniel Okrent, NYTimes, 4/24/05


There are three categories of common arguments in blogspace:

  • Principles
  • Facts
  • Tone
I don't mean to categorize posts, or bloggers, but disputes. Of these, I think the first two categories are pretty self-evident, but the third needs some explanation. It might look, to a casual observer, that Tone is an epiphenomenon, coloration rather than substance, the least important and/because the most emotional. But Tone includes subtexts, implications, style and inferences; it is where the issues of audience and the active agency of readership become central. Tone matters.

Obviously, very few actual arguments will fit neatly and purely into any of these categories; most, in fact, are combinations of two:

  • Principles + Facts: policy, history, social and natural science
  • Facts + Tone: Identity, Insults and offenses, literature
  • Principles + Tone: Religion, politics, philosophy
(I'm sure some of our more rhetorically-mindedreaders will have some fun deconstructing those categories and intersections, and it's entirely possible that I'm reinventing wheels I know nothing about. I don't mind.)
I'm not going to say that one category is greater or lesser than the others, but I will say that different people and different disciplines do handle the categories differently. It is important, though, to be aware of what kind of argument is at hand, because rhetorical strategy and substantive issues within and between each differ greatly.


Dr. Thomas Bruscino wrote that, in the process of discussing the recent Papal election, I made"profoundly insulting statements" based on my" clear personal hostility toward the Catholic Church." He asks me"not to qualify, but to back away from such profoundly insulting statements." If he were correct that I bear a personal animus towards the Roman Catholic establishment, then I would have no reason to do so aside from a weak-kneed desire to retain my reputation as a"nice guy." If he is wrong, then I have no way to prove it except to retract statements that were fundamentally correct, as he himself acknowledges.

For those of you who haven't been following this, the"telling" evidence in the charge of bigotry, doesn't actually come from my case against providential history -- I have made similar arguments against other faiths including my own, when matters of faith and reliable history conflict -- but apparently from the fact that I am not just a secularist historian but also a Jew. From a statement of fact, a statement of interest and a statement of profound uncertainty, Dr. Bruscino concludes not only that I am hostile, but that my hostility is unwarranted:"Nevertheless, I'm not sure the church's mistakes or arrogant attitude somehow grant its critics the power Professor Dresner assumes in his comments." I would strongly urge Dr. Bruscino to examine the ambiguities in his statements --"mistakes","I'm not sure","somehow","assumes" -- and consider whether he is entirely honest with himself when he writes"What Professor Dresner wrote was specifically problematic to historian Catholics, but it wasn't wrong because the target was the Catholic church."

Whether or not"Pope Benedict is not about to dispatch an army of robot Torquemadas on an unwitting world" is beside the point (though I note that Dr. Bruscino has to"assume" this, because he can't prove it): I am a Jew in a free society, beyond any authority of the Catholic Church. But the Roman Catholic Church represents, as Dr. Bruscino notes, the affiliation of a billion human beings, and if there are schisms or serious disruptions or vibrant growth or lingering stagnation in that body of faith, it is of interest to me as an historian, as a friend of Catholics, as a citizen of the world which will be affected in unforeseeable ways. Just as what happens in China or India matters well beyond the confines of Asia, the Roman Catholic Church is a significant component of world history. I'm not afraid of projecting and predicting when I feel that there is a good case to be made: in this case I specifically refused to do so, and I reject the conclusions Dr. Bruscino draws about me.

I did offer this clarification
I was being flip -- not hostile -- and I shouldn't have said that I wasn't. But, I was really trying to create an opening for anyone else to offer an alternative metric by which a faithful (faith-full) history could be in some way reconciled with the evidentiary demands of historical epistemology. That challenge remains fundamentally unanswered and, by Dr. Bruscino's own admission, unanswerable.
I'm not sure if this constitutes sufficient backing away without qualification: Dr. Bruscino responded simply:
If it was a challenge, it was a poorly worded one that became offensive in its tone. But if you were being flip, then I do not have much of a problem with what you wrote.
It appears that Dr. Bruscino doesn't care if I am personally hostile to his Church -- there's no indication that he has reconsidered or retracted his personal attacks -- simply that he was afraid my apparent hostility would lead me to apply to the Catholic Church the same evidentiary standard I insist from any historian.

Dr. Bruscino, in comments, tries to articulate his personal belief in a deity beyond simple understanding. We don't disagree on that, either. But I wasn't taking issue with an ineffable divine presence; I was taking issue with an attempt to justify evidence-free historical narrative. He wouldn't tolerate it from any other faith, I don't believe it is evidence of malice that I reject it from Roman Catholicism.


Dr. Bruscino, to his credit, articulates a mostly sound version of how matters of faith should be handled in the writing of history. We don't actually disagree on that, as he admits. In the course of his attack, though, he tries to create a separate category of"supernatural" factors separate from matters of human faith, and that is where my manifest failure of humility lay. I don't see that as any different from studying anything else that transcends individuals and requires accumulations of data -- social history, economics, discourses, ideology, etc. You must define it by its effects, by interactions, by sources: you articulate the evidence necessary to prove your claims and then you find that evidence and offer up your argument and evidence for critical review.

Nationalism is a good analogy to faith, in this regard: we identify statements and individuals as being nationalistic, we discuss the manifest and subtle effects of nationalism (and anti-nationalism, and competing nationalisms) but these are entirely separate from whether the nation is a"true thing" with an essence and agency all its own. As with nationalism, it may even be possible to assert the reality of the nation, but only in terms which acknowledges the reality of other nations: similarly, I see no way to write providential history which privileges one faith over others that is not a logical tautology. That's fine, in matters of faith, but it's unacceptable historical practice.

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More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 5/7/2005

Tom, If I were one of your teachers, I'd point out to you that it would be standard operating procedure for you to put "God's true law" in quotation marks if they were words originally used by Jonathan Dresner and which you adopt for the purpose of this discussion.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/6/2005

I'm sorry that I don't share your view of Buddhism as a rigorous philosophical morality divorced from myth and tradition, though I do acknowledge that it has often been presented as such in the West. To cast the Western traditions as bound up in their myths is as much of a fallacy as to divorce Buddhism from its own; Both traditions have strong devotional and mythological elements, and both have philosophical and ethical literatures of great subtlety and power.

The discussion of education was ... well, I'm glad you guys had fun. It was all wonderfully civil and detailed and mostly wrong. Palaima got it right, and most of the commentary has merely detracted from his points.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/6/2005

We're going in circles. I keep saying that I overstated the case, and you keep pointing out that I overstated the case. You keep saying that my overstatement nullifies my argument, and I keep trying to point out that my argument stands, even when stated differently, as a statement of good historical practice.

Now, you're trying to offend (without being offensive; love the disclaimers) and you're missing the mark. I really do apply the same standard to my own tradition that I'm applying to yours: As Arthur Clarke said, "A faith that cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets." I had Elijah's cup at my Seder, though I believe the prophetic texts to be retroactive redactions; I told the story of the Red Sea and told my son "it is what the Eternal our Lord did for me when we went forth from Egypt" and it doesn't bother me in the slightest what I know about the historiography of ancient north Africa. I have heard the still small voice in the sound of the shofar and the blast of thunder and the ineffable beauty of my son.

But if I try to tell my students that the tablets of Moses were engraved by the hand of God, how do I explain the atheistic enlightenment of the Buddha? If I teach my students that Peter was given the keys to the gates of heaven, how do I explain the Quranic covenant? Mystics meet in a silent place and hear the whispering; they can't agree on anything except that words fail us. Neighbors pray for guidance and blessing, and we have unholy wars.

I can't prove that the Star Wars saga didn't happen "Long ago in a galaxy far away". I can't prove that there isn't a difference between our intuitive ethical and moral intelligence and the still small voice of the divine. You're right, you know. And you're wrong: it does matter that we can't disprove each other's theologies.

Tom Bruscino - 5/5/2005

I was rejecting unsubstantiable, incompetent historiography.


Say we were talking about the historical origins of the Ten Commandments. As historians we could talk about a variety of verifiable factors as to why the ancient Hebrews came up with those ten at that time. Someone could point out that we would probably ignore, deny, or downplay the possibility that God carved the commandments Himself, as the Hebrews believed. That is a limit to secular history that we have to deal with as historians.

Say, then, that someone else comments:

If an all-powerful God was an historical actor of any significance, there would only have been one commandment. Maybe two, I suppose, accounting for the grevious sin to which even the Hebrews as human beings are prone. I'm not trying to be flip, I'm trying to suggest that isn't an evidentiary theory that would allow us as historians to take the idea of Judaism as God's Law seriously.

Someone else then writes, "I don't think that's at all clear. Haven't we each needed more than simple guidance in our lives?"

To which the person who denied an all-powerful God and Judaism as a religion says:
On the specific question, though, if I'm supposed to take the Hebrews' claims of being the sole "chosen people" seriously, then I would expect them to be consistently and clearly divinely aided in their construction of the law. Otherwise the Hebrews end up sounding like etc., etc.

Again, I do not believe this, for one because I believe in God passing down the Ten Commandments, but more importantly, because it is an absurd use of evidence that claims stridently ("no evidentiary theory" "as historians") to be solid history, and then uses that absurd evidence to dismiss an entire faith.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/5/2005

Here is the crux of the problem: I believe that non-falsifiable theses have no place in competent historical analysis. There is a difference between "we have no evidence against X" and "there can be no evidence against X."

I have no problem with the first: we deal with areas of uncertainty all the time, filling in the gaps with our best reasonable inferences and analogies and allowing for the tentative nature of our conclusions. The second is fundamentally ahistorical: it's not that neither of us have evidence for or against divine intervention, but that nobody else will articulate what evidence should be weighed in evaluating these claims. A theology which asserts divine influence through subtle means and divine purposes beyond human understanding has no historical weight; a theology which asserts comprehensible and visible divine influence can only be historically validated tautologically.

It's too bad nobody but Ralph chose to join the discussion when I was discussing my own tradition in these terms. I'm sorry if my arguments grate when applied to other traditions, but I'm not going to back away from rejection of unsubstantiable, incompetent historiography, except as evidence of the mentality of the authors thereof.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/5/2005

Last night I began a response to this, and city power blacked out just as I was looking up something in the New Advent (online Catholic) Encyclopedia. Taking this as a sign I moved on to other things.

But not only do fools rush in, they sometimes do so repeatedly.

Here is Jon's original comment, which was actually a response to a my first comment on the page:

"Oscar, if the Holy Spirit were an historical actor of any significance, there would only ever be one round of voting. Maybe two, I suppose, accounting for the grevious sin to which even Cardinals as human beings are prone. I'm not trying to be flip, I'm trying to suggest that isn't an evidentiary theory that would allow us as historians to take the idea of Catholicism as God's Law seriously."

I had little argument with the second part, which basically boiled down to it's probably impossible to prove empirically that God exists and acts. But the first part I thought was remarkably obtuse. It was all the more remarkable because nearly Jon's comments, whether I agree or not, are acute and provoking in the best possible sense.

The obtusenss came from a misunderstanding of how God "speaks" (or more precisely, how believers perceive God's voice), not simply in Catholicism but in many other traditions.

The Holy spirit speaks softly in both Catholic and Protestant tradition, a still small voice. It is (or is analagous to) the inner light of the Quakers. It is, according to believers, all too easily missed in the hubbub of daily life, in the inner dialogues of our mind, and among the temptations of the world. Those temptations don't get weaker as one ascends in the Church (in any church or religion, I suspect). Instead they become more insidious.

TS Eliot explores this in symbolic form in his verse play about Thomas Becket's martyrdom. Early in the play Becket knows what's probably going to happen, and he is visited by three temptations. These are older temptations: to go back to being the man about town, to go back to wielding the power of the King's chancellor, to seek to avoid martyrdom to continue wielding the more glorious power as God's Bishop.

He can dismiss those temptations, but he can't dismiss the fourth tempter so easily: the fourth offers him the glory of martyrdom.

The trick of it is the word "glory". Martyrdom may be a consequence of doing the right thing, but it's the road to damnation if one seeks it for the glory of it. It is, if I remember the lines correctly "the greatest treason/to do the right thing, for the wrong reason."

Ok, so why this digression? To make the point that, even for the greatest of believers, which cardinals ought to be, to empty themselves of their desires and ambitions to hear that voice is awfully hard to do. most of them know this. And remember, all the desires come in thinker's own quiet voice.

There's a reason they are locked up. To limit the "noise" to help them pick out the right voice, the right reason. And yes, maybe from the stand point of Catholicism, the Holy Spirit is speaking a bit louder than usual. But it still can be very hard, from the Christian perspective, to pick out the right voice.

This is why Jon's comment came across as flip and insulting to my ears, too--though I do not think he intended it that way. It reduced what can be from both the standpoints of the believer and the psychologist a complex and sometimes challenging process to the simple barking of orders.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/5/2005

If I'm not mistaken, even the theologians of the Roman Catholic Church would not claim that the Holy Spirit was _acting_ in the decision of the convocation of the College of Cardinals, but that the convocation was _discerning_ the will of the Holy Spirit. That distinction is neither immaterial nor putting too fine a point on things. It means that even the Roman Catholic Church does not insist that the Holy Spirit is agent. In fact, Ratzinger has himself said that some popes have been so wretched that clearly they were _not_ the inspired choice of the Holy Spirit. As I have said elsewhere, Tom, there's no point in trying to be more papal than Rome. So, where you find Jonathan Dresner insulting either historians (!) or Catholics is just beyond me.

Tom Bruscino - 5/4/2005

The phrase "God's true law" came from Professor Dresner; that's why I used it.

I'm not insisting, asking, or implying that anyone to defer to Catholicism's faith claims. My point is that we can't show any empirical evidence that the Holy Spirit did not act in the conclave's selection of the pope, either. And we certainly cannot claim that we do have such empirical evidence, and then use such evidence to dismiss an entire faith.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/4/2005

Jonathan speaks for himself, of course, but I still don't understand your position. I _don't_ understand your continuing reference to Catholicism as "God's true law." In the first place, Judaism has prior historical claim of access to "God's true law." In the second place, if you take the Apostle Paul seriously, as I assume you do, in Jesus the law was transfigured such that one no longer calls it law but gospel.
Beyond that, you can't show any empirical evidence that the Holy Spirit was acting in the conclave's selection of Benedict XVI. It's a claim of faith, nothing more (or less) than that. It has no standing in any responsible historical narrative. It's a chip on the shoulder Catholicism that insists the others -- Muslims, Jews, Prots, Buddhists, non-believers -- defer to its faith claims.

Tom Bruscino - 5/4/2005

There is one issue at the root of my post. To wit:

Professor Dresner asserted that the fact that it took more than one vote for the papal conclave to select a pope proved that the Holy Spirit was not a historical actor, and that evidence in turn proved that as historians we cannot take Catholicism as God's true law seriously.

That argument is absurd (and insulting to historians and Catholics), and Professor Dresner insisted he was not being flip (and repeated the argument in a later comment). Perhaps I should not have delved into the motivations for such absurdity, but I assumed that there had to be a reason for an intelligent person to write something so ridiculous. If he was being flip--and I have taken his admission that he was at face value, even though he went out of his way to deny it in the first place--then I have no problem with asking how we measure faith.

Everything else is just window dressing.

chris l pettit - 5/3/2005

Hope all is well Dr Dresner...

I was wondering if you would take a second and look over at the conversation Don Adams and I are having over at the main page regarding education and democracy and let me know where you think that would fit in your arrangement. The post is most certainly thought provoking, and I think eminently reasonable...something that should promote much discussion. My personal thought is that religion and ideology (things based in blind faith and flawed assumptions) have no place when we are discussing universalities that affect all of humanity...especially since it can be empirically demonstrated that the ideologies are inherently individualised, and the imposition of one ideology on another violates some of our most basic principles of liberty. THis is not to say that they do not have anything to contribute to the discussion, but rather that, if they do contribute, it should be based in critical analysis and empirical "proof" (of sorts). The Dalai Lama, when he is dealing with western scientists (, clearly states that if science, critical analysis and empirical studies can show something not to be (or that Buddhism is incorrect), Buddhism should change accordingly. If science is having problems showing something (not showing something as opposed to showing something is not), then Buddhism may have insights to offer as long as they are based in critical examination, logic, and empirical thought (even if it is first person as opposed to third person as science likes to have). I must state that I do not see some of the more mythical religions accomplishing this due to differences in their makeup and reliance on faith and assumption...but it is possible, especially from some of the more analytical and mystical sides of faiths (such as Sufism or Jewish mystics). As a caveat, I should paraphrase Einstein that Buddhism is the closest thing to a "religion (philosophy) of science" and that many western scientists are now speaking of Buddhism as a "science of the mind" (in its pure Tibetan form) as opposed to a religion or moral philosophy. Now, all religions become faiths through history and zealotry, and I can offer examples of people using Buddhism as a faith (flat wrong individuals)...but the comments offered are regarding the Dalai Lama and the philosphy in general. In addition...yes, science can be a religion, but Einstein appealed to "true science"...meaning that those who believe that science can solve everything and eventually will as are blind in faith as those who believe in a god. For him, the "spirituality of science" and true realisation of science was the knowledge that we are all insignificant interrelated pieces of a huge process that started forever ago and will continue long after humans have been passed by a higher form of existence. The realisation that science will not solve everything, but will continue making progress and life will continue rolling along is accompanied by an awe for nature, life, and the interconnectedness of ALL life. There is a realisation that there is no need for an invisible man and that it indeed is indefensible utilising logic, critical examination, and reason. just knowing that we are part of a neverending process that we continue to discover, figure out small parts of, and learn about should be enough. Due to our individualistic and selfish natures it is not, and mythology was needed to explain things in ancient times, but in a general macro sense we should be moving past that now. THis is not to say that religion has no I state over on the main page it can help individuals find meaning, and help small communities. in addition, as stated above, it can offer ideas and insights as long as they are not based on blind faith and falwed assumptions.

Sorry this has been all over the place...i was just really interested in where you would categorize the discussion being had over on the main page...Tom Palaima's article...