My first response is on a more methodological level before I address the specifics of the content. In this second lecture, N.T. Wright shifts his frame for analysis away from principally connecting certain philosophical/metaphysical systems of thought in Epicureanism and Enlightenment to instead analyzing ideas and events within Biblical scholarship based upon their contemporary socio-political circumstances. However, in doing so, he connects the events of Biblical Scholarship facing the socio-political questions and crises to this larger, Epicurean framework. In other words, Wright’s first lecture engaged more in a top-down style of analysis of categorizing/labeling system of ideas, interpreting the Enlightenment as essentially Epicurean due to some substantial similarities. However, in his review of Biblical Studies, he engages in a more bottom-up style history, connecting the conclusions of Biblical Scholarship to issues and questions of their time. My guess is that this in large part due to the fact that N.T. Wright is a Biblical Scholar, a historian of the Second Temple and Early Christian period, and at times at theologian, so his analysis of the history of Biblical Scholarship will be much more bottom-up based upon his knowledge of the relevant issues and practices; but since he is not a scholar of philosophical history, so his knowledge will be much more constrained to more broad and paradigmatic categories and labels, particuarly those labels that he is more familiar with in his studies as Epicureanism would be a part of his study of early Jewish and Christian history. This does not invalidate his comparison to the Enlightenment to Epicureanism but only to contextualize his observations and recognize the need for further nuance and to not to tidily connect the travails of Biblical Scholarship in the 19th and early 20th century with Epicureanism.
In addressing the more substantive content, I highlight Wright’s mention of how the “end of the world” interpretation of apocalyptic was rooted in a false either-or narrative similar to Lessing’s tension between the contingent truths of history and the necessary truths of reason. Reinterpreted in my own language, if you associate the heavenly world with unchanging ideas, much as in Platonism, and the earthly world as defined by change and conditionality, which echoes the Heraclitan flux, we are left with two largely incommensurable ways of understanding these two different domains. As Wright observes, this leads to apocalyptic meaning the end of the world because the two could not conceivably coexist at the same time. However, Wright’s narrative seems to imply, at least to me, that the reason for this division was due to ideological influence in the top down-manner, whereas I would consider attributing it more to a bottom-up explanation of certain epistemological practices as characterized by an object epistemology, as described in my previous post in the series, leads to unchanging ideas becoming “metaphysicalized”, whether the metaphysical domain is the heavens as in Neo-Platonism and much of popular Christianity or reason as in Stoicism and the Enlightenment. Knowledge based upon the object epistemology is based upon control of the object for our desires, and therefore seeks to extrapolate a reliable cognitive schema that 1) is abstract and thus processes away all the “unnecessary” and “irrelevant” properties of the studied object, which 2) we can then use to control the studied object for our purposes. Repeated practice of this style of epistemology will eventually reinforce the stability of the cognitive schema such that it doesn’t simply become reliably, but it becomes a static, unchanging, “truth” that looks nothing like the world of our senses that is complex, with multiple, interacting properties with unpredictable and messy change as a consequence. Thus the cause of the Enlightenment view is not ideological from the start as much as it is rooted in an epistemic praxis, where certain methods construe knowledge as taking on certain patterns that become habituated and inflexible.
I would suggest this observation is relevant for topics in Wright’s lecture in at least two ways. Firstly, this pattern of knowledge would still become spread in a more ideological manner from the esteemed practitioners of philosophy, science, etc. being heralded as shining examples and their work being prescribed for others; then through imitation and enacting of their methods by Biblical Scholarship would be dramatically influenced by it. Thus, I also want to hypothesize (and I can only hypothesize since I am not intimately familiar with the Biblical Scholarship that Wright refers to) that the problem rested in the very methods of gaining knowledge in Biblical scholarship itself as semi-independently recapitulating and thus reinforcing the very ideological views about knowledge, metaphysics, politics, God that influenced them in the first place. Furthermore, the very reason people like Strauss, Bultmann, etc. were popular was that the results of their scholarship resonated with the basic assumptions about the definitions that the larger society and culture they participated in shared. This resonance would be a strong basis for the “assured results of scholarship” as often times our own sense of confidence in our work is based upon its reinforcement in our social environment; the confidence in my work increases because I see similar results in other people and I find people praising my work; the basis of such epistemic confidence becomes more socialized but in a more subconscious, implicit way. Far from simply arrogance, as Wright attributes such overconfidence to, it is the result of insularity that allows such arrogance to grow. As a result, there is little flexibility in how these societies would see the different ideas of knowledge, metaphysics, politics, God, etc.; if one did not share the similar methodology one would be considered lower-status and thus unfit to really marshall much prestige. Alternative conceptualizations and alternative arguments would not be seriously considered but thrown into the waste-bin of ideas of lesser thinkers. So, the confidence in the world-view would allow for no real change to the concepts.
This inflexibility leads to an all-or-nothing sort of view where if one’s ideas of power did not manifest the desired for goals, then one was to abandon the whole endeavor entirely. One could not simply seek to adjust one’s conceptualizations about power, metaphysics, knowledge, and God; one must whole-sale forget it as entirely false. The very definition of history and power is fixed and inflexible and then the only appropriate response is abandonment. For instance, as the very definitions and nature of political power as coming into conformity to a rational order in the world as in Hegel, which is closer to a Stoic view than Epicurean, would often times constrain how political power was conceived in the two options of the more steady progress of right-wing Hegelians or revolutionary events in response to crises as in the left-wing, as Wright mentions. Therefore, once history had failed to accomplish the longed for goals, the prevailing Biblical scholarship would fall short of adequately relating to the whole of the Biblical world and its sources; one’s own socio-political interests now redefined by the entire rejection of history continues down the same line of treating the primary sources as objects from which to mine relevant information and then throw the husk away. Hence, Bultmann’s demythologization. Hence Barth’s radical rejection of natural theology despite its presence in Scripture and the wholesale adherence to a dramatic, vertical revelation; these theological and exegetical patterns were useful to address certain socio-political concerns but in doing so, it engaged in the practice of culturally appropriating the Biblical texts, extracted from them what was useful and discarding the rest as inconsequential or even dangerous, such as Wright’s mention of the negative evaluation of Luke’s Gospel for being too historical. The intellectual insularity of the German thought had left its heritage in people like Bultmann and Barth in the terms of the flexibility of thought, even as they reject the prevailing definitions about God that the German world had produced and propagated. They did not practice the necessary cognitive flexibility so as to consider alternative construals of power, politics, knowledge, God, etc. that would blur the boundaries of the categories as that were constructed in their Protestant and German culture.
However, as a side note, I would suggest that I do think Barth successfully breaks the Enlightenment paradigm, even if his definitions and concepts are still somewhat beholden to Germanic culture. As the Enlightenment philosophy drew its sense of knowledge and metaphysics based upon the practice of object mods of epistemology, it relegated the personal epistemology I mentioned in my previous post to the sidelines. When Barth tries to emphasize the subjective nature of revelation as Christ Himself being conveyed, he begins to hit at the epistemological antithesis of the object epistemology that had formed the Enlightenment worldview and German culture. Barth’s theology is representative of a transition from object epistemologies to an emerging form of personal epistemology as it pertains to God.
To that end, I would contend this bottom-up epistemological analysis might be a single note that is in harmony with the overall symphony Wright is describing. However, I do think the employment of the Epicurean historical analogy, which admittedly is backgrounded in this second lecture, can somewhat blur our what I believe to be the more important historical causes. In short, I would contend that the epistemic praxis of the Enlightenment combined with an insularity from the outside contributes to the way apocalyptic and natural theology is (mis)appropriated; Epicureanism becomes a useful metaphor to tell the narrative because of the resemblances of the two, but it overlooks some possible resemblances to Stoicism and, more pertinent to this second lecture, does not adequately open up the possibility that the Enlightenment and what follows creates its own, rather unique epistemic problems.