As a historian, I knew that this either/or of “objective history” and “subjective meaning” was a gross oversimplification. In my 1992 book, The New Testament and the People of God, I suggested that we needed a better integration, one that transcended the antithesis of objective and subjective. I had been introduced to the idea of critical realism through the work of Bernard Lonergan, whom I encountered in the work of Ben Meyer. And in that context, I met what they thought of as “an epistemology of love.” Ever since then, I have tried to understand what that might mean and to put it into practice.
Along the way, I have realized that it isn’t only in biblical studies that the Enlightenment’s epistemological proposals result in false antitheses. In my Gifford Lectures for 2018, now published as History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology, I laid out the ways in which so-called natural theology, on the one hand, and the historical study of Jesus, on the other, have become dangerously detached from each other. This isn’t because we have now discovered, in some objective sense, something about natural theology or the history of Jesus that requires them to be kept separate. It is because both studies, and any link between them, have been distorted by Enlightenment epistemology.
Enlightenment thought rejected Jesus’s resurrection, but not because of a new scientific awareness that dead people do not rise. Everybody has known from earliest times that dead people stay dead. The Enlightenment’s real reason for the rejection was that, if Jesus had risen from the dead, his resurrection would be the turning point of world history—a status the Enlightenment claimed for itself. There cannot be two such turning points. Here lies the crucial epistemological battle. The Enlightenment was in thrall to the split-level epistemology that, by insisting on hard facts and creaming off everything else into a subjective sphere, realized Francis Bacon’s maxim that “knowledge is power.” Knowledge of the Enlightenment sort—“we know the way the world is and we’re going to impose it on you”—became the instrument of the imperial projects of the modern West. But that kind of knowledge does not do justice to the ultimate realities of the world; and it fails to grasp, or be grasped by, the Ultimate Reality itself, which is the resurrection of Jesus as the launch of new creation in the midst of the old. As Wittgenstein said, “It is love that believes the resurrection.” Many of our current ills, social, political, and cultural, have emerged from our ignoring this or trying to bypass it.
My proposal is that paying attention to Jesus as a real figure of first-century history can point some ways forward for the Church and, through the Church, for our misguided and muddled world. And for all this—and for the multiple resultant tasks in theology and mission—we need to understand, and put into practice, new ways of knowing: specifically, an epistemology of love.