What kind(s) of explanation “count”?
This is a big question for me here as I navigate my seminars and readings. Day in and day out in this doctoral program I will be immersed in the history of religions: that is, reviewing the changes that occurred within the religious practices and beliefs of various communities in ancient Israel (and the early Christian movement).
To take an example: it is commonly accepted that prior to the destruction of the First (Solomonic) Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 586/7 BCE, the priests in Jerusalem would have assumed a stable, fixed habitation of Yahweh in the temple. Of course Yahweh may also have resided in the heavenlies, but he also dwelt upon earth, in the temple. However, after the temple was destroyed, the Jerusalem priests began to envision Yahweh’s presence as more mobile. Witness Ezekiel, wherein the glory of God lifts off from the polluted temple, or the end of Exodus, a priestly text, where the glory touches down in the desert tabernacle. (This is a very shorthand description.)
How does one answer the question, “why did this change happen in the way people [priests] viewed God?”
One can take a directly theological tack: God supervened over the changes to this tradition, so that the texts these priests wrote at the later end of the process would more truthfully reveal him.
There are historiographical reasons for objecting to this kind of explanation. In one of my recent readings, the New Testament scholar Dan O. Via criticized the (more famous) author N.T. Wright for putting the cart before the horse, as it were, when it comes to Wright’s defense of the virgin birth of Jesus:
What is troubling about his procedure is that he argues from his belief that God was fully revealed in Jesus and raised him bodily from the dead to the possible and probably fact of the virginal conception. Wright might defend this move by arguing that all history involves imaginative reconstruction…But in historical work, the imaginative leap is from fragmentary historical evidence to a coherent historical narrative. It is not from religious or theological beliefs to historical reconstruction (What Is New Testament Theology, 82).
In other words, Via accuses Wright of being tendentious: of foreclosing on open-ended historical investigation – letting the facts explain themselves – by basing a construal of the data on a preconceived set of theological beliefs. Via’s indictment presumes that a definite belief-set (always?) blinkers an investigator’s perspective rather than sometimes opening new and otherwise unavailable vistas. Also, could pointing to a theological explanation be less problematic if it did not interfere with other kinds of explanations? Kind of a "grand cause" behind the lesser (immanent) causes?
There are also theological reasons for objecting to this kind of theological explanation. For one, whenever we identify God with a particular quality or action of human history, we thereby risk attaching him to something fallible, contingent, and liable to any number of problems. When we lock God into a specific explanation of history as above, we make God vulnerable to all the issues that explanation will face (as yet unseen by us). This is the cause of some polarities in the church: one side or another has hitched God indivisibly up to some particular explanation or “faith artifact” that is now subject to challenge. God must have created the world a certain way. God must have a certain agenda for human sexuality. God must do so and so or be such and such. As I understand it, this hypostatization of God to some mechanism or feature of the immanent world is close to (one of) Rudolph Bultmann’s definitions of myth. So my reading in Via again: “[myth is] language that literally identifies God with time, space, causality, and substance” (62). And demythologization is then to break open that connection: to set God free again, to reassert his transcendence and non-identity with the created world and its operations. Of course this program also creates its own problems. Given that all our thinking about God is bounded by the created realm, by what criteria do we deem certain properties and actions of God somehow more appropriate to his freedom and regard others as idolatrous? And if God has decided to identify himself enduringly with the created order in the man Jesus of Nazareth, how does this datum authorize other identifications of God’s working “here below”?
Alternately, one can make a more sociopolitical explanation for the above-stated change in Israelite religion: priests viewed God differently as a function of their changed political situation. A priesthood suddenly cut loose from its now-destroyed temple also demanded a God also cut loose from his former house. Material events carried an intellectual consequence. Other more sociological variations on this explanation also obtain: priests sought to preserve their status, and shifted their teachings so as to accommodate their displacement with the least amount of change to their beliefs and responsibilities.
Or there are more internal and specifically religious explanations: perhaps fortuitously, some priests theologically pioneered by envisioning God as more mobile – maybe the aniconic principle of Israelite religion already mulched that intellectual soil – and this teaching about God’s mobility thrived and made great sense in the circumstances of exile.