William F Buckley after Crossan-Craig debate.

CWBuckley Piano.jpg
William F. Buckley died yesterday (2/27/2008). I interviewed him in the 90’s after I participated in a debate between Dominic Crossan, controversial New Testament scholar and a prominant member of the “Jesus Seminar” and William Lane Craig, philosopher and apologist. It was moderated by William F. Buckley. It was a remarkable evening and eventually became the subject of a book and set of tapes. Immediately following the debate I interviewed Buckley back stage, Recently I discovered an individual had made a transcript of the debate (which I think I have in my tape archives but had never transcribed). I think it is fascinating, so here it is!

Prior to the debate Buckley found a piano and asked not to be disturbed. He sat and played Chopin beautifully–I will always visualize him, not just in witty, intelligent, mischievous, feisty debate–I will member him off stage in private, quietly playing the piano.

DS: I’m interested, first of all, in why you agreed to do this debate. What was it about the subject or the players in this debate that made this worth your time?

WFB: I agreed to do it because I’m writing a book on Christianity, and I wanted to hear live the tone, the feel of a modern skeptic. In many senses Dr. Crossan wasn’t that — he kept saying that he believed in God, he believed in Christianity — so that in that sense I didn’t quite get what I came looking for.

DS: What is it at stake in the issues that were being dealt with tonight?

WFB: Well, what is at stake, really, is the continuation of the Christian commitment. Put it this way: if it were absolutely certain in everybody’s mind that Christ was divine, wouldn’t they simply need — for self-protection, if only that — to behave differently? And under the circumstances, since people behave as they do, what they manage to do is simply rule out the Christian alternative. Now a nice way to rule it out is to say that it wasn’t really there in the first place. And Dr. Crossan is there to reassure people who are skeptical at that distance.

DS: If Dr. Crossan was here I’m sure he would argue that he starts with a certain literary criticism, an approach, a methodology, that has led him to certain conclusions. Certainly, I don’t think he would say that he has started trying to provide an excuse for ill behavior in society.

WFB: No, no, I’m not saying that’s his motive, I’m saying that’s the motive of his followers.

DS: That’s why people are enthused by his conclusions.

WFB: Sure. Put it this way: anybody who says, “I have here a very concrete analysis that disproves the validity of the Christian religion,” you get a lot of disciples, do you not? Because a lot of people have a personal, and also an ideological, and even a religious stake for disbelief in Christianity. So it generates its own constituency.

DS: He said near the end of the debate that he doesn’t know how you can win a debate like this. Did you sense that there was a clear winner in this debate tonight?

WFB: No, there wasn’t, except that the “tug” of modern knowledge about Christianity sides with Craig, not with Crossan. That is to say, if it were established that Christ didn’t rise, that would be a front page story. As it is, it gets occasional mention in odd news magazines — the “Jesus Seminar” people. So, in that sense, he couldn’t hope to prevail. The most that he could hope to do is to stir it out. Except to the extent that people sometimes, as I said tonight, yielding to a restive intelligence, entertain doubts that are not always hygienic, he would not have made any headway.

DS: You asked him a question, somewhat in humor, but I think somewhat seriously, “Why are you here?” I’m reminded of the political phrase that we’re both accustomed to “the big tent,” “is the tent big enough?” And in looking at Roman Catholicism and a Dominic Crossan and asking how big is the tent of Roman Catholicism, and how does Dominic Crossan fit?

WFB: That was very curious because you’ll remember that in his closing statement he said that the end of the world, as far as he was concerned — meaning of what he would most approve — is a situation in which liberal Christians can speak to conservative Christians. Well, my answer to that is I don’t think the word “Christian” can be contained in a definition that excludes Christ as divine. The ethical culture people or the Unitarians don’t consider themselves Christians. Nor are they. Now this doesn’t mean that they’re not very nice people and that we don’t welcome the fact that they have faith in their particular doctrines — but they’re not Christians! The trouble with welcoming an amalgamation of the kind that would include Crossan and Craig is it becomes meaningless. There is nothing in between Christ’s divinity or non-divinity. He is either divine or he is not divine.

DS: Crossan would argue, I think, that he, again, is committed to a certain literary criticism, a certain methodology. It’s the type that I was exposed to at Harvard Divinity School, and anybody in the major liberal divinity schools today is being exposed to this. And that he has simply followed the logic of that methodology. As a matter of fact, in his concluding comments tonight he said “I have simply applied this methodology fully. I have applied it not only to the words of Jesus and to the deeds of Jesus, but to the resurrection of Jesus and to the articles of faith…”

WFB: But he can’t get away with it. Look, “methodology” is simply a structural method by which one proceeds. But Craig nailed him on that, because he said there is no structural method by which Crossan has proceeded — except that he is a naturalist and that he disbelieves the four principal historical validations of the resurrection of Christ. Having rejected those, all he becomes is a romancer. He gives us a way to acknowledge the existence of Christ, non-divine, and do away with the resurrection. Well, that’s playing games, however gifted one is and however resourceful one’s imagination, it’s simply playing games.

Now, games are there to be played. If you want to write another book saying that Kennedy was in fact not assassinated by Oswald, go ahead and do it. But spare me any sense of obligation to hear you out again.

DS: When we look at the issue of miracles, did you agree with Craig’s assessment that Crossan in fact was a naturalist? Crossan’s own definition that the spiritual only works through the natural seemed to me to be a difficult way of describing the supernatural.

WFB: He really tried to have it both ways. What he said was that God exists, however God confines himself to working through the natural order, i.e., he does not intervene. I asked him is God capable of intervening? He had a tough time with that. Because if he said yes, he was capable, then he would have to tell us why he never chose to intervene. So as I say, there again, if you define God as “that which exists, whatever it is,” then we all believe in God. Because something exists. Winds and stars and the Aurora Borealis are all there. And simply to affirm a belief in God because of that doesn’t really get us very far theologically, does it?

DS: I’d like to get to the issue of certitude which is one of the issues that you were raising tonight as well. It’s almost as if you are saying that if a person wandered off the street and heard this debate tonight, and they were a reasonable and reasonably intelligent person, they would be compelled by the nature of this debate, anyway, to believe that Jesus was a historical person, he did rise from the dead.

WFB: No, no they wouldn’t. Because tonight simply wasn’t comprehensive enough. There’s no way in which you can say to somebody, listen in for three hours to anything, and become a Christian.

DS: But is it your belief that, in fact, if given enough time, that we are concluding based on the fact that the majority of scholars agree that Jesus was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s grave, that there was an empty tomb — we went through the line of argument that William Lane Craig raised. Would we then start concluding that we are reaching a point where the resurrection is verifiable and provable in such a way that it ought to be compelling to any reasonable person to believe it?

WFB: Well, yes, except that human nature sets up certain resistances which aren’t necessarily rational. If we take the four statements of Craig — we know where he was buried, we know that he wasn’t there the next day, he was seen by other people, and the whole experience was validated by his apostles — then you say, “Well I’ve got problems if I don’t believe in Christ.” However, a lot of people don’t: the Jews don’t believe in him, Islam doesn’t believe in him, pagans don’t believe in him. So therefore, we can’t simply say, by pointing to these historical data, you can verify the resurrection. There is an element there of whatever you want to call it. But now are you dealing in natural theology or sacred theology? Well, there’s that admixture of the two. Mortimer Adler has written very interestingly on this question.

DS: When we look at one of the major issues really tonight, which was in the nature of Christianity itself, can one separate the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith? What did you make of that dynamic in tonight’s discussion?

WFB: I made of that that Crossan is urging the position that the Christ of Christianity, the risen Christ, the divine Christ, he doesn’t necessarily want to impeach. But he wants to tell us as a scholar that there are certain sundering differences between that Christ and the Christ that he as a theological historian has identified. Because that particular one didn’t rise from the dead, didn’t perform miracles, etc., etc.

Now one is entitled to ask the question, why does he not confront the notion that Christians don’t want to persevere with a religion, the foundations of which have been overturned? Paul said it, “if Christ is not risen, then our faith is in vain.” But he seems to be saying, “It’s a cozy and useful faith, inspires a lot of people. So other than revealing to them that there is no reason to believe in Christ, I urge them to continue.”

DS: Did you feel that Crossan raised any serious questions that do demand a better response than they received tonight?

WFB: No.

DS: You didn’t.

WFB: No, I didn’t, no. Now I’m not a theologian, but Craig mentioned, what, half a dozen — eight, nine, or ten — scholars, who surveying the same evidence come to different conclusions from Crossan. So I have no reason at all to suppose that his is other than an idiosyncratic reading of the gospel and of the historical evidence.

DS: Was there any sense in which you thought that what we had tonight was someone who is by nature, gift, temperament, and experience, a debater in William Lane Craig…

WFB: No.

DS: …and someone who is by nature a scholar, a researcher, a student, and not a debater in Crossan, and therefore we had a lopsided debate by virtue of the skills of the debaters themselves?

WFB: No, no I didn’t, I didn’t feel that. I think that the situation called for the exercise of polemical skills. Polemical skills, making war on your position. But since Craig was talking from an established understanding, he had a more destructive role than Crossan, who was telling people in many cases things they had never heard before. He therefore had a different mandate: his mandate was to explain odd conclusions that he has reached. And the mission of Craig was to say “Here’s what you’re about to hear, and here’s why it’s not so.”

DS: You were saying earlier that, when I had said it was kind of an interesting debate, you said there was really no thunder.

WFB: No.

DS: What would you have thought might have happened in a debate of this sort on this subject?

WFB: Well, anybody who has read some of the great exchanges, even in this century, involving people like Henry Mencken, or William Lloyd Garrison, or Mark Twain, they put an awful lot of fire into what they said. Not only thunder in the sense of brimstone, but thunder in the sense of a total devotion and commitment to your position. Fulton Sheen would have used a certain amount of thunder; civil thunder, but thunderous…

DS: Nevertheless.

WFB: Yes.

DS: But you know, when you look at Crossan, one of the reasons I think we didn’t see that kind of thunder, was while he has taken a radical position which for most of us leads us to a conclusion that would put us outside the faith, he is taking that radical position and then concluding by saying “I’m a Christian, you’re a Christian; I’m liberal, you’re conservative; and we can all get along and it’s good that we do.” So by his own kind of predisposition, he’s arguing that this is really important stuff, but not so important that it keeps us all from fellowshipping as Christians.

WFB: It doesn’t work! Because — Craig is correct — either Christ was a blasphemer or he was divine. And I don’t want to worship a blasphemer. And I think it unreasonable for Crossan to expect that I should want to do so. So to the extent that he sustains his thesis, he excommunicates the entire Christian community.

DS: I still go back to my impression tonight, and I predicted this going into this on the way here. We just had a guest from Germany and a guest from France. They were both in our home at the same time, and watching the two of them communicate was very interesting, as you can imagine. And I said to my wife, “I feel like what we’re going to see tonight is one person who speaks German, and the other speaks French.” Crossan is essentially in a very narrow field of New Testament scholarship using a certain methodology. Craig, on the other hand, is a philosopher and a theologian. They really do speak different languages, they’re on different playing fields, and in a certain sense we never connected the fields tonight.

WFB: Well, I don’t think that’s true. For instance, how to interpret the resurrection in the light of Jewish thought. There was a very interesting and, I thought, valuable exchange between the two. They were both talking there as theological historians. But it is true that there wasn’t an engagement in the sense that you speak of. This is, in part, because the contributions of Dr. Crossan are, as I say, modernist and unfamiliar.

Suppose I said to you now “OK, we’re going to have a debate tomorrow for two hours on the question of ‘Was Lincoln killed?'” You say “What?” I say, “Yes, I know somebody, a scholar, who thinks that Lincoln’s death was faked. He was taken out of the way and then he went to Brazil,” or whatever. Now, it would be hard to have a debate on that subject, because the person who upheld the fact that Lincoln was not assassinated would be simply postulating a whole series of connections and coincidences and this, that, and the other, which people listen to and don’t have really a chance to comprehend in the sense that they might comprehend the question “Who killed Kennedy?” Since books are written about that, and movies, still. So you can study that question, and then have a debate.

DS: But you could have had an evangelical who uses the literary-critical method debating Crossan. And that evangelical New Testament scholar — a Raymond Brown from the Catholic tradition — could have, using the same methodology as Crossan, demonstrated why his conclusions are incorrect based on the text itself. And what we had tonight was theological and philosophical argumentation on the one hand, and on the other hand some conclusions without much understanding of the methodology that reached those conclusions. And Craig strategically chose to keep the issue on these theological presuppositions that he started the debate with, and really not to get into the methodological issues that were driving Crossan’s argument.

WFB: Well, he gave the reasons for not doing so, but didn’t do so. That’s correct. But there was only a touch towards the end of the Craig final statement of a straight-forward appeal to the importance of the faith. When he said as a young man, he beheld Christ and became a Christian, and that has been the dominant influence in his life. He let that out. But there was no sense this evening of the preacher, the evangelist, who wants to communicate his faith, rather than maybe to show you how to cope with the skeptic.

DS: Thank you for being with us.

WFB: Nice to talk to you.

Posted in DS Interview, Staublog in February 28, 2008 by | No Comments »

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