Monday, February 14, 2011

A Day with Ben Witherington: Impressions of a Man

Great men are reducible to their great ideas. That, at least, is the way society and, even more so, posterity tends to interact with them. Every school child in a secularized country can recite Darwin's maxim "survival of the fittest," even if they don't know what it means. None of them (and I'm no better) can tell you how Darwin liked to unwind after a long day of looking at tortoises and doodling in his sketch book. What sort of man was he? What sort of man was Plato? What sort of man was Kant? That information certainly exists in the historical record. We know Emily Dickinson was an agoraphobe. We know that Barlaam was a litigious know-it-all (a sort of cautionary tale for my own life). Yet, those facts are relegated to introductory chapters of textbooks on the great thinkers and personalities of history. I believe that an encounter with a historical figure is an encounter with a person. That may, of course, be the contemporary emphasis on psychology bleeding subconsciously into my own expectations of history, but much of the value of the historical encounter is marginalized or done away with altogether when we dehumanize our history...even our intellectual history. Descartes was a person, not unlike me as I write this or you as you read it. He was not an ontological argument for the existence of God. His ideas have life and merit because of the "his" not the "ideas," which is to say that ideas as such are valueless unless they are human ideas. They did not arise in an impersonal void and we do not appropriate them in an impersonal void. It is only the presumption of omnipotence (at least in the realm of thought) that deludes the human mind into believe it can divorce a person from his thought.

It is in light of that revelation and with it in mind that I write the following. I came to Searcy this weekend to hear a daylong series of lectures at Harding University by Dr. Ben Witherington III. I naturally have a wealth of responses to his thought and to the thoughts of others expressed to him, but before I give my impressions of what he believes I think it will be profitable to give my impressions on the man. I do not, in this, pretend to know him in any real sense. I certainly am not qualified to write authoritatively about what sort of man he is. That is why I chose, very deliberately, the term "impressions" to describe what I am doing here. This is a Monet and not a photograph. I do not aim at scientific realism but at giving myself (and whoever my eavesdropping) a psychological context, a grounding in the world of concrete reality with which to read whatever intellectual interchange may follow.

Witherington was certainly, in my estimation, one of the top five New Testament scholars writing in English today. With that comes a necessary an admission that the New Testament is not my field of study and that I could very well have been entirely ignorant of who was truly at the forefront of New Testament scholarship. The moment he entered the lecture hall, however, my expectations were confirmed: not, of course, in some kind of academic glow that he carried around him but in the deferential way the professors (my professors) treated him. For all intents and purposes, they all had the same set of degrees that he did and yet he was quite clearly not their peer. They did not treat him that way, and he did not carry himself that way. His deportment was that of a man who both knew his own importance and the expectation that he should display it with dignity. He did not shy at the good professors' gushing comments that he "meant so much" to conservative academics; he only explained why he had undertaken the monumental task of commenting on every book of the New Testament (a fact which was repeated almost as though it were an official part of his title). His answers were, so far as he was concerned, entirely authoritative, and why shouldn't the be? After all, in the Harding classroom no one disputed his authority about anything.

Much to my surprise though, it seemed to me that his excellence was not a product of his exegetical aptitude (which is certainly not to dispute his exegetical prowess) or his striking erudition (which did not, as a matter of fact, strike me at all) but of his impressive skills as a rhetorician. He needed only to open his mouth and the room belonged to him. (In the case of many of the more obsequious professors, he did not even need to do that.) He began his lecture with a joke which by all rights should have been wildly offensive (after all, what is so funny about relating a story of a former Church of Christ student who was willing to commit crimes warranting jail time but, once in prison, refused to sing in the choir because it had piano accompaniement) but for whatever reason seemed to endear the crowd to him. He had a special gift for speaking in the vernacular in a way which showed that he was above you but not so far above you that he could not speak to you when necessary. He slid words rich in negative connotation imperceptibly into his speech about various forms of thought he did not embrace, all with the effect that those who already agreed with him felt righteously justified and those who did not felt inexplicably defensive and hesitant. He laced his lectures with humor and idiom and left the audience with a warm feeling that they had been entertained, whether or not they had learned anything.

I imagine that he would be a good person to converse with as a peer, though I doubt many people do. I confess, that may be as much a product of the intrinsic deference so many feel the need to pay him automatically rather than a personal belief in his own superiority. He knows precisely what he believes and was prepared to defend those beliefs. He at least made a show of meaningfully engaging positions that he obviously disdained. I think that if someone, anyone, had been willing and capable of pressing his points more fully the interchanges would have become much more interesting. That should have been the professors' job.

The look of him was unimposing. He was not too tall. Not too short. He was not overly thin or overly stout (certainly not for an American). He had a full head of hair and no outstanding facial features. He moved and behaved very normally, with the exception of a strange habit of blinking in way that looked very deliberate. In all, I think I would have been no less comfortable seeing him behind a cash register as a lecture.

The most genuinely endearing quality, and the one I will close this entry with, was that he truly has the air of a man who is a churchman first and an academic second. He preaches like a preacher. With the obvious exception of the actual content of his talks, he would have been totally at home behind the pulpit of a congregation every Sunday. He expressed concern about real (rather than purely theoretical) pastoral concerns. When personal problems arose from students, thinly disguised as academic hypotheticals, he immediately perceived the underlying issue and answered like a spiritual father and not like a scholar. I will never be that kind of scholar, and I recognize that as a personal deficiency. The church needs to return to a time when brilliant churchmen were at the helm of Christianity, steering it toward a better future.

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