I’ve been reading Bellingcat’s timeline analysis of QAnon and I was reminded that before QAnon, there was Q – standing for Quelle (source in German). Q is a source of sayings that appear in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. From this 19th century Theologians deduced that there was another source “Q”, which both writers were using that wasn’t available to Mark. The similarities in word-for-word phrasing are too close for Q to be an oral tradition, it is much more likely that Q was a (now lost) written document. Also Q seems to be a record of quotations from Jesus, rather than narrative. The Gospel writers had other sources, maybe even first hand accounts, but blended them together to create a coherent narrative of the life, death and (perhaps) resurrection of Jesus.
One thing that I find interesting was that the text of the Gospels had been available to scholars for around 1,800 years and until 200 years ago no one had suggested the existence of Q. Scholastics had read, and re-read the same sources, translated, argued over the fine details, interpreted for their own time. Over 18 centuries, millions of man years must have been spent reading and re-reading the Gospels uncritically. Then an approach which started with Galileo looking through a telescope and observing celestial objects (refusing to accept Aristotles geocentric view, endorsed by Church Tradition) influenced how people read the Gospels. This is called “hermeneutics” (the theory and methodology of interpretation), probably derived from the god Hermes, who acted as a mediator/messenger from divine to human understanding.
Boojums all the way down
So scholars like Herbert Marsh and Friedrich Schleiermacher began looking at the text critically – not to find flaws but to try to understand the component parts from which the Gospel narrative were put together. Schleiermacher and Marsh and others like Albert Schweitzer were clergymen “believers”. This approach of trying to establish the sources that the Gospel writers used to discover a “historical” Jesus, gradually became more subjective because one professor would claim he found evidence for a new source “M” for material that was just in Matthew and nowhere else. Then came the four source hypothesis, arguing that Matthew consisted of at least four sources: i) Mark, ii) Q, iii) an Antiochene document iv) M. Other professors would disagree. It reminds me of physicists finding smaller and smaller particles, that are less comprehensible. There’s a diminishing return from looking at the world this way. Suggesting the existence of a new particle, or a 5th and 6th source that Matthew was using doesn’t help you understand the whole. This approach pretty much ended with Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus, after which he resigned as a Theologian, retrained as a Doctor and went off to the Gabon, Africa to found a hospital in the 1930s. Physicists are still suggesting new particles, this one is a gateway to the fifth dimension apparently. (H/T Jim O’Shaughnessy)
A short answer
I studied Theology at university – and I used to be asked in job interviews: how on earth a subject like Theology could be useful in real life, compared to Economics, Computer Science, Engineering or Physics? It’s hard to give a pithy answer, particularly when you are being interviewed by someone who studied Economics, Physics or Engineering. So I said that a good Degree showed that I could assimilate information and draw conclusions, and it didn’t matter whether that was in Economics or Theology, it was the process of bringing together different sources and forming a conclusion.
More often my CV was thrown away in the bin before I even got to the interview stage.
A more difficult answer
A longer, more difficult answer, is that Theology is the study of beliefs. And not just any old beliefs, Theology is the study of beliefs that persist through the ages, from generation to generation. I mean, on the face of it, trying to convince one generation of people to worship a being who was nailed to a cross by the Romans, who wasn’t half man / half God, but both – and that actually there wasn’t just Him and God, but there’s a Trinity. It sounds rather delusional when you put it like that. And you can laugh, but these ideas are really strongly held, not just by one person, but many, many people have been convinced of their belief. There must be some really powerful evidence to support these beliefs.
Even Christianity’s greatest critics agree that the belief spread very rapidly through the Ancient Near East, despite persecution from the Roman authorities. Christianity shares some aspects of belief with the Mithras cult, though that long dead cult appealed to Roman soldiers and was only open to men. In one of those strange ironies of history, The Temple of Mithras can be found in London underneath Bloomberg’s European head office. Bloomberg is a financial information company, but it has enjoyed it success in part due to the exclusivity of it’s “chat” function. Traders and analysts have a choice of financial databases, which all provide pretty much the same price and financial data. Before Facebook and Slack, Bloomberg differentiated itself by having a chat function, which only other users with an Bloomberg expensive terminal (c. $24K per annum) could use. Because of the expense, the chat became a status symbol (juniors and support staff didn’t have access). Although Mithras was an exclusive cult, the Temple among the foundations of Bloomberg’s office is now open to the public.
Religions need to be exclusive (a clear line between believers and non believers) but also successful religions have demonstrated very rapid growth. This is something that concerned much of the early Church writing: How does conversion work? Who is excluded? How are internal rivalries and conflicts resolved? How to ensure uniform beliefs and correct errors? Looking at this recent blog post on investing in Clubhouse, it seems to me these issues are now also being grappled with by Silicon Valley. Before Clubhouse, there was Disciple started by a musician schoolfriend of mine (Ben Vaughan) in 2015 to engage with his following. The religious connotations of the app’s name are not lost on me.
But unlike Tumblr or MySpace, successful belief networks don’t grow rapidly only to fizzle out after a few years. Christian belief, and the other Abrahamic religions, have outlived empires, survived invasions, plagues which killed 30% of the population, not to mention a couple of world wars. Stalin asked how many battalions the Pope had, but the Papacy has easily outlived communism. The greatest threat seems to have come from careful observations made by people like Galileo and Charles Darwin. That’s not because scientists set out to undermine religion, it’s just that when empirical observation conflicted with church authority, authority made itself look foolish.
Story as a mechanism of faith
So I think that it’s well worth studying the mechanisms of faith. It’s possible to see similarities with religions and social networks, but also religions and worldviews promulgated by believers in QAnon, Bitcoin and Tesla. Those three have all been compared to cults. All of the above use “story” (or parable, if you prefer the religious word) to get their ideas to spread. If you want to influence how people think, behave, believe then parables are a much more effective way of doing this than simply giving people facts. I published Garrett Hardin’s compound interest parable here
Buffett and Munger know this. In 2005, Buffett told the parable of the Gotrocks, a single American family that owned all of USA Incorporated and who foolishly believe that they could increase their financial returns buy paying more to financial intermediaries to invest in USA Incorporated. A simple exhortation to beware of financial products costs would not have been nearly so effective.
A few years later Munger wrote this parable of Basicland. Taleb too includes stories about characters like “Fat Tony” and “Nero” to make his point come across.
Of course in Economics they have no parables, because Economics professors believe everyone is rational. I would suggest that over the last few decades, that Economists’ belief is not just demonstrably false (GameStop!) but far more pernicious (banking crisis!) than many religious beliefs that have been held through time. There’s just nothing in economics that would have predicted the success of bitcoin. When it comes to studying beliefs, the hard sciences aren’t that much use – and Economics is worse than useless.
So understanding how stories drive belief is a far better model for understanding the world than the clearly ludicrous “rational expectations” and “expected utility” that economists believe in. Honestly the Tooth Fairy is more credible than rational expectations, yet professors have been awarded Nobel Prizes for rational expectations!
A weird belief
Now for a really weird belief. The fundamental “stuff” of stories is events. That is, if you breaks stories down, into their simplest components, then you are left with a series of events in time. I don’t think that’s controversial. That’s not the weird bit, believe me.
Another idea which isn’t controversial is that neither matter, nor particles, nor waves is the fundamental stuff of the universe. The fundamental “stuff” of the universe is events.
This comes from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but I don’t think he quite spelt it out. I think that it was Heisenberg who first suggested that events were fundamental, but in any case this is an idea that has been around for around 100 years. Bertrand Russell was writing about it in the 1920s (A History of Materialism, The ABC of Atoms), and also the final chapter of A Western History of Philosophy, which was published in the 1940s is simple exposition of this idea. But there are modern physicists like J.A. Wheeler, Paul Davies, who believe that information is physical. Physicists like Seth Lloyd and Vlatko Vedral go one step further and believes that the universe is a quantum computer. Elon Musk said that his favourite philosopher is Douglas Adams, because “the universe is the answer, now what are the questions?”
Stories and the physical universe are built from the same things (information/events).
But stories aren’t “real” in the sense that science talks about reality. Physics has now moved so far from our intuitions about reality eg dark matter, extra dimensions, superstrings, M theory and perhaps infinite universes, it’s hard to say that physics is about “real” stuff and stories are about “beliefs”. As well as Douglas Adam’s A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy explores this theme.
Obviously I couldn’t give that answer in a job interview, because it is not an idea that someone interviewing you wants to think about.
But it is a good example of assimilating information from different sources and forming a conclusion.
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