I've been writing about my migivings with Catholicism lately. I've also been semi-debating an aspiring Catholic philosopher. Why the sudden focus on Catholic thought? I'm not sure. However, something occured to me today, and I'd like to share it.
Getting into academic jousting matches with Catholic apologists (and a good many Protestant Evangelicals, too, just to be clear) over differences in doctrine, or even just the sensibility of this-or-that doctrine has highlighted a tactic often used against me. I'd like to call the tactic in question, "The Argument from Historical Proximity."
The argument is as follows: historical figures closer to the time of Jesus have a greater, more precise understanding of the details attending Jesus's life, and the lives of people close to Jesus (e.g., the Apostles, Mary, the first Christians, etc.). So, if I were to argue that recent historical research casts reasonable doubt on the perpetual virginity of Mary, the argument from historical proximity would counter that Mary was most definitely ever-virgin because the writings of the early church fathers state as much. And because the early church fathers lived closer to the time of Mary, they would have more reliable claims on the status of Mary's bedroom activities than today's historians. The assumption is essentially that the less the passage of time, the more accurate the claim, and the less chance of distortions to confuse the claim.
On the surface, the argument seems to carry with it some validity: it seems reasonable to think that people in the second century would have less confusions to work through than people in the twenty-first century concerning church beliefs. But given a moment's thought, the argument breaks down on a crucial point.
If we reason from historical proximity, then we have to be willing to accept opposing claims as valid, too. The Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56 - 117) wrote extremely close to the time of Jesus and the first Christians, and was a contemporary of the early church fathers. Tacitus considered Christianity a "deadly superstition"; i.e., it was a grave error, and a falsehood. Emperor Domitian (AD 51 - 96) claimed that Christians were 'atheists' and slaughtered them. Pliny the Younger (AD 61 - ca. 112) commissioned the murder of Christians because he considered them hedonists and cannibals.
So, if we take claims opposing Christianity on equal footing with Catholic arguments from historical proximity, then we can reasonably say that Christians believed falsehoods, and were orgiastic cannibals who believed in an untrue God.
Clearly, the argument from historical proximity is groundless; just as groundless as it would be to argue for the falsehood of Christianity by claiming Tacitus, Domitian, or Pliny the Younger as truth-measures. Christians, and Catholics especially, need to move on to better methods of truth-seeking than quixotic claims to historical proximity.