Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Blogging the Bible: Genesis and Exodus

Okay, before I start, I should mention that I am not a scriptural literalist. I see the Bible as a historically significant document written by men. If you see it as a divinely-inspired account of history, every word of which is literally true, some of this might offend you. But, not necessarily.

I do think I'm more accepting of the "illogic" of religion than most people who weren't raised in a faith. I was actually fairly surprised last year when the subject of the Bible came up among the TAs in World Civ. We have these sidewalk preachers who come on campus regularly to warn the students about the secular education they're receiving at Mall University. They're certainly annoying, and one of the other TAs had some reason to be particularly annoyed- a very similar religious fanatic apparently shot and killed his friend's father some years back. The father was a doctor; no points for guessing what field of medicine. Yet, I was somewhat surprised at just how negative their views were about the Bible. Not only did they find the religion offensive; they were both convinced that the scriptures are terribly written, mendacious, and impossible to take seriously if you're an adult.

I'd beg to differ. Not simply because I think the Old and New Testaments contain some truly exquisite poetry and prose, but also because their words are as central to Western literature as Shakespeare. It's nearly impossible to read anything of merit in the Western canon and not find some echo of the language of the scriptures. Indeed, it's hard for me to see how you could profess to teach Western Civ or World Civ without a fairly good understanding of what the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures say.

As for the illogical quality of the scriptures, well, faith is not based in empirical reason. It has to be illogical and contain a fairly healthy element of doubt, or it's not faith. (I think Kierkegaard was key for my understanding of this.) Faith is deeply illogical and even somewhat absurd. So, incidentally, is romantic love. Both are a matter of inner conviction. I believe that Claire and I have a metaphysical force called love between us, although I have no way of scientifically measuring it. I can feel it however. I would imagine that faith is much the same. If it could be proven empirically that there is a God, faith would cease to exist. (Probably a good reason to oppose creationist science incidentally)

When it comes to the Old Testament, it is even harder to take the scriptures literally. Some of these sections are downright bizarre and many of them are cruel and violent- something that comes to mind whenever I hear Jews and Christians talk about the crueler passages of the Koran. I can't imagine living in a society in which young women are stoned to death for lying about their virginity or committing adultery, or in which God speaks through his prophet to warn us about eating owls. Perhaps my favorite passage in the Old Testament is the rule in Deuteronomy that, if two men are fighting, and the wife of one man grabs his genitals to stop the fight (yes, really!), you must cut off her hand and show her no mercy. Please, someone explain the practical application of that rule in today's world!

Of course, very few people actually take these passages literally. There are fundamentalists who will talk about the passages in Leviticus about homosexuality, while ignoring the ones on shellfish. But fundamentalists are akin to the mentally disturbed or schizophrenic, trying to keep a logical system together in their head at the expense of all information from the outside world. They are, thank God, a minority among believers.

Instead, most believers see these scriptures as containing errors, metaphors, hidden truths, and myths. These books are the accounts of a particular tribe in the Near East and were written at least 2,500 years ago. I think it's best to see them as the ways in which that tribe explained itself and the world, and they likely contain a certain amount of mythologizing and self-aggrandizement. Christians, of course, see the New Testament as explaining a new covenant between God and man that supersedes much of what is in the Old Testament/Covenant. Christ also makes sin a purely individual matter; something many Christians seem to forget.

In terms of world history, what's important about the Old Testament is that the tribe is defined by its individual relationship with a single God through direct revelation. This revelation comes in the first books of the Old Testament in much the same way as the gods influence men in the Greek legends: it is direct and unequivocal. We are to understand that Yahweh is speaking directly to the patriarchs and giving them very clear instructions about what to do. He tells Abraham to kill his son, tells Moses to give specific warnings to the Pharaoh and so forth. In later books, God is more distant, but here we're talking about something like schizophrenia. If you want to see that as the way that the universe communicates with visionaries, so be it.

It is inescapable that Yahweh is cruel in these books. I have no words to explain killing the firstborn sons of Egypt for the sins of the Pharaoh, especially given the fact that the scriptures make clear that the defiance of said Pharaoh was the direct result of God "hardening his heart". Moses believes the Pharaoh has the choice to sin or not to sin; we the readers and Yahweh know that he does not. Therefore, his subjects are killed simply because God wants them to be in order to demonstrate His might. This pushes the idea of a vengeful God to the limit.

Therefore, I think the first message the writers wanted to put forth was that the Jews are the chosen people of God, and that membership has its privileges. Secondly, that God is all-powerful. A central message here is that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. It is familiar from much of Greek mythology as well. Man is powerless in the face of the eternal. Note that in the first five books, the Pentateuch or Books of Moses, God punishes by killing and rewards by enriching his believers. There is little to no talk of Heaven or Hell, and nothing of an inner voice that knows good and evil. The image of Yahweh seems more akin to a primitive tribe trying to explain what their protector God must be like in the only language they have. This is the only way I can comprehend the vicious God in the Moses books of the Old Testament.

As for the ten commandments, they're much more comprehensible, with the exception of the indictment against graven images. It is not clear, at least to me, that the scriptures are not saying that Jews and Christians should make no art at all. Clearly, they shouldn't worship graven images; however, the commandment seems to be pretty straightforward about making no images of anything on earth. Islamic art, which generally does not represent human beings, seems more in keeping with the commandment. I'm not sure why this should be.

There are more detailed rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but the aim of these first two books seems to be to set forth the story of the tribe and its covenant with God. That story, it should be pointed out, has more than passing kinship with the earlier Ugarit texts as well as the Enuma Elish. The texts most likely relate common stories from the region as well as a very traditional understanding of God: at this point, humans have no choice but to obey His direct commands or suffer the consequences. There is little nuance in these books and no jokes.

Again, absolutely none of this is to say that believers are fearful or ridiculous. I have very little in common with the Bill Maher school of scriptural criticism. Jews aren't defined by believing that bushes talk to people or that menstruating women should be exiled from the community. What they are defined by is the belief that human existence has distinct limits and rules that must be obeyed, and that there is a powerful creator God who maintains a covenant with His believers. None of this strikes me as naive or foolish, but only a matter of inner conviction.


Min said...

Very interesting post, Carl. I do agree with you that the bible is an important historical document, but I do not think the "fundamentalist literalists" are so few as you suggest. I wish it were so. As an ex-Christian, I used to struggle with the question of faith..or lack thereof. I was always reading the bible(everyday or tried to) and kept finding so many contradictions and just dispicable things in there. At the end, I just couldn't reconcile reality with the fantasy. What I wished God could be just wasn't. The God I wanted to believe in did not exist. According to the bible, both the old and new testaments, the Hebrew God is jealous, petty, and selfish. Above all else, he wants humans to suffer and still love him and "believe" in him without any proof of his existence. He just watches, arms folded, catastrophes, genocides, AIDS, cancer, etc. and expects us humans to love him despite it all.

As I told my preacher and all my Christian friends, why is faith so important to God? How is faith more important than a baby dying of leukemia or a woman being circumcised--in the name of GOD. If there was no religion, I mean seriously, nothing that people believed in only on "faith" I think the world would be a much more rational, orderly place. It wouldn't be perfect by all means, but at least there would be less martyrs for God and definitely no Jihad. I don't mean to ramble on, I just wanted to say that I really do not see the point of praising "faith" as a good thing. If you think about it, faith is only praised if it concerns one of the major religions, but not some of the minor ones like Scientology or Kabbalah, or even Mormonism.
Richard Dawkins said this, "You are all atheists when it comes to Zeus or Athena..I just go one god further."

Rufus said...

Okay, I definitely get what you mean. And I honestly have no idea what percentage of believers are literalists. My perception is likely skewed by the fact that I live in a very Catholic town and none of them that I've ever talked to about it believe the books should be read literally. Actually, I've been surprised at how little they do believe- basically the handful of books that talk about Jesus, and they don't take those literally either. They seem to see the books as akin to Aesop's Fables- there are some good lessons there, but nobody in their right mind believes in talking foxes.

I think it's hard for me to know what religion is like. I wasn't raised in a faith. A lot of people struggle with the Bible because they don't believe it or they stop believing it. For me, it's pretty much an interesting book with some good advice and a lot of weird rules that seem very much of their time. I'm also a history geek, so I really compare it to other texts of the time more than most people in those faiths. I historicize constantly, and of course, for religious people, the books are meant to be read as timeless, not timebound.

As for the value of faith- it's hard for me to think of "faith" and not immediately think of my grandmother or my father, or really any of the people I know who are quite privately Christians. It seems like their faith is something that helps them get through their lives without as much pain as they would have if they thought the universe is largely random and chaotic. Does it lead them to believe some strange things? Sure. But, in general, I think people believe many strange things.

Of course there are people who believe some very dangerous things. But, to my father, the Bible is the parts about peace and forgiveness and he thinks the rest is probably wrong. If he's deluded, I feel like his delusion is about as harmful as my deluded belief that my cat loves me, which is also probably wrong.

When I think about a world without religion, I think the same thing I do when I think about an anarchist society- it would probably be great for me, and for people who are just like me. But I don't think my grandmother would have lasted long, or my father really. Different people have different capacities and I'm not sure he could cope with a life that is largely meaningless and finite, while for me, that idea is no big whoop. I suppose when I think of "faith" I imagine it as billions of people like my father and only a few dozen Osama bin Ladens or Jerry Falwells. That's probably very wishful thinking.

There's also so much great art that wouldn't exist if people had never believed in gods.

Of course, the negative side of that is that I don't think a world without religion would have much less in the way of violence. Certainly, the collective decision in the West to stop killing each other for being Catholics or various brands of Protestant didn't stop them from killing each other for even stupider reasons.

The last thing, and I realize this will sound hippie dippy, is that, when I try to comprehend the concept of a universal sentience underlying the material world, it's so far beyond what my mind is capable of grasping that I don't entirely feel justified in saying anything about it one way or the other. I have way too much doubt to belong to any of the major faiths, but I feel like I have way too many doubts to be much of an atheist either.

Actually, I'm becoming that way about everything. I don't feel like I know much of anything with any certainty. It's probably the result of five years of grad school.

Rufus said...

Also, I should note that we just got home after driving for 12 hours through two snowstorms. So, if this is less coherent than usual....

Min said...

Hi Carl,
12 hours of driving in a snowstorm!! where did you go, Toronto? That really sucks. It snowed a lot down here too, and caused a lot of havoc as well. I'm glad you and Claire are back safely! If you ever come to Centreville, give me a call we would love to see you guys.
Now, on to religion...

According the the Pew Forum (http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=153#3)
--"Most Americans (78%) continue to view the Bible as the word of God, though there is disagreement over whether everything in the Bible is literally true; 35% say it is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, while 43% say the Bible is the word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally. These numbers have remained largely unchanged since Pew began asking the question in 1996."

35%!! of Americans think the Bible is literally true! that FREAKS me out. And about your grandfather and father needing faith in some way to help them cope with the meaningless of existence, I think you're selling them short. I think it's sort of patronising to think this way. It's like saying oh, I'm so sophisticated and urbane and educated so I don't need it but the masses, oh the poor dubes that they are, need it to live a fulfilling life. Doesn't ring true for me.

Humans definitely are wired for religion, seeing that is in almost every culture we come across.
Faith and belief in God or gods seem to want to burrow in our collective brain and take over sometimes, but just because it IS, doesn't necessarily make it TRUE, right? I just want people to care more about the truth than what feels good to their psyche. You know, to just stare at death in the face and just shrug. Other industrialized first world nations have already done this.. I just want the U.S. to follow suit.
I agree with you that it's hard to imagine humans will be less violent without religion..but you can't argue it won't have some sort of tremendous impact if every single person decided to stop acting on "faith" and only act on "reason".

On the art question.. how can you know that great art wouldn't exist without a belief in God/Gods? Yes, maybe we wouldn't have the Sistine Chapel, but Michaelangelo certainly wouldn't have been just sitting on his ass twiddling his thumbs now, would he? He probably would have done something else that didn't involve Adam and Eve but I'm sure it would still have value. Handel would have written music, just probably not hyms and Chorals. Inspiration can come from many places, and I'm sure without religion, human beings will think of something to write about, think about, sing about and paint about.
I'm not certain about any of this either, I'm sorry if I sound like I am, I just don't like it when someone acts like somehow they ARE certain about things that I know to be unknowable. I just want everyone to admit that yeah, they don't know shit either.

Rufus said...

Yeah, I realize it's patronizing. But it's sort of tempered by the fact that I also don't really feel qualified to judge their experiences on these matters.

I definitely am not part of the 35% who take the Bible literally, which is indeed a bit amazing. And I'm rather glad that I don't know anyone who does take it literally.

However, I have known a handful of people whom I respect and know well enough to know that they're very intelligent, including family members, who have had the sort of... I guess transcendent religious experiences that I have never come close to having. Some of them weren't even believers in anything but a sort of vague Deist sense when they had these experiences. I can sort of imagine what they're talking about, but not really. I can speculate about their neural chemistry, but I don't really know what goes on for those people. The thing is that their experiences are so far outside of my own that I don't really feel like I can say, "Oh well that wasn't what you thought it was! We all know there's no God, so what drugs were you on?!"

As far as I can tell, the religions all point towards these sorts of experiences, and since they were created by humans, all of them are very flawed. But I guess the flip side of thinking that my father is better off believing is that I really don't feel like I can say with total certainty that I'm better off not believing, or telling him: "Oh, come on! Of course there's no God and no afterlife!" because I really have no idea. Death is one of those things that I've studied but never taken the final!

I think it does have to do with certainly and doubt. I definitely don't understand the true believers who feel that they know the word of God with certainty, and that some other church or religion with a trivial difference of interpretation is going to Hell. But I also know some pretty devout atheists (Claire will know who I'm thinking of) who think that believers are just stupid. I rather think of them as discussing a movie I've never seen. My father feels that God is present and loving. I don't know what he means by that- I've never felt that- so I don't feel certain that he'd be better off without it.

And the really hippie dippy part is that, while personally, the universe has never spoken back to me, I'd like to leave the line open just in case it ever does. I joke that I'm sort of a 5% believer in all the gods.

So, part of it is patronizing- I think belief sort of "gets the job done" for my family members, which is condescending. But, I also realize that I don't exactly know what they're talking about.

As for reason, I guess I'm a Freudian in that I don't think we can function without some irrationality, or that we really ever do. Also, I think that we take plenty of things on faith without empirical verification. I believe that Claire and I are soul mates and in love, but I couldn't measure that in any way. I just feel it. I suspect that it's that way for believers like my father- a sort of internal conviction. I also imagine that the literalists are really people who don't actually have a lot of faith, so they need the books to tell them what to think.

That might have been even less coherent after a good night's sleep!

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