Sunday, February 6, 2011

A History of God: Reflections & Review P. II

In Part 1 of this series, I provided a brief overview of the purpose behind Armstrong's book: to examine the evolution of the idea of God within the three major monotheistic religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  I also noted that Armstrong's historical scrutiny of the monotheistic conceptions of God comes by way of the documentary hypothesis, a source theory of biblical interpretation that seeks to arrange chronologically the inconsistent and independently authored texts of the earliest books of the bible.  Given the seemingly independent perspectives within the books of the Torah--and subsequent Old Testament books--the documentary hypothesis suggests that a series of redactors (editors) prepared the disparate documents into the forms we've come to know as the Pentateuch.

Citing Armstrong's interpretive tools goes a long way in helping to understand why she comes to some of the conclusions she does.  If it is true that the Pentateuch is a patchwork of originally independent narratives that have endured (who knows how many) redactions, then the traditional Christian perspective that the bible is wholly reliable can reasonably be questioned: reliable in its original, unedited form?  Reliable because of its redactions?  And how do we know that those who undertook to edit the original manuscripts were reliable people?  What constitutes 'reliability' in a religious context when dealing with scripture? At what point does having 'faith' that the scriptures are reliable cease to be an acceptable premise?  And further to those questions, if the writings of the major world religions can be questioned as to their reliability, can those religions themselves be questioned as to their reliability on the whole?  That is, if the religions of the book are questionable on a literary level, what aspects of that religion are reliable at all?

I won't be pursuing answers to those questions in this series, but suffice it to say that they are reasonably important questions, and the content of Armstrong's book certainly gives me pause to consider searching out reasonable answers.

But enough of my preamble!  On to the reflections and review.

Introduction (pp. xvii - xxiii)
I have read Armstrong's introduction to A History of God a few times before reading the actual book.  There are several instances within those (roughly) 7 pages that resonated very deeply with me.  For example, Armstrong, right out of the gates, admits to her childhood belief in God as an implicit or "unquestioned" assumption, but because of the arid pomposity of the religious definitions that surround the notion of 'God' she cannot meaningfully state she had faith in God:
"There is a distinction between belief in a set of propositions and a faith which enables us to put our trust in them.  I believed implicitly in the existence of God; I also believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the efficacy of the sacraments, the prospect of eternal damnation and the objective reality of Purgatory... God, on the other hand, was a somewhat shadowy figure, defined in intellectual abstractions rather than images."
 Like Armstrong, I had my own implicit belief in God when I was a child.  I recall demanding I be brought to church when I was eight.  At the same age, I was baptised, though I know I had no real understanding of the religious significance of that event.  A few years later, I sat in the back of my dad's car reading my bible while he and his girlfriend ran errands at a local plaza.  When they returned to the car, I plucked up my courage and asked my dad what he would think if I became a priest and taught people about God.  His response was disheartening to a child of 12: "Do what you want.  Just don't talk to me about it."  This was the same response I received from him when I was 16 and told him that I had become a "born again" Christian.

All this is to say that, like Armstrong,
"As I grew up... I began to be moved by the beauty of the liturgy and, though God remained distant, I felt that it was possible to break through to him and that the vision would transfigure the whole of created reality."
Disappointment is germane to most people's lives, however, and Armstrong did not experience that transfigured reality.  "Eventually, with regret," Armstrong writes, "I left the religious life..."  As did I, and with many, bitter, emotional struggles.  But having pursued her religious studies as much as she did, Armstrong was unwilling to put away her passion to understand religious reality:
"My interest in religion continued... and I made a number of television programs about the early history of Christianity and the nature of the religious experience."
And having scoured the depths of religious history, Armstrong came to an unoriginal, yet beautifully expressed conclusion about the nature of religious experience and activity:
"Like art, religion has been an attempt to find meaning and value in life, despite the suffering that flesh is heir to.  Like any other human activity, religion can be abused, but it seems to have been something that we have always done.  It was not tacked on to a primordially secular nature by manipulative kings and priests but was natural to humanity... Throughout history, men and women have experienced a dimension of the spirit that seems to transcend the mundane world.  Indeed it is an arresting characteristic of the human mind to be able to conceive concepts that go beyond it in this way."
It must be said, however, that although religion has been, and probably will continue to be an activity integral to human participation in the world, the rise of scientific savvy is a formidable challenge to the religious-minded.  For if "meaning and value in life" can come from ancestral liturgies and ancient doctrines, then the continual increase in understanding and factual comprehension science continuously provides may overtake religious devotion.  Certainly knowing the factual details of reality does not detract from life's meaning and value, but should reinforce it if those meanings and values are true.  Certainly deriving one's meaning and value from what is actual and demonstrable will grip people's minds with at least as much fervour as the meaning and value in life that non-demonstrable, non-natural claims have traditionally held.

Whatever the case may end up being, there is no historical precedent that even remotely recommends a religionless future.
"...religion is highly pragmatic... it is far more important for a particular idea of God to work than for it to be logically or scientifically sound. As soon as it ceases to be effective it will be changed--sometimes for something radically different."
Thus notions of God are entirely provisional: they evolve just as much as people and their cultures do.  The success of monotheisms such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has not been in having precise knowledge of the divine so much as it has been that the monotheistic religions have been able to adapt culture to their creeds.  Previous to monotheism religious motifs were subject to the suasions of culture.  And indeed, so-called "pagan" religions continue to develop along the lines of the cultures and people-groups practicing them.  Monotheism, however, dictates culture by enforcement of creeds: you cannot be a 21st century Christian without holding dear certain creeds.  You can, however, be a raging pagan, polytheist, or religious pluralist in the 21st century even while brushing-off ancient dictates.

This, of course, makes me wonder why people prefer to be directed in their beliefs, rather than choosing what to believe.  The cafeteria Catholic (pejorative, but apt term that that is) is still beholden to certain essentials, or he isn't a Catholic.  Period.  The smorgasbord pagan is really only expected to choose what he will.  And both the Catholic monotheist and the pagan pluralist enjoy an absolutist sense of reality: they both believe that they are wonderfully right, and that others are woefully wrong.

Be that as it may, such concerns are somewhat allayed by Armstrong's right observation that

"Whatever conclusions we reach about the reality of God, the history of this idea must tell us something important about the human mind and the nature of our aspiration."
The import derived from conversations about God seems to be purely personal.  Given that, it really doesn't surprise me that somewhere along the historical line, the concomitant notion of a "personal God" was recognised in the fact that people conclude their notions of God wholly subjectively: no two people have the same experience of the same idea.  'God', the abstract, is concretized differently in each person.  Thus God-talk is strained at best, and tests credulity not only at worst, but inevitably.

As is proper, Armstrong should have the last word here:

"All talk about God staggers under impossible difficulties.  Yet monotheists have all been very positive about language at the same time as they have denied its capacity to express the transcendent reality.  The God of Jews, Christians and Muslims is a God who--in some sense--speaks.  His Word is crucial in all three faiths.  The Word of God has shaped the history of our culture.  We have to decide whether the word "God" has any meaning for us today."


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