The best vacation I've ever had was the three weeks I spent in Nepal in 1995 or '96. I was lucky. The military junta had been overthrown but the CommuThe best vacation I've ever had was the three weeks I spent in Nepal in 1995 or '96. I was lucky. The military junta had been overthrown but the Communist insurgency hadn't begun; the Nepalese were enjoying what turned out to be an all-too-brief peace. Of those 21 days, the best of the best were the eleven I spent at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery north of Kathmandu. I've always had an intellectual interest in Buddhism, and my week and a half of direct exposure to people who were living a version of it made a lasting impression. Fifteen years later, I find that my cast of mind becomes increasingly Buddhist-like. Not to the point of converting - the faith-based assumptions of the various Buddhisms prevent that - but to the point that the four noble truths, the eight-fold path and its universal compassion and my own actions and opinions look much alike.
Becoming Enlightened is not for the already practicing Buddhist or for someone seriously committed to becoming one (except to the extent that it might be useful as a quick reference to doctrine as they become more familiar with actual scripture). Though some Buddhist authorities - Nagarjuna, Shantideva, Aryadeva, among others - are quoted, there is not in-depth discussion of any of them or their doctrines. Instead, I think, His Holiness attempts to speak to the curious nonbeliever, explaining the whats and whys of Buddhism (of course, I doubt he'd be unhappy to pick up a convert along the way). Unfortunately, it makes the bulk of the book (200 pages of 250+) potentially irrelevant as it lays out the program a Buddhist should follow. Yet even if you don't accept reincarnation, the illusory nature of perception, the wisdom of extinguishing the self, or the reality of nirvana, the moral and social consequences that flow from these beliefs are worth considering - indeed, implementing, IMO.
The first six chapters, then, were the most interesting to me - "A Book About Enlightenmnet", "Comparing Religions", "The Buddhist Framework", "Practicing Buddhism", "Knowing the Qualifications of a Teacher", and "Buddhism in India and Tibet". Three of the most attractive features of the religion are its rationality, its inclusiveness and its morality.
An example of that rationality is His Holiness' insistence that every teaching of the Buddha as well as subsequent gurus be able to withstand analysis and reflection. In short, doubt should be the initial reaction of the student to anything they hear. If it can't endure examination, the teaching must be a "wrong view" (more on this below). Another example (and one fundamentalists of any stripe should pay attention to) is the correct interpretation of scriptures. The sacred writings of any faith are guidelines that - if truly inspired - cannot be wrong. If reason, science or experience show that a valid teaching cannot be literally true, don't deny reality or abandon scripture but understand it in another way. There's a variety of scriptures because there's a variety of human experiences and understandings. Validity depends upon implementing a scripture to good effect. If it results in continuing the cycle of suffering, then it cannot be "true" in any sense.
Buddhism's inclusiveness is reflected in the Dalai Lama's belief that any teaching that promotes compassion and altruism has some worth. Different minds understand the Four Noble Truths differently; no one should be pushed into understanding more than they can handle. He explicitly says that Christians, Muslims and others should try to understand via their own faiths; this book is not meant as a call to conversion. (If the teaching's valid, it will eventually bring you to the place the Buddha arrived at, afterall.)
In the final matter of morality, as I reflected on "what I learned from this book" - and what has made it loom larger in my thoughts than it might otherwise have done - I came to the realization of how inhumane we as a society are. As individuals and concerned groups/congregations, most people are pretty good. Not saints but neither sociopathic libertarians when they take the time to reflect on others' situations. It's as a so-called civilization that we're failing. Consider the ten nonvirtues that should be avoided. It seems modern society perversely elevates many, if not all, as virtues:
1. Killing: Wrong under any circumstances, though the details and intent of a death are important. The sheer scale of celebrated murder in the name of state, faith, corporation or for the convenience of low-priced hamburgers beggars the imagination on this one. 2. Stealing: As a society we idolize the accumulation of "things," which fosters covetousness (nonvirtue #8, see below). 3. Sexual misconduct: A tricky concept that the Dalai Lama avoids discussing in much detail but it includes possessive desire. 4. Lying: I don't know that we've enshrined lying as such as a virtue yet but insofar as it's necessary to justify what we have made virtuous, our society tends to practice it to perfection. 5-7. Divisive talk, harsh speech & senseless chatter: Following these injunctions would eliminate 99.9% of what we hear in the media and what passes for entertainment today. 8. Covetousness 9. Harmful intent 10. Wrong views: Another nebulous concept but one that includes beliefs that promote selfishness or any of the other nonvirtues (Objectivism just went out the window).
I don't want to preach, however. As the Dalai Lama argues, a rational, unbiased person who contemplates existence will come to recognize the effects of nonvirtuous conduct and belief and will cultivate their opposites....more
I wonder why Rodney Stark wrote this book. He claims there is a “sinister” (p. 4) trend in Crusader studies that characterizes the Muslim world as theI wonder why Rodney Stark wrote this book. He claims there is a “sinister” (p. 4) trend in Crusader studies that characterizes the Muslim world as the innocent and culturally and morally far superior victim of this first manifestation of European colonialism. That “during the Crusades, an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalized, looted, and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam” (p. 8).
Twenty years ago I was entering the world of Medieval Studies as a UCLA grad student. In fact, the period under discussion (c. 1100-1400) and this very region (the Mediterranean) were the areas I was interested in. Even back then, there was no serious expert in the field who would argue that provocations, massacres, brutality, looting, rape, etc. didn’t occur on all sides, that anyone had the moral high ground. Nor would any student of the period argue that purely material interests motivated the Crusaders. Did the Marxist/materialist interpretation dominate a certain era of historiography? Sure. But like all academic fevers, this too passed (though not without a lot of groundbreaking and revelatory data in its wake). A new generation came up through the ranks that accommodated the less material, more idealistic motivations. So Stark’s cabal seems to be a straw man. It’s illustrative that the handful of specific authors he cites as evidence of a conspiracy are all nonexperts in the field. In particular, his bete noire Karen Armstrong, a fine scholar in her own right but not immersed in the sources as a specialist would be. Though, perhaps, she too is as guilty as Stark of slanting her own interpretations. (I tend to agree with Stark’s assessment: IMO, Armstrong, in her recent work on Islam, has evinced an annoying tendency to whitewash its “sins” in comparing it to Christianity. An argument against selecting facts to fit a political/philosophical agenda, but not evidence of an academic conspiracy to demonize Christianity.)
My problem may stem from the book’s subtitle: “The Case for the Crusades.” The case for the Crusades? Is he seriously arguing that a religiously motivated military campaign (jihad) is justified? Is he hypocritically arguing that you shouldn’t use selective data to support one’s opinion yet does so to exonerate Urban II and his successors? Or is his objective of a more contemporary nature? A backhanded justification for the West’s (primarily America’s) response to recent Islamic fundamentalist terrorism? If so, then the facts of his own book doesn’t support his interpretation. If anything, they argue against a military response: Despite better technology and amazing logistical capability on the part of the European princes, no Crusade after the first achieved any lasting success and most were utter debacles*).
*The Fourth Crusade, indeed, perpetrated one of the worst cultural and political crimes in medieval history – the sacking of Constantinople and the utter ruin of the Byzantine state, threatening nary a Saracen.
When Stark sticks to the facts and doesn’t attempt any interpretation, he’s generally spot on. It’s his interpretations that I found fault with in his latest work. I am still amazed and enthralled by The Rise of Christianity How the Obscure Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force ..... He marshaled ancient sources and applied modern sociological research on religious conversion to present a powerful case for how and why Christianity prospered even in the face of sporadic but usually fatal persecutions. And his description of life in ancient Antioch, in the same book, is still one of the most harrowing and interesting I’ve read. For the first 2/3rds of Discovering God The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief, he presents a cogent argument for how and why the concept of God developed across time. Then in the final 1/3rd, he begins proselytizing, abandoning the admirable evenhandedness of the first part to shill for the Christian version of deity, and he lost me.
In this book, too, Stark marshals the facts to lay out a mildly revisionist history that brings a more balanced viewpoint to the general reading public. I’ll cite two examples here: First, he debunks the notion of a “dark age” in Europe (already pretty thoroughly a relic in academe, starting with 19th century historiography!) but it never hurts to reemphasize the technological, economic and political innovations that were transforming ancient society from the 5th century on and earlier. He also correctly, IMO, points out that the brightest intellectual lights in the Islamic firmament were often Christians (though not Latin), Jews or otherwise non-Arabs, and that quite soon an intellectual rigidity set in which retarded any exploitation of their insights. He scants a similar, if later, phenomenon in Christianity – though in that case happily, the Church was too weak and intervened too late to do more than delay the advent of the modern world.
A second example is Stark’s corrective to the overly materialistic interpretation of the Crusades, which reduced the movement to a matter of economic and social factors forcing humans to act as they did. For many knights, going to the Holy Land was anything but in their best economic interests. But their zeal (fanaticism, to be less charitable) fueled both their personal ventures and profound economic and political changes in Medieval Europe.
There are some indications of a less-than-complete grasp of regional histories as, for example, when Stark mentions the “oddity” of Charlemagne attacking the Basque (Christian) city of Pamplona in 778. Knowledge of the enmity between the Basques of northern Spain and the Franks of southern France may have made the soon-to-be emperor’s actions less “odd.” Or there is the arbitrary decision to exclude the non-Levantine crusades (i.e., the Reconquista or the Albigensian Crusade) as unrepresentative of the “true” Crusading movement, which goes unjustified.
As a corrective to overly materialistic interpretations of the Crusades, Stark deserves at least 3 stars, and general readers could do worse than to learn a bit about the period from this book.** However, for his conspiracy theories of malfeasance and his (possible) attempt to justify modern “crusades,” he loses a star.
**They might be better served, however, by reading experts in the field like Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades, vols. 1-3, dated in many respects but still a brilliant, exciting, well written narrative of the campaigns; Kenneth Setton; or Christopher Tyerman’s recent God's War A New History of the Crusades. And, while Wikipedia is never to be trusted as a source itself, the bibliography sections of the Crusade entries can direct interested parties to interesting books (e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_cr...).
A final thought that has nothing to do with my praises, objections or opinions of the book but which came to me as I was reading: Stark’s discussion of why Crusaders took up the cross and justified their actions reminded me of Wendy Doniger’s discussion of a similar moral dilemma that faced the kshatriya caste in her book The Hindus - see my review: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/52.... In the “Bhagavad Gita,” Krishna explains to Arjuna that though the warrior’s dharma (to commit acts of violence and murder in service to his ruler) goes against general dharma and accumulates bad karma, the warrior who can act (karma) without desire (kama) can satisfy both dharmas and avoid bad karma. It seems to me that, in a similar vein, Christianity resolved the problem of controlling its warrior class with theories of “just wars” and plenary absolution of sins committed....more
A People’s History of Christianity is not so much a “history” (either scholarly or general) as it is an argument for a return to the roots of ChristiaA People’s History of Christianity is not so much a “history” (either scholarly or general) as it is an argument for a return to the roots of Christianity that finds fault with both modern expressions of “liberal” and “conservative” religion. As Bass argues in her introduction, liberal theologians and congregations tend to lose their “devotional” memories; their conservative cousins lose their “ethical” memory. The result is a liberal tradition that’s often little more than a social club; and a conservative tradition that’s often reactionary and mean spirited.
Bass comes from an unabashedly liberal perspective by which I mean she rejects – or is, at least, chary of – Christologies used to justify the state, the Church (in the “big C,” institutional sense), church wealth, war, etc. Her Christ is the preacher who counsels the rich young man in Mark 10:21 to “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me” and says in 12:29-31, “The first of all the commandments is: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. / And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind, and will all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. / And the second, like it, is this: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these”; or the Church as represented by the spirit of Vatican II (though Bass isn’t Catholic herself – I gather she was raised Methodist, and now professes Episcopalianism).
I am not the audience for this book, or not the primary audience. There’s too little in the way of history to engage my interest, and too much theology whose foundation I reject. Full Disclosure: I was raised Catholic in a thoroughly secular, middle-class American family in Missouri. Before my parents’ divorce, we didn’t even go to church. When mom did begin taking us and enrolled my siblings and me in weekly religion classes, I fell in love with Catholic ritual, history and tradition, and the cool robes the priests got to wear, but I was not wedded to (nor even terribly aware of) its theology until I got interested in such topics in college, and then I became an Origenist. It’s been downhill (from the Vatican’s POV) since then.
Which is not to say that I didn’t get something from reading this book. I have scads of post-it notes littering its pages reflecting what I learned of the variety of ways Christians have interpreted Christ’s teachings through the ages, and how the “popular impulse” – often co-opted or suppressed by the institutional Church (cf., the Franciscans** or the Beguines, respectively) – keeps bubbling up to the surface to discomfit the privileged and the comfortable.
**If you want to learn more than you could ever possibly want to know about the medieval Franciscans and the related popular movements that bedeviled the Roman Church, I can’t recommend enough Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
After the Introduction, Bass divides her narrative into five parts:
“The Way” – Early Christianity (AD 100-500) “The Cathedral” – Medieval Christianity (AD 500-1450) “The Word” – Reformation Christianity (AD 1450-1650) “The Quest” – Modern Christianity (AD 1650-1945) “The River” – Contemporary Christianity (AD 1945-present)
And within those sections (except for the last), each is further divided into a look at “devotion” and at “ethics” – How Christians interpreted the New Testament and how they implemented what they learned in the real world.
For example, in the “Ethics” of “The Way,” Bass recounts how early Christians lived a Christ-centered life: 1. hospitality - all comers were welcome; 2. communalism - all property was held in common by the faithful; 3. peace making - early Christians were pacifists by and large*; 4. aliens - all humans were “neighbors,” even if they remained outside the church.
*St. Valentine, whose feast day we recently celebrated, was a soldier who refused to fight, as was St. Martin of Tours; and one of the chief “crimes” committed by Christians was their refusal to serve in the legions.
An example of some insights found in Bass’s “Devotion” sections: In “The Cathedral,” she devotes much ink to Peter Abelard and Heloise, arguing that they were representative of the interpretation of Christ’s Crucifixion as an expression of God’s infinite love for Man, and not a sacrifice to atone for his myriad sins and to satisfy justice.
There were some fascinating figures in modern Christianity whom I had never heard of such as Vida Scudder (1861-1954). This woman’s interpretation of Christ’s life resulted in a Christian socialism – a vision of an extended monastic society where extremes of wealth and poverty were eliminated so all could pursue devotional works without hindrance. Or Harry Fosdick (1878-1969), who preached “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” in 1922 and embraced evolution because it makes Christianity a religion of hope, implying (as it does) that people can bring about positive change. Evolution leavened with religious yeast transforms humanity’s material existence into human life. (This reminds me of the Buddhist idea that knowledge unguided by wisdom is dangerous. It also reminds me of a short story I read ages ago (written in the ‘50s) where a scientist is convinced to not develop a devastating new technology when an alien gives his toddler a gun and asks him, “Would you give a child a gun?”)
Each period deserves, at a minimum, a book-length treatment of these subjects....more
I will say this, despite its brevity (less than 200 pages in print), Wills' manages to present a surprisingly complex and insightful portrait of the man and his thought. He actually managed to turn the saint into a sympathetic figure. I've never liked Augustine much as a person but the author's interpretation made me sympathize with the decisions Augustine made in his life (like sending his long-time concubine and mother of his son away).
Highly recommended, print or audio (in fact, I should read the print version because I know I missed a lot just listening to it). Garry Wills is a brilliant writer and anything he authors is worth the effort to read....more
If I were better at time management, I'd have had this reviewed by now but I have put pen to paper (finally) and should have a rFor my myriad fans :-)
If I were better at time management, I'd have had this reviewed by now but I have put pen to paper (finally) and should have a review of this ultimate volume of my religion-themed reading quest soon....more
Bart Ehrman is joining Jonathan Kirsch as a writer whose earlier books I admire and enjoyed but whose more recent works are largely rehashes and (worsBart Ehrman is joining Jonathan Kirsch as a writer whose earlier books I admire and enjoyed but whose more recent works are largely rehashes and (worse) often poorly written and edited. Jesus, Interrupted doesnt' cover any territory not already covered in Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus or Lost Christianities. It also reads like Ehrman threw together his lecture notes - it's repetitive and slapdash. I could envision him using this to good effect in a lecture hall but as a book, the style has serious problems.
There are better introductions to critical Bible studies elsewhere (and in Ehrman's own oeuvre mentioned above)....more
Twenty-five years ago or so I read Gore Vidal's Creation and my perception of the Buddha has been fatefully tainted ever since. Cyrus Spitama, the novTwenty-five years ago or so I read Gore Vidal's Creation and my perception of the Buddha has been fatefully tainted ever since. Cyrus Spitama, the novel's protagonist and the grandson of Zoroaster, finds himself in India at one point and has an opportunity to meet Gautama:
We followed Sariputra up the steps and into the hut, where all of those who had been seated rose to greet us except for the Buddha, who remained seated on his mat. I could see why he was called the golden one. He was as yellow as any native of Cathay. Not only was he not Aryan, he was not Dravidian either. Obviously, some tribe from Cathay had crossed the Himalayas to sire the Gotama clan.
The Buddha was small, slender, supple. He sat very straight, legs crossed beneath him. The slanted eyes were so narrow that one could not tell if they were open or shut. Someone described the Buddha's eyes as being as luminous as the night sky in summer. I would not know. I never actually saw them. Pale arched eyebrows grew together in such a way that there was a tuft of hair at the juncture. In India this is considered a mark of divinity.
The old man's flesh was wrinkled but glowing with good health, and the bare skull shone like yellow alabaster. There was a scent of sandalwood about him that struck me as less than ascetic. During the time I was with him, he seldom moved either his head or his body. Occasionally he would gesture with the right hand. The Buddha's voice was low and agreeable, and seemed to cost him no breath. In fact, in some mysterious way, he seemed not to breathe at all. (pp. 294-5 in my edition)
In the novel, Cyrus is a stand-in for the Westerner who is constantly questioning the things of the material world and trying to find reasons for our existence. For anyone familiar with Buddhism, it should come as no surprise that he was sorely disappointed in its founder's philosophy, for the material world is an illusion, and the goal of those striving for enlightenment is the utter extinguishment of the self.
I'm reminded of Creation because Karen Armstrong reminds me of Cyrus Spitama. She isn't asking the same questions but she is writing about the life and times of a man who would have argued that her endeavor is pointless. The man Siddhartha Gautama is irrelevant; the dharma he taught should be the focus.
Happily, though, Armstrong manages to follow a "middle way" - She puts together all the facts and speculation about when and where the Buddha lived and taught and a clear explication of early Buddhist practice and belief (the "important" stuff).
Unfortunately for specifics, I listened to the book (well read by Kate Reading - now there's an appropriate name) driving to and from work so my ability to take my accustomed notes for books like this was...ahem...limited (I am not of that generation who believes they can text and drive simultaneously). But Armstrong does a good job of showing how Gautama - who came from outside the Brahmanic system - first renounced his noble lifestyle and then spent several years trying to find a dharma that made sense of the world. The solution he arrived at rejected Brahmanic ritual (and its attendant Hindu caste system) and extreme ascetism (which only the hopelessly committed could ever hope to attain) for a way of life that didn't demand more than a person was capable of at any particular point in life, and that was (potentially) open to all - from the haughtiest Brahmin to the lowest Dalit. Importantly, the Buddha claimed that the pudding's proof was that anyone who followed his dharma enjoyed a more peaceful, settled, less anxious life.
Buddha can be read as an adjunct to Armstrong's work on the Axial Age, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. This was the era when the foundations of the world's great religious traditions were laid down by a series of brilliant innovators who arose in response to the increasing violence and atomistic urbanization of the Ancient world: The Greek philosophers, the Hebrew prophets, Zoroaster, the Hindu authors of the Upanishads, Mahavira (Jains), and Laozi & Confucius in China. She puts the Buddha into this context and argues that the religion's popularity was enhanced by its ability to address people's anxieties and the place it made for the rising classes who existed outside of the traditional Vedic system (brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas, shudras).
It's also helpful that I'm reading (actually "reading") Wendy Doniger's new history of Hinduism as she goes into great depth about the Hindu response to the new age of urban civilization and puts the rise of Buddhism into a fuller context.
Whether read or heard, I would recommend Buddha as a lucid introduction to both man and philosophy....more
Savina Teubal’s book Sarah the Priestess is a part of that latter tradition – A serious attempt to disentangle the historic and prehistoric threads that went into the make up of the stories found in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. In this case, the traditions behind the first matriarchs of Genesis: Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel. This book does not argue against biblical theology, nor does Teubal want to. Instead it joins that large – and fascinating – genre that attempts to place the historical events of the Bible in context, in the process revealing just how unreliable the document is for reconstructing the world of the ancient Middle East.
Teubal’s argument is, briefly, this:
1. The stories of Abraham/Sarah and the first patriarchs of Genesis (Isaac and Jacob) reflect a transitional period between a prehistoric culture and religion where a Goddess was the predominant deity and women enjoyed far more economic and social importance, and a true patriarchy where (at best) women were relegated to permanent minority status or (at worst) were the chattel of their male relations. (Their survival in the anomalous form that comes down to us is explained by the fact that when the post-Exile redactors finalized the Hebrew Bible, the essential narrative was too sacred to tamper with extensively.)
2. Sarah was an oracular priestess in the tradition of her homeland of Ur, whose Goddess-centered religion can be traced back to prehistoric and protoliterate sources found all over the Middle East.
3. Sarah was the nonuterine brother of Abraham (same father/different mothers). In light of subsequent Jewish consanguinity laws, her marriage to Abraham can only be understood in terms of a strictly matrilineal society where the biological input of the father was irrelevant.
4. There is strong evidence to suggest that Sumerian/Akkadian priestesses were celibate, suggesting that Abraham and Sarah’s marriage was so too.
5. Consequently, Isaac is the child of a hieros gamos, or “sacred marriage,” perhaps with Abimelech of Gerar.
6. Teubal doesn’t claim that Rebekah, Leah or Rachel were priestesses but she does argue that they represented a fading Goddess-centered religion and matrifocal marriage customs that were only completely stamped out in the post-Exilic Jewish community.
Probably the greatest strength of this book is Teubal’s deference to the limitations of her sources. Beyond their mere existence, we don’t know what these Goddess-worshipping cultures believed, or the rituals they performed and their meanings. For example, Teubal points out that it’s pretty certain that oracular priestesses in the southern Mesopotamian tradition were celibate outside of the sacred marriage ritual and not expected to have children but that this was not so in the Ugaritic tradition.
I don’t have the background to competently assess the basis for Teubal’s argument beyond its plausibility (and the trust that her Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Studies is not from a diploma mill) and in that regard I think she makes a very good case. In any event, she certainly proves that the Hebrew Bible is not a reliable source for historians attempting to put together Canaanite and Mesopotamian society 4,000 years ago (however inspired it may be for the religious).
For the interested, I would recommend this book....more
Bart Ehrman writes about very interesting subjects in (usually) an interesting way and he's probably quite good in a seminar but, Lord, he's not a gooBart Ehrman writes about very interesting subjects in (usually) an interesting way and he's probably quite good in a seminar but, Lord, he's not a good lecturer. Which is the worst thing I can say about this collection of lectures produced by The Teaching Company for their The Great Courses series (which is only part 1, bringing us up to c. AD 250, and a final talk about what caused the persecutions).
I have a pretty good, generalist's background in the period from my misspent graduate days and later reading so I didn't learn much new in a "macrocosmic" sense; I did, however, learn some interesting things on a "microcosmic" level:
The Apostle Paul (lecture 5): Though he would have cringed to be so described, Paul was one of the greatest innovators in religious thought and was decisive in turning Christianity from being a purely Jewish apocalyptic sect into something that appealed to Gentiles. He first elevated Jesus' death and resurrection as the keys to salvation, and first argued that it came not by observance of the Law (no matter how "good" as it came from God) but by faith in Jesus.
Origins of anti-semitism: Ehrman focuses on two important themes the emerged in the expanding Christian community. The first is Justin Martyr's, who argued that the Law was given not as a sign of Israel's "chosen" status but as a sign of punishment - these Jews were too recalcitrant and stubborn and needed to be strictly kept in line. Jesus was always present in Scripture but the Jews never discerned him (e.g., "Let us (i.e., God and Christ) make man").
The other point of view Ehrman brings up is represented in the Epistle of Barnabas, whose author argued that the OT wasn't even Jewish - It was instead a prefiguration of Christ not to be taken literally (as the Jews had been doing for thousands of years). A view, which taken to its logical conclusion, would hold that the Jews had never been chosen; that status had to wait until Jesus came to set the Law's interpretation correctly and then it fell to his followers, the Christians.
Christian evangelism: Ehrman also covers the latest research into the spread of Christianity as if you're not a believer, the new religion's success needs more explanation than "it's God's plan." Here, he mentions Rodney Stark's book The Rise of Christianity. Stark is a sociologist by training and his early work focused on modern religious conversion - that is, why do people convert? He took the techniques and results from that research and applied it to antiquity to show that many of the same reasons applied: alienation and efficacy. Converts, for some reason, feel dissatisfied with their native religion + the new faith shows that it makes a positive impact on the converts' lives. Once even a small group makes the conversion, they raise their families in the new faith. Relatively soon, a group of c. 50 followers of Jesus becomes 2-3% of the Roman Empire by AD 300.
Another point Ehrman brings up here is that pagan (or Jewish) religious culture was not moribund. Graeco-Roman culture was entering a period of religious enthusiasm and ferment (similar in some ways, perhaps, to today), whose wave Christianity rode successfully.
Roman persecution: The final point I'll mention is the Roman government's response to Christianity - They largely tried to ignore it. No systematic persecution by the authorities is attested to before Decius' in c. AD 250. The chief problem, from the Roman viewpoint, was Christian refusal to offer cult to the Emperor but it wasn't that big of a deal before the crises of the third century. Before then, most governors followed Trajan's advice to Pliny - don't seek the Christians out but if you do find a cell, and they don't make offerings to the Emperor, execute them.
Despite Prof. Ehrman's deficiencies as a lecturer, I'm definitely going to pick up Part 2 from the library soon....more
How to review The Book of Genesis, the first book of the holiest scriptures of two of the world’s great monotheist religions, and honored by its thirdHow to review The Book of Genesis, the first book of the holiest scriptures of two of the world’s great monotheist religions, and honored by its third?
Well, I’m not. Not directly, at any rate. For believers the text is so weighted with allegory and prefigurations of future events that to look at it as a piece of literature or art is very nearly blasphemy. At the least, it’s of decidedly secondary importance to the book’s theological significance. And to nonbelievers, they just shake their heads at the absurdities or hold it in the same respect they might the Greek or Indian myths.
As an apostate Catholic, I’ve always enjoyed Genesis as a source for those fringe movements (like Theosophy or Zecharia Sitchin) that see Atlantis and ETs manipulating humans for their own ends. That and for the historical/anthropological insights the stories give on the ancient Middle East.
So does R. Crumb’s illustrated version add anything to the long tradition of biblical interpretation? I would say “yes.”
In a period where people are increasingly reliant on visual and aural cues as opposed to the straight texts my generation and earlier ones were raised on, Crumb brings these tired, old scriptures to life. Even the notorious “begats” come off the page vividly. For example, in Chapter 5 (which recounts the descendants of Seth) each generation is illustrated with a picture of family life – Enosh sitting on Seth’s lap as the family enjoys a meal; Enosh walking with Kenan and a wife or daughter; Kenan teaching his sons about plant lore; Mahalalel and his wives and daughters bathing Jared; Jared toiling in the fields with Enoch; Enoch stargazing with Methuselah; and Methusaleh nearly leaping for joy at the birth of Lamech. There are similar, subtle touches throughout the book – In Chapter 38, there’s a panel showing Judah playing the old finger-pulling game with the infant Er, one of his sons. And a bit later, when Judah sees Tamar sitting by the side of the road dressed as a harlot, he and one of his shepherds nudge elbows and leer, “heh, heh, heh.”
Crumb also lets the text speak for itself – there are no moralizing subheads only chapter divisions, and only a minimum of footnoting, most of which explains the meanings of Hebrew names (e.g., “Succoth” = “sheds”). At the back there is an idiosyncratic commentary where Crumb offers his opinions about passages that particularly intrigued him but they’re not required reading and take up only 8 pages.
For me, what comes across is a marvelously illustrated version of the Hebrew origin myth. Stripped of its religious baggage, there’s little here to interest anyone but the historian/archaeologist/anthropologist/mythologist. Certainly there’re no moral guidelines offered, nor any social ones that I’d care to emulate - do I want to worship a god of such volatile humors and ill temper (e.g., the Flood) or live in a world where women are burned for extramarital sex (e.g., Tamar)? But it does make Genesis readable to a whole new generation. ...more
In the page before the Table of Contents, Charlotte Gordon quotes the affirmations of God’s uniqueness found in all three Abrahamic faiths (DeuteronomIn the page before the Table of Contents, Charlotte Gordon quotes the affirmations of God’s uniqueness found in all three Abrahamic faiths (Deuteronomy 6:4, the Apostles’ Creed and Koran 2:255). Gordon’s book is a perfect example of Robert Wright’s argument in The Evolution of God by Robert Wright that every generation reinterprets its scriptures in light of social, economic and political contexts. In this instance, Gordon offers a rereading of the Abrahamic origin myth that stresses the similarities between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the irrationality of disputes among these faiths. (In the light of recent history, it should be obvious why some would see the need for this type of reinterpretation.) She also reads the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, and their descendants+ as a story reflecting a dysfunctional human family learning to cope and to accept each other.
Unfortunately, I am not the audience for this book. As a nonbeliever, I have no need to reinterpret the Abrahamic myth nor am I convinced by Gordon’s explication of Abraham’s clan as an archetypal human family. I give it two stars not for any serious lack of writing ability or interpretative skill but because it didn’t address personal interests or offer any radical new insights. This did not, however, make it an uninteresting or useless read. I think the value in a book like this, particularly to believers, is in its reinterpretive value. Recently, I reviewed Dan Diner’s Lost in the Sacred Why the Muslim World Stood Still. There the author advised Muslims to become more secular, creating distinct lay and religious spheres in life as has developed in Western culture. Leaving aside the problems that’s caused for the West, I argued that it was silly and counter-productive to counsel such a course of action, and that a better strategy would be to read scripture in a way that accommodated modernity, stressed cooperation and retained the “sacred” in mundane life. Which is precisely what Gordon is attempting to do here. I am unqualified to judge how successful she is in the light of other readings but this shouldn’t be dismissed in the effort to reconcile so far intractable disputes.
I gleaned five points Gordon wants to make about the importance of Abraham’s story:
• God’s command to Abraham “to go forth” reflects the emergence of the self (cf., Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind). • God’s relationship with Abraham’s family, particularly Hagar, is the first time he establishes a personal relationship with worshippers. • “Hagar’s story offers an alternative creation myth to that of the Romans and Israelites: one that is based on freedom, not slavery, and one where there is no need for brutality or rape.” (p. 137) • When Hagar names God as “El-roi” (Genesis 16:13), Gordon interprets it as “the one who sees me.” The traditional interpretation is “the god seen in a vision.” If Gordon’s interpretation is the more correct one, she can argue that it’s the first instance of a deity taking notice of one of his worshippers. • Gordon argues a very idiosyncratic interpretation of Hagar’s and Ishmael’s expulsion: It was a scheme concocted by Hagar and Sarah to protect Ishmael from Abraham, and shows that there was a warm, friendly relationship between the two women. (pp. 226-27)
Well…maybe. It’s an imaginative interpretation, and shows just how flexible the Bible can be but I did have some problems with it:
• Number one is that Gordon assumes that the God of Abraham is the modern concept of God. For some believers this may be perfectly acceptable but the historical evidence is pretty clear that there were no monotheists in 1700 BC (at least none whose stories have survived). Assuming an individual named Abraham actually existed, he was at best a monolatrist. • Which brings me to my second objection: Gordon ignores the manifest evidence that the Abraham story is a synthesis of now forgotten myths edited by post-Exile Jewish priests. • She emphasizes Abraham’s “wildness” despite the fact that he and Sarah both came from some of the oldest cities in Mesopotamia, and has a very simplistic vision of the relationship between ancient urban centers and the hinterlands. • She also makes odd interpretations in other matters. For example, referring to Paul’s “Letter to the Romans” as an attempt to convert Romans to Christianity when he was writing to an established congregation of Roman Christians – they were already believers. In Genesis 18, she argues that God is a fourth presence and not one of the three men who approach him at Mamre. Both my reading and others I’ve seen, include God among the trio. While it’s possible to interpret the words that way, it’s decidedly not the usual one and needs more justification (is the ancient Hebrew clearer?). • Gordon strays into heresy on page 190 when she suggests God is not all-knowing. This isn’t a bad thing in my view but if Gordon is trying to convince believers, she loses them here. • Discussing Sodom and Gomorrah, Gordon makes an astonishingly shallow interpretation of Lot and his daughters, whom she characterizes as “valley girl” types (my wording) who missed the opportunities for shopping and flirting denied them in the hills where the family fled. (p. 203) (And, yes, she uses the words “shopping” and “flirting.”) • Related to my first point above, Gordon accepts the historicity not just of Abraham et al. but also the events of the story (i.e., Sarah’s seriously post-menopausal pregnancy). • Lastly, Gordon indulges in a lot of speculation about the principals’ motives and thinking that’s ill supported.
Even if I were a believer, I think I would have a problem with some of the spin Gordon contrives even though I sympathize with her motives. Overall, I found Gordon’s reinterpretation interesting if flawed and would be interested in knowing what believers of all three faiths make of it; I definitely would recommend it
+ For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use Abraham and Sarah throughout rather than Abram and Sarai for the pre-Covenant period.
++ The following has no direct relation to Gordon or her exegesis but in the course of reading this book I became curious about the chronological relationship between Noah and his putative descendant Abraham. So I began with Genesis 11:10-32, which traces the line of Shem to Abraham’s birth. Taking Shem’s birth as Year 1, I came up with the following genealogical tree:
You’ll notice that Shem, a survivor of the Flood, was still alive when Abraham came screaming into the world. Even more remarkable – Noah was still kicking around. In fact, he would hang on until the 450th year after the Flood. The most remarkable “fact” that emerges is that Eber, Shem’s great-grandson and Abraham’s great-great-great-great-grandfather survived Abraham by 30 years.
Does this mean anything? Probably nothing more than a caution against blindly asserting the inerrancy of the Bible. After all, what need would God have had to reassert his power when survivors of the worldwide – WORLDWIDE – Flood were still breathing in Abraham’s day?...more
Just as my first exposure to Buddha came through the sieve of Gore Vidal’s Creation (see my review of Karen Armstrong’s Buddha - http://www.goodreads.Just as my first exposure to Buddha came through the sieve of Gore Vidal’s Creation (see my review of Karen Armstrong’s Buddha - http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21...) so too my first exposure to any representation of Hinduism came via the same medium. In that book, Cyrus Spitama – grandson of Zoroaster and Darius of Persia’s ambassador to the Indian kingdoms – witnesses a Vedic horse sacrifice, one of the most important rituals of ancient Indian kingship:
For an Indian ruler the horse sacrifice is all-important. For one thing it represents a renewal of his kingship. For another, if he is able to enlarge the kingdom that he inherited, he will be known as a high king….
…But today they felt the magic…of an event that seldom happens more than once in the reign of a king despite the ancient tradition that the first earthly king who celebrates one hundred horse sacrifices will overthrow the god Indra and take his place in the sky. (p. 236 of my edition)
Say what you will about his politics, Vidal does his homework. I’ll spare you Vidal’s description of the decidedly “interesting” specifics of the rite since I want to keep this review family friendly but his version largely agrees with that described by Wendy Doniger in The Hindus: An Alternative History (pp. 154-6). Vidal’s actors take the rite a bit more literally than Doniger would allow but that’s one of the central themes of this work – In a tradition that has thrived for c. 4,000 years, one can find nearly anything. “Hinduism” has confronted, shaped and absorbed a tremendous variety of beliefs, and has adapted its native beliefs (e.g., the horse sacrifice) in any number of ways. How often was the sacrifice performed? How literally was the marriage of queen and stallion taken? Hindu writers can be found who take the sacrifice literally, others who argue that it was largely symbolic, and others writing that it was entirely symbolic, or even that it never took place but was a mental exercise meant to illustrate a religious point.
In this book Doniger takes on the daunting task of tracing Hinduism’s evolution from its birth among the Vedic rituals and gods of the Indo-Aryan migrants to the Indus and Ganges valleys through the development of the Upanishads, the Puranas, bhakti, sectarianism (Vishnu and Siva), and Vedantic schools. What emerges from this sprawl is an immense, overwhelming culture that resists definition. (This despite the BJP’s best efforts or Doniger’s, for that matter. But whereas Doniger delights in such complexity, the BJP reacts to anything other than their own interpretations with horror and, sometimes, violence.) The best you (or a Hindu) can do is to respectfully study the traditions and remember that for every positive assertion you can make about Hindu belief, you can bet that you can find its opposite in someone’s creed that purports to be just as genuinely “Hindu.”
I can’t distill this book down into a capsule description – I don’t have the time (not without pay, at any rate) and the scope and structure of the book defies such simplification. What I’ll try to do in the next few paragraphs is highlight a few of the more interesting aspects I discovered in my reading.
To begin, Doniger identifies three alliances that characterize Hindu cosmology/theology (p. 108ff.). The first (and earliest) is that of the gods and humans vs. the asuras and rakshasas. Some versions of the Ramayana reflect this in Rama’s war against the rakshasa Ravana. The second alliance is that of the gods vs. humans. Humans, asuras and rakshasas threaten the position of the gods with their excessive piety and defiance of caste. Defiance of caste is of enormous influence on Hinduism’s development, and Doniger sees this emerge in the written culture with the Mahabharata, India’s second national epic. The third alliance emerges with the bhakti (devotion) movement and revolves around the gods extending their protection to all men, asuras and rakshasas. In its most radical forms, this protection extended even to people who inadvertently honor the gods and even to dogs, the lowest form of life.
Doniger argues that there are three layers of development discerned in Hinduism. There’s the Vedic level, the earliest stratum, concerned with rituals and purity, and with little moral component as moderns understand the term. Even here, though, in the most ancient traditions there’re the beginnings of concern over the righteousness of animal sacrifice and the appropriateness of violence. The second layer, the Brahmanic, emerged in the wake of urbanization (c. the time Vidal’s Creation is set, the Axial Age). The third layer, the Vedantic, emerged with the Upanishads and developed further with the devotional sects of the Medieval and later eras.
“Reincarnation” is, certainly, one of Hinduism’s most recognizable doctrines in Western eyes though we’ve tended to dumb it down into little more than excuses to find out what we did as incarnations of Cleopatra or Atlantean high priests. Hindus feared reincarnation because it meant another death – rather than “rebirth,” we should use “redeath” to describe how a Hindu saw the prospect of another life. Where Buddhism, Hinduism’s bastard child, rejected all heavens, hells and earths as mara, illusion, Hinduism contented itself with simply breaking the bonds of the earthly cycle of redeath and salvation in some heaven.
There’s a delineation of the meanings of “karma” that I found of interest (p. 168f.):
(1) action (any), from the verb “to do” (2) ritual action (Rg Veda) (3) morally significant action (Upanishads) (4) morally significant action that has consequences for future lives (5) the reverse of (4), actions that influence past lives (6) (4) and (5) type karma that can be transferred to others
Something else that Doniger brings up but doesn’t develop sufficiently in my opinion is the decline of the old gods (Indra, Agni, etc.) and the growth of devotional cults, primarily to Vishnu and Siva. I would have liked to know why these new gods rose to prominence. In that same vein, I also would have liked to see greater analysis of the meaning of “ahimsa.” This is another term known in the West but little understood in its native context. Doniger makes the tantalizing assertion that Gandhi’s interpretation of the term was something of an innovation but doesn’t develop it much beyond that. (In Doniger’s defense, she does include a 22-page bibliography of secondary sources that could be plumbed for further reading.)
Doniger notes that the “Bhagavad Gita” (an episode from the Mahabharata) outlined three paths to salvation: karma (in the sense of obeying dharma); jnana (faith), in relation to the renunciants’ ideal of moksha (release); and bhakti (devotion). From this emerges the idea of “karma without kama – action without desire. Arjuna can square his dharma as a kshatriya (warrior caste) with the karmic consequences of violence (all bad) by acting without desire. When done without desire, any action is without karmic impact. (At least that’s how I interpret Doniger’s interpretation.) The cynic in me sees this as justification for all sorts of mischief (“But, mom! I didn’t want to steal the cookie. It’s just the dharma of an 8-year-old!”).
One of Doniger’s major aims in the book is to look at Hinduism through the lens of the dispossessed, that is the pariah castes and women, and how the Brahmins responded to them. Not surprisingly, neither Dalits or women fared well under the strictures of Brahmanic thought but in Doniger’s eyes the three great shastras – the Manu, the Arthrashastra and the Kamasutra – reflected idealizations that did not mirror the reality of day-to-day life (p. 304f.).
Interesting culture factoid – the eight varieties of marriage:
(1) Brahma – father gives daughter away (2) Gods – father offers daughter to officiating priest in course of a sacrifice (3) Sages – father gives daughter away for a cow or a bull (4) The Lord of Creatures – father gives daughter away saying “May the two of you fulfill your dharma together (5) Asuras – man takes a woman from desire and pays family and girl (6) Centaurs – girl and lover join out of desire (7) Rakshasas – man carries off woman but doesn’t pay for her (essentially legitimized rape) (8) Ghouls – man has sex with a woman who’s asleep, drunk or insane (the ancient version of date rape)
Doniger touches on Tantrism with a useful anodyne to the stereotypical Western view of sexual orgies and perversions. She characterizes “tantrism” as an orthodox heresy. The doctrines were necessary to break the curse of untouchability. They were “training wheels” for people incapable of accepting the pure doctrines. The other justification for tantric ritual was that it drove the truly evil to the nadir of existence so that they could more quickly rise back up. In the end, Tantrism and the less heretical Puranic traditions helped to bring low-caste Hindus and outsiders into the fold and held out the possibility that their souls could be saved/released just like a high-caste Hindu’s. The original Brahmanic vision of the universe saw it as a finite thing with a finite amount of “good” and “evil” – for every person saved, another was doomed. Doniger argues that that limit was broken with tantrism and the Puranas. Salvation/release was infinite and potentially open to everyone.
From a historical perspective, Doniger’s discussion of the British Raj is fascinating. Essentially, the British coerced Hinduism into developing a unitary doctrine centered around a few texts (the “Bhagavad Gita,” primarily) and fostered the emergence of actively hostile and intolerant sects. The author, rightly, doesn’t lay all the blame on the poor English. Many Hindus through the ages were perfectly capable of xenophobia and rivalry without evil Europeans egging them on. I think her focus on the specifics of the British is that they’re the most recent culprits, the best documented and India is still coping with the world they created (p. 574f.).
To the bad: As I mentioned in a comment made while reading this book, Doniger tends to write in an annoyingly folksy style. Appropriate, perhaps, to a conversation at the local Starbuck’s or a blog but inappropriate, IMO, in a work such as this, even if it is directed to a general audience. It makes the first few chapters rather rough going. But when she focuses on a topic, Doniger can write with grace and insight. An example of this is contained in one of the more interesting sections of the book – her analysis of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. As an example of one of the points she makes there’s the observation that the parallel stories of Rama/Ravana and the monkey kings Sugriva/Valin adumbrates Freudian psychoanalysis and Shakespeare’s Arden by 2,000 years: The forest and its denizens reflect the subconscious desires of Rama and human civilization. Or there’s the observation that the Ramayana is a triumphal celebration of Brahmanic civilization while the Mahabharata questions every one of its assumptions but offers no good answers. (It shouldn’t surprise that versions of both epics circulate that refute Doniger’s conclusions.)
Despite my caveats, I would still recommend this to anyone interested in Indian culture/religion, or anthropological subjects in general. I’ve never been overly interested in Indian culture but this book is an accessible and overall good introduction, making a confusing landscape at least partially understandable....more
I figured I would throw that into the ring the first thing so that people reading this review would know exactly the perspective fromI am an atheist.
I figured I would throw that into the ring the first thing so that people reading this review would know exactly the perspective from which I’m writing. For the first 10 years of my life, I had only a passing acquaintance with religion at all. After my parents divorced, my mother began attending church again (St. Robert’s (Catholic) in St. Charles, MO, or – after it was built – St. Elizabeth’s in St. Peters on occasion). Even then, I was never under any serious pressure to believe. I guess mom felt that religion classes on Wednesday and church on Sunday would inculcate faith without any effort on her part. And she was right to an extent. Up through high school, I accepted what I was taught without much thought. Toward the end of high school and the beginning of college (where I was taking a number of religious-history courses), I began to lose that façade of belief. Until recently, however, I remained an agnostic. It’s in the last five years or so that I’ve dived off the fence and plunged whole-heartedly into depraved godlessness.^
I have my father to thank for not indoctrinating me in any particular faith. He was and remains largely religion free. (Though he attends church with my stepmother, I think it’s more for the social camaraderie than for the dogma. He’s an avid reader of books exploring the contradictions of faith and the events that may have shaped Biblical writings – some of those tomes supplied by me.) It was not always so. When he left high school he entered seminary to become a priest. To this day, he doesn’t discuss why he left after a year and returned home. Considering the nature of the scandals that have plagued the Church in the last few years, it’s easy to imagine what he may have heard, seen or endured to make him leave. On the other hand, my father is not one to pursue a fruitless course. It’s more likely – in his case – that he realized the priesthood was not for him, left seminary as soon as possible, and didn’t discuss it much with his family because they remained faithful to Rome and he didn’t want to hurt them.@
When I saw William Lobdell’s book at my library’s used-book sale, I was naturally intrigued by the title and immediately laid down my 50 cents to see what, if any, parallels I could find with his experience. Interestingly enough, not many. Like my own, Lobdell’s childhood and early adulthood were not particularly religious. However, his life took a decidedly less beneficent turn than my own. He became involved in drugs, he cheated on his girlfriend even after getting her pregnant, and his life was spiraling out of control. Until he found God. At this lowest point in his life, Lobdell found a group that discovered satisfaction, happiness and answers to life’s problems as a result of their faith. He embraced it and them, and did indeed climb out of the hole he had dug for himself. More accurately, I think, the author found a group of people who gave him the support he needed to turn his life around. That they happened to be evangelicals was beside the point (believers will take a wholly different view, one which Lobdell would have agreed with until his unconversion). Guided by his new found belief and supported by his new found congregation, Lobdell kicked the drugs, created a healthy relationship with his girlfriend (and subsequently, wife), and established a satisfying career as a journalist. In fact, he began writing a weekly column about the positive activities of various churches for the Los Angeles Times Orange County edition.+ This went on for several years but then the Jim Bakker scandal erupted, and the Jimmy Swaggart scandal, and the TBN scandal, and – most distressing for Lobdell – the sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. At the time when the first stories began coming out about pedophile priests and the bureaucracy that covered up their sins, Lobdell was in the midst of converting to Catholicism.
At no point does Lobdell deny the power of faith in a person’s life and acknowledges its own role in his redemption but he couldn’t square the activities of the Church and other spiritual leaders with the faith they preached. It went beyond accepting the fact that men (and women) were flawed and would sin. He asked whether or not a truly God-inspired ministry could sink to such depths of greed or sexual depravity. Surely, people called to the ministry would represent the better part of humanity and be able to resist the worst sins that humans were susceptible to. This led to study into the basis of faith and nonbelief and eventually to a repudiation of his own.
In my opinion, the most telling reason for Lobdell’s atheism – because it succinctly states a major reason for why I can’t believe – is an observation he makes midway through the book:
I felt angry with God for making faith such a guessing game. I didn’t treat my sons as God treated me. I gave them clear direction, quick answers, steady discipline and plenty of love. There was little mystery in our relationships, they didn’t have to strain to hear my “gentle whisper.” How to hear God, love Him and best serve Him shouldn’t be so open to interpretation. It shouldn’t be that hard. (pp. 160-1)
In the end, Lobdell characterizes himself as a reluctant atheist. He’d like to have faith in a higher power but he can’t reconcile what he feels and sees with the God of his early evangelical faith or of his Catholic training, and he sees no other faith with any better claim to knowing God. As he writes in the epilog:
I do miss my faith, as I’d miss any longtime love, and have a deep appreciation for how it helped me mature over 25 years. Even though I’ve come to believe my religion is based on a myth, its benefits are tangible and haven’t evaporated along with my faith….
To borrow Buddha’s analogy. I’ve just spent eight years crossing a river in a raft of my own construction, and I’m now standing on a new shore. My raft was not made of dharma, like Buddhism’s, but of things I gathered along the way: knowledge, maturity, humility, critical thinking and the willingness to face my world as it is, and not how I wish it to be. (p. 279)
I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in religion, in faith, in why we hold it and why we lose it.
^ Part and parcel with the radicalization of many of my beliefs as I grow older. I thought I was supposed to get more conservative as I approach senescence?
@ It’s thanks to my aunt that I know what little I do of my dad’s early years.
+ And not just Christian denominations. He emphasized the positive activities of all faiths – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc....more
Dedication: This review is dedicated to Kelly, my GR Friend, who has patiently and without complaint awaited my thoughts about the book. I take no resDedication: This review is dedicated to Kelly, my GR Friend, who has patiently and without complaint awaited my thoughts about the book. I take no responsibility for whether it was worth it.
It is unfortunate that the only other review of this book appears to be in Arabic because I would be interested in other people’s opinions of the work, especially from the Muslims, to whom the author wants to speak. Diner is “professor of modern history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and director of the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture at the University of Leipzig” (from the jacket blurb) and an advocate for the better qualities of Western civilization and modernity, “modernity” being a world view that believes humans are naturally curious, creative and inventive, and enshrines the values of individualism and self-direction. While modernism respects the sacred and communal dimensions of life, it separates them (particularly the spiritual) into distinct spheres. It’s this lack of a distinction in Islam that Diner believes has kept it economically and politically backward since the 15th century, when Western European (née Christian) civilization embarked on the ascendancy that it still enjoys (more or less) today.
Diner argues that among the world’s great religions, Islam (particularly Arab Muslims) has been the least successful in responding to modernity. Its failure to do so has condemned much of the Muslim world to appalling economic stagnation and squalor and political despotism. To overcome these manifest handicaps, Muslims must find a way to flourish in a contemporary context without sacrificing their faith. The author’s solution is a desacralization of Muslim culture. In other words, it needs to undergo a Reformation similar to that which transformed the society of Medieval Christendom (which was similar to modern Islam in its outlook) into that of the Modern Era – largely secular, with fairly clear limits between religion and mundane life.
“But there is no mention of secularization in the sense of a separation of spheres of life and social intercourse…. Secularization implies an endless process of definition, interpretation, negotiation, transformation, and conversion of the boundaries between the modes of inner life and the outer world. It also means the decoding and appropriation of the world by human reason. Religion as a system of belief impregnating societies hampers this process. This is especially true in the case of Islam, a religion of law that claims to regulate all spheres of life. The arrested development in the Muslim world can be diagnosed, then, as a deficit of secularization” (p. 17).*
While I’m in sympathy with Diner’s position, as it mirrors my own beliefs and reading, I can’t imagine that this position would garner much respect among believing Muslims. In effect, he’s saying, “Your faith’s got it all wrong, and it’s holding you back. Become more like the West and everything will get better.” Even if I were a secularized Muslim happily coping with the paradoxes of modernity and faith, I’d be offended; you can easily imagine the reactions of a more fervid believer. And that is my problem with Lost in the Sacred. Diner’s facts are evident. The Middle East and North Africa are economic basket cases, and their political systems are largely corrupt dictatorships and kleptocracies. Even the “best” of them – Egypt, Syria and Jordan, say – are dependant upon the whims of a ruler and his cronies. There is no long-term economic or political or legal security that would foster a more just culture. So too is it evident that a significant portion of blame lies at the feet of reactionary interpretations of Islamic law and the Quran (both modern and historic) but Diner’s solution just won’t fly. Islam is struggling with the consequences of modernity in all its manifestations (I would say that the West hasn’t come to terms with it) and it does need a “reformation” because retreat into fear-driven fundamentalism offers no solution.
I have little contact with the latest trends in Islamic intellectual and religious currents but I do get the sense from what little I have had that there are any number of voices that are finding ways to integrate the Quran, Sharia law, social tradition, and modernity in innovative ways without sacrificing faith, which seems to me a more fruitful and potentially successful path than the one Diner advocates.
All that having been said, is Diner’s book worth reading? Yes, of course it is! You may disagree with the solution but the problems of Arab Islam as laid out in its six chapters are real, and it’s important that all, Muslim and non-Muslim, should understand the elements that impede progress toward a more just society.**
The jumping off point for Diner’s thesis is the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) – a yearly assessment of the state of the Arab world. It’s compiled by native sociologists, political scientists, economists and cultural scholars and, in the 2002 report, identified five areas of concern:
1. Stagnant economies 2. Restricted freedoms 3. Declining levels of education 4. Restrictions on science and technological development 5. Abysmal human rights records (esp. regarding women)
The efforts of Middle Eastern regimes to import Western technology have ignored and tried to suppress the concomitant social, economic and political changes that fostered and emerged from those technological developments. There is no public sphere for debate, criticism or accountability, and power and wealth are controlled by a tiny oligarchy. Since there is no separation between politics and economics, there’s no stability that might foster long-term growth.
The most familiar attempt by Islam to accommodate modernity is Kemal Ataturk’s creation of the Turkish state. Despite pressures from its religious community, Turkey remains the most secularized, most Western state in the region, and – from a Western point of view – remains the most “successful,” however that term is defined. Ataturk’s experiment created a backlash (in part, an anti-Western/anti-colonialism reaction but one can never underestimate the Arab loathing of the Turks as usurpers). All of these efforts were characterized by a desire to return to an “uncorrupted, pure Islam.” The Indian Mawdudi denied any comparison between the West and Islam and called upon believers to rely solely on the Quran and Sharia. Of even greater influence was Hasan al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood. Diner writes of his views: “The way out of the decadence of Arab and Muslim societies…passes through awareness of original pure, uncorrupted Islam, an Islam freed from the burden of the interpretations piled up by theologians across the centuries, an Islam that rejects all writings that have appeared in the interim, basing itself solely on the Koran (sic), the Sunna, and their classical interpreters” (p. 58). And explains Sayyid Qutb’s, the philosopher of the movement, views: “Islam depicts a self-contained, divine truth that cannot…be compared with the knowledge-fixated culture of the West and the modernity it had spawned. Muslims live in a timeless temporal order imbued with the sacred, for which any historical conception of time is anathema. Everything is laid down in the Koran and Sunna. An alteration is…heresy. Compromises or adaptations to other worldviews are to be resisted by all means” (p. 62).
Chapter 3 – “Test and Speech” – argues that classical Arabic, the language of the Quran, is sacred, complex and is not allowed to adapt as a living language. Since the regional dialects by and large have no literature, it’s difficult to express modern concepts in an acceptable medium, and to work in academics, one needs to learn and write in a second language (shades of Medieval Europe vis-à-vis Latin).
Emblematic of Islam’s technological retardation is the printing press. In the West, the printing press was ubiquitous by 1500, only two generations after its invention. By contrast, the first printing press in the Ottoman Empire began in 1727, and the printing of sacred texts was forbidden. Also, significantly, the press was controlled by the central government, and subject to the resulting censorship. In the West, the press sparked the Reformation, inspired vernaculars and political involvement, and made knowledge (theoretically) accessible to everyone. In Muslim lands, “Islamic civilization remained committed to an orally transmitted culture based on scripture” (p. 73). Diner makes the point that Islam has always been chary of the written word. “True” knowledge is transmitted orally and memorized – “all written texts other than the Quran are the object of intense suspicion” (p. 75).***
Briefly, chapter 4 details the economic stagnation that set in when the Old World was flooded with the wealth of the New. Diner writes that it reduced Ottoman revenues by 60% - a devastating blow to any economy – but that the Turks were unable to adopt political or economic policies that could compete with capitalism.
I’m fascinated by Diner’s explanation for why the Ottomans failed to adapt, and I understand the distaste they expressed for Western methods: Istanbul remained committed to a morally grounded economic order. The West embraced the idea that states were referees of markets controlled by private interests whose guiding ethos was maximum productivity at maximum profit without regard for social consequences or the well being of the have-nots.
Chapter 5 touches upon three things mentioned in the book earlier but now explored in detail. The first is the different conceptions of public and private space in Western (i.e., Roman) law and Sharia. The clear, precise distinction in Roman law between public and private property is not found in Islam, where the natural tendency for private interests to trump public utility occurs frequently. Since law was also the sphere of the imams, every aspect of legality was sacred; the notion of a separate canon law (of the Church) and a secular law never developed.
The second idea is the Western concept of time as a factor in its material success. Western time is abstract, regulated and independent of nature. Eastern time remained “agricultural” – defined by seasons, the rising of sun and moon, etc. – and not conducive to fixing recurrent events or regulating human activities in a factory.
The final thing is what Diner says is the fundamental difference between Western society and Islamic, and deserves to be quoted in full:
“The Western notion that a person’s personal integrity has to be protected from injury by immediate public intervention, and the Muslim command to encourage what is right and forbid what is wrong – these seek to protect different goods. In the first, harm to a person must be prevented; in the second, a sin against God must be averted. In the context of Western civilization, intervention is called for when a person … is threatened. In the Muslim context, it is less a matter of the person than of preventing damage to the umma (the community of believers). Damage is considered to have been inflicted when no concrete harm to a person results. The fact that in Islam conduct can be harmful, even if no one has been concretely harmed by it, can mean only one thing. God is present among men. It is the presence…of God that leads Muslim social life being steeped in the sacred” (p. 152).
Chapter six continues with the theme of sacred and profane time, and introduces the author’s final nuance on his argument. For nearly its entire history, Islam has been the dominant partner in its relationships with its neighbors. There were minor set backs – the Crusades, the Reconquista, the Norman states in Italy and Sicily (and a very brief one in North Africa) – but they never impinged on Islam’s core belief in its superiority. That belief has been shaken and Islam is still trying to deal with the question “What is the place of Islam in the context of a world where Muslims live in non-Muslim societies?”
I don’t think Diner’s solution to Islam’s woes adequately addresses the problems. It’s becoming evident that the amoral, short-term exploitative practices of Western modernity are bankrupt. There’s no question that they’ve made life better for a relatively small segment of the human race but at the price of destroying the long-term capacity of the planet. (Make no mistake, I’m very happy taking advantage of in-door plumbing, penicillin and the Internet, and I’d like to believe that we can find some way to retain all the advantages of the modern world but not at the expense of the planet and a majority of humans who aren’t benefiting from it. It’s not going to happen, however, by adopting the ethos of our English mercantilist ancestors.)
* This sentence is an example of one of the stylistic flaws that crops up while reading this book. Diner has an unfortunate tendency to drop into the jargon of sociology. The sentence above is one of the milder offenses to grammatical aesthetics. The worst, probably, is the following: “Unless we reflect on the asymmetries of simultaneous nonsimultaneity in the periodization of history, and so agree to relativize the impact of European-cum-Western periodizations on historical thought, the construction of world history as a universal timeline accommodating different cultures and civilizations and their multiple reciprocities will be difficult to achieve” (p. 157).
** I realize, having written this sentence, that in the eyes of a Taliban or al-Qaida member they are working (and fighting) for a more just society – one that goes back to that mythical first community under the Prophet when Muslims lived only one remove from the divine Word of God. But that society never existed. I may be suffering to some extent from Western arrogance in believing that individualism and self-direction are moral goods but I’m also speaking from the point of view expressed in a recent book I read by the Dalai Lama, Becoming Enlightened – teachings that do not lead to greater peace and happiness are wrong. Afghanistan under the Taliban (1996-2001) was not a better place (Afghanistan under our puppets is no better but that’s a whole ‘nuther shelf of books). Iran under the clerics is not more peaceful or happier.
*** I’m reminded here of the (probably) apocryphal tale of the Arab general who conquered Alexandria. He wrote back to the Caliph about what to do with the great Library. The Caliph wrote back to destroy it since any writings that concurred with the Quran were superfluous and any that did not were anathema. I’m also reminded of the episode Qanta Ahmed recounts in In the Land of Invisible Women A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom, where she meets a young woman who had attained a special status because she had memorized the Quran (note, not that she necessarily understood it or had commented on it but only that she could parrot it back without error)....more
In Eve: A Novel of the First Woman I was hoping to read a provocative account of the Abrahamic religions' mythical genetrix. Unfortunately, it's a faiIn Eve: A Novel of the First Woman I was hoping to read a provocative account of the Abrahamic religions' mythical genetrix. Unfortunately, it's a fairly predictable, by-the-numbers, Christian apologia. I will give Elliott points for making Eve's and Adam's succumbing to Lucifer's temptations plausible but all the major characters - Adam, Eve, Abel, Cain, and the daughters Naava, Aya and Dara - are too broadly drawn and are "types" rather than real people. Elliott also can't seem to decide whether the Creation myths are real or not. Adam and Eve awaken in the Garden and do meet Elohim (Elliott's name for God), who claims to have created them, but 20 years or so after the banishment, the struggling family encounters a whole passel of Sumerians building the city of Inanna. People who have been around for generations and already have a highly advanced civilization. The theology is reminiscent of Job: Man is created to glorify God and it's presumption to question his word. As a nonbeliever, the reliance on Christian (and Jewish or Muslim, for that matter) dogma didn't detract from the believability of the novel. What bothered me was the matter above - either accept the Creation as largely true and go from there or resolve how the story was created within the context of the emergence of urban civilizations.
Elliott's not a bad writer, though obviously not an experienced one. I hope her talent grows with any subsequent novels, but I doubt I'll want to read anything else from her pen....more
In King Jesus Graves exploits every contradiction in the canonical Gospels, the Apocrypha, Jewish tradition and Gnostic writings and combines it with pre-Hellenic religious traditions to write the "real story" of Jesus' ministry. Graves makes no concession to later Christian mythology. Jesus believes he is a Jewish Messiah sent to "destroy the works of the Female" (more of that later). Other nations may be saved but it would be under the hegemony of a Jewish savior of a restored Israel.
The book purports to be written by Agabus the Decapolitan during the reign of Domitian (AD 81-96); a pagan who once succored a follower of Jesus during one of the persecutions. This source vouchsafed to Agabus the real story because he believed himself to be the last survivor and wanted to preserve the true tradition of who Jesus was and why he acted as he did. I don't know if Agabus is a historical figure; knowing Graves' exhaustive research into obscure texts, he may very well be but he's a believable narrator for the story: disinterested but sympathetic. Graves also makes it a point to relate the story through the eyes of a first century AD, educated citizen of the Roman Empire. Agabus is not an atheist or skeptic, he worships his gods and accepts that Jesus could, for example, raise a man from the dead by uttering God's true name or heal people based on his own strong faith and the faith of his followers.
The first part of the book recounts the birth of Mary, her life and Jesus' birth. It would be too confusing to recount all the background but suffice it to say that Mary is the scion of the matrilineal line of high priestesses displaced by the patriarchal worshipers of the Sky Father who overran the Middle East and among whom are the ancestors of the Jews. This displacement was not total, however. For millennia, the invading patriarchs have had to win legitimacy by marrying the priestesses and honoring the goddess (in her many manifestations). This is where Christians may get "nervous": In order to legitimize the Herodian dynasty, the Jewish High Priest of the time (Simon) concocts a scheme whereby Herod's first son, Antipater, weds Mary and their issue will reign as a king acceptable to the entire Jewish nation. The first half of the plan goes well: Mary and Antipater are secretly married and he manages to get her pregnant with Jesus. Publicly, Mary is wed to the septegenarian Joseph of Emmaus. After this, alas, things fall apart. Antipater is not the most politically savvy operator and falls afoul of his father's raging paranoia, forcing Joseph, Mary and Jesus to flee to Egypt.
Part two of the novel recounts Jesus' childhood. Here Graves follows the traditional narrative fairly closely but motives and reasons are very different - Jesus' mentors are grooming him to become the Messiah and he's fully cognizant of the role he's destined to play, if not it's exact form. This section ends with Jesus' marriage to another Mary, also an heiress to the ancient priestesses, and his laming, symbolic of his position as the Goddess' consort. There's also an extended scene with yet another Mary, the Hairdresser (aka the Magdalene), an old priestess, where she and Jesus debate radically different interpretations of the ancient tablets on which the Jews base their Law:
"Mary said: `See where my Mistress, the First Eve, is seated on her birth-stool under the palm-tree. The people are awaiting a great event, for the pangs are upon her.'
"Swiftly, Jesus answered her: `No, witch, that is not the First Eve: that is Deborah judging the Israelites under the palm-tree of Deborah. For so it is written.'" (p. 251)
Denied political power, Jesus comes to see his Messiahship in a far more symbolic and important light: Rising beyond the flesh (the Female) and bringing an era of spiritual enlightenment that will free men and women from carnality and the snares of the flesh. Women aren't to be excluded from the Kingdom but they and men can only enter by denying the flesh - becoming neither male nor female.
Part three follows Jesus' ministry as he preaches to the Jews. Again Graves follows the traditional narrative on the surface but motivations are very different. From confidence in the success of his mission and the coming of the Kingdom, Jesus knows despair and realizes that he has failed - he tried to "hurry" God's dispensation, the sin of pride and presumption. He tries to redeem the situation by getting Judas (the most perceptive of the Apostles) to slay him as the traditional sacrifice but Judas doesn't want to kill Jesus, his friend and teacher, and betrays him to the Jewish authorities on the understanding that Jesus' supporters in the Sanhedrin (Pharisees, mostly) will save him. Again, plans go awry and it's a Sadducee-dominated quorum that turns him over to the Romans. Peter is Jesus' last hope but he can't understand what Jesus wants and uses his sword to try and defend him in the famous garden scene where he cuts off a soldier's ear. (Of course, it doesn't help that Jesus is less than straightforward in asking his disciples for help.)
Hopefully, this barebones account of this remarkable book will encourage readers to check it out. Beyond its provocative subject matter, it's a good novel in its own right. And I'll take this opportunity to highly recommend Paula Frederickson's Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity. It's a nonfictional perspective on "the greatest story ever told" that tries to make sense of Jesus' life in the context of 1st century Palestine and does so in a very persuasive argument....more
What the Koran Really Says is a collection of papers representing critical assessments of the Koran in a variety of areas – Introduction; Background;What the Koran Really Says is a collection of papers representing critical assessments of the Koran in a variety of areas – Introduction; Background; A Question of Language; Sources of the Koran: Essenian, Christian, Coptic; Suras, Suras, Suras; Emendations, Interpolations; Richard Bell: Introduction and Commentary; Poetry and the Koran; and Manuscripts.
This is definitely a volume for the specialist – someone with a pretty extensive background in the subject and a grasp of Arabic (and Semitic languages in general). None of which I have in any great abundance. Which is not to say that there aren’t articles here of interest to the generalist. Many, however, assume a breadth of knowledge the average reader will not have.
Thus I wandered, lost, in many articles (e.g., the paleographic treatise “The Problem of Dating the Early Qur’ans”). For the uninitiated there were some fascinating papers, though. Warraq’s introduction, for example, offers an overview of Koranic studies since the middle of the 19th century; and shows how, despite the claims of the faithful, the Koran is anything but the “clear” (mubin) Word of God. Not only is it unclear now whether the Arabic it’s written in was ever actually spoken but, like its rival Christian and Jewish scriptures, it’s replete with obscure and confusing text. A circumstance even its earliest, Muslim commentators wrestled with.
Franz Rosenthal’s “Some Minor Problems in the Qur’an” struggles with problems of interpretation in some very important suras – primarily Sura 9, which lays the basis for collecting the jizya, the tax levied against the People of the Book. The phrase an yadin, which occurs in the verse, resists adequate translation and even its meaning in the Arabic has stumped commentators for centuries. The following paper, Claude Cahen’s “Koran X.29,” suggests that it refers to a rite of submission but admits that there’s no textual or anthropological evidence for it. As I learned, many scholars have come to the conclusion that many of our problems stem from the fact that the suras’ original contexts were long since forgotten by the time the first commentaries were written.
James Bellamy’s “Some Proposed Emendations to the Text of the Koran” questions the fanatical resistance to changing any word in the received text, even when an error is obvious. Bellamy quotes Uthman (the third caliph), who, when he noted mistakes in the text, said, “Don’t correct them for the Bedouin Arabs will correct them with their tongues.” Bellamy argues that this intransigence does a disservice to the text and to believers’ understanding of their religion as it has forced subsequent commentators to do linguistic somersaults and concoct far-fetched explanations for nonsensical passages. Passages which become perfectly clear and meaningful when one realizes that a copyist forgot a stroke or added one too many. It’s of interest to compare this attitude with Christians’ and Jews’ attitudes toward their respective scriptures. By and large, Christians and Jews have actively sought the best reading of their Bibles; in fact, there’s a cottage industry that aggressively scours various editions and translations. It will be interesting to see if a similar spirit takes root in Muslim scholarship.
The final half of Ibn Rawandi’s essay “On Pre-Islamic Christian Strophic Poetical Texts in the Koran: A Critical Look at the Work of Gunter Luling” brings up the recent spate of revisionist histories (mainly Western in origin, I gather) that argue against the traditional story of Islam’s origins. Some of the more radical notions include the idea that Islam arose in northern Arabia, in towns bordering the Roman and Persian empires, between AD 650 and 800; that “rasul Muhammad” was a title and no one man named Muhammad ever lived; or that Islam is an offshoot of a heretical Christian sect (or a Jewish one). Fascinating stuff, though I can see how even a moderate, believing Muslim might become uncomfortable with the fundamental questions being asked (it’s akin to a Christian reading about how Jesus Christ never existed and Paul invented Christianity – yes, the theory’s out there). But as the author quotes Pascal – “There is always enough evidence for those who want to believe, and never enough for those who do not.” In my opinion, as long as questions are posed in the respectful, scholarly atmosphere of these papers, it shouldn’t cause offense. After all, it’s the message, not the medium that matters, whether the Word came from a south Arabian trader, a Jewish rabbi, the Son of God, or some other prophet.
But I wax too philosophical for a simple book review.
Weighing in at 744 pages of text and due to its specialized audience, I can’t really recommend this to anyone though the notes and bibliographies might be mined for further study. ...more
This is an interesting look at the eastern arm of the Christian church, which survived for a thousand years under non-Christian polities (largely MuslThis is an interesting look at the eastern arm of the Christian church, which survived for a thousand years under non-Christian polities (largely Muslim) and, arguably, flourished up through the 14th century AD. Only because of the vagaries of history (or the inscrutable machinations of God, depending upon one's point of view) did Western and Orthodox Christianity survive, that survival feeding the myths that the heterodox sects were suppressed by the Romans and that there were no Christians of any number outside of the empire. In fact, there were any number of Christians outside of the empire and in those darks days when Western Europe lay under the hands of the "barbarians" and the Eastern Romans were busy just trying to survive the Saracen onslaught, they enjoyed a vibrant intellectual life and greatly influenced the early Islamic empire both politically and theologically. Beyond that, they managed to evangelize as far afield as China and were influential presences in some of the most surprising places - like the courts of Mongol conquerors and Indian rajahs. Beginning around AD 1300, give or take a few decades, these communities began to disappear; Jenkins chronicles their survival and offers some reasons for their eventual destruction. (They were not entirely exterminated in many cases, however, but the believers had to go underground and avoid the attention of the governing polity.)
This is a very slim volume (only 262 pages of text) for the amount of ground it covers (over a 1,000 years of history and lands stretching from Gibraltar to Japan) so the reader is often left hungry for more information for just about every era Jenkins touches upon, especially as to causes since Jenkins is quite good at recognizing the variety of events that nurtured or killed Christian communities. For example, the disappearance of the North African church after AD 700 involved no large scale massacres of believers or serious persecutions but by 800, it's as if Augustine and Tertullian had never existed. In contrast, the Coptic church in Egypt commanded the alliegiance of a large minority of the population for centuries. It was finally broken only after generations of discrimination, persecution and the occasional pogrom.
The chapters "How Faiths Die" and "The Mystery of Survival" are provocative examinations of how beliefs live and die. For the believer of any stripe, some of Jenkins' conclusions may be a bit uncomfortable: There is no guarantee that any religion will survive no matter how successful it may appear at a given moment and some religions that appear "dead" can rebound spectacularly (consider that in AD 800, no one would have predicted that Western Europe and Christianity would be the dominant culture and faith a thousand years later; based on political and intellectual success alone, it should have been Islam).
The chapter "Ghosts of Faith" is an equally provocative look at the eastern Christian roots or influences on Muslim practices and beliefs, particularly among the Sufis. Jenkins even brings up the extremely tendentious argument that the Quran derives from Syriac Christian liturgies and gospels. While I have no brief for any particular scripture, I should note that Jenkins does seem to go out of his way to emphasize, perhaps overemphasize, the Christian influences on Islam.
On the whole, though, Jenkins is very balanced in his treatment of the various religious traditions. He is, after all, chronicling Christian disasters and the "villains" are often Muslims but he's careful to point out that some "deaths" stemmed from non-religious causes and that every religion has been guilty of discrimination and massacre.
While not, perhaps, a "must read," Jenkins is a welcome and interesting look at yet another aspect of history largely ignored in our assessments of the past and especially apropos considering current relations between the self-proclaimed children of Israel and Ishmael....more
Barbara King argues in this book that humans evolved a need to believe in something that transcended physical reality and the concrete bonds between iBarbara King argues in this book that humans evolved a need to believe in something that transcended physical reality and the concrete bonds between individuals within family and tribal groups, and that this need is expressed as “religion.” “Religion” is a fairly slippery term but for purposes of her argument, King defines it as “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” (based on Clifford Geertz’s definition) (p. 18) Thus, it’s possible to encompass the first evidence of ritual in hominid life as well as the most involved theology of a literate, urban, 21st century civilization.
Much of the book is taken up with finding evidence for the four cognitive abilities that King believes form the basis from which religion springs: the primate need to belong (expressed by the awkward “belongingness”).
“Empathy” – the ability to walk a mile in another’s shoes – is the first characteristic, and King points to many examples (not just among primates) in the animal kingdom. The second ability is “meaning-making,” which is an animal’s ability to convey meaning through gestures, vocalizations, posture, etc. Primates are quite good at this – humans most of all. Not only do we make meaning about immediate events (e.g., “stop messin’ with my girl,” “I’m hungry,” “ha, ha, ha, that’s funny”) but we impute deeper purposes to things (e.g., “this ring means he loves me,” “God caused our crops to fail because we failed to obey the Law”). The third factor is the ability to make and enforce rules. Humans are, again, masters at this but King presents evidence for rudimentary rule-making in our ape cousins. The final pillar upon which “belongingness” (and hence religion) rests is the capacity to imagine. There’s some really fascinating information here about chimpanzees imagining companions and toys that reveal just how narrow the gap between us and other animals is. (pp. 56-58) All these come together to make us (primates) the quintessential social animal.
At this point in the book, King is on pretty solid, if still largely theoretical, ground. She’s extremely careful not to overly anthropomorphize nonhuman behavior – after all, can we really know that a chimp is “imagining” a toy or “mourning” the death of a group member? – but it’s unlikely human cognition is so qualitatively different from other animals that similar behaviors don’t reflect similar responses. (Here let me inject a personal anecdote: I have cats. Usually, they treat me as one of their own – curling up with me, napping with me, even grooming me. But when I’m sick, they leave me alone. They don’t abandon me but they refrain from the usual jumping on my stomach or grooming or kneading until I’m better. Granted this may not be empathic compassion but it does appear to reflect a cognitive parallel.)
The rest of the book is an examination of hominid evolution, looking for evidence of “belongingness” and religion. As one might expect, there’s precious little that even hints at this before Neandertal. And even this is extremely late. From my readings elsewhere, I gather that evidence of ritual among the Neandertal is sketchy and often found in temporal and/or physical proximity to modern humans. (So Neandertal were excellent mimics but not innovators. Even if they did assimilate sapiens technology, it’s anyone’s guess who they interpreted it.)
The following are some interesting and, I think, important insights found in the book:
Despite a relative lack of imagination and innovation, there is evidence that Neandertal and other pre-sapiens hominids had diverse cultures: bear cults at Regourdou, deep-cave activities at Bruniquel or cannibalism at Moula-Guercy. (pp. 122-126) There’s evidence for this among modern chimps, as well – some of whom use a particular toolkit while others in similar environments do not.
Sedentism and communal living preceded agriculture but when human societies began that fundamental switch to farming, a qualitative change occurred that transformed religion. King only touches on this, mentioning the enormous temple complex found at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey that’s at least 10,000 years old.
The relationship between socialization, religion, “belongingness” and all the other components that make up human cognition and culture is not linear but a complex interaction that involves a little understood system of feedback and mutually reinforcing relationships.
In her chapter “Is God in the Genes,” King makes a very strong case that there is no “God gene.” There isn’t even a package of genes that make us religious. At most, our genome predisposes us to act and perceive in certain ways expressed spiritually and in religion.
Ultimately, though, King doesn’t push her argument into speculation about the separate reality of a god-gods-spirits. I get the impression that she personally wants to believe in something beyond mere existence and fears pushing her evidence to the logical, scientific conclusion. I believe King makes a good case for the four bases of “belongingness” (heck, Aristotle argued the same thing 2-1/2 millennia ago) but she hasn’t convinced me that they ultimately form the basis for religion. Nor has she answered the question “Is religion our brain’s attempt to understand a universe where god-gods-spirits really exist or is it the byproduct of our need to belong carried to an irrational and unjustified extreme?” (viz, Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos, where he fictionally tackles the same question)
I’m more convinced by the arguments of David Lewis-Williams in Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods, where he argues that the brain processes sensory input that our consciousness interprets and organizes into insights, ritual and religion. That is to say, religion is an outgrowth, an accident, of cognition reflecting no external reality. (I don’t know if Lewis-Wallace believes this personally but that’s all that we can conclude based on presently available evidence.)
In sum, this is an interesting book and definitely recommended to those interested in the “religious” sensibility and human evolution....more