Friday, February 01, 2008

Religion and me

This blog has proven to be quite eclectic. Some would say that the diversity reflects my grasshopper tendency, repeatedly revealed as I move unexpectedly from topic to topic. Two or three years ago I drew up a list of my intellectual interests. There are over a hundred themes, ranging from ancient Egypt and Greek philosophy to Le Corbusier and Karl Popper. Not all of these have found a place in this blog--at least not yet.

The extreme variegation of my interests doubtless limits the readership of my blog. But then most blogs have a limited audience anyway. If my resolve holds out, I will try to collect some clusters of these pieces and present them systematically. I have already done this colligation with my work on the homosexual vocabulary, now fully ready and accessible at

One area that could benefit from this amalgamation is religion, specifically the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Objection has already been made that I am not an expert in this field. Well, I wasn’t, and am not, an expert, in linguistics, but I forged ahead on Homolexis--with significant results, I think.

Just as war is too important to be left to generals, so religion is too important to be left to theologians. The matter is timely. One sees this timeliness in three important ways these days: the resurgence of Islamism in many parts of the world; the persistence of evangelicalism and Creationism, especially in the US; and the countercurrent of the new atheists, represented by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, among others.

So religion--at least in the form of the three faiths mentioned--is topical. It is more than that, because the phenomenon can deeply affect our lives, whether we are believers or not. Sometimes this effect is socially progressive, as in the work of Martin Luther King, who derived great strength from the Bible in his challenging quest to secure basic civil rights for African-American--and indeed for all of us. More often, though, religion seems to lead to conflict and bitterness, witness the troubles in Northern Ireland and the tense relations between India and Pakistan. There is also the confrontation with modern science that believers, some of them at least, are unwisely courting with their adoption of Creationism.

My involvement with religion is indeed curious. No one would have predicted it from my early years. My parents were atheists, who also belonged to a far-left political sect. They took it for granted that “progressives” like themselves would have no use for religion, whether organized or not. The only time I was ever taken to church was for my grandmother’s funeral when I was six. Our home did not contain a Bible. In their view, religion was inevitably destined for the proverbial ash-heap of history.

I hasn’t turned out that way, at least not so far. The fifties were a time that saw a good deal of religion-brandishing. Some thought that in order to oppose Communism we would need an ideology of our own, and that this belief system must be religiously tinged. As I came to discard my parents’ far-left views, I was exposed to this trend. I was also influenced by conversations with friends who had religious attachments. I visited a few churches, and briefly contemplated become a Catholic. Nothing came of this flirtation, thank goodness.

In college I discovered the field of art history, being drawn to both modern and medieval art. I settled for the latter. This choice meant that I would of necessity be concerned with religion, if only at second hand. I never took a course in religion itself, nor did I read modern theology (which was then, I later learned, going through a particularly fertile period). Some of my friends recommended Søren Kierkegaard. Yet I was never able to get a purchase on the Danish thinker. This fizzle, so to speak, was, I now think, because my friends were reading Kierkegaard as a way of distancing themselves from the religious beliefs in which they had been brought up. I had no religious background to escape from. I was seeking to get closer--but not too close.

In grad school in the early sixties I chose an illuminated Romanesque bible as my Ph.D. thesis subject. The volume was in London, and I looked forward to moving there (as I indeed did for a while). I recognized that interpreting the miniatures (it was their quality as art that had first drawn me to the book) required some understanding of medieval theology and hermeneutics. As I settled into the work, I began to read widely in Biblical studies. For the first time, I encountered the critical-historical school (sometimes known colloquially as the Higher Criticism), and came to accept its reallocation of the Biblical texts. Still I set this knowledge aside, as my effort was to interpret works from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, whose creators had accepted the allegorical reading of the Bible.

I went on to a successful career teaching medieval art (as well as the art of several other periods). I would utilize my biblical studies selectively in these presentations. but was never accused of proselytizing.

During the many years I researched and taught medieval art, I felt that it was incumbent on me to look at the works through medieval eyes. This was so in order that I might beter understand them and present them to my students. This centering meant accepting, at least as a kind of “supreme fiction” the allegorical approach that had been dominant since Early Christian times. (It was only to be ousted with the triumph of the Higher Criticism a century and a half ago.) Another standard assumption was that the significance of the Hebrew Bible lay mainly in ranking as an enormous prologue to the Christian Scriptures. It was the Old Testament in short. Today, those who are savvy in these matters prefer to speak of the Hebrew Bible or the Tanakh. The new (and I think correct) approach holds that those documents, very heterogeneous as they are, must be studied in the light of assumptions internal to them, and not treated as anticipations of something quite different.

While I approve of this de-Christianizing of the Hebrew Bible, I find that some Jewish scholars today are having a field-day in beating a dead horse. What they fail to realize is that much valuable scholarship, including the foundational discovery of the Documentary Hypothesis, stems from scholars who accepted the idea of the Old Testament. As always, one must evaluate a theory by its intrinsic merits and not by its origin. When Jewish scholars say, as some do, that they will disregard the Dcoumentary Hypothesis because of its “Christian” origins, they are evading the issue. Is the Documentary Hypothesis now an established truth? I believe that it is.

In my art-history teaching the emphasis was different, for I sought to show the fertility of the Bible in Western art. After all, this inspiration dominated our art through the end of the eighteenth century. Understanding the iconography, the subject matter of most major painitngs and sculptures required analysis of texts. And those texts were commonly found in Scripture, as well as such offshoots as commentaries and the Lives of the Saints. There was a similar, though perhaps less strong imprint in the various modern literatures of Europe.

All this while, I was aware of the critique of the Bible as a product of a pre-modern mentality--of a world of superstition in short. I thought, though, that much art, whether ancient Egyptian, ancient Greek, Hindu, or tribal, is bound up with superstition. The old Enlightenment scorn for “priestcraft” and all its works amounted, as far as my task was concerned, as a kind of systematic vandalism.

During the seventies my interests began to shift from art history to gay studies. Applying this approach to the Bible, I concluded that there was simply no way of whitewashing the key antihomosexual passages. These were few, but had done tremendous damage. This venom was part of a huge pharmacy of poisons. I came to see that the Bible had damaged other groups as well--all those classified as heretics, or who somehow resisted the dogmas that prevailed in the part of the world where they happened to live.

Reluctantly, I have come a considerable distance in acknowledging that Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens were right in emphasizing the destructive heritage of the three Abrahamic faiths, rooted as they are in their “holy” scriptures. Rescue archaeology, seeking to recover the wisdom therein embedded, came to seem more and more quixotic, given the enormous evil these documents and their “peoples of the book” have unleashed.

The relationship of the three Scriptures is complex. Yet one point must be emphasized here. There is tremendous arrogance in those who hold that the Bible is integrally inspired, the “word of God.” This comment applies not just to Evangelicals, but to many observant Jews. As the creators of the first and longest of the three Scriptures, shouldn’t Jews pause to reflect on the evil they have, directly and indirectly, inflicted on the world.? Some secular Jews do so. Yet a more pervasive expression of regret would be more appropriate.

In their uncritical Torah-worship observant Jews would seem to be part of the problem not part of the solution. Speaking of the Torah (the Written Torah, that is) it is odd that Judaism should hold the most primitive part of their Bible, that is the Pentateuch, in the highest regard. The god depicted there, Yahweh, is a malign and preposterous figure.

As an equal-opportunity offender, let me turn now to Islam, In my formative years I developed a certain affinity for Islamic culture. This was imprinted on my in the first instance by a vogue for “Arabian Nights” movies. I remember with particular vividness the Alexander Korda version of “The Thief of Bagdad.”

Later, when I could afford it, I traveled in Islamic countries, and developed some knowledge of Islamic art (though my knowledge of the Arabic language always remained on the tourist level).

This interest was both revitalized and devitalized by 9/11. I read the Koran for the first time--hard sledding, even though the book is relatively brief. I also became aware of body of revisionist scholarship on early Muslim history and the Koran. For the first time, these scholars applied the historical-critical method to the prime documents of Islam. Things were not as they seemed, at least to these scholars. Muhammad was a military leader in North Arabia, who may never have seen Mecca and Medina. The Koran was only compiled some 150 years after its reputed date of composition. And so forth. I reported some of these findings on my blog. The various books edited by Ibn Warraq are the best way to access this revisionist critique.

About the same time I read some major works of the Minimalist biblical scholars, who have questioned the credibility of the so-called historical books of the Hebrew Bible, suggesting that the Exodus and the kingdom of David and Solomon may never have existed.

All this began to congeal in a new fashion. I was no longer concerned with the textual details of the Scriptures. Moreover, since I had retired, I no longer had to expound, as sympathetically as possible, the influence of the Bible on works of art.

So I turned to an effort to draw up a balance sheet of all three “holy books”: the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Koran. I began with the hope that I could separate out the wheat from the chaff, so as to isolate the authentic cores of wisdom and insight preserved in all three traditions. In this endeavor I would differ from the radical rejectionism of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and the other New Atheists.

To change metaphors, it seemed to me that the New Atheists were seeking to throw out the baby with the bath. Advancing further in my intellectual journey, though, I have come to wonder whether there even is a baby. The foundational documents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are so pervaded by hatred, intolerance, and superstition, that the worthwhile material--much smaller in extent than I had expected--is effectively drowned out.

I am not sure, then, that it is worth applying the flensing techniques of the Jefferson approach to the Hebrew Bible and the Koran. Not much would be left.

And maybe, just maybe, my parents were right all the while.


Anonymous said...

Ah. Don't give up on faith just yet. I moved to the US a few years ago from not so far away. Let me tell you, the type of Christianity (that's the faith I'm most familiar with) practiced in this country is not universal. There is a distinct church culture--and I'm sure this pervades both Islam and Judaism as well--that tends to cloud the redemptive waters, so to speak.

Is my faith intolerant? Yes. Theocratic religions, by nature, tend to be. I don't feel compelled to act out that intolerance: I'm not the source of it, the center of my faith is. The right has been reserved, and not to me.

In the end, I think religion is a poor excuse, and rarely a legitimate one, for conflict. In the translated words of Pascal, If God does not exist, one loses nothing by believing in him. If he does exist, one will lose everything by not believing.

That, I think, is the compelling nature of faith. One has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.

12:08 AM  

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