Sunday, May 22, 2011

Revelation and Reason?

One of the things that really fascinates me about contemporary literalist Christianity, when one goes native, when one views literal Christianity from the standpoint of a literalist Xitan theological position, is the problem of revelation within literalist Christianity.

Talmudic Judaism, the Judaism that developed in the first century CE and afterwards in the diaspora, assumed, as did post-Solomonic Hebrew religion one surmises, that YHWH, with the Torah, the Law, had revealed a code of 613 laws or mitzvah that the faithful had to obey in all times and in all places (http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm). The prophets (nevi'im) were those who called those who weren’t following the mitzvah of Torah, particularly those elites violating the social ethical precepts of the Torah related to the poor, to repentance, to return to the laws G-d had revealed. The prophets, in other words, aren’t so much prophets in the contemporary Xtian conception of the term, predicting the coming of the Christ or some other later event like the battle between Russia and Israel as a prelude to the second coming of Jesus, as they are those calling the faithful back to the mitzvah of the Torah, backto the revelations at the heart of the ancient Hebrew faith.

Christianity, of course, had a different conception of revelation. What Jesus was up to is unclear. The stories about Jesus in the gospels, after all, are often inconsistent and contradictory. Did Jesus come, as he once claimed, to change not one jot and title of the law, the Torah, (here is a link to one Xtian group that makes a similar claim, http://www.therefinersfire.org/original_commandments.htm), or did he, as Paul later claims, transform Judaism from a religion grounded in ancient “revelation” and its mitzvah to one in which that previous revelation was irrelevant and circumcision became a matter of the heart rather than a physical act of obedience? Christians have generally taken the latter position since Christian orthodoxy was manufactured with Nicaea in 325 BCE and after.

One, of course, can’t avoid historical and sociological issues here. Xy before Nicaea was diverse having Gnostics, Docetics, Arianites, Marcionites, and other variants, and, before the destruction of the second temple by the Romans had a Pharisaic variant, the Christian community led by Jesus' brother James, a group, in Weberian terms, dominated by patriarchal authority and which continued to live according to the law (mitzvh) of Moses. They continued, in other words to act much like Pharisees.

It was Paul, of course, as has been long understood, who transformed this Jewish sect into a “gentile” faith, Orthodox and Roman Catholic, that would come to dominate Roman and post-Roman Europe. One of the things that is transformed in this great transformation of Christianity is the notion of revelation. After Paul a notion that previous revelation can be surpassed by later revelation (dispensationalism) develops in Xy. The theological problem with this notion of revelation as unfolding, as continuing, is that it opens a theological can of worms that later Christians simply haven’t wanted to face up to. If revelation is continuing than what makes Christian revelation—-Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant—-superior to the revelations at the heart of Islam, the Baha’i Faith, or Mormonism???

Talmudic Judaism, the Judaism that developed as essentially an intellectual if increasingly ritualistic commentary or set of commentaries on Torah mitzvah, has its own set of problems. If G-d reveals himself through Torah why does he only reveal himself in the Torah and then, apparently, become tongue tied? Do new historical, social, and cultural circumstances not merit comment from YHWH? On another issue it is worth noting that many contemporary Talmudic Jews do not follow all of the 613 mitvah. Contemporary Talmudic Jews essentially ignore many of the more misogynistic mitzvah, the commandments to kill blasphemers and magicians, the commandment to genocide ones enemies, the commandments against usury, and the commandment to institute the law of Jubilee.

While it may be intellectually fun to play these going native theological games from the inside a more critical and empirical perspective on the issue of metaphysical revelation must inevitably come into play at least for those of us who don't simply accept things on the basis of "faith".

I am not a "believer". I have never really been "religious". I have never really believed in the existence of some personal God or some metaphysical teleological first principle in the Scholastic sense. The thing that really clinched that there is no G-d for me was and is the Holocaust. As those who know these issues better than me have said before me, how can anyone believe in G-d or a god after the Shoah? How can anyone believe in G-d or a god after all the horrors of the twentieth century: Armenians genocided. Jews genocided. Hiroshima nuked. Nagasaki nuked. Cambodia genocided. How can one believe in a God given the slave trade that enslaved Africans and justified it all through ideologies of superiority and inferiority? How can one believe in a god who would allow pogroms against Jews to occur? How can one believe in a god after all the human depravities, big and small, over the course of human history and particularly during the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? It seems impossible given the real circumstances of human existence to believe, at the very least, in a personal God who cares about human beings, even those he is supposed to have chosen as his special own

Reiigion as Peter Berger notes, functions to help people deal with questions of theodicy: why does bad stuff happen to me (the theodicy primarily of the poor and powerless)? Why am I so blessed (the theodicy primarily of the elite and powerful)? Why did g-d allow the Shoah?. Where was he as it was happening? What the Holocaust says to me and continues to say to me is that G-d is a fiction that allows some of us to deal with the pain of life. Religion in all its forms helps most humans to deal with that suffering and pain that is life. And life is, as Buddhism and the writer or writers of the wisdom Book of Job, long ago realised, all about suffering and pain. That is why we have meaning systems like that which we call religion that explain why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people, to explain the randomness that is real life.



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