Friday, May 1, 2015

" every phrase that is used to condemn them, they supplied,in their incredible self-scrutiny and self-judgement "

One of the most absurd accusations made by atheists and other ignorant people is that the monotheistic religions lack self-criticism such as science is alleged to practice.  And that only proves that those who make that claim have never even read the very scriptures that they misrepresent.   And it's not only atheists who seem to be entirely ignorant of the scriptures that are the basis of those religions but people who can rise in the most intellectually accomplished clergies.   I mentioned that Marilynne Robinson goes over Bishop John Shelby Spong at length*.  It should be understood just what Robinson, a passionately strong Christian,  is doing in these essays which are full of vigorous criticism of her own religious tradition as it is practiced in real life.  Atheism and, I dare say, scientists seldom if ever practice this form of criticism of their own beliefs and practices.**

But this passage begins with the viciously genteel characterizations of Jews and God by one of the enlightenment's brightest blooms, David Hume.

Scholarly books on the Scriptures typically claim objectivity and may sometimes aspire to it, though their definitions of objectivity inevitably vary with the intentions of their writers.  But to assume a posture of seeming objectivity relative to any controverted subject is a very old polemical maneuver.   David Hume, in an endnote to his Natural History of Religion (written in 1751, published in 1779), quotes Chevalier Ramsay, who quotes an imagined Chinese or Indian philosopher's reaction to Christianity: "The God of the Jews is the most cruel, unjust partial, and fantastical being... This chosen nation was... the most stupid, ungrateful, rebellious and perfidious of all nations . . . [God's son dies to appease his vindictive wrath, but the vast majority of the world are excluded from any benefit. This makes God] . . . a cruel, vindictive tyrant, an impotent or a wrathful daemon."  And so on.

Even pious critics seem never to remember that, in the Old Testament, the Jews were talking among themselves, interpreting their own experience to themselves.  Every negative thing we know about them, every phrase that is used to condemn them, they supplied,in their incredible self-scrutiny and self-judgement.   Who but the ancient Jews would have thought to blame themselves for, in effect, lying along the invasion route of the Babylonians?  They preserved and magnified their vision of the high holiness of God by absorbing into themselves responsibility for their sufferings. and this made them passionately self-accusatory, in ways no other people would have thought of being.  This incomparable literature would surely have been lost if they had imagined the use it would be put to, and had written to justify themselves and to defend their descendants in the eyes of the nations rather than to ponder their life in openness toward God.  By what standard but their own could Israel have been considered ungrateful or rebellious or corrupt?  Granting crimes and errors, which they recorded, and preserved and pondered the records of for centuries, and which were otherwise so historically minor that no one would ever have heard of them - how do these crimes compare with those of other peoples, their contemporaries or ours?  When Hume wrote the English gibbets More describes were still as full as ever.  The grandeur of the Old Testament, and the fact that such great significance is attached to it, distracts readers from a sense of its unique communal inwardness.  It is an endless reconciliation achieved at great cost by a people whose relation to God is astonishingly brave and generous.  To misappropriate it as a damning witness against the Jews and "the Jewish God" is vulgar beyond belief.  And not at all uncommon, therefore.  It is useful to consider how the New Testament would read, if it had gone on to chronicle the Crusades and the Inquisition. 

*  In one of those points she makes concerning Spong, she demolishes the charge that Jews considered themselves as set above all other people because they considered themselves to be a chosen people.

It is entirely appropriate for Christians to come to whatever terms they must with the difficulties of their own sacred narrative, their own mythopoesis.  But the Old Testament is another matter. It is not in the same sense theirs, and if they refuse to grant it its terms, or give it their respectful attention, then it is not theirs in any sense at all.  When Bishop Spong says, "The Jewish God in the Hebrew scriptures was assumed to hate anyone that the nation of Israel hated," he offers no evidence of the truth of his harshly negative remark.  This assumption is made that Israel and "the Jewish God" are both given to hatred, when two great exemplary figures of righteousness and graciousness in the Old Testament, Job and Ruth, are not Jews, are in fact an Edomite and a Moabite, despised people if one were to believe what one is told about the narrow tribalism of the Hebrew scriptures.  Jonah is sent to save terrifying Nineveh, a great enemy city, which "the Jewish God" cares for and is at pains to spare.  However one passage or another might be read, there is much unambiguous evidence of striking universalism to discredit this hostile characterization of the Hebrew scriptures.  Elsewhere the bishop says that Jesus "lived in a world where cultural barriers were drawn that defined women as subhumans and children as not worthy of God's concern."  He offers no evidence of the truth  of this statement, and coincidentally perhaps, the Bible contains no evidence of the truth of it.

If anyone is aware of a scriptural literature that is so relentlessly self-critical as the Jewish scriptures, I'd like to know what it is.  I know that the social-sciences would disappear over night if they practiced the same kind of self-criticism, including the entire work of several of the bright lights of atheist invective against the Jewish tradition.

I have to say that Spong has been most useful in my experience to those who are hostile to the Jewish and Christian religions, whether atheists, agnostics or some variety or other of "Pagan".  What he says is often presented as authoritative, probably due to his position in the Episcopal church.   Marilynne Robinson may not agree or may be too polite to say it but in Spong's declarations I smell the mildewed genteel, British tradition of anti-Semitism, an odor that permeates most of that kind of literature.  I suspect that, just as with American slaves, the British underclass has a far different understanding of the narratives and moral codes of the Mosaic tradition than the affluent and those who aspire to affluence. It's also been my experience that people who live in more modest circumstances are somewhat more likely to have actually read the texts that so many who have been to college don't seem to have, depending on the characterization of such folk as Spong who bring them the kind of good news they want to hear.

Oh, I can't resist, Robinson said it better than I could.

If what is desired is a God who presents no difficulties and makes no demands, the Old Testament must surely be rejected.  But to reject it is one thing, to denounce it is another, and to misrepresent it in the course of denouncing it is another still.  The Old Testament is not for Christians to denounce because we need only put it respectfully aside, as a Methodist might the Book of Mormon, as a Jew might the New Testament.  The Old Testament certainly is not ours to misrepresent, since in doing so we slander the culture we took it from, an old and still evil habit among us.  Since Friedrich Nietzsche seems to be on every curriculum, unshakably canonized for all his deadness, whiteness and maleness, I need only mention his familiar theory that Judeo-Christianity was foisted on Europeans by vengeful Jews.  I have never seen anyone else even speculate as to how it has come about that we consider ourselves victimized for having made inappropriate use of someone else's scriptures.  Yet this sense of victimization is everywhere - it is even proposed in certain of these books that the Old testament predisposed us to genocide. 

And I will add that kind of nonsense isn't restricted to Christians or even post-Christian atheists but is hinted at by almost anyone who hankers after a reputation of sophistication.  The issue of fashion and conformity in a study of genteel anti-Semitism is one that needs more study and when I say fashion, I include academic fashion.

**  Richard Lewontin is one of the very few atheists and scientists I'm aware of who does practice a similar level of self-questioning and criticism of his own beliefs and his field.   If it is a remnant of his cultural heritage I don't know, though I do know he has endorsed the pilpul of the Orthodox study houses as an example of rigorous intellectual questioning.

1 comment:

  1. Reading Armstrong's book, which is itself more a "popular" gloss of history (she covers far too much to be scholarly, but true scholarship is not her aim), it's amazing how much of the anti-Jewish diatribe, as well as anti-RC, goes back into American and European history to the roots of the Enlightenment.

    It was carried here by the Puritans, who knew their Bible well enough to know better. Then again, what is "new" among the on-line atheist crowd (and Dawkins & Co.) started as early as 1729. It has, in nearly 300 years, finally trickled down to the laity. I supposed in another 300 years we'll all be fluent in the concepts of phenomenology and deconstruction, long after those philosophies have been superseded.

    So that's not really a surprise. What's interesting is how modern Biblical scholarship (Crossan, for example) bends over backwards to avoid being anti-Semitic. There's nothing Spong says that I recognize as valid exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures at all. He's obviously a product of his seminary education; what's amazing is how he didn't keep up with current scholarship. Walter Brueggeman, one of the giants of OT scholarship (or at least he should be) is light years away from Spong's benighted ignorance, and Brueggeman has long since retired.

    This stuff is out there, in other words. Robinson is standing, as Newton said, on the shoulders of giants; and good on her to popularize it as much as she can. Maybe in 300 years, the rest of us will finally catch up.....