Sunday, October 07, 2007

"What Makes Man Religious At All?"

Note: This is the fifth post in a series of notes that I am writing as I read The Stillborn God by Mark Lilla. The posts should be read in the following sequence: (1) Stillborn God?, (2) Why Believe?, (3) The Values Test, (4) Torah Rules, then the following.

On page 69, Lilla asks the question that is set at the top of this post. He goes on to ask, "Is there a link between genuine and idolatrous religious behavior?" But before answering that question, he makes an assertion that I must dispute: "Thinking about such behavior was more highly developed in Christianity than in Judaism and Islam, no doubt because it faced a double polemical challenge from its very inception: against Roman paganism on the one side and Judaism on the other."

The "double polemical challenge" that Christianity confronted was not unique. The Talmud, for example, is a rich source of thinking about "such behavior." The rabbis who lived in the early days of Christianity were also challenged by Roman paganism and by sects who, like Christianity, adopted the Torah as their foundation document. Early references to Judaism's response to Christianity are simply harder to find, mainly because Christian political theocracies controlled the printing presses and suppressed Jewish texts that challenged the legitimacy of Christianity. (For a history of the suppression of Jewish sources and several samples of the suppressed text, see, for example, Printing the Talmud: From Bomberg to Schottenstein, edited by Sharon Liberman Mintz and Gabriel M. Goldstein, Yeshiva University Museum, 2005; and Jesus in the Talmud by Peter Schäfer, Princeton University Press, 2007.

I am much less familiar with the Muslim experience, but expect that their own encounters with the Crusaders's swords must have prompted some thinking about "such behavior."

Lilla credits Christianity with evolving, beginning in the Renaissance, to incorporate "reason" into its lexicon. Is it churlish to note that when Maimonides did that for Judaism it was long before the Renaissance? Or that the culture that provided the intellectual space for Maimonides to be a major Jewish thinker was Islamic? Could one say that Christianity should at most be credited with catching up?

We are now one quarter through Lilla's text and at a pivotol moment in his text; for after having provided this brief romp through the unfolding state of the Christian world view, Lilla introduces Thomas Hobbes. And what an introduction! After musing, "There is more darkness in religion, perhaps a vast kingdom of darkness, than is dreamed of in Stoic philosophy," Lilla proclaims, "The greatest explorer of that darkness was Thomas Hobbes."

Hobbes's great achievement, according to Lilla, is to change the "traditional subject of theology-- God and his nature-- . . . to that of man and his religious nature." I wonder, however, if it can properly be said that Hobbes effected any change in the discussion among theologians or only that he opened a discussion about theology among philosophers.

Alas, perhaps Lilla is not describing the Christian rise from darkness into the light at all. Perhaps Hobbes's philosophy has no impact on theology, but provides instead a forum that no theologian would chose to enter. I don't know. I write these words as I read. My reactions only take into account what I have read to this point. Perhaps these doubts will be laid to rest. Perhaps they will multiply.
Tune in later this week.


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