Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Genuine Religion vs. Idolatry

Note: This is the sixth 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, (5) "What Makes Man Religious at All?", then the following.

In my previous post, I wondered 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. On page 100, Lilla apparently concludes that the answer is that the former indeed cannot be said. Hobbes, he writes, "did not think it possible to liberalize and enlighten the Christian churches from within."

The question of whether there is a link between "genuine and idolatrous religious behavior" raised by Lilla on page 69, which also went unanswered through the reading covered in the last post, may be answered in the manner that Locke and Hume extended the philosophical challenge opened by Hobbes. At least Locke "thought it both necessary and possible to convince the Christian churches to liberalize themselves, doctrinally and organizationally." And Hume "could write as if this revolution in human self-orientation had already taken place."

Tolerant churches, coexisting peacefully, none insisting on an exclusive franchise on the ultimate truth-- this is indeed a religious sensibility that has shed all idolatrous trappings. Thus, in just three pages we have gone from a life that is nasty, brutish and short to a revolution in human self-orientation. As I can only take into account what I have read to this point, I can only hope that when I read further tomorrow I will not find that Lilla has yadda yadda'd the most interesting part.

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.

Torah Rules

Lilla stumbles when he asserts that "When the ancient Hebrews were an independent kingdom, they had been ruled exclusively by the Torah-- that is, by divine rather than human law" (p. 56). If he means the written Torah, it was adequate for managing a Temple service that was based on offerings of grain and animals, but it falls short of being a comprehensive legal code. If he means the oral Torah, it suggests that he is unaware that it developed no earlier than Christianity. And while it is certainly true that a scriptural "justification" was claimed for every regulation in the oral Torah, this was often at the expense of the plainest meaning of the text; for example, the Rabbinic transformation of "an eye for an eye" to be monetary damages.

Lilla stumbles further when he continues: "But Christianity was not law-based, at least not in that earlier sense; it preserved the Decalogue but abolished the highly developed system of Jewish law in favor of a law of the heart." It is a Christian assertion that Christianity abolished Jewish law. Yes, it turned its back on the covenantal and priestly Judaism of its time, but that on which it turned its back was itself far less than the legal code that Judaism ultimately developed. Halakah did not precede Christian political theology. Hillel and Shammai laid the foundation for Rabbinic Judaism within a hundred years of the birth of Christ. The development and codification of Rabbinic Judaism unfolded simultaneously with the development of Christianity. Christianity could not abolish what had not preceded it.

Both Jew and Christian faced the same existential dilemma at the same time: the Torah could only serve as a blueprint if it was read esoterically, which is what the "New" Testament and the Talmud each did; the former attempting to step out of history while the latter remained firmly embedded in it, but both imposed a forced "deeper" reading than the surface of the text suggested. (One of my favorite study partners suggests that the dominant Jewish reading was halachic and the dominant Christian reading was aggadic. The important point for me is that the text was necessary but not sufficient for either interpretation.)

At this stage of development, the most important thing that Jew and Christian had in common was the unquestioned assumptions that the meaning of life was based in divine revelation, and that no meaningful order was possible that was not based on the revelation. Of course, there is irony that the ones who first believed that history had ended (the Christians) became a major historical force when they ultimately chose the sword as their means to resolve doctrinal disagreements. The Jews, on the other hand, were so far removed from power that they could be content to conclude most doctrinal disputes by declaring that "these and those" are both the words of God. The Jews never led an Inquisition.

The demand for esoteric readings only increased in confronting the Enlightenment. In the face of science's increasingly sophisticated understanding of the nature of the cosmos, Lilla cites Pascal (p. 63), who bravely reflected, "It is not only just but useful for us that God be partially hidden." Jewish sources confronted the dilemma of a hidden God hundreds of years ahead of Pascal. Moshe Halbertal, in his new book, Concealment and Revelation, traces the tradition of a hidden knowledge to the earliest Talmudic readings of Torah. From Bereshit Rabbah:
R. Yosi beRabbi Hanina said . . . In human practice, when an earthly monarch builds a palace on a site of sewers, dunghills, and garbage, if one says, "This palace is built on a site of sewers, dunghills, and garbage," does he not discredit it? Thus, whoever comes to say that this world was created out of tohu and bohu and darkness, does he not impair [God's honor]?
I doubt Halbertal would object to comparing this teaching to Pascal. But Lilla seems unaware that concern for the incompleteness of the revelation goes back to the dawn of theology. He asserts that "modern science broke an age-old link between God and man" (p. 65), but I think that the most he can establish is that it opened the door to philosophies and political systems that had no ties to theology. When science confronts scripture (as for example when the tohu and bohu of this week's parsha are interpreted by a physicist), even if it appears to "impair God's honor," it can still be affirming that there is an embedded revelation, though perhaps one that is yet to be revealed.

The relationship between theology and politics may likewise be hidden in this time and place, and the danger of revealing it, as much to our own as to God's honor. Science has merely peeled away another layer of onion skin between us and God's hidden majesty.