Typically, we decide what to talk about on the podcast by saying “we should do some Spinoza,” and then ask “what’s his most famous work?” or “which work did we already have to read in some class?” which is typically the same work.
When dealing with newer, non-canonical writers, though, and sometimes even with other episodes, one of us will write up some kind of episode pitch to formulate what we should talk about. In this case, I’m just going to make the formal pitch publicly here, and maybe gauge how interested you listeners would be in this subject.
The Pitch: Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, introduction and chapters 2 and 4.
While the Bible is of course plays an enormously important part in the history of Western philosophy, it would be problematic for us to, e.g. read the Sermon on the Mount and discuss the ethics presented. There’s way too much Biblical commentary out there already, and any ethical content in there is likely more systematically presented in a more straightforwardly philosophical work.
A key inroad here, though, is talking about the history of Biblical production. While lots of regular folks read the Bible, few read about why and by whom the sources that went into it were written, which is pretty essential for knowing how to take the thing.
Personally, I find the thing as a whole too rambling, incoherent, and ruined by its association with centuries of dogmatic religious thinkers to want to spend much time on it, but Armstrong, a prolific and well respected religious historian (former Catholic nun and former hardline atheist), challenges me on that in this book. She responds to the “new atheists” of today by saying that they too readily write off religion by oversimplifying it as concerned only dogmatic assertions of untenable, unscientific claims like those associated with the creationists.
Throughout the mass of history, she says, the emphasis was more on practice, i.e. ethical living, ritual, mystical experience, etc., and that it’s only really been in the last 150 years or so that our hyper-rational culture has turned religion into purely a matter of “what you believe.” We as a culture have “lost the knack” of religion.
In these chapters, she supports her argument that Biblical literalism is (or should be) a straw man by giving an account of the writing of the Old and New Testaments. For example, the writers and the original audience of the stories about creation, the garden of Eden, the flood, and the parting of the Red Sea understood these to be allegories, not in any way intended to be historically accurate, which were part of oral tradition, constantly changed by different storytellers over the years to reflect their audience. Their point was to make sense of the then-current (i.e. at the time the books were written, not at the time depicted) historical situation of the Jews, to convey in an artistic way their place in the universe (or the human condition in general), to affirm and interpret life. The collection of works making up the Old Testament were considered “gospel” until long after they were written, and the editors who put them together made no attempt to smooth out the contradictions, because the point wasn’t to make a full and coherent guidebook of history and morality, but to preserve their traditions and identity as Jews.
Re. the New Testament, one of her points is that the word translated as belief, i.e. where Jesus constantly demands that his disciples have belief in him, was in the original Greek “Pistis,” which meant at the time something like loyalty or devotion. In other words, Jesus wasn’t demanding that people believe in his divinity, but that they be dedicated to what he was trying to teach, i.e. give away their possessions and their pride to join in his group of followers, so this whole emphasis on “faith” as intellectual, dubious claim is a later historical development that twists the original intent of the documents. She gives similar treatment to Jesus’s miracles and the virgin birth, relating these to how other revered figures were described at the time, e.g. that the miracles were not meant to be Jesus proving himself to be divine. Even the claim that Jesus was the “son of God” is put into historical perspective: any devoted follower of Judaism in that tradition was considered by his devotion to be a son of God, and in fact the teaching was that all people were children of God; some sects traced Jesus’s upbringing through his father Joseph and would have been scandalized by a description of Mary as literally impregnated by God in the manner of Zeus impregnating a mortal the way he was depicted as doing in Greek myth.
She also discusses Talmudic Judaism from the time of early Christianity, saying that even its emphasis on the text as opposed to the oral tradition did not treat revelation as something that happened in the historical past, but as an ongoing process that occurs as commentators reinterpret the text for modern times.
So, what I object to about modern religion is, she says, is unrepresentative of religion as a whole, taken historically, and we have to look at the value for people of practices rather than just intellectually evaluate religious doctrines.
…Beyond discussion of her particular historical take on the Bible, I’m interested in what we think about whether this kind of account can be convincing, is particularly relevant to philosophy, and/or has any impact on our attitude towards religion. The charge to me seems comparable to the one made in James “The Will to Believe;” taken at a high level, it doesn’t matter so much whether we buy many of her specific Biblical interpretation maneuvers as whether this non-literal way of taking the Bible makes it seem any more profitable as a philosophical resource, and moreover whether religion as practice is as beneficial as she argues it to be. Even if she’s right, does this diffuse the atheist conflict in the way that she wants it to?