Too much time among the more demented critics of religion to be found on the intertoobs will warp your spirit. Reading H. Richard Niebuhr's seminal study of faith, Faith on Earth
, I find that Bertrand Russell was the last great proponent of faith being "believing what you know ain't so," to use William James' formulation. For Russell such an assessment is part and parcel of his logical positivism, so it's little wonder he was so appalled by his most famous student (who far exceeded the master), Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Russell understood far less than he thought he did. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and (especially) Daniel Dennett are his intellectual grandchildren; and the gang of on-line atheists are his disciples and ignorant acolytes. The further you go from the source, the more the knowledge becomes attenuated.
I do not use the term "ignorant" lightly, or merely pejoratively. I went looking for something on Thomas Paine earlier, curious about how much of an atheist he truly was, since all the quotes from him favored by on-line atheists, all his language denouncing priests and the "church." sounded very true to form for most of the Founding Fathers and for the Puritans who immediately preceded them (and were still in full flower in late 18th century America). My interest was piqued by Jeffrey Tayler's latest rant
. I quickly found out Paine wasn't an atheist; he was a Deist
, with a rather decided interest in apophatic theology.
That took all of about five minutes on Google.
But never let information get in the way of a good rant; which is why the demented critics of religion will warp your spirit. It isn't just at Salon you find such nonsense; Religion Dispatches is overcrowded with ignorant comments, too. Most commenters at either site betray little or no knowledge of scripture, but a fundamentalist certainty that their understanding of it, however limited, is the only one possible. That itself is not even surprising. There is a basic understanding that we all read the same text in the same way, and a million readers can't be wrong. So when someone challenges the standard interpretation of To Kill a Mockingbird
, a book Tom Brokaw has foolishly said taught us all about race (maybe it taught an ignorant South Dakota boy, but I knew more about race from my childhood than Lee's book ever covered), it triggers outrage. Brokaw's "interpretation" is not far off the standard one, yet point out that "standard" interpretation is a weak one that does a great disservice to both the idea of race in America
, and a fine novel, and you release the howler monkeys who insist there is one right way to read a book, and lots of wrong ways, especially those invented by "scholars."
We are right because so many people agree with us. And we know they agree, because we all reject those who disagree with us. They are outcast; they are anathema; they are wrong.
Which is itself a hermeneutic, although a very weak one. It really is all about hermeneutics; about what system of interpretation you employ. But questioning the system of interpretation you rely on, is akin to challenging the earth-centered model of the cosmos, or the claim of science to reveal and know Truth. It is done all the time by intelligent people; but those aren't the people you are likely to meet on the internet.
Take the standard interpretation of morality, for example, one that insists the "Bible says" that if you don't follow God's laws, God will smack you down like the little bug you are. And that fear of retribution is the only value religion ever had, the only reason it ever had for legitimacy, and since we don't need that fear anymore, we don't need religion in order to be moral and ethical anymore, either.
I could point out this "reasoning" is bollocks dating back to the 19th century (the intelligentsia's fear that without the fear of God backing the British class system, society itself would crumble), or that it's a cruel misreading of scripture used by various Christian churches for millennia. But if I start with scripture, try as I might, I can't find any justification for the sentiment that God is just looking for a transgression to smite in either the Hebrew scriptures or the Gospels and letters.
Where does Jesus say that those who don't follow his teachings will burn in hell forever? Quote me the passage, please. Where does Jesus say that every jot and tittle of the law must be followed more scrupulously than the Pharisees do (the favor bug-bear of the Gospels) or God will uncork a righteous wrath like you ain't never seen before? Where, in fact, in the Hebrew scriptures, during one of the foundational events of Hebrew history (the first being the Exodus from Egypt, the second being the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.; the one in question now being the Babylonian Exile), does any verse describe God unleashing a storm of wrath and punishment on Israel?
Please; again: chapter and verse. Quote it for me. You have the internet, it shouldn't be that hard to find.
I'll save you the trouble: it isn't there. The worst thing God does, and God does this explicitly in the visions of Ezekiel, the worst thing God does is to remove God's presence from the Temple. The famous vision of the chariot-throne, with wheels within wheels, with four beasts for each corner of the throne and smoke and fire and all the theophany Ezekiel can describe, indicates God is on the loose, God is the God of Creation, not of a building, and God goes where God wills. If that is not necessarily with God's people, that is not a punishment, that is not the "sinners in the hands of an angry God" of American Puritanism; it is God leaving the children of Abraham to what they have chosen. God does not punish the children of Abraham for breaking a commandment or two. God leaves them to the consequences of their actions, because God told them what was good, and how to live their lives in a way that would benefit them, just as any loving parent tells their child; and then when the child decided to make a different choice, what could God do but leave them to the consequences of their choices?
But even as God leaves Israel to the consequences of their actions, God promises to restore Israel, to bring them back, to be with them and comfort them and return them to the benefits of the covenant they enjoyed since the time of Abraham. Where is the wrath and anger and vengeance of a punishing God, in that?*
If there is any lesson in the Hebrew Scriptures, in this truly seminal event of their history (the bulk of the Hebrew Scriptures concerns the Exile; not the Creation, not Abraham, not the Exodus from Egypt and the wandering in the wilderness, etc., etc., etc. Most of that is taken up in parts of one book, or in one book that gets repeated and restated because of the Exile (Deuteronomy); the bulk of the scriptures that isn't history after the settling of the Promised Land, is the Prophets. The prophets all write out of the experience of Exile; before, during, after. You could look it up.
And the seminal lesson of that experience? God will not save anyone from themselves. Neither will God punish. The Deuteronimsts thought that God was angry with them, that living precisely as God had said to live under the law, was salvation. They weren't wrong, but they weren't right, if they though following the law was a way of appeasing God. I have no expertise in Hebrew and Jewish readings of that book; but Christians eagerly took it was a punishment. Then again, Christians eagerly invented the figure of Satan as a power co-equal (or nearly so) to God. Christians appear to like punishment a bit more than the Hebrews; then again, Christianity was all but born in punishment, its founding figure punished by the state for his dangerous politics.s
The lesson of the Hebrew Scriptures is not that God punishes those who disobey God. The lesson is that God's way is Wisdom; is Sophia. Read it carefully, you'll find Sophia there. It is no accident John's Gospel starts with a hymn to the Logos; that is the 1st century Greek version of the semitic idea of Sophia, who is also linked to creation in the Hebrew scriptures. The hymn John uses doesn't invent a new idea, it restates it, much as Deuteronomy restates Exodus and Leviticus. New wine for new wine skins, but made from much the same grapes.
Jesus continues that conversation in the Gospels. Was man made for the Sabbath, or the Sabbath for man? It's an especially trenchant question in a culture that says we don't work hard enough, we don't put in enough hours, that we should be accessible 24/7 and work from home because we can never leave our work behind because if we don't do it, someone in Asia will do it for us. Jesus doesn't come to renounce the law; he comes to interpret it. And again, the law is not meant to put humankind in a strait-jacket (well, for Jesus, the law only applies to the children of Abraham; universalizing the law was, again, what Christians did). It was meant to give guidance, to provide an "ethos" in the way Aristotle meant it: behavior that would lead to happiness and a fulfilled life, not picayune rules to dog your every step and leave you in fear of eternal punishment.
In the parable of the sheep and the goats at the end of Matthew, Jesus doesn't say the judgment will fall on those who didn't dot every "i" and cross every "t', who knew better but didn't act on their knowledge effectively enough. The judgment, in fact, falls on the ignorant alike: "Lord, when did we see you?" is the only question both groups ask. And the answer isn't about the Ten Commandments or gay marriage or abortion, it's about caring for each other: whenever you fed a hungry person, clothed a naked person, housed a homeless person, visited the imprisoned; you served God directly. And again, is the judgment a punishment? Or a consequence? Even in the most materialistic view of the cosmos, do we doubt that actions have consequences, that causes create effects we might rather avoid?
Lord, when did we see you? You don't know. How can you know? You can't. Even as Jesus tells the parable, it implies we will forget it (and we have); that we will ignore it's most obvious lesson (and we have), that we will come to the Final Judgment and in all honesty ask the question anyway: "Lord, when did we see you?" And our knowledge of the Law or of Scripture or of doctrine or even our life-long fear of God's wrath, will count for nothing. "Whatever you did/did not to, for the least of these, you did/did not do for me." That's all that will matter.
If we insist it is still about fear, about getting right with God before the wrath descends, before the heavy hand smites us, we are not speaking for God: we are only speaking for ourselves, for our desire for power, to be in charge, to make the call, to deal out the justice. If we insist it is all about internals: about how we think, or understand, or formulate a doctrine, a soteriology, a Christology, a theology: we are still wrong. What matters is what we do.
But those who deal in justice, face justice, too. We forget that part. We think justice is just about who has the power. The parent who whips a child has the power; the child can't whip back. The policeman who shoots someone to death has the power; that person can't shoot back. The society that imprisons and condemns and executes, has the power. Society cannot be defeated. Justice is all about who has the power.
But that's not justice at all. The frightening thing about God's justice is not God's righteous anger; it is that God's justice is just to us, too.
We can be frightened into this; but God is not trying to frighten us. We can feed the hungry and clothe the naked and give water to the thirsty in a frantic attempt to keep the watchful eye of God/Sauron turned from us, but what life is that? If we want an empty, pointless, fearful, desiccated life, we can have it. God will not save us from ourselves. But if we want a fulfilled, happy, meaningful, sound, sensible, and blessed life, we can have that, too. And it won't involve the amount of money in the bank or the amount of food in our pantry or the type of car in our garage, or the number of clothes in our closets. Society teaches us every day what the good life is, and God plays no part in it, and doesn't have to. But is that life better than the life spent taking care of each other, instead of taking care of yourself alone? If neither one winds you up in eternal damnation, still the question remains: which one would you rather live?
*Yes, I know as recently as Jack Miles' "biography" of God this schizophrenic interpretation of "Old Testament" God v. New Testament Jesus is still alive and kicking. Miles' reading of the scriptures comes out of a very sloppy hermeneutic, one he undoubtedly never examined for consistencies. He knew what he wanted to conclude, and he set out to make sure he concluded it. It's little different from Jonathan Edwards famous rant on a few words from Deuteronomy. Neither is a North Star nor a guiding principle all must follow.