Thursday, March 16, 2006

"The power struggle of the Late Bronze Age...

...ended with the death or exhaustion of all of the contestants."--John Bright, A History of Israel.

In relation to their systems most systematizers are like a man who builds an enormous castle and lives in a shack close by, they do not live in their own enormous systematic buildings. But spiritually that is a decisive objection. Spiritually speaking a man's thought must be the building in which he lives--otherwise everything is topsy-turvy.--Soren Kierkegaard
I was thumbing through my seminary copy of John Bright's A History of Israel when that sentence in the title caught my eye. I'd highlighted it many years ago (almost a decade, now) and it seems to me that encapsulates an important historical lesson, one tied up with the prevailing faith in the "big idea." When critics of religion speak of God as a projection of human desires, that's usually what they are talking about. And "the big idea" as a defense of the debacle in Iraq (on to round two today, to which jane alerted me earlier) has been resurrected, this time by David Brooks. Atrios has already mentioned this, but it struck me that this story has deeper historical connections.

Israel went into Exile for nearly 50 years. Conquered by Babylon in 587 B.C.E., Cyrus decreed the restoration of the Jewish community and cultic practice in Palestine in 538 B.C.E. As Bright says: "The destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile mark the great watershed of Israel's history." One might even say a watershed of world history. I'm not sure the week of March 24, 2003 quite compares, but as Chiang Kai Shek said when asked his opinion of the French Revolution: "It's too early to tell."

One result of the Exile was the Deuteronomist school. Probably, thanks at least to Harold Bloom's The Book of 'J' from a few years back, everyone is now somewhat familiar with the 19th century biblical scholarship which posits at least four layers in the Torah, labed 'J,' 'E,' 'D,' and 'P.' It's 'D' we're concerned with: the Deuteronomists, the last layer and, if memory serves, the most extensive revision.

Deuterenomy is essentially a re-writing of Exodus, because the events of the Exodus gave Israel the source of its identity. In the Exodus the nation went from tribes to a people, from slaves to liberated, from adherents to the God of Abraham to followers of the law of Moses. At least the Deuteronomists thought that the most important lesson of the Exile, and they emphasized it. "Deuteronomy," by the way, means "Second statement of the law." It's a Greek word, and the title given the fifth book of Moses by the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures most relied on by Christian scholars until the discovery of the Masoretic text (which is in Hebrew).

The Deuteronomists (it's widely acknowledged to have been a school) were influential beyond their wildest dreams; but they are also usually caricatured rather than understood. 'D' insisted on adherence to the law, but did so for a reason that made perfect since in 538 B.C.E.: the law was the one thing the exiles still had in common. The only other thing was the geneaologies: these were important in reciting history, but also in establishing a claim to a land many who returned had not been born in. "Children of Abraham" meant more than a confessional statement. Indeed, the idea of confession we have today was completely foreign to the Hebrews returning to Palestine from Babylon. They were children of Abraham by birth, and parties to the covenant with their God by inheritance. The law, we might say, was an outward sign of an inward state, one as inextricably theirs as their eyes and hair.

But the law told them how to live; reminded them what it meant to be parties to the covenant; made it mean something to be back in Palestine rebuilding the Temple and recovering the ways of their God among the ruins. It gave them a way to separate from Babylon, and be their own people. It was the "big idea" that fostered their identity, and affirmed that they had a covenant stretching back to Abraham.

Take away that context, however, and the "big idea" remains. Look at it from the outside, and to Gentiles it seems strange and bizarre, and the emphasis on the law means it is the law that saves you: not the God behind it, and not the actions of human beings. The "big idea" becomes the reason you are alive: it is life and breath and health. "The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul...More to be desired are they than gold...sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb." The Psalmist is right, but the Psalmist understands that this is true not because the law is God, but because God is behind the law. But remove God, and you are left only with the law. And the law becomes god; and the law must always be served.

William F. Buckley called them the "postulates." Follow the postulates, and all is well. Failure to follow the postulates, the law, is the cause of sin, and the only reason allowable for failure. It is never the law that fails, but only the people who fail to meet the law's standards. It is an inhuman and unreal demand; and it always, as Gregg Mitchell notes, absolves the one relyin ont this argument, from responsibility.

But "religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all." If we are going to draw from Christianity the notion that an idea is all we need to save us, then we had better at least take responsibility for drawing that lesson in the first place. No one can be allowed to build a system they are not willing to live in. No one can escape responsibility by pointing to the weakness of the other to live up to the requirements of a system they do not hold themselves accountable to. The Deuteronomists did not hold Israel accountable any more than the prophets did. They spoke for God, and stood under judgment and accountability and responsibility along with all the members of their nation. David Brooks, and William Buckley and Frances Fukuyama before him, want to speak for god, too. But their god is the "big idea" they have fashioned from reason and comfort and easy occupations lived out among people amenable to their ways, or at least agreeable to being of aid to them.

It's one thing I like about parish ministry, and that I miss, and I want to be back in it. There isn't much room for "big ideas" when someone calls you at midnight to come to the hospital; or calls to report their grandson has been killed; or calls you in the middle of a multiple personality disorder crisis. Or blames you for the death of their beloved; or just blames you for their lousy life, or what you let the children call you, or just the way you think. There isn't much room for competing "big ideas" when members of your church are convinced you have wed yourself to inhumanity, and should not share their hearth or their thoughts, and yet you rely on them for your living, for the roof you want to keep over your family. Sometimes all you can hang onto is God; and in those cases God doesn't seem to be such a "big idea" at all; nor do you want God to be. "It's the "big ideas" of the congregation members that are getting to you. It is their denial of responsibility that you are suffering from. "Big ideas" always put someone else on the hook.

Parish ministry keeps you in contact with people, and with responsibility. Sometimes too much so. But you don't have the responsibility of doctors; or of lawyers. And neither do pundits, like David Brooks.

It would be good for them to remember that. Too much of nothin' makes a man feel ill at ease. But too little responsibility, makes a man feel he can do no wrong, and that he is finally serving god.

It is a very dangerous form of idolatry.

Ed. note: Yes, I added the word above, because it was a typo to leave it out, and the sentence made no sense without it. And I added a link I'd meant to have there all the time. In good Cartesian fashion, I blame my fingers.

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