Tag Archives: God

Understanding the Nature of Religion and the Religious

Emile_Durkheim

Emile Durkheim

This post is in some ways a response to the Jerry Coynes and Sam Harris’s and others who blame religions for human actions; it is also a response to my reading a certain professor’s study of Christian origins from a perspective that yields no quarter to any explanation that resorts to “something unknowable to the modern historian”.

In this post I will outline a way of understanding the nature of religion — as well as an understanding of what religious believers are really engaged in with their beliefs and practices — from a considered empirical perspective. Religion is a human creation and should be understood like any other human activity.

Yet in reality religion is rarely seen as something so natural or as something that can be evidently explained in mundane human terms.

If someone religious does something crazy or cruel many of us are likely to blame the religion itself as a cause as if the religion is a monstrous force that took possession of willing or unwilling slave. Some even speak of religious memes as if there are free-floating genetic-like forces that can infect and plague the unwary.

If someone joins a bizarre cult many of us will likely say brainwashing was to blame.

Religions can appear to be mysterious powers, divine or demonic.

Religious scholars and even those not so religious can scarcely bring themselves to understand the origins of a great faith in terms of the same sorts of historical forces that are assumed to give rise to other institutions.

Despite the diversity of Christian views on the subject, Christians almost universally assume that something extraordinary stands at the very beginning of Christianity. Whether this extraordinary moment is understood in terms of the singular intrusion of the divine into history, or in terms of the revolutionary way in which the historical Jesus awakens the numinous in others, the origin of Christianity for Christians remains unique. [Citations here to works by Crossan, Borg, Keck.] Apparenty, as Rodney Stark’s recent account demonstrates, the power of this presumption of uniqueness is great enough to immunize the extraordinary nature of Christian origins against even the explanatory efforts of sociologists. (J.C. Hanges “Durkheim and Early Christianity” in Reappraising Durkheim for the Study and Teaching of Religion Today ed by T.A. Idinopulos and B.C. Wilson, 2002, p. 143, my bolding)

For James Constantine Hanges (quoted above) as a historian of religion this is not good enough. Christianity, indeed any religion, “must be explicable in terms of empirical processes, especially in terms of the processes of social formation.” (p. 144)

Returning to Durkheim cannot be done presently without recognizing the serious criticisms to which his theory of religion has been subjected. While we have started with Durkheim’s analysis of the totemic religion of clans, in light of Durkheim’s almost total dependence on what subsequent fieldwork has show to be fundamental misapprehensions of the ethnographic facts, we can continue only by extracting from Durkheim’s work the sociological principles that guided it. We must then speak of social groups and the unifying role of symbols, instead of clans and totems. If Durkheim’s system is to prove useful, we should find these funda- mental principles and observations helpful in understanding the truth of the social formation of early Christianity, as it is expressed in the cult itself. (Hanges, “Durkheim and Early Christianity”, p.144)

For this understanding Hanges turns to Émile Durkheim‘s sociological understanding of the nature and origins of religions. The beauty of this approach is that it enables a

a means by which to disrupt [our] accepted religious categories and to make something familiar seem suddenly very strange. (p. 144)

Reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s famous quote about travel:

The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.

Everything that follows is based on my reading of some of Hanges’ explanations of Durkheim’s sociological explanation of religion (from Reappraising above and other works) and a perusal of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (online). So understand these are elementary student notes cut very bare for a basic overview. With apologies to genuine students of sociology!

Here goes.

The Two Truths of Religion

To understand religion in modern societies Durkheim began by examining how religion worked in primitive societies. This way he expected to understand the fundamental principles of social institutions that become increasingly complex in the societies we know. Though religious ideas and institutions in modern societies are complex they can nonetheless be more easily understood if we can see the more primitive forms from which they have derived.

There are probably only two truths that are expressed in any stable religion —

  1. the nature of the individual

  2. the nature of society

Every individual is aware that he lives at two levels: as a private individual limited by his physical body and as a member of society, as part of a group that transcends any individual.

Society wields a power external to us and that is far greater than any of us. It represents an identity that is greater than any one person. Each of us has a very close (and subordinate) relationship with it. We each live in some sort of communion with this power.

I think we can see where this idea is headed with respect to the origin of “god”. read more »

Jewish Foundations of Christianity — Significance of God’s Name

tetraThere is something unusual about the way the name of God is treated in the Old Testament books. The name itself sometimes appears to have an existence of its own apart from God himself. It’s natural for us to take this kind of usage as a literary personification. But is it? This post is one more update of some of the new things I have been learning as I try to catch up with scholarly studies into ancient Judaism.

God does things with his name as if it were an entity “out there”. He places his name in the temple. We read that his name saves his people and is worthy of praise.

The first text to examine in order to understand what’s going on here is Exodus 23:20-34 (NIV). We find it is foundational in several ancient works — Philo, the Apocalypse of Abraham, and various other early Christian and Jewish texts — that treat the name of God in unusual ways —

20 “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. 

21 Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.

22 If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you.

23 My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.

24 Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. 

The angel, like most angels in the Bible, is anonymous. But he does have God’s divine name in him. So God can call him “my angel”. The command is to listen to what he says and obey him. So he appears to have a voice of his own yet at the same time his voice is that of God. Moshe Idel explains it this way:

Although God is the speaker, it is the angels voice that is heard. Thus it seems the angel serves as a form of loudspeaker for the divine act of speech. (p. 17)

Similarly, as we see in verse 23, this angel is said to lead the Israelites while at the same time God explains he is the one who is acting.

But the phrase that has attracted most attention in Jewish studies is “my name is in him”.

Compare Exodus 33:14

The Lord replied [to Moses], “My Presence/Face will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Is this the same angel as we met ten chapters earlier? If so, the same angel has the name of God in him and also has the outward appearance of God. He is both a loudspeaker of God and a face-mask for God.

We find this same angel again in Isaiah 63:9 and once again he is helping or rescuing his people from trouble:

In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence [=Face] saved them.

What is most significant in this discussion is that this angel appears to be a container for the name of God. He is an ambassador or messenger for God and his presence announces the presence of God himself — by virtue of God’s name being in him.

This angel is one to be feared and obeyed. He will not forgive those who rebel against him.

Now the angel is not the only receptacle for God’s name. In Deuteronomy we learn that God is present in the Temple when his name dwells there. Indeed, as we read of the wanderings of Israel being led by this angel we eventually come to the time when they settle and have a stable place of worship. The wandering angel who contains God’s name is followed by the eventual resting place of that name (and angel?) in the Temple.

This same angel was understood by the Jewish philosopher Philo to be God’s “firstborn Son”.

read more »

27. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 27

Slightly edited 3 hours after original posting.

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Did the earliest Christians regard Jesus as God?

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COVERED IN THIS POST:

  • Did the earliest Christians see Jesus as God?
    • God vs. an emanation of God
    • Concepts of the Son and Logos; Paul and Philo
    • Epistolary descriptions of the Son
  • The Synoptic Jesus: Man or God?
    • Why Mark’s divinity for Jesus is subdued
  • The figure in the Philippians hymn: human or divine?
    • “Nature” vs. “image” in the Philippians hymn
    • Yet another “likeness” motif
    • What is the “name above every name”? “Jesus” vs. “Lord”
    • Another smoking gun

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Jesus as God

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 231-240)

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Was Jesus God?
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But what precisely is meant by the phrase ‘Jesus was God’? Much of the problem lies in Ehrman’s semantic woolliness.

Bart Ehrman now embarks on what is probably the thorniest problem in New Testament research. How was Jesus regarded, not only by his followers, but by the earliest Christians who spread the faith? Ehrman declares:

the earliest Christians did not consider Jesus God. . . . scholars are unified in thinking that the view that Jesus was God was a later development within Christian circles. (DJE? p. 231)

But what precisely is meant by the phrase ‘Jesus was God’? Much of the problem lies in Ehrman’s semantic woolliness. Later Church Councils declared Jesus fully a co-equal with God the Father, of the same substance, two ‘persons’ within the Trinity. I am aware of no scholarship, let alone any mythicist, who suggests that this was the view of any segment of earliest Christianity.

But to say that Jesus was an “emanation” of God is something else. The difference between Paul’s Son of God and Philo’s Logos as an emanation of God is largely a matter of personhood. Philo does not personalize his Logos; he calls it God’s “first-born,” but it is not a distinct ‘person’; rather, it is a kind of radiant force which has certain effects on the world. Paul’s Son has been carried one step further (though a large one), in that he is a full hypostasis, a distinct divine personage with an awareness of self and roles of his own—and capable of being worshiped on his own.

But an “emanation” is not God per se. That is why Philo can describe him as “begotten” of God. He can be styled a part of the Godhead, but he is a subordinate part. (I have no desire to sound like a theologian, but to try to explain as I see it the concepts that lie in the minds of Christian writers, past and present. They are attempting to describe what they see as a spiritual reality; I regard it as bearing no relation to any reality at all.) Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:28 speaks of the Son’s fate once God’s enemies are vanquished, a passage which exercises theologians because it looks incompatible with the Trinity. For here Paul says that the Son “will be subjected” to God, in the apparent sense of being ‘subsumed’ back into God, who will then become One again—“so that God will be all in all.” There will only be one ‘person.’

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The “intermediary Son” concept
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Thus the “Son” which we find described throughout the epistles is viewed in the sense of an emanation of God, not God himself.

c. 1165 Sophia - Wisdom (Wikipedia)

There can be little question that the idea of the Son, Paul’s “Christ” and spiritual Messiah, arose from the philosophical thinking of the era, which created for the highest Deity intermediary spiritual forces and subordinate divine entities to fill certain roles and to be revelatory channels between God and humanity. In Judaism, this was the role of personified Wisdom, though her divinity was relatively innocuous and her ‘person’ perhaps as much poetic as real. (She may have been a later scribal compromise when an earlier goddess consort of Yahweh was abandoned). In Greek thinking, the intermediary force was the Logos, though in varied versions (the Platonic Logos and Stoic Logos were quite different), and with an independence and personification less developed than Paul’s.

Thus the “Son” which we find described throughout the epistles is viewed in the sense of an emanation of God, not God himself. He has a personification of his own, and he fills certain roles.

Consider three passages: read more »

Jesus with Isaac in Gethsemane: And How Historical Inquiry Trumps Christian Exegesis

Other uses for clubs and knives: Flickr photo by Meyer Potashman

Edited with explanatory note on Jesus not struggling with his sacrificial vocation — Dec 2, 2011, 08:10 am

This post concludes the series outlining Huizenga‘s thesis that Matthew created his Jesus as an antitype of Isaac. The earlier posts are:

  1. Isaac Bound: template for Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew — this examines the Jewish beliefs about the Isaac offering narrative before the Christian era;
  2. Isaac Bound & Jesus: first century evidence — this surveys Jewish and some Christian beliefs about Abraham’s offering of Isaac in the early Christian era;
  3. Matthew’s Jesus crafted from the story of Isaac — a synopsis of the Isaac allusions to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew up to the Gethsemane scene.

This post concludes my presentation of Huizenga’s chapter The Matthean Jesus and Isaac  in Reading the Bible Intertextually. It first addresses verbal allusions and thematic correspondences between Genesis 22 and the Gethsemane and arrest scenes in the Gospel of Matthew; it concludes with a consideration of the reasons the Gospel author may have used Isaac in this way and the significance of his having done so. I also draw attention to Huizenga’s argument that while we have historical evidence for the likelihood of Isaac being used as a recognizable model for Jesus we have only later Christian exegesis to support the more widely held current view that Isaiah’s Suffering Servant was used as Matthew’s template.

What follows assumes some knowledge of the posts that have preceded. read more »

God: Liar? Compromiser? Poet? Incompetent?

Bob Dylan Portrait by T.HO 2004

Image via Wikipedia

The will to believe is overpowering. And the idea of a single “God” as a real being who  epitomizes all Goodness lies at the heart of religions that can trace their historic influences back to ancient Persian Zoroastrianism, or maybe only as recently as late Mediterranean paganism when the lesser deities of the Olympian pantheon were being subsumed as mere manifestations or angelic agents of the Supreme Deity.

The efforts of modern believers to rationalize the God of their Book with pure Goodness are certainly quaint. A few of these were recently encapsulated in a theologian’s blog thus:

Many will say that the heart of the matter is whether God lied to humanity in the Bible. But that’s not the case at all. It is much easier to suggest that God accommodated the message in the Bible to what people could understand when it was written, or spoke in poetic rather than literal terms, or didn’t override the minds and understanding of the Bible’s authors when God inspired them, or perhaps didn’t even inspire the Bible at all, than to suggest that God lied and continues to lie to us through the evidence the universe itself provides. read more »

Appealing to Faith in a Search for Truth, Playing Tennis Without a Net

Before you appeal to faith when reason has backed you into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side.

(This quote and the following post are largely taken from page 154 of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Dennett.)

Many believers in God claim that their faith is something beyond reason and cannot validly be tested by the standards of science and rational thought. This is fine on a personal comfort level, but many believers also insist that it must apply just as meaningfully when they bring their faith into arguments about evolution, origins of life and the universe, and other pursuits for truth.

Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has a beautiful response to this faith claim. He begins by referring to philosopher Ronald de Sousa who described philosophical theology as “intellectual tennis without a net“, with the net being a metaphor for rational judgment.

Let the believer who insists that the rigour of scientific method or rational argument not be allowed to touch his faith have the first serve, Dennett begins. Whatever the believer serves, suppose the nonbeliever replies:

What you say implies that God is a ham sandwich wrapped in tinfoil. That’s not much of a God to worship!

The believer volleys back demanding to know how the nonbeliever can logically make such a claim that his (the believer’s) opening serve has such a preposterous implication. So the nonbeliever replies:

Oh, do you want the net up for my returns, but not for your serves? Either the net stays up, or it stays down. If the net is down, there are no rules and anybody can say anything, a mug’s game if there ever was one. I have been giving you the benefit of the assumption that you would not waste your time or mine by playing with the net down.

Not that Dennett is opposed to faith per se. What he wants to see “is a reasoned ground for taking faith seriously as a way of getting to the truth . . .”

Before you appeal to faith when reason has backed you into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side.

Dennett assists the reader in answering this question with a few thought experiments:

1. You and your loved one are touring a foreign land when your loved one is brutally murdered before you eyes. Now in this land the legal system allows friends of the accused to testify their faith in his innocence. The judge listens to friend after friend tearfully, sincerely, movingly testify to their complete faith in the accused’s innocence, and by the end of the hearing this judge is far more swayed by their faith claims than the evidence of the prosecution. Would you be willing to live in such a place?

2. You are about to be operated on by a surgeon who tells you that whenever he hears a little voice telling him to disregard his medical training and do something different, he listens to and follows that still small voice. . . . .

Dennett concludes:

I know it passes in polite company to let people have it both ways, and under most circumstances I wholeheartedly cooperate with this benign arrangement. But we’re seriously trying to get at the truth here, and if you think that this common but unspoken understanding about faith is anything better than socially useful obfuscation to avoid mutual embarrassment and loss of face, you have either seen much more deeply into this issue than any philosopher ever has (for none has ever come up with a good defense of this) or you are kidding yourself. (The ball is now in your court.)

From http://gssq.blogspot.com/2008_02_01_archive.html

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