Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Why Talk About Religion?

It has become difficult to avoid religion in discussions of politics and current affairs. A majority of people would claim that religious beliefs are important in their lives and affect their decisions. Our country is rather unique in this context. Perhaps it is because we are about the only country that has never had to live under a state-sponsored religion. Most European countries have had to live under such a regime at one time or another. Most have responded by walking away from religion. That is not happening here. The recent health care debate, and the bill itself, were strongly influenced by people and groups wishing to project their religious beliefs (or disbelief) onto the lives of others. Such issues cannot be ignored. The feelings on both sides of the women’s choice issue are so intense that assassinations of health care providers have occurred. We seem to be moving in the direction of what might be described as a "social civil war."

There is no area in which argument is more futile than that of religious belief. To make a rational argument for disbelief is as productive as making a theological argument against the law of gravity. People are not moved. Why they are not—or cannot be—moved is an interesting discussion for another time. What can be discussed, hopefully, are issues that are not so much driven by religious beliefs as by cultural traditions. Religion and culture can be closely intertwined and over long periods of time the boundary becomes blurred. One of the obvious instances where culture and religion get twisted is in the role of women. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (chronological order) all have the same Semitic roots, and all have an orientation towards male domination. That is understandable, but coming from the same roots they end up with quite different views of how women should be treated. Within sects of a given religion the customs can also be quite different. My point is that while people can come up with doctrinal citations to justify whatever they are doing, in the case of women’s rights the treatment women receive is driven mostly by cultural preferences rather than religious imperative.

Religious documents are written by individuals and these individuals live within an environment and context that effects what they write. When these transitory biases become canonized into a religion’s teachings the results can cause a drift far away from fundamental principles and can have disastrous consequences. Take, for example, Christianity’s relationship with the Jews. The first Christians were Jews who continued to think themselves to be, religiously, Jews. A combination of historical and social events pushed the early Christians from that position to one in which the Jews, who would not accept Christ as their messiah, had to be viewed as an existential enemy. Enemies need documentation to prove that they are worthy of the description "enemy." One can see this transition occurring in the four canonical gospels. They who wrote these gospels were clearly representing their own changing environments. By the time the last gospel, attributed to John, was written, the Christian view was firmly moving in the inflammatory direction of emphasizing that Christ was killed by nasty Jews. One could argue that the Christian Church created and propagated anti-Semitism and is responsible for all the horrendous consequences that have followed. One could also argue that this outcome had nothing at all to do with the teachings of Christ and had nothing whatsoever to do with the basic tenets of Christianity.

I think it is valuable, perhaps necessary, to consider what scholars know about the foundation of the Christian Church and its evolution. Then perhaps we can begin to argue from positions of greater strength. I plan to discuss the book Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews by James Carroll. This will be followed at some point by discussions of early Christian writings and how the Bible was assembled. Finally there will be a discussion of how the transmission process has affected current versions of the Bible as teachings moved from an oral tradition to written documents, and then through multiple translations and much hand copying by scribes to the present.

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