Monday, February 9, 2009

God of Stone

A few weeks ago, I found a Catholic religious pamphlet in a subway car extolling The Infant Jesus of Prague. According to the pamphlet, praying devotions to the statue will cause God to intervene on your behalf and bless you with prosperity. Most non-religious people would regard such claims with mild amusement and derision, but I found myself deeply offended. My issue was not with the mystical claims, but the encouragement to pray to a statue. It goes directly against one of the Ten Commandments, something all Christian denominations (including Catholics) uphold to this day.

The second command says, in abridged form, "do not make or worship any idol". This command was ostensibly from God himself. It doesn't say, "do not worship idols unless they are of me or my messiah". The text is very clear. So when the Catholic church simultaneously says "don't worship any statues" and "give reverence to the Infant Jesus of Prague", they are being logically inconsistent. More than anything, I am offended at the irrationality of the claims. The Catholic church cannot have it both ways. I'm sure they would claim that this is not really idolatry because the statue is of Jesus, the true God. But the actual text in the ten commandments is clear that no physical object should be worshiped, even ones that represent God.

When I went to church as a child, I was taught that the Bible's warnings against idolatry were really a warning against making other things more important than God. In other words, if you value your friends or your grades higher than God, then you've made those things into an idol. While this explanation makes logical sense given the premise that nothing is more important than God, it is fundamentally reinterpretive. When the authors of the Bible warned against idolatry, they really were warning against worshiping stone statues. Now some of the post-exilic writings contain threads reminiscent of the modern reinterpretation, such as the Book of Haggai.

But I wonder how much reinterpretation is too much. Is it really fair to say that the Torah really meant to say, "idolatry is making anything more important than God?" If that statement is true, why does it matter whether the Torah said it or not? The source of a statement doesn't matter as much as the content. It is better to let the ancient writings say what they say, and be honest about our revision. "We allow people to eat pork because there's no good reason to disallow it, even though the Torah says otherwise."

Ancient religions depend on modern reinterpretation to remain relevant today. Or put another way, religions that fail to remain relevant lose followers. I believe this is why there are so many different religions and sects. The religions that have survived for millenniums are those that are most tolerant of revision. Christians and even many liberal Jews have no problems eating pork or letting women wear pants, something that would have shocked Moses. Even one hundred years ago, interracial marriage was outlawed nearly every Christian church in America. I suspect that in another hundred years, the majority of Christian churches will marry gay couples. When a religious law no longer has practical benefits, the religion always revises itself, even if it's a century too late.

This makes me wonder, however, why religions are so willing to revise their laws but so hesitant to revise their gods. The status of legendary religious figures does change slowly over time though. For example, in pre-exilic writings, Satan is portrayed as a henchman of God whose job is to test humanity. After the Babyblonian exile, Satan becomes the adversary of God whose job is to destroy humanity. The clear concept of the messiah doesn't appear in Jewish writings until this time either, although post-exilic rabbis began to interpret the Torah as if it subtly implied a messiah. And the Christian church didn't official decide Jesus was actually God (not just the son of God) until a few centuries after his crucifixion. But in the grand scheme of things, the identity of a religious figure changes much slower than the interpretation of a religious law.

Perhaps the application of ancient laws to modern life produces a stronger discorde than imagining diefic powers operating in Manhattan. The revision of religious figures only seems to occur after the religion's followers as a whole face extreme persecution-- the Babylonian captivity, or Christian oppression under Roman emperors.

From my perspective though, I don't see much of the use of these religious figures. There's a lot of good philosophy in Christianity, and that is worth keeping. But the concepts of God, Jesus, and Satan don't have any real impact on my life. I used to imagine they did in the same way early Jews worshiped idols of Baal. God was my idol of stone, and I realized the good Christian philosophy didn't have anything to do with praying to Jesus. Revising my concept of God might shock modern Christians, but to me it's no different from revising prohibitions on pork. In the end, all religious philosophies evolve to become a set of rules that benefit society as a whole. Dieties aren't required.


Joe Osborn said...

Sounds like The Jefferson Bible is right up your alley: Take the good parts, drop the miracles, and you have a pretty decent ethical handbook.

wtanksley said...

"When the authors of the Bible warned against idolatry, they really were warning against worshiping stone statues."

Good article, but a minor point here... The 10 commandments contain _two_ injunctions about worship, one that commands "no other god" and one that forbids worshiping images. So the rest of your post is reasonable; but this doesn't serve as the example of reinterpretation that you'd intended. The people warning against worshiping worldly goods are following the "no other god" commandment, while the ones warning against praying to statues are following the "no worshiping images" commandment.
Your point otherwise stands: there's a lot of reinterpretation in religion. Actually, Jesus explicitly did a lot of that revision to Judaism, requiring internal attitude as well as external conformance.
...I do have to make the point, though, that alleging revision doesn't prove that it happened. All our textual evidence, and there is an enormous amount, indicates that Jesus' early followers thought that he was God. I know there are claims that they didn't believe it and didn't write it down; but the early manuscripts seem to indicate that whatever beliefs existed (and there were a few), a belief in Jesus' deity was among them. Claiming otherwise is just conspiracy nuttiness -- "there's no evidence because the conspiracy hid it!"


Claes Mogren said...

Thanks for an interesting read!. Read it just after this really interesting New Scientist article; Born believers: How your brain creates God

Bryan said...

I subscribed on here originally because of my AI interest and experience. I am also a Strong Christian and had several questions / points about this particular article.

* You actually seem to have read the bible and are familiar on parts that don't get a lot of focus otherwise. Haggai for example.

* I agree that the act of worshiping physical idols is different than setting a priority above God. The first is conscious while the others is largely unconscious.

* Both Idol worship and out-prioritizing God are clearly sinful and are dealt with clearly throughout the Bible. Your reference to Haggai was particularly good.

* Pork and non-kosher food seems like a bad example, because this was dealt with specifically in at least two separate cases, both focusing on whether Gentiles should be allowed to become Christians. Are you calling those passages revisionist?

* In general, I hate revisionist interpretation. Similarly, there are plenty of prominent scholars calling for reform and a return to solid teaching on specific doctrines. They do their part in teaching these doctrines at their Churches.

* I seem to agree with everything wtanksley says.

* Removing Jesus from Christianity or changing his attributes will turn Christianity into another Religion entirely. This has already happened with some Churches and some Pseudo-Christian organizations.

* Throughout the article, you argue against revision to religion rather well. Then, you propose an even greater revision. Are you a supporter of revision now, including The Infant Jesus of Prague? If not, why the change? Are you at your last resort?

* You seem to have good analysis and actually care about this. I'm interested in hearing what points you have against Biblically literal Christianity.

Ted Vessenes said...

Asking whether I'm pro-revisionist or anti-revisionist is a false dichotomy. As far as religion goes, I'm a progressive.

Simply put, that means I support the good revisions and condemn the bad ones. Allowing people to eat pork is a good revision. Praying to the Infant Jesus of Prague is a bad one.

One point I was trying to get across is that even the most conservative religious interpretations are revisionist. You can't really help it, and it's not always a bad thing.

For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus opens by saying "I have not come to abolish the law but fulfill it." He then proceeds to give no fewer than five instructions that all contradict the Torah. The obvious conclusion was that Jesus saw a higher authority than the historical interpretations of past holy texts. That authority is whether or not the law benefits society as a whole. "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" is another example of this paradigm.

I'm of the opinion that Jesus was arguing for an inherently humanistic interpretation of religion (in contrast to what Paul argued, I'll note). And any religion that believes in a greater purpose that the good of humanity is a failed religion that should not be followed. This includes every religion that is against revision in any form whatsoever.

The reasoning behind this is more than fits in a comment, so I'll explain more in a future post.