Monday, June 14, 2010

A.J. Jacobs's Year of Living Biblically: On the Future of Religion in a World of Growing Fundamentalism

When I blogged about A.J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically last week, I noted that I might have some concluding remarks about this book, once I’d finished it.  My remarks last week looked at the fairly common phenomenon of liberal-tolerant secular folks who have little to do with formal religion, but who nonetheless want a strong, viable presence of religion in their societies as a check against moral decline.  A strong, viable presence of religion somewhere, preferably at a remove from themselves . . . .

Today, I’d like to say something more appreciative about Jacobs’s decision to “live biblically” for a year, and what he learned as he undertook that experiment.  As he notes, though he was raised a non-practicing Jew, and though he tends to agnosticism, his year of living biblically revolutionized his understanding of how religion influences many people, at a practical level, on a daily basis.  Jacobs gained a sympathetic understanding of religion by practicing Judaeo-Christian biblical literalism for a year.

Jacobs’s interaction with different groups of Christians and Jews—of all stripes, reflecting all kinds of readings of the scriptures—ran the gamut.  He spent time with some Amish families, for instance, with snake-handling Pentecostals in Appalachia, with “red-letter” Christians who emphasize strict fidelity to Jesus’s numerous statements about our call to live with justice and mercy.  He celebrated the end of Sukkot by dancing ecstatically with the Hasidim, interacted repeatedly with a shatnetzer who examined his clothes to see if they contained mixed threads and who assisted him in the ritual of Shiluach haken in which a mother bird is separated from her egg and the egg waved around ceremoniously before being replaced in the nest, and spent time at his uncle’s eccentric Orthodox Jewish-cum-hippie commune in Jerusalem.

Jacobs writes sympathetically and non-judgmentally about all these groups and more—about the wildly conflicting ways in which various groups of Christians and Jews hear the very same scriptures making wildly different claims on their lives.  At the end of his year of living biblically, Jacobs came to the following conclusion—a sane-sounding one, in my view:

This year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion.  It’s not just moderates.  Fundamentalists do it too.  They can’t heap everything on their plate.  . . .

But the more important lesson was this: There’s nothing wrong with choosing.  Cafeterias aren’t bad per se.  I’ve had some great meals at cafeterias.  I’ve also had some turkey tetrazzini that gave me the dry heaves for sixteen hours.  The key is in choosing the right dishes.  You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), the healthy ones (love thy neighbor), not the bitter ones.  Religious leaders don’t know everything about every food, but maybe the good ones can guide you to what is fresh.  They can be like a helpful lunch lady who—OK, I’ve taken the metaphor too far (pp. 551-2).

And I agree.  But I also agree with Jacobs when he goes on to note that this description of the task of living biblically raises the question of authority in religious life—and in a way that does not solve the problem of authority, but which frames clearly the challenge many people of faith face today.  The challenge of religious authority—of whose reading of scripture counts in an official way—is omnipresent for people of faith as they cope with the meaning of the scriptures (and of church teachings based in scripture) for their daily lives.

The liberal tolerance that shrugs its shoulders and concludes that no one has a right to declare this or that reading of the scriptures off-limits—because a particular reading violates the fundamental thrust of the scriptures—is too easy.  It’s too tolerant.  It reduces the cafeteria practice of religion to a matter of mere taste—I like chocolate pudding, you like vanilla—in which there can be no canons of interpretation to declare this dish healthy and that dish noxious. 

If religion really does mean anything at all, we have to move beyond such lazy tolerance.  At its core, it doesn’t take the claims of the scriptures or of religion seriously on our lives, as it encompasses snake-handling, the prosperity gospel, readings of Genesis that claim all people of color are sub-human “mud people,” etc.  And as it refuses to make any value judgments about whether any of these and manifold other practices validly reflect the meaning of the scriptures to which they lay claim.  The challenge when we move beyond lazy liberal tolerance is this: How to discern that nurturing, healthy core that Jacobs finds in his analysis of cafeteria religion—one that promotes compassion and love of neighbor, and which also combats hatred and injustice?

Jacobs’s book actually contains the key he’s seeking here.  He notes that scholar of religion Karen Armstrong has concluded that the worldview presupposed by the biblical writers (and by many generations of believers up to the modern period) understood that mythos and logos co-exist, live side by side, and ought not to be confused with one another.

In a pre-scientific worldview, the question of whether a miracle like the parting of the Red Sea or the changing of water to wine happened precisely as it is described is beside the point: the point of the miracle stories of the scriptures is to recount in mythic terms the inner significance of the powerful words and deeds of a prophetic religious leader such as Moses or Jesus.  The point is not to calibrate, measure, condense the wine to discover its chemical components or find the precise spot on which Moses stood when he commanded the waters to divide.

Those tasks—the tasks of logos—are important.  They need to be done, in a world in which rational explanation of how things function allows us to interact with the world and harness its energies for our use.

But when applied to scripture, the work of logos is beside the point.  It misses the most fundamental point at all, re: the scriptures: that these holy books were written by people who had no concept of recording scientifically verifiable events, but who were telling stories of profound mythic significance. 

We don’t understand the scriptures, in other words—we can’t delve into their profound significance—if we approach them with logos rather than mythos in mind.  From the beginning of the modern period, there has been a tragic divide in the Western mind, which seeks to reduce the significance of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures to the worldview of logos, and which has spawned an unprecedented new way of reading scripture called fundamentalism or biblical literalism.

This new way of reading scripture, which is a modern invention, professes itself to be more respectful of the “real” meaning of scripture than are other approaches which use historical-critical methodology to try to understand what these texts meant to those who wrote them, as a preliminary to making deductions about their meaning for us today.  But the respect fundamentalism brings to the scriptures is entirely reductionistic: it seeks to confine the meaning of these pre-modern texts to a modern worldview dominated by logos, which has no respect for mythos.  And at the same time that it fiercely combats the claims of the modern scientific worldview, it implicitly accepts that those claims are valid when applied to the bible—though they are to be rejected out of hand as we crystallize the significance of the texts in a literal way.

The fundamentalist approach to the scriptures has no respect for the truth that a mythic reading of biblical texts discloses to us.  For the authors of the biblical texts, mythos and logos aren’t mutually exclusive ways of understanding the world, such that, if event X did not happen precisely as it’s described, so that scientists could replicate the event under the right conditions, event X is not true.  For the authors of the scriptural books, mythos and logos run side by side, as parallel ways of describing the world.  As two different but complementary (and necessarily complementary) ways of describing the world . . . .

As I say, Jacobs discusses Karen Armstrong’s understanding of mythos and logos and then rejects this approach to the scriptures.  He does so, I would propose, because, like many other modern liberal thinkers, his outlook on the world is so predermined by the presuppositions of logos that he dismisses mythos out of hand as an absurd, non-scientific attempt to describe events which we now realize science describes accurately for us.

Hence the need of the liberal worldview to cordon religion off as an exotic, absolutely indispensable zoo in the middle of modern culture—one we need in our midst so that we can occasionally resort to the primitive and exotic, in order to return refreshed to the workday world of “reality.”  Hence the scrupulous need of liberal thinkers to sidestep altogether the hard task of making value judgments about the truth of religious claims, even as liberals implicitly endorse the most outrageous claims possible made by fundamentalist movements, as if these are valid (and even rigorous) readings of the scriptures alongside the watered-down claims of liberal religion.

The liberal-tolerant approach of modern secular culture to the scriptures rejects analysis such as Armstrong’s, since it assumes that this analysis is an attempt to undercut the seriousness of a biblical literalism which has never taken the scriptures seriously from the outset—because it confines the meaning of these texts written in a pre-modern context within the outlook of the modern scientific worldview.  The liberal-tolerant approach to religion implicitly rejects the profound truth claims made on our lives by texts written in a pre-modern context, which may well contain truths that shatter the narrow expectations of our secular-scientific culture—if we grapple seriously with the texts.

Armstrong’s understanding of mythos and logos is not at all exclusive to Karen Armstrong, as Jacobs appears to think.  It runs through the work of many hermeneutic philosophers and scholars of religion in recent years.  It is now the standard way in which the truth-claims of religions and their sacred texts (in the case of religions of the book) are approached by scholars of religion.

And here’s what flows from this way of looking at scripture, I think—for those who continue to think that these texts have profound significance for us today, significance with which we need to grapple: this approach to scripture demands serious communities of discourse within world religions, and between world religions, in which “ordinary” believers sit beside scholars of religion and work together on an ongoing basis to fathom the meaning of holy texts.  The recognition that the scriptures presuppose a worldview of mythos by its very nature undercuts the claim of any single authority figure, in any world religion, to understand and speak “the” meaning of a religion and its sacred texts (if it is a religion of the book) for everyone else.

In undercutting fundamentalism, the distinction between mythos and logos and its application to the bible also undercuts the authoritarianism of fundamentalist movements within the religions of the world—movements that, at this point in history, are growing.  The huge challenge facing the religious traditions of the world today is to foster within these traditions communities of serious critical discourse in which believers work together to fathom the significance of the claims of their faith tradition—and in which believers work together against the powerful, coercive, and often violent attempt of a select group within the tradition to control “the” meaning of the religious tradition for everyone.

Will this be possible—will the religious traditions of the world succeed in fostering, at this point in history, inclusive communities of serious discourse re: their sacred texts and the claims of their religious group?  Will the religious traditions of the world succeed in wresting control of their faith traditions from powerful fundamentalist groups within the religious community?

In my view, the outcome of this necessary historic battle is by no means self-evident.  It remains to be seen.  In my own Catholic tradition, though I see signs of vitality as communities of serious discourse arise to read the scriptures carefully for our contemporary cultural context, with respect for the context in which they were written, the fundamentalist trend emanating from Rome remains extremely powerful and may well prove decisive for the future of the Catholic church, even if it results in the exodus from the church of the vast majority of Catholics in the developed parts of the world.

In my own tradition, the outcome of the struggle between the authority of the center and the authority of the people of God is far from a foregone conclusion . . . .