Thursday, January 04, 2007

Context

I recently began reading Karen Armstrong's A History of God, which a friend lent to me. Since Armstrong's own beliefs fall outside of the bounds of orthodox Christianity, I'm not surprised that she hasn't gotten a wider audience in evangelical circles, though perhaps that's to our detriment. Although there's much opinion that Christians of most stripes will disagree with, the book also contains a wealth of historical details and the broader context that they fit into.

One point I've gotten from the book so far, which in retrospect seems like it should have been obvious, is that the ancient Israelites were polytheists in their belief system, just as all the peoples of that time period were. Not that they didn't believe in Yahweh and in their covenant with him, but they continued to believe in the existence of other gods as well.

Seen in this light, it becomes more clear why the people of Israel repeatedly returned to worshiping foreign idols. In their own minds they weren't rejecting the God of Abraham, they were merely paying respect to all of the gods that they saw as relevant to their daily lives. Yahweh had his temple, just as other gods did, but his expertise was limited to certain domains.

Hence, when God sent the prophets to turn the people away from worshiping those other gods, the hostile reaction the prophets received was due, at least in part, to what most people saw as heresy. Yahweh was a powerful deity and Israel's primary god, to be sure, but the notion that there was only one God failed to penetrate the popular psyche all the way up to the time of the exile. God had to gradually transform the worldview of his chosen people over the course of centuries before it truly sank in.

Understanding a little more about the mindset of the people who lived in Old Testament times helps to shed light on its writings. It also exposes, with greater clarity, just how much bias we read back into those ancient texts. Theologians labor to extract a "moral law" from select Old Testament passages that seem to support what they think we ought to be able to find there, with little regard for the fact that the original authors (and their audience) had a very different outlook on life. Even when those theologians pay lip service to contextual concerns, they insist (at least implicitly) that God would have inserted our concept of "moral law" in there for our benefit, as if God is obligated to share our priorities.

Appeals to church tradition as support for our biases are of limited value, since the early church was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy and by their own Roman culture. By the time of Christ, the Jews were solidly monotheistic and had spent several centuries interacting with Greek culture. Today our 'Christian' worldview is colored by Enlightenment philosophy and scientific rationalism, which if anything makes us even less objective in the expectations and assumptions we read back into the Bible.

Experience teaches us that God understands our limitations (far better than we do) and works with us where we're at, just as he did with the ancient Israelites and the early Christians. The danger lies in assuming that, because God meets us within contexts we can understand, our assumptions about him and the universe he created must be essentially complete and all others' ideas about him wrong. Such pride has inevitably led to 'holy' wars and to the murder of countless heretics throughout history.

It's not enough to pay lip service to how limited our finite knowledge of the infinite truly is, if we continue to live as though we know it all. Epistemological humility no doubt seems like a theological death sentence to many people of faith, but the only thing it kills is the notion that the universe revolves around us. And isn't dying to self supposed to be part of the Christian walk?

4 comments:

Jimbo said...

I heard Karen Armstrong speak at the Greenbelt (Christian Arts) Festival in 2005. Using her book 'The Battle for God' she spoke on religious Fundamentalism - a very hot topic at the time, following bombings on the London underground.

As a former nun who has stepped away from her previous take on faith, her views may not go down well with everyone, but I found she had a good overview of faith based extremism. It certainly helped me to see some of the issues in a fresh light.

I know that she has been called upon to provide advice to politicians in various countries, so at least some folk take her views seriously.

Anonymous said...

Hi I've only recently begun to read your posts and found today's post interesting. When you say God works with us where we're at, for me that means it's inevitable - and therefore ok - that each generation of believers comes to sacred texts with a fresh vision of what it means to them. That process was at work throughout the history of the Old Testament texts being written down, as for example various successive editors of Jeremiah’s original prophecies were given new solutions in chapters 36 onwards. It’s even more important to recognise it was happening early on in the church’s history, as Jesus’ words and stories about him circulated and were re-written by different groups as well by different generations. If we recognise this is happening all the time, when we attempt to explain to others what it is that God is saying to us today through the scriptures, won’t that keep us in check, and give us the necessary epistemological humility, as you call it?

Anonymous said...

The word for people who believe in the existence of gods other than those they worship is "henotheism," IIRC.

E said...

Mike,

I hadn't quite thought about it in those terms, but I'd agree with what you said, so I think that would fit with what I had in mind. The one thing I'd add is the importance of acknowledging that one could be wrong, a concession that some evangelicals seem to be afraid of.

Liadan,

Thanks for the clarification. I'd heard the term "polytheist" used for so many years that I still automatically revert to it.