Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Karen Armstrong at TCU, Religion in an Age of Terror, and whether our Bible is conservative enough

I went to TCU last night to hear Karen Armstrong give a lecture on "Religion in an Age of Terror: Perils and Possibilities.” Ms. Armstrong is a freelance scholar and one of our best writers on the history of religion.

Here's a rough summary of what she had to say: Religious fundamentalism springs up as a reaction to modernity and the secular state. Those of us in the West experienced modernity as a trickle-down effect over a 300 year period. The Muslim world didn't. Their experience of what we call the modern world came about through colonialism, and is associated with a loss of independence and freedom. Their cultures had to modernize too quickly, and this separated many of the elites from the masses.

You still with me? I'm going somewhere with all this. Hang in there.

The elites saw some of the benefits of Western culture, and some Eastern leaders tried to change their citizens at gunpoint. (Nasser in Egypt, Ataturk in Turkey, etc. Soldiers sometimes were sent into the streets to rip burkhas from faces. Western dress codes were sometimes enforced.) People radicalized as a resistance to their own politicians. Hit these movements, and they become more extreme. All force does is confirm their suspicions.

Please stay with me. I'll get to the point, I promise.

The Gallup organization polled a large group of people in the Middle East shortly after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. 93% of the Muslims interviewed said that the attacks were not justified. They cited the Koran, stating that to kill one person is to kill the whole world. The remaining 7% who said that the attacks were justified gave political reasons for their beliefs.
"At the beginning of the twentieth century, almost every single Muslim intellectual was in love with the West. After a visit to Paris, Muhammad Abdu (1849-1905), Grand Mufti of Egypt, remarked provocatively: ‘In France I saw Islam but no Muslims; in Cairo I see Muslims but no Islam.’ "

Stop and think of the implications of that for a minute.....

Armstrong went on to argue that almost all religions eventually develop an ideal of compassion as a reaction to new technologies of cruelty and destruction. This ideal of compassion is usually expressed as some form of The Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". The great faiths of the world know that the source of all pain is ego. Greed, selfishness, pride, etc. The goal in these faiths is to step outside the self.

We're almost to the money quote....

Rabbi Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus, said that when asked to sum up the whole of Jewish teaching, while he stood on one leg, said, "The Golden Rule. That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. And everything else is only commentary. Now, go and study it."
St. Augustine said that scripture teaches nothing but charity. And if you come to a (scriptural) passage....that seems to preach hatred, you've got to give it an allegorical or metaphorical interpretation, and make it speak of charity.

Got that? We can talk later about whether forcibly taking money from Group A to give to Group B really is "charity" or "compassion". (My belief is that shutting down Washington would be the most charitable and compassionate act imaginable, but I don't want to bog down in that mess during this post.) Armstrong closed her formal remarks by saying that....

We can choose the aspects of our religion that speak of division, hatred, and exclusion, or we can choose compassion.

I left the lecture considering it time well spent. Religious fundamentalism is a reaction to Modernity. Religious fundamentalism is a reaction to Modernity. I got it, but hadn't totally bought into the concept.
Then I got home and found three, count 'em, three emails alerting me to something called "The Conservative Bible Project" at the Conservapedia site. I don't make these things up. You can actually hit real live links to all of this. Here's The Huffington Post:

"Lo and behold, the Bible has gotten too liberal, according to a group of conservatives. And it needs a little editing.
That's the inspiration behind the Conservative Bible Project, which seeks to take the text back to its supposed right-wing roots.
Yes, even scripture is not orthodox enough for the modern conservative. Not that it's the fault of the author(s), exactly. The group cites a few reasons why the Bible is too progressive: "Lack of precision in the original language ... lack of precision in modern language" and "translation bias in converting the original language to the modern one."
So how can the Bible be conservatized? The group has proposed a Wikipedia-like group editing project. Some of the ideas would only bring the translation closer to the original. But others would fundamentally change the text.

Here are some of the areas where they believe our current translations have gone astray:

1. Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias
2. Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, "gender inclusive" language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity.

Yeah, that's what I think of when I read the Book Of Revelation. Liberal bias. The list goes on:

5. Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as "gamble" rather than "cast lots"; using modern political terms, such as "register" rather than "enroll" for the census.
6. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.

The logic of Hell. Like, temporal offenses and eternal punishments. I get the logic there. And there's one more that I've never thought of, but I kinda like:

7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning.

Heck yes ! ! There actually onto something with that one. Prepare for blog posts about the Free Market meaning of Jesus's parables ! ! But here's where they're going to get into trouble:

8. Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story.

Send the children out of the room. Brace yourself. The Bible story of the woman caught in adultery? And the crowd of religious wingnuts that was about to stone her? And Jesus says "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" ?
That story isn't in the oldest Greek copies of the Gospels. It got shoved in there later.
That's what happened with the last 8 verses of Mark, the part about the resurrection of Jesus. It's not in the oldest manuscripts.
That's what happened with something called the Johannine Comma, (I John 5:7-8, the passage that formed the doctrine of The Trinity.)
Religious conservatives are in for a rude awakening if they go tramping off into those thickets. If they take their findings seriously, they'll have no honest choice but to become religious liberals. But, I digress.

Here's my point: Last night I spent a couple of hours listening to one of our greatest religious historians explain why religious fundamentalism is a reaction to Modernity and Change. When I got home, I found that our local religious fundamentalists had decided that their basic text wasn't fundamentalist enough, and had issued calls to reissue a more conservative version.



Rational Thinker said...

when asked to sum up the whole of Jewish teaching, while he stood on one leg, said, "The Golden Rule. That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. And everything else is only commentary. Now, go and study it."

What a joke!

Maybe we don't have the same Torah, but my copy of the Jewish tradition is a story of a bunch of bronze age, racist thugs, who mutilate their sons' genitalia and pillage local tribes---murdering, raping, and stealing.

If the Torah is the Gold Rule, it's only meant for the "Chosen People".

Anonymous said...

While there is certainly no lack of armed and unarmed violence in the Torah (Five Books of Moses), I recall more violence, and more war, happening during the subsequent periods -- the parts of the Old Testament known as "Prophets", "Writings", and so on. The parts after B'nai Yisroel became a nation-state rather than an alliance of clans following the same G-d and the same religious practices.

One may also argue how much of halakhah (Jewish religious obligation) is entailed in that which comes before, and leading up to, the Ten Commandments (mostly dietary restrictions, circumcision requirements, and marriage/sexuality restrictions), and how much was added later. One should specifically highlight here the Book of Deuteronomy, as some believe this Book -- dealing primarily with religious law -- was added later as an attempt by the hereditary priesthood to reassert their historical precedence over the Jewish people.

Looked at separately and of themselves, the Ten Commandments (minus the first two, regarding the identity and name of the Deity) are very much a basic expansion of the Golden Rule: honor others, and do not commit acts of aggression or violence against others (whether with words or actions).

But the key to this -- as the key to all legal, social, and religious systems I know of -- is that these protections apply only to members of the community in question. In periods of plenty, and lack of aggression by surrounding or intertwined communities, that protection may be extended to include those communities to a certain degree (think "nonsectarian Christian charities" and "international alliances"), but there is always a layer of social stratification. (In short, "charity begins at home".)

Dr Ralph said...

The spousal unit saw you at this event. Unfortunately I was at my office, massaging data for PowerPoint slides. We got home within 30 minutes of each other, which tells you how late I was working that night.

TarrantLibertyGuy said...

To Rational Thinker - re: 'Genital Mutilation' - First without, hopefully, getting into TMI area... I'm rocking that and it works for me. (Note: I'm not Jewish).

I was talking with a Jewish friend regarding the relatively tiny size of the Jewish faith. "I wonder why we're so small compared to Christianity or Islam?". I said, "There's only two ways of getting in if you're a guy. 1) Be born to a Jewish mother or 2) Get a piece of your pecker cut off as an adult. Some people's faith may be strong, but C'MON! That's some guy's unit your talking about there!!! I'm surprised they're as large of a religion as they are!

To Whited: Interesting thoughts and hilarious about the Bible Wikipedia Editing project. I wonder how Heb 13:8 is going to work out there. Better yet, Rev. 22:18 -
"I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book."

Kinda funny.