December 10, 2009 by D Stack
As I mentioned earlier, I’m working my way through Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God. I own it both in audiobook and Kindle format. I’ve been primarily listening to the audiobook, which is unabridged and read by the author. While the book began pretty easy, it is turning into a difficult, though very worthwhile read. Part of this work involves Ms. Armstrong explaining formation of various faiths, with a strong focus on the various Jewish and Christian faiths.
One thing Armstrong reminds us is how the Bible was pieced together, with various components added and merged to the Torah at various times depending on the needs of the community. A point she makes over and over is if a belief, writing, ritual, or any other component of a religion does not serve its members, then that component will be reinterpreted, modified, or diminish in importance. Some examples of this include:
- The book of Exodus was written after the Babylonian exile, most certainly not by a historic Moses. During that period Israel was between two superpowers, Egypt and Babylon and had hoped to leverage Egypt against Babylon. That didn’t work out so well. Exodus was therefore written to explain what a mistake it was to trust such an ancient enemy. Historically, there isn’t any archeological evidence to support the Exodus as a historic event; nothing of the sort one would see with such a mass movement and conquest of Palestine.
- The book of Leviticus, famous for its rigorous dietary and behavioral laws (and the primary source for the admonition against homosexuality) was written by what is regarded as the Priestly (P) source, describing conditions during and just after the Babylonian Exile and incorporated into the Torah some time after. Ms. Armstrong points out the importance of the Jewish community establishing their own identity as one distinct from that of the Babylonians.
- The creation myth of Genesis was aggregated from different sources, largely in response to the creation myths of Israel’s neighbors, most specifically the Babylonian myth of Marduk creating the universe in the slaying of Tiamat. Instead of creation out of destruction, the Genesis tale posits creation out of nothing.
A-ha, the Catholic is pointing out his own faith is demonstrably untrue! Yes… and no. Another of Ms. Armstrong’s points is the separation of logos and mythos. Logos defines objective reality. That which we can divine by rational inquiry, by measurements, physical laws, etc. Mythos on the other hand, exists to explain what cannot be explained by logos. It is a tool to help us understand why there is something instead of nothing, why we live in a world with such cruelty and injustice. Not just understand these circumstances, but live joyfully. Over and over Armstrong makes it clear that if you were to ask a philosopher, priest, or layman of the pre-modern era if they believed the creation myth of Genesis (for example) was literally true, they would find the actual question nonsensical. The question applies to the world of logos whereas the creation story (and indeed most of the Torah, Bible, etc.) applies to the world of mythos. In other words, items of mythos, whether words in scripture are not designed to tell objective truths but to serve as tools for us.
Armstrong touches on the commonality between modern fundamentalists of any religion and modern atheists, how they both treat the Bible literally. For the fundamentalist, the Bible must be a tool of logos. The creation myth must be literally true. The atheist often applies a similar standard: the “truth” of a religion can be measured on how much of it can be proven or disproven to be historically or scientifically true. We have, as a society, become rather immature in our religious practices and texts, allowing ourselves to become trapped in a literalism that was never intended. Contrast this with the vast searches for truth practiced by Sufi such as Ibn Arabi, Greek philosophers like Socrates, or theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. Their search for God explored the nature of the infinite, alternately seeing God as Nothing and Everything. We have a society where many see God having a litmus test for political viewpoints. Or worse, a God who wants us to kill other people for not subscribing to a narrow philosophy.