Oral Tradition and the Arrogant Apostle

April 15, 2011

"Oral tradition" is conceived in biblical studies as the primary source behind the gospels, and it is taken for granted by many people as though it were established fact. But actually there are serious flaws in the theory, and I recently published an article discussing those flaws, in volume 3, no.1 of the Journal of the Orthodox Center for the Advancement of Biblical Studies (JOCABS). The article reviews the arguments of a scholar who argues that "oral tradition" as imagined by modern scholars is new (a relatively recent invention), unfounded (the arguments that originally created the theory were unsound), unworkable (more recent arguments in support of it have also proven to be unsound), and it is unnecessary (alternative theories are available). I agree with his analysis and supplement it with some observations of my own.

In the same issue is my review of Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s book Paul: His Story. I was very ambivalent about this book. It attempts to look beyond Paul as theologian and imagine him as a human being with human feelings and emotions. This is certainly a worthwhile endeavor and in fact any good historian should try to do that with his subjects. The problem is that this book is not written by a historian. A historian is trained to critically assess the reliability of sources and factor that into the degree of certainty ascribed to a reconstruction of the past.  In this case a renowned biblical scholar knows his sources through and through, but the aspect of sober assessment of source reliability is missing. Nevertheless, the book makes for fascinating reading, especially in the way that Paul shapes up in it to be a thoroughly arrogant and insensitive character. Quoting from the first paragraph in  my review:

This is the story of an apostle who “had few scruples about the way he attacked those who disagreed with him.” Paul was “less than honest” when it came to presenting his credentials in the most forceful way to others, and his “lack of empathy” for other people caused him to attribute “the most uncharitable explanation” for any opposition to him. His “tunnel vision” and “self-absorption” were so intense that he did not care about anyone or anything peripheral to his central vision. He showed “contempt” for those who disagreed with him and in fighting them wrote “brutal slashes,” threw “tantrums,” displayed “childishness,” was “manipulative,” employed “moral blackmail,” and engaged at times in a “cruel intellectual game,” “cruel laughter,” and “sarcasm.” There can be no doubt that “Paul’s venom certainly diminished him in the eyes of the genuine Christians in the community.” The hostility he attracted was not due only to his theology, but rather “[h]is own character traits were also a significant factor.” Indeed, his personality impelled him to magnify conflict rather than resolve it in a positive manner: disagreeing with Paul was like waving a “red rag to a bull. Opposition goaded him.” (59, 110, 136, 145, 146, 151, 166, 167, 180, 185, 220)

Yet for all that the author ends up with an unreservedly positive assessment of Paul as a theologian.

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The Evolution of God

April 2, 2011

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Recently I listened to the audio version of the book Evolution of God by Robert Wright. I generally avoid nonfiction books with such a broad scope as this one because inevitably most of the book is outside the author’s actual area of expertise. Typically even if the parts of the book that coincide with the author’s specialty are somewhat reliable or authoritative, every other part of the book (that is, the vast majority of the text) is hit or miss. The author is just regurgitating what he’s read in other secondary sources, much of which is inaccurate or at best questionable.

That is true of this book as well. In addition, the title is misleading: the book is really an attempt to chronicle the development of the idea of God in the "Abrahamic traditions," meaning Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  But the author is not an expert in the history or theology of even one of those traditions.  He does not even know Hebrew, Greek, or Arabic. (A postscript explains that he familiarized himself with these religions in part by listening to audio editions of English translations of their scriptures.) If you knew nothing about these traditions you might learn something from the  book, but there are better sources for learning about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Wright is neither a partisan of any of these religious traditions, nor a supercilious Richard Dawkins railing against the idiocy of religious belief. He does have an annoying hobby horse, however.  If I could have a nickel for every time he uses the term "non-zero-sum game" or some form of it in this book, I would be a rich man.  The book is less a scholarly exposition than an impassioned crusade to convince the reader of Wright’s vision of the true destiny of these religions in particular and mankind in general, a destiny that is ultimately the very goal of the evolution of the universe.  That goal is the universal recognition and implementation of the "non-zero-sum game," which may be summarized as interdependence and mutually beneficial relationships. On the whole this project fails rather spectacularly and the whole effort comes off sounding more than a little Panglossian.  Even from the data he relates in the book it’s much easier to see a vast spaghetti of conflicting evolutions than one overarching Evolution. Trying to get a single uni-directional "Evolution" out of the mass of contradictory and inconsistent and often totally unrelated individual conceptions of God that have evolved and continue to evolve within the confused history of three ill-defined religious traditions, and then finding in that the key to the universe, is not unlike reading the weather forecast in chicken entrails.

Toward the end of the book Wright considers the question of whether the idea of a personal God in the Abrahamic traditions is true or false, help or hindrance; a temporary crutch to be discarded when human evolution advances far enough, or something of enduring value. As for whether this conception is true or false, he compares it to our conception of the sub-atomic world. We consider our understanding of electrons and photons to be accurate, but everything we say about them comes from a vocabulary based on our experience of our world and doesn’t really fit the sub-atomic world. We call them particles, but they act like waves, and we call them waves but they act like particles.  Nothing in our vocabulary or our range of mental conceptions fits the subject matter, and we know that — but we use words and conceptions anyway, and we successfully base working technologies on those imperfect words and conceptions.  Thinking about God may be similar:  for all its imperfections, conceiving of God as in some sense personal may be as effective a way to conceive of the inconceivable as what we do with electrons and photons.

As for whether it is useful to think of God in this way, Wright observes that millions of years of evolution have prepared us for living our lives in a social environment. We evolved as social animals, and our minds are fundamentally wired for conceiving of leadership and authority as emanating from a person rather than from an abstract principle.  In a sense it shouldn’t make much difference whether (a) we believe that impersonal laws of karma guarantee that altruistic behavior results in personal happiness or (b) we believe that such a guarantee is issued and enforced by an elusive but caring father figure whose son is preparing mansions for us to live in on the other side of the pearly gates. But if one takes seriously the environment in which humanity evolved, it would be strange indeed if "God" as impersonal idea worked as well as "God" as personal being to motivate certain forms of human behavior, provide certain forms of reassurance in times of crisis, and so forth. 

Seeing the truth and usefulness of the Abrahamic personal God in this light clarifies just how far off-base are strident anti-religionists like Richard Dawkins (although Wright himself does not take his own argument that far). The Dawkins-like crowd can be compared to people who correctly point out that an electron or photon is neither particle nor wave, and then follow that up by insisting that everyone must go around smashing light bulbs and computers and everything we have built using those conceptions because they are incorrect.

Of course it is a problem for the Abrahamic religions that certain projections of personal characteristics of the personal God simply cannot be squared with the data we know from the reality we experience. But that is not a discovery of modern science, it has always been true. Thinking people have always dealt with this the way modern quantum physicists deal with the world they study.

It is also a problem that certain projections of God’s personal characteristics in each of the Abrahamic traditions have incited horrendously anti-social behavior. However, if Wright has made valid points, and I believe he has, the solution is not to try to burst people’s personal-God bubble so much as it is to try to help them project upon their idea of God personal characteristics more conducive to compassion and altruism.  And that is a task mainly for people within each tradition, not for outsiders.

I am sure that Mr. Wright is not the first to have put into rational terms such as these the value of the idea of a personal God, but he does a good job of presenting the case, and anyone interested in the topic would probably find some value in reading the Afterword of his book.