Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Bible, The Biography (1)

Whatever one's views on religion, this fascinating book provides considerable insight into one of the abiding dichotomies in human psychology — that some people see the wood while others can only spot the trees.

Karen Armstrong was briefly a member of a teaching order of Catholic nuns before ducking out of it as an undergrad. She has since become a leading academic voice in the field of "comparative religion", an admirable but probably pointless effort to demonstrate that we can all be made to see the trees.

Three pages in and the lapsed monja delivers the the eye-catching statement that "until the nineteenth century, very few people imagined that the first chapter of Genesis was a factual account of the origins of life," one of those over-broad and actually rather falsifiable historical generalisations - like 'before Colombus hardly anyone suspected that the world was spherical' - which here serves to announce her broader intention of taking on those perennial wood-seers, the fundamentalists, and perhaps also the very notion that all we can ask of the Bible is how much factual information it might contain.

She insists that the holy book's earliest writers and readers saw it as a handy gadget for assisting exegesis, then considered "a spiritual discipline rather than an academic pursuit." Their goal was a glimpse of transcendence, the so-called coincidentia oppositorum, an ecstatic sense of wholeness.

Students of comparative religion will no doubt thus start pondering whether Eastern and Western spiritual traditions can be reconciled as easily as the wood and the trees. But then they might also recall that this is a Latin term deriving from Platonism, itself not to be taken up once more by Western monotheists until Christendom's re-encounter with ancient wisdom via Islamic scholarship...but Armstrong isn't really interested in these sort of historical niceties.

She explains that the ancient Israelites appear to have had two separate monarchies each with its own scriptural tradition. Israel called its principal deity Elohim, while Judah in the south referred to Him as Yahweh. The former presided over a more 'transcendent' kind of religion but was ultimately to be ousted by Yahweh as chairman of the Divine Assembly. "But the Bible shows that right up to the destruction of the temple by Nebudchadnezzar in 586BC Israelites also worshipped a host of other deities", Armstrong asserts. These included the fertility god Baal and his sister-spouse Anat, agricultural experts who effectively compensated for Yahweh's over-specialisation in the martial arts.

And, Fundamentalists please note, Genesis wasn't the part of the Bible that was written first.

After the destruction of the temple a priest (or maybe en entire new school of priests) emerged that scholars have dubbed "P". He revised the Israelites' concept of God to permit Him to reside wherever his people were, and not just in a purpose-built place of worship. Unlike the Deuteronomists before him P's religious vision was inclusive with a strong stress on reconciliation.

Armstrong feels that P deliberately contrasted Yahweh's creation of the cosmos with that of Marduk, God of the then gloatingly victorious Babylonians. Instead of creation emerging from conflict - and needing to be renewed annually - P insisted that it was all done and dusted in six days.

Creation myths had a practical value for the Bible-bashers of antiquity, Armstrong advises, tending to be recited at the start of the new year or when individuals undertook a new project. "In the ancient world cosmogony was a therapeutic rather than a factual genre". There she goes again.

More to follow....

No comments: