People have strange ideas about what religion can and cannot do. Yes, many religions face the past—founders of various sorts gave dictates and statutes that were appropriate for all time. At their time. Few religious visionaries can see very far into the future, so their rules have to be massaged over time. When we see an Amish buggy clopping along next to a highway we suppose that this is a religion mired in the past, but we could be wrong. The BBC ran a story the other day expressing some surprise at “ultra-Orthodox Jews” and their getting into tech fields. What hath the Talmud to do with coding? Stop and think about that.
One of the aspects of this dynamic unaddressed by this story is how unescapable the internet has made learning tech. Your religion may have you following outdated principles at home, but unless your community can get on without the outside world, like the Amish, you’ll need to learn to negotiate technology. As the article points out, learning Torah and Talmud are transferrable skills. People genuinely seem surprised when what we might broadly call “the humanities” come in handy. Religion, when it requires serious reflection, builds critical thinking skills. It is only the blind adherence to principles that haven’t been thought through that leads to trouble. Even a Fundamentalist knows that this all has to make some kind of sense or something’s wrong. In fact, the article doesn’t suggest that a Fundie as a tech expert would be any cause for wonder. A humanities education might have helped with that.
Photo credit: Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons
One can’t speak of Judaism as a monolithic religion. In fact, religion scholars regularly speak of “Judaisms” just as they speak of “Christianities.” The various branches of Judaism hold study of scriptures in common, and the BBC article makes the point that this kind of thinking helps with problem solving. The great irony here is that when the problem solving comes in the form of getting computer glitches worked out it is considered valuable. When the problem solving merely helps people figure out how to get along in the world it is backward and parochial. Such is the strangeness of a world impressed by its own creation. The internet has brought a great many religions together. It has, I would suggest, created new religions as well. It is a myth to suppose that the rational rules of any hypertext markup language are that different than sages and rabbis arguing over the best way to make progress in a confusing world. No matter what our religion, we all need to make money, don’t we? And isn’t that the most truly ecumenical enterprise of them all?
On my last day in Oxford I had enough free time to visit the Ashmolean Museum. The Ashmolean is the earliest public museum in the country, and, although it isn’t nearly the size of the British Museum, it has its share of very important artifacts. While there I came upon the exhibit called “Gods in Colour.” The display was inspired by the fact that ancient Roman statues—and likely those of other ancient cultures as well—were often painted. The elements have worn away much of the decoration, but traces of various chemicals have indicated what hues were likely used to paint these public icons of divinity. We tend to think of classical society as all white marble and stoic formality, but the reality was likely much more colorful. Many god and goddess statues from ancient West Asia also have traces of paint, although in general they were smaller in the various kingdoms of the Levant than the empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia (the latter of which is sadly falling victim to modern day iconoclasts). The Romans weren’t the only ones to see in color.
Seeing these representations of gods in color reminded me of my first exposure to liturgical Christianity. Having been raised in a Fundamentalist tradition, we certainly didn’t have images about (although one of our churches had a pastoral fresco on one wall). The United Methodist Church, in which I spent my teens and early twenties, had adapted the liturgy of its Anglican parent church, but not the iconographic tradition. When I first saw churches with painted crucifixes and states of Mary, I was taken aback at how powerful they could be. Like most ancients, I realized that these weren’t the gods themselves, but they still conveyed much of what the liturgy was communicating through words and music. One priest explained them as crutches for those who needed help to imagine the divine.
Having seen what images can do, I object to the use of the word “idol.” People are visual animals. We rely heavily on our sense of sight, and our religious sensibilities tell us to look for the gods our minds tell us must be invisible. It is difficult to focus on that which we cannot see. Today we have images both in the natural color of their medium and resplendent with color. We spend hours before the computer screen with its endless array of pixels of all colors. We still think of our gods in full array of saturated hues. In ancient times they tended to be made of stone, but we tend to use another form of silicon, apparently, to get the same effect.
Posted in Art, Britannia, Classical Mythology, Deities, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Posts, Sects, Travel
Tagged Ashmolean Museum, Christianities, Egypt, England, gods, idols, Mesopotamia, Oxford
Some professors are more creative than mine ever were. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even today “old school” means getting it done the arduous, nose-to-the-grindstone way. A friend of mine, however, is in Turkey where a class on social, political and religious relations has her involved in a role playing game (RPG in internet-speak) where the students take on the roles of the participants at the Council of Nicaea and argue the perspectives of those parties. What a great way to learn what minutiae set ablaze entire worlds! For those of you who don’t follow ecumenical councils, Nicaea was the big one. Depending on whom you trust, there were seven ecumenical councils that early Christians accepted, although others had gone their own direction before the first council (Nicaea) even began. Historians are now aware that Christianity was never a unified religion, just a varying number of winners and losers vying for who had the right to call themselves the true followers of Christ.
Constant Constantine keeps the halo.
Nevertheless, the Council of Nicaea was one of the pivot-points on which all of history in the western world turns. Seem like a sweeping generalization? It is. But an honest one. Nicaea was the opportunity for the first Christian emperor, Constantine, to set in motion the swirling whirlpool of politics and religion that has never truly left the world ever since. Already before 325 C.E. there had been endless bickering about who Jesus really was, when Easter should be celebrated, which books belonged in the Bible (that most political of books), and who had authority over whom. The big question was really the relationship of Jesus to the Father, or, the first instance of “who’s your daddy?” Over questions like these, given history’s long view, thousands of people have died.
It’s not unusual to hear that the Council of Nicaea was the last time all Christians agreed on the major points. Many churches still recite the Nicaean Creed on a regular basis as a symbol of that unity. It is clear, however, already from the period of Paul’s letters (the earliest Christian literature) that differences of opinions had arisen among the first generation of disciples. Those we quaintly call Gnostics were among the earliest believers and they managed to survive, transmogrified, past all of the authoritative councils of the church. The very idea of ecclesiastical authority is one of power. Who has the might to make right? And it was a chance to be seen among the ecclesiastical elite. Nicaea left out, most famously, the Arians. And if the media is anything by which to judge contemporary Christianity, the majority of the Religious Right would fall into that camp as well. Recite with me now, “I believe in…”
Posted in Higher Education, Posts, Religious Origins, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged Arians, Christianities, Constantine, Council of Nicaea, Easter, ecumenical councils, Gnostics, Higher Education, Jesus, Paul, Turkey
My Twitter Bible verse yesterday landed on a passage that has been routinely ignored by the church in favor of a different mythic construct in Genesis 2. Assuming the Bible to have been written by a human-like god, the natural expectation is that the manuscript would have been checked for inconsistencies before being sent to the publishers. Any close reading of the Bible, however, reveals a number of contradictions that have crept into holy writ through what seems to be poor editing. The verse to which I’m referring is Genesis 1.27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Readers and commentators have endlessly remarked upon the tripartite structure equating deity-male-female in this passage. This single verse, however, is soon forgot once the need to harmonize with Genesis 2 sets in. There man is given utter primacy and woman comes almost as an afterthought, even after the animals. That is the version fundamentalists consider inspired.
Readings of scripture are done only with the pre-decided outlook of the believer. We do this all the time, unconsciously, when we read. We approach texts with expectations, outlooks, and assumptions firmly in place. When dissonant notes sound, we try to harmonize. We’ve got a whole chapter stating that man was god’s first thought, and woman only comes later. We have only a single verse stating their equality. Before Paul and company distorted the story of Eden into a “fall” narrative—note the words “fall” and “sin” occur nowhere in the account of Eve and Adam—some ancient readers toyed with the idea that maybe the first human was actually intersexed (or hermaphroditic) and the word translated “rib” meant “side.” Genesis 2, in this reading, understood women and men to be equal and of the same creative moment of God.
Some in the early church, however, valued doctrine over equality. Afraid that heterodox teaching might win out—we know there were many early Christianities, not a uniform body only latterly split apart—what came to be orthodoxy rallied around Paul and his fallen humanity with man first and woman second. And thus it has stayed in the sand castles of power for two millennia. Setting aside the unreliable narrator, our present sensibilities for reading are generally to take the first information as correct and later changes to be embellishments. In the case of Genesis, this tendency is overlooked. Too many men have too much invested in male priority to suggest that the Bible actually says what it does. Such is the problem with sacred texts—they are far too serious to be read for its plain sense, which is, after all, its common sense.
We're all in this together
Posted in Bible, Bibliolatry, Feminism, Genesis, Posts, Sects, Twitter Bible
Tagged Christianities, Feminism, Garden of Eden, Genesis 1, Genesis 1.27, Genesis 2, Paul