Secretly

There are not too many books that I would call epiphanies.  I always lay down Jeffrey Kripal’s books with a sense of wonder and awe.  His Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions is one book I initially skipped over due (as usual) to not being able to afford even modest academic pricing.  (Hey, my books are even worse in that regard, so that’s not a criticism!)  I’ve met Kripal a few times and have had some conversations with him that always leave me feeling strangely empowered.  That’s the place this book left me.  I’m a slow reader and it isn’t a small tome, so it took me some time.  Also, I didn’t want to rush it.  Doing so would’ve been like trying to jog across a boulder field.  I hardly know where to begin.

Kripal is an historian of religions.  His own experiences in the academy are narrated in this book, so I urge the curious to look.  Many people who know me think that I’m a biblical scholar.  My training, however, is in history of religions.  It’s a fool’s errand to try to classify a doctorate, but my focus was on how ideas appeared in several ancient cultures, with no real expectation of evolution beyond what appeared later in time than something else.  As many who study ancient texts know, this translates to “biblical studies” in the academy and so for many years I taught Hebrew Bible.  Friends in the academy suggested I should shift my research to Bible (as I did in Weathering the Psalms) in order to get a solid placement in academe.  It backfired in my case.  This isn’t a pointless digression.

Secret Body is a trippy book.  It deserves to be read widely and engaged with by academics (among which I no longer count).  It is a ground plan for the study of our field.  Kripal understands, better than just about anyone, why religious studies is foundering.  He’s also brave enough to delve into the unspoken areas that we all know are terribly, terribly significant.  And he isn’t a materialist.  There’s much in this book to give the reader pause.  Indeed, it’s more than a stop sign on the superhighway of the academic business.  It’s the kind of book you need to keep at hand in case “the real world” gets you ensnared in its ropes and chains.  It makes me believe that I need to go back to school all over again.

Geography Lesson

As someone who eschews easy labels, I’m always conflicted when someone asks what my doctorate is “in.”  Universities have departments, of course, and different academic fields have differing standards of what qualifies you as an expert.  My Ph.D. was mainly in the field of history of religions, but focused (all such project must be narrow) on what is best called ancient West Asian cultures.  Recently someone showed me a website with free geography quizzes on it.  (I post the link here with the caveat that this can be very addictive.)  This friend asked me how good my Asian geography was.  I knew that once I got east of Iran I was going to be in trouble.  Some countries, such as Russia, India, China, and Japan are hard to miss, but the others I was properly humbled over.

I tried the quiz again and again until I could point to any of the official Asian nations with a fair degree of accuracy.  Eurasia is a very large landmass, and when you consider that it is, apart from human-made canals, attached to Africa this is a lot of space to label.  Considering that many isolationist politicians can’t correctly find smaller countries on a map without an app, I started to realize just how lopsided the world is.  Many more people live in Asia than populate the “New World.”  They actually have more space than we do here, but much of it is too cold or too dry for comfortable living.  Still, I considered that if I’d had this quiz as a kid I might’ve known my geography much better than I do.

As I’m preparing to attend the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in a few days, I recall priding myself at knowing all fifty states of my native country.  I’ve been to all but five of the lower 48—Alabama, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Nevada have eluded me (the conference never meets in them and I don’t have friends who’ll put me up for free in them).  But at least I know where I haven’t been.  

After trying my hand at Asia on the app, I attempted Africa.  Let’s just say I still have a lot left to learn.  And unlike when I was a kid, I look forward to taking quizzes.  Work interferes with web time, though, and learning modern countries isn’t the same as knowing where Hatti or Elam used to be.  Religion, after all, forms borders just as impermeable as mountains, oceans, or deserts.

The Problem with History

The problem with history is that it shows foundational views are constantly shifting.  Let me preface this statement by noting that although I taught Hebrew Bible for many years my training was primarily as an historian of religion.  More specifically, the history of a religious idea that shifted over time.  My dissertation on the topic of Asherah required specialization in Ugaritic and in the religions of the ancient world that included Israel.  I have subsequently been researching the history of ideas, and my current, apparently non-sequiturial books on horror and the Bible are simply a further development of that interest.  The focus has shifted more toward the modern period, but the processes of uncovering history remain the same.  Many people don’t like horror.  I get that.  It is, however, part of the larger picture.

History, to get back to my opening assertion, is not fixed.  It’s also tied to the dilemma that I often face regarding religion.  Since Jesus of Nazareth never wrote anything down, and since Paul of Tarsus was writing to specific groups with their own issues, no systematic theology of Christianity emerged during that crucial first generation.  What eventually grew was an evolving set of premises claimed both by Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be the original.  Neither really is.  Then Protestantism made claims that the establishment had it wrong and the Bible, which was a bit ad hoc to begin with, was the only source for truth.  It’s a problematic source, however, and systems built upon it have also continued to evolve.  Herein lies the dilemma.  With stakes as high as eternal damnation, the wary soul wants to choose correctly.  There is no way, though, to test the results.

Eventually a decision has to be made.  Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.  The problem is that centuries have intervened.  That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.  The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.  What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.  Historians know, however, that no originals exist.  We have no original biblical manuscripts.  Teachings of Catholicism, and even Orthodoxy, change in response to the ongoing nature of human knowledge.  History contains no instructions for getting behind the curtain to naked reality itself.  At the same time the stakes have not changed.  The consequences are eternal.  Those who choose must do so wisely. 

Who’s God?

There shall be wars, and rumors of wars. The Bible says nothing about being able to declare what future people might have to say about God. According to a story on the Washington Post website, Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor, was suspended from Wheaton College for claiming that the God of Islam is the same as the Christian God. Administrators felt this was one of those cases where the famous statement of faith required of Wheaton faculty was violated. Seems to me the administration might want to sit in on a class in history of religions. Everyone knows that Wheaton takes great pride in its Evangelical heritage, bordering on a kind of extreme conservatism. Even so, this seems extreme.

There is much we don’t know about the early history of most religions. Probably one of the resons for this is that, apart from the founder, we’re never sure if a new religion will take off. Many religions have started and then quietly (or not so quietly) died away. At the earliest stages nobody really knows which way it might go. We do know that by about the time of the Exile, the early Jewish faith was fast becoming monotheistic. Christianity, although disputed by some, also followed in that mold, accepting the God of Jesus of Nazareth (himself a Jew) as the one God. Here many Evangelical histories grow a little weak when focus is shifted to Arabia. The cultural context that led to Islam involved a world of pantheistic worship, but Mohammad was well aware of, and appreciative of, Judaism and Christianity. Recognizing that his faith shared the same books as the other two, his understanding of Allah was clearly the same God as the one worshipped by the Jews and that Jesus had called “Father.” The three monotheistic religions of that region, historically, have always shared the same God.

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Disowning a deity, I suspect, comes with some anxiety. As Islam expanded and Christianity itself became an imperial religion, clashes were bound to happen. Invective included calling the enemies “pagan” or “infidel” (technically two separate things), and as so often happens, rhetoric became mistaken for fact. Since Islam and Christianity were different religions, so the thinking went, they must recognize different gods. Triumphalism is seldom subtle. Fact checking wasn’t so easy back in those days. Suspending a professor for stating the truth is, I fear, nothing new. Some schools require statements of faith so that they may ensure academic freedom is a myth. Ironically, they seldom have trouble with accreditation. The ideology of a war between religions offers a doleful prognosis for a world where religions really need to try to understand each other and where obvious historical facts should count for something.