Since our first commandments were established in the zeitgeist of the Old Testament, almost all of human society has changed massively in our attitude about what is right and what is wrong. Religion is shaped by intergroup tensions--elites verses commoners, society versus society--formative action also takes place at a more fine grained level. If a religious "meme" doesn't find a perch in individual brains, it can't spread from brain to brain and so come to characterize a whole group in the first place. And one way for a meme to win a warm reception from a brain is to make it feel better. So I sing the praises of religion that evolves in order to better serve humankind.:
(1) Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.
(2) In all things, strive to cause no harm.
(3) Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
(4) Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
(5) Live life with a sense of joy and wonder.
(6) Always seek to be learning something new.
(7) Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them. (Baye's Theorem)
(8) Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
(9) Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
(10) Question everything.
Early humans had a relationship of wonder with their universe, especially with those phenomena they could not rationally understand. To solve these mysteries, they created a vast pantheon of gods and goddesses to explain anything that was beyond their understanding--thunder, tides, earthquakes, volcanoes, infertility, plagues, even love.
For the early Greeks, the ebb and flow of the ocean was attributed to the shifting moods of Poseidon. The seasonal change to winter was caused by the planet's sadness at Persephone's annual abduction into the underworld. For the Romans volcanoes were believed to be the home of Vulcan--blacksmith to the gods--who worked in a giant forge beneath the mountain, causing flames to spew out of his chimney.
Future generations will look at our current traditions, and conclude that we lived during an unenlightened time. As evidence they will point to our beliefs that we were divinely created in a magical garden, or that our omnipotent creator demands women cover their heads, or that we risk our lives to honor our gods.
How can it be that the modern human mind is capable of precise logical analysis, and yet simultaneously permits us to accept religious beliefs that should crumble under beneath even the slightest rational scrutiny. The answer is quite simple. The human brain is like an organic computer in that it has an operating system--a series of rules that organizes and defines all of the chaotic input that flows in all day long--language, a catchy tune, a siren, the taste of chocolate.
This stream of incoming information is frenetically diverse and relentless, and your brain must make sense of it. It is the very programming of our brain's operating system that defines our perception of reality. However the operating system for the human brain came about, it is not our fault that we believe the crazy things we believe. What kind of bizarre operating system would create such illogical output? If we could look inside the human mind at its operating system we would see that the prime directives are:
1. Despise chaos
2. Create order
This is our brain's root program and therefore this is exactly how humans are inclined. Against chaos, and in favor of order. The sound of someone banging randomly on a piano is unbearable. Yet when we take these same notes and arrange them in the better order of Claire de line, our brains rejoice. Same notes, same instrument, but Debussy creates order. And it is this same rejoicing in the creation of order that prompts humans to assemble jigsaw puzzles or straighten paintings on a wall.
In turn this tendency toward creating greater degrees of order enables our species to better serve its purpose by increasing its capability of dissipating energy in the universe by creating more entropy. Our predisposition to organization is written into our DNA, and so it should come as no surprise to us that the greatest invention the human mind has created is the computer--a machine designed specifically to help us create order out of chaos. Imagine then, that you have a powerful computer with access to all the information in the world. Probability suggests that you will eventually ask one of two fundamental questions that have captivated humans since we first became self-aware.
Where do we come from?
Where are we going?
These fundamental questions of human existence have always obsessed us and for much of my life I have dreamed of finding the answers. Tragically, on account of religious dogma, millions of people believve they already know the answers to these big questions. And because not every religion offers the same answers, entire cultures end up warring over whose answers are correct, which version of God's story is the "One True Story".
Since the beginning of religious history, our species has been caught in a never-ending cross-fire--atheists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, the faithful of all religions--and the only thing that unites us all is our deep longing for peace. Spiritual inquiry has always been the realm of religion, which encourages us to have a blind faith in its teachings, even when they make little logical sense. But faith, by its very definition requires placing your trust in something that is unseeable and undefinable, accepting as fact something for which there exists no empirical evidence. We all end up placing our faith in different things because there is no universal truth.
Science is the antithesis of faith and by definition is the attempt to find physical proof for that which is unknown or not yet defined, and to reject superstition and misperception in favor of observable facts. When science offers an answer, the answer is universal. Humans do not go to war over it; they rally round it.
The earliest known products of human imagination appear to express a primordial concern and struggle with thoughts of dying, of death, and of mortality. The structures and processes of imagination evolved in that struggle to make the initial apprehension of death more bearable and to engage in a search for alternative perceptions of death: a search that was beyond the capability of the external senses. This imagination evolved as flight and fight adaptations in response to debilitating fears that paralleled an emerging foreknowledge of death. Imagination, and symbolic language to express its perceptions, would eventually lead to today’s religious behavior and its development of cultural supports. The idea is that human culture as broadly defined--art, politics, technology, religion, and so on--evolves in much the same way that biological species evolve; new cultural traits arise and may flourish or perish, and as a result whole institutions and belief systems form and change. A new religious ritual can appear and gain a following in a localized population. New gods can be born and then grow. New ideas about gods can arise--like the idea that there's only one of them--as in the ideas passed down to us in the three Abrahamic faiths.
Whenever people sense the presence of a puzzling and momentous force, they want to believe that there is a way to comprehend it. Once there was a a belief in the supernatural, there was a demand for people who claim to fathom it. Judging by the hunter-gatherer societies that exist on the planet today, there was a supply to meet the demand. Though most hunter-gatherer societies have almost no structure in the modern sense of the word--little if any clear-cut political leadership, little division of economic labor--they do have religious experts. So do societies which are a shade more technologically advanced; societies that, though not fully agricultural, supplement their hunting and gathering with gardening or herding.
The emergence of a shaman, of religious leadership, was then a natural enough thing, Primordial religion consisted partly of people telling each other stories in an attempt to explain why good and bad things happen, to predict their happening, and if possible to intervene, thus raising the ratio of good to bad. Whenever such people--hunter-gatherers, stock analysts, whatever--compete in the realm of explanation, prediction, and intervention, some of them get a reputation for success. They become leaders in their field. Through such competition did shamanhood arise and sustain itself.
There is much additional evidence that in shamanism lie the origins of formal politics. Though there have been societies with shamans but no acknowledged political leader, there have been few if any societies with a political leader but no religious experts. Even shamans lacking explicit political power can exert great influence. They have often been counselors in matters of war and peace. When his society was contemplating the invasion of a neighboring people, and the shaman saw unfavorable omens, he would encourage diplomacy, if the omens were good, he would urge war. In addition to this kind of marshalling of antagonism, shamans have at times created it. Perhaps the most common way for a shaman to carry antagonism beyond the society is, having failed to cure an illness or improve the weather, to blame a shaman from a nearby people, like a modern politician who diverts attention from domestic failures by rattling the saber. One of religion's most infamous modern roles, fomenter of conflict between societies, was part of the story from the very beginning.
There are apparently two schools of thought on the virtues of modern as well as primitive religions. There are people who think religion serves society broadly, providing reassurance and hope in the face of fear and uncertainty, overcoming our natural selfishness with communal cohesion. And there are those who think religion is a tool of social control, wielded by the powerful for self-aggrandizement-- a tool that numbs people to their exploitation when it is not scaring them to death. With the invention of agriculture in the mid-East, the virtues of religion, and the character of the gods, would start to change.
The archaeological record indicates that in the twelfth century BCE, as the Bronze Age was giving way to the Iron Age, there was political and economic disruption, even collapse, across the Middle East. This would have been bad news for any nomadic Canaanite herders who were symbiotically intertwined with farmers in Canaanite villages and cities, accustomed to trading meat for grain. With the disruption of their markets, they might have been forced to give up their nomadic ways and to settle down and grow their own crops even as they continued to raise livestock. Amid this transitional chaos, a wave of settlements appeared on previously barren stretches of hill country in central Canaan. These settlements are oval shaped--the shape in which Middle Eastern sheepherders have long arranged their tents, forming a courtyard that housed their animals at night. But instead of tents there are simple walled homes, and unlike nomadic herders, these people had rudimentary farming tools. They seemed to be in flux, shifting from a nomadic to a sedentary life, now raising not just livestock but crops.
During this transition from the Bronze to the Iron Ages, new settlements arose well beyond the land that would eventually constitute Israel, in the areas the Bible calls Moab, Ammon, and Edom. The settlements in Israel feature no remains of pigs. This swath of pigless villages is the earliest archaeological evidence in Canaan of a distinct group of people that can be called Israelite. Long after the first good evidence of a distinct Israelite people, there was ongoing contact with the Canaanite culture broadly. Various data, including a lack of fortifications and weapons in those early villages, suggests that contact was often peaceful. There is every reason to believe that the advent of Israelite monotheism took place here after centuries of immersion in Canaanite culture and is a logical outgrowth of that culture.
In Canaan's ancient city of Ugarit, translated texts have indicated that at the end of the Bronze Age, on the eve of Israel's birth, there was held a divine council. And the God most often depicted as its chief--a god named El--bears a curious resemblance to Yahweh. Both gods were strong yet sensitive. El was seen as a "bull" yet was also called "Kind El, the compassionate. Similarly, Yahweh, even in that early appearance as a warrior god, was driven by his compassion for the Israelites--"thy steadfast love" for "the people whom thou hast redeemed." Both gods appeared in dreams, became the patrons of the dreamers, and spoke often through prophets. And both were paternalistic creator gods: El was "creator of creatures" and "father of humanity." El was the divine father par excellence. The literal meaning of the Ugaritic term for the Canaanite "divine council" is "Council of El." Hebrew rendering of the "divine council" on which God sits in Psalm 82, is adat El or "Council of El." Given that the Canaanite El appears on the historical record before the Israelite god Yahweh, it is tempting to conclude that Yahweh in some way emerged from El, and may even have started life as a renamed version of El. Early Israelite religion grew out of earlier religions, "pagan" religions, just as they had done.
In the Bible's Deuteronomnistic perspective and Israel's founding myth--Israelites roll in from Egypt in the Exodus and squash the native Canaanites--but in the archaeological reconstruction the nation of Israel emerged from within Canaan, and there it crystalized. Reclassifying indigenous Canaanite traditions as alien was part of that crystalization, part of the process by which Israel carved out an identity against the backdrop of Middle Eastern culture. As it happens, this naturally emerging myth found synergy with emerging, intertwined realities--political ones, like the Israelites' perilous international environment and a royal imperative to centralize power, and theological ones like monolatry. And out of it, eventually, grew the more modern god of late Israelite religion; a single, transcendent all-powerful, all knowing god--the god of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It would be a god of unprecedented influence, a god that in various centuries would dominate peoples who were dominant in the world.
If tribesman and townsman in the Middle East were not different races, but just men in different social and economic stages, a family resemblance might be expected in the working of their minds, and so it was only reasonable that common elements should appear in the product of all these peoples. At the very outset, we Europeans saw a universal clearness or hardness in their beliefs, almost mathematical in its limitation, and repellent in its unsympathetic form. Semites had no half-tones in their register of vision. They were a people of primary colors, or rather of black and white, who saw the world always in contour. They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern crown of thorns. They did not understand our metaphysical difficulties, our introspective questionings. They knew only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hesitating retinue of finer shades.
Americans and Europeans stand out from the rest of the world for our sense of ourselves as individuals. We like to think of ourselves as unique, autonomous, self-motivated, self-made. in many ways this would have been a peculiar idea to Semites. People in their part of the world were more likely to understand themselves as interwoven with other people — as interdependent, not independent. In such social worlds, your goal is to fit in and adjust yourself to others, not to stand out. People imagine themselves as part of a larger whole — threads in a web, not lone horsemen on the frontier.
Semites were black and white, not only in vision, but by inmost furnishing: black and white not merely in clarity, but in apposition. Their thoughts were at ease only in extremes. They inhabited superlatives by choice. Sometimes inconsistents seemed to possess them at once in joint sway; but they never compromised: they pursued the logic of several incompatible opinions to absurd ends, without perceiving the incongruity. With cool head and tranquil judgement, imperturbably unconscious of the flight, they oscillated from asymptote to asymptote.
They were a limited, narrow-minded people, whose inert intellects lay fallow in incurious resignation. Their imaginations were vivid, but not creative. There was so little Semitic art in Asia that they could almost be said to have had no art, though their classes were liberal patrons, and had encouraged whatever talents in architecture, or ceramics, or other handicraft their neighbors and helots displayed. Nor did they handle great industries: they had no organizations of mind or body. They invented no systems of philosophy, no complex mythologies. They steered their course between the idols of the tribe and of the cave. The least morbid of peoples, they had accepted the gift of life unquestioningly, as axiomatic. To them it was a thing inevitable, entailed on man, a usufruct, beyond control. Suicide was a thing impossible, and death no grief.
In 722 BCE the Assyrian Empire to the northeast of Canaan beseiged northern Israel's capital of Samaria and after subduing the city, deported a big chunk of its population --the ten lost tribes of Israel. Now the sole repository of Israelite heritage was the kingdom of Judah, to the south. It's no surprise that, by the time the northern kingdom fell, its isolationist foreign policy, along with its theological corollary--an aversion to gods with foreign pedigrees--had found a large enough audience so that its message would survive and be carried to Judah by its advocates as they fled the Assyrian onslaught. Judah's ensuing history would have its bright spots but over the next century it would remain in the problematic position of being a very small state in a region dominated by an aggressive Mesopotamian superpower (first Assyria, and then the Chaldean, or Neo-Babylonian Empire).
In 586 BCE King Zedekiah of Judah rebelled against the Babylonians, they captured him, killed his sons before his eyes, plucked out those eyes, then burned Yahweh's temple in Jerusalem to the ground. They then completed a process they'd started years earlier, the transfer of Israel's upper classes to Babylon. Now the Babylonian exile--the most famous trauma in the story of ancient Israel--was in full swing. And yet, this would turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to Yahweh as the theology of worshipping Yahweh and Yahweh alone would not only survive and prevail, but prevail in grander, intensified form.
From their primitive beginnings, the Israelites had been a war confederacy, a political community with territorial aims and enemies against whom they were constantly battling. Their God was a war God, to whom they prayed for support. In this respect, he was like other gods, only stronger (in the eyes of his followers at least). The Israelites' belief in the exceptional strength of their God was vindicated by their triumph over their political foes, and the establishment of a territorial state centered on a temple devoted to his worship under a closed caste of priests.
Now the Israelite state was overwhelmed by the great empires that bordered it on all sides. But instead of taking this as a reason to abandon the God who had been unable to secure their political existence, the Israelites construed their defeat as a sign of their divine protector instead. They interpreted the meaning of their defeat as an expression that became the nursery bed of the Christian religion. It is Christianity that transforms the Jews' theodicy of suffering into a universal theology in which all differences among peoples vanish in the general concept of man.
Yahweh has become as proclaimed by Isaiah "God of the whole earth," and then the question arises as to what his stance toward the whole earth will be. And what will Israel's relation to the rest of the the world be after Israel's suffering ends? The answer, as commonly rendered, is inspiring, God promises that he will "bring forth justice to the nations." He is universal not just in his power, but in his concern, and this expanded sympathy gives Israel a momentous mission. Yaweh says, in a much quoted line, "I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may lead to the end of the earth. Jews--and then Christians and then Muslims--would come to believe that the Abrahamic god was not just the only god worth worshipping, but the only god in existence; monolatry would evolve into monotheism.
Orchestrating a seismic theological revolution isn't the kind of thing you do overnight. But there's one thing the exile gave Israelite intellectuals, it was time to moll the situation. They spent about a half century in Babylon before the Persians; having conquered the Babylonians and thus having inherited the Israelites, started sending them back to Canaan, where many Israelites had remained all along. In Jerusalem ideas shaped in the refiner's fire of exile would eventually carry the day.
For a thousand years or more, the Hebrews had done without a single, collective sacred text. But in Babylon they had heard over and over again the Enuma Elish with its praise of Marduk, who created the first humans. The Enuma Elish had, in turn, evolved from the great epic of Gilgamesh that circulated in the Near East for many centuries before the Hebrews decided to write their account of humankind's earliest days: a tale of joyous sexual initiation; a gradual ascent from wildness to civility; and a difficult, reluctant acceptance of morality. The trauma of exile, along with the threatened loss of cultural memory, may well have triggered the key determination to bring together the stories and the laws with which the Hebrews defined who they were. For it is in this strange soil--a defeated and embittered people, repatriated at the whim of a foreign prince--that the Bible as we know it seems to have taken root.
Behind the decision to compile the sacred book lay the fear expressed by Ezra the scribe--the leader of a large body of the exiles back to Jerusalem--that the Hebrews had "not separated themselves from the people of the lands" (Ezra 9:1). Already before the exile, this fear of contamination had been a major theme. The prophets raged that the cult of Abraham had become twisted together with observances they regarded as abominations. Seventy years of exile had only made things much worse. The Hebrews had adopted the customs, beliefs, and dress of others. They had intertwined the cult of Yahweh with cults devoted to rival gods, and most threatening of all, they had begun to intermarry.
According to Ezra, the homeland to which the Jews returned was "an unclean land with the filthiness of the people of the lands, with their abominations, which have filled it from one end to another with their uncleanliness" (Ezra 9:11). Ezra wept, tore his hair, rent his garments, and launched a campaign against intermarraige. And when the ethnic cleansing was complete and the foreign wives and children were all sent away, he gathered the people before him, stood up upon a pulpit of wood, opened a book, and began to read it out loud.
What do you do when warnings and denounciations are not enough? How do you eradicate old legends to which people had long been devoted or stop new rules that were constantly entering the land along the trade routes? It is one thing to pull down an altar you regard as an abomination. The act is relatively easy, particularly when the forces of monotheistic piety are in the ascendant. But the suppressed cults tend to spring up again like weeds. You can, in a frenzy of xenophobia, send away foreign wives and children, but the emotional cost must have been very high. And after a few years, there would always be more foreign wives and children, along with more alluring alien cults. How do you uproot deeply held beliefs? You change the story.
The dream of a master text, the truth stripped of all uncleanliness, was part of a concerted effort to resist the powerful culture of the surrounding peoples, to refuse their reigning divinities, abjure their forms of worship, and reject their accounts of the world. It is likely that his dream originated even before the return to Jerusalem, when the Hebrews were still weeping by the waters of Babylon. Significant portions of the book, such as the story of Adam and Eve or of Abraham and Isaac, may have already been available, written independently in separate parts over many centuries. Bringing these parts together would have served as an alternative to the ruined Temple, a substitute for what had been lost. In the long history of the Jews, in any case this role is precisely what the sacred text, the Torah, played.
The Torah helped to turn Hebrews--a tribal people occupying a particular, highly vulnerable territory--into Jews. Already the prophets had begun to envisage a new covenant, not between Yahweh and the nation, but between Yahweh and the individual. Marduk might seem for the moment quite overwhelming, but he was a god inseparably linked to the city he protected and to the king whose power he upheld. When the walls crumbled, the king was toppled, and Babylon became the haunt of foxes and jackals, then Marduk would fall. There was no doubt in the minds of the prophets that this time was coming. And when it did, they, the Jews, would remain. They would be in possession of a sacred book--not an esoteric tract bound up with the fate of a particular city and its priests and king, but a collective treasure that recorded for all humankind the deeds of Yahweh, the all powerful Creator. They would become what in Hebrew is called Am HaSefer, the People of the Book.
They were a people of spasms, of upheavals, of ideas, the race of the individual genius. Their movements were the more shocking by contrast with the quietude of every day, their great men greater by contrast with the humanity of their mob. Their convictions were by instinct, their activities intuitional. Their largest manufacture was of creeds: almost they were monopolists of revealed religions. Three of these efforts had endured among them: two of the three had also borne export (in modified forms) to non-Semitic peoples. Christianity, translated into the diverse spirits of Greek and Latin and Teutonic tongues, had conquered Europe and America. Islam in various transformations was subjecting Africa and parts of Asia. These were Semitic successes. Their failures they kept to themselves. The fringes of their deserts were strewn with broken faiths.
It was significant that this wrack of fallen religions lay about the meeting of the desert and the sown. It pointed to the generation of all these creeds. They were assertions, not arguments; so they required a prophet to set them forth. The Semites said that there had been forty thousand prophets: and we have record of at least some hundreds. None of them had been of the wilderness; but their lives were after a pattern. Their birth set them in crowded places. An unintelligible passionate yearning drove them out into the desert. There they lived a greater or lesser time in meditation and physical abandonment; and thence they returned with their imagined message articulate, to preach it to their old, and now doubting, associates. The founders of the three great creeds fulfilled this cycle: their possible coincidence was proved a law by the parallel life-histories of the myriad others, the unfortunate who failed, whom we might judge of no less true profession, but for whom time and disillusion had not heaped up dry souls ready to be set on fire. To the thinkers of the town the impulse into the desert had ever been irresistible, not probably that they found God dwelling there, but that in its solitude they heard more certainly the living word they brought with them.
The Bedouin of the desert, born and grown up in it, had embraced with all his soul this nakedness too harsh for volunteers, for the reason, felt but inarticulate, that there he found himself indubitably free. He lost material ties, comforts, all superfluities and other complications to achieve a personal liberty which haunted starvation and death. He saw no virtue in poverty itself: he enjoyed the little vices and luxuries—coffee, fresh water, women—which he could still preserve. In his life he had air and winds, sun and light, open spaces and a great emptiness. There was no human effort, no fecundity in Nature: just the heaven above and the unspotted earth beneath. There unconsciously he came near God. God was to him not anthropomorphic, not tangible, not moral nor ethical, not concerned with the world or with him, not natural: but the being αχρωματος, ασχηματιστος, αναφης thus qualified not by divestiture but by investiture, a comprehending Being, the egg of all activity, with nature and matter just a glass reflecting Him.
The Beduin could not look for God within him: he was too sure that he was within God. He could not conceive anything which was or was not God, Who alone was great; yet there was a homeliness, an everyday-ness of this climatic Arab God, who was their eating and their fighting and their lusting, the commonest of their thoughts, their familiar resource and companion, in a way impossible to those whose God is so wistfully veiled from them by despair of their carnal unworthiness of Him and by the decorum of formal worship. The Bedouin felt no incongruity in bringing God into the weaknesses and appetites of their least creditable causes. He was the most familiar of their words; and indeed we lost much eloquence when making Him the shortest and ugliest of our monosyllables.
This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words, and indeed in thought. It was easily felt as an influence, and those who went into the desert long enough to forget its open spaces and its emptiness were inevitably thrust upon God as the only refuge and rhythm of being. The Bedawi might be a nominal Sunni, or a nominal Wahabi, or anything else in the Semitic compass, and he would take it very lightly, a little in the manner of the watchmen at Zion’s gate who drank beer and laughed in Zion because they were Zionists. Each individual nomad had his revealed religion, not oral or traditional or expressed, but instinctive in himself; and so we got all the Semitic creeds with (in character and essence) a stress on the emptiness of the world and the fullness of God; and according to the power and opportunity of the believer was the expression of them.
The desert dweller could not take credit for his belief. He had never been either evangelist or proselyte. He arrived at this intense condensation of himself in God by shutting his eyes to the world, and to all the complex possibilities latent in him which only contact with wealth and temptations could bring forth. He attained a sure trust and a powerful trust, but of how narrow a field! His sterile experience robbed him of compassion and perverted his human kindness to the image of the waste in which he hid. Accordingly he hurt himself, not merely to be free, but to please himself. There followed a delight in pain, a cruelty which was more to him than goods. The desert Arab found no joy like the joy of voluntarily holding back. He found luxury in abnegation, renunciation, self restraint. He made nakedness of the mind as sensuous as nakedness of the body. He saved his own soul, perhaps, and without danger, but in a hard selfishness. His desert was made a spiritual ice-house, in which was preserved intact but unimproved for all ages a vision of the unity of God. To it sometimes the seekers from the outer world could escape for a season and look thence in detachment at the nature of the generation they would convert.
This faith of the desert was impossible in the towns. It was at once too strange, too simple, too impalpable for export and common use. The idea, the ground-belief of all Semitic creeds was waiting there, but it had to be diluted to be made comprehensible to us. The scream of a bat was too shrill for many ears: the desert spirit escaped through our coarser texture. The prophets returned from the desert with their glimpse of God, and through their stained medium (as through a dark glass) showed something of the majesty and brilliance whose full vision would blind, deafen, silence us, serve us as it had served the Beduin, setting him uncouth, a man apart.
The disciples, in the endeavour to strip themselves and their neighbours of all things according to the Master’s word, stumbled over human weaknesses and failed. To live, the villager or townsman must fill himself each day with the pleasures of acquisition and accumulation, and by rebound of circumstance become the grossest and most material of men. The shining contempt of life which led others into the barest asceticism drove him to despair. He squandered himself heedlessly, as a spendthrift: ran through his inheritance of flesh in hasty longing for the end. The Jew in the Metropole at Brighton, the miser, the worshipper of Adonis, the lecher in the stews of Damascus were alike signs of the Semitic capacity for enjoyment, and expressions of the same nerve which gave us at the other pole the self-denial of the Essenes, or the early Christians, or the first Khalifas, finding the way to heaven fairest for the poor in spirit. The Semite hovered between lust and self-denial.
Arabs could be swung on an idea as on a cord; for the unpledged allegiance of their minds made them obedient servants. None of them would escape the bond till success had come, and with it responsibility and duty and engagements. Then the idea was gone and the work ended—in ruins. Without a creed they could be taken to the four corners of the world (but not to heaven) by being shown the riches of earth and the pleasures of it; but if on the road, led in this fashion, they met the prophet of an idea, who had nowhere to lay his head and who depended for his food on charity or birds, then they would all leave their wealth for his inspiration. They were incorrigibly children of the idea, feckless and colour-blind, to whom body and spirit were for ever and inevitably opposed. Their mind was strange and dark, full of depressions and exaltations, lacking in rule, but with more of ardour and more fertile in belief than any other in the world. They were a people of starts, for whom the abstract was the strongest motive, the process of infinite courage and variety, and the end nothing. They were as unstable as water, and like water would perhaps finally prevail. Since the dawn of life, in successive waves they had been dashing themselves against the coasts of flesh. Each wave was broken, but, like the sea, wore away ever so little of the granite on which it failed, and some day, ages yet, might roll unchecked over the place where the material world had been, and God would move upon the face of those waters. The Saul/Paul wave of Christianity raised and rolled before the breath of an idea, till it reached its crest. The wash of that wave, thrown back by the resistance of vested things, would provide the matter of the following wave, when in fullness of time the sea would be raised once more.
Muhammad, like Jesus before him, was intensely apocalyptic in a left-wing way; and he believed that judgment day would bring a radical inversion of fortunes. His basic claim was that he was a prophet sent by the god who had first revealed himself to Abraham and later had spoken through Moses and Jesus. The Quran is full of stories from the Bible and allusions to the Bible, including a monotheistic declaration that seems to be to come right out of Isaiah: There is no God beside me." In a sense we can think of him as a man who had the ingenuity to fill a wide-open spiritual niche. He took a foreign god that was already making inroads into Arabia and became that god's official Arab-language spokesman. In the Quran's scenario, Judeo-Christian theology was transmitted to the Jews and Christians by God and then to Muhammad by God. When God, in the Quran, tells Muhammad that he has "made it an Arabic Quran that ye may understand: And it is a transcript of the archetypal Book," the archetypal Book isn't the Bible. Rather, the archetypal book is the word of God, the Logos of which the Bible is equally a "transcript." Muhammad didn't get the Word via Moses. Rather, like Moses, he had a direct line to God.
As had the Christians when they developed the idea of "contingent salvation" for the faithful who lived a life free of sin, Muhammad faced a steep motivational challenge which he met by offering his followers simple long-term compensation. After resurrection, these people of the desert could live amid "tall trees clad with fruit, and in extended shade, and by flowing waters." There would be "couches with linings of brocade" on which you could lie while food was "within easy reach." There would be "damsels" with retiring glances" whom no man "had touched before." Somehow these dark-eyed beauties would remain "ever virgins, dear to their spouses." And they would never age--something they had in common with their husbands." The social standing of Muhammad's followers must have made these images all the more satisfying. When you're not rich and your enemy is, his impending demise acquires a special glow. "He thinketh surely that his wealth shall be with him forever. Nay! For verily he will be flung into the Crushing Fire." Don't worry, said Muhammad to his followers: "Let them feast and enjoy themselves, and let hope beguile them; but they shall know the truth at last. Many a time will the infidels wish that they were Muslims."
While we will never know what Jesus would have been like had his mission succeeded politically before he could be crucified and we'll never know what Moses would have been like had he wound up with a potent army at his disposal; in Muhammad's case we know. After a decade of preaching in Mecca, he and a band of followers went to Medina where he was about to acquire real power, and things were about to change. At this time there was no centralized governance of the tribes in Medina, much less in the Arabian Peninsula. By the time he died in 632, tribes in Medina, Mecca, and much of surrounding Arabia acknowledged his authority. Five years later, Islamic rule would encompass not just the Arabs, but Syrians--people who we now consider Arabs but who didn't speak the Arabic language before they came into Islam's fold. And, as Muslim armies were taking Syria from the Byzantine Empire, they were also taking Iraq from the Persian Empire. Next came Egypt and Palestine; within a decade of the Prophet's death, both had passed from Byzantine to Islamic hands, and the conquest of Iran, heart of the Persian Empire had begun. In the quarter century after Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina, possessing less power than the mayor of a small town, an "Islamic State" formed and became a multinational empire.
So how is Abrahamic religion doing at coaxing the development of a moral purpose for humankind? In Israel's formative stages there seemed to be a benefit accruing to the building of a tribal confederacy by extending the moral imaginations further than the instincts built for a hunter-gatherer, kill or be killed mentality. Hence the Ten Commandments, and the idea that you should "love" your Israelite neighbor. An essential property of love is to be able to share in the perspective of the beloved. Christians think of Jesus as a man who brought the Jews a radically new message of personal salvation and was determined to carry it to the peoples of the world. But Jesus was himself a Jew, preaching to other Jews, and his essential message was probably a familiar one--a message of national salvation, a message about the coming restoration of Israel to greatness. His agenda probably didn't include transethnic outreach or its moral corollary, a brotherly love that knows no national bounds. That doctrine entered Christianity in the decades after his death when under the marketing direction of Paul, we see the building of a vast religious organization within the Roman Empire, where the stress was on brotherly love extending across ethnic bounds. Finally as Islam is constructed, an intertribal religious organization becomes an expanding imperial government emphasizing both of these things, extending affinity beyond the bounds of tribes and ethnicities. Even when the Abrahamic religions are defensive and inward-looking, we can see Muslims identifying with Muslims half a world away and Christians and Jews doing the same. In all cases, that's a bigger moral compass than existed anywhere on our planet 20,000 years ago, when all religions were "savage" religions. Moreover, within all three of these faiths you see some people working to extend the moral imagination beyond the bounds of their particular religion.
On June 29, 2014, at the start of Ramadan, the radical group that the western press called ISIS or ISIL renamed themselves as a new "Islamic State" and declared their intention to bring about the return of the caliphate initially established by Muhammad's armies at the end of the seventh century. The vast collection of "emirates, groups, states, and organizations" that had selfishly splintered the original caliphate were declared null and void. This specifically included all other jihadist groups noting that ""We do not find any (Islamic legal) excuse for justifying holding back from supporting the new Islamic State" adding ominously, "And if you forsake the state or wage war against it, you will not harm it, You will only harm yourselves."
In the month before, the propagandists of the "islamic State" released a sixty-two minute video called "The Clanging of the Swords Part IV" which began with aerial footage of the Iraqi city of Falujah filmed by a drone. The ISIS drone was little more than a hobbyist's toy, a flying camera remote controlled by radio, but the symbolism was powerful and clear: The enemy's most feared and hated weapon was now part of the ISIS arsenal.
What followed was an untrammeled show of strength. As the narrater boasted of the vast area controlled by ISIS, masked jihadis paraded in armored columns through the streets, with apparently admiring throngs gathering to watch. After a rousing speech, a chanter (nasheed) played over gripping scenes of car-to-car combat, incongruously framed by a Native American dream catcher ornament swinging from the driver's rear view mirror.
Captions claimed the victims were Shi'a soldiers on their way to join Iraqi military units, but to all appearances, the ISIS fighters were driving around shooting at whatever random random cars they passed and even pedestrians. When the camera panned over the dead occupants of one beat-up old vehicle, the victims were young men dressed in shorts and t-shirts. Most of their targets were visibly unharmed . Only the captions differentiated the scene from an indiscriminate massacre.
"The clash of swords is the song of the defiant," singers chanted in Arabic over the slaughter," and the path of fighting is the path of life".
Following the brutal carnage, the tone changed. In the public meeting, ISIS fighters offered clemency to anyone who had fought them in the past if they would only renounce the errors of their ways. One man after another stepped up, publically recanted, and received warm embraces.
A considerable amount of combat follows, this time against visibly armed, military targets, followed by a suicide bombing and a checkpoint operation. Foreign fighters are shown burning their passports and renouncing the citizenship of their native lands. The shift between fighting scenes, executions, and noncomat events helps elevate the ultraviolent scenes, giving a feeling that while ISIS is unapolically brutal, it has more to offer than just violence.
"Oh our people, Ahlus Sunna (adherents to the traditions of Islam), indeed the Islamist State exists only to defend you, and protect your rights, and stand in the face of your enemies," a narrater says, "Indeed, the Islamic State is your one hopr, after Allah."
About halfway into the hour long video, the executions of prisoners begins, folloed by scenes of sniper killings. The body count at this point reached into the dozens and ISIS hasn't finished yet. At the thirty-seeven minute mark, a cameraman interviewed captured Iraqi soldiers who were forced to dig their own graves. More combat and ambushes follow, periodically interspersed with scenes of ISIS's mercy toward those who would disavow their previous opposition.
"We don't want you to come to this place and repent out of fear of us, because if you fear us, there's no good in you," a masked speaker told one gathering ,"We want your repentance and return to be due to the fear of Allah."
"Oh my ummah a new dawn has emerged, so witness the clear victory," the singers chant. "The Islamic State has been established by the blood of the truthful. No one will ever stand between the mujahideen and their people in Iraq after this day." The Islamic State has attacked, and surrounded the tyrants," they sang.
Over the final scene of a mujahideen slowly walking, carrying the black ISIS flag, a narrator closes out the video with reference to an apocallptic prophecy. "and so the flame was started in Iraq, and its heat will increaseby the will of Allah until it burns the crusaders in Dabiq", a town in Syria that ISIS adherents believe will be the location of a decisive battle with the "Crusaders."
Using lessons learned from Hollywood filmakers, Soviet propagandists, video game scenarios, and sophisticated televangelism; the "Clanging of the Swords VI" was wildly successful in reaching bored young people around the world. It racked millions of views on video sharing platforms. The overarching theme of ISIS propaganda had been condensed and purified , and the message was "we are strong, and we are winning."
My purpose in reviewing this propaganda effort is to alert my readers to the fact that the "Islamic State" is not another of the cartoon-like creations of our greedy infotainment industry but is, instead, another opportunity for our generation to get a close hand look at an old familiar theme called "My God is Better than Your God".
In most of my musings on this web site, I have been trying to point out the importance of a scientific or mathematic perspective for participating in the decision making processes of a democracy. But science and mathematics do not give instructions as to how to do good against how to do evil. I'll put it another way. Science creates power but there are no instructions along with the power, and the question of applying the science or not is essentially the problem of organizing the application in a way that doesn't do too much harm and does as much good as possible. But, of course, sometimes people in science try to say it is not their responsibility, because the application is just the power to do; it is independent of what you do with it. But it certainly is in some sense true that to create for mankind the power to control this is good, probably, in spite of the difficulties that he has in trying to figure out how to control the power to do himself good rather than evil.
I believe that the next science to find itself in moral difficulties with its applications is biology and if the problems of physics relative to science seem difficult, the problems of the development of biological knowledge will be even more difficult. These problems were hinted at in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" but you can think of a number of other things. For example, if energy in the future can be supplied freely and easily by physics, then it is a matter of mere chemistry to put together the atoms in such a way as to produce food, from energy that the atoms have conserved, so that you can produce as much food as there are waste products from human beings; and there is therefore a conservation of material and no food problems. There will be serious social problems when we find out how to control heredity, as to what kind of control, good or bad, to use. Suppose that we were to discover the physiological basis of happiness or other feelings, such as the feeling of ambition, and suppose that we could then control whether somebody feels ambitious or does not feel ambitious. And finally there is death.
It is one of the most remarkable things that in all of the biological sciences there is no clue as to the necessity of death. If you say we want to make perpetual motion, enough laws have been discovered in the study of physics to see that it is either absolutely impossible or else the laws are wrong. But there is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death. This suggests that it is not at all inevitable, and that it is only a matter of time before the biologists discover what it is that is causing us the trouble and that terrible universal disease or temporariness of the human body will be cured. Anyhow, you can see that there will be problems of a fantastic magnitude coming from biology.
The fact is that we are all made of atoms, the enormous ranges of time and space that there are, the position of ourselves historically as a result of a remarkable evolutionary sequence; and further, the most remarkable aspect of our scientific worldview is its universality in the sense that although we talk about our being specialists, we are really not. One of the most promising hypotheses in all of biology is that everything the animals do or that living creatures do can be understood in terms of what atoms can do, that is, in terms of physical laws, ultimately, and the perpetual attention to this possibility--so far no exception has been demonstrated--has again and again made suggestions as to how the mechanisms actually occur. So that the fact that our knowledge is in fact universal is something that is not completely appreciated, that the position of the theories are so complete that we hunt for exceptions and find them very hard to find--in the physics at least--and the great expense of all our machines and so on is to find some exception to what is already known. And, otherwise, that is another aspect of the fact that the world is so wonderful in the sense that stars are made of the same atoms as the cows and as ourselves, and as stones.
From time to time I muse on these topics in an attempt to communicate to unscientific friends and family about the scientific worldview--and I sometimes get into difficulty most often because I get confused in trying to explain the latest questions, such as the meaning of the Higgs boson, whereas most people don't know anything about the most preliminary things. For four hundred years since Galileo, scientists have been gathering information about the world which they didn't know. Now physicists are working on something way out, and at the limits of scientific knowledge. And the things that appear in the newspaper and that seem to excite the adult imagination are always those things which they cannot possibly understand, because they haven't learned anything at all of the much more interesting, well-known (to scientists) things that people have found out before. It's not the case with children, thank goodness, for a while--at least until they become adults.
People--I mean the average person, the enormous majority of people--are woefully, pitifully, absolutely ignorant of the science of the world that they live in, and they can stay that way. I don't mean to say the heck with them, what I mean is that they are able to stay that way without it worrying them at all--only mildly--so from time to time when they see the Higgs boson mentioned in the newspaper they ask what it is. And an interesting question of the relation of science to modern society is just that--why is it possible for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modern society when so much knowledge is unavailable to them. The answer seems to be that science is irrelevant.
It is probable that the human mind evolved from that of an animal; and it evolves in a certain way such that it is like any new tool, in that it has its diseases and difficulties. It has its troubles and one of the troubles is that it gets polluted by its own superstitions, it confuses itself, and the discovery was finally made of a way to keep it sort of in line so that scientists can make a little progress in some direction rather than to go around in circles and force themselves into a hold. The beginnings of this new discovery were in the time of Galileo.
The first of these ideas is the matter of judging evidence--well, the first thing really is, before you begin you must not know the answer. So you begin by being uncertain as to what the answer is. This is very, very important, so important that I would delay that aspect while I muse further. The question of doubt and uncertainty is what is necessary to begin; for if you already know the answer there is no need to gather any evidence about it. Being uncertain, the next thing is to look for evidence, and the scientific method is to begin with trials. But another way and a very important one that should not be neglected and that is very vital is to put together ideas to try to enforce a logical consistency among the various things that you know. It is a very valuable thing to try to connect this, what you know, with that, that you know, and try to find out if they are consistent. And the more activity in the direction of trying to put together the ideas of different directions, the better it is.
After we look for the evidence we have to judge the evidence. There are the usual rules about the judging of evidence, to try to maintain some objectivity about the thing--enough to keep the thing going--not to ultimately depend upon authority. Authority may be a hint as to what the truth is, but it is not the source of information. As long as it's possible, we should disregard authority whenever the observations disagree with it. And finally, the recording of results should be done in a disinterested way. That's a very funny phrase which means that after a guy's all done with the thing, he doesn't give a damn about the results, but that isn't the point. Disinterest here means that they are not reported in such a way as to try to influence the hearer into an idea that is different than what the evidence indicates.
All of these ideas, and all of these techniques are in the spirit of Galileo Galilei. This man had a great deal to do with the development and the spreading and, most importantly, the demonstration of the power of these ways of looking at things. We follow his traditions exactly--even to the details of making numerical measurements and using those as one of the better tools, in the physics at least. And all of the sciences have developed in a very good way directly and continuously from his original ideas, in the same spirit he developed. And as a result there are no more witches and ghosts.
The physics, mechanics, and such things, have of course developed, but the same techniques worked in biology, in history, geology, anthropology, and so on. We know a great deal about the past history of man, the past history of animals, and of the earth, through very similar techniques. With somewhat similar success, but not quite as complete because of the difficulties, the same systems work in economics. But there are places where only lip service is paid to the forms--in which many people just go through the motions--such as the social sciences. There is a lot of studying of the methods of education going on, particularly of the teaching of arithmetic--but if you try to find out what is really known about what is the better way to teach arithmetic than some other way, you will discover that there is an enormous number of studies and a great deal of statistics, but they are all disconnected from one another and they are mixtures of anecdotes, uncontrolled experiments, and very poorly controlled experiments, so that there is very little information as a result.
So why do we still have so much craziness in the world since Galileo? Why is our regular social environment so actively, intensely unscientific. There is faith-healing galore, all over. There is a whole religion of faith healing. There's a miracle at Lourdes where healing goes on. Now it might be true that astrology is right. It might be true that if you go to the dentist on the day that Mars is at right angles to Venus, that it is better than if you go on a different day. It might be true that you can be cured by the miracle of Lourdes. But if it is true it ought to be investigated. Why? To improve it. If it is true then maybe we can find out if the stars do influence life; that we could make the system more powerful by investigating statistically, scientifically judging the evidence objectively, more carefully. If the healing process works at Lourdes, the question is how far from the site of the miracle can the person, who is ill, stand? Have they in fact made a mistake and the back row is really not working? Or is it working so well that there is plenty of room for more people to be arranged near the place of the miracle. Or is it possible, as it is with the saints which have recently been created--there is a saint who cured leukemia apparently indirectly--that ribbons that are touched to the sheet of a sick person (the ribbon having previously touched some relic of the saint) increase the cure of leukemia--the question is, is it gradually being diluted? If we are to believe in the truth of the healing, then we are responsible to investigate it, to improve its efficiency and to make it satisfactory instead of cheating. For example, it may turn out that after a hundred touches it doesn't work anymore? Now it's also possible that the results of this investigation have other consequences, namely that nothing is there.
I also wanted to mention the things that the theologians in modern times can discuss without feeling ashamed of themselves. There are many things that they can discuss that they need not feel ashamed of themselves, but some of the things that go on in the conferences on religion, and the decisions that have to be made, are ridiculous in modern times. I would like to explain that one of the difficulties, and one of the reasons why this can keep going, is that it is not realized what a profound modification of our worldview would result, if just one example of one of these things would really work. The whole idea, if you could establish the truth, not of the whole idea of astrology but just one little item, could have fantastic influence on our understanding of the world. And so the reasons scientists laugh a little bit is that they are so confident of our view of the world that they are sure that they aren't going to contribute anything. On the other hand, why don't we get rid of these things?
There is still another thing which is a little more doubtful, but I still believe that in the judging of evidence, the reporting of evidence and so on, there is a kind of responsibility which scientists feel toward each other which you can represent as a kind of morality. What's the right way and the wrong way to report results? Disinterestedly, so that the other man is free to understand precisely what you are saying, and as nearly as possible not covering it with your desires. That this is a useful thing, that this is a thing that helps each of us to understand each other, in fact to develop in a way that isn't personally in our own interest, but for general development of ideas, is a very valuable thing. And so there is, if you will, a kind of scientific morality.
I believe, hopelessly, that this morality should be extended more widely; this idea, this kind of scientific morality, that such things as propaganda should be a dirty word. That a description of a country made by the people of another country should describe that country in a disinterested way. Advertising is an example of a scientifically immoral description of products. This immorality is so extensive that we get used to it in ordinary life, and lose the sense that it is a bad thing. And I think that one of the important reasons to increase the contact of scientists with the rest of society is to explain, and to kind of wake them up to this permanent attrition of cleverness of the mind that comes from not having information, or not having information in a form which is interesting.
There are other things in which scientific methods would be of some value; they are perfectly obvious but they get more and more difficult to discuss--such things as making decisions. I do not mean that it should be done scientifically such as the Rand Company sits down and makes mathematical calculations. One thing that gives a scientific man the creeps in the world today is the way that the two political parties in the United States have decided to employ public relations men, that is, advertising men, who are trained in the necessary methods of telling the truth and lying in order to develop a product. This wasn't the original idea. They are supposed to discuss situations and not just make-up slogans. It's true, if you look in history, however, that choosing political leaders in the United States has been on many different occasions based on slogans.
I have said that science is irrelevant to most people. That sounds strange and I would like to return to it. Of course, it is relevant because of the fact that it is relevant to astrology; because if we understand how the astrological phenomena can take place. And so that is relevant. But for people who believe in astrology there is no relevance, because the scientist never bothers to argue with them. The people who believe in faith healing have not to worry about science at all, because nobody argues with them. You don't have to learn science if you don't feel like it. So you can forget the whole business if it is too much mental strain, which it usually is. Why can you forget the whole business? Because you don't do anything about it. I believe that we must attack these things in which we do not believe. Not attack by the method of cutting off the heads of the people, but attack in the sense of discuss. I believe that we should demand that people try in their own minds to obtain for themselves a more consistent picture of their own world; that they not permit themselves the luxury of having their own brain cut in four pieces or two pieces even, and on one side they believe this and on the other side they believe that, but never try to compare the two points of view. Because we have learned that, by trying to put the points of view that we have in our head together and comparing them to one another, we make some progress in understanding and in appreciating where we are and what we are. And I believe that science has remained irrelevant because we wait until somebody asks us questions or until we are writing a paper on the ratification of Einstein's relativity theory for people who don't understand Newtonian mechanics, but we are never invited to give an attack on faith healing, or on astrology--on what is the scientific view of astrology today.
I think that people must write more articles for non-scientists and non-scientists must take a little more trouble to read them.. Now what would happen? The person who believes in astrology will have to learn some astronomy. The person who believes in faith healing might have to learn some medicine, because of the arguments going back and forth; and some biology. In other words, it would be necessary that science become relevant. The remark which I read somewhere, that science is alright as long as it doesn't attack religion, was the clue that I needed to understand the problem. As long as it doesn't attack religion it need not be paid attention to and nobody has to learn anything. So it can be cut off from modern society except for its applications, and thus be isolated. And then we have this terrible struggle to try and explain things to people who have no reason to want to know. But if they want to defend their own point of view, they will have to learn what yours is a little bit. So I suggest, maybe incorrectly and perhaps wrongly, that scientists are too polite.
There was in the past an era of conversation on these matters. It was felt by the church that Galileo's views attacked the church. It is not felt by the church today that the scientific views attack the church. Nobody is worrying about it. Nobody attacks; I mean, nobody writes trying to explain the inconsistencies between the theological views and the scientific views held by different people today--or even the inconsistencies sometimes held by the same scientist between his religious and scientific beliefs.
Now the last main section that I want to muse about, is the one I consider the most important and the most serious. And that has to do with the question of uncertainty and doubt. A scientist is never certain. Everyone of them knows that. They know that all their statements are proximate statements with different degrees of certainty; that when a statement is made, the question is not whether it is true or false but rather how likely it is to be true or false. "Does God exist?" "When put in a questional form, how likely is it?" It makes such a terrifying transformation of the religious point of view, and that is why the religious point of view is unscientific. Scientists must discuss each question within the uncertainties that are allowed. And as evidence grows it increases the probability perhaps that some idea is right, or decreases it. But it never makes absolutely certain one way or another. Now this has been found to have paramount importance in order to progress.
Scientists must absolutely leave room for doubt or there is no progress and there is no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty. People are terrified--how can you live and not know? It is not odd at all. You only think you know, as a matter of fact. And most of your actions are based on incomplete knowledge and you really don't know what it is all about, or what the purpose of the world is, or know a great deal of other things.
Now the freedom to doubt, which is absolutely essential for the development of the sciences, was born from a struggle with the constituted authorities of the time who had a solution to every problem, namely the church. Galileo is a symbol of that struggle--one of the most important of the strugglers. And although Galileo himself apparently was forced to recant, nobody takes the confession seriously. We do not feel that we should follow Galileo in this way and that we should all recant. In fact, we consider the recantation as a foolishness--that the church asked for such a foolishness that we see again and again; and we feel sympathetic to Galileo as we feel sympathetic to the musicians and artists of the former Soviet Union who had to recant. But the recantation is a meaningless thing, no matter how cleverly it is organized. It is perfectly obvious to people from the outside that it is nothing to consider, and that Galileo's recantation is not something that we need to discuss as demonstrating anything about Galileo, except that perhaps he was an old man and that the church was very powerful. The fact that Galileo was right is not essential to this discussion. The fact that he was trying to be suppressed is, of course.
We are saddened when we look at the world and see what few accomplishments we have made, compared to what we feel are the potentialities of human beings. People in the past, in the nightmare of their times, had dreams for the future. And now that the future has materialized we see that in many ways our dreams have been surpassed, but in still more ways many of our dreams of today are very much the dreams of people of the past. There have, in the past, been great enthusiasms for one or another's method of solving a problem. One was that education should become universal, for then all men would become Voltaires, and then we would have everything straightened out. Universal education is probably a good thing, but you could teach falsehood as well as truth. The communication between nations as it develops through a technical development of science should certainly improve the relationships between nations. Well, it seems to depend on what you communicate. You can communicate truth and you can communicate lies. You can communicate threats or kindnesses. There was a great hope that the applied sciences would free man of his physical struggles, and particularly in medicine it seems, that all is to the good. Yes, but while I am writing, sciemtists are working in hidden secret laboratories, trying to develop, as best they can, diseases which the other man can't cure. Perhaps today we have the dream that economic satiation of all men is the solution to the problem. I mean everybody should have enough stuff. I don't mean that we shouldn't try to do that. I don't mean, by what I am saying that we should not educate, or that we should not communicate, or that we shouldn't produce economic satiation. But that this is the solution all by itself, of all problems, is doubtful. Because in those places where we have a certain degree of economic satisfaction, we have a whole host of new problems, or probably old problems that just look a little different because we happen to know enough about history.
So today we are not very well off, we don't see that we have done too well. Men, philosophers of all ages, have tried to find the secret of existence, the meaning of it all. Because if they could find the real meaning of life, then all this human effort, all this wonderful potentiality of human beings, could then be moved in the correct direction and we would march forward with great success. So therefore we tried these different ideas. But the question of the meaning of the whole world, of life, and of human beings, and so on, has been answered very many times by very many people. Unfortunately all the answers are different; and the people with one answer look with horror at the actions and behavior of the people with another answer. Horror, because they see the terrible things that are done; the way man is being pushed into a blind alley by this rigid view of the meaning of the world. In fact, it is really perhaps by the fantastic size of the horror that it becomes clear how great are the potentialities of human beings, and it is possibly this which makes us hope that if we could move things in the right direction, things would be much better.
What then is the meaning of the whole world? We do not know what the meaning of existence is. We say, as a result of studying all of the views that we have had before, we find that we do not know the meaning of existence; but in saying that we do not know the meaning of existence, we have probably found the open channel--if we will allow only that, as we progress, we leave open opportunities for alternatives, that we do not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth, but remain always uncertain. The English, who have developed their government in this direction, call it "muddling through," and although a rather silly, stupid sounding thing, it is the most scientific way of progressing. To decide upon the answer is not scientific. In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar--ajar only. We are only at the beginning of the development of the human race; of the development of the human mind, of intelligent life--we have years and years in the future. It is our responsibility not to give the answer today as to what it is all about, to drive everybody down in that direction and to say: "This is a solution to it all." Because we will be chained then to the limits of our current imagination. We will only be able to do those things that we think today are the things to do. Whereas, if we leave always some room for doubt, some room for discussion, and proceed in a way analogous to the sciences, then this difficulty will not arise. I believe, therefore, that although it is not the case today, that there may some day come a time, I hope, when it will be fully appreciated that the power of government should be limited; that governments ought not be empowered to decide the validity of scientific theories, that it is a ridiculous thing for them to try to do; that they are not to decide the various descriptions of history or of economic theory or of philosophy. Only in this way can the real possibilities of the future human race be ultimately developed.
In Greek mythology there are four ages of man: the golden age, the silver age, the bronze age, and the iron age. These correspond to spring, summer, autumn, and winter; and also to four main types of story: the romance (spring), in which the hero journeys on a quest, kills dragons, and rescues maidens; the comedy (summer), in which the hero and he maiden can't get together due to interference by censorious old fogies, but which, after complications, ends with a marriage; the tragedy (autumn), in which the protagonist falls from the height of power and prestige and ends up dead or in exile; and irony (winter), in which ancient geezers and biddies sit round a fire in a frozen world and tell tales. Strangely enough, the tales told by the geezers usually turn out to be romances, in which the hero journeys on a quest, kills dragons, rescues maidens, and so forth. And so the story cycle begins again.
I read a book called "The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology" by Simon Critchly where he explained that faith is a subjective commitment to something that places a demand on you, that places a call on you. There are people who will believe that the source of that call is a divinity; there are people that will believe that the source of that call isn't. I can't really decide one way or the other—but I believe the experience of faith is the same. There is the possibility that humankind can outgrow its infantile tendencies. But it is amazing how childishly gullible humans are. There are, for example, so many different religions — each of them claiming to have the truth, each saying that their truths are clearly superior to the truths of others — how can someone possibly take any of them seriously?
I grew up with the opinion that two thousand years ago in an ancient land called Galilee, the God of heaven and earth was born in the form of a helpless child. The child grew into a blameless man. The man became the Christ, the savior of humanity. Through his words and miraculous deeds, he challenged the Jews, who thought they were the chosen of God, and in return the Jews had him nailed to a cross. Though he could have saved himself from that gruesome death, he freely chose to die. His death was the point of it all, for his sacrifice freed us all from the burden of our sins. But the story did not end there, because three days later, he rose again, exalted and divine, so that now, all who believe in him and accept him into their hearts will also never die, but have eternal life.
Initially this Jesus seems like a kind of Buddist who teaches that peace can be attained by following his own sublime example of loving kindness. For Jesus, salvation lies not in correct belief or rigorous obedience to the rituals of the law, but the performance of selfless acts of generousity and forgiveness instead. Jesus himself continues to honor the law of his ancestors. In this respect, he remains within the world of law abiding Jews. But for the ethic of obedience to the commands of the Torah, he substitutes one of boundless love of Jews and gentiles alike.
This is beautiful and moving but hard to emulate, so Paul offers a more manageable version of Jesus' teachings. He reinterprets these in orthodoxical terms. After Paul, to be a Christian means to believe that certain things are true. From Paul on, disputes among Christians take the form of disagreements about the truth of various propositions and, however fierce these become, there is agreement on a few--that God created the world from nothing, and man in his image, that through man's prideful disobedience to God, he has fallen into a state of sin; that Jesus gave his life for us, so that we might be saved from ourselves, and restored to the hope a life everlasting; and that the long and turbulent history of the world will one day come to a close with a final judgment in which our eternal fates are settled once and for all.
Since that time theologians have been busy discovering God's nature, intentions, and demands, and on understanding how these define the relationship between human beings and God. Jewish and Christian theologians have devoted centuries to reasoning about what God may have really meant by various passages in scripture, and over time the interpretations often have "evolved" in quite dramatic and extensive ways. These theologians have always assumed that the application of reason can yield an increasingly more accurate understanding of God. Augustine noted that although there were "certain matters pertaining to the doctrine of salvation that we cannot yet grasp...one day we shall be able to do so." Of crucial importance is that their efforts to reason out God's will required that they not always interpret the Bible literally. Instead, from the earliest days it has been the conventional Christian view that although the Bible is true, its meaning is often uncertain for, as Augustine noted, "diverse things may be understood under these words which yet are all true."
Thus did Augustine frankly acknowledge that it is possible for the later reader, with God's help, to grasp a scriptural meaning even though the person who first wrote down the scripture "understand not this." Thus, he continued, "Let us approach together unto the words of Thy book, and seek in them Thy meaning, through the meaning of Thy servant, by whose pen Thou hast dispensed them." Moreover, Augustine wrote that since God is incapable of either error or falsehood, if the Bible seems to contradict knowledge, that is because of a lack of understanding on the part of the "servant" who recorded God's words.
This line of thought is entirely consistent with one of the most fundamental, yet remarkably neglected, of all Judeo-Christian premises, that of "Divine Accommodation", which holds that God's revelations are always limited to the current capacity of humans to comprehend -- that in order to communicate with humans, God is forced to accommodate their incomprehension by resorting to the equivalent of "baby talk." This view is firmly rooted in scripture. In Exodus 6:2, when God tells Moses that he had made himself known to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not as Yahweh, but as El Shaddai, presumably this was because the Patriarchs were not ready to be told more. Or, when asked by his disciples why he spoke to the multitudes in parables, Jesus replied that people differed greatly in what they could comprehend. "This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand." Thomas Aquinas agreed: "The things of God should be revealed to mankind only in proportion to their capacity; otherwise, they might despise what was beyond their grasp ... It was, therefore, better for the divine mysteries to be conveyed to the uncultured people as it were veiled ... So too, John Calvin flatly asserted that God "reveals himself to us according to our rudeness and infirmity." If scriptural comparisons, between earlier and later portions of the Bible, for example, seem to suggest that God is changeable or inconsistent, that is merely because "He accommodated diverse forms to different ages, as He knew would be expedient for each ... he has accommodated himself to men's capacity, which is varied and changeable.
Muhammad, like Jesus before him, was intensely apocalyptic in a left-wing way; and he believed that judgment day would bring a radical inversion of fortunes. His basic claim was that he was a prophet sent by the god who had first revealed himself to Abraham and later had spoken through Moses and Jesus. His recitation (Quran) is full of stories from the Bible and allusions to the Bible, including a monotheistic declaration that seems to come right out of Isaiah: There is no God beside me." In a sense we can think of him as a man who had the ingenuity to fill a wide-open spiritual niche. He took a foreign god that was already making inroads into Arabia and became that god's official Arab-language spokesman. In the Quran's scenario, Judeo-Christian theology was transmitted to the Jews and Christians by God and then to Muhammad by God. When God, in the Quran, tells Muhammad that he has "made it an Arabic Quran that ye may understand: And it is a transcript of the archetypal Book," the archetypal Book isn't the Bible. Rather, the archetypal book is the word of God, the Logos of which the Bible is equally a "transcript." Muhammad didn't get the Logos via Moses. Rather, like Moses, he had a direct line to God. He felt that what was needed in his time and in every age remote from the origins of revalation, was to provide some people with keys fashioned afresh--keys no better than the old ones but merely more elaborated--in order to help them rediscover the truths written in the eternal script in the very substance of man's spirit.
The Quran was revealed to Muhammad verse by verse, surah by surah during the next twenty-one years, often in response to a crisis or a question that had arisen in his little community (ummah) of the faithful. The revelations were painful to Muhammad, who used to say: “Never once did I receive a revelation, without thinking that my soul had been torn away from me.” In the early days, the impact was so frightening that his whole body was convulsed, he would often sweat profusely, even on a cool day, experience a great heaviness, or hear strange sounds and voices. In purely secular terms, we would say that Muhammad had perceived the great problems confronting his people at a deeper level than most of his contemporaries, and that as he “listened” to events, he had to delve deeply and painfully into his inner being to find a solution that was not only politically viable but spiritually illuminating. He was also creating a new literary form and a masterpiece of Arab prose and poetry.
The new sect would eventually be called islam (surrender); a muslim was a man or a woman who had made this submission of their entire being to God and his demand that human beings behave toward one another with justice, equity, and compassion. Social justice was, therefore the crucial virtue of Islam. Muslims were commanded as their first duty to build a community (ummah) characterized by practical compassion, in which there was a fair distribution of wealth. This was far more important than any doctrinal teaching about God. In fact the Quran has a negative view of theological speculation, which it calls zannah, self-indulgent whimsy about ineffable matters that nobody can ascertain one way or the other. It seemed pointless to argue about such abstruse dogmas, far more crucial was the effort (jihad) to live in the way that God had intended for human beings. The political and social welfare of the ummah would have sacramental value for Muslims. If the ummah prospered, it was a sign that Muslims were living in a truly Islamic community, which made this existential surrender to the divine, which gave Muslims intimations of sacred transcendence. Consequently, they would be affected as profoundly by any misfortune or humiliation suffered by the ummah as Christians by the spectacle of somebody blasphemously trampling on the Bible or ripping the Eucharistic host apart.
This social concern had always been an essential part of the visions of the great world religions, which had developed during what historians have called the Axial Age (c. 700 BCE to 200 BCE), when civilization, as we know it, developed, together with the confessional faiths which have continued to nourish humanity. Taoism and Confucianism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent; monotheism in the Middle East, and rationalism in Europe. These faiths all reformed the old paganism, which was no longer adequate in the larger and more complex societies once people had created a mercantile economy capable of supporting this cultural effort. In the larger states, people acquired broader horizons, and the old local cults ceased to be appropriate; increasingly the Axial Age faiths focused on a single deity or supreme symbol of transcendence. Each was concerned about the fundamental injustice of their society. All pre-modern civilizations were based economically upon a surplus of agricultural produce; they therefore depended upon the labor of peasants who could not enjoy their high culture, which was only for the elite. To counter this, the new faiths stressed the importance of compassion. Muhammad's Arabia had remained outside of the civilized world. Its intractable climate meant that the Arabs lived on the brink of starvation; there seemed no way that they could acquire an agrarian surplus that would put them on a footing with Sassanid Persia or Byzantium. But when the tribes in Mecca at the center of the trade routes began to develop a market economy their perspective began to change. Many were still happy with the old paganism, but there was a growing tendency to worship only one God; and there was a growing unease about the inequity of the new civilization that was developing in Mecca. The Arabs were ready for an Axial Age religion of their own.
The life and achievements of Muhammad would effect the spiritual, political, and ethical vision of Muslims forever. They expressed the Islamic experience of "salvation," which does not consist in the redemption of an "original sin" committed by Adam and the admittance to eternal life, but in the achievement of a society which puts into practice God's desires for the human race. This not only redeemed Muslims from the sort of political hell that existed in pre-Islamic Arabia, but also provided them with a context within which they could more easily make that wholehearted surrender to God which alone can fulfill them. Muhammad became the archetypal example of that perfect submission to the divine, and Muslims would attempt to conform to this standard in their spiritual and social lives. Muhammad was never venerated as a divine figure, but he was held to be the perfect man. His surrender to God had been so complete that he had transformed society and enabled the Arabs to live together in harmony. The word islam is etymologically related to salaam (peace), and in the early years Islam did promote cohesion and concord.
A century after Muhammad's death, by 732 the Islamic Empire extended from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas. It seemed yet another miracle and sign of God's favor. Before the coming of Islam, the Arabs had been a despised outgroup; but in a remarkably short space of time they had inflicted major defeats upon two world empires. The experience of conquest enhanced their sense that something tremendous had happened to them. Membership of the ummah was thus a transcendent experience, because it went beyond anything they had known or could have imagined in the old tribal days. Their success also endorsed the message of the Quran, which had asserted that a correctly guided society must prosper because it was in tune with God's laws. Look what had happened once they had surrendered to God's will! Where Christians discerned God's hand in apparent failure and defeat, when Jesus died on the cross, Muslims experienced political success as sacramental and as a revelation of the divine presense in their lives.
Under the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid from 786 to 809, a great renaissance takes place in Baghdad and other great cities of the Abbasid Empire. Besides patronizing scholarship, science and the arts, the caliph also encourages the study of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and the anthologizing of ahadith which will enable the formation of Islamic law (Shariah). Most Muslims needed a more accessible piety and they found it in a new type of devotion which had first emerged at the end of the Umayyad period but only achieved prominence during the reign of Harun al-Rashid. It was similar to the Christian devotion to Jesus, since it saw the Quran as God's uncreated Word, which had existed with him from all eternity, and which had, as it were, taken flesh and form in the scripture revealed to Muhammad. Muslims could not see God but they could hear him each time they listened to a recitation of the Quran, and felt that they had entered the divine presence. When they uttered the inspired words, God's speech was on their tongues and in their mouths, they held him in their hands when they carried the sacred book. This offended other members of the community since it offended their sense of the unity and utter simplicity of God.
Later in the ninth century, Muhammad Idris ibn al-Shafii's efforts initiated sound and authoritative anthologies of Islamic law which led eventually to the creation of a homogenous religious life, based on the sacred law of the Shariah, throughout the vast Islamic Empire. The inspiration of the law was the Person of the Prophet, the Perfect Man. By imitating the smallest details of his external life and by reproducing the way he ate, washed, loved, spoke and prayed, Muslims hoped to be able to acquire his interior attitude of perfect surrender to God. Religious ideas and practices take root not because they are promoted by forceful theologians, nor because they can be shown to have a sound historical or rational basis, but because they are found in practice to give the faithful a sense of sacred transcendence. To this day, Muslims remain deeply attached to the Shariah, which has made them internalize the archetypal figure of Muhammad at a very deep level and, liberating him from the seventh century, has made him a living presence in their lives and a part of themselves.
The ethos of the Shariah, like that of the Quran, was egalitarian. There were special provisions to protect the weak, and no institution, (such as "the Church") and no specialized group "clergy" could come between God and the individual Muslim. All Muslims were on the same footing, there was to be no clerical elite or priesthood acting as an intermediary. The Shariah was thus an attempt to rebuild society on criteria that were entirely different from those of the court. By observing the sunnah of the Prophet in the smallest details of their lives, Muslims identified themselves with the Prophet, whose life had been saturated with the divine. To imitate the Prophet, the Beloved of God--by being kind to orphans, to the poor or to animals, or by behaving at meals with courtesy and refinement--was to be loved by God himself. By weaving the divine imperative into the interstices of their lives, Muslims were cultivating that constant remembrance of God enjoined by the Quran. By the middle of the tenth century this Shariah piety had been established throughout the empire.
Then comes a Turkish musician named Abu Nasr al-Farabi to establish the Islamic tradition of rationalistic philosophy. He believed that philosophy ranked higher than revealed religion, which became, in his view, a mere expedient and a natural social necessity. Wher Farabi differed from both the Greek rationalism and from Christian philosophers, however, was in the importance that he gave to politics. He seems to have believed that the triumph of Islam had at last made it possible to build the rational society that Plato and Aristotle had only been able to dream about. Islam was a more reasonable religion religion than its predecessors. It had no illogical doctrines such as the Trinity, and stressed the importance of law. Al-Farabi believed that Shii Islam, with its cult of the imam as the guide of the community, could prepare ordinary Muslims to live in a society ruled by a philosopher king on rational principles. Plato had argued that a well-ordered society needed doctrines which the masses believed to be divinely inspired. Muhammad had brought a law, backed by such divine sanctions as hell, which would persuade the ignorant in a way that more logical arguments could not. Religion was thus a branch of political science, and should be studied and observed by a leader who could see further to the kernal of the faith than the average Muslim.
Despite the conviction of many of the faitful in any tradition, who are convinced that religion never changes and that their beliefs and practices are identical with those of the founders of their faith, religion must change in order to survive. Muslim reformers would find the esoteric forms of Islam inauthentic, and would try to get back to the purity of the first ummah, before it was corrupted by later accretions. But it is never possible to go back in time. Any "reformation," however conservative its intention, is always a new departure, and the adaptation of the faith to the particular challenges of the reformer's own time. Unless a tradition has within it the flexibility to develop and grow it will die. Islam proved that it had had this creative capacity. It could appeal at a profound level to men and women who lived in conditions that were quite different from the desperate, brutal era of the Prophet. They could see meaning in the Quran that went far beyond the literal sense of the words, which transcended the circumstances of the original revalations. The Quran became a force in their lives that gave them intimations of the sacred, and which enabled them to build fresh spiritualities of great power and insight.
The Muslims of the ninth and tenth centuries had moved far from the first little beleaguered ummah in Medina. Their philosophy, fiqh and mystical disciplines were rooted in the Quran and in the beloved figure of the Prophet, but because scripture was God's word, it was thought to be infinite and capable of multiple interpretations. They were thus able to make the revelation speak to Muslims who lived in a world that the Prophet and the first four caliphs of the Rashidun Caliphate could not have imagined. But one thing remained constant, Like the religion of the very first ummah the philosophy, law and spirituality of Islam were profoundly political. Muslims were acutely aware--in a way that was admirable--that for all its glittering cultural attainments, the empire that they had created did not live up to the standards of the Quran. The caliph was the leader of the ummah but he lived and ruled in a way that would have horrified the Prophet. When ever there was a marked discrepancy between the Quranic ideal and the current polity, Muslims would feel that their most sacred values had been violated, the political health of the ummah could touch the deepest core of their being. In the tenth century, the more perceptive Muslims could see that the caliphate was in trouble, but so alien was it to the spirit of Islam that Muslims would experience its decline as a liberation.
By the middle of the thirteenth century the Mongols had become the chief Muslim power in the central Islamic heartlands. But whatever their official allegiance to Islam, the main ideology of their states was "Mongolism," which glorified the imperial and military might of the Mongols and dreamed of world conquest. The whole state was run on military lines. The monarch was the commander-in-chief, and was expected to lead his men himself and not leave campaigns to his deputies. Hence there was, in the early days, no capital city. The capital was wherever the khan and his army happened to be encamped. The whole apparatus of state was conducted like an army, and the administration accompanied the army on the march.
There could hardly be a greater contrast with the egalitarianism of Islam, but it was, in a sense, a continuation of the militarization of society that had occurred in the final years of the Abbasid caliphate, where local Seljuk warlord (amir) had ruled from the garrisons, leaving the civilians and the ulama to their own Islamic devices. There had always been the possibility that the military might interfere more in civil affairs, if the amir had achieved anything representing stability. To a degree this happened under the Mongol rulers who were powerful enough to put new constraints on the ulama. The Shariah was no longer permitted to be a potentially subversive code. By the fifteenth century it was agreed that the ulama could no longer use their own independent judgment (ijtihad) in creative legislation; it was said that "the doors to ijtihad" were closed. Muslims were obliged to conform to the rulings of the past authorities. The Shariah had in principle become a system of established rules, which could not jeopardize the more dynamic dynastic law of the ruling house.
The Mongol irruption into Muslim life had been traumatic. The Mongols had left a swathe of ruined cities and libraries behind them, as well as economic recession. But once they had achieved victory, the Mongols rebuilt on a magnificent scale the cities they had devastated. They also established brilliant courts, which promoted science, art, history and mysticism. Appalling as the Mongol scourge had been, the Mongol rulers were fascinating to their Muslim subjects. Their political structures remained subtly enduring and influenced later Muslim empires. The Mongols' power had suggested new horizons. They had seemed about to conquer the world, and had been a portent of a new kind of imperialism, which linked the possibility of universal rule with mass destruction. The splendor of their states dazzled, at the same time as they undermined Muslim preconceptions. Muslims were not stunned into passivity by the horrors they had lived through, nor by the political defeats that these Mongol states represented. Islam is a resilient faith. Frequently in their history Muslims had responded positively to disaster, and used it constructively to gain fresh religious insights. So too after the Mongol invasions, when people clearly felt that the world as they had known it was coming to an end, but also that and entirely new global order was possible.
By the fourteenth century the ulama had transformed the pluralism of the Quran into a hard communalism, which saw other traditions as irrelevant elements of the past. Non-Muslims were forbidden to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and it became a capital offence to make insulting remarks about the Prophet Mohammad. The trauma of the invasions had, not surprisingly, made Muslims feel insecure. Foreigners were not only suspect, they could be as lethal as the Mongols.
The Islamic world has been convulsed by the modernization process initiated in Western Europe. Instead of being one of the leaders of world civilization, Islamdom was quickly and permanently reduced to a dependent bloc by the European powers. Muslims were exposed to the contempt of the colonialists, who were so thoroughly imbued with the modern ethos that they were often appalled by what they could only see as the backwardness, inefficiency, fatalism and corruption of Muslim society. They assumed that European culture had always been progressive, and lacked the historical perspective to see that they were simply seeing a pre-modern agrarian society, and that a few centuries earlier Europe had been just as "backward." They often took it for granted that Westerners were inherently and racially superior to "orientals and expressed their contempt in myriad ways. All this not unnaturally had a corrosive effect. Western people are often bewildered by the hostility and rage that Muslims often feel for our culture, which, because of our very different experience, we have found to be liberating and empowering. But the Muslim response is not bizarre and eccentric, because the Islamic world was so widespread and strategically placed, it was the first to be subjected to a concerted, systematic manner to the colonization process in the Middle East, India, Arabia, Malaya and a significant part of Africa. Muslims in these places very early felt the brunt of this modernizing assault. Their response has not been simply a reaction to the new West, but the paradigmatic reaction. They would not be able to come to modernity as successfully or as smoothly as, for example, Japan, which had never been colonized, whose economy and institutions had remained intact and which had not been forced into a dehibilitating dependency on the West.
The Western encroachment had made politics central to the Islamic experience once more. From the time of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims had seen current events as theophanies, they had encountered a God who was present in history, and had issued a constant challenge to build a better world. Muslims had been taught a divine meaning in political events, and even their setbacks and tragedies had led to major developments in theology and spirituality. When Muslims had achieved a type of polity that was more in accordance with the spirit of the Quran after the decline of the Abbasid caliphate, they had agonized less about the political health of the ummah a felt free to develop a more interior piety. But the intrusion of the West into their lives raised major religious questions.the humiliation of the ummah was not merely a political catastrophe, but touched a Muslim's very soul. This new weakness was a sign that something had gone gravely awry in Islamic history. The Quran had promised that a society which surrendered to God's revealed will could not fail. Muslim history had proved this. Time and again, when disaster had struck, the most devout Muslims had turned to religion, made it speak to their new circumstances, and the ummah had not only revived but had usually gone on to greater achievements. How could Islamdom be falling more and more under the domination of the secular Godless West? From this point, a growing number of Muslims would wrestle with these questions, and their attempts to put Muslim history back on the right path would sometimes appear desperate and even despairing. The suicide bomber--an almost unparalleled phenomenon in Islamic history--shows that some Muslims are pitted against hopeless odds.
The bedrock of Christianity, at least as it was taught to me, is the unconditional belief that every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant. The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions—just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of hands across thousands of years—left me confused and spiritually unmoored. And so, like many people in my situation, I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying. Now I want to turn my attention to the way that we are prepared for the consumption of "God." The shrink-wrapped, directly consumable, "El Exigente," God-lite that we receive from his priesthood modelers is that same idealized form projected by ourselves for our comfort in predicting His possible behaviors. Most of what we know about "Him" seems to come from the Hebrew Bible where he has his first and last appearances. We see him first as the creator, outside history, prior to it, masterfully setting in motion the heavenly bodies by which historical time will be measured. We see him last as the "Ancient of Days," white-haired and silent, looking forward to the end of history from a remote and cloudy throne. I am going to use Jack Miles' Pulitzer Prize winning book "God: A Biography" to help me describe the middle that lies between so vigorous a beginning and so quiescent an end.
As Miles says "The beginning and the end of the Hebrew Bible are not linked by a single, continuous narrative. Well short of the halfway point in the text, the narrative breaks off. What then follows are, first, speeches spoken by God; second, speeches spoken either to or, in some degree, about God; third, a protracted silence; and, last, a brief resumption of the narrative before a closing coda. Had He been telling His story on Facebook, He would have quickly lost the interest of His audience. The narrative suspense that lasts from the Book of Genesis through II Kings is succeeded, past that point, by another kind of suspense, one more like the kind jurors experience in a courtroom as different witnesses take the stand to talk about the same person. A sequence of testimonies--each in its own distinctive voice, with its own beginning and end--can be as effective as narrative in suggesting that the person about whom the words are spoken does not stop when the words stop. After action yields to speech in the Hebrew Bible, however, speech yields in its turn to silence. God's last words are those he speaks to Job, the human being who dares to challenge not his physical power but his moral authority. Within the Book of Job itself, God's climactic and overwhelming reply seems to silence Job. But reading from the end of the Book of Job onward, you see that it is Job who has somehow silenced God. God never speaks again, and he is decreasingly spoken of. In the Book of Esther--a book in which, as in the Book of Exodus, his chosen people faces a genocidal enemy--he is never so much as mentioned. In effect, the Jews surmount the threat without his help."
As is often comically noted in the beginning of Genesis, we first encounter an inwardly-conflicted solitary God talking to himself as he creates and names things. He says nothing about who he is or what he intends, and the words he does speak are abrupt and not intended to communicate anything to anyone, least of all to explain anything, but only to enact. His first word in Hebrew is "yhi" or (Light) a command not spoken commandingly but more like a mechanic voicing a sequence aloud so that he will be sure of its appropriate linearity. We come upon work already in progress and without a narrator and while God talks to himself, he does it without any hesitation or musing so that we have an overall good feeling about his precision and economy.
However, over to the east in Sumeria the people must have found God's making of heaven and earth in the middle of their well-established society to be more of an annoyance than anything else. If what the pictographs indicate are true, His loud voice interrupted their ancient prayer rituals for an entire week." Historians believe that, immediately following the biblical event, Sumerian witnesses returned to the city of Eridu, a bustling metropolis built 1,500 years before God called for the appearance of dry land, to discuss the new development. According to records, Sumerian farmers, priests, and civic administrators were not only befuddled, but also took issue with the face of God moving across the water, saying that He scared away those who were traveling to Mesopotamia to participate in their vast and intricate trade system.
On the sixth day the creator God begins to add some helpful commentary:
Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
The us is sort of disturbing. Up until now we have had a sort of masculine singular idea of Him and there has been no exposure of any sort of divine private life. He has seemed to be entirely alone, not only without a spouse but also without a brother, a friend, a servant, or even a mythic pet of any sort. Now he has suddenly taken up the idea of needing an "image"--not a servant, not a worshipper but a reproducing image. His life is about to be hopelessly entangled with the determination of his images to have images of their own. But if His life lacked human entanglements, what kind of life would it be? So far we haven't gotten any idea that he has a job or that there has been any exertion involved in his creative activities. The six days of creation are nowhere near as difficult as the Twelve Labors of Hercules, full of flexing muscle and dripping sweat. Unchecked, effortless sovereignty has been His defining trait. And yet, on the seventh day, He rests from "all the work of creation that He has done." Has it cost him more than we noticed at the time? Is He weaker than He lets on?
God's command to the male and female he has just created is "Be fruitful and increase, fill the earth and master it," and the text says, And it was so." But it is not yet so. The male and female have not, at this moment, shown themselves fertile, they have not increased. And God does not say of them directly, as he said to all of his other creations, "And God saw that they were good." The final judgment, is now spoken by an unannounced "narrator", mysteriously reading the mind of God, is rendered only on creation as a whole: "God saw all that he had made, and found it to be, not fabulous, but very good." "Very," for the first and only time here, but only after a faintly troubling tiptoe where mankind is concerned. And then, suddenly, this falls into a full day of rest. God is already, at this earliest moment in his story, a mix of strength and weakness, resolve and regret.
In the sequel account of creation in Genesis there is a narrowing of the focus and a heightening of the tension shown between the creator and his human creation. Man, created from clay, is no longer situated on "the earth" as a gigantic national park in which to be fertile and increase, but is now circumscribed in "a garden in Eden, in the East," which God has planted and given to "the man" to till and tend. And the free mastery that the man was to exercise as God's image is also restricted: "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."
In the first account, something is commanded but nothing is forbidden. Now for the first time, there is a "don't do that." It seems to be imposed in man's interest, but you begin to wonder how the man is going to be able to master the earth if he isn't to be allowed the knowledge of good and evil like the image from which he was created. The man is offered no motive for his obedience other than the one which makes no logical sense. God seems to be noticeably more anxious in confrontation with his creature than he was before. We begin to understand what may have really happened on the sixth day and why God, in the first account did not "see that they were good" and had to rely on the narrator's reading of His mind. It seems that this interpretation of God does not see the man as good even by inclusion. No, something is wrong with the man and of this flaw God can only come up with the explanation that "It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him." But all of His efforts to come up with an adequate helper fail. He parades all of the wild beasts and birds of the sky before the man and allows him the privilege of naming them, but "no fitting helper is found." By clear implication, the man rejects the whole of God's labors in creating other living creatures. They may be "good," but they are not good enough for man. God, now clearly distressed into genuine labor, is driven to the extreme expedient of crafting a woman from one of the man's ribs so that she can serve as an incubation chamber for the fruit to be borne rather than relying on the molding from clay which had been used in the past by God. The man, to his credit, speaking the first words in the Bible from a human being, acclaims her with joy but without expressing any gratitude or otherwise acknowledging God:
"This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken."
In the first account of creation, the male and the female stars also say nothing in response to the God who has created them, but for His part God seems to expect nothing. As Adam recovers from the shock of Woman's arrival he finds that in comparison with Eve everything else in the world--and he was, after all, in Paradise--suddenly looked shabby. When he went off to seek her, he was certain that if he could not find her, he was certain that he would forever deplore her loss.
Eve is the answer to Adam's longing. But, though she is fashioned from the very stuff that he is made of, she is not entirely the same. At the moment that she awoke into consciousness, she did not gaze up at the sky, as Adam did, in search of a creator. Instead, she made her way to a nearby lake and peered at her reflection in the clear, smooth water. It was only when a mysterious voice drew her drew her away and when Adam gently seized her by the hand that she reluctantly abandoned the pleasing image of herself.
God invisibly drew her to him, and though she initially turned away, she came to accept his wooing and allowed herself to be led blushing to the "nuptial bower." There Adam experienced for the first time what he calls "the sum of earthly bliss." Catholic intellectuals have had a long history of speculation that in Paradise sexual intercourse was designed only to produce offspring and thus to be undertaken with a kind of cool detachment. St. Augustine argues that the act should be conducted without arousal or excitement. but after the appearance of John Milton's Paradise Lost we have come to believe that their bower was enclosed, and it was theirs alone: no other creature, "Beast, bird, insect or worm" (4:704) dared enter. Eve decked the nuptial bed with flowers and sweet-smelling herbs, and their they enjoyed exclusive possession of each other's body--the only form of private property in a world where everything else was held in common.
God's only expectation is that they should be, fruitful, themselves subduing the earth and serving, thereby, as his image. Enter, stage left, a new antagonist:
Now the serpent was craftier than any other wild animal that God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, you shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The woman said to the serpent, "we may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'" But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Freeze frame, the serpent's creator cannot escape responsibility for what the serpent, as His agent, does. When my dog Diesel bit people I had the responsibility to apologize for him and repair his damages and I was only his caretaker, not his creator. When the serpent tells the woman that, contrary to what God has said, she will not die if she eats of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent is telling the truth and God, it seems, is not sworn to the truth. She and the man do not die when they break God's command, certainly they do not die, as God had warned, "as soon as you eat of it." Is the serpent's ability to foil God's plan a reflection on God's limited power to control the unfolding of events within the historical era. If the serpent is a rival, why was he so created by God? Or is the entire temptation episode a setup or sandbagging of the hapless woman by the unwitting serpent responding to her passionate demands? Is God now revealing himself to be a cause of both weal and woe in the lives of his creatures because good and evil impulses conflict within His own character.
In a wonderful Shakespearean expansion of God's character we now get to see Him developing an interior conversation for as he rebukes his serpent agent He is also rebuking himself. What polytheism would allow to be externally directed anger against a rival deity, monotheism --even a monotheism speaking occasionally in the "royal" first person plural--must turn into God's inwardly directed regret. The appearance of divine regret, the first of its many appearances, is the first revealing of the literary character of the divinity as distinct from a mythic force or a mere meaning endowed with an allegorical voice. Julian Jaynes would say that Western man's "metaphorical consciousness" begins, in a way, with the divided interior life of the deity, and the deity's interior life begins with a creator's regret.
The turning point comes after God discovers that the man and his wife have disobeyed Him. They heard the sound of God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of God among the trees of the garden. But God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" The man said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." God said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." Then the Lord God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent tricked me, and I ate."
The language in which God imposes His one unexplained command and then converses with the man and the woman after their disobedience is like any that any human being might use in talking to one another. It is neither the majestic, almost abstract simplicity of the language of God in the preceding Genesis nor any poetical or rhetorical heightening. Is this all knowing with a full heavenly perspective, play-acting when he calls out his questions? There is almost a kind of innocent poignancy in His "Where are you?" Its as if He really did make them out of his need for company and now they have crossed a bar of sort and are no longer available to him in the same way. God seems never to have been concerned with nakedness before but now he seems to have developed an almost leering interest in their sexual desire and shame. You definitely get the feeling that the "Big Dude" is major pissed as he turns his full wrath on the serpent, the woman, and the man in an explosion of fury and also, so it happens, in His first use of poetry in the Bible. God said to the serpent:
"Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go;
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel."
To the woman he said,
"I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you."
And to the man he said,
"Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
'You shall not eat of it,'
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return."
Whoa!!! Now we are hearing a real force to be reckoned with by these three hapless creatures and all their progeny. It is too unopposed by the serpent, who never speaks in his own defence or acts again, for the scene to function as any sort of mythic battle. Any notion of cosmic conflict is further foiled by the fact that the serpent has spoken only truly of the tree of which God has spoken falsely. The serpent seems to be God's dupe rather than his great enemy, and God's punishment of the human couple seems, in consequence, an almost wanton act of cruelty. God first gives his human creatures all creation to live in and now He has become far less generous giving them only a garden to tend. Now His terrible temper tantrum has taken that back. He has also revoked all the earlier arrangements that were made with man in mind. Now that man has failed God, all that work put into place for man's sake, the whole six day labor is also less than a total success. God, up until now has been magisterially powerful and also so splendidly generous that human misbehaviors could not possibly trouble his calm. His "be fertile and increase" has been more of a magnanimous invitation rather than a command. Barely two pages later He seems not just less powerful and less generous but far more vindictive. Worse, He is as gratuitous in his wrath as he was earlier in His bounty. Everything, for God it seems, hangs on obedience to his deceptive commands.
God has become disturbing in the sense that he holds immense power and seems not to know what to do with it. The motives for its exercise are in conflict, and the relationship in which these motives conflict is uncomfortably intimate. Any frightening character is the more frightening when He is right in your face and near enough to touch you. In studying torts law I learned that the crime of assault exists when someone is speaking violently while standing within reaching distance of actually acting upon that violent impulse. God is clearly assaulting his human creatures and to prove it He physically touches them. The nearness of His approach clearly increases their "Fear Factor." If I can be forgiven for a moment to wax philosophical, I have often felt/read/wondered about whether there is a tendency for violent acts to repeat themselves and almost all of Greek literature is driven by these revenge and retribution cycles. When we get to the flood story we read that "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and the earth was filled with violence." One pauses to remember where the hand of violence was first lifted.
Now in Genesis 3:21: "And God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them." God seems to be regretful about His regret. Having just inflicted labor in childbearing on her and toil in the fields on him, why should he now spare them the mild inconvenience of making their own clothes? He seems to feel bad about the matter. There were other things that he could have done with them before sending them on their way like feeding them a nice meal or providing them with some sort of instructions for their future survival, but he seems to be very focused on their nakedness. Is it possible that the two humans in their new shameful desire for each other are a more perfect image of Him, who desired them enough to create them but only understood what he was doing after the fact? Is it this--their presentation of Him to Himself not as exercising mastery but as experiencing need--that enrages him? And is He, His rage spent, ashamed of his own desire and moved to cover his shame by covering theirs? And He doesn't just make the little outfits; he places the garments on their bare bodies in a gesture of quasi-parental intimacy. By the end of this important day in God's life, He is no longer the lofty, unwavering, and sincere in His creative actions figure that we first met, but has now evolved into an intimate, volatile, and prone to dark regrets and darker equivocations form. We have one protagonist with two strikingly distinct personalities.
So without packing a lunch or a little on-the-job training for fending off all the big, scary, toothy things, God drives them out of the garden and stations some fat little cherubim and a fiery ever turning sword to guard the way to the tree of knowledge so they won't be tempted to seek any greater insights into what has happened to them. The only thing we can speculate about the parting of the ways is that in providing the "cute little outfits" He was sort of indicating that His relationship with them might continue but with a change in the "protocols of engagement." His earlier sanction against "eating the fruit" from the now well guarded tree seems to be moot. The earlier command to "be fertile and increase" has not been abrogated but man is left guessing as to what else might be done to keep him off the manure list. You can almost imagine them looking for wild asparagus all the time and nervously trying to keep their wits about them until they rid themselves of their "Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome." Having a lot of time on their hands and no books or television for adding any metaphors to their consciousness, they might have turned, like other animals and perhaps under the influence of observing other primates in action, to pleasuring themselves and each other. Another possibility is hinted at in Genesis 6:1-4 when the sons of God are said to be attracted by human females and lie with them. I first thought that this might be a typo and was meant as "attracted by human females and lie to them," but the very next line is that the Lord objects to this coupling. Apparently what he objects to is not miscegenation but simply that a superabundance of fruitfulness might result from life spans lasting centuries. His earlier curse of mortality has not precluded this so He now adds a proviso out of fear for overpopulation and global warming. Again we get the discomforting awareness that God himself doesn't have any kind of User Manual and He is sort of making one up as He goes on to give a maximum human life span of 120 years
However it happens, Adam and Eve obviously develop knowledge of one another because about 130 years later we get some new actors making their first appearance on the stage of life in the form of Cain and the second-born cute little Abel. I never could figure out how these two boys came to think that they could somehow win back the favor of God by bringing him some "offerings." This whole idea that you could somehow "proposition" God with a gift of some sort had not yet been introduced by the "Big Dude" himself so somehow Adam's sons came up with the idea. After all, what is the logic of sacrifice. Is it that God, in other words is biddable; can be bargained with; will respond in proportion to gifts given. To stress the commercial aspect of this transaction, evaluations were made of the victim's worth--it must be pure, choice, male and not female, with no blemishes
While the idea seems to be half interesting to God, He confuses me by liking Abel's furry little animals while definitely turning up his divine nose at Cain's hard earned vegetables. In response to God's rejection of the produce, Cain goes ballistic and God must condescend to speak sharply to him even though Cain has broken no known commandment. I don't know what theologians agree on here but I have always thought that God is not limited like man in His view of successive events in the river of time. I always figured that God sees men's lives like a big mural on a wall with every moment fully visible to Him all at once. So He is fully aware of the rivalry events that he has now set in motion by favoring Abel's gifts over Cain's cucumbers, carrots, and aubergines.
My metaphors for the next set of events are Tom and Dick Smothers as Cain and Abel returning to their simple agricultural and herding tasks. Maybe they meet sometime at the old watering hole and having no other shared elements in their lives, like black comedians or good athletic teams, Abel might bring up the painful offering rejection by asking Cain "How in your wildest dreams did you come up with the idea that "Big" would be interested in dirt-borne crap like broccoli and eggplant?" Cain would then push his lips out and respond with some haphazard words like "That's all that I had, I'm just a darn dirt farmer." Abel starts laughing and rolling on the ground and Cain loses it and slays him on the spot. God goes coy again and asks Cain "Where is your brother Abel?" In embarrassed distress Cain says "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?" Had Cain attended a "diversity" class and learned how to bring difficult issues to the table, he might easily have said "Ah you, with your early awareness of causes and effects, are as complicit in this matter as you were when you used that innocent serpent to chat up my Mom."
Although Cain mostly holds his tongue as Big starts going on about how his brother's blood "cries out to Me from the ground!" It is as if He has at that moment discovered that murder merits condemnation. There is a groping and tentative quality in His words as if the words from the ground have annoyed him more than they have morally outraged Him. Something is wrong, but does Big yet know what it is? He seems to act and then draw inferences from what he has done, learning the God job as he goes along. Meanwhile Cain gets to experience a sort of doubling of his Dad's punishment by being told that when he works the land it will yield nothing, and he will become a wanderer. To verify that he is in the future going to be free of the somewhat dubious value of being in the company of God, Cain makes a clarification inquiry by asking "I shall be hidden from your face?" To recap, Cain and Abel have attempted to develop some sort of working relationship with their parent's punishing God by somehow finding him and making Him an offering of a portion of their possessions. And then Big Himself discriminatingly discovers His role as the regulator of human affairs as he begins to regulate them. Mankind is discovering, in the school of hard knocks, what its life is to be outside the garden and Big is discovering what His relationship will be to his image as the image reproduces itself in circumstances so different from his original Strategic Plan. The Plan called for God to create man "in the likeness of God, male and female, He created them." Now, 130 years later, things have gone to 'hell in a hand basket' as Adam begets a son by sexual intercourse--"Now the man knew his wife Eve" and there is a marked omission of divine-human resemblance.
These indications of divine ambivalence toward human sexual fertility and thereby toward mankind's status as image of the divine creator pale, however, by comparison with the action that exposes the deepest of all fault lines in the divine character. In the story of the flood, the creator becomes an outright destroyer. For a brief but terrifying period, the serpent in Him, the enemy of mankind, takes over completely. For ten generations after the Cain marking, God sat around grinding his divine teeth and developing his embitterment toward mankind or perhaps pondering the size of the death toll to be found during the Emergency Management cleanup; but He somehow arrives at the decision that He "will blot out from the earth the men who I created--men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them." Whatever they are doing out there, they must be doing it entirely wrong. And then for reasons unknown to me, He picks out Noah and his kin to survive the massive execution. About all that I can glean from Genesis is that "Noah found favor in the eyes" of Big and that "Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God and Noah had three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth." Both the words "blameless" and "generation" invite the reader to inner dialog. God has only had the serpent and the Cain mutiny incidents to further develop his User Manual for regulating mankind so we still don't know what is in the growing "Prohibitions" section. Does "generation" mean born in the same historical era or does it mean that Noah had managed to dodge the bullet assigned to humans who were generated as a result of a sweating coupling of a man and a woman.
However the survival choice was made, afterward when the waters have receded and Noah and his company are back on dry land, Noah gets the idea to cook some meat for Big. This is the first burning mentioned in the Bible but "God smelled the pleasing odor, and said to Himself; "never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done." Again Big seems to be devising Himself as He goes along. His attention has now been massively altered by the smell of dinner being cooked. Young people might be tempted to use the term "OMG He's clueless" because there is no evidence of a plan here. I would, however, advise standing apart from them when they use the term because even after all these years we cannot tell when we are likely to rile Him. His anger, and the violence that rises from it, is an interpersonal outburst of temper; it is a morose reaction without any clear consciousness of just what that human evil consisted of. His new promise to refrain from further catastrophic violence is altogether unpremeditated and still lacks any stipulation of what He wants mankind to do or refrain from doing.
Now He gets theatrical with the sign of the rainbow to seal his "covenant with Noah and all of his descendents--that is with the whole human race, since all will now be descended from him--and, beyond the human race, as always when Big is speaking, the covenant is with all of physical reality. He then continues by imposing his first real prohibition on mankind, stipulating in effect, what mankind must do to avoid another destruction of the world. Immerging from the divine lips we now hear, "Shed man's blood, by man be your blood shed."Why does bloodshed matter so much to Big?" This prohibition on inter-human violence is not quite self-evident because Big has just shed a great deal of human blood or, at any rate, just taken a great deal of human life. Just the one command that Big had given since creating the world was a restriction on human procreative power and now the one command given after Big destroys the world He previously created is His restriction on human destructive power. Destruction is forbidden because Big is the destroyer as well as the creator. Reverence aside, a human being engaging in either destruction or creation somehow becomes His rival.
At Genesis 9:11 we have reached a moment that could have been the closing moment of the Bible. Creation has been followed by sin, then by violence and catastrophe, and then by a triumphal new creation and an external covenant against violence. Despite the rainbow, Big cannot now cease to be an object of fear as well as admiration. Though He has sworn that He will never again destroy the world, He will eventually threaten to break his word. Even before the actual threats begin, however, he remains a permanently threatening presence. We realize what He is capable of, and we cannot forget it. He is not just unpredictable but dangerously unpredictable.
So breathing a big sigh of relief, the sons and daughters of Noah's son Shem go back to pleasuring one another quietly for about ten generations until Big jumps, without any introduction, smack into the middle of Shem's purposeless great, great,....great grandson Abram's life and proposes some sort of Procreation Management scheme. What he says, upon first meeting Abram, mind you, is that he should leave the middle class comforts of his home in southern Iraq and "Go to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." Big's promise to make Abram a great nation, that is, to "pull the goalie", is a repossession of a power that earlier seemed to have been entrusted to mankind without the need of any further divine participation. This repossession of the power to give life seems to parallel Big's earlier repossession of the power to take life. No promise of fertility to Abram should be necessary, since Big has already ordered all humankind to be fertile and multiply. But on the one hand, if Abram needs a special promise from Big to become a great nation, then he does not possess the power to become a great nation on his own, and, on the other hand, if Big has not made the promise to every nation, then humanity's overall reproductive autonomy is reduced.
I can't help but think that the premise here is that in human fertility, as in mortal combat, whatever gives life to you takes life from Big and vice versa. Back when Big was marking Cain with His sanction against murder, He seemed like He was merely turning the law of blood revenge into divine action by proxy. Yes, every murderer will be murdered in turn, and men will do the killing, but Big lays claim to their action as, instrumentally, His own. What may seem like revenge to them is actually His exercise of His exclusive prerogative to take life. Abram has not given any indication that he has ever even heard of Adam or Noah or of Big's earlier words or deeds. Abram knows Big only from what Big says and does to Abram. In making this Procreation Management deal with Abram, Big has taken back from mankind a large measure of the gift of life. But does He realize this Himself? Or will human action again be necessary to force upon him an awareness of His own jealousy?
Abram silently accepts Big's strategic plan with his feet by completing an extremely arduous journey across the desert to Shechem in Canaan. Geography had prevented the development of great empires in Canaan, but it was that lack of an empire that may have allowed Big to promise the land to Abraham. In other words, the Promised Land, a place that for three thousand years has proven notoriously difficult to control, became a Promised Land in large measure because in the preceding three thousand years no one had been able to control it either. I think of Mitt Romney promising Watts to the Mormons if they help him win the nomination. There Big pops in again to recommit Himself; Abram, in turn, does his part in the Procreation Management arrangement by building a handsome little altar, invokes His name, but then his neck begins to stiffen a bit. Crop yields fall and Abram goes to Egypt where he rids himself of one hungry mouth by giving his wife Sarai to the Pharaoh's household as a concubine. Big, of course, roars and afflicts the Pharaoh's household with plagues to keep him from developing any amorous interest in Sarai. You get the feeling that Abram is sort of acting out his displeasure with Big by farming out some of his husbandly responsibilities. Now bowing to superior force, Abram backs off and returns to Shechem with his almost wayward baby making companion. There Big pops in again to recommit on the fertility issue and Abram keeps his cool but also maintains what might be observed as a skeptical silence.
Images of Greece 1989