I feel like I’ve been been buried under a rock over the past couple of weeks. Not wanting to reignite anything but I totally missed the big Feminism debate that has been going on throughout the blogosphere. It must have been happening when I was too busy crying over my keyboard because of LFR. I’m always out of step with everything – while people are excited about MoP I’m wrestling with Marks of the World Trees, while people are planning new talents I’m still reconsidering my old ones. You just know that if I was around back in the day when the Wright brothers invented the first airplane I’d have been in the woods somewhere just discovering fire. Wrong time wrong place – always.
And when I stumbled on the debate it was a throwaway comment that got me all interested. Not to say I haven’t got views on the Feminist debate itself (I have views on everything – but they often change by the minute) – I’m letting that sleeping dog lie for the moment to grind my own little axe. And this axe is non -Wow related – everyone’s been doing it with Feminism so I’m doing it today with….Religion.
It was a comment in the Feminism debate about religion that got me thinking- I’m not going to quote it because the comment itself isn’t particularly important – it was just a generic dismissive comment. You hear them all the time – you might say them yourself. It just made me wonder – as such comments always do – on what it based?
My husband has a very negative attitude to most organised religion (I’m mincing words here – he actually has a negative attitude to Christianity) because of childhood experiences – church services, Sunday school, old women in furry hats, cabbage and swede (after church not during but the association remains), and an uncle that was a devout Christian but rather mean to the family and caused my husband’s father in particular much heartache. So for my husband there is an hypocrisy at the core of Christianity and in most religions.
But of course this is a view based on his negative experiences. It is not necessarily fair on Christianity and religion in general. But it is true to his experiences.
My experiences were very different. I loved church and Sunday school and all RE lessons even when I became an agnostic & then an atheist and now (told you I change my mind by the minute) the open minded “I believe in everything – why not?” person I am today. There is something about churches themselves that make me feel comforted and calm (maybe I was a woodworm in a previous life), and I absolutely loved reading religious stories in childhood (except Lot’s wife looking back and becoming a pillar of salt – that gave me nightmares and a total refusal for months to look out of the car’s rear window- even when my father needed help parking). This continued throughout my academic studies (loving reading about religion not refusing to use rear windows) – I did a Theology degree (studied New Testament Greek & Biblical Hebrew – of absolutely no use to me on any of my foreign holidays since including Greece where I was told that me using New Testament Greek in a bar was the equivalent of talking in Shakesperean language in an EastEnd pub. Undeterred I still insisted on ordering artos & oinon (bread and wine). I then went on to do a masters and PhD in 1st century CE church history. While I’m in full disclosure mode I have also written a book on the subject (my mother is so proud!) that’s available on Amazon if you’re interested…I do not get any money from the sales…I just got 6 free hardbacks & 6 free paperbacks when I was first published – all now proudly displayed on my relatives’ bookshelves all over Wales!
My research area was the way in which the early church was impacted by the decision to take the Christian message to Gentiles in Antioch. My argument was that an analysis of certain NT texts (Matthew, Paul’s letter to the Galations & Acts in particular) & the non canonical Didache, reveal just how divided the early church was on this issue & that a very strong point of contention was the issue of food offered to idols.
Please wake up! You are drooling on your keyboard. It’s interesting (my husband still says he will read it one day but right now he’s enjoying Michael Palin too much…). My point is only that I studied the texts from a socio-historical perspective. This was true too of the approach taken to other religions in my Theology degree – I chose Buddhism & Judaism. In the latter we spent a great deal of time analysing the different stratas of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible & theorising about the different communities that produced them & the circumstances in which they were produced. The overall point was that experiences of all sorts and from different times generated this literature. The literature is often internally contradictory (two different creation stories for a start, a multitude of different names for the God of Israel suggesting originally these were all different tribal gods in a polytheistic culture, and very different in outlook from much of the New Testament) because it was written by different communities at different times for different reasons. But that doesn’t make it any less valuable, fascinating or engrossing. The insight it gives to these communities from so long ago is an important part of humanity’s history.
Some would say this is very reductionist though & does not take seriously biblical inspiration. To a certain extent I’d agree. It is just an historical analysis – that was my approach. I went no further. But I totally respect that for many that is just the starting point. The academic approach says nothing (and should say nothing) about whether an ultimate cause/source itself lies behind all of these different experiences – it should not say if there was actually a revelation of one God, of many gods, of no gods. Do we see religious experience or a desperate human search for comfort in a hostile world, burning bushes or psychological trauma? That for me is all a matter of faith or not- I was studying the output and expression of faith and how socio-historical circumstances play a part in its expression and form, but I was saying nothing about whether that faith itself was true or not.
And yet it seems too many modern day new atheists do just that – I’m looking at you Dawkins in particular but only because you annoy me the most. They pick these religious texts apart (so easy to do without an understanding of how they were formed), point out all the contradictions (there are so many it’s like shooting fish in a barrel – having said that don’t really understand that as a metaphor for effortless action – sounds hard). And they use this as an argument against the religion itself. And that’s if they can even be bothered to do that. Or they (Ricky Gervais is a prime example…although for the record I love his podcasts & cried this week in Derek) simply say God can’t be proved, therefore people who believe in God are idiots. Case over.
I wish I could be so certain of things in life. I wake up full of questions and go to sleep with even more. How can you be so certain that everything that is true has already been proved and that everything that is true is provable?
In my opinion to truly “take on” Christianity or Judiaism (or any religion) at least do it the honour of understanding the way its texts were formed. Read up on Q, M and L for eg, understand different academic debates on Gnosticism and Johannine theology, the division between the early Jerusalem church leaders & Paul. In fact do more than this- read the texts that didn’t make it into the canon (history is written by the winners- you need to go beyond them to understand more) & see the different philosophies/ideas that existed in the early years. Then have the debate. I wouldn’t dream of having a quantum physics debate without doing a lot more reading on the subject (I can’t even explain Schrodinger’s cat properly except I’m optimistic it’s alive when I open the box)- I wouldn’t have the arrogance. Why is religion treated differently?
Part of the reason I think is the attitude of fundamentalist believers who themselves know little about the history and composition of the very texts they hold so dear – and that can be dangerous. Arguably many of these people have used texts they don’t understand in an outstandingly arrogant fashion - causing far more pain and heartache than anything the new atheists have done.
And where are the religious leaders in this? I used to teach New Testament Studies – people training to be in the ministry were in my class (being naughty at the back). I know for a fact they learnt all about redaction history, historical criticism, Feminist theology etc. because I taught it. Yet where does this knowledge then go? It certainly wasn’t part of my husband’s experience in church – otherwise perhaps he’d have left with rather a more open mind. It seems to disappear once the ministers graduate (at least to my knowledge – I would be very happy to hear differently – if any Wow fanatic minister is reading please let me know – we may have a lot in common). The focus I think is on helping people experience God in the here and now. But personally I think this creates a religion that can be very unaware of its own history and how its own texts were formed, which can make it ill-equipped for debate, easy to take potshots at and occasionally dangerous and intolerant.
I’ve often thought of starting my own local evening classes just to talk about things like the history of the early church, the different perspectives of each of the gospels, the church’s Jewish origins and the Gentile influence, the canonical & non canonical texts etc to anyone interested (got to be some people surely & might drive up the number of reviews of my book on Amazon – just one on Amazon.com – thank you my one reader!). But what I really want more than anything is to see that people who are dismissive of religion are clear about what type/expression of it they are dismissing. Comments such as “I dislike religion” are to me like saying “I dislike love” or “I dislike grammar” – they are so broad they are meaningless. But the impact of such broad statements can be destructive – something this world does not need. So I suppose I’m calling out for more informed debate, educated discussion and genuine open minds on all topics including religion – that can’t be the wrong way forward can it?