Don't ever go to Rome without
seeing Caravaggio's "Inspiration
of Saint Matthew in the Church
of San Luigi Francese.
This fellow on the plane is no fool. Though he works in the technology field he has a Master’s degree in French literature from a prestigious east coast university. In our wide ranging discussion—most of the way across the Atlantic—I found myself fascinated by his insights on politics, economic, sociology, anthropology and even religion. It was our discussion of religion—where he confessed he was an “atheist, or perhaps an agnostic” where I found myself articulating some basic beliefs, the methodology of belief rather than dogma per se, that gave me an interesting insight into my own way of thinking about religious faith as well as why there is tension both between believers and non-believers and among believers who see things from (at least) two very different perspectives.
When Patrick—his name—mentioned that he rejected religion and didn’t want his children exposed to it except as a sociological phenomenon, he said that religion claims to be authoritative over the human intellect and thus stifles the human mind in its pursuit of truth. I know what he meant. There are plenty of people who think “God said it; I believe it; that settles it, end of discussion.” This might reflect an “evangelical” (I prefer to say pseudo-evangelical as I don’t think most evangelicals today are true evangelicals, i.e. those who shape their life according to the Gospel. I think too many take the “Good News” (evangelion in Greek) and make it bad news, something with which to hit people who disagree with them over the head. Or it could reflect a lot of super-Catholics who agree unflinchingly with Church authority, or at least as long as Church authority agrees with them. You know: the Pope is dead right on abortion and same-sex marriage, but when he talks about capital punishment, economic justice, health care, war, and distributive justice—well that’s just his personal opinion. What these “evangelicals” and “faithful” Catholics share in common is a highly vertical understanding of how God communicates himself (I am not into inclusive language when we talk about God, though I don’t have a problem with those who are as long as they don’t get silly.)
Now before I go further, let me reaffirm that this blog is not a theological blog and I am not going to approach this question as a theologian, but as a social scientist—that is from a historical/anthropological point of view.
The books of Scripture all had historical authors. Whether or not the Holy Ghost came down and sat on their shoulders, whispering words into their ears as their pens glided across the papyrus and parchment sheets, is not relevant to the historian. They had human authors and they were written in historical contexts. The Book of Daniel, for example, was written, or at least much of it was written, in the context of a Hebrew society that was being religiously challenged by Graeco-Syrian political overlords who were trying to move the Jews of their time from traditional belief to a more universal synchronistic religion that would unite the diverse peoples and cultures of their rule. The Gospel of Matthew was written for a community of Jewish Christians who were trying to harmonize their ancestral faith with some startling new insights developing among the disciples of the lately crucified religious leader, one Yeshua from Nazareth and Capernaum in the Galilee. And nobody has ever been able to figure out what the author of Revelations had in mind, though there are plenty of theories. This historical context issue is not limited to Judeo-Christian revelation. Mohammed wrote in the context of sixth century Arabia with is warring tribes, religious strife, and a society in which alcohol abuse was a significant problem. He also wrote with a personal exposure to Judaism (less than favorable) and Nestorian Christianity (which was overall a positive experience for him). The Buddha came out of a Hindu society and culture where he was veddy veddy upper crust and he seems to have had a traumatic introduction to the question of human suffering that shaped his life and doctrine. Ignatius Loyola wrote his Spiritual Exercises in an attempt to share his own spiritual awakening with his followers. Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith is rooted in Saints Paul and Augustine but also was profoundly influenced in the way it was formulated by his own scruples and crises, not to mention his alleged digestive tract issues. We could go on but there is no need. The point is clear. While some of these writings may claim to be of “Divine Revelation” that question is of no concern to the historian but only to the religious believer. There is no objective way to determine with any objective certainty what is and what is not of divine revelation—if there were then faith would not be a required component of the equation.
Now, again, I am not writing from a theological perspective but solely from the historical/anthropological point of view, but religion, viewed from the social sciences, is not a matter of “Truth” being imparted from the top down—from God to the Pope, or some Chief Rabbi or Grand Mullah, or even the Dalai Lama (whom I admire tremendously.) From a historical/anthropological perspective, Truth rises from human experience and crystallizes in the shared experience of a community of believers who shape it into doctrines and practices that reinforce it. That is not to say that God is not involved but the historian or social scientist (in their role as a historian or social scientist) cannot speak of God but only of what he or she observes. Of course, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and others can be men or women of faith as well as professionals in their fields. As men and women of faith they can supply the God-piece to the puzzle but not in their work, at least not directly. So while as a historian I believe that Christian Revelation –as all other religious systems—rises from human experience, as a man of faith I believe that the truths of Christian Revelation reveal themselves through human experience by the Grace of God. What is the faith of the faithful is the crux question for me. In the Catholic Tradition this called the consensus fidelium and while it has generally been ignored for the last five centuries (some would say the last fifteen) it once was the crucial element in defining Christian orthodoxy.
Does this mean that all religion is on a level playing field? Is the “truth” of Buddhist experience equal to the “truth” of Muslim experience and equal to the “truth” of Christian experience? As a historian I affirm that each must be taken with the same respect and openness as the others. I can also see, however, as a historian, that not all religious doctrines have the same success rate in articulating well the core human experiences. Why has Buddhism lasted when Celtic religion died? (I think the current revival of paganism is little more than a very ahistorical playing at nature cults.) Where is Osiris now? Where is Athena now? While a host of deities have disappeared,. Jesus has lasted so far. So have Allah, Shiva, and the Great Spirit. Time shows that not all religions capture the Truth with equal resonance. As a Christian, I believe that the religious experience around the teachings and person of Jesus of Nazareth have a unique depth of human truth, that is to say that they reflect the Divine inbreaking into human experience with a unique and superior authenticity. In other words, I believe they are Divinely Revealed, or better, capture the Divine Revelation, with a unique truthfulness. As a historian, however, I can only observe they are one of the major religious traditions and comment on how they function in comparison to other belief systems.
This view of revelation as rising from human experience is problematic for Churchy people because it moves the cheese. It takes power from the select few and distributes it through the whole body of the faithful. It overturns power structures—casts the mighty from their thrones and raises up the lowly, so to speak. This is why I think, as a Catholic, that we must restore the balance of power between the magisterium, the theologians, and the consensus fidelium. Do you remember in The Prisoner of Azkaban, the image of Professor Snape dressed up in Neville’s Grandmother’s clothes? I am afraid, as a historian, that that is what the magisterium looks like when left unsupported by serious theological research and rooted in the everyday faith experience of the everyday believer. And that is why so many people walk away from religion—it has just too often become ridiculous looking to too many good thinkin’ folk.