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My God Can Beat Up Your God

July 10, 2009

boxing_glovesA couple of days ago I posted a quote by Bruce Lincoln on the Rig Veda; here’s the central line:

The religion preserved in the Rg Veda was not timeless wisdom, but a human product, rooted in a very specific social, material, and historic context.

Vidya responded with the following:

I’d caution, though, that perhaps imposing contemporary Western distinctions on the texts do them an injustice—there’s no inherent reason that a text becomes any less ‘religious’ because it pertains to a particular time and place, or because it deals with ‘mundane’ matters. Is God not also fully present in our everyday experiences and encounters in the lifeworld?

Thanks for your comment Vidya! I appreciate the engagement. I do, however, have a number of things to say in response!

First, and briefly, I think it’s a trick to refer to “God”; the Vedic texts I’ve read don’t refer to “God,” they refer to particular gods—just like ancient Israelite traditions don’t refer to “God,” but to Yahweh and Elohim (as opposed to Asherah or Baal). I think your talk about “God” is what is imposed on the text from without. Talk about “God” makes sense if you’re a monotheist or a religious universalist of some sort, but it doesn’t appear that the people who wrote the Vedas were either.

Second, I don’t think Lincoln is saying that the the Rig Veda isn’t “less religious” (nor would I); nor is he saying that it is merely mundane—although it is that. I think he’s suggesting that all that talk about cattle is base and crude. I would add, although I’m not sure Lincoln would, that it is juvenile.

My knowledge of the Rig Veda is not that great, so I’ll switch to an example I’m much more familiar with, and I’ll let you decide if the cases are similar.

Take the story of Elijah defeating the 450 prophets of Baal in I Kings 18. The story features a showdown between these two groups; they want to know whose god is better or more powerful. The test? They’ll each set up a sacrifice to their god and they’ll let the god set the thing on fire, rather than burn it themselves. The prophets of Baal pray and pray to their god, but nothing ever happens. To show them up, Elijah pours water all over the damn thing and then prays to his god. Of course, the story goes, the thing exploded—so much so that the stones of the alter were burned up.

elijah

Now, of course I don’t believe this really happened. I think that what we have here is a story that Israelites told themselves and their neighbors to make a case for how awesome their god was. Basically, this amounts to a bunch of kids hanging out on the street corner arguing about whose dad is the richest, whose dad has the biggest gun, whose dad can bench press the most, and ends with a fight among the kids about whose dad could beat up whose other dad. The problem is not that this is mundane; the problem is that it is childish.

my dad

However, note that it is even worse if the story is true! If the story is true, then it doesn’t end with the kids arguing, it ends with one of the kids calling his dad and the dad coming down to prove that he can do what his kid said he could do. So the dad comes down and says, “Yea, I can bench press 220; watch!” This sort of childish behavior is expected of the kids, but it’s intolerable if the adult joins in.

Last, note how the story ends:

Then Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.” So they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.

So, after the dad proves he can bench press 220 lbs, he goes ahead and lets his boys kill the other kids.

The problem, for me, is not that this ancient stuff “pertains to a particular time and place, or because it deals with ‘mundane’ matters.” The problem is that it’s just juvenile, base, childish, and crude.

Before leaving the Hebrew scriptures, consider the story about Elijah’s replacement, Elisha:

black-bearThen he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!” When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number.

There are no great truths here.

I was told all my life that the Bible was this great, wonderful, spiritual treatise with incredible truths. The fact that I could take a number of academic courses on the Bible reinforced its apparent significance. When I read it, however, I realized that it was just propaganda from the ancient world.

When scholars pass off these ancient texts as great texts, they’re selling a myth. In addition, they’re indirectly reproducing the cultural authority of these texts. To continue to study the Bible or the Rig Veda as “great spritual works,” or whatever, is to suggest that they’re worth studying. The academic study of these “great spritual works” offers them a place of privilege in the canon—and preserves that place—not afforded to other, perhaps more deserving texts.

At bottom, what Lincoln is talking about is the fact that scholars tend to mystify these ancient texts, when perhaps what we should do is demystify them.

If we’re going to study these texts—it doesn’t look like classes on the Bible are going away any time soon—rather than read them as “great spiritual works,” I think we should study them alongside other forms of propaganda. The analogues of the ancient Hebrew scriptures do not include Sartre; these are the analogues:

saddam0978

bush-mission

Product_177_PrSpare2

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    July 10, 2009 10:23 am

    Or alternatively (well, in addition) study them right next to Thor, Apollo trying to rape people who then turn into trees (that one’s interesting because I’ve heard people try to pass it off as a deep spiritual metaphor), folk stories about women living in shoes, and a charming story I once found in a collection of north american traditional stories about tricking someone into thinking that you’re going to cut off their balls and cook them.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 10, 2009 10:27 am

    Awesome; please do share your sources!

  3. July 10, 2009 4:54 pm

    …juvenile…
    And yet these men obsessed (understandibly) with their cattle and their rivalries with neighbours were adults.

    Perhaps rather it’s just a matter that the concerns of people living a precarious existence in the pre-modern world were not the concerns of modern decadent westerners? And why should God (or gods) be more concerned with modern peoples concerns than ancient peoples ones?

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 10, 2009 9:02 pm

    Sophia, as you know, I don’t think gods exist, but if they did, they would only be respectable if they did things like help the poor, eliminate disease, etc.—the ones that can be enlisted in support of inter-tribal warfare are not worthy of my respect.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 10, 2009 9:05 pm

    Hey Sophia, check this out:

    If the Christian god exists, and if the scriptures record his behavior accurately, he doesn’t deserve my respect.

    It’s easier for me to believe in projection theories of religion than to believe that deities exist but are as petty as they’re said to have been.

  6. July 11, 2009 3:31 am

    It’s easy for you to say that now in the highly organised and wealthy society you live in, but if you were engaged in inter-tribal warfare and the life of your family and the survival of the only way of life you know dependent on it, I bet you’d be glad God took your concerns seriously.

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    July 11, 2009 7:50 am

    “if you were engaged in inter-tribal warfare and the life of your family and the survival of the only way of life you know dependent on it, I bet you’d be glad God took your concerns seriously.”

    Well, is there a reason why we consider inter-tribal bloodletting a bad thing, or is it just a prejudice? Surely there is a reason, namely that it involves needless violence and pointless dehumanisation, cruelty, and suffering.

    So how you feel about God’s endorsment of it would surely depend on your particular position. If you’re winning or anticipating winning, sure, you’d be glad that the omnipotent source of all existence, maker of every planet, was interested. But if you’re the loser (and I’d imagine, though no expert, that in these wars as in most, the majority of people are losers), and have been killed, bereaved, enslaved, etc., to know that the maker of every planet wills that and encourages it would be, well, a bit of a kick in the teeth.

  8. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    July 11, 2009 7:53 am

    To put it another way, is there any kind of behaviour that would make God not a fit object of respect? Is there anything at all that He could do that would render Him contemptible? Or is that ‘God exists, therefore everything is permitted’?

  9. July 11, 2009 3:53 pm

    It seems only like needless violence because of your circumstances. Do you think that people just did it for fun? Perhaps a few people did, but most of the time? No, they did it because of economic pressures in a highly disorganised world. Society has not always been as complex it is now.

  10. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    July 11, 2009 4:42 pm

    I don’t think people did it for good reasons, no – obviously not ‘for fun’ but for power, glory, safety. I can see that people had excuses, and that often some people’s actions made it sensible for others to participate, but I don’t accept that ‘kill all their children and animals and salt the earth’ is ever the best solution to a resource conflict. I certainly don’t think it’s the best that omnipotence could think up, and the omnipotence presented in the Bible is hardly averse to intervention in human affairs.

  11. July 12, 2009 6:09 pm

    As a person who is handicapped and living on far below poverty levels, I can say that any god who helped me out at the expense of others is a jerk I want no part of. Why would I, who pray, deserve to be helped and not others?

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