My God Can Beat Up Your God
A 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.
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.
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:
Then 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: