This post is now available in Polish translation here. Thanks, as always, to Malgorzata at Racjonalista.
Jerry Coyne has just finished reading through the Bible (the Christian Bible, or at least one version of it — the Ethiopian canon, for example, contains 9 extra books, not included in the Western canon, and the Western canon includes 11 books (depending on how they are counted) not included in most Protestant Bibles), and he has some comments about the experience over at Why Evolution is True. I have done it myself about four times. The last time I tried, some fifteen years ago, I gave up after finishing the Torah, or the five books of Moses, because it became so oppressive and unintelligible, so Jerry deserves our congratulations for persevering to the end, though, to be frank, the only reason for doing something like this is to be able to say that you had actually done it.
It’s a bit like climbing mountains. Edmund Hilary, the first white man to climb Mount Everest (he was accompanied in the feat with his Sherpa guide, Tenzin Norgay), once said that the reason for climbing mountains is “because they’re there,” and the same, I suppose, could be said for reading the Bible, or any other supposedly holy book. Because they’re there. And scaling the mountains of words — or (perhaps a more appropriate image) descending the cliffs into trenches or rift valleys towards the nadir of human thought – is almost as treacherous as climbing real mountains, because anyone who has read through the Bible, and, perhaps, even more so for someone who has scaled the treacherous depths of the Qur’an, with its unremitting hatefulness, is bound to be a poorer person for the effort. If reading changes you, reading these texts can only change you for the worse, for to confront human evil sanctified by centuries of blind adulation is a risky business, to say the least.
At least now, though, when the issue of the value of such ancient texts is more frequently raised by critical voices, the danger is much less than it once was, for now it is possible to forget the patina of holiness and read them as the irreducibly human works that they are, with all their blotches and wrinkles. One of the things that should be clear to anyone who has read the Bible or the Qur’an straight through is how uneven these texts are. Perhaps I should qualify that, because the Qur’an is not as uneven as the Christian or the Jewish Bible. There are at least high points of literary achievement in the Bible, and this cannot be said for the Qur’an. I’m told that in Arabic the resonance of the language can reduce a person to tears. It is hard to believe that the thoughts themselves can do so, the Qur’an containing, amongst holy books, the most stultifyingly constipated thought ever to enter the minds of men, and being so unremittingly boring and repetitious that it is hard to stay awake, let alone retain what little intellectual content is to be found in it. How anyone can think the thoughts and call them holy is simply beyond reason and the most fertile imagination.
The Bible, though, has some genuine treasures, amongst them the Song of Songs, a lively erotic work of some subtlety, and the book of Job, perhaps the most unrelentingly searching study of the problem of evil ever written. The book ends, of course, on an entirely false note, as though lives can substitute for lives, or wealth for suffering, but the poetic heart of the book is an ageless and so far unanswered challenge to the justice of any imaginable god. Another text of some value is Ecclesiastes, the author of which was almost certainly not a true believer, who provides as convincing a case for atheism as any of the new atheists. It’s fundamental message is that “shit happens.” The world goes on in its accustomed way without any sign of design or purpose, and so one should live stoically, drifting with the tide of change, accepting the goodness that may come one’s way, and enduring the suffering without complaint.
One of the things that oppressed me, the last time I undertook the task of reading the Bible straight through, and failed, was the way its main character, the one I had learned to call God, and to think of as loving and caring, was so violently unpredictable, almost like an electric charge that could suddenly ground itself in human life and bring about cataclysmic catastrophe wherever it struck. Perhaps it was this that the writer of Ecclesiastes noticed, when he realised that things simply happen without apparent reason, that each thing has its time or season, and nothing that we can do or say will really change the way things are. War or peace, sickness or health, life or death simply happen to us, without apparent reason or purpose, and the attempt to provide reasons is just a pathetic ex post facto ad hockery that never does answer questions that real people ask. I remember my pastoral theology teacher, trying to suggest ways of comforting parents whose child has just died, saying: ”You could tell them that God always picks the fairest flowers” — a suggestion which not only answers no questions, but in fact refuses to address the questions that parents really ask. The incomprehensibility of God having, with casual brutality, picked the fair flower of youth is precisely the problem, not the answer. And — here’s the point — the Bible is like that. Like everything we say about god or gods, its answers largely consist in a suppression of the questions that ordinary people ask, but it does so in such a way as to suggest that real answers have been given. Holy books are illusions that people play with words.
This is something that it took me a long time to recognise. It’s most obvious in the case of the problem of evil, but it is also present in practically everything that religion proposes about itself, and this is where apophatic theology gets its leverage, because, in the end, there are no answers to the kinds of questions that religion asks. The Bible, and religion in general, recognises the mystery of human life, the urgent questions, all unanswered, that most people, in one way or another, are exercised with most of their lives, and it pretends that, by talking about them, by thematising them, they are somehow answered, without noticing that the answers are really questions rephrased as words of worship, praise and adulation, or are simply the same questions asked in the context of worship. The problem of evil and suffering is dealt with by discussing it in the context of an achieved belief in God, as though simply discussing it in that context provides the answer. The problem of unresolved guilt is supposedly resolved by telling a story in which we are somehow implicated, even though no one can say how. Jesus died, Christians say, for our sins, but how does a man do this, how can the dying of a man deal with someone else’s guilt? And even if you believe that Jesus was God (with a capital ‘G’), how does that help? No one has ever been able to say. Though there have been many attempts to explain it, no theory has been satisfactory, and the problem of the Atonement, the at-one-ment that Jesus is supposed to have achieved on the cross between God and humanity, is still unresolved. Nor is it ever explained, in the first place, what it means to say that humanity is alienated from God. If all it means is that we can think of a being who is perfect where we are not, this is not so great an achievement.
Think of the great prophets of the Old Testament (as the Christian Bible prejudicially renames the Jewish scriptures, because believed by Christians to prophetically anticipate the New Testament), writings which are supposed to explain the holiness and majesty and singleness of God against the backdrop of what became, in the end, the defeat and exile of God’s chosen people. One thing that the prophets do seem to have recognised, too late, is that the earlier writings – in which the Israelites are recognised as a people set apart and chosen by God, tell a tale of violence and oppression against others in the name of their God, who was thought to have commanded the sanctification by destruction of those who were not sharers in the covenant with God – are fundamentally at odds with holiness, and that God is somehow (as it says in Isaiah) “high and lifted up,” above the madnesses and travails of men, a figure of justice, mercy and compassion, not of vengeance and destruction. The very suffering of the Chosen People is now seen to be included in God’s intention, as a demonstration of God’s humane and loving purposes, which will be fulfilled through, and in some sense, despite the failure of that same Chosen People.
It is now widely believed that the traditions of the Promised Land, with its account of the wholesale destruction of its former inhabitants, and its occupation by the Chosen People, is not grounded in history. If this be so, the question then arises as to why religious intolerance and genocidal violence was added to the story, and left to stand. It seems very likely that there are competing narratives in the text: on the one hand, violence of God traditions, which express the religious intolerance of monotheism, or at least henotheism, alongside, on the other hand, humility of God traditions, which see God as somehow present in and active through a Chosen People which is made to suffer in order to draw all people to himself. Unfortunately, the part that Islam seems to have borrowed from its limited knowledge of Judaism are the traditions which sanctify the violence and intolerance of God, even though Allah’s mercy and compassion are constantly reiterated throughout the Qur’an, even in those suras in which God is depicted as most lacking in mercy and compassion.
The problem of holy books should be evident from the start, for books are, after all, every single one of them, open to interpretation, and therefore subject to the whims and fancies of their interpreters, whose ideas thus come to be clothed in the full panoply of the unapproachably sacred. This itself is an odd result, for if the books themselves are unapproachably sacred (as things which “burn the hand”), how does anyone dare approach them to interpret them? Yet they do — and must, if the text is to speak to us at all. And with this, the problem of sacred texts only becomes greater, for not only do interpretations claim the authority attaching to the original words, they must also assume that the words to which authority is attached are genuinely original. Almost all religious texts are ancient — and if not ancient, then fabricated, like the Book of Mormon — and therefore transmitted by means of copying, before the printing press was invented, and every book was a manuscript (that is, written by hand). Hebrew and Aramaic texts were often unpointed, that is, they were purely consonantal texts, without the points indicating the vowels being included with the text. Early Greek and Latin texts were often uncial, that is written in capital letters straight through, without spaces to indicate the beginnings and endings of words. As a consequence, variant texts abound, and even if text critical questions can be resolved, there is no assurance that this will get us back to the original texts. Thus, when some confessions of faith include the qualification, as many do, that the Bible is held to be inerrantly true in the original text, reference is being made to a text that is no longer accessible, and authority grounded in something the content of which cannot be known. And yet, despite this, the supposed “truths,” thus so insecurely grounded, are held to be absolute and unrevisable. The same applies to all texts which have a documentary history which is unrecoverable, and which have acquired the status of holiness.
All this is why, by the way, the idea of a revelation from a god, or from any supernatural source, is simply unworkable. Not only must the words themselves be human — for otherwise they would be unintelligible — they must be contextualised in time and space, in terms of specific groups of people, with a common cultural frame of reference. Accessing something written in another language is already a problem of interpretation, but this problem is multiplied several times over when we are talking about another language written thousands of years ago in a world comprehensively different than the world we live in today. We can see a microcosm of the problem in the way Muhammad (or whoever finally compiled the collection of writings included in the syncretistic Qur’an) treated the Jewish and Christian and Zoroastrian sources, and how they are deformed and reshaped to fit into a new narrative structure. Christians did the same thing with Jewish sources, and received their own comeuppance in Islam. Each tells a different story, rooted in its time and place, prioritising its themes in preference to the emphases in the older stories, which are subordinated to a new controlling narrative – and so the whirligig of time moves on. Why can the religious not see how this takes place, and how it relativises everything that they proclaim and regard as holy? There is now no excuse. We can see the gears move and the levers used to direct narrative energy into new courses. Anyone who reads can know this. How is it still possible to pretend that these things are holy?