9 Oct 2012, 5:30pm
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[holy daze] origins, stories

Well, I guess there’s been some holy days I’ve missed; I mean, depending on what calendar you’re looking at, there’s been a lot of them. At the very least, the Feast of Corpus Christi, which has something to do with the Eucharist, and the Assumption of Mary, which marks the day Mary was bodily taken up into Heaven. But the first can’t be that big of a deal or I’d've heard of it (right?), and the second sounds mostly Catholic. Are non-Catholic denominations that into Mary?

I guess, to be honest, I’m more into figuring out my own relationship to holidays I have known about and, to a greater or lesser extent, celebrated my whole life. Christmas, Easter, Lent, and so on. They feel applicable, if only due to familiarity. I haven’t been under the illusion that this project wasn’t self-indulgent, but I may as well admit that it’s way less about religion than it is about me. It’s a lens. But, of course — to make a sort of meaningless, obvious statement — religion is also about its practitioners. I dunno; I think I am trying to segue into talking about this huge thousand-page book I bought a few months ago and of which I’ve only made it through the first few chapters, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

So far there’s little mention of Jesus, but lots of fascinating discussion about Greece and Rome and Israel and Judea. The first chapter — Greece and Rome — was a nice review of content covered in Humanities 110, my alma mater’s required freshman course covering, well, ancient Greece and Rome. Actually, some of the Israel and Judea stuff was probably covered, too (I remember reading some stuff by rabbis), but hey, the class was almost a decade ago and I was eighteen and had way more interesting things to be worrying about, like how hungover I was or was not and what I was should major in and how much my boyfriend really loved me. I think a lot of kids should take some time off before they go to college, or at least I should have.

But anyway. MacCulloch includes these chapters to underline and explain early Christianity’s roots in both Judaism (of course) and Hellenistic culture (hmm!). Some quotations about Greece that are relevant to the point I’m gonna try to make later in this blog post:

Greek curiosity created the literary notion of allegory: a story in literature must be read as conveying a deeper meaning or meanings than is at first apparent, with the task of a commentator to tease out such meanings. Much later, first Jews and then Christians treated their sacred writings in the same way. (page 25)

In the realm of ideas, philosophy and religious practice, Hellenistic civilization created a meeting place for Greek and oriental culture, which made it easy for Jewish and then non-Jewish followers of Jesus Christ to take what they wanted from the ragbag of Greek thought which any moderately educated inhabitant of the Middle East would encounter in everyday conversation. (page 40)

And some notable things about Israel / Judea:

The coast [of the area now known as Israel or Palestine] has few decent harbors, and other peoples than the Children of Israel tended to dominate the ones that did exist, so the Jews never became seafarers (and generally made rather negative references to the sea and its creatures in their sacred writings). (page 48)

That parenthetical gave me pause, as someone who grew up simultaneously enthralled by and terrified of the ocean (sharks! Dark unknowable depths! Tidal waves!). How much could that have to do with my having grown up in Judeo-Christian culture? What do these biases mean about the potential universality of sacred texts? A fear of the ocean is at least excusable if not understandable in a land-locked people, but in coastal-living world travelers like myself, three thousand years later, it’s almost pathological. At the very least, it’s irrelevant.

MacCulloch says that the Jewish people were formed out of “a social rather than an ethnic grouping [of] people who were uprooted and on the edges of other societies” (page 53). These people “constructed a new identity, sealed by a God who was not necessarily to be associated with older establishments or older shrines. It would be natural for the worshippers of this God to begin a long process of refashioning a patchwork of ancient stories from their varied previous homes into a plausible single story of common ancestors” (page 53)… MacCulloch goes on to elaborate on the origin of Jewish monotheism; it’s pretty interesting but I’d like to get on with it and I think I’ve made my point that (according to MacCulloch) Judaism started out as a kind of pluralism or eclecticism. In the process of putting together their sacred texts, Jews even left contradictory or embarrassing parts in out of respect for their antiquity… a sort of dance of compromise in an effort to both strengthen their new convictions and find their place in history.

From there he talks about the creation of the Tanakh (Old Testament), which involved choosing 24 books as canon and rejecting something like seventy others as non-canon. And of course new writing and thinking was still happening all the time; MacColluch even says that “powerful currents of opinion within Judaism … continued to suggest modifications of aspects of Jewish belief if there seemed to be valuable material in the religions of others” (page 69). And around there is where I wrote in the margin: Religion is constantly adapted to suit the present — names are kept or changed to suit the needs of practitioners, to fit themselves into history or set themselves apart from it — but even Richard Dawkins comes from Christianity.

I know I got that last idea from Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, in which she argues that Dawkins’ New Atheism requires a Christian fundamentalism to which it sets itself up in opposition; without that, its suppositions are meaningless. There is no God? What is God? What is Christianity? It’s a set of traditions, of which I’m guessing exactly zero are entirely universal among folks who call themselves Christian.

MacCulloch on Christian tradition, from his introduction:

[The Bible] is full of criticism of Church tradition, in the class of writings known as prophecy, which spend much of their energy in denouncing the clergy and the clerical teaching of their day. This should provide a healthy warning to all those who aspire to tell other people what do to on the basis of the Bible. (page 6)

Self-styled ‘Traditionalists’ often forget that the nature of tradition is not that of a humanly manufactured mechanical or architectural structure with a constant outline and form, but rather that of a plant, pulsing with life and continually changing shape while keeping the same ultimate identity. (pages 7-8)

All the world faiths which have known long-term success have shown a remarkable capacity to mutate, and Christianity is no exception. (page 9)

In the early centuries of Judaism and Christianity (and probably other religions, too), there was all kinds of adaptation and creation and re-creation and discussion and reaction going on to and from and between and among all these sacred texts. Now there is this idea of the Bible as the only and infallible Word of God, right? But there are also folks who spend a lot of time and effort understanding the Bible in allegorical ways or in other ways that they find more relevant to their own lives or their modern values. I see value (lots of value, clearly) in pluralism and eclecticism, in finding and/or creating one’s own sacred texts. But I also see value in context — the long history of the word Christian, of some of its texts, of the communities that have grown up around those words and texts. Imagine if each of us had to re-invent the wheel anytime we wanted to get anywhere! It would be lonely, and progress would be slow.

Here’s one more quotation from the first section of MacCulloch’s book. You know the story of Jacob, who wrestled with an angel and was renamed Israel by that angel? Israel means “he who strives with God” –

Out of that fight in the darkness, with one who revealed the power of God and was God, began the generations of the Children of Israel. Few peoples united by a religion have proclaimed in their very name that they struggle with the one they worship. The relationship of God with Israel is intense, personal, conflicted. Those who follow Israel and the religions which spring from his wrestling match that night are being told that even through their harshest and most wretched experiences of fighting with those they love most deeply, they are being given some glimpse of how they relate to God. (page 50)

All of this is a part of my striving with God. All of this is a part of my worship.

[this entry was originally published on october 9th, 2012, at holy daze.]



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