Is there a fundamental conflict for someone to be an intellectual and a believer in conservative religion? The recent Bill Maher film, Religulous, would have one believe that most people surrender their minds when they surrender their hearts to religion.
Having attended four private Christian universities my impression has been that there are very smart people on both side of the discussion. In fact, in the movie, Maher expressed frustration when addressing the “Truckers for Jesus” gathering that they appear to be intelligent gentlemen, but he couldn’t reconcile that with how they could believe in a literal talking snake from the Expulsion from Eden narrative in the book of Genesis. Looking for a different take on this possible conflict between rationalism and religion, I explored a book titled, “Did The Greeks Believe In Their Myths,” by Paul Veyne (1988), professor of Roman history at the University of France.
When I began this exploration I assumed a basic Western point of view, being that before the Renaissance and the following Age of Reason and Science, that the centers for learning, philosophy, government and culture were interpreted through religion and faith. Given this general understanding one might also be led to assume that the Ancients were somehow less intelligent than modern men. Stone and bronze tools versus lasers and computer-precision tools, astrology versus astrophysics, mythology versus historical critical analysis, one might see some credence to this sense of “less intelligent.” Of course all of this comes crashing down when one considers the surviving record left behind by Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Galen the physician and the obvious brilliance of the whole chorus of ancient voices. So how did these brilliant thinkers deal with the religion and mythology of their day? For some reason the lyrics, “Same as it ever was” runs through my mind. Same as it ever was indeed, but Veyne would point out some noted exceptions.
In the opening chapters of his book Veyne (1988) noted several factors that need to be taken into consideration when attempting to consult with the Ancients. The first concept that may seem foreign to modern historians and academicians was that before the modern era, ancient historians and writers felt that it undermined their credibility if they cited sources for their stories. Veyne noted, as late as 1560 C.E., French scholar, Estienne Pasquier, was criticized for including footnotes in his writings (p. 5):
“… For the ancient Greeks, historical truth was a vulgate authenticated by consensus over the ages. This consensus sanctioned the truth as it sanctioned the reputation of those writers held to be classical or even, I imagine, the tradition of the Church. Far from having to establish the truth by means of references, Pasquier should have waited to be recognized as an authentic text himself. By putting his notes at the bottom of the page, by furnishing proofs as the jurists do, he indiscreetly sought to force the consensus of posterity concerning his work.” (p. 6)
So Pasquier’s use of footnotes ran contrary to the idea that he should have waited for his work to be accepted because he himself would be proven over time to be a valid source. Veyne compared this with the modern practice of trusting journalists without requiring them to reveal their informants. The idea of citing sources, according to Veyne, didn’t come from ancient historians but from judicial practice where trial proceedings would be cited or from theological controversies where the Scriptures were referenced. But in the case of the writings of ancient historians, which were often just the collections of local folklore gathered during the writers’ travels, Veyne quipped, “It would be futile to include the list of informants. Who would check them?” (p. 9)
Another practice that may run contrary to modern thinking was that these ancient stories were always connected with real place-names and recognizable historical figures. Mount Olympus was a real place and the locations of the graves or shrines of legendary persons were universal across the ancient world. In fact there seemed to have been an imperative that there be a story or legend behind the founding of any community generally ascribed to some legendary persons for whom the town, city or region was named.
“Indeed, what was strange in this local historiography was that is was reduced to question of origins. It did not tell of the life of the city, its collective memories or great moments. It was enough to know when and how the city had been founded. Once created, the city had only to live its life, which could be presumed to be comparable to what city life can be and which would be what it could be. It was not important. Once the historian had narrated its foundations, the city was fixed in space and time; it had its identity card.” p. 77
Thus, ascertaining the “where” of a story was completely disconnected from a judgment of “truth.” The historian Heroditus, wrote, “My business is to record what people say; but I am by no means bound to believe it” (p. 12). Where this trips up modern historians is that it’s a bit of a two-edge sword. Modern historians are used to starting with the place and date to begin the investigation. But if the tale seems to clearly be “mythical” the tendency has been to throw out the whole thing: the date, place and event. For example, historians had long dismissed the Trojan War as described by Homer, and generally threw out the place and the tale. But all of this was thrown into confusion when Heinrich Schliemann declared that he’d found the ancient city of Troy in the 1870s. So, the connection with a specific place was never part of the determination of “truth,” it’s just the way stories were told. Question then becomes whether the writers of the biblical narrative, who were contemporaries, would have operated with the same understanding of place-names. We’ll pick this thread up a bit further in this essay. Suffice it so say that unlike modern historians, establishing a story with a very real place-name was never used as a validating factor. Now as to the use of the question of “When” which generally followed the “Where” question, well, that’s another place where modern historians differ from ancient writers.
When modern readers see the words, “Once upon a time,” they automatically think, “fable, myth, fiction, not-true.” Journalists begin their investigations with the five W’s: who, what, where, when and why and if the “when” cannot be reasonably determined then the whole story is thrown out. Ancient writers, however, understood that by definition these stories took place in a time before the current “mundane” time. Again, the Ancients disconnected “when” from any verification of “truth.” And to them it seemed perfectly logical and rational to accept this “non-time” for the same reasons that modern historians would reject the entire story.
“These legendary worlds were accepted as true in the sense that they were not doubted, but they were not accepted the way that everyday reality is. For the faithful, the lives of the martyrs were filled with marvels situated in an ageless past, defined only in that it was earlier, outside of, and different from the present. It was the “time of the pagans.” (p. 17-18)
This reminds me of the phrase, “In those days,” used in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis and frequently in the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Old Testament. Using this idea of “otherness” used by contemporary ancient writers, one can guess that the idea is not only meant to designate things that happened a long time ago, but things that happened in a time that was foreign to this time. Veyne paraphrased Epicurus as writing that “men of olden times, more vigorous than those of today, had eyes good enough to see the gods in broad daylight, while now we can manage to capture only the emissions of their atoms through the channel of dreams.” (p. 99)
So, Time is useless as a measure of validity, just as determining “Where” these stories took place was treated as part of the places’ “history” in an origin-story fashion, neither confirming nor denying the validity of these stories. It’s this kind of circular reasoning that prompted Maher, In the movie Religulous, to express frustration when speaking with Francis Collins, a scientist, evangelical Christian and former director of the Human Genome Project. Collins quipped to Maher that his problem was that Maher was asking the Bible to hold to a level of historical veracity that no book from that era could stand up to. One might think that Maher might have understood some of this when he interviewed Father George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory, during which Coyne pointed out (with a great chart) that religion and the Bible, more specifically, spoke for the era from roughly 2,000 B.C.E. to approximately 400 C.E. and that science has held rein over the past 400 to 500 years. I’m not entirely sure why Coyne felt that religion lost hold so early, but it might have had something to do with the formalizing of the Canon of Scripture at the Council of Nicea. But the point seemed clear that there was a wide gulf between the era of religion and the era of science and that the only conflict seemed to be when people tried to force one to speak on the other. In essence, the writers of the Bible knew nothing about the scientific method and used the conventions of storytelling of the time and that this reflected the origins of these stories beginning as an oral history. Equally, there are limits to Science if one is strict in holding to the scientific method and observational query. Just as the Ancients’ use of time and place, Maher should have understood that just because Dr. Andrew Newberg, research neuroscientist from the University of Pennsylvania, can make map and measure brain activity of people in various religious states including Glossolalia, this neither validates nor invalidates the participants’ experiences or interpretation of said experiences.
Toward the end of my Bachelor’s degree program in Biblical Studies at Biola University in 1981 I vaguely remember a few students and professors talking about something called a Midrash, that doesn’t seem to follow the definition I found in Wikipedia. What I remember was this had something to do with the kind of storytelling Jesus used in his parables where the message or emotional impact of the story held precedence over the “historical” elements of the story. Not that the storyteller would “lie” about the facts of the story, but that everyone understood that the point of the story was all that really mattered. Were there four fish and two loaves of bread or seven loaves and no fish? Who cares, the point is that the whole crowd got fed. This is hardly a scientific approach, but then it shouldn’t be, given that the scientific method won’t hold sway for more than a thousand years from the closing of Scripture and formalization of the canon of Scripture around the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. So, should it be surprising at all that the writers of the Old and New Testament used storytelling methods that were completely consistent with storytelling around the Mediterranean Sea during that era?
While conducting research for this essay I happened upon a 2006 History Channel documentary by Jewish Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and the producer/director James Cameron, called “Exodus Decoded.” Over the course of the 90-minute documentary, heavy in computer-generated visualizations, Jacobovici strings together the biblical story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt and connects the ten plagues described in the narrative with the destruction of Minoan island of Thera (now called Satorini) around 1,500 B.C.E. An undated inscription of the word “El” in an Egyptian mine, grave stones marking wealthy tombs and an ornament found in Mycenae are employed as scientific evidence that the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt was really about the Exodus narrative depicted in the Old Testament. The presentation is powerful and the production values are epic right down to animating the Mycenae stele to depict Egyptian chariots chasing the Hebrews and then getting over-turned during the Red Sea crossing. Too bad scholars connected with the Minoan exhibition say that the stones depict a lion hunt and that the first stone is not included or “edited” in the CG animation to show Jacobovici’s hypothesis. After reading an extensive review of the documentary by Pepperdine professor of Religion, Chris Heard on his website, Haggaion, one has to wonder at what point did Jacobovici decide to depart from the scientific method in favor of producing a slick documentary. For those who are serious about the message of the Exodus on a spiritual and academic level, how much more damage is done by a well-crafted documentary that doesn’t follow it’s own claim to be evidence based? This is not to say that science can’t be used to establish an historical basis for Old and New Testament narratives. But like Dr. Newberg’s flashing lights or energy-spikes in the neural readings, proving that there was a Moses or David or giant named Goliath doesn’t validate (or invalidate) the messages of these narratives.
So what did Veyne’s intellectual Greeks do about their own myths? Well, they did what today’s intellectual religious conservatives do: they did all kinds of mental gymnastics depending on the venue and problem they were addressing. The physician Galen, when speaking as a scholar, discounted things that could not be proven writing, “if the theorem is unrealizable, in the manner of the following statement, The centaur’s bile relieves apoplexy, it is useless because it escapes our apperception.” But when trying to win over new followers and disciples he’s willing to speak the language of the believers writing that the origin of Greek medicine was taught by Apollo to his son Asclepius. (p. 55) They understood the power of Myth in terms of social and political conventions that needed to be maintained for society to function (p. 80). They might hold to the allegorical/point-of-the-story (“Midrash”?) aspect of the stories. They might even entertain a nostalgic attitude for a Golden Age that doesn’t intersect their own non-mythical existence. But for the most part belief in the magical/mythical parts of the stories was also like today’s attitude that it’s okay for little children to believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, but anyone with any intelligence knows that these stories just aren’t true. Stories about a warrior making the sun stand still, or conquering people with a magic box, people living to be nine-hundred-years-old would have probably gotten the same “only for kids” label.
Come to think of it, perhaps the genesis of this conflict between belief and intellectualism took hold with those who insisted that the old stories, the old miracles were not something only for that time before now but are part of the Now. An expectation changed from faith and religion being a social construction or convention to being a personal relationship with the divine (which was still a social construction/convention). And because we humans are so good at pattern recognition and invention we can easily see the invisible hand of the power of everything at work in small and great ways in our lives. Of course it does help that by definition this invisible hand works in ways that are entirely beyond our capacity to fathom, there’s no real need to explain or understand anything that might appear to be inconsistent with our dearly held convictions.
On the other extreme, I’m amazed when I encounter the arrogance of some intellectuals who believe that they have a superior understanding of reality while at the same time every academic field, from medicine to astronomy to cosmology to genetics to history are all going through unprecedented revolutions where last year’s textbook and theories are having to be continually thrown out due to new discoveries. My thoughts are that in between what is understood and what is not understood there might be room for an intelligence that, just like Epicurus opined, operates just beyond our limited field of vision and visits us in our dreams. Just don’t expect me to believe in talking snakes or cheap miracle workers who seem to always be in need of donations.
- clipart from http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/clipart/default.aspx
- Heard, Chris (2007). Exodus Decoded. Higgaion. Retrieved 04/20/2009 from http://www.heardworld.com/higgaion/?cat=86
- Maher, Bill (2008). Religulous. Thousand Words. Retireved 04/20/2009 from http://www.religulousmovie.net/
- Veyne, Paul (1988). Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths: An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination. Paula Wissing, translator. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Exodus Decoded. Wikipedia. Retireved 04/20/2009 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exodus_Decoded
- Religulous. Wikipedia. Retireved 04/20/2009 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religulous