Monday, April 25, 2011

the finger pointing

Dr. V's Easter post on religion spends most of its time comparing Christianity's historico-centric soteriology to Buddhism's ahistorical soteriology, then ends on this bizarre, potentially offensive note:

Both Buddhism and Christianity are life-denying religions. But while Christianity denies this life for the sake of a higher life elsewhere and elsewhen, Buddhism denies this life for the sake of extinction. And yet there is much to learn from Buddhism and its practices. They are the two highest religions. The two lowest are the religions of spiritual materialism, Judaism and Islam, with Islam at the very bottom of the hierarchy of great religions.

Ouch. I think my Jewish readers might have something to say about that. I'm not sure whether I have any Muslim readers (I may have had one or two on my other blog), but if I do, they might have something to say as well.

Dr. V's above-linked post is one of several that deal, in part, with historicity and hermeneutical literalism (see here). I abandoned biblical literalism long, long ago, and haven't looked back. The problem for all of us is that we have no time machine and video camera with which to travel back to the ancient Galilee region to confirm (or disconfirm) any of the events described in Christian scriptures. The evidence for the very existence of Jesus is rather thin: nothing is directly traceable to the man himself-- not hair, nor a scrap of writing in his hand, nor any bones or bloodstains. With nothing tangible to bolster the case for Jesus' existence and the significance of his teachings, all that's left, really, is the believer's faith. That faith works best, in my opinion, when it's less about trying to make literal claims about the scriptures and instead focuses on the existential truths that arise from the narratives in them.

A professor of mine once said something to this effect: "A myth is a story revealing truths that can only be revealed in a story." This isn't as circular as it initially sounds. The prof's claim is that there are narrative truths-- truths that aren't articulable in language, but are nonetheless conveyed through language to be felt and internalized by the reader. Because these truths take no definite discursive shape, they have much in common with squirmy, changing, living things. They are, then, living truths. Speech in this narrative mode thus points to the unspeakable, the ineffable-- to living truths: to life.

I take the Easter story to be a finger pointing in that direction: toward new life, new beginnings, another dawn.



John from Daejeon said...

The "truth" is, that for most of humanity, this life is one that isn't full of highs. It's pretty much full of mostly lows.

To combat the truth that this reality really blows for the little people (meek) before they could think for themselves with the help of Google and Wikipedia 2000 plus years ago (and some more recently), the high and mighty amongst them decided that in order to motivate these poor and downtrodden for their own greedy gain and keep them hoodwinked while under their control they needed something out of this world for them to aim for, and what's better than a heavenly afterlife full of virgins for each male believer; however, I guess that would probably actually be an afterlife of hell for each female servicing that man along with all her female ex-virgin companions with only one man to go around.

So, can you imagine a world where all people know for a fact that religions are nothing more than a made up crock of you-know-what/mind control? Without these religions/mind control, with their promises of rich rewards and the harshest of hells, everyone would revert to their caveman instincts of old, and a true "survival of the fittest" would be taking place once again.

Right now, there are nearly 7,000,000,000 people on this planet. Come Judgment Day (well, if it comes really soon), at least 5,000,000 will have chosen poorly and end up having wasted at lot of time and effort praying/paying (or not praying/paying) to the wrong god(s) while having helped in the oppression (and even deaths) of others in the names of their only-true god/religion, which, in the end, ended up being a false god.

It's just too bad that no one is praying to the original "sun" god much anymore. It isn't like it provides us with life or anything, and a punishment of a sunburn really isn't quite so harsh when compared to what other deities supposedly hand out in the grand scheme of things.

Eventually, I do think that the meek will actually inherit the Earth. The problem with that though is that it will only be due to the fact that the rich (high priests) will have left the planet in a totally unviable, used-up state while they journey into the cosmos to find other illiterate suckers (disciples) to spread their “word” to (beat into submission and rule them “thanks be to God”).

Elisson said...

Potentially offensive?

Kevin Kim said...


Yeah... me and my euphemisms. I'm not even sure what Dr. V's talking about when he says "spiritual materialism." Do Jews believe God is made of rocks or something? Depending on what is meant by "materialism," Christianity could certainly stand accused of wretched excess. So could Buddhism, for that matter. Those huge temples don't build themselves!

Feel free to let Dr. V have it if you're so inclined.


Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think that Bill once posted something like that before. I've never been quite sure what he meant, but as Kevin notes, Christianity could be accused of worshiping a God of flesh, for the Son of God takes on flesh in the incarnation and is never again without a 'physical' body.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

SJHoneywell said...

"I take the Easter story to be a finger pointing in that direction: toward new life, new beginnings, another dawn."

Well, yes, which is why it is celebrated in the spring and is rife with fertility symbols. Easter doesn't show up in the same month year-by-year, so it's always been about its symbolic importance.

As for narrative truth, any good sacred writing will always sacrifice small-t truth for capital-T TRUTH, which is as it should be.

Strictly from a literary perspective, many holy writings of many religions are far more interesting taken as allegory than as literal truth. Literalism reduces whatever god a person believes in to little more than a purveyor of parlor tricks.

Kevin Kim said...


I'm something of a Bultmannian when it comes to my own personal hermeneutics: I prefer a "demythologized" reading of scripture to literalism. The latter tack often seems like the laziest possible way to read scriptures.

I'm surprised no one's jumped in yet with the old "Well, if narrative truths are what's most important, why not throw away the scriptures and read Shakespeare instead?" argument.

John from Daejeon said...

"I take the Easter story to be a finger pointing in that direction: toward new life, new beginnings, another dawn."

It's not like the Church to usurp another pagan religion/goddess (Eostre) that stood for the same thing in order to further their own goals/influence; however, the Easter egg and Easter bunny are nice pagan touches that somehow made the transition into the new religion.

History of Easter video

But I really admire how the Church decided to move the birth of Jesus to December 25th from the spring to wipe other religions from the religious map. Alas poor Mithra, it is a shame that more Christians don't realize how the the Church made the birth of Jesus so much like your own and still uses many of the old pagan traditions that are now falsely known as Christian.

Kevin Kim said...


All good points about the ugly side of church history. One wonders, though, how those previous religions came into prominence. Was it through a more innocent, organic process? I doubt it. Religions are memeplexes fighting other memeplexes for space in people's minds. The whole thing has a Darwinian tinge.

I think we're starting to edge onto some of the ground covered in this post on my other blog.

Charles said...

Just a quick, off-topic comment on the second to last paragraph. I saw you mentioned the same thing in a Tweet at one point, but since you mentioned it here, I thought I would chime in.

"A myth is a story revealing truths that can only be revealed in a story."

This is an essential concept in the field of folklore/oral literature, and I'm sure your professor picked it up from somewhere else (I'm almost positive I've heard this exact formulation elsewhere, or at least something very similar). Anyone who studies mythology pretty much takes it for granted. I'm sure you're familiar with the distinction between mythos and logos. It wasn't until relatively recently (the 19th century, to be specific) that people started using "myth" to mean "something that is not true." Prior to that, mythos was just another field of knowledge, separate from but also supplementary to logos.

Anyway, you've mention this twice now, and both times I've nodded my head vigorously.

Kevin Kim said...

The prof was Tony Tambasco at Georgetown-- a Paul scholar, among other things-- and he mentioned this notion of myth in either his Old Testament or New Testament courses, both of which I took through Continuing Ed before I started grad school at Catholic U. in 1999.

And yes, it's a catchy enough sound bite that it plausibly originated elsewhere. Either that, or Dr. T. arrived at the insight on his own. He was a witty guy, and loved such aphoristic formulations.

Rudolf Bultmann would have said that scripture's relevance comes from its existential import, not its literal import. His "demythologized" view of myth was all about this more existential approach.

John from Daejeon said...

Yeah, I'm definitely anti-gods/anti-governments after watching two, finally "truthful," great Chernobyl documentaries 25 years later.

Surviving Disaster: Chernobyl from the BBC really made me beyong mad at how the Soviets nearly destroyed Europe by keeping their own scientists and engineers in the dark about previous nuclear mishaps at reactors in the Soviet Union. Eye-opening is truly a gross understatement.

The Battle of Chernobyl has the following kudos: "Truly powerful and moving... contains an impressive amount of incredibly powerful and valuable archival information, as well as some revealing interviews."—Vitaly Cheernetsky, KinoKultura: New Russian Cinema

"An epic documentary."—Variety

"Powerful... an important film... Because so much of the story has been forgotten or concealed, the film's momentum never flags."—American Society for Environmental History Newsletter

"A mind boggling piece of work... peerless... painstakingly researched... This documentary has earned the highest recommendation for its clarity, its persistent revelations, and comprehensive examination of this dismal crisis." —Michael J. Coffta, Educational Media Reviews Online

The ironic part of Chernobyl is that it really (and its price tag) brought about the fall of the Soviet Empire and began Glasnost.

I'd just like to know (from all religions) where is god(s) when simple men are able to destroy themselves and the planet with such ease while answering to no one? Must be the devil because god(s) could never be so cruel.