The Biblical Tradition - Hebrew Scriptures
While Christian philosophy derived from Aristotle, Christian religion descends from the Hebrew tradition in which God is active and caring in human history, unlike the aloof god of Aristotle. The Hebrew God was revealed to Moses as a mighty warrior-liberator who would force the Egyptians to free the Israelites. But Moses did not understand God as merely a more powerful warrior god among many. God, as revealed to Moses could not be depicted in an image nor could he be invoked by calling his name.
In Moses’ understanding and teaching, God made a covenant with his people that begins with their liberation from Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land. The duty of the people required exclusive worship of God, who transcended images and names, as well as observance of the required acts of justice to each other. Set-backs, both before and after the chosen people’s entry into what became their land, were seen as the result of failing to live up to the covenant.
If the evolution of religion, specifically biblical religion, can be seen as the evolution of the human awareness of a transcendent consciousness, the leading edge of this awareness can be found in the person of each of the prophets. In one of the crucial breakthroughs in the history of religion, the prophet Amos upended the notion that we can live a good life simply by placating God with ritual and sacrifice. Amos railed against evil immoral acts and attributed the suffering of the people to God’s punishment. But the reform that Amos demanded did not involve pleasing God with rituals. Rather it meant justice toward the poor. Amos, voicing what he believed God said through him, warned:
I hate, I despise your feasts
And I take no delight in your solemn assemblies
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
I will not accept them….
But let justice roll down like water
And righteousness like and ever flowing stream.
Hear this you who trample on the needy
And bring the poor of the land to an end. (Amos: 5: 21, 22, 24, 8: 4)
American philosopher Josiah Royce (1855 - 1916) summed up the breakthrough of Amos in the context of mediating ideas, which bring together apparently incompatible thought processes. In a previous paragraph, Royce had illustrated the mediating idea of Malthus on the thought of Charles Darwin. Arguing that the same creative process that works in science also works in religion, he showed how Amos reconciled the self-righteousness of religious leaders with the grim reality of the neglected poor. As Royce states it: “Amos introduced into the controversies of his time the still tragic, but inspiring and mediating, idea of the God who, as he declared, delights not in sacrifices but in righteousness. And by this one stroke of religious genius the prophet directed the religious growth of the centuries that were to follow.” The Problem of Christianity, 307.
So the insight of Amos does not constitute merely another idea in a pantheon of religious ideas. Rather his insight shows real progress. The idea of the need to take care of the poor as central to religion runs through the history of Judaism and Christianity. The tendency to return to a smug selfish attitude remains, but the arrow of religious history shows a constant attempt to overcome greed and selfishness in favor of justice and charity.
The prophetic vision of Amos was carried forward by the prophet Isaiah.
As Daniel Berrigan, in his book Isaiah, quotes the prophet speaking in the voice of God:
Of what import, what value
These sacrifices of yours,
Innumerable---useless, repugnant !
Turn, turn, turn !
Succor the oppressed,
Cherish the defenseless !
Berrigan observes that the religious sense itself is declared perverted. When religious sense moves forward, the old religiosity, which had been understood as prescribed by God Himself, becomes an obstacle to true worship. This state of affairs can lead to despair. But Berrigan shows the hopeful meaning of this sea change in religious consciousness:
But just as despair is the ignoble stock-in-trade of the world’s systems hope is the noble stock-in-trade of the prophet. For “my people” some breakthrough, a personal and social change of heart is possible, the prophet is compelled to state this possibility and also to show a path.
Worshiping the supreme reality no longer means placating an angry, jealous, and vengeful despot. Rather it means caring for all human beings in whom consciousness is embodied. To the best of my knowledge, the biblical tradition did not extend compassion to non-human animals as did some forms of Buddhism. This extension is only now coming into western religion.
The case for continuity between religion and modernity
The next several posts will make the case for a continuity between traditional religion and modern thought by showing an evolution that moves continually, although not smoothly, from primitive religion to the theological ethical, and scientific thinking of our own time. This continuity includes an intimate connection between a world-forming consciousness and the notions and experiences that human beings have with such a consciousness.
At first sight the anthropomorphic notions of the Creator, and the religions that have developed around these notions, seem to be so far removed from any feasible scientific explanations as to be useless. In fact they may be worse than useless in that they stand in the way of rational understanding. But the status of traditional theistic religion deserves and requires a further look, beginning at the beginning. Generations educated with an acceptance of physical and biological evolution should at least be open to the possibility of spiritual evolution.
Our remote ancestors faced mysterious phenomena that far surpassed their understanding and ability to control. These phenomena included things that are no longer mysteries to us, such as the sun moving across the sky, the change of seasons, lightening and thunder, and natural disasters. As consciousness developed, our forerunners projected consciousness on things that we look on as inanimate such as the sun, a holy mountain, or the unseen source of thunder and other phenomena. People faced these seemingly higher realties with a sense of what Rudolph Otto, in his classical work The Idea of the Holy, called Mysterium tremendum and fascionsum. The mystery appeared to them as overwhelming and at the same time fascinating.
They were not yet ready to think philosophically about whatever is the highest power in the universe, but it struck them as extremely powerful and also as fundamentally good. Therefore they approached and avoided it with a combination of fear and reverence.
In trying to understand the notion of God that has come down to us through the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have to look at the development among the Greeks and the Hebrews. In Western culture, both the popular and the theological notions of God descended primarily from these two sources. A scanning of the development of consciousness in each of these traditions will show the continuity between the early notion of the power behind the universe and an understanding of a divine being that can serve as a live option for scientifically educated people today.
Evolution of the Religious Traditions
The previous posts reflected on whether consciousness is a rare product of an otherwise unconscious process of physical and biological evolution or, whether consciousness is a real power that propels and guides the whole process. The previous posts described these polar opposites as the materialist and the teleological views.
We could simplistically assert that the conflict comes down to atheism versus religion. But unfortunately – or better, fortunately, the range and depth of possible interpretations is more complex by far. Those who ponder the deeper meaning of reality can move away from the stark materialism of writers like Dennett and Dawkins, and still see the whole structure and practice of religion as false and illusory. They may accept the notion of purpose in the process of the evolving universe but still be secularists and even atheists in that they see the notion and name of God as false and misleading.
For example, Christof Koch, whose writing I drew from in the previous posts, sums up his position as a “romantic reductionist” saying: “I do believe that some deep and elemental organizing principle created the universe and set it in motion for a purpose that I cannot comprehend.”(165) Koch had rejected traditional religion and affirmed the principle of reductionism, and yet, the above quote affirms a teleological principle.
The discontinuity between modern spirituality and religion
An often heard phrase states “I am spiritual but not religious.” The metaphysical notion of a purpose in the universe can be compatible with science, but does it have any connection with traditional religion? The belief in an anthropomorphic god who cares about and enters into human history seems to be an outdated and outlandish superstition compared to the sober reflection of a contemporary scientists musing on a possible meaning to the universe.
As early as the 17th century, regarding the ultimate meaning of the universe, a chasm opened between traditional views on the one hand and rational views on the other. For example, in 1786 future American president John Adams, who had learned of William Herschel’s discovery of the planet Uranus, and the forty-foot long telescope with which he peered into deep space, visited Herschel at his observatory in England. Adams pondered the newly discovered vastness of the universe, the relative insignificance of the earth, and the probability of countless inhabited worlds. He drew the conclusion that the notion of “The Great Principle” becoming human, dwelling on earth, being spit upon and crucified, is absurd, and so Calvinism or any orthodox form of Christianity is a blasphemy that we should get rid of. (Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 67)
In the context of the gap between the religious world-view before the enlightenment and the science of the last three hundred years, can traditional religion have any standing in the 21st century? I will make the case that it can, based on the premise that, as we human beings evolve, physically, chemically, and biologically toward greater consciousness, our understanding of the highest consciousness also evolves, and that we can discern a continuity between earlier and later stages.
To state this approach in popular theological terms, we gradually come to understand God as revealed over time. As we move toward higher stages of religious awareness, the older and lower stages appear to religious believers as idolatries, and to non-believers as preposterous superstitions. In tracing the development of religious consciousness, the focus here will be on the Western tradition.
While religious consciousness developed independently among people all over the world, and a fruitful encounter among traditions is taking place relatively late in history, my posts will concentrate on the development that took place, and is still taking place in the Biblical and philosophical traditions of the West.