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.