Wednesday, October 16, 2013

When He Was Good He Was a Very, Very Good God, But When He Was Bad ...

I'm nearing the end of Mary Midgley's The Solitary Self, and I'm bothered by her handling of religion.  For example, I mentioned yesterday her invocation of something called the "traditional theological idea of an immanent God."  Later in the book she quotes Charles Kingsley, a contemporary and friend of Darwin: "It is just as noble a conception of Deity to believe that he created primal forms capable of self-development ... as to believe that he required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which he himself had made" (95).  She then comments,
Thus, as Kingsley and many other Christians have looked at it, if God is present, he pervades the whole process of evolution as its creator and is immanent in all of it.  He is not an outside operative, a retired clockmaker or visiting in to adjust the nuts and bolts.
I'm not well acquainted with Kingsley's writings and ideas, so I can only go by what Midgley quotes from him.  But I can't see that Kingsley was referring in that sentence to an "immanent" God, as she claimed.  He seemed rather to have in mind an "outside operative" who wound up the "primal forms" and let them chug along without further intervention.  An immanent deity who "pervades the whole process of evolution as its creator" would be more like another theological concept of god, as the creator and sustainer of the world.  That would perhaps be compatible with Darwinian theory, just as it's possible in principle to think of natural disasters both as "acts of God" and as events describable and explainable by the physical sciences, but Midgley seems to have things exactly wrong.  The notion of god as "wholly other", an outside operative as it were, is also part of the "traditional theological idea" Midgley referred to -- which isn't really a single idea but numerous ones.

Midgley continues:
There should not, then, really have been a serious clash here.  The only difficulty -- and of course it has proved a serious one -- is that it means the biblical account of creation cannot be taken literally.

That news ought not really to have shocked Christendom.  As it happened, the Church Fathers, notably Augustine, had very early seen the need to treat some biblical stories as metaphors or allegories, and had often advised this.  Origen pointed out that the sun and moon could not literally have been created "on the third day," because there could have been no days before they were present.  This, he said, did not matter because the symbolic meaning was always the real message.  Thus the Genesis story simply describes the total dependence of all creatures on a ruling benevolent spirit and does this through a myth: an imaginative vision that is the most appropriate way of bringing such vast and mystifying facts within human comprehension.  The details of the story are merely shaped to make this central point clear. 
Since, however, the truth of the symbolic story was so important, people naturally often did assume that biblical stories were factually true as well ...
I can't tell where Augustine leaves off and Midgley begins in this passage, but it isn't philosophy, it's apologetics -- and fundamentalist apologetics at that.  (Bear in mind that fundamentalists do not 'take the Bible literally' -- they take it very figuratively in order to preserve its inerrancy.)

Where to begin?  Well, allegorical readings of scripture began earlier than the Church Fathers.  Apocalyptic books often involved allegorical visions which were decoded for the seers by heavenly guides.  Jesus gives his inner circle of disciples an allegorical interpretation of one of his own parables in the fourth chapter of Mark's gospel; I doubt it's authentic, but it's at least as old as the gospel itself (around 70 AD).  In chapter 4 of Paul's letter to the Galatians, centuries before Augustine, he wrote:
22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. 23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, 24 which things are symbolic. For these are the[d] two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar— 25 for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children— 26 but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.
This is some rather fancy footwork: Paul equates Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, with Judaism ("Jerusalem, which now is, and is in bondage with her children"), and Sara, the mother of Isaac, with the followers of Jesus, dwellers in "the Jerusalem above [which] is free".  This is doubly ironic since in Galatians Paul was not addressing Jewish Christians, but Gentile converts who were, he insisted, free from the law of Moses.  I bring this up as a reminder that allegorical or metaphorical interpretations don't always reveal "the truth of the symbolic story" -- they can be thoroughly dishonest.  Bear in mind that this allegorical reading is not marginal but canonical, in a New Testament document of crucial importance for Christian theology.  (It's also typical of New Testament use of the Hebrew Bible, in yanking passages out of their original context and giving them wildly inapt readings.)

Further, allegorical, typological and other non-literal forms of interpretation weren't applied only to certain biblical passages: they could be applied to everything in the Bible, and to non-Biblical writings besides. After all, a book breathed by God himself must have many layers of meaning.  Jewish and Christian interpreters borrowed the approach from philosophical interpreters of Homer.  Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish contemporary of Paul, also applied it to the Hebrew Bible, with very different results of course.  Allegorical and other non-literal readings don't uncover the "true" meaning encoded in a text: they allow the interpreter to impose his own agenda on the text -- as Walter Kaufmann put it, to read their ideas into a text and get them back endowed with authority.

As for "myth," that's a word with many different meanings too, even on the literal level.  No one knows what the writer (or writers) of Genesis 1 and 2 thought their work meant, but the interpretation Midgley gives -- "the total dependence of all creatures on a ruling benevolent spirit" -- isn't even reductive, it's platitudinous.  She also forgets (surely she must know) that there are two different creation stories in Genesis, with different sequences of creative acts and, therefore, presumably different meanings.  She also knows that myths, though powerful, aren't necessarily true or valid, as when she refers to "social atomism" as "the prevailing myth of the time" (116).  Genesis 1 and 2 might have been the prevailing myths of their time, but we don't know what they were meant to convey except in very broad outline.

Nor can the god of Genesis 1 and 2 (or the rest of the Bible) be categorized as an "immanent" deity who created the world, set evolution in motion, and then sat back to watch it play out. Yahweh is, as many modern theologians have said, a god who "acts in history."  He isn't immanent, he sits on a throne in the heavens, watching his creations go through our paces; but sometimes he comes down to walk in a garden, or to hang out in the mountains and flash his behind at his prophets. Whatever the meaning of such mythology, it can't be reduced to Midgley's account without severe violence to the texts. Midgley's reading requires her to take the first chapters of Genesis out of their literary context and ignore the larger narratives.  That's not a matter of not taking the Bible literally, it's using it as a foil for her own agenda.  Midgley is entitled, of course, to hold whatever cockamamie conception of god she wishes; but to read it into the Bible and get it back endowed with authority is intellectually dishonest.  (There are some intriguing similarities between Midgley's position and that of Terry Eagleton, who says that Yahweh is "not a celestial engineer at work on a superbly rational design ... but an artist, and an aesthete to boot," and "[u]nlike George Bush, not an interventionist kind of ruler.")

Midgley refers again to Darwin's rejection of "the rather simple Christian faith in which he had been brought up, but he never embraced simple, confident atheism either" (93).  She quotes a passage from his autobiography in which he wrote of "the extreme difficulty, or rather impossibility, of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man, ... as the result of blind chance or necessity" and concluded that "I deserve to be called a theist" (93, italics added by Midgley).  It may be that it's impossible to conceive of the universe as uncreated, but that's not evidence that it was created; it may be evidence of the limitations of human thought.  The revivalist New Atheists whom Midgley is attacking presumably accept the Big Bang theory, which many scientists have interpreted as a creation myth to replace Genesis.  (It should be remembered, just in passing, that Genesis wasn't the only creation myth even in antiquity.  There were lots of them, even in the Near East.)  Again, this may be evidence for the human mind's inability to imagine or think about a universe without a beginning, or that came into existence without some kind of impelling force, but it's not evidence for or against any theory.

That condescending bit about "the rather simple Christian faith" in which Darwin was raised is a sore point for me; I'm not sure what symbolic meaning Midgley intends by it.  I don't know about Darwin's upbringing -- it's time to read some biographies! -- but was nineteenth-century Anglican Christianity really that simple?  What really annoys me is the apparent implication that a more complex or sophisticated Christian faith would have been superior.  Midgley's own contortions to produce a more sophisticated reading of Genesis don't inspire any confidence in me, at least.  And the labyrinthine complications of academic theology are not obviously better than the simplicities of a little church in the glen.  The former Pope Benedict's version of Christianity, for example, is surely sophisticated enough to satisfy even Mary Midgley, but it's not a religion that I feel obliged to respect on that account, or any other.  It allowed him to participate in the cover-up of sexually predatory clergy, while attacking gay people and feminists, and (as Grand Inquisitor under John Paul II) siding with military dictatorships against their "simple" people.  No, sophistication is not desirable in itself.

My own atheism is "simple", in that it starts by not believing in gods: not by denying their existence, but by requiring theists to explain what they mean by gods in the first place, and to give good reasons for believing in their existence in the second.  This starting point makes no assertions about the origins of the universe, or the nature of morality, or the uniqueness (or not) of human beings in relation to other animals.  The world is, I agree, mysterious, and I'm very aware of my ignorance about most important questions.  Midgley dismisses at one point those people who use "agnostic" as a euphemism for atheists, but what I mostly see are self-identified agnostics who use agnosticism as an excuse to buy into "spiritual" movements and teachings that they'd sneer at if they were associated with Christianity, but can accept in the exotic guise of "Eastern" or "indigenous" philosophies.  I don't see much humility in such people, or for that matter in many mainstream religious believers.  The function, if not the intention, of their "faiths" is to eliminate mystery: they always seem to have answers for every difficult question -- the inspirational memes that clog the Internet are full of cheap, easy platitudes.  Whatever floats their boat, but it doesn't work for me, and I wonder how well it really works for them.