Lessons From the History of Religions

I was introduced to Karen Armstrong by a friend about a year ago. I started off reading her History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam which blew my mind. Armstrong’s scholarship is both brilliant and generous.

I’m currently in the middle of her book Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. In this work Armstrong traces the history of Jerusalem from pre-Israelite conquest all the way through the present day. It’s a fascinating read if you’re interested in both the history and anthropology of religion.

Here are a few insights I’ve gleaned thus far:

  • One of the recurring features of human religion is the need for sacred space. Ancient Judaism obviously satisfied this need with the construction of their temple on Mount Zion which made it possible for pilgrims to encounter the divine in real time and space. After the destruction of the second temple by the Romans in 70 CE the Christians of Palestine gloated that their new, more enlightened religion did not require worship in temples or on holy mountains. Their’s was a purely spiritual religion within which the divine was accessed in spirit and in truth rather than in mundane symbols like their mother religion’s temple. First century Christians interpreted the destruction of Herod’s temple as God’s judgment on this more primitive form of religion that incorporated the use of sacred space into it’s liturgy and worship. It wasn’t long, however, before Christians succumbed to the (innate?) human need for holy ground. After Constantine unearthed what has been traditionally considered to be the tomb of Christ, the massive, imperially funded Church of the Anastasis was built over it.  The liturgy and ritual that formed around this church forever changed the way in which Christians worship. Rather than seeing their religion as totally other-worldly, Christians began to contemplate the earthiness of doctrines such as the incarnation. Being able to pray in the tomb where Christians believed their salvation was won made it near impossible for them to deny the power of sacred space. The contested city of Jerusalem today continues to clearly illustrate humanity’s desire to seek the divine in the mundane world.

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  • There is zero archaeological evidence for the Exodus and conquest. The idea that “the Bible says it happened, therefore it must have happened” just doesn’t cut it for me anymore. I take the work of archaeology and the other sciences much too seriously to be that simplistic. I think that part of the task of the church is to be in dialogue with the best thinking of the day, constantly redefining and re-imagining what it means to be faithful to the Bible in light of new findings and discoveries. Additionally, we must read stories like the Exodus and the conquest for what they are: myth. “Myth” is sort of a dirty word for religious folks today. Something is “mythical” if we believe it to be untrue or fantastical. But in the ancient world in which these stories arose, myths were understood to be the only adequate way in which complex realities such as human suffering or contact with the divine could be articulated. Logical, discursive prose (which we in the West have idolatrously elevated above all other forms of relaying information) was not able to capture the ancient’s experience of the divine. Armstrong notes in her preface: “Mythology was never designed to describe historically verifiable events that actually happened. It was an attempt to express their inner significance or to draw attention to realities that were too elusive to be discussed in a logically coherent way” (xviii). We in the church would do well to rethink our understanding of myth and the implications that arise when we understand that much our sacred text is mythological.
  • Religion is constantly evolving. Humanity has always re-imagined the divine in light of new experiences and circumstances. When Solomon’s temple was destroyed in 586 BCE by the Babylonians the Judean exiles were faced with the fact that the center of their religious life had been destroyed. The temple was where the divine presence was thought to rest and where atonement for the people’s sins was made by means of the sacrificial system. Had God abandoned his people? How were the sins of the the people of God to be atoned for without a temple? Rather than giving up on their quest for God in the face of such daunting circumstances, the prophets began to rethink what communion with God looked like. God, prophets like Ezekiel contested, had followed his people into exile. The Creator of the cosmos could not be bound by earthly structures but rather could be experienced wherever his people earnestly sought him.  The prophets began to emphasize practical compassion and justice, values that, in it’s rigid religiosity, Israel had forgotten. Acts of charity rather than animal sacrifices would atone for the people’s sin.  This was a radical transformation of Isrealite religion and it could be argued that without the innovation of the ancient prophets the primarily cultic religion of Judah would not have survived the destruction of its temple. Armstrong’s work illustrates clearly the fact that religious traditions are in process; nothing about them is static or unchanging. Today, defenders of “the one true faith” fail to recognize this important reality. The tradition that we have inherited from our ancestors is a living tradition and our task is to develop it rather than stubbornly preserve it.
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