Monday, March 8, 2010

On Religious Fantasy (and history)

An outstanding, if lengthy, piece by Michael Weingrad asks why there is no Jewish Narnia, positing that:
To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history.
This comes together with two other elements in my other readings and ponderings lately. One piece was at church yesterday, where we were discussing an article by Bruce C. Hafen on finding ways to combine and unite the Greek/Liberal tradition of adhering to reason, logic, liberty, and individualism with the Hebrew/Conservative tradition of adhering to faith, spirit, society, and authority.

The other piece comes from the Hugh Nibley articles I have been reading the last few weeks discussing the change in Christianity from the 2nd to 4th centuries as it adopts Greek philosophies about the evil of matter. Putting these small snapshots together, it seems that this difference in understanding religious fantasy comes from the way the doctors of the various religions have debated and defined their religious traditions, in particular relating to the nature of God and miracles.

In Christianity, the doctors (mostly gnostic) stripped away anything concrete: the Bible was to be understood symbolically and allegorically only. Jesus wasn't really physically there because it would corrupt the nature of God, and so forth. It is only relatively recently that scholars are beginning to again take seriously the importance of an actual, physical Jesus, the concrete realities of miracles, and so forth.

The author of the Judaism article then argues that the rabbinical answer was to go the other way: "In its rabbinic elaboration, even the messianic idea is shorn of its mythic and apocalyptic potential." Get rid of the mythic, symbolic, allegory and leave only the concrete reality. Little wonder modern Christians pay so little attention to an Old Testament that is so historically concrete it is hard for them to dismiss it as mere allegory.

Why do both religious traditions stumble at these things? Because there is a lot of the fantastic in miracles. Whether in the 3rd century or the 21st, it was very difficult for people to believe in miracles. Isaiah talks about God performing a "marvelous work and a wonder," "wonder upon wonder" that would consternate the wisdom of the wise and learning of the intelligent.

Well, it could hardly be do that if it was easily comprehended, now could it? So the only solution seems to be resolve the conflict by killing either the concrete or the abstract. One tradition goes one way, one the other. And, as Nibley puts it, what is it that angers both more than anything else in Mormonism? Trying to break up that separation by claiming that God still speaks today, that the other worlds are physical realities, and that both reason and faith are necessary, even if they don't trust each other.

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.

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