Monday, May 9, 2016

A ramble on history

The old photos scattered about this post have nothing to do with the topic, except that they're part of my personal history, and I enjoyed looking at them again, and maybe you will too.
(They will get a bit larger if you click on them.)

I like to read history. No, I love to read history. I admit it. I read history books (and other books besides). But my favorite history book is, again I admit it, the Holy Bible. [Stage left and right, almost inaudible gasps of horror from unseen characters off stage.] Yes, though almost no one with whom I went to university (or even high school), and certainly no one educated in the last decade at any respectable institution (we’re not talking about Oral Roberts’ “school”), would agree with me when I say that the Bible is a book of history (gasp!), that’s still what I believe it to be, my favorite history book and, in my humble opinion, the best and most useful history book on the planet.

That being said, I want to add that most of my favorite books about the history of religion, particularly the Christian religion, are not books written by Christians, or at least not by authors who allow their confessional sympathies to interfere with their “objectivity.”

Two of my favorite history books are ones I had to read for college courses. I come back to them and read them year after year; they always seem interesting and fresh at each reading. One of them is simply entitled A History of England, and the author is David Harris Willson of the University of Minnesota. Though a history book, the history of England is inseparable from the history of Christianity in Britain, and as such reading it has edified me not just educated me. My professor was the great Dr. John Forbes, a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) who was passionate about the Book of Common Prayer (as am I).

The other book is The Western Heritage of Faith and Reason, authored by five scholars, though the first listed, Eugene G. Bewkes, is usually shown as the author. I’ve quoted passages from this book on my blog before. It says truer things about God, the human condition, and His remedy for it, than many a book that has meant to, but didn’t. And it does so without taking sides, any more than the Bible itself takes sides. Neither book forces the reader to believe in the Jewish God or the Jewish Messiah; both simply give you the facts, and leave it to you to decide. I like that. That’s real history.

So tonight I was eating a humble supper made by my own hands and reading one of my perennial favorites, A History of Knowledge by Charles Van Doren. (I rarely read the scriptures when I’m eating, because I don’t want any accidents to happen with my clumsy eating habits.) I’ve read this book cover to cover several times, but the author’s style is congenial and reasonable, and I can always find something interesting no matter where I pick it up. This evening it was the chapter “Wisdom of the Ancients,” and the section entitled Judaism, that I read. I like the way this man writes, even when I disagree with him. He often comes close to confessing faith, but then prudently backs off, so as not to distract his readers. He tells us the story of Abraham, as though we were total strangers to it…

Abraham was the founder of Judaism. The account of his life in Genesis, though considered today to be not entirely historical, is nevertheless in accord with historical facts dating from the beginning of the second millennium BC. According to the story…

And he retells the story in his own words, how Abraham and some of his family members migrated from Ur ultimately to Canaan, and then asks…

Was there such a journey between Ur, a real place, and Canaan, another real place? There is historical and archaeological reason to think so, apart from the biblical narrative. Why did Abraham leave Ur? Was he fleeing religious persecution, seeking new economic opportunities, or was he driven by some divine command, real or imagined?

The author seems to be writing one of those multiple choice questions that is designed so only a complete fool would choose the wrong answer. We all know the answer is (c) “driven by some divine command” even though he tries to throw us off with that half-hearted “real or imagined.” Then, he goes on to say…

At any rate, within a few hundred years there were many Jews in Canaan, worshipping one god, Yahweh. In a world full of polytheistic religions, they had become monotheists—the first, probably, in the history of the world.

Yeah, right! If you’ve read much history yourself, or gone to university and studied, you can easily see through Van Doren’s popular history style: it’s got more holes in it than Swiss cheese, but it’s just as tasty, and you don’t have to worry about getting poisoned!

Of course, it’s oversimplifying to say that “Abraham was the founder of Judaism,” since most people now know that the Muslims consider him the founder of Islam, or at least one of its founders. And it’s a blatant anachronism to say “within a few hundred years there were many Jews in Canaan,” because we know that there were no people called “Jews” until at least the time of the division of the land of Israel into a northern kingdom, Israel, and a southern, Judah. And it’s very largely speculative to say the Jews “had become monotheists—the first, probably, in the history of the world.”

Or is it? Van Doren, remember, is trying to write from an “objective” and secular viewpoint, one that believes in evolution both biological and cultural. That point of view, ignoring much contrary evidence, posits that pre-historic man was an animist and a polytheist, worshipping as gods anything powerful or mysterious outside his ken. By gradual improvements in his powers of observation and reason, ancient man works his way up to higher forms of religion. Human sacrifice gives way to animal (that’s their usual interpretation of the biblical account of the sacrifice of Isaac), then to symbolic, then given up altogether. Many gods are seen to begin a process of liaison and mutual assimilation, first into pantheons, then triads, and finally to a monad, just one god. But then, is that god the god of just his own people, or of everyone? At this point, Van Doren doesn’t blush to ask…

Yahweh at first was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Did that mean he was not the God of mankind, the only God? It is impossible to determine when Yahweh, or Jehovah, took on the universal character that he possessed by the time of Jesus, and that he possesses to this day. Suffice it to say that the God of Abraham, perhaps once a tribal deity and as such one (perhaps the greatest) among many, is now the One God worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Moslems the world around.

Hmm, yes. I knew that last line was coming. Why? Because I’ve read it before about ten times, I also know he’s writing “popular” history and, let’s face it, he has unknowingly fallen under the spell of Western academia’s moral anemia in regards to an objective assessment of Islam. No, Charles, Yahweh is the One God worshipped by Jews and Christians yes (though some Jews don’t think so), but He is not the god worshipped by Muslims as a whole, unless by some known to Him alone. The Muslims themselves admit it; in Malaysia they have forbidden the Arabic word “Allah” to be used as a translation for “God” in Christian publications. Why? Because they don’t want the name of Allah profaned by being applied to a Being who is patently not him. Amín, Muslim brother, and again I say amín! Your Allah is not the same Being as the Living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the One whom Jesus (not the prophet, but the Saviour of the world) called His Father. Yes, we are in agreement there!

It wasn’t my intention to write a polemic against Islam or any religion, but merely to show that there is history, and there is history. Some books are well-written and interesting, others less so, but their authors are never quite free of inherited biases oft well-buttressed with pseudo-rational arguments and a priori assumptions. This is true of history books written by Christians as well as non-Christians. This is true of books in general. This is true of blogs. No wonder Father John Goodyear’s reply to me, years ago when I was wavering in my Christianity, in response to my plea for a word, only said three…

Guard your reading.

Fr John Goodyear holding John Seraphim (center) after his baptism in the baptistry of Saint Mark's Anglican church, Portland. Romanos (left), Anastasia and grandmother Nana (right), 1985

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