Sunday, July 7, 2013

And Man Created God

Selina O'Grady's 'And Man Created God: Kings, Cults and Conquests at the Time of Jesus' has the philosopher and 'new' atheist, A. C. Grayling, declaring that it is, 'A must read...No one should be allowed to lay claim to Christian or indeed any religious faith who has not read this book first, and meditated on its import.'

This, if taken literally, would do untold wonders for its sales (as well as being a mite illiberal); however, having read it, I am not sure why Grayling is so earnest.

It does a highly competent job of exploring the inter-actions between religion and state in the 'known' ancient world - from Rome to China - and seeks to explain why, sociologically, certain traditions took root, as universalising traditions, such as Christianity and Confucianism and others did not such as the cult of Isis. It, also, seeks to explain why Brahmanism succeed locally, in India, leaving Buddhism uprooted in its birthplace and Jainism only a compact, minority interest.

It does so with both clarity and with enjoyable, illustrative detail including introducing us to the fascinating Apollonius of Tyana, at the time, a more famous wandering teacher than Jesus and one who, it was claimed, was resurrected from the dead, but who failed to get traction for (a) not being rooted in a place, (b) having a more hesitant 'message' and (c) not having such a brilliant and creative publicist as St Paul.

I expect that Grayling would like us to infer (having meditated suitably) that had the sociological (and historical) conditions been different each and every religion would not come to be in the way that it has (which is a truism) and, thus, they are simply products of human imagination responding to specific circumstances, fundamentally transient, even if some are more resilient than others (which does not necessarily follow). Traditions may be humanly imagined but what are they responding to?

Thus, the problem with this thesis is, first, some do come to be predominant (often against heavy odds) and that predominance (though creative) has been remarkably stable and, second, that this kind of explanation, whilst telling us, what conditions did help fertilisation (and shaped the traditions accordingly) does not tell us why. What is it that those who receive the tradition find in it and why does it make the difference that is a difference?

O'Grady's treatment of Saul/Paul captures this failure beautifully. Paul is the recipient of an experience that transforms him from persecutor to promoter. What is the nature of that experience? Whatever it was, we can assume that it was not probably the resolution of a sociological conundrum, inventing a religion that helped resolve Paul's dichotomous identity as Jew and Roman (however much or little such a dichotomy played in the subsequent reception and interpretation of his experience).

Once again we are trying to 'explain religion' without taking consciousness seriously - what states of mind (and being) does religion give access to - prior to their consequences in shared, social space? How that plays out in shared social space is fascinating but, as every major religion would claim, ultimately not the critical issue (even Confucianism has recognised the need either to sit alongside religion that offered a change in consciousness or for itself to go 'neo-' to offer a complete picture of what may be possible). A religion as a cultural phenomena is extrinsically interesting, religion as a transformer of consciousness is intrinsically compelling.

What is so fascinating about the book is precisely leaving that question unanswered - what is it in the sustained technologies of transformation that a religious tradition offers that makes it continuously attractive (even as it comes bundled with endless flaws)? That is what gives religion its heart, its revelation.  

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