keskiviikko 6. heinäkuuta 2016

Reshaping the religion

Until now, almost no mention of religion has been necessary. True, I have described some philosophers as dealing with essentially religious themes, and some religious topics, like the question of divinities, have cropped up regularly. Yet, only now does religion truly start to interact with philosophy. But what then is religion and how did religions and especially religious texts come about?

This will not be a proper historical or anthropological study of actual religious developments, but more like a rough general outline of certain tendencies that may be discerned in the religious life of the environment of Mediterranean. Still, from this general standpoint, we might first note it is a common practice to explain events and happenings through likely scenarios of what might have happened. Some of these scenarios are based on known facts, while others are more speculative, but the common element is that we tell a story of proceedings leading up to the fact to be explained.

Many religious texts abound with such scenarios. ”Why is this mountain called as it is? Because some of our ancestors came to this mountain in certain circumstances, which suggested then this as a proper name for the mountain.” Some of these scenarios were based on more or less reliable historical knowledge, others on mere hearsay and unreliable traditions.

We may note two important types of these scenarios. First type tried to explain certain natural phenomena, such as raining, thundering, blossoming and wilting of flowers etc. - and of course, ultimately, the final existence of the world around us. Second type, on the other hand, tried to make certain habits and customs of a society or culture more comprehensible – why do we act in such and such manner, why do we celebrate certain days of the year etc.?

Almost no human culture has lived in a splendid isolation, thus, it has been quite natural that some of these scenarios or their aspects have traversed from one culture to another. One might have just switched the names of the characters to fit their own store of scenarios. Thus, life stories of certain mythical and even historical persons became confused with all types of stories.

Before these scenarios were put to writing, they were obviously quite modifiable, and one tribe might have quite a bit of variation in their scenarios, when compared to a neighboring tribe. Indeed, when these scenarios were transferred from oral tradition to written form, the writers were forced to make compromises between various relevant versions of these scenarios.

It was also quite common that under new circumstances old scenarios were reinterpreted. If a nation congratulated itself as a chosen nation in its days of glory, a fall of that nation might have required an emendation that the nation was punished because of its bad behaviour. Practices that once were held to be of greatest importance might be ridiculed by later religious innovators as mere superfluity. Layers upon layers of reinterpretation heaped up.

An important element in many of these scenarios was formed by certain human-like personalities with powers beyond human capacities – it makes little difference in this context, whether these personalities were called gods, angels, demons or something else. The main point is that these superhuman persons gave a convenient reason for explaining natural phenomena that were clearly beyond human capacities.

These superhuman persons were not just shaped like any ordinary human being. Because of their power, these persons were often considered regal – kings above kings. And just like with human kings, their whims were something that one ought to obey. Gifts were given to appease divinities or to show gratitude for their grace.

Just like with other scenarios, the scenarios about superhuman persons became layered, when cultures converged and cultural environment changed. When nations with different superhuman persons came in contact, there were different strategies for synthesising the different scenarios. The divinities of other cultures could be incorporated as new gods, unknown before contact, or they could be identified with divinities of one's own culture. In any case, list of superhuman persons would keep on developing.

Unwieldy collections of divinities would require establishing some sort of hierarchy. Different gods and spirits could be taken as having been generated from one another, in a temporal ordering. Then again the gods could also be arranged according to their power and importance in the divine hierarchy and according to their appearance in the supposed history of divinities. In best cases, these two orderings might coincide at least partially and the gods with most power would be earlier in time also – in the most extreme case, the most powerful, highest or even the only god would be the ultimate source of everything else.

In time, the superhuman persons or divinities would be used to back up moral and legal statements. If a person acted in a manner not in line with some moral or legal standards, one could always say that the divinities would punish her: immediately, in the future or even after her death. In this fashion, the divinities would once again play the role of earthly rulers, who had also a duty of upholding the laws of the nation.

The role of superhuman persons as righteous judges in some scenarios and their role as powerful beings with some mischievous whims in other scenarios were in clear contradiction. Sometimes it was easy just to assign these roles to different persons. In a religion like Zoroastrianism, we see two juxtaposed forces, a good creator god battling against a destructive spirit.

In other cases, the assignment could not be done so easily. The Israelite god Yahweh acted sometimes like a dictatorial monarch, condemning all humanity for crimes that appeared to not deserve such a great punishment, yet he was still supposed to be a standard of morality. Gnostic sects did try to use the obvious solution and separate these two roles: Yaldabaoth, insane creator of human world thought himself to be the highest god, although he was only an accidental birth of higher and more benevolent divinities. Yet, the Gnostic rereading of Genesis remained an idea of mere sects, perhaps because the Yahweh scenarios were so deeply entrenched in the Jewish culture.

What is most important from my perspective is what happens when religious scenarios come in contact with philosophical ideas. A case in point is Philo, who read Torah in light of Greek philosophy, especially Platonism and Stoicism. Philo's strategy was to downplay the elements of Torah he finds too marvelous, such as the tales of giants. He even outright denied that e.g. tower of Babel could have been actually built, because the fiery air of the upper regions of the sky would have melted it. Of course, he still accepted things we might find quite fantastic, like the idea of souls as aerial entities descending from the heavens to snatch earthly bodies. Since this was something accepted by many philosophers of the day, Philo did not think it incredible, but quite a scientific story.

Philo also de-emphasised the role of Torah as a historical account, at least in a straightforward sense. Instead, he read Torah allegorically, so that each individual story contained hidden meanings, that could be applied universally to various cases. The basic idea behind this allegorical reading was to make Torah into a philosophically respectable text.

Thus, noting the somewhat confusing fact that Torah has two distinct creation stories, Philo had an explanation ready. God must have first created something akin to Platonic world of ideas, which served as a blueprint for the later, material creation – or actually ”first” refers only to the importance of various parts of creation, since Philo thought that the scenario of creation taking place in six days cannot be a literal truth, because God creates all at once.

This paradigmatic blueprint is a somewhat peculiar feature of Philo's reading. It is not quite clear, if it was meant to refer just to the mind of God or whether it was supposed to be something distinct from the God itself. Still, Philo described it with the Stoic word Logos, and like in Stoicism, it played the role of keeping the material world well-ordered.

Just like Plato had left the creation of earthly things to lower divinities, so did Philo suggest that God used lesser spiritual beings as helpers in the mundane creation. Thus, Philo was able to explain why Torah made God sometimes refer to himself in plural. Furthermore, Philo could then assume the common idea that stars and planets were actually living beings of a higher order than humans.

God created then both an ideal human being, or an ideal of how human should live their lives, and earthly human beings, who in many ways often fell short of this ideal. The scenario of the original sin, Philo read as a universal philosophical account of what led human mind (Adam) astray: it was senses (Eve), which were often beguiled by promises of pleasure (snake).

The true crime of human mind was still not its imperfection, but its arrogant assumption of being in possession of everything in the world (exemplified by Cain), while a better course of life would be to refer all back to God (like Abel did). Even worse than self-centered Cain were ”giants” or earth-bound people, like Epicureans, who followed nothing but their low desires. A counterpart to the giants was Noah, the first inventor of real agriculture, who tilled not only with soil, but with his fellow human beings, cultivating their education. Yet, Noah was just a symbol of a well-acting person, who still lacks the proper perfection of a human being, that is, wisdom.

Story of Abraham then recounts the life of a person learning true wisdom through teaching. Abraham left behind astrological speculations, which originated in Chaldea and which support the notion that world is self-sufficient and uncreated, and moved on to Haran, which symbolises reliance on sense perception that can be used as an evidence for God's existence. His further journies then represent further travails on the road to divine wisdom and his discussions with God show how a good man should let divine truth lead him in all circumstances. When Abraham conceived a child first with Hagar, the servant, and only afterwards with Sarah, Philo understood this to be just a description of the proper order of training – we should first train ourselves with disciplines that serve philosophy and only later with wisdom itself.

While Abraham was the symbolical man who learned wisdom, his son Isaac was supposedly something even higher, a person who is by nature wise. Their difference is symbolised by Abraham receiving a new name after his education, Philo said, while Isaac is always called by the same name. Somewhat less perfect than Abraham was his grandson Jacob or Israel, who was supposed to symbolise a person who learns wisdom – not through theoretical teaching, but through practice. Below all of the three was Joseph, whose knowledge lied in the material affairs of state.

But the highest figure in the eyes of Philo was the supposed writer of Torah, Moses, who was not just the perfect statesman, but also knew the mind of God best of all human beings. Torah was for Philo a book describing rules of conduct. The story of creation in Genesis confirmed the divine origin of these rules and the legendary figures before Moses showed how these rules could be put into practice. The four other books of Torah then stated the rules explicitly, firstly, in summarised form in Decalogue, and secondly, in form of particular laws. These latter laws fell under some general law of Decalogue and often had some symbolical meaning for Philo. For instance, circumcision Philo took to be symbolical expression for cutting away excessive pleasure.

Decalogue and the other laws of Torah thus served for Philo as a general guide of good conduct. The first two commands dealt with person's relation towards God. The created world belies the existence of a creator, and although finite human beings can never hope to completely understand what God is like, they can at least think of his powers, which were for Philo essentially the Platonic ideas giving unity and beauty to the whole material universe. Thus, one should not believe people denying the existence of either God or ideas and one should also not follow anyone who multiplies the number of gods. Furthermore, one should not put any created things, whether sensible or rational, above God, because they are imperfect in comparison.

The three following commands made further demands on a person's behaviour towards God, but on a more symbolical level. Because God is the most constant thing possible, Philo explained, one should avoid swearing to do anything by his name, since such promises must be kept. Since Philo's God had created world that follows certain simple numerical relationships, he also demanded his followers to have celebrations and special occasions according to a strict numeric scheme. Many of these holidays were meant for training our intellect, thus, anyone (even servants) should not need to do any bodily work at those times. Finally, parents were to Philo a symbol of divinity among humans, since they have created life and therefore their children must respect them.

Rest of the commands concerned the behaviour of human beings, when it is not directly involved with God. One should avoid excesses of sensual pleasure, Philo said, and so justified the strict rules governing sexuality in Torah. The only true purpose of sex for Philo was procreation – otherwise sex is merely gratification of one's sensuous desires – and Philo followed this view to its logical conclusion, denying even marriage with a person who is known to be barren.

Although sensuous or material side of a human being was lower for Philo than her intellect, Philo did admit that human body is the highest pinnacle of natural world. Hence, destroying such a body or killing a human being could not be tolerated. Indeed, any attempt to harm a living human being through violence, poison or other means was strictly forbidden.

After quickly condemning thievery and describing correct court proceedings. Philo returned to his pet peeve, the sensuous desire. This time, he was especially interested of the various restrictions on eating. Philo suggested that their purpose was to diminish the pleasure one gets from eating – you shouldn't ear pork, because pork just tastes too good. This was all part of Philo's conviction that material side of our existence is not to be overindulged.

This concluded Philo's attempt to rationalise the laws of Torah. Yet, he also wanted to show that Torah agreed with traditional Greek ideals of living, embodied in Platonic notion of four primary virtues. With some of these virtues Philo had an easy task – he also thought that we should follow wise teachers who know the ways of good living and that we should control our sensuous desires. Justice or the virtue of communal living was embodied especially in the commands of Torah on appointment of the kings and their duties and rights.

Courage was a more difficult thing, because warfare between city states was not so relevant thing anymore in Philo's own lifetime, although he did have the biblical tales of warfare to follow. Thus, it was more boldness at times of peace Philo concentrated on – something Cicero did also. It was especially a certain notion of masculinity Philo was after with his idea of courage – and he was very anxious to point out that Torah forbids men to dress in women's clothing.

Yet, Philo was not quite willing to let the Greek standards of good life to rule over the guidance of Torah. While Plato had thought that respect of divinities was no independent virtue, since divinities really wanted us just to live well, Philo thought that Torah guides us toward respecting God as the most important thing, for instance, through sacrifices. Another important element by which Philo modified Greek and especially Platonic ethics was his suggestion that repentance and humility is something to be respected – if one can admit one's faults, one is at least on a way toward better life.

Furthermore, Philo suggested a quite new way to evaluate worth of person's action, namely, their gentleness in dealing with other living beings. We should treat everyone with respect, even if their condition in life belies of a low social status or even slavery, he said. Indeed, Philo had no respect for supposed nobility by birth, because good persons have had bad children and vice versa. Even animals must be respected and one should not kill or destroy them in an improper fashion.

Philo was then an example of a philosopher trying to rationalise religious texts, but he was definitely not the only one in late antiquity combining philosophy and religion. Indeed, there was one important group of philosophers interested in religions - Platonists - and an important religious group with philosophically inclined thinkers - the Christian Church Fathers.

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