Sunday, December 05, 2010

Book Review: Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (Pagels)

     Pagels, Elaine Adam, Eve , and the Serpent (1988) 22 years old, yet still relevant. Pagels recounts the early history of the Church in terms of Genesis 1-4, and the evolving interpretations of these still crucial chapters of the Bible. Initially, the Gospel was understood as proclaiming the liberty of human beings, a liberty that not only enabled but required autonomous moral choice, instead of unthinking acceptance of social mores, one's place in society, and subjection to the ruling authority. That is how Paul's claim that Jesus' sacrifice fulfilled the Law was understood. There was no Fall; Genesis recounted Adam and Eve's choice as an affirmation of free will, and incidentally as an example of what not to choose, not as the sin that condemned us all.
     After Constantine made Christianity the State religion, the story was reinterpreted as describing the origin of sin. More than that: the story demonstrated that human beings after Adam are incapable of freely choosing to act morally. Human nature was corrupted; humans no longer had free will. Augustine was instrumental in this change in doctrine (his Confession shows why: he was a sex addict, and believed his experience of uncontrollable lust was universal.) The doctrine of original sin and corrupted human nature seems to be almost entirely Augustine's invention. Why it should have had such a profound and long-lasting influence is IMO clear: it justified the exercise of coercive power, political and ecclesiastical. If human beings were tainted from birth, were incapable of choosing the right path, then coercion was necessary to keep them from acting on their evil impulses. Not to impose the rule of law would be an dereliction of the ruler's duty. The question of how the ruler escaped the taint and was capable of making ethical choices for his subjects seems not to have occurred to Augustine and his followers.
     The Protestant Reformation did not change this gloomy view of human nature; if anything, it reinforced it. The doctrine of original sin is central to Luther's teaching that only faith can reconcile you to God, and furthermore that faith is a gift. One of the first things I learned was that "I cannot by my own reason or strength come to Jesus." (Significantly enough, Luther was an Augustinian monk.) The dissenting churches' leaders reserved to themselves the same power to demand assent to their doctrines as did the Roman church. Thoreau's famous opening sentence of Civil Disobedience is a direct descendant of Augustine's view. But Thoreau's essay implies that human nature could change, that we are capable of working our way towards an ethical and moral autonomy that will reduce and perhaps eventually eliminate the need for secular government.
     Pagels knows that her work could be used to justify some claim to re-establish an original or "pure" Christianity. (Indeed, many sects have justified such claims by reference to just this same knowledge.) She carefully explains as much of the diversity of opinion, teaching, and practice as she can, and in an epilogue explicitly warns against believing that a single, pure, and unadulterated version of Christian belief is possible. I agree. More: I think that knowing about the early history of the church should make us wary of claiming exclusive or special grace, and should make us willing to accept testimony that differs from our own experience. Augustine's narcissistic argument for his doctrines is a bad model. Not that I'm expecting any such reformation of Christian (or other) belief any time soon. People seem to have great difficulty accepting that other people may be so different that they seem like alien beings. Scipio said Nullam humanum mihi alienum puto, I deem nothing human alien to me. A saying we should take to heart.
     Pagels writes well. She has a knack for explication, for the arrangement of facts to clarify her analysis. Her book is thoroughly researched, with numerous notes in every paragraph referring the reader to original works (and translations), as well as other scholars' discussions. Recommended for anyone who wants to know more about the history of the church. ****

Book Review: Rocannon's World (Leguin)

Leguin U. Rocannon's World (1966) A story very much of its time, with light-speed ships, FTL robots, and a slew of humanoid aliens, some of whom are telepaths. A rebel force attacks the anthropological team on an unnamed planet. Rocannon, the sole survivor, enlists the Angyar, a warrior people, to help him find the rebel base, where he use the "ansible", an FTL communications device, to call in the robot bombs that will destroy the rebels. By the time the League force arrives, he's dead, but the planet has been named for him. That's the plot, and simple enough it is, just the kind that John Campbell liked to publish in Analog Magazine. But Leguin makes of this simple material a complex and nuanced story of the varieties of human experience.
     There's a frame: a visit by one of the Angyar many years earlier to retrieve a necklace, which ended up in a museum on another planet. When she returns, only a few days older subjectively, it's many "objective years" later, her husband is dead, her daughter a grown woman. Rocannon eventually receives the necklace from that daughter, and finally gives it to the Angyar woman with whom he spends his last years.
What keeps us reading is Leguin's skill at advancing the plot: she tells the story as a quest, which allows for all kinds of surprises, hair's breadth escapes, and so on. It also allows for revelation of both the planet itself as a beautiful and varied ecology and topography, and of the cultures of the several tribes and nations. Through Rocannon we get "our" p.o.v., that is, that of an experienced reader of SF. The Angyar are somewhat Norse, their serfs the Olgyior (of the same species) are presented as rather too loyal to be believe. The Gdemiar, a species of troglodyte, recall H. G. Wells's Molochs, the Fiia (a telepathic/empathic species descended from the same species as the Gdemiar) recall the Eloi. A devolved species of predatory bird-like humanoids round out the catalogue. Leguin has the knack of making them real, and their interactions plausible. The book could have been more complexly plotted (and bigger), which would give even more scope for character and cultural nuances, but it is a finished work as is. It's an early work, and it seems to me like a trial run of the themes and motifs that would occupy Leguin in her later, mature works. Very good of its kind. ***

Book Review: The Case for God (Armstrong)

Armstrong, Karen The Case for God Armstrong's summary book about the history of theology, in which she argues that the West has lost its theological bearings. Science and religion have become antagonists because people think they speak about and to the same human problems and questions. Myth is no longer understood as a story that both expresses and produces meaning. Belief has become mere assent to some proposition, and such assent is seen as foolish at best and evil at worst when it is given without reasonable grounds. We have forgotten how to think symbolically, and so have forgotten that religion is not a matter of speech, but of action.
     A good book, if somewhat overlong, and generally too academic in tone. Armstrong does, I think, hold to some beliefs in the old sense of making/letting them form and transform her life, but this means she is unwilling to argue for or against a given creed. Rather she argues that we must remake our understanding of the creeds so that they become symbols, not descriptions. Faith is not assent to some formula(s) of words, but the action of relating to and dealing with other people. To take this a step further: how you deal with other people is your faith. That's all there is to it.
     She does express disappointment and sometimes annoyance at the ways in which modern people of all creeds have made idols of their conceptions of God. She is a believer, but not a religionist. In the Epilogue she comes closest to a homiletic statement, and ends with a parable that's worth quoting in full:
     One day a Brahmin priest came across the Buddha sitting contemplation under a tree and was astonished by his serene stillness and self discipline. The impression of immense strength channelled creatively into an extraordinary peace reminded him of a great tusker elephant. "Are you a god, sir?" the priest asked. "Are you an angel... or a spirit?" No the Buddha replied. He explained that he had simply revealed a new potential in human nature. It was possible to live in a world of conflict and pain at peace and in harmony with one's fellow creatures. There was no point in merely believing it; you would discover its truth only if you practised his method, systematically cutting of egoism at the root. You would then live at the peak of your capacity, activate parts of the psyche that normally lie dormant, and become a fully enlightened human being. "Remember me," the Buddha told the curious priest, "as someone who is awake."
     Armstrong strives to make this insight alive for the reader, to bring him through the history of human encounters with God to a place where he is both awake and aware of his utter ignorance of God's nature. She tries to show that theology is an active verb. To the extent that the reader can feel the reality of that search for awareness with knowledge, (s)he will make sense of this book. Worth reading for many other reasons, too, such as a clear summary of the history of religions, and why Dawkins is partly right and mostly wrong in his atheism, because the God he denies is a mere idol. Thus Dawkins himself is an idolater, because, like the religionists he tries to cure of their superstition, he believes that the Bible is to be read literally, and so must be either true or false. But a myth is neither true nor false, a myth either makes meaning for the hearer, or it doesn't. It is either alive or dead. ***