I have another quick break from student teaching, so here I am, back again for a short missive.
As can be seen in my critique of religious belief (accessible from the Essays menu to the right), I’m quite fascinated by the very human means by which religious belief is transmitted from place to place, and from generation to generation.
A text heavily protected against changes through a process like canonization is the ideal way to ensure that a religious message is transmitted with minimal changes over time. This is not to say that Christianity has failed to evolve – it certainly has. But the central message and the various mythological details that surround it have remained as precise as they were in the first few centuries after Christ (regardless of the imagination involved in their initial construction).
Unintentionally, then, the Bible, like the proverbial sore thumb, sticks out as an archetypal demonstration of religion as a human cultural phenomenon. Isn’t it amazing, many Christians exclaim, that Christianity has lasted so long – it must be divinely inspired! Not at all. It has survived so long, at least in part, because it is founded on a text which its followers revere as holy and immutable. Christianity avoids the problem of broken telephone, and the dissipation of message that accompanies this phenomenon, by studiously preventing changes to its text.
The real miracle, I would venture to suggest, would be the rise of Christianity in multiple independent cultures, none of whom had received information about the religion from its neighbors. The real miracle would be a Christianity that appears spontaneously within every human culture as naturally and as independently as singing and dancing.
Yet this is never seen. Christianity is – all believers must face it squarely – a tradition transmitted by people. It started in one very specific part of the globe, and its expansion can be traced carefully through the eons without any laws of physics, or indeed of human culture, being violated. And where a tradition is transmitted wholly by people, we cannot avoid the mistakes, inventions, and misidentified revelations that these people have.
I’ve just finished reading The Satanic Verses. It is a beautiful, sprawling novel (probably much like the two cities its characters inhabit – London and Bombay). The title of the book refers, at least in part, to revelations that Muhammad allegedly received from the angel Gabriel regarding the acceptance of three female pagan gods into Islam (for strategic purposes, of course). Not long after this revelation, Muhammad recanted, saying that the verses were the words of Satan. This little episode demonstrates as clearly as any that religion is a man-made endeavor, relying on human culture for its invention and transmission, molded to the wishes and desires of whomever happens to be the prophet – the “holy messenger” – of the day.
As I’ve suggested before, if every Bible were to disappear tomorrow – indeed, if every memory of the Bible were to disappear, too, Christianity would be gone forever.