A Study in Three Parts
In a recent post, blogger Robin Artisson, proposed this intriguing question:
"What if the entire New Testament was a construct, a forgery, a fake? What if Jesus never existed, and was instead a composite figure cobbled together from the myths of many other Gods that long pre-existed Christianity?"
The Part that Passion Plays
I've had some trouble with the transition into this third and final part of the "Texts, Truths and Traditions" series for a few reasons. First of all, as I mentioned in an earlier comment, these posts were originally written in direct response to Robin's opinions as he expressed them on his blog. His post, "Why a Return to Indo-European Polytheism is Needed," was itself rather disjointed--the first half addressed the possible forgery of Biblical texts and the questionable historicity of the person of Jesus, but the second half was largely dedicated to his own passionate views of "Truth" as reflected in an "Old Religion" centered on polytheism and the various deities of ancient Indo-European pantheons. Now, I find myself somewhat stalled, for in attempting to address this latter aspect of Robin's post, I find myself too quickly abandoning an honest discussion of the role history and literalism play in Biblical interpretation.
With that in mind, I think the best course would be to first take a look back at some of the ideas I've discussed so far and to put them into a broader context, focusing on the question, "What role do sacred texts play in a spiritual tradition?"
So, where have we come? In Part I of this series, we took a look at the relevancy of the historic figure of Jesus within the Christian tradition. I put forward the possibility that it is the idea of Jesus Christ, and not the literal, historical fact of his existence, which functions most prominently within Christianity and its varied and sprawling system(s) of belief. The idea of Jesus may include a faith in his historical presence in a particular time and place--in fact, it may be central to the theology of the Divine-manifest-in-man from a Christian perspective--but this is still a matter of faith, not of fact. The relationship that a Christian develops with Jesus as deity does not grow primarily out of archeological or historical research, but out of an engagement with Biblical texts and a personal participation in activities such as prayer and communion, which are understood for the most part to be interactions with God.
In Part II, we explored how the Biblical texts, as one of the source springs of Christianity, can be viewed historically as texts written by human beings that evolved in focus and interpretation over time to address the changing needs of various communities. Historical research continues to give insight into and evidence for various theological interpretations, but the theologies themselves continue to function in the realm of faith for the individual Christian. For instance, in her book Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, Sandra M. Schneiders looks at the historical and literary evidence to suggest that the Gospel of "John" was, in fact, written by a woman; however, a feminist theology of inclusion and respect does not hinge on this historical possibility, and if the authorship of the gospel were to be confirmed, it would likely have little effect on those who already adhere strictly to an anti-feminist belief system. Schneiders does not take on this possibility in order to convert all Christians to a pro-feminist interpretation, but to consider what new ideas, associations and possible interpretations grow out of such an interpretive perspective, as a way of both challenging and expanding upon the potentials for Christian tradition to support the need of a modern community concerned with gender-equality. Given this strange relationship between "sacred texts" and their historical context, it becomes increasingly important to look at how sacred texts in general function within religious or spiritual systems.
This is, perhaps, too large a subject to cover at the moment, especially if I intend to move on to address Robin's comments more directly. For now, I think it is important simply to recognize that texts can function in many different ways, and that the relationship between text and reader (not to mention writer, text and reader) is complex and multifaceted. Because the Neopagan community has, in general, so few texts that are considered "sacred" or "inspired" in the traditionally religious sense, it is easy to view all texts as functioning in a single and uniform manner, and thus to see any one aspect of that functioning as undermining all others. If a particular text fails to uphold itself on the level of historical accuracy, it can be easily abandoned for the latest book on the topic, which is sure to include all of the latest research. Starhawk's The Spiral Dance, a ground-breaking work and considered required reading twenty years ago, has been largely replaced in the Wicca 101 market by books which use similar poetic and psychological techniques, without resorting to unfounded beliefs in an historical matriarchal "Old Religion." Reading The Spiral Dance, while still sometimes considered essential reading for those interested in Wicca, is now less a spiritual task than a kind of historical work, looking back at the roots of Wicca and its subsequent development as a modern American religion.
On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of texts which hold spiritual value and are understood as "inspired," for the very reason that they do not claim to be historical. A good many Pagans seem greatly inspired by various science fiction and fantasy writers, whose works are free to delve into complex spiritual matters for the very reason that they do not talk about historical events of our own world that could be proved or disproved (my personal favorites are Tolkien, Le Guin and Pratchet). Likewise, many Pagans write and read a great deal of poetry, incorporating it directly into personal ritual or approaching creative writing as a magical act. The "sacred texts" of Neopaganism are, in some ways, as ahistorical as the spiritual beliefs that they address and express. While on one level this provides a cushion against the harsh materialist-literalist approach of historical and scientific "fact," I sometimes wonder if it also limits such sacred texts and their possible functions, pushing them outside the realm of real history and real time, so that they become just another kind of indulgent navel-gazing. Of course, Neopaganism as a self-identifying spiritual community is still so young, it may just be that we do not yet have the perspective to know which texts might come to play the role of both "inspired" and historical works...
In any case, Robin's final remarks in his original post provide an excellent example of the kind of passion that can grow within a person regardless of textual support. Indeed, some of the best know traits of Christian fundamentalists and creationists--their insistence on taking Biblical texts literally and on proving these texts to be "factually" true with often baseless speculations that make rather haphazard use of select bits of modern science and scholarship; their passion for the exclusive Truth of their own view and the uselessness of "foreign," "unnatural" or qualifying perspectives; their reliance on personal feelings of comfort, inspiration and fulfillment to justify their evangelism to others--are all echoed (if reversed) as Robin's critique of Christianity continues.
The heart of Robin's critique of (and disgust with) Christianity is not based on alternative authentic texts, scholarship or "factual" history at all; it stems, instead, from his passionate commitment to his own spiritual tradition. In trying to justify this passion in universal terms (rather than acknowledging it as personal, though still wholly authentic and fruitful), he resorts to some of the same techniques he has just finished criticizing. While Christians should abandon their beliefs because they are not based on "facts," he insists, "it is possible to believe and worship as our Ancestors did- modern Pagan religious reconstructions, from Germanic to Celtic, Greek, Roman, and Slavic, have been given much attention, carefully reconstructed in the spirit of the original faiths"--in short, the reconstruction of these faiths are, he claims, very close to being "factual" and therefore they can be trusted. (Of course, the Christian faith does not need to be "reconstructed" at all, since it is still a contemporary, living tradition, while the deities of reconstructed Indo-European faiths are even more obscure and difficult to study than the figure of Jesus--but this slips by unmentioned.)
Repeated exhortations to the "sanity" and "Truth" of the "Old Religion" of "Old Europe" (despite the widely-held view among many scholars and Neopagans alike that there was no unified Old Religion, per se) sound remarkably like Christian fundamentalists' claims that Christianity is the "original" and "True" religion of the human race (citing Genesis for support, of course), while the personal "comfort" Robin refers to repeatedly begins to sound eerily like the born-agains' stories of new-found security and certainty once they "found Jesus" and "accepted Him into their hearts." Even his story of ancient injustices and persecutions echo the Judeo-Christian mythologies of the struggling, repressed communities of believers that eventually gave rise to the traditions of martyrdom and sacrifice within Christianity. (And there is historical truth, if not exclusive Truth, to both of these identity-defining martyrdom mythologies.)
Like the Christians of fundamentalist and evangelical traditions, Robin's passion for polytheistic, Indo-European reconstructionist spirituality is not really based on what he can prove, but on what he feels passionately that he knows from personal experience and direct participation in the Divine. It is as moving as it is, at times, almost frightening. The same careful historical and sociological studies that have jeopardized the literal interpretation of sacred texts and forced modern Christians to confront the possibility that personal truth and "objective" truth may not be the same thing, have given rise equally to increased tolerance and open-minded personal faith, and to increased hysterical, xenophobic tirades against "insane" or "sick" alternative spiritual traditions. Modern Pagans are just as susceptible to this dual response to the intrusion of "facts" into the religious world as modern Christians are. It is a unique, but ubiquitous, aspect of a modern, globally-connected and culturally diverse world.
What We Know & How We Know It
Texts, Truths and Traditions:
A Study in Three Parts
Part I: Introduction & The Historical Person of Jesus
Part II: The Historical Nature of Biblical Texts
Part III: The Part that Passion Plays