Sunday, April 3, 2011

Christopher Hitchens Offers a Paean to the King James Bible

Ever since he was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer, Christopher Hitchens has been barraged with fervent prayers for his recovery. Coming fast upon these prayers have been wishes that he might now find God.

As you know, Christopher Hitchens has made a considerable amount of money by ridiculing those who still believe in God. Incorrigible atheist that he is, Hitchens has parlayed his beliefs into fame and fortune by attacking the pretension, illogic, and bombast of religious believers.

Nothing about the effort is especially original, but Hitchens does it with such verve and gusto that he has attracted a considerable audience.

I think it fair to say that the Hitchens has taken care not to assault the great Western theologians. One suspects that if he took on the works of St. Thomas Aquinas he would merely reveal his theological and philosophical inadequacies. As wises he is, Hitchens has refrained.

Call him a thinking man’s Bill Maher, but Hitchens is as talented a man of letters as the English speaking world possesses today. He serves as our own Bernard-Henri Levy, but without the pretentious histrionics.

For those who have been anxiously awaiting the day when Hitch will get up close and personal with God, his new essay on the King James Bible will have to serve, for now, as a consolation prize. Link here.

Now celebrating its 400th anniversary, the King James Bible, as Hitchens rightly suggests, is the greatest piece of writing in English that was not authored by Shakespeare. The people who crafted this magisterial work from an original translation by William Tyndale might have been deluded about God, but they surely had a way with words.

In his begrudging words: “Though I am sometimes reluctant to admit it, there really is something ‘timeless‘ in the Tyndale/King James synthesis. For generations, it provided a common stock of references and allusions, rivaled only by Shakespeare in this respect. It resounded in the minds and memories of literate people, as well as of those who acquired it only by listening.”

But, the King James Bible has not merely lighted the way to faith for countless millions. It has also guided many people through life's trials and tribulations, and has formed them into human communities.

Such a achievement cannot easily be dismissed as sanctimonious bunkum.

As even Hitchens acknowledges, the King James Bible unified the different peoples of Great Britain under the banner of a common religious text, one in which they could take considerable pride.

In his words: “A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one. To seek restlessly to update it or make it ‘relevant‘ is to miss the point, like yearning for a hip-hop Shakespeare.”

He errs, however, when he declares that it is just about image and allegory. Hitchens refuses to believe that any spiritual qualities have infused the Biblical text or the translation. To his mind, it was all for an  illusion, a bunch of tall tales accompanied by platitudes in service of an empty cause.

If so, it doesn't make sense to call the same text “timeless” in its import and influence.

If only the most feeble-minded among us, the dupes and the dunderheads, believe in God, how could it be that such intellectually inferior people, people so thoroughly lacking in judgment and discernment,  could have gotten together in committees to produce the King James Bible?

Hitchens does not answer the question, preferring to fall back on the empty tautology that the people who produced the King James Bible were people.

It might go without saying, but probably I should say it, the Bible was composed by multiple hands. That does not prevent it from being the product of divine inspiration, but it was, in some sense, a collective effort. Obviously, it was not a committee effort.

Even if the King James committees mostly functioned as editors to the Tyndale version, how could it happen that a band of fools could produce such an extraordinary product?

It is perhaps only too self-evident, but, for all of its verbal felicities and memorable phrases, the Bible, even the King James Bible, is not poetry. It may contain verbal artistry, but it is not a work of art.

A religious experience is not the same as an aesthetic experience. A congregation is not the same as an audience, even if they might both be called bunches of people.

People do congregate to watch Hamlet and Macbeth, but they do not do it on a regular basis. They are not active participants in the event and they do not walk out of it feeling that they have come together with the rest of the audience to form a community.

Sitting through the most wondrous performance of Shakespeare does not confer on you, or on anyone else, an identity as member of a community.

While I am speaking of community, let's be clear that for all of atheism’s trendiness, it makes no sense to think that groups of people will be getting together once a week to worship nothing.

How does the Bible differ from poetry? It does so by containing something more, something that even the greatest literary works lack.

The Bible offers moral teachings; it tells people how to behave in society. If you are going to form a community you need to provide people with a series of ethical principles by which they can conduct their lives.

In this the Bible is also distinguished from science. As David Hume famously pointed out, science has no ethical dimension. It tells us what happened. It does not tell us what we should do.

If Hume is right, then science is never going to be the basis for human conduct in community.

A couple of Biblical precepts are common knowledge. To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, let’s quote them, in the original. This link will take you to the online version of the King James Bible, with the 1611 text and the 1769 authorized revision.

The golden rule looks like this: “And as yee would that men should doe to you, doe yee also to them likewise.”

The rule concerns getting along with other people, not just with members of your family, but with your friends and neighbors.

As we know, the rule is not unique to Judeo-Christianity. Knowing that it exists, in one form or another, in all religions, might suggest that its wisdom is timeless and that it is a basic and universal precept, without which people cannot get along constructively in community.

And this, from Leviticus, in the King James Version: “Thou shalt not auenge nor beare any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt loue thy neighbor as thy selfe: I am the Lord.”

Clearly, the Bible is promoting positive emotion, to the point of making it the basis for community.

It is useful to understand these points, lest we fall into the trap of thinking that the Bible's rules were constructed to suppress everyone’s sexual pleasure, as our modern thinkers would have it.

But, what does it mean, and what is implied by the notion that these precepts and principles are God-given.

For one, it means that they are not relative to this time or to this time or to that place, that they are not designed to privilege this person or that, that we cannot just make them up as we go along, and that they are, as they say, graven in stone.

It means that there is such a thing as human nature, that it is universal, timeless, and immutable, that it cannot be revised by even the most powerful kings, and that we need to respect it if we are going to belong to harmonious and productive social groups.

These rules tell you what is right and wrong; they tell you what you should or should not do in certain circumstances; and they assure you that your neighbors are playing the same game according to the same rules.

It is equally true that the basic principles of ethics are contained in certain philosophical texts, principal among them being the writings of Aristotle, but religion goes one step further by producing a community where everyone knows the rules, where the rules are presumed not to be a means of exploitation, and where everyone relies on their permanence.

You simply cannot have a community where different people are playing different games according to different rules.

Is this sufficient to make it the product of divine inspiration? If we are to say, as Hitchens would like, that the principles and precepts are man-made, then they are also mutable and aleatory. You cannot rely on them because the next guy can come along, and if he has enough power, can change them. For the moment we will leave aside the question of whether one or another religion might have a better or more inspired take on the rules of social conduct and the attitude of humility that one should assume before them.

Failing to accept the universality of rules is the path to social anguish.

If this helps us to understand that religions are a thoroughly rational activity, perhaps it will serve as a counterweight to the trendy atheism that seems to have infected far too many minds.

6 comments:

janie lou roberts said...

Good reading. I really enjoyed it, and will read agIn and refer others to read it also.

Robert Hagedorn said...

Pet stores don't sell live snakes that speak human language. And grocery stores don't sell knowledge of good and evil fruit. So is the story of Adam and Eve nonsense, or is there meaning beyond their disobedience? Do a search: The First Scandal. Then click twice.

JP said...

Wasn't human sacrifice common to early religions (see Aztec and early British (the original inhabitatns of the island) religions for two examples)?

That's timeless and the opposite of the golden rule. It's also a apparently a developmental phase for societies.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I think it reasonable to think that religions evolve, and that all religions are not created equal.

Christianity and Judaism no longer feel bound by each and every rule that is written in the Bible. And clearly no one really believes that the story of Adam and Eve concerns talking snakes.

In truth, I have known a few people who have fairly been called snakes and do have a way with words.

I didn't want to get into comparing religions in this post, but clearly some have been more successful than others.

And yet, nearly all religions seem to have some equivalent of the golden rule. Even if we assume that others do not have it, I would want to label those who do not have more primitive and thus, less likely to survive for a very long time.

The Count said...

Another great post sir.

As for the golden rule I think what makes the Christian formation of it unique is that it made in the positive formation ("Do unto others") rather than the negative ("Do not do..."), which is what every other religion and philosophy before then had used. That alone is a huge step, even if it is also in continuity and relation to other religions.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, Count.

For the record, the version of the golden rule that I quoted is from Leviticus. I believe that it's the first mention in the Bible.

You are, however, quite correct to see the Judeo-Christian Bible as one of the few that present the rule as a positive injunction, and to attribute the success of Western civilization to this fact.