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Is Blind Faith in God and the Bible a Modern Invention?

A new book points out that the ancient Christians -- and even early Americans -- did not share the blind faith of today's fundamentalists.

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The term used in most New Testament texts (the Greek word  pistis) meant something closer to loyalty or commitment, than unreasoning belief. When Jesus chastised his followers for their lack of faith, or commended a non-Jew for having faith, he wasn't talking about some unspoken creed. He certainly wasn't praising them for seeing that he was divine. He was talking about follow-through, about living up to ideas of selflessness and humbleness. Even the word "belief" has changed from a Middle English sense of "prize" to our modern idea of "accept at face value." Imagine how different every Christian creed would sound today if we replace "believe in" with "value" and "have faith in" with "commit myself to."

Unquestioning acceptance doesn't figure into the vigorous ethical and theological debates that ran through street conversations and popular songs of previous centuries, and Armstrong sees it as an invention of modern religion. Unable to separate logos and mythos, and trying to view everything through a lens of the logos-based society in which they live, fundamentalists reacted not by rediscovering the transcendent ideas of the past, but by inventing something new. Instead of science and religion, they tried to build a scientific religion in which every aspect of the world must conform to a literal interpretation of scripture (one that ignores the inherent, and quite intentional, contradictions built into that text).  Blind acceptance had to be inserted into the mix because only blind acceptance allows stepping around the wreck trying to force mythos to conform to logos makes of both. If you look for reviews of Amrstrong's book, you'll find that that the harshest reviews are not from the general "secular" press, but from fundamentalists. "Demon inspired" is one of the milder phrases you'll encounter if you make a search for reactions from Christian fundamentalists.

Though the heart of the book is a lengthy examination of theology that starts with the paintings of Neolithic caves and ends with twenty-first century philosophers, don't get the impression that Armstrong asserts that the meaning of religion can be found in a text -- whether that text is the Bible, the Torah, or her own book.  The Case for God might as well be called  The Case for Religious Practice. And by practice she doesn't mean doing something once, she means doing it over, and over, and over -- like practicing piano -- until you discover the passion at the end of all that rote, mechanical repetition.

Religion... was not primarily something that people thought, but something they did. It's truth was acquired by practical action. It is no use imagining that you will be able to drive a car if you simply read the manual or study the rules of the road. You cannot learn to dance, paint, or cook by perusing text or recipes. The rules of a board game sound obscure, unnecessarily complicated, and dull until you start to play, when everything falls into place. There are some things that can be learned only by constant, dedicated practice, but you find that you achieve something that seemed initially impossible. Instead of sinking to the bottom of the pool, you can float, you may learn to jump higher and with more grace than seems humanly possible, or to sing with unearthly beauty. You do not always understand how you achieved these feats, because your mind directs your body in a way that bypasses conscious logical deliberation, but somehow you learn to transcend your original capabilities. Some of these activities bring indescribable joy. A musician can lose herself in her music, a dancer becomes inseparable from the dance, and a skier feels entirely at one with himself and the external world as he speeds down the slope. It is a satisfaction that goes deeper than merely "feeling good."  It is what the Greeks called  ekstatis, which means a stepping outside the norm. Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart. ... It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth of falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth -- or lack of it -- only if you translate those doctrines into ritual or ethical action. Like any skill, religion requires perseverance, hard work, and discipline.

Not only does Armstrong see the blind acceptance of doctrine as an impediment to religious practice, she discounts the idea that religious beliefs can have any value unless they are placed into a framework of daily practice, commitment, and ethical action.

 
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