This summer I had a class in theology which I sometimes discussed. This class was part of the “late vocations” program offered by in our area by the OCA. Currently, I’m taking the second of these classes, and true to form the reading/work load has been somewhat larger than expected. We’re taking a “great books” approach to the Old Testament, and in our 8 week class … reading and discussing the entire Old Testament …. and for the technically minded, using the Codex Alexandrinus for our canon … which means that the books we read are somewhat extended from the standard Protestant even Catholic set of books. In the below, I’m going to explore a question/point raised in class which I would like to explore in more detail.
Throughout the Old Testament, but certainly notable in Judges through Kings IV (the Orthodox church uses the Septuagint as its basis for the Old Testament, Samuel I and II and Kings I & II become Kings I-IV) there is constant influence from external polytheistic religions. There is not just military conquest and battle back and forth between nations being portrayed, but we find priests contending and confronting those following other gods and abandoning those of other religions. There is a marked contrast between how, for example, Elijah deals with the priests of Baal (Kings III 18) and how today we confront those who believe differently in this modern age.
This contrast is located deep in how we view the world and think about religion, science and the structure of things. Elijah and those early Israeli prophets (and I suspect their polytheistic counterparts) didn’t react in a modern way to the existence of other beliefs. Elijah didn’t argue or proclaim that Baal and the other gods weren’t real. The incineration of wet cows on a hill didn’t prove that Baal and his priests weren’t worshipping real gods and that he was, but that instead the claim was only that his God, the God of the people of Israel, was the more powerful. The demonstration was that YHWH, the God of Israel, was a more effective God. These people weren’t stupid. They knew that Baal and the various gods of other peoples, the Hittite, the Egyptian, the Assyrian, the Philistines and so on all had different founding creation stories and for that matter wildly different ways of viewing of the relationship between God/god(s) and how that connected to the universe and man’s place within it. The reason that these differences in viewpoint and description are seen today as inconsistent but back then were not was not that we are clever and they are not. But that the nature of the difference which we highlight was not important to them.
Today, we have similar situations. In essence today, we have the secular argument that science in opposition to religion burns its cows more effectively but the conclusion is different. The conclusion, unlike in the case of the Philistine/Israel argument, is that therefore “your god isn’t real” … and not that he isn’t as powerful as mine. This carries over to other meta-religious conversations about religion and the existence of god(s) (or God). The Hindu religion, Buddhism, Islam, Hebrew, and Christian faiths it is claimed can’t all co-exist logically because they have different statements about the nature of God, about creation and the universe, and the place of man in that universe. For Elijah, following one faith did not mean that the other was therefore wrong, which is how the modern analysis would insist. In the early years of the unfolding of our understanding of the Quantum nature of reality, there are a number of distinct methods, the Schroedinger wave equations, the Heisenberg density matrices, S-matrices, and path integrals finish out the list. This in a way is analogous to the situation noted above. We have distinct ways of viewing the world, which are apparently logically inconsistent. Yet, the suggestion here is that the logical inconsistencies are not crucial and that instead effectiveness is more important.
One of the primary arguments between the secular atheists and the religious of the world is that materialism has been so effective. This is misleading. Materialism has indeed been effective, if the question at hand is how to make a dishwasher or an airplane. However that is unfortunately not the question that is most important. The question, which materialism has basically dodged, concerns finding human happiness and fulfilment. Teleology is not part of the palette for materialism, i.e., it’s not a valid question. And this is an issue, because failing to answer and confront these questions is a major effectiveness problem.