An Updated Answer for Job
An Updated Answer for Job: Modern Religion and the New Pivot Point of History
By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard
Why do humans believe in God? As the Biblical Job sat on the dung pile, covered in sores, a broken man, he earnestly questioned his friends. How is it I got here? Why does God allow suffering? At the end of the story, for his trials, Job receives a reinstatement of all his prosperity. Finally explaining his role in this fiasco, God gave Job a similar equivocal answer to the one he gave Moses on Mt. Sinai, “I am that I am.” Or, in other words, “It is not for you to ponder or understand.” For some probing mortal minds, therefore, Job’s important questions were never adequately answered.
In our evolving secular age, we often find that this traditional image of a distant deity is not appealing. Like Job, we have questions, and we want them answered in detailed ways. We are not unlike our more recent ancestors in this respect, beginning perhaps with members of the “Axial Age”, the period spanning 800-200 BC—the exact historical moment philosophy was invented as a discipline.
The so-called “Axial Age” was termed by Karl Jaspers in his book, The Origin and Goal of History (1949). Since its publication scholars have debated his far-reaching concept whereby unconnected philosophers in China, India, Mesopotamia and the Occident created similar revolutionary thought, expanding human understanding and spurring the full blossoming of the world’s great religions: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, reformed Judaism, and Christianity.
What caused this coeval world-wide paradigm shift is not clear, but Jaspers noted that each of the cultures in question were in inter-imperial lulls, when quiet moments of liberty allowed philosophers to wander about small principalities and exchange their developing ideas about the meaning of life and man’s place in the universe.
Roughly forty years after Jaspers, in her book A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (1993), former nun Karen Armstrong built upon Jaspers’ foundation, elaborating the connecting strings between the big three Mono-theistic traditions—a hot topic in today’s fractious world. In a rare feat of detached, historical criticism, Armstrong demonstrates how these religions have developed over time to reflect the very real fears, insecurities, triumphs and aspirations of their mortal followers. Sometimes these shifts privilege one group over another, the male sex over the female, one “chosen” tribe over its local neighbor, but Armstrong is careful to make clear that extreme, sometimes violent pendulum swings are more often outweighed by periods of peaceful understanding of commonalities.
Particularly striking to me, as a member of the twenty-first century, was her poignant statement that each of the historical religions have periodically gone through revolutionary “atheistic” moments, when the mantle of their forefathers’ religious practice had begun to feel ill-fitting. Putting lie to the Modern chestnut that Nietzsche killed religion, or, on the other hand, that “God” is unchanging and a-temporal, it seems that throughout human history a limited, human concept of “God” has routinely been retooled by successive generations in a cyclical process of shedding an old cultural form in preparation for a new paradigm. In essence, the eternal spirit was always there, but as human ideology changed, its earthly reflection necessarily adapted.
To contextualize this type of change, the beginning of Armstrong’s book firmly underlines the intrinsic human need for the spiritual, a finding echoing the important work of Joseph Campbell and others. This thread gives Armstrong the sure foundation needed to frame the vicissitudes of historical rejections of religion as particular moments in an ageless, metaphysical continuum. Necessarily, she is careful to delineate between the practice of religion and its underlying functions, much like Joseph Campbell when he separated the traditional roles of the priest versus the mystic in The Power of Myth (1988). The former is in charge of the social spectacle, the temporal form of the deity, and the latter channels the infinite spirit, or source of the archetypal myth.
This kind of sensible, cyclical understanding of our human need for spirituality allows us to see the current diapodes of the religion argument with the utter rejection of “God” on one side, and its counter-balance, zealous fundamentalism, as two extreme reactions to a moulting culture. In both, there remains a disconnect between past and present. In essence, the atheists renounce the old vision of “God” as childish and outmoded while the fundamentalist embraces an equally untenable a-historical understanding of religion. It seems that both are short-sightedly bound to the temporal, historical transmitters of the spiritual message, while the universal message of compassion is itself lost in transmission. Neither patiently attend the present rebirth of the spiritual in its new, unique mode.
In previous posts, like Turtles All the Way Down, I’ve discussed the theologian Harvey Cox’s vision for a new religion, one that privileges festivity and fantasy. While current forms of religion often stifle jubilation and creativity, in Cox’s vision, the uniquely human inventions of festivity and fantasy must be part of any religious endeavor. We might call this Job’s dilemma: finding bliss in our human state of suffering and practical concerns. According to Cox, if developed, this new religion could eradicate “crippling literalism,” the incapacitating fault he sees as the central attribute of both fanatical Atheism and Fundamentalism. This new religious mode would transcend the commonly held post-Enlightenment (often scientific) view that to know something is to see it, or at least to measure it. This would mean the feet of Positivism held to the flame of an ingrained human yearning for celebration and the spiritual.
Trying to fathom where religion is presently headed, Karen Armstrong, the French scholar Yves Lambert and others have posited that we are now in a new axial age. In 1999 Lambert wrote an article, “Religion in Modernity as a New Axial Age: Secularization or New Religious Forms?” (Sociology of Religion, 60/3, 303-33) which, to my mind, raises the question of whether or not the predictions made in Cox’s groundbreaking Secular City (1965) will come to pass. Thirty years after Cox, Lambert believes that the great traditional religions have adapted to modernity, though he also sees Fundamentalist reactions to this and the spread of new religious forms. Though Lambert effectively charts shifting public opinion on matters of religion, the question of how our global community will construct rituals and myths to frame our current “super-empirical” understanding remains cloudy. Will humanity be able to put aside old-fashioned tribal (or nationalistic) rhetoric in favor of an ecumenical religion of mankind? Will humans embrace what we share rather than what we see differently?
The findings of the neo-Axial Agists are nonetheless tantalizing. They may help to bridge the seeming gulf between the cultural warriors we see battling it out in the public arena. If only these polemicists could see that the broad middle has already beat the path to the future, and it is neither Atheism nor Fundamentalism. To solve the problems of the environment, social inequality and sectarian conflict, the broad middle of humanity will have to define our reflexive modernity in positive, humanist terms, assessing the excesses and dangers of unbridled consumption, science and technology through a lens of respect and harmony with our planet and our neighbors.
Luckily, with Post-Modern democratization and globalization (thanks, in part, to the Internet) we cannot go back to the earlier paradigm of “temple, palace and hut”, or “church, castle and cottage” (as Campbell aptly put it). Today every human being is endowed with global presence and power and our old symbolism of hierarchical organization (priest, president, and pop star) have systematically and cynically been dismantled.
In conclusion, contrary to Jaspers’ contention, I still believe de-mythologization remains a myth, as others have eloquently stated. As humans, we need stories to center us and help us forge our way into the future. Indeed, this ritualization of time and space as a metaphor for the infinite seems hardwired in humans. As Joseph Campbell has shown in his work, there can be no disintegration of temporal duality, the so-called “collapse of dualism” as coined by R.N. Bellah (Beyond Belief, 1976). Phenomenology (the first-person, intuitive experience of consciousness) requires this interpretation of the world; it is only in the complimentary, super-empirical / mystical realm beyond relativity where we can experience divinity. Admittedly, contemplating that sphere will always be an imperfect, human endeavor requiring faith. But, answers to life’s unanswered questions are always yearned for, and always well worth the effort. That’s human nature.
Bread and Circus contributing writer Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.