All the Gods of the Nations are Idols

Both 1 Chr 16:26 and Ps 96:5 state that “For all the gods of the nations are idols, but YHWH made the heavens” (כי כל-אלהי העמים אלילים ויהוה שמים עשה). This has long been appealed to in scholarship addressing monotheism in the Hebrew Bible as an example of the text’s denial of the existence of the gods of the nations. They are idols, not gods. I recently ran across this reading in James Anderson’s new book, Monotheism and Yahweh’s Appropriation of Baal:

It is to Psalm 96 that one must turn to find a more pointed affirmation of Yahweh’s uniqueness: ‘For great is Yahweh, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but Yahweh made the heavens.’ (Ps. 96.4–5) There, the onslaught against idols is complete with a clear statement that the other gods are no gods. The claim that Yahweh is the only god has to be backed up by the claim that he created the heavens. This massive theological claim was a novelty.

The problem is that “idols” is a terrible translation that completely obscures the rhetorical force of the verse and facilitates the incorrect interpretation of these verses as denying the existence of other gods. The word translated “idols” is אלילים, but that word does not mean “idols,” it means “worthless things.” It is a play on words that works because if looks and sounds so similar to the Hebrew word אלהים. It would become a lexical substitute for “idol” similar to the way “abomination” (שקוץ) functions as a substitute for “god” in places like Exod 8:26; 1 Kgs 11:7; and 2 Kgs 23:13. The text is not saying the other gods are not gods, it’s saying they’re worthless and powerless—and here comes the rhetorical hook—but YHWH made the freakin’ heavens! That’s how much more he is to be revered over all those puny gods. This is the rhetorical force this text was supposed to have, but too many scholars are too concerned about finding monotheism in the Bible to pay close attention to that.


Paper Accepted to St Andrews Symposium for Biblical and Early Christian Studies

CFP Son of God-page-001I just received word that my paper proposal for the St Andrews Symposium for Biblical and Early Christian Studies has been accepted (abstract below). This year’s symposium is entitled “Son of God: Divine Sonship in Jewish and Christian Antiquity,” and it includes invited addresses from scholars like Jan Joosten, Richard Bauckham, N.T. Wright, Philip Alexander, and others. it should be an exciting two days (in addition to the days I’ll be golfing). If you would like to attend, you can find registration info here.

Divine Agency Christology: Cognitive Perspectives on Christ as Divine Agent

Concepts of divinity, identity, and agency are central to all christological models, but few scholars have directly addressed these concepts within their ancient West Asian contexts. Rather, the inclination has been to retroject modern, Eurocentric, and binary frameworks onto the ancient texts. With such frameworks governing the reconstruction of ancient conceptualizations of divine agency and identity, the resulting christological models inevitably reflect modern Western Christian orthodoxies and/or ontological categories.

The proposed paper seeks to avoid this tendentiousness by applying a cognitive framework to the reconstruction of ancient conceptualizations of divinity, identity, and agency. Identifying evolved and innate cognitive architecture can help facilitate a more critical and methodological reconstruction of those concepts. Among other things, the study of human cognition reveals a marked absence of the binary conceptual categories that characterize the philosophically based christological models that have predominated from the Nicene era to today. Within cultures not heavily influenced by a sophisticated philosophical ontology, identity is predicated upon social roles and functions. As a result, that identity, and associated notions of agency, are conceptualized as quite fluid and even communicable.

Applying these frameworks to the analysis of divine agents in early Jewish literature reveals a number of functional and conceptual parallels to the christological descriptions in the Christian scriptures. The proposed paper will argue that early Jewish conceptualizations of divine agency provided a conceptual template for early christological developments, which were later assimilated to philosophical models developed in the second century CE and later.


Atheism is as natural as religion?

The University of Cambridge has an article up publicizing and commenting on new research from Tim Whitmarsh. Whitmarsh’s book is Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, and the article is entitled, “Disbelieve it or not, ancient history suggests that atheism is as natural to humans as religion.” I’ve seen a few different people linking to it, so I thought I’d offer some thoughts. First, Whitmarsh’s book is, from what I understand, a must read that I have on my list and am looking forward to as soon as I can get to it. It does swim counter to the conventional wisdom that prior to modernity, everyone and their dog was a true blue theist, and rightly so. The conventional wisdom is silly wishful thinking on the part of conservatives who feel threatened by atheism and anti-theism.

Having said that, I think the headline and portions of the story rather misunderstand or misrepresent the implications of Whitmarsh’s research. First, what the article means by the word “religion” is a modern cultural reification. Atheism is far, far older than religion, since religion—at least, what we tend to mean when we use the word—was invented between the Reformation and Enlightenment periods. Theism (not a synonym for religion) would be a better word, since that refers specifically to belief in deity, but even then, atheism and theism are still modern conceptual frameworks that aren’t really entirely commensurate with those of, for instance, ancient Greece and Rome. Squishy conceptual categories like religion and atheism are not helpful for cross-cultural and historical analysis. As an example of how squishy these categories can be, according to Pew, only 92% of self-identified atheists reported not believing in God. 2% reported absolute certainty that God exists. 19% of Buddhists, 10% of Jews, 5% of Muslims and Hindus, and 1% of Christians reported not believing in God. So it would seem that “atheism,” as the article appears to use the term, overlaps quite a bit with religion. They’re not incommensurate categories.

Next, the question of the naturalness of both perspectives is not something historical criticism can really determine. The fact that many ancient authors and others objected to ideas about deity really has little bearing whatsoever on the cognitive innateness or naturalness of atheism. The article’s claim that the research raises “considerable doubts about whether humans really are ‘wired’ for religion” is, I would argue, baseless. The reference to our cognitive “wiring” for “religion” refers to the Cognitive Science of Religion, and within that field scholars largely differentiate between intuitive and reflective beliefs. Intuitive ones are those instinctual or reflexive perspectives or thoughts or reactions that occur without our conscious input. Reflective beliefs are those that we formulate through our own reason or to which we subscribe because others told us to or convinced us to. A quote from Whitmarsh suggests he uses “intuitive” to mean something different:

Rather than making judgements based on scientific reason, these early atheists were making what seem to be universal objections about the paradoxical nature of religion – the fact that it asks you to accept things that aren’t intuitively there in your world.

Whitmarsh here uses “intuitively” to refer to what cognitive scientists would say is “reflective,” which kinda problematizes the appeal to the findings of that field. The human is mind is indeed intuitively primed to accept things that are not there in your world. The consensus within CSR that belief in deities is a product of innate cognitive predispositions reflects research into intuitive beliefs that has demonstrated that we are evolutionarily predisposed to beliefs about the world around us that facilitate that belief in deity. For example, an evolutionary adaptation we all share is heightened sensitivity to mentality and agency in the world around us. Our prehistorical ancestors who were quickest to assume the rustling in the bushes was an animal with intentionality and big teeth were evolutionarily privileged over and against those who assumed it was the wind. We all have this cognitive default in our brains to interpret unnatural and unknown events and entities as something with a mind and agency. This goes hand in hand with the similar cognitive predisposition to interpret events in the world around us as happening for a purpose, or because of intentionality, and when the two are put together, we find culturally determined reifications of beliefs about agents that have counterintuitive properties that are more easy to remember and transmit culturally, like invisibility, full access to strategic knowledge, superhuman power, etc. And there were gods. In cultures without sophisticated philosophical or scientific frameworks to undermine those beliefs, they tend to become culturally embedded. This is what it means to say that “religion” (better, “belief in deity”) is natural, or that we are “preprogrammed to believe.” On a subconscious level, we are.

Studies have shown that these intuitions are there even in spite of firmly held ideologies. For instance, in a recent study that asked participants to determine whether or not given objects had been “purposefully made by some being,” results closely aligned with self-identified beliefs about the agency of nature, but when not given time for adequate mental processing, non-theists increasingly described earth as “purposefully made.” As a control, cartoon characters were included, and many non-theists actually more frequently identified them as naturally occurring. This was accounted for as an attempt to override their instincts and underplay creation. On the other hand, in a study about conceptualizations of deity, contemporary Christians who reported orthodox beliefs about the nature of God were asked to recall details about a variety of narratives involving computers, Superman, God, etc. They were more likely to appeal to and remember descriptions of God as anthropomorphic and confined to time and space. Both studies show the salience of intuitive beliefs that are grounded in our cognitive architecture when our ability to override them with reflective beliefs is mitigated.

Now, I have yet to read Whitmarsh’s book, and so I may be way off, but I doubt that he digs into evolutionary psychology or the Cognitive Science of Religion to show that rejection of those beliefs is just as cognitively innate. That would entirely overthrow the field. I don’t get the sense from a brief search that that’s what’s going on, either. The word “cognitive” only occurs twice in the book, and in one footnote there’s a reference to Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds, but that’s over 20 years old (for a much more up-to-date discussion, see Boyer’s Fracture of an Illusion). I don’t know if the notion that his research disproves the cognitive predisposition to beliefs in supernatural agents is his own idea or something the publisher or school thought would help promote it, but I flatly disagree with it and think it rather undermines the important impact his book will hopefully have.


The Cult Statue Is and Is Not the Deity

BaalThorkild Jacobsen’s contribution to the Frank Moore Cross Festschrift, “The Graven Image,” makes the following observation after discussing one set of texts that shows the cult statue was identified with the deity and then another set that shows the cult statue was not the deity (p. 18):

The contradiction of is and is not in the matter of the cult statue is so flagrant and cuts so deep that there must seem to be little hope of resolving it unless one goes to the most basic levels of understanding and attempts to gain clarity about the very fundamentals of ancient thought, about what exactly “being” and “nonbeing” meant to the ancients. We must consider, if only briefly, the ontology of the ancients, their ideas of what constituted “being” and “reality,” their criteria for judgment of true and false.

While it’s certainly true that one must retreat to the ancients’ fundamental conceptualizations of their identity and the world around them, I would suggest that framing it as ontology and “being” v. “nonbeing” is imposing contemporary categories precisely where we’re trying to see beyond them (I would suggest Bauckham commits the same presentism when he defines “identity” for his “Divine Identity” christology according to what we understand “identity” to entail today). In the ancient world, the concern was not so much for ontology as for social role and function. This draws less firm boundaries than we’re used to and makes it possible for the statue to both “be” and “not be” the deity, at least insofar as we understand “being” and “nonbeing.”


Markan Christology and the Messenger of YHWH

There have been several discussions floating around about Mark’s christology and the following putative summary of the same from Michael Bird:

The Marcan Jesus participates in the kyricentricity of Israel’s God. He is identified as a pre-existent heavenly figure who has come to earth, who carries divine authority, who embodies royal and priestly roles; and in his person, words, and deeds he manifests the holy presence, the redemptive purposes, and the cosmic power of the Lord of Israel.

A roundup of some posts is here. It’s been noted already that Bird’s blithe assertion of a Markan identification of Jesus as pre-existent seems to draw from the problematic conceptual trigonometry that Gathercole uses to try to suggest that pre-existence is implicit in the synoptic gospels, but I’d like to address a related claim that Bird published in How God Became Jesus (his response volume to Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God).

Bird says above about Jesus that, “in his person, words, and deeds he manifests the holy presence,” which I suggest is not incorrect, but is misconstrued by Bird and others to mean that Jesus is God. An agent can manifest the presence of their patron without actually participating in that patron’s being or ousia. We see it, in fact, in the Hebrew Bible’s messenger of YHWH. In How God Became Jesus, Bird rejects the notion that the messenger of YHWH provides a conceptual template for Jesus’ relationship with God. He first points out that,

the angel not only represents God but even embodies God’s presence, which explains why the angel of the Lord who appeared to Moses in the burning bush said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,’ and was the one who revealed the divine name to Moses (Exod 3:2, 6, 14). Paradoxically the angel of the Lord both is YHWH and is not YHWH.

Despite acknowledging that just like Christ, the messenger of YHWH is paradoxically identified with and distinguished from YHWH, Bird insists this has no connection to how Christ was conceptualized, since,

Christ’s person was understood as being distinct form God the Father, and his mode of divine presence was couched in far more concrete language, like ‘form’ of God, ‘glory’ of God, ‘image’ of God, and even ‘God enfleshed.’

In addition to the facts that the “person/being” distinction is utterly irrelevant to these texts and that the second concern is a difference of degrees, not kind, the passages Bird cites in the earlier quote are cases of interpolation (see here). They didn’t originally refer to the messenger as God. While it’s true the interpolated texts were later incorporated into a broader theology of presencing, this fact rather undermines Bird’s attempt to distance the conceptualization of the messenger of YHWH from the conceptualization of Jesus. The messenger became identified with God and God’s presence and authority in virtue of possessing God’s name, as we see in Exod 23:20–21:

Look, I’m sending a messenger before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to his voice. Do not rebel against him, because he will not pardon your transgressions, for my name is in him.

Christ’s possession of God’s name, in his own theophoric name as well as his repeated associated with “I am,” is conceptually identical. He has God’s name, therefore he presences God (reifies his presence) and exercises his authority. This notion of the “indwelling” of the name is found also in the Apocalypse of Abraham, where Yahoel is a name given to God, but also to an angel who meets with Abraham. The angel insists he exercises God’s power “in virtue of the ineffable name that is dwelling in me” (think also of the “place where my name will dwell”).

Interestingly enough, the Exodus 23 passage undermines one of the most common assertions that is made about Christ’s unique relationship with God in Mark. When Jesus forgives the man in Mark 2, the rhetorical bad guys wonder, “who can forgive sins but God only?” This is taken by some to be an accurate assertion of theological fact that means Jesus’ forgiveness of the man’s sins proves he is God, but a far more parsimonious reading has Jesus correct their misunderstanding by showing that he exercises that very power despite not being God. The objection that is usually lodged here is that there are no other examples anywhere of someone other than God having the prerogative to forgive sins. While this objection is an argument from silence, it’s also wrong. The messenger in Exodus 23, whose presencing of God is likely a reflection of those earlier interpolated texts, exercises precisely that prerogative in virtue of having God’s name in him.

The conceptualization of the messenger of YHWH in those Hebrew Bible passages where its identity is confused with that of God provide an exactly parallel conceptualization of the messenger as a figure that, in virtue of being endowed with God’s very name, presences God and exercises God’s authority. This is not to say that Jesus was originally an angel (which is what critics—including Bird—always seem to think angelomorphic christology means), but just that the messenger’s literary form and function as a representative of the deity offered a conceptual template for those nurturing and developing the Christ tradition. The cognitive architecture that predisposes us to conceptualize of agency and even identity as rather fluid and even communicable, as we see with the messenger and with Christ, is the subject of the doctoral dissertation I’m writing right now. Stay tuned!


Religion and Politics as Modern Fiction

The recent issue of Critical Research on Religion has a fascinating article in it by Timothy Fitzgerald entitled “Critical religion and critical research on religion: Religion and politics as modern fictions.” The article argues for understanding religion as a cultural construct that was produced simultaneously with another construct, “politics.” According to Fitzgerald, politics was developed as the public and culturally powerful counterpart to the private and internalized notion of religion. (Fitzgerald’s 2003 The Ideology of Religious Studies advocates for eliminating the concept of “religion” from contemporary scholarship. One of the broad criticisms of his book was that he neglects to address the elimination of cultural constructs like politics, economy, etc. His 2007 book, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity, appears to be responding to that criticism by incorporating other categories into his critique. The current article takes up that framework.) This dichotomy was developed for a variety of reasons, but primary among them was the protection of male property rights:

The right to private ownership of the earth, including the right to buy and sell for purely personal gain, unencumbered by any effects the practice might have on the lives of other people or the environment, is a historically peculiar idea, one which would have been incomprehensible to most of the peoples who ever existed. And yet this fiction of the possessive individual and his or her supposed rights of private ownership has been transformed into our dominant notion of ‘‘human nature’’ and has become the globalizing norm of the world order.

‘‘Politics’’ was invented in the first place in the 17th century to refer to what was then a radically new concept of government elected to represent male private property interests. Over the centuries, and especially since the founding of the United States of America, liberal propaganda has discursively embedded ‘‘politics’’ and the state as the neutral domain of rational conflict resolution, freed from the unwanted interferences of ‘‘religion.’’ Today, it is not only university departments of political science that are responsible for the mystified reproduction of politics and the state as the neutral forum for adjudicating different interests. Uncritical studies of religion perform the mirror image function through the discursive reproduction of religion and religions as reified entities and even as malign agents. The myth can only be challenged from both sides of the ideological division.

There will be some ideas that will grate against most of our sensitivities, but I highly recommend the article. I think it raises some significant questions related to our Western conceptualizations of religion and politics and their relationship to each other.


Has the Cognitive Science of Religion (Re)defined ‘Religion’?

I recently read a very interesting paper from the journal Religio by Czech Classicist Juraj Franek entitled “Has the Cognitive Science of Religion (Re)defined ‘Religion’?” In it, Franek suggests the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) cuts through the Gordian knot of essentialism and “social constructionism” and provides an empirically established definition of the category of religion. The argument is very well researched and generally well reasoned, and I want to comment on some of the insights it raises, but there are some significant gaps that I believe fundamentally undermine the conclusion. In following, I’ll outline the paper and explain where I believe Franek has missed some critical observations.

Franek begins with defending the need to arrive at a definition of religion, pointing out that there are significant social consequences to the delineation of the category (for lawyers and jurors, questions of tax exemption, conscientious objection, etc.), but also that the study of religion needs at least a proximate definition if it is to be able to “demarcate the object of its study” and “formulate its basic theoretical postulates.” In light of this, the question merits engagement.

Next, Franek gives a representative sample of definitions that have been offered by authoritative voices within the field of CSR. What they all have in common is the assertion that religion is essentially about belief in and interaction with supernatural agents. He states,

barring some minor differences, every single assessment of the nature of religion cited above explicitly identifies superhuman, supernatural or counter-intuitive agents as a differentia specifica of religion: A belief or an action can be considered religious if and only if it entails the involvement of counter-intuitive agents. Since the acceptance of this principle is virtually unanimous in the CST, I find it justified to speak about a ‘cognitive definition of religion’ with the concept of counter-intuitive agents operating as its definiens.

The phrase “counter-intuitive agent” references a concept central to CSR that is founded on the observation that humans have evolved a cognitive predisposition to sensitivity to agency in their environment. This predisposition is a by-product of an evolutionary adaptation that favors the hyperactive detection of agents. Natural selection favored those who intuitively assumed there was an agent with a mind behind given events or circumstances. It’s better for survival to think the dark shape in the shadows is a bear and be wrong rather than think it’s a big rock and be wrong. The by-product of this adaptation (the distinction between an adaptation and a by-product of an adaptation is critical to CSR) is that we tend to think things are happening for a reason, and specifically one that is determined by some kind of agent. While this opens the door to positing all kinds of different agents behind the way things happen, those agents that are minimally “counter-intuitive,” or that violate a minimal number of our intuitive understandings about the way things work, tend to be most memorable, and therefore most salient. (Note that “counter-intuitive” does not necessarily mean “false,” since human intuition is not infallible.) This is what CSR scholars understand to be the cognitive framework responsible for our conceptualization of deities.

To contextualize these definitions of religion, Franek moves on to the traditional definitions that have been offered outside CSR, first highlighting the essentialist definitions of Edward Burnett Tylor and Émile Durkheim, which he suggests represent the poles of a definitional continuum. Tylor insists “belief in Spiritual Beings” are the essence of religion, while Durkheim rejects that idea and defines religion as “a system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things . . . which unite all those who adhere to them in a single moral community, called a church.” In the mid-twentieth century came a new essentialist-eschewing approach to understanding religion that Franek describes as “social constructionism.” He divides these into “power-innocent” and “power-based” conceptualizations, with Wittgenstein and his “family resemblance” description representing the former, and the latter, Foucault and Bourdieu with their perspectives on structuring power. Smith, McCutcheon, and Fitzgerald are included in the power-based discussion, but their observations about the invention of the category of “religion” during the Enlightenment are overlooked.

Moving on to analysis, Franek lists the concerns a CSR definition must resolve: (1) how is it different from Tylor’s essentialist definition? (2) what about religions without concepts of deities (primarily Buddhism)? (3) how does it overcome the concerns raised by those who insist “religion” is a social construct? and (4) is it power-based? These four concerns are resolved for Franek in quite short order:

  1. In a lengthy discussion of “cross-cultural universals,” Franek appeals to Kant and Chomsky and cognitive modularity to insist that the CSR definition is not theoretically essentialist so much as empirically universal.
  2. Franek appeals to Ilka Pyysiäinen’s work to insist even Buddhism fits the CSR definition, since it generalizes from “deities” to “counter-intuitive agents,” like Buddha, the buddhas, and any other “counter-intuitive agents” that populate, we are to assume, every last tradition categorized by scholars as “religion.”
  3. Franek rejects the “social construct” category, since CSR identifies this predisposition to counter-intuitive agents in our very “cognitive architecture.” It’s innate, not culturally constructed.
  4. CSR can sidestep accusations of being “power-based,” according to Franek, since it is the product of empirical research that can and should be free from power manipulation.

My concerns with Franek’s argument begin with the fallacy of essentialism and of defining conceptual categories, which I’ve briefly described in the last paragraph of this post. These concerns come from the field of cognitive linguistics, which I was surprised to find entirely absent from Franek’s paper. The appeal to Chomsky and cognitive modularity signal either a lack of awareness of the field or a rejection of it. This is particularly peculiar in light of the fact that Wittgenstein’s linguistic theory, which Franek engages in some detail, set the stage in many ways for cognitive linguistics and its insights into categorization.

Next, if counter-intuitive agents are to be considered the empirically determined essence of the category “religion,” then we need some accounting of how the category so accurately developed in the process by which European colonialist ideologies divided up the world and its traditions. With no real concept of “counter-intuitive agents,” how did writers and rulers so perspicuously keep the category so clearly and so accurately delineated? Why did no one raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of Buddhism through so many centuries when it was for so long devoid of supernatural beings? Franek directly cites Smith, McCutcheon, and Fitzgerald, but overlooks the implications of their description of the origins of “religion” as a category. Yes, counter-intuitive agents pre-existed that development, but they also extend well beyond the category that developed, and this raises another concern. If counter-intuitive agents are a necessary feature of religion, they’re certainly not sufficient. Counter-intuitive agents, as an innate part of our cognitive architecture, are found everywhere. Does Smith’s invisible hand render capitalism a religion? What about millennials who refer to the agency of “the universe”? What about the personification of the nation or justice? Even the anthropmorphizing of “science” or “evolution” that is found in thinking about and describing their will and what they do could be said to produce a counter-intuitive agent.

As Smith, et al., also highlight, one of the results of the Western Enlightenment era construction of religion is a view of religion as fundamentally about belief, which means religion is really being analyzed through a Protestant Christian lens. Franek’s definition fails to escape the gravitational pull of that cultural construct, and even though he mentions practices, the definition is still essentially focused on the belief in counter-intuitive agents. This is problematic on its own, but also in light of modern research that shows even within traditions widely accepted as religious, some faithful adherents marginalize the importance of belief in deities or outright reject their existence. I personally know multiple individuals who identify as firmly Jewish and Christian, but also identify as staunchly atheist. If staunch atheists can be religious, belief—and particularly belief in counter-intuitive agents—cannot essentialize the category. The chart below shows the results of a Pew Research study regarding belief in “God or a universal spirit.” Note how many adherents to different religions, Christian and non-Christian, do not believe in deity.

In light of these concerns, I don’t believe we can insist the Cognitive Science of Religion has successfully defined religion. I don’t think that conclusion at all undermines CSR’s contribution to understanding the cognitive foundations of religion and religious belief and practice, but I don’t think its findings overcome the theoretical and methodological problems with attempting a definition of a modern cultural construct like religion.