I'm reading Sam Harris' "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason." So far, I haven't come across anything I didn't already know, but that's because I've been over this territory quite a bit myself. I'm not an atheist, as he apparently claims to be, but I'm not a subscriber to any particular religion anymore either. I've worked my way through a couple of 'em, based largely on reason and study but also on 'getting real' about my own experience.
I had help. Francis Baur, the late Franciscan friar who taught theology's basics to all incoming students, insisted on applying historical critical method and any evidential sources from the sciences to the subject of our interest, namely, God, the Bible, church tradition and Jesus, not necessarily in that order. This was done to off-set the natural religious bias against science that is very common in religious literature and communities, and which is seen perhaps most clearly and publically today in the debate between creationists and evolutionists.
As soon as we got in the classroom, he demonstrated right away just how much faith we all place in science, in everything from driving our cars and flying in airplanes, to seeking modern medical care, enjoying media technology, and believing in the solar system. Some of the priestly hopefuls quickly transferred to other schools. My theory is that somehow their sense of identity and well-being was tied up in ignoring this split within themselves, and identifying their 'beliefs' one-sidedly with the religious pole of their thinking. Harris writes eloquently on the wedding of ignorance and knowledge in religious moderates. I think Francis Baur would agree, because he was tough, he had 'tough-love' for christianty. For myself, I evolved an understanding of the bible as a combination of mythology and legend. I love both of these, so I'm okay with that. In my view, myth and legend are primarily telling us something spiritual about ourselves, and their historic interest is secondary to that.
I've also been reading Edward F. Edinger's 'The Psyche in Antiquity' in two parts. The first part deals with the greek philosophers as our 'cultural ancestors', and gets into each one's most representative concepts as parts of our earliest mapping of consciousness in the West. His writing is terse and to the point, illuminating, and altogether quite wonderful. The fact that he can deal with all this material in two exceedingly slim volumes astonishes me. The second volume deals with 'Gnosticism and Early Christianity.'
Anyway, reading Edinger and Harris in tandem have supported a train of my own thought that's been developing over the last year or so, about the importance of having some kind of 'measure' to apply to one's religious beliefs, ideas, principles, etc, that arises outside the religious dogma itself. In the case of Christianity and the West, that would be Reason, which we acquired thanks to our late medieval rediscovery of the Greek philosophers. And the fact that Greek thinking is embedded in the New Testament, thanks to the letters of Paul.
Here are the relevant passages from Edinger that enlighten for me the origins of Christianity and the role of Greek philosophy in it right from the start:
from the Conclusion of Volume 1: "The legacy of Greek philosophy continued in various currents of the Western psyche. (he maps them.) (But) in the first two centuries of our era a profound eruption took place in the collective unconscious. It appeared first as a Jewish heresy centered around the figure of Christ, which then spread throughout the ancient world. it was a religion of salvation that appealed particularly to individuals who felt in need of deliverance, especially the vast slave population. It also had universal attraction because the psychological dominants of antiquity had decayed to such an extent that there was general despair just below the surface." (p.112) [In volume two, he identifies the imperial religous values as power and greed, supplanting the original Roman civic virtues:] "The civic virtue that had been characteristic of the Republic was increasingly replaced by motives of pure greed and power. Authentic religious devotion and patriotic service, which had been typical in the Roman nobility of the Republic, was lost in the Empire. The religion of the people was perverted more and more by the state to serve the personal power motives of its leaders." Vol 2, p. 7
"Jung says about ancient Rome: 'The men of that age were ripe for identification with the word made flesh, for the founding of a community united by an idea, in the name of which they could love one another and call each other brothers...[There was ] an elementary need in the great masses of humanity vegetating in spiritual darkness. They were evidently driven to it by the profoundest inner necessities, for humanity does not thrive in a state of licentiousness...We can hardly realize the whirlwinds of brutality and unchained libido that roared through the streets of imperial Rome.' (Symbols of Transformation, CW 5, par. 104)
"A new archetypal image was erupting in the Jewish psyche: the 'Son of God' or 'Son of Man.' Jung discusses this matter in 'Answer to Job', where he speaks of the effects of Yahweh's encounter with Job. Because of that engagement and the consciounsess of Yahweh's nature that Job aquired, Yahweh was obliged to incarnate and to become man." Vol. 2, p.8 [So, he's saying it was inevitable that this phenomenon would occur, and it evolved into the social movement (religion) we call Christianity. Along the way the 'Son of Man/Christ' cult moved out of the Jewish religious stream via the diaspora of the Greek-speaking territories, to the Gentiles, many of whom, like the Danes, saw themselves, in their legends, as the physical descendants of the Greeks.]
In volume 1, Edinger mentions, "This new religion, which was a Jewish heresy and can therefore best be called a Jewish Christianity, encountered Greek philosophy, especially in Alexandria, and so gave rise to Gnosticism." p. 112
"In the Jewish psyche, the Christian sect that arose around the figure of Jesus was a heresy that was eventually extirpated. The same cannot be said about the Greco-Roman psyche, where the consequences were immense." (Vol. 2, p. 112)
"It was obvious that the classical psyche, more than the Jewish one, needed what the new God-image had to offer. The decadent classical psyche was based on the principles of pleasure and power: matter, money, and the power of the State residing in the hands of the deified emperors, who delegated portions of their arbitrary power to favorites. The Christ figure generated the opposite pole in the collective psyche: the spiritual, other-worldly dimension of existence, the dimension that was missing in the classical soul." (Vo. 2, p. 12)
I guess I'm going on and on about this because, in support of Sam Harris' work, I have to say that the only reason, in my opinion, that Christianity was able to become 'moderate,' to eventually persuade itself that it is moral and ethical, after all, to allow women to vote, to get rid of slavery, etc, is that #1) there is a latent germ for these ideas present in the bible ('There is now no more man or woman, slave or free, jew or greek in christ jesus' - or something to that effect) - and #2) because the principle of Reason was re-introduced to the faith through the rediscovery of the Greek philosophers in the Late Middle Ages. Modern Christian culture, with all its foibles, at least up until the late twentieth-century and the rise of Christian fundamentalism, was potentially capable of making room for science, technology, women's rights, human rights, democracy, etcetera, because it had some standard, some ruler, by which to measure itself that originated, ultimately, outside its own religious dogma and tradition.
I just think this is so important to acknowledge in this time in which humanity seems to be making a serious bid to go back to theocracy (with its incredible capacity for human bondage not to mention human carnage.)
"There, I have said it. Now, somebody make a joke."
(Can anyone identify the film-source of this line? If not, I'll identify it later in a comment.)