People have been searching for God, and making idols about God for a very long time. But we have some particular ways of doing it in the modern era. I believe one such phenomenon that has become an idolatry of our time is Biblical literalism. Fundamentalists claim to be bringing back the fundamentals of ancient Christianity, but in fact, their version of Christianity has not existed anywhere prior to the last one hundred years or so. They claim that every word in the Bible is the literal and factual truth. But scholar of religion Karen Armstrong reminds us that literalism is a very modern way to read the Bible, a way that was unheard of prior to this era. In A Case for God, she talks about the historical context for our modern idols.
After the destruction by the Romans of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, during the first century of what we call the Christian Era, there were various groups of Jews wrestling with their new religious predicament—much of the Hebrew Scriptures were centered around the temple, and the rites and rituals of the temple, but now there was no temple.
One group of rabbis began to re-work their faith into a guide for living as if the temple was everywhere, and how they lived should reflect the priestly status of all the Jewish people. They began to develop new practices for living, and created the beginnings of classical Judaism. They felt perfectly free to re-arrange the Biblical texts, or draw new meaning out of them, use them metaphorically, or even disagree with them. Eventually, a body of literature grew up around this effort, that we now call the Talmud.
There was also another group of Jews making new meaning out of the old scriptures. They were re-interpreting the old texts around the person of their teacher Jesus, whom they saw as the Messiah, who had been crucified by the Romans. They too re-arranged texts, interpreted them metaphorically, and added new writings and practices. They too were grappling as Jews with a temple-less Jewish faith, though now we call them the early Christians. But neither these early Christians, nor the rabbis who shaped the faith of Judaism, were biblical literalists.
Karen Armstrong writes that before the modern era, which was beginning about the time that Columbus set sail for America,
“religious discourse was not intended to be understood literally because [they believed] it was only possible to speak about a reality that transcended language in symbolic terms.”
Armstrong talks about how in premodern cultures there were two recognized ways of acquiring knowledge. Logos, or reason, “was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world.” Mythos, or myth, “focused on the more elusive, puzzling, and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside of the remit of logos.” The modern world is a world devoted to scientific reason, and has lost track of the meaning of myth—in fact, myth is now defined as something that is not true. But in pre-modern times, myth was the common language of religion, and helped people to wrestle with the challenges that were not so easily solved by reason. Mythic words were meant to be a doorway into that which was beyond words.
The language of myth was linked to the practice of ritual, in which people entered into a communal experience of story in a way that transcended logical thought or emotion. They were brought to the limits of their rational understanding, into the presence of the mysterious and ineffable, and emerged with a new capacity for living within the tragedy and bliss of this world. Religion was not something that people thought, but something that they did. People who put in the hard work and perseverance it required “discovered a transcendent dimension of life” that was also “identical with the deepest levels of their being.”