Monday, January 23, 2006

Xenophanes' Critique of Religion

I am convinced that one of causes of the Culture War is the tendency of Christians to choose orthodoxy (right belief) over orthopraxy (right conduct). Christianity has often been reduced to merely a set of statements about God with which one either agrees or disagrees. If one agrees, then they are acceptable, and if they disagree then they are a heretic. Never mind that there is no uniform set of statements which all Christian groups hold as a sort of defining set of statements. Even the ancient ecumenical creeds do not apply to all groups, and so are not truly ecumenical [note: this is particularly true in light of the fact that the beliefs of the earliest Christians - those closest to the time and presence of Jesus - are not included and are even contradicted by the first creeds, which came a couple hundred years later]. Also, nevermind that one's disagreement with a particular set of doctrinal statements may be motivated not by a desire to rebel against God or the church, but rather by a desire honor God and the church by telling the truth as best as one understands it.

Because of the danger of becoming "attached" to doctrine - even good doctrine (by which I mean doctrine that has helped the spiritual condition of believers and sought to bring love and unity to the church) - I will be posting a couple of essays on (roughly) the dangers of "attachment" in religion. The first of these is, as the title of this post indicates, Xenophanes' Critique of Religion.

Xenophanes (roughly 570 - 478 BCE, though his dates are not certain) would have certainly been seen as a "heretic" in his day, as he leveled a scathing critique against the way in which religion was practiced in his day. Here are a few of the remaining fragments of his work, which touches on religion, taken here from Baird and Kaufman's Ancient Philosophy: Fourth Edition (I'm using their numbers, as well):

[2] Homer and Hesiod ascribed to the gods whatever is infamy and reproach among men: theft and adultery and deceiving each other.

[3] Mortals suppose that the gods are born and have clothes and voices and shapes like their own.

[4] But if oxen, horses, and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and fashion works as men do, horses would paint horse-like images of gods and oxen ox-like ones, and each would fashion bodies like their own.

[5] The Ethiopians consider the gods flat-nosed and black; the Thracians blue-eyes and red-haired.

[6] There is one god, among gods and men the greatest, not at all like mortals in body or mind.

[7] He sees as a whole, and hears as a whole.

[11] No man knows or ever will know the truth about the gods and about everything I speak of: for even if one chanced to say the complete truth, yet oneself knows it not; but seeming is wrought over all things.

[12] Not from the beginning have the gods revealed all things to mortals, but by long seeking men find what is better.

It is said that when philosophers are religious, they are unconventionally religious. If this is so, it should not be surprising. Religion is often conservative, seeking to preserve the values and traditions of the past. But philosophy, by its very nature, is reflective. It challenges the assumptions of past generations. It explores those values and traditions which religion preserves, to see what they really mean. It evaluates them to see if they still have, or ever have had worth. For philosophy, it can be said, nothing is sacred except for the pursuit of truth.

But religion, which is possibly as old as humanity itself, can be understood as the human attempt to encounter, understand, and explain the sacred. And so, some conflict between philosophy and religion - or, at least, between philosophers and conventionally religious people - is probably inevitable. Because of this, and because of the inquisitive and somewhat sacrilegious nature of most philosophers; when philosophers are religious they are often not religious in the way that conventionally religious people would like for them to be religious. They can often, and often rightly, be seen as a threat to religion in its most traditional forms. As such, when philosophers really care about religion, they can offer some of the most stinging critiques of religion.

Xenophanes was, along with Pythagoras and Heraclitus, known as one of the Three Solitary Figures of pre-Socratic Greek philosophy. From the fragments that remain of the works of these three philosophers, it seems safe to say that they each had an interest in and understanding of religion. Heraclitus' near mystical use of the term Logos may have been an influence on the author of the Gospel of John. Pythagoras had his own religious sect, devoted to the contemplation of mathematics as a means by which to purify the soul. But, of these three, the fragments which remain of Xenophanes may be the most religious in nature, and are certainly the most useful to modern religious people.

There are at least three sets of fragments which, when understood together, offer up a very helpful concept and critique of religion. The first set is a single fragment, fragment [2], which stands as a critique of the conventional religion of his time. In it he takes Homer and Hesiod to task for ascribing to the gods traits which would not be acceptable even in humans, much less in the embodiment of the divine. The second set consists of fragments [3], [4], and [5], which stand as a critique of religion in general, or at least concepts of a god or gods, as anthropomorphic. The final set of fragments consists of fragments [11] and [12], which provide us with a very healthy concept of theological humility and religious skepticism.

Of course, some would argue that the two most religiously significant fragments from Xenophanes are ones which I have left out altogether. Those are fragments [6] and [7], which form a very early monotheistic concept of god. They are certainly worth considering, particularly because they stand in such sharp contrast to the polytheistic Greek religion of his day. But I am not considering them here because, while they were certainly radical in their day, they would be seen as fairly conventional today. From them it would be easy to treat Xenophanes the way that the Scholastics treated Plato or Aristotle - as a precursor to Christianity - and that would be fair to neither Xenophanes nor what remains of his work.

So, the first fragment dealing with religion considered here is fragment [2], in which Xenophanes offers his searing critique of Homer and Hesiod and their description of traditional Greek religion. He says that they "ascribed to the gods whatever is infamy and reproach among men." This represents a real problem for their view of religion in part because it contrasts with one of the ideal goals of religion; which is to provide some kind of moral standard for humans, as well as to provide a divine authority for that moral standard. If the gods are not good examples of how one should behave, what does that say of the ethics represented by that religion?

In fragments considered later Xenophanes will argue that people fashion their concept of god after themselves. What, then, does it say about Homer and Hesiod that they crafted gods who exhibit deviant behavior? If one is being charitable, one could claim that they described the gods the way that they did to show that there are no morally perfect beings. The gods, like humans, are flawed. And, because even the gods are flawed, humans should not expect themselves or others to be perfect in any way. Because even the gods are flawed, humans should not look externally to find moral guidance, but rather internally. They don't need to gods to show them who or what to be. The gods aren't even good at that. And something like this might be a very helpful idea. But I wonder if Xenophanes would be impressed by this.

His criticism of Homer and Hesiod is so searing that I doubt he was of a mind to be charitable to their presentation of the gods. After all, he did not say that Homer and Hesiod described gods who weren't perfect. He didn't say that Homer and Hesiod described gods in need of improvement or revision. He didn't criticize them as humanists who lost sight of the divine. He said they gave the gods traits that were full of "infamy and reproach among men." Those are some harsh words from a very harsh critic who does not seem inclined to consider any positive value from Homer and Hesiod - though, of course, we only have fragments from him rather than complete texts.

I imagine, given how he attacks Homer and Hesiod, and given his views about the anthropomorphic nature of ideas about the gods; that Xenophanes would in fact argue that they describe such morally deficient gods in order to justify their own moral deficiencies.

In fragments [3], [4] and [5] Xenophanes builds a kind of argument - or, at least a series of assertions - to demonstrate that all ideas about god or the gods are anthropomorphic. And, for him, this does not have a neutral value. This is a decidedly bad thing. And, not only bad, it is ridiculous. In fragment [3] he all but mocks those who "suppose that the gods are born and have clothes and voices and shapes like their own." The distance between the human and the divine is great, but mortals, to their own disgrace, do not appreciate this.

And, while Xenophanes may or may not have had this in mind; that humans do not appreciate the distance between the human and the divine has caused a great deal of problems within religions. Because people fashion their ideas about god or the gods after their own image (much like, as Xenophanes argues in fragment [4], other animals would if only they had concepts of the gods and a means by which to express those concepts) they often mistake their ideas about god for god. So, in the event that people disagree about the nature of god, or an aspect of god, each supposes not only that other disagrees with them, but in fact that they disagree with god and so are guilty of some kind of blasphemy. This is one reason why there has been so much violence in the name of religion. People are not content merely to disagree. They must impose their views on others because they mistake those views (and themselves) for god.

Of course, while that is true, that may not have been the point that Xenophanes was making. After all, is it fair to read him in light of religious warfare which took place long after he died? And, we do only have fragments of his writing; none of which overtly states the harm done by these arrogant and anthropomorphic concepts of god. But one of the delightful things about Xenophanes' fragments is just that - that they are fragments. And, not only are they fragments, but they are fragments which refuse to spell out a single orthodox interpretation. They are sometimes vague and mysterious, and lend themselves to many interpretations. I like to think that Xenophanes meant for this to be the case. After all, if your writing spells out a single possible interpretation, then it is only of limited use, and only of that limited use for a little while. Once the historical conditions in which you wrote pass, your writing is no longer of help to people. But Xenophanes, by refusing to be pinned down - at least in the fragments which we have - allows his writing to be easily adapted to many different situations.

His religious ideas, and not just his monotheism, become helpful in a time which looks - at least religiously - very little like the time in which he wrote. His descriptions of human ideas about the gods are able to be accurately applied even to current problems within Christianity and other dogmatic monotheistic religions. And, that we fashion the gods (or even the monotheistic God) after our own image is helpful to know. When I am able to realize that I believe what I believe about my God because of who I am and what I want a god to be like, I can see that I have in fact made my own god, in my own image. This god that I have created may in fact have little to do with what God is really like, if there is a god at all. And knowing this allows me to see that I should not become so attached to my views of God. That is unjustified theological arrogance, and it carries with it a number of practical and moral problems.

This sets up the final principle that I can draw from Xenophanes' fragments on religion, and that is that we should maintain a kind of theological humility and a religious skepticism. In fragment [11] he says that "[n]o man knows or ever will know the truth about the gods." In fact, even if someone were to, by some freak accident of the universe, uncover the entire truth; they would not be able to know that they know. Because of this, and because of the fact that our ideas about the gods (or, now, God) come from ourselves, we should maintain our theological humility. There is no reason to say that we know anything about the nature of the gods. There is no reason to think that we can comprehend the divine. And so there is no reason to allow conflicting ideas about the divine to cause the kinds of problems that it causes in the human realm.

Clinging to the illusion of certain knowledge about the divine is not helpful. It is, in fact, harmful. It is the source not only of conflict, but also of stunted moral, spiritual and intellectual development. The gods, according to Xenophanes in fragment [12], have not "revealed all things to mortals." We cannot completely fathom the divine. But, when we do not cling to our own ideas but rather honestly seek out the truth, we "find what is better."

This quest to find "what is better" may be a fruitless quest if what we are looking for is a set of objectively true and comprehensive statements about the divine - or even about anything. But if we are looking to find some kind of meaning, however existential and indescribable, in life, then we will not be disappointed.

These notions of theological humility and religious skepticism may, to some, be as radical today as Xenophanes' critique of the Greek religion of his day probably was when he wrote it. They are also equally profound and helpful. They are not, of course, spelled out in the text. For that reason someone may want to say that Xenophanes had something else in mind when he wrote what he wrote. But, at least for fragments [11] and [12] I cannot imagine what that might be. He clearly does not think that we can know with any degree of certainty anything about the gods. And he does not seem troubled by this. For him the seeking is clearly better than the finding, because if you cannot know anything - or, at least, know that you know anything - about the gods, then all finding (if by finding we mean finding knowledge about the gods) is illusory because there is no knowledge to be found. But, in the end, we find something "better" than that knowledge. What could he mean by that, other than some kind of existential meaning?

And, if no one can know the truth about God, what is the point of religion except to find some meaning in the here and now? Isn't it a quest to find - rather than the stated object of the quest, which is the nature of the divine - yourself? And isn't finding yourself, whatever is ultimately meant by that phrase, much better than merely finding out some facts about some being which is said to exist? If these are the case, and if I am right in saying that Xenophanes has something of value to say about religion, then it is probable that what he meant by some of his cryptic statements is something like what I have described here. But since his words are as mysterious as the gods that each religion tries to describe, in the spirit of theological humility I won't become too attached to my account of Xenophanes' views on religion.


Tom said...

Glad to know that some people (you) can have six(ish) proofread pages on how an obscure Greek philosopher relates to the current Culture War before breakfast. I'm so out of it that I didn't even know about a test in German today until I got to class. (I aced it.)

Good work Mr. Together. We're all proud of you *seething with envy*.

Sandalstraps said...

Thank you, I guess.

Tyler Simons said...

That's excellent, sir. I'll post a link soon.

Of course, Xenophanes sounds perfectly right-on to me, shockingly relevant. I'm reminded of some kind of Wittgensteinian Philosophy of Religion, where we're presented with a bunch of mutually exclusive religious language games without some kinda meta-language to adjucate disputes. That's still (again?) very much the debate in philosophical theology.

It really seems like the current of theology has tended toward the position that Christianity inherently makes truth claims about the nature of God and the central truth of his revelation in the person of Jesus Christ. Much of Christian discourse is wrapped up in this claim, and as a pseudo-Xenophanean Christian, that's a sad truth.

It's a big task, with a relatively small number of role models, and I think that it requires a reimagining if not a rejection of vast swaths of Christian doctrine, habit, history and language. Contemporary Christianity, it seems to me, is headed toward either a second reformation or an entirely different, pagan, (Xenophanes' argument privledged over Christ's truth?! Gasp!) religion, depending on who you ask.

I guess I don't have a point. Thanks for the lesson, though. I appreciated it. Oh, I did have a question. In fragment 11, what do you think he means by "seeming is wrought over all things?" I can't make heads or tales out of it.

Sandalstraps said...

"Seeming is wrought over all things," to me speaks to the idea that we are all limited to our respective perspectives. I do not take in Reality (as though it were some Platonic form), but rather only what seems to me to be reality, which is really only a series of sensory perceptions. These sensory perceptions, these phenomenological experiences, shape my perceptions of reality, making me believe that Reality itself (that elusive Platonic form again) is a thing to be possessed (by me!).

So the "seeming" here which covers "all things" is the way in which the combination of my sensory perceptions and my rational, creative mind form an artificial mental construct which I mistake for something absolutely true.

How's that for some philosophic jargon!

Tyler Simons said...

Nice. Thanks for that. Thanks again for this post. I'd forgotten to blog it. I'll do that now.