The Idolatry of the Book

The new A J Jacobs book, The Year Of Living Biblically, is creating quite a stir.  It is the story of a self-described “agnostic Jew” who decided to spend a year of his life following all of the rules in Jewish scripture.  (Given practical restrictions, Jacobs eschewed certain rules, like stoning adulterers in the street.)  It is being discussed as a commentary on a religious life.

But, is it really?  Jacobs remains agnostic, even though he claims (somewhat absurdly) that parts of the biblical legal traditions, like rituals and the Sabbath, can be “sacred.”  What this seems to mean for Jacobs, in the absence of a belief in God, is that they provide psychologically therapeutic benefits; wearing biblically-mandated all-white outer garments, for example, lightened his mood.

This sort of reduction of religion’s role to psychotherapy is no more legitimately “religious” than the way Creationists often reduce religion to natural history.  If religion is to be anything, then it has to be something on its own terms, not just an amateur version of psychology, sociology, history, legal theory, or moral philosophy.

Whence Religion?

In prehistory, human cultures were an undifferentiated mass — containing religious, legal-governmental, psycho-social, and proto-scientific elements all bound together without clear distinctions between the various fields of knowledge.  As our understanding of the world has advanced, ever-more-specialized fields have organized and separated from these unified primordial cultures. 

At first, only broad functions were defined and distinguished from this primordial cultural unity, broad functions like the priests, warriors, and producers of Indo-European culture.  However, this specializing trend has continued until we now have fields as narrowly-defined as industrial/organizational psychology, unconventional assisted recovery operations, paleomyrmecology, and multimedia intellectual property law.

Most of our religious literature was canonized long before much of this specialization took place, leaving it sprinkled with the vestiges of obsolete science, like Paul’s breakdown of living creatures into “man and birds and animals and reptiles” in his Letter to the Romans.  For some, the incidental canonization of these sorts of proto-scientific ideas creates a conflict with modern science that either forces the believer to reject modern science, or forces the modernist to reject belief.

AUR’s understanding, however, is that religion is not about the written canons themselves, but about the ultimate question of the Unitary Source of the universe, and the implications this has for other fields of knowledge.  Books may be “inspired and useful” (as Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy asserts) but books are not the subject matter of religion.  God is. 

Religion Beyond The Book

In the interest of clarity about the role and purpose of religion, we insist that religion is not — as many conservatives would claim — about natural history or legal theory, even if these things were once lumped into religious texts.  But, we also insist that religion not be reduced to the psychological or moral functions of those texts, as many liberals would like to do. 

There may be history, government theory, psychology, and morality in religious texts, and our religious understanding may influence our approach to these and all other subjects, but our insight into the Creator should not be yoked to ancient understandings of Creation simply because ancient cultures wrote about them together in the same books.

In any case, religion is certainly not about idolizing any particular book, no matter how “inspired and useful” it may be.  The idea that one could learn something about religion by following all of the legal statutes in scripture, while dismissing or ignoring the theology, is beyond ridiculous.  It is dishonest and misleading.