Jesus and Yahweh, the Names Divine
by Harold Bloom
(Riverhead Books, New York, 2005)
Harold Bloom has done it again. He has written a book with a title I could not resist. The book displays the rather prodigious reading life of the author. The book also displays some of his prejudices.
One of those prejudices is that there is not enough material from which to discover a historical Jesus. Therefore the author dismisses the whole genre of historical Jesus books. Having been enthralled by several such books, I took exception to this dismissal, there are some historical Jesus books that I really liked and I believe that at the very least they put Jesus into his cultural, historical, political and family contexts, which helps immensely in terms of understanding his purported actions and words. Of course Bloom has a point, those actions and words were written in one or more generations after Jesus’s life, therefore they are not first-hand testimony.
One of Bloom’s other prejudices seems to be his great dislike for the writings of Paul in the New Testament. He suggests that Paul twisted Scripture to fit his own power agenda. He feels that the parents settlement of the conflict between Paul and James simply indicates that neither James, nor likely Jesus, were interested in carrying any messages to the Gentiles. Therefore whatever Paul wanted to teach was of no concern to James.
Speaking of James, I was quite delighted with Bloom’s characterization of the letter by James. He feels that this letter and the Gospel of Mark closely reflect the Jewish-Christian (earliest Christian) religious sensibilities, which in turn makes these two items the only ones that are compatible with the Jewish understanding of Yahweh. The rest of the New Testament describes a God that is utterly different from and not reconcilable with Yahweh.
Therefore, Bloom suggests, there is no such thing as a common root between post-Pauline Christians and Jews, and there is no such thing as anything that can legitimately be called a Judeo-Christian tradition. Very soon after Paul, the Christian religion moved far away from Yahweh, despite Christian use/usurpation of the Old Testament (which, interestingly, was rearranged by Christians to make it more supportive of their religious claims).
Interestingly, Bloom suggests that Allah, the one God of Islam, is it in fact compatible with and a continuation of Yahweh in terms of both how he is understood and obeyed. This is another reason for the unlikelihood of any sort of meaningful dialogue between Christians and Muslims: the One God of their respective monotheisms are not the same God!
In fact, Bloom points out that a common charge against Christians by Muslims is that they are not monotheistic but polytheistic. This historically has also been an observation made by Jewish scholars. Bloom goes into a fascinating discussion of how Christianity has wrestled with its multiple gods and fashioned a Trinity which is described in a creed memorized by millions but still defies understanding (hence it is a mystery). Bloom further suggests that Mary the mother of Jesus, the mother of God, the Queen of Heaven, is a fourth deity to millions who pray to her daily. Bloom is not being critical, in fact he suggests Christianity ought to re-examine the virtue that supposedly comes from being monotheistic. Polytheism is part of Mormon belief, although it is well hidden in terms of being a subject routinely discussed or taught, but it seems to subtract nothing from Mormonism’s continuing success. Monotheism is not the great spiritual and moral advance it is often cracked up to be, according to Bloom. I heartily agree.
Bloom sees the God of the Jewish Scriptures as being all too human all too harsh, and anything but love. He says the same thing about the Jesus of Mark. He totally dislikes the writings of John and calls him a pseudo-gnostic. John’s Jesus is fiction, is my interpretation of many pages of discussion by Bloom.
But as I already mentioned, Bloom loves James’s epistle. In praising James in this way, he knows he is rubbing James in the face of his Lutheran readers, since Luther was quite offended by James’s declaration that faith, without works, is dead. That seems to conflict with what Paul wrote, but as Bloom points out Paul was all over the map and one has to cherry-pick Paul to come up with what has become standard, modern Christianity.
Returning to the idea of multiple Gods, Bloom analyzes the normative Trinitarian creed and suggests it has no basis in either Scripture or tradition but that instead it amalgamates Greek philosophy with the new religion of Christianity. He suggests that those who have historically taken exception to the creeds (like the Mormons, and others) have been attempting to be faithful to Scripture, but in the final analysis they all have their own interpretive problems
What I found interesting was that Bloom suggests to Scripture has become relatively irrelevant to modern Christian religions because what is believed is supported by cherry picking supportive phrases from the ‘Holy Book.’ By and large Christian beliefs are largely incompatible with that revered book’s actual content.
I enjoyed Bloom’s occasional negative references to the Republican ideology of the United States at the beginning of this millennium. He especially goes after the rape of the environment and the new Crusades that are causing havoc in the natural and political worlds. Another thing he is somewhat critical of which I enjoyed is certain aspects of Mormonism. Bloom seems to be rather fascinated with the early Mormon daring declarations about God and Adam being the same being. He observes that such theological daring was also characteristic of the Jewish Kabbalists, who also felt God had come down as Adam. He regrets that such radical theological daring no longer flows from Salt Lake City. He also makes fun of the book of Mormon from a literary critical point of view. But he never, to my disappointment, quoted Mark Twain, whom he does quote on other things, on Twain’s observation that the book of Mormon was ‘chloroform in print.’ Bloom suggests several times that Twain was no Christian. OK, but he still wrote with reverence about Joan of Arc and declared her the only substantiated miracle in history. Interesting.
Bloom observes that Republicanism and Mormonism and evangelical Christianity have created an unholy mixture that works in the best interests of international corporations and not necessarily in the best interests of the environments of people or nations. I think that if Bloom were writing this book now rather than in 2004, it now being 3 years later, he would see and celebrate a break occurring in real time between Republicans and Evangelicals over the environment.
Bloom also seems to be unaware of the recent accusation that Mormons (to their credit) have been giving humanitarian aid to Islamic relief organizations. So the monolithic tripartite alliance he describes does, happily, have some cracks today that it did not have just a couple of years ago when Bloom’s book was written.
One of the reasons I bought Bloom’s book was that when I flipped open the last couple of pages and read them (something I do not do with fiction books), I saw that he discussed Sam Harris’ book called The End of Faith, Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. (Click here to go to my impressions of that book). This is a book that I both loathed and liked, and so I wanted to read Bloom’s opinion.
Bloom observes that Harris is a secular humanist, that he is anxious for the future of democracy, and that he sees religious faith as incompatible with peace and democracy and, in essence, a rejection of reason and fact. Then Bloom says: “Pragmatically I do not differ from Harris, but I part from him when he asks evidence for ‘the literal existence of Yahweh.’” Bloom goes on to say that you cannot get rid of Yahweh through an appeal to reason. Bloom refers back to a quotation he had found earlier which said that Yahweh is a man of war. He now uses that quote to suggest that Sam Harris is not going to make any difference to the current killings between Christians and Muslims or to other current examples of interfaith murder. Bloom says: “If Yahweh is a man of war, Allah is a suicide bomber.” By this Bloom means that there is little hope for a moderate Muslim community to rise up and control the radical fringes of the faith, given the nature and pronouncements of their God Allah, who much like Yahweh, is curiously ambivalent toward the well-being of his creatures.
Next he discusses what Freud and Sam Harris have in common in terms of their complaint against the irrationality of religious belief. Freud says there has to be a correction based on “reality-testing” while Harris says the only thing that is sacred is “facts.” Bloom says he disagrees with both these viewpoints. He instead likes William Blake’s observation: Fore everything that lives is holy.” He also likes this attitude much better than the attitude of Yahweh, who in Deuteronomy is obsessed with his own holiness. But, Bloom concludes: . . .“neither Blake’s fervor nor my wistfulness can affect human longings for transcendence.”
Bloom says he does not trust any Covenant from Yahweh, but he also distrusts the rationalism of Freud and Harris. Harris is engaged in a “a reductive opposition of ‘the future of reason to’ religious terror. Bloom has no trust in that approach either. Bloom observes that “a craving for transcendence may well be a great unwisdom, but without it we tend to become mere engines of entropy.”
This is in harmony to something Bloom said much earlier in the book about Marx’s claim that religion is the opiate of the masses. No, says Bloom, religion is the poetry of the living, “both bad and good.”
I learned much from this book. I had never immersed myself into either the Kabbalah or other developmental trends and ideas in Judaism over the last few millennia. Bloom goes through some of these developments and suggests that, Like the Christians, the Jewish “Sages” have redefined God to be rather unlike the old unpredictable, unloving, and easier to fear than to love Yahweh. Bloom is not sure if the new more lovable God is a god thing, given it just makes it that much harder to accept that things are not going well for Jews, still, and in a few generations they may no longer exist because of both killings and disinterest. Jews today are at about the same total worldwide numbers as Mormons, but the latter are daily increasing, the former daily dwindling. Abandonment by Yahweh is evident, according to many who have given this thought, according to Bloom.
Bloom suggests that the North-American Christian Deities of Jesus the Christ, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit are almost uniquely American with very little support or belief in Europe, and no basis in fact, history or scripture. Nevertheless they feed the souls of many in many Christian sects, and together these Gods also feed the continuing religiously-overtoned slaughtering of the competing God’s allies through war. In retaliation, the rival God named Allah takes a terrible toll through terrorist actions. And so it will go for a long time to come. Allah is the only real rival to the American Deities where world-domination is concerned. Yahweh is not interested anymore. That is my interpretation of Bloom’s pessimisitc assessment of the state of the world and its Gods. The people's poetry needs some serious help.
PS: I did appreciate Bloom's discussion of the inability of monotheism to deal straightorwardly with the existence of evil. He has sympathy for the Gnostics and Cathars who discounted Yahweh as a demiurge who bungled his creation and caused there to be good as well as evil, and who is essentially replaced by the purely god God, who is given various names including Jesus Christ. Now that I have read this book by Bloom, I realize that both modern Judaism and Chritianity have done essentially what the Gnostics and Cathars did: they had Yahweh fade into the background and brought out Jesus, the kindler, gentler God's representative, or in some case the kinder gentler God himself. Interesting.
I also like Bloom's discussion of the Medieval Kabbailitic concet of God's self-exile in which he voluntarily contracted himself, shrunk, and spun off creation and its creatures. This is zimzum, which is more literally a deflation of self, a forceful outbreathing. So that is God's creative cycle, creaing out of himself. There is also an inhalation which is destructive of creation since what is external to God is being brought back into God. Of course this reminds me of the breathings in and out of Atman and Brahman as being the expanding, creative universe which eventually falls back in on itself and allows the process of creation to repeat cyclically, essentially forever. Newer physics suggests this is not going to happen, although one physicist I have read this year is bucking that trend and saying that the universe will collapse back on tself to start again, in an effort to protect his own very strong belief in a rather idiosyncratic (in my opinion) version of Catholic Christianity.
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