Adam Garfinkle, the editor of The American Interest, asked me this question. He told me that he had met a Saudi who claimed to be an atheist: What does this mean? We know atheism in its Jewish or Christian context, as a rejection of the Biblical God. What would atheism mean in a Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist context?
My short answer is: Yes, Atheism, as we know it, came out of a Judaeo-Christian context. But I would slightly re-phrase Garfinkle’s question. The dichotomy is not western/non-Western. It is Abrahamic/non-Abrahamic. It is a rebellion against the monotheistic faiths that originated in the Middle East–Judaism, Christianity, Islam. It makes much less sense in a non-monotheistic environment.
The rebellion is triggered by an agonizing problem: How can God, believed to be both all-powerful and morally perfect, permit the suffering and the evil afflicting humanity? This is the problem called theodicy, which literally means the “justice of God”; in the spirit of the rebellion it is also a demand that God has to justify himself. The most eloquent expression of this atheist rebellion in literature is by Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov rejecting God, because he allowed the cruel murder of one child.
Within the Hebrew Bible the problem of theodicy is of course confronted in the Book of Job. Its happy ending (Job’s restored good fortune) is probably a later redaction, intended to assuage the outrage at Job’s innocent suffering. If one brackets the ending, the message is one of submission to God’s will, whatever it may be.
The most radical version of this theodicy (if one can call it that) in the history of Christianity is that of Calvinism. God, in his inscrutable will, has ordained from eternity who will be the elect destined for heaven, and who the damned going to hell–and nothing an individual can do or fail to do can change the divine edict. There is a certain (if perverse) grandeur in such faith. In the early days of the Calvinist Reformation in France, an individual seeking church membership had to promise to obey faithfully all God’s commandments–even if he knew that he would be eternally damned! And this at a time when Protestants were severely persecuted in Catholic France!
The dominant theodicy in the history of Christianity was, if you will, more humane than the total submission to God preached by the Calvinists. The inevitable focus was the figure of Jesus Christ: The incarnate God took upon himself all the sins and pain of the world and thereby initiated its redemption. How do the divine and the human qualities in Christ relate to each other? This question pre-occupied theology in the first five centuries of Christian history. If the divine is over-emphasized, Christ becomes like a god visiting the earth, similar to such “divine tourists” (in the words of the church historian Philip Jenkins) as proliferate in Greek mythology. If so, what is lost is the belief that Christ fully shared the human condition. If on the other hand the emphasis is on the human, Jesus becomes a great and exemplary teacher, but unavailable for the cosmic redemption proclaimed in the Gospel. Some sort of balance had to be found. This search is lucidly described in Jenkins’ recent book, Jesus Wars. History is not a theological seminar. The theological issues were intertwined with very vulgar political interests, such as those of the Christianized Roman Empire and the rival patriarchs of Constantinople and Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. The Council of Chalcedon, in the sixth century, tried to ratify a compromise between the competing theological parties (and their political allies). The Chalcedonian creed, which was by no means accepted by all churches (especially in the East) contains complicated and abstruse formulations based on categories of Greek philosophy. These formulations are hard to grasp by a modern mind. They do make sense when one recalls the basic intention–to insist that Jesus Christ was both man and God.
In the early history of Israelite religion, the concern was not the fate of the individuals but that of the chosen people. The Book of Job dates from a later period, when an individual theodicy was required in addition to the collective one. But it is probably correct to say that for most ordinary Jews through the ages theodicy means the message of the unedited conclusion of the Book of Job–it is not for us to question the ways of God but simply to worship his overpowering majesty.
The same applies to most ordinary Christians. As Judaism became more theoretically reflective, other ideas came to add up to a theodicy. One was the idea of tikkun olam, literally the “repair of the universe”. The universe has been damaged, it must be repaired through the good works (ritual and altruistic), which will hasten the coming of the Messiah. The idea originated in rabbinical Judaism around the first century BCE, but it received its most imaginative versions in the Kabbalah, the mystical undercurrent of Judaism. In a recent post I mentioned the cosmological mysticism of Isaac Luria, who taught in the 16th century in Safed (in what is now northern Israel). Luria developed the fascinating idea that God himself is in exile from the universe because of a cosmic catastrophe in which the vessels containing the light of creation were shattered. The exiled God has become silent. Tikkun olam is the retrieval of the shattered light and its return to God, not primarily by good works but by the mystical exercises taught by the Kabbalah. Then the creation will be restored to its original glory and all will be well again.
In Islam, the most recent in the trio of West Asian monotheisms, the motif of submission to God’s will is at the core of piety. The very name of the faith is derived from the Arabic word aslama–“to submit”. Every gesture of Muslim prayer is the bodily expression of this attitude. Again, it is in Sufism, the mystical undercurrent of Islam, that the austerity of mainstream piety is softened. (The parallel with the Kabbalah is instructive.) A poem by Jalaluddin Rumi (who founded the Order of Whirling Dervishes in Konya, Turkey) expresses this softer piety: “I prayed to you in the morning, and you didn’t answer. I prayed to you in the evening, and you didn’t answer. For many years I prayed to you, you never answered. Then one day I heard your voice: In my silence I spoke to you.” (God’s exile–God’s silence–the anticipation of his redemptive return.)
Suffering is endemic to the human condition, and so is the urge to overcome or at least to explain it. Different attempts to satisfy this urge are not neatly divided geographically. Theodicy in its full force is unlikely to appear in contexts shaped by the religious imagination of the Indian subcontinent, as manifested in Hinduism and Buddhism (the latter could only arise from the former). I have long argued that the most interesting religious dichotomy is between Jerusalem and Benares (now called Varanasi)–the city in which the Jewish Temple stood, where Jesus was crucified and resurrected, where Muhammad began his nocturnal journey to heaven–and that other city, where millions of pilgrims continue to immerse themselves in the holy waters of the river Ganges, and near which the Buddha preached his first sermon after attaining Enlightenment. Of course I cannot develop this argument here. Only this important point: The fundamental assumption of the Indian view of the cosmos is reincarnation–the linked realities of samsara and karma–the endless cycle of rebirths and deaths, and the cosmic law that the consequences of human actions, good or bad, are carried from one life to the next. I would propose that in this view the “Jerusalem” problem of theodicy evaporates.
This is why Max Weber called Hinduism (the same applies to Buddhism) “the most rational theodicy”: The individual cannot thank anyone but himself for his good fortune, or blame anyone else for his misery–what happens to the individual is the (so to speak) mathematically precise result of all his own past actions. The ultimate redemption is being able to escape from the endless death-laden cycle of rebirths. Of course there are very significant differences between Hinduism and Buddhism, and between various branches of these traditions. Since I mentioned Weber, let me mention his useful distinction between the “religious virtuosi” and the “religion of the masses”. The differences appear most sharply in the most sophisticated expressions of the traditions–say, between the Hindu Upanishads (which assert that the self is eternal and ultimately identical with the divine essence of the universe) and Buddhist conceptions of emptiness (which include the proposition that the self is an illusion). The differences are less acute on the level of popular religion as practiced by the “masses”. Ordinary Hindus may pray for relief to any of the estimated 300,000 gods, ordinary Buddhists to the thousands of bodhisatvas (who have attained Buddhahood but stay in the world out of compassion for all “sentient beings”–in effects gods by any other name). Yet, on whatever level of sophistication, the notion of reincarnation is pervasive.
Some years ago I said in an interview that everyone has something to learn from interreligious dialogue. The interviewer asked me what I had learned from Hinduism and Buddhism. Without much reflection I replied–“the vastness of time”. The following Hindu myth may explain what this means, and why this vision is a terrible one. The story is of a dialogue about reincarnation between a holy man and Ishvara, the mighty Hindu god of creation. It takes place in Ishvaras celestial palace. Suddenly the holy man stops his explanation of a passage in the Upanishads. He laughs and points to a chain of ants crawling across the marble floor. Then he says: “Every one of these ants once was Ishvara, and will be Ishvara again”…
According to the stereotype, ask a professor a simple question and you get a lecture in return. I guess that I have lived up to the stereotype. I still hope that you found it somewhat interesting. At least you found out what elevated matters are discussed in Adam Garfinkle’s shop.
[Update: Adam Garfinkle responds.]