Jonathan Klate: Fact-checking our sources of belief

Last modified: Sunday, April 06, 2014
AMHERST — Whatever its virtues, religion makes terrible history. And for that matter, history makes terrible religion.

Zealots reach into the amorphous void of either and extract whatever is desired in support of a pre-conceived, self-serving opinion. When folks in positions of power do this, look out below.

When we distort events to conform to what we would prefer had happened, history has become indistinguishable from religion and both powerful transformers of consciousness have devolved into fantasy.

A Fox News host, Bill Hemmer speculated that it might take a very long time to find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 considering that “it took us 2,000 years to find Noah’s Ark.” Seriously. Is this nonsense religion misconstrued as history or vice versa?

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, apparently confident that whatever passes her lips is true, proclaims that the founding fathers, elevated to apostles of an American Jerusalem in her phantasmagorical religiosity, “worked tirelessly to end slavery.” In fact, abolition was the consequence of arduous struggle by generations of activists courageously risking their all in the face of indifference, equivocation and the outright violent resistance of many of the founding power brokers and their heirs.

I see three ways of relating to stories about people and events for which there is no evidence independent of a scriptural text.

• They can be believed as scripturally presented.

• They can be dismissed as absurd, or at best, legendary.

• They can be regarded as conduits for exploration of meaning in which their symbolic and suggestive capacity is used to expand understanding and encourage ethical behavior and spiritual growth.

The religious identity of a Jewish person is molded around the Seder table to which we return this month, where we absorb the story of “our people” who came forth out of Egypt.

Here we are infused with the empowering idea that oppressed peoples can liberate themselves, offering enlightenment even unto their oppressors by their righteous conviction. We are called to identify with those who are oppressed. And further, we are encouraged to explore the mystery of our relation to the divine as exemplified by the heroic Moses and to challenge injustice and oppression — right here, right now.

The Haggadah, an unquestionable work of genius, crafts a marvelously transformative story and ritual. History, however, it is not.

There is not a shred of evidence for any of it; not the slavery, the liberation, the exodus, the desert wandering, the conquest of Canaan, the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai, or the existence of any of the fabled protagonists. The Egyptians chronicled everything and if 600,000 people walked out and their army was drowned in pursuit they would have written about it, a lot.

The composers of this foundational myth used the names of places with which they were familiar when they wrote the inspired yarn. But the towns in the story didn’t exist during the time we are told this happened.

After centuries of obsessive archaeological searching nothing has been turned up to validate any of this. And while we’re on the subject, the kingdoms of Saul, David and Solomon have no more confirmation than that of Arthur.

We are descended from people who have been telling this story, celebrating the Passover rituals, and deriving inspiration and cultural identity from it for generations. But we are not descended from the people in the story itself because they are fictional. The implications for contemporary geo-politics are obvious.

The real and remarkable history is that Jewish people have related to this legend as if it was true and have managed to do so without interruption for millennia, often under conditions of horrific oppression. That is amazing and is a testament to the power of the story and the ritualistic telling of it.

The problem is that too many of us are afraid of admitting that our religious stories are myths because, doubting the transformative power of spiritual metaphors, we think that will mean they are simply lies.

So we hold fast to our belief in a story being a factual history even in the absence of evidence and the obvious implausibility of this being so. We stand at the edge of an abyss of emptiness of meaning in our lives, terrified of unclenching the mental fist that clings to the idea that a religious allegory is just that, an instructive story useful for the purpose of inspiring meaning and righteousness in a confusing world, but not a fact.

The crucial question is whether we use our religious and historical narratives to strive to return to a holier time that we have fervently imagined, or to come to terms with the world we have inherited while we strive to heal and improve it.

Jonathan Klate of Amherst writes about spirituality and political perspectives. His column appears the first Monday of the month. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.