by Daniel Young
HUM 310, 3/17/12

While the New Testament is largely solidified into a collection of specific letters and books, there are still major interreligious divisions about which are truly authoritative. Judaism believes only the Tanak is divinely inspired (essentially Genesis through Malachi). Christianity additionally uses the gospels, letters of Paul, and a few other theological books. Catholics further use many apocryphal books (Tobit, Maccabees 1 through 4, etcetera). Islam, which claims to worship the same God, believes that the Bible is altogether inferior to the Koran. And there are even more contentions to consider in thousands of texts, faiths, philosophies, and denominations. All of these religions ultimately are searching for the truth about God, and in that sense all texts are legitimate for discussion.

In Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, there is a wonderful illustration of this struggle for canon. Judaism has a long tradition of heated academic discussion about the interpretation of holy texts. If a Bible was ever transcribed with a mistake, it was instantly burned. That’s why scribes were called counters (sopherim), because they would count the number of letters within copies to verify accuracy. This also explains why numerology was such a compelling practice for many Jewish sects. But in addition to transcription, Rabbis wrote applied texts to explain and discuss scripture.

Potok shows how Reuben, a young Jewish student, must memorize endless commentaries and counterarguments for every line of text they study in class. By comparison, his best friend Danny has a photographic memory, and finds the whole exercise rather boring and miserable. They serve as foils to each other in another respect because Danny has to be a priest by birthright (tzaddik), but wants to be a psychologist; while Reuben wants to be a Rabbi, but his father wants him to be a mathematician. They find friendship in mutual growth in faith and intellectual ideology.

They come from backgrounds of very different focuses and studying styles. Danny comes from a line of Hasidic priests, which promoted mysticism and internalization as methods of divine revelation. Reuben is an orthodox Jew. But because they can relate to each other on a basic love of learning, they are able to bridge their religious differences. After WWII ends, they become socially isolated from each other, as their fathers feud over Zionistic ideology.

One day in Mr. Gershenson’s class, Reuben gets the chance to prove his intelligence and takes over the class for four days as he interprets a passage of scripture. At the end  of his interpretation, he yields that the passage is just to difficult to understand, but privately discloses otherwise to Mr. Gershenson: “I explained to [Mr. Gershenson] how I had reconstructed the text then quoted the reconstructed text from memory, showing him how it fitted perfectly to the explanation offered by the simplest of all the commentaries. I ended by saying I felt certain that was the text of the Talmud manuscript the commentator had had before him when he had written his commentary” (253). The teacher was particularly impressed but asks Reuben not to use this method at school, because it would be too contentious.

Potok shows how scholarly methods of deduction concerning sacred texts can be explosive. Critical analysis of holy text might mean that members of the faith would feel as though the text’s divine legitimacy was at stake. Reuben’s father told him earlier that he felt there was nothing wrong with Hasidic ideology, but that it was the condemnation with which they treated the rest of the Jews that he disliked. At one point when Reuben explains a passage at Danny’s synagogue, Danny replies ”That’s a tough passage. … I can’t make heads or tails out of it. Your father would probably say the text was all wrong” (124). Religious discussion would typically not yield the flexibility to analyze sacred text, but Reuben is already brought up in a scholarly home.

I really appreciate Potok’s introduction of the conflicts between gnosticism and traditional religion. Gnostics believe that divine wisdom is best found in the intuitive or personal rather than holy books. Logically, I must argue that even the books themselves had to be the personal inspiration of their authors. But it creates a rift because the believers who use those texts as the word of God try to understate the human medium in transcribing divine revelation.

It seems superfluous, but Agnosticism (the belief that there is a complete lack of proof for God altogether) justifies the Gnostic’s tendency towards mystical practices and beliefs. They are completely in line with each other. The thinking is that because God can only come by the self, and has no materialistic bearing, that mysticism is therefore a legitimate method of communicating with God. I do not agree with Agnosticism. I can see where science might lead them to that conclusion, but I would argue that there is plenty of evidence for a Creator*. With Gnosticism, I agree that interpretation is fundamental to the purpose and revelation of God, but Gnostics carries their new-found freedom way too far. The problem they fall into is the belief that they can influence God’s decisions or will. This is the same logical fallacy of Deuteronomical philosophy, Buddhism, Wicca, and much of modern Christian application, to name a few.

(*Thermodynamically, chronologically, and ontologically, an infinitely existent universe does not make sense. A Creator, by method of Occam’s razor, is a better scientific inference than  agnostic or atheistic interpretations of the universe. For instance, multiverse theory proposes infinite universes as an explanation of our particular universe’s unlikelihood. Such inferences suggest  that  infinite chances are built into some metaphysical laws of nature, and might as well be mysticism.)

Potok seems to fall on a Gnostic slant, but his reasoning is akin to an academic exercise–which I applaud. He encourages the critical examination of text with the recognization that man is imperfect. This is critical for one’s growth in understanding God. All of the holy texts with which divine authority is attributed, has to pass through the medium of a flawed human mind. The poetry and parables which litter these kinds of texts illustrates the kind of analogous assumptions that we have to make ontologically, just to comprehend what God might actually be like.

Daniel Taylor’s book, Myth of Certainty, “certainly” deals with some tough questions. He battles with the doubt and agony of being a “reflective Christian” (throughout). Taylor would probably agree with Potok on Gnostic interpretation, and possibly mysticism. Taylor makes note of the flawed scribe “…as fallen creatures, our knowledge of any absolute is not only partial, it is distorted. Even if by some stretch of the imagination we could extrapolate the infinite from the finite, arguing that partial knowledge of an absolute demonstrates the existence of the whole, we confront the claim of Christian orthodoxy itself that all our perceptions are at least partially flawed as well as limited” (92).

In the Afterword, Taylor acknowledges that many scholars dislike how very little he quoted the Bible in proportion to his quoting independent writers (152). This frustration on the part of biblical scholars is due to a feeling that Taylor suggests, but never says outright, that the Bible itself is flawed. Taylor may be consciously or unconsciously hinting at the global discussion about the character of God, which is not limited to the Bible, but is inclusive of the human experience.

Throughout the book, Taylor builds on the assumption that faith is not based on evidence. “It is, however, an important and valid ingredient in my personal decision to take the risk that faith requires” (109). At least for Taylor this is a logical conclusion because one must confront the very real possibility of being wrong. “God may be only wish fulfillment [. . .] But then again, maybe all I believe regarding God and Christ, may be essentially true. The point is that risk is unavoidable either way” (97). This suggests that Taylor supports agnosticism, meaning that he has absolutely no reason to believe in God, but he will anyway. There are many atheists which claim that proof of God is altogether nonexistent, and that they don’t believe in God. So it is obvious they are taking just as much a leap of faith.

But this view discards responsibility from the individual and humanity. At one point in his book, Taylor defines God as truth. They are inseparable. And as such certain behaviors are unconducive to the illuminating quality of truth and God. “The pursuit of truth, and the love of God are one and the same. […] Such truth-seeking is incompatible with arrogance and self-satisfaction. […] Where there is no hunger or thirst, there is no need for sustenance. […] Humility helps us avoid confusing defense of the truth with defense of the self” (127). While Taylor has previously built a case of agnosticism and relativism, it seems that he is drawing conclusions about the nature of truth.

That is one of the things I don’t get about agnosticism and relativism. These philosophies should be innately paralyzing, but their proponents are not content living in a state of disbelief; they do not live according to their philosophy. They feel impelled to convert the masses into existentialism. Many religious who attest to agnosticism feel they must have a ‘leap of faith’ which is really a kind of stubbornness for its resilience to evidence. Instead as servants of truth, we must build on the things we know. Our inferences might be wrong, but at least it has a degree of evidence. While the chance of being wrong is always present, it seems to me that a perspective with more knowledge and support deserves better attention. A perspective based on honest and well gathered evidence will in retrospect have less wrong with it than a perspective without the need for evidence.

Both books promote the flexibility of a relationship with God as something which has been obscured and held back by human misunderstanding. Both advocate a form of gnostic belief based on the relationship of God and the individual. Both provide multiple world perspectives in an effort of discussion and questioning. However, Taylor kind of lives in the area of uncertainty, whereas Potok transcends it. Potok has already firmly established his beliefs, and incorporated them into his series of novels. Taylor, writing in a form of apologetic, leaves much more room open for uncertainty and inquiry. This difference is more than likely due to Potok’s more extensive theological background. Taylor was mostly writing about his own experiences and feelings as it pertains to other people who may be feeling the way he does. The point of Taylor’s book is to grapple with the continuous doubt of a reflective Christian and channel that energy into one’s faith. An important distinction is that Taylor is a Christian who is repeatedly struggling with his faith, but Potok has moved to an acceptance of Judaism, in all of its oddities.

Though the authors come from separate faiths and backgrounds, we might note that Judaism and Christianity aren’t very far apart theologically or narrative-ly. This may explain much of the compatibility between the texts and their agreement on issues of certainty. Another common thread is their tentative acceptance of secular ideas and methods. They participate, but are somewhat separated from that environment. Again in this subculture, we find that Potok is more comfortable than Taylor. While Taylor dances on the line between worlds, Potok traverses deeply into each.

While the revelation of God is obviously an internal discernment, mysticism tends to ritualize or externalize a spiritual process. I believe individual interpretation is vital to understanding God, but it should not be trying to influence God. I feel both authors have made a wonderful contribution to the science/religion combination. I have slightly different opinions than Potok on the nature of this relationship, but as Potok stated in The Chosen, friendships should never be lost because of a differences ideas.

Works Cited
Potok, Chaim. The chosen. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1982. Print.
Taylor, Daniel. The myth of certainty: the reflective Christian & the risk of commitment.

Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999-1992. Print.


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