Friday, July 24, 2009

Theology and Belief

Recently I read Bart Ehrman's most recent books, Misquoting Jesus and God's Problem. Ehrman is at his best when he does exegesis and explication of biblical tests. His area is primarily the Christian Bible, but he examines the Hebrew Bible as well. Misquoting is an easy to read, enlightening examination of sayings of Jesus that are in the current Christian Bible, but are not found in the most ancient manuscripts. He examines reasons why later scribes and copiers inserted these passages. In Problem he discusses the four principal reasons for suffering given by the men who wrote the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. In addition he discusses his own evolution from fundamentalist Christian to agnostic. By the time he reached middle age, he writes that he could no longer believe in the God his close reading of biblical texts proposed. My question is, no disrespect to Prof. Ehrman intended, what took him so long?

Ehrman's understanding of God is that the biblical deity is all powerful and all good. He lambastes theologians who offer and alternative understanding of the divine. Rabbi Kushner, for instance, believes that God is good, but no all powerful. Ehrman calls his book, sarcastically, "When Good People write Bad Books." By age fifty, Ehrman saw that God did not help all people in dire need, and discards belief in this deity. The only God he, or apparently anyone else, should believe in is the God of the Bible. In this respect, it seems to me like Ehrman is like Sade. Sade proclaims his atheism, but takes delight in blaspheming, wanting to shock the God he does not believe in. Ehrman, at times, seems petulant that a God who is not a divine Santa Claus does not intervene.

Ehrman takes pains to explain to readers that although he is agnostic, he is happy. Huh? If religious people were uniquely happy, preachers and proselytizers would not have to work so hard. Ehrman would do well to take a class in comparative religion, or else completely outgrow his religious parochialism. He wants to have it both ways: the only God possible is the God of the Bible, yet he does not privilege the Bible as divinely inspired.

Ehrman cites the holocaust as proof that God does not exist. Maybe he should read the Diary of Anne Frank. The theological book that has helped me most in my religious education is a diary that forms a complement to Anne Frank, the diaries of Etty Hillesum, published as An Interrupted Life. I am grateful to Chris Glaser for recommending this incredible work, one of the most inspiring books I have read. The same month, year, and in the same place as Anne Frank, Amsterdam, Hillesum chose to live openly as a Jewish woman. She understood that God either could not, or would not, help her, yet she wrote "I do not blame God. He is not accountable to us, but we are to him." Hillesum was widely read, and examined the Hebrew and Christian Bible as closely as Ehrman, although she was not a theologian. She was an intellectual, and wasn't trapped by a parochial paradigm.

Whatever God is, he can best be described in the negative, as Heschel wrote. God is not an old man with a beard, sitting on a cloud, waiting to throw lightning bolts at people he doesn't like. We can say what God is not, but it is more difficult to say what God is. The God of the Bible is, at times, perfectly horrible. He delights in the slaughter of children, and doesn't mind the occasional infant sacrifice, as in the case of Abraham and Isaac. Or, as in the case of the Christian God, God is a father who is complicit in the death of his son. This is the God Ehrman stopped believing in, but not until middle age?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Race and Genetic Testing

    For Mother's Day this year, I got my mother the unsentimental gift of a genetic test kit. These tests are easily available on line, and people like Stephen Colbert of the "Colbert Report" have discussed what they learned from these kits. They cost about two hundred dollars, you swab the inside of your cheek and mail it off. Results come in about six weeks. There is a lot they don't tell you, though: women can only be tested for their mother's DNA, mitochondrial DNA. Men carry both their mother's DNA and their father's DNA found on the Y chromosome. Mitochondrial DNA is unbroken throughout history: it goes all the way back to your first female ancestor, and is passed on from mother to daughter. Men have their mother's mitochondrial DNA, but don't pass it down to their offspring. Women, of course, have no Y chromosome, so paternity can't be tested in that way. You have to find a male relative of your mother's to get this information.

    Brian Sykes, in his chatty and informative book, The Seven Daughters of Eve, reveals that all people on the earth are descended from seven maternal ancestors who came from Africa 150,000 to 100,000 thousand years ago. Obviously there were more than seven women who came out of Africa eons ago, but only seven of them passed their mitochondrial DNA down to daughters who had daughters who had daughters, etc.

Genetic testing has dissolved the very concept of race. All of us alive today are closely related, and all of us came from East Africa, in the area that is now Ethiopia and Kenya. Mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome DNA varies little throughout the ages, but the variations are what can be tested. Genetic researchers have shown that humans have lived in Africa longer than any other continent: because genetic information changes, or mutates slowly, by testing genetic change scientist now know that Africa is the mother country of all humans alive today. One hundred and fifty thousand years ago, our ancestors made their way to the Middle East, and from there to the ends of the earth.

    What does this have to do with Hitler? Hitler certainly deserves blame for his ideas of race, and the actions he pursued to "purify" the "Aryan race." There is no Aryan race, of course, we know that now. Sensible people knew it then. Hitler was a man of his times, and sadly, many of his ideas about race and purity came from American scientists. Today's IQ test, the standard Stanford test, is a product of American scientific racism. It's no surprise that African Americans tend to do worse on this test than people of the upper middle class of European descent. Stephen J. Gould has written extensively about how this test was used to root out "morons," once a medical term, so they could be forcibly sterilized. Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, and many, many others believed that people of European descent constituted and actual "superior race." Specially trained women stood on the shores of Ellis Island to root out "morons" using the Stanford test, to keep them from "polluting" the American gene pool. Surprisingly, many immigrants who spoke no English didn't do well on the IQ test…

    So why did I get this test for my mother? My mother's mother was secretive about her Jewish ancestry, and almost never discussed it. In today's psychobabble, she has been called a "self-hating Jew." In my opinion, this term is thrown around carelessly, and doesn't reflect compassion on generational differences. My grandmother was a woman of her age, and she told anyone who would listen that she was Swedish. One of her grandmothers came from Sweden, but there are Jews in Sweden. It's sad that she felt shame about her roots, but she grew up in a different place and time. When she was a girl, racism was scientific. Women were inferior, too, according to the science of that day.

    My mother's mitochondrial DNA, which I have inherited, is from Haplogroup H. She is of European descent. Does this mean that we aren't Jewish? Most European Jews are from Haplogroup K or H. A lot of research has been done recently on the fact that European Jews are primarily European. There is very little similarity, from a genetic perspective, to people who live in the Middle East. So, surprise, the Jews Hitler sought to exterminate were as European as any German. 47% of all Europeans are from Haplogroup H, about one third of Ashkenazi Jews are from this genetic background. Sykes gives the mother of Haplogroup H the name "Helena," and the mother of Haplogroup K, the source of another third of European Jews, the name "Katrine."

    European Jews, from a genetic perspective, are more similar to Europeans than to modern Middle Easterners. Science today tells us that the very concept of race is meaningless: there is no such category. Africans are genetically more different from each other than they are from Europeans. Nineteenth century science, promoted by American bigots and transported to Europe, recast the old religious stereotypes into "racial science." Jews, or "Christkillers" were thought to be intrinsically racially different than "Aryans." They are not. We are all Africans.

    Listening to the confirmation hearing of Judge Sotomayor, I hear Republican southern senators rehashing the same old stereotypes. Like the KKK, they believe in "race" and "racial difference. Politics, like superannuated science, is the last bastion of "race." Shouldn't we, as a species, be beyond this by now?