Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Hogwarts School of Force Studies and Pantheistic Heresies

Atheists such as Richard Dawkins are in the habit of accusing religion of promoting superstition. As a theist and as a practitioner of Orthodox Judaism, I have to admit that there is some truth to these charges. I regularly find myself embarrassed by what seems to pass as religious doctrine these days. As fans of the recently completed Harry Potter series know so well, many religious fundamentalists, in both the Christian and Jewish flavors, have, for years, been waging a campaign against Potter claiming that it promotes witchcraft. As offensive as I find this perspective to be, I believe that it highlights certain trends within even fundamentalist strains of religious thought that run counter to the usual religion promotes superstition narrative so beloved by Dawkins and company.

What we have here are religious fundamentalists who not only are not supportive of a work that supports belief in the supernatural but actively seek to suppress the work. For some strange reason, religious fundamentalists are scared that if their children read Harry Potter they will come to believe in the supernatural. Why are religious fundamentalists not lining up behind Harry Potter as a tool to get children to open their minds to non-naturalistic perspectives? The answer is that fundamentalists are concerned that if children get turned onto the supernatural it will be the wrong sort of supernatural, one that lies outside of their established religion. I would see this attack on Potter as symptomatic of two things within religious fundamentalist thought. That the established religious authority must be protected, not just from the claims of scientists, but also from claims of the supernatural variety. Also that the religious beliefs of fundamentalists have nothing to do with theology but are mere adherence to a given established religious authority.

C.S Lewis was someone who was genuinely comfortable living in the shadow of the supernatural. One of the reasons why he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia was to make children comfortable with the idea of the supernatural. As the professor explains to Peter and Susan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, whether or not Lucy had really entered another world, there is nothing about such a claim that goes against reason. Logically speaking there are three possibilities. Either Lucy made up Narnia, imagined it or she is telling the truth. Since Lucy is known to be an honest person and has not been known to be delusional the only rational conclusion is that she is telling the truth and Narnia does in fact exist. Lewis was responding to David Hume’s argument against miracles. According to Hume, one should assume that since the vast majority of miraculous claims are false one should simply take as an operational assumption that even those miraculous claims which have not been disproven are also false. Unlike our fundamentalists, Lewis was more concerned with convincing people that naturalism was irrational and that only by assuming the existence of a deity, could the authority of reason be defended, then he was with establishing the authority of one particular church or text as being unchallengeable.

As much as this may sound counterintuitive, organized religions and in particular members of religious hierarchies serve to limit and even suppress, popular superstitions. While all religions are built around supernatural claims, which supposedly happened sometime in the past, the existence of present-day miracles, and in particular present day miracle workers, present a direct challenge to established religious authorities. Think of miracles as power structures from which authority can be established. The moment someone comes along and establishes their own line of miracles they have established their own rival power structure. Religious authorities claim that their power structure was established by God through the hand of a miracle worker, such as Moses, Jesus or Mohammed, who demonstrated his authority by performing miracles. The religious power structure, through the medium of tradition, claims to be the inheritor of the authority of these miracles. If I lay claim to having performed a miracle then I can claim to be acting on God’s authority and challenge the authority of the given religious power structure. I can claim to be the true inheritor of the authority of the original miracle or I can start a brand new religious power structure.

An excellent illustration of this is the Talmud’s story of the debate between Rabbi Eliezer b. Hyrcanus and the Sages over the purity of the ovens of Aknai:

Said he [R. Eliezer] to them [the Sages]: “if the halachah [law] agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!” Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place … ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere? … Again he [R. Eliezer] said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’ (Deuteronomy 30:12) (Baba Mezia 59b, Soncino Talmud Nezikin I pg. 352-53)

The end of the story is that the Sages did not accept the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer and eventually excommunicated him for his refusal to back down. The point of this story is that Jewish law is based on rabbinic tradition and dialectic but not around miracles and prophecy. If we are going to allow miracles and prophecy to play a role then all you need is for someone to claim that he is a prophet who can perform miracles and that person and his followers would be able to justify holding out against the entire established rabbinate. This type of reasoning would be the end of rabbinic Judaism and for that matter any other established religion.

Side by side with the church’s history of attempting to suppress scientific thinking is their war against magic. For example, during the Renaissance, the Catholic Church went after Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) for his work on Hermeticism and Kabbalah despite the fact that Pico wished to use these things to defend Christian dogma. According to Pico, the most effective means of demonstrating the truth of Christianity was through the study of magic and Kabbalah. Even though Pico’s arguments for the use of magic and Kabbalah may have sounded pious, they contained a direct challenge to the Church. If magic and Kabbalah could teach all that one needed to know about Christianity then why would someone have any need for the New Testament, the church fathers or the entire church tradition for that matter? Once you have built Christianity around magic and Kabbalah, like Pico did, then it is not a very far jump to Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), who rejected traditional Christianity arguing that Hermeticism was the true Christianity and not the Gospels.

The 17th century false Messiah, Sabbatai Tzvi (1626-76), is another example of the sort of anti-rationalist thinking that can be nourished in the absence of an effective established religious structure. He claimed to be a prophet and a miracle worker, but he also, as the Messiah, claimed the authority to overturn Jewish law. Sabbatai Tzvi did not come out of mainstream rabbinic culture and one must him as a direct assault upon that culture. Early in his career, he was chased out of hometown of Smyrna and from other places as well. He eventually though was able to win or at least to silence the established rabbinate of the day. He did this not by insinuating himself with the established rabbinic culture, but by, with the help of Nathan of Gaza, creating a mass popular movement, outside of any sort of rabbinic control. Even after Sabbatai’s conversion to Islam and even after he died, the Sabbatean movement remained a powerful source of counter-rabbinic Jewish thought.

As Dr. Matt Goldish argues in his Book, Sabbatean Prophets, Sabbatai Tzvi arose during a time period that saw a growing acceptance of lay prophecy within both Christian and Jewish circles. The idea behind lay prophecy is that the individual can come to know God’s will by reading scripture or simply through the purity of his own heart and one does not need to go through the established religious structure. One can see this type of theology must clearly within Protestant circles, but this was also going on amongst Catholics as well. Unlike established religious power structures, lay prophetic movements rely on the miraculous claims of a religious leader living in the here and now.
Ultimately established religious authorities have as much to fear from miracle workers than they have to fear from the claims to science. As such they have no choice but to suppress them.

Not that I am excusing the actions of those who went after Potter or letting them off the hook. I have no illusions that they are acting out of any love of science or reason. There is something that I do find perplexing about the whole opposition. It would seem that Potter got into trouble not for the kind of things taught at Hogwarts but because it used the words magic and witchcraft. Let us imagine that instead of the words magic and witchcraft, Rowling had decided to use the words Force and Jedi. Hogwarts is a school for children who are sensitive to the Force. At Hogwarts, children learn to channel the Force and use it for such diverse activities as transfiguring objects and charming them. Students at Hogwarts take such classes as Defense against the Dark Side and Care of Force Sensitive Creatures. Upon graduation, students become Jedi Knights and work for the Ministry of Jedi.

To the best of my knowledge, George Lucas’ Star Wars films never aroused even a small fraction of the religious opposition that Potter has, neither for the original films nor for the more recent prequels. The case of the prequels is particularly relevant as they came out at the exact same time as the Potter books. Personally, if I were to cast my net for stories to corrupt little Jewish and Christian boys and girls, I would be far more concerned with Star Wars than with Harry Potter. Star Wars is blatant Pantheism. The Force, we are told, is within all things. It has a will but it does not seem to be a conscious being, nor does it seem to actually give commandments. This is a pantheist god, the world spirit that is within everything. This is the sort of deity that Spinoza or Hegel would have been comfortable with. For that matter, this is the sort of deity that even an atheist could believe in.
What does it say about the theological IQ of our religious fundamentalists when they are willing to fight over a semantic issue such as the use of the words magic and witchcraft but seem to be completely clueless when it comes to a real theological issue such as Pantheism? Clearly, these people do not have any genuine theological beliefs. All that they have is a religious power structure, whose authority they will defend to the end. They are as much of a threat to belief in God as any materialist.


Alex said...

Hi. I enjoyed your essay a lot. I'm in the middle of the 5th HP book, thanks to my daughter, whose been twisting my arm to read them.

Can I ask a question about children and witchcraft? When my child learns the stories in Tanach or chazal that deal with eradicating witchcraft, and my child feels pity for these people, since after all, they're probably not much worse than Professor McGonagall, should I let her maintain that feeling of pity? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Izgad said...

Living in my academic ivory tower, the answer is to simply point out that the witchcraft of the bible has nothing to do with the witchcraft in Harry Potter. This is simply a matter of a linguistic anomaly that we use the same word for both things. Maybe you could insist on using the Hebrew terms Kishuf and Michasefa when you talking about biblical witchcraft and witches. If your child gets into the habit of using different words then maybe she will stop associating them together.
A possible fun exercise you can do with your daughter is to ask her to play rabbi and rule on the following question. Imagine that the wizarding world was real and that there was a young Jewish wizard, who has just received his letter from Hogwarts; could he attend? Is there anything, in Jewish law, which forbids such magic? How is a wizard using magic different than a scientist making use of the laws of nature? What other potential problems might a Jew come across as a student at Hogwarts?
By the way there is a student in Ravenclaw named Anthony Goldstein.

alex said...

I like your idea about using different terms. Thanks!

I like the exercise you suggest, though I suspect that trying to latch onto the storyline issues of halacha or hashgafa kind of takes away (in my daughter's mind, that is) the escapism of the story. Personally, I enjoy all the Jewish-related issues I've "extracted" from the stories, and thought that the fellow who created the harrypottertorah website gave me additional food for thought.

alex said...

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