I recently became associated, if that is not saying too much, with a band of reprobates called the Biblical Minimalists. Some have called it a “school.” In fact, it is at least one classroom and a belfry short of being any such thing. Its premises are wobbly, its methods diffuse, and its conclusions so weak that members will drink to almost anything that seems controversial.
Tell a minimalist the ostracon of Joseph of Arimathea has been found with a note saying “Gone Fishing” and he will titter. Tell them that someone misplaced Nazareth on the map of the Roman empire and they will say, ‘”So that’s where it’s gone to.” Tell them that Joshua not only did not fit the battle of Jericho but probably would have found it in ruins, if he lived to find it in any condition, which is highly doubtful, and they will swoon. And toast you.
Biblical minimalists, you see, are skeptics first and unorthodox second. They feel that insufficient, faith-based archaeology and a commitment to an older, theologically-charged school of biblical studies has multiplied the number of “safe conclusions” you can achieve in the history of the biblical record beyond a tolerable level. No self-respecting minimalist will tell you what the right level would be, but most would agree it has been exceeded.
Thus, avoiding creed and allegiance, they (we?) are bound to the principle of non-multiplication of unsupported details. In a word minimalism. Show us your Solomon, divulge your David, pony up your prophets. Can’t do it? You burned.
No, this is not a group of flakes who think the Bible was written during a Jewish layover in Babylon by a group of unemployed scribes. (On the other hand, don’t rule it out). It is a group that asks for consistency in method as between the study of biblical documents and other areas of ancient and classical study where conclusions are not anchored in a two thousand year history of assuming the documents inscrutable except through the eyes of faith. On the other hand, there is no bugle call to fight the forces of faith. Its proponents, strangely enough headquartered at the University of Copenhagen and at the University of Sheffield take themselves far too unseriously to be militant. Battles are fought on Facebook, where recipes are also exchanged. Meetings are not held, per se, or if they are no one has invited me.
This brings me to Religious Minimalism. I suspect there is a “movement” out there by that name. I refused to Google it because I want to think of this as my idea and to discover it is really someone else’s would have a depressing effect–thus no blog. So let us assume this is my idea, even if there is a posted reference to a substantial movement by the same name that started in 2001.
The problem with religion, it seems to me, is that by its nature it becomes more and more specific. The accumulation of doctrines in Christianity between the first and fourth century is inversely proportional to the relatively small number of books selected for the New Testament canon. Twenty seven, at last call. Rabbinical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible was no less cumbrous. And forget what you heard about the simplicity of Muslim belief. It’s about as true as the aphorism that Christianity boiled down to loving God and loving neighbor, and then being told–Oh, one other thing: the hypostatic Union. For every Islamic pillar there is a body of doctrine (i.e. opinion) about it big enough to fill a barn. I will not speak of Buddhism and Hinduism because it is already past five p.m.
But you see the point: whether religion is a good thing or a bad thing, it is too much of a thing. It is corpulent and unwieldy, full of distractions and formulas, defiantly undeconstructible–a superhero made of putty and able to absorb most threats to its person by adding a few extra pounds. It is full of highsounding unarguable slogans about the oneness of god, the inspiration of scripture, the salvation of souls, everlasting reward (and its opposite, marriage), what not to eat, and moral activities that are unIslamic or Unchristian, or otherwise damaging to your soul, recreationally known as sin.
I take it for granted that adherents of religious tradition take their faith traditions seriously. And most religious leaders cannot be aware that most of what they say is swill. But what about those of us who are unchurched not because we think religion is a bad thing but because we simply think there is too much of it, and that excess is giving religion a bad name. It isn’t religion I don’t like, it’s the grotesque behemoth human ingenuity has made of it.
A minimalist principle is that the larger the accumulation of any body of beliefs the more likely the majority of those beliefs are to be wrong. If we were minimalists, for example, we would see the trinity as an example of christian exaggeration, letting Jesus be Jesus whoever he was. We would regard as absurd the Islamist position that the Koran is a blueprint for governing complex modern societies or contains all the science anyone needs to lead a productive life. We would challenge the relgiocentrism that permits Jews to invoke an imaginary past populated by imaginary heroes–most–as though it were their historical past. I will not speak of Hinduism or Buddhism because it is now past 6 PM.
I am not advocating Quaker simplicity, Amish withdrawal, or killing the Buddha. Religious minimalism needs to be more aggressive than pacifist, more intellectually demanding than sapppily “humanistic.”
It needs to lay claim to the religious life and spirituality, the sense if not the definition of God, and to ask the otiose religions (that’s about all of them) of the world the following question:
“Why do you think you know better?”
And make it short.