I just finished Ch. 1. My method, since I'm reading "The Battle for God" almost exclusively for the purposes of this conversation, has been to jot down notes on topics that I think warrant discussion. I'll attempt to render those topics into some semblance of order, but you'll have to excuse me if it doesn't play out according to an entirely rational scheme. The result is likely to be more expressionistic.
I should also give some forewarning. If you've read my comments concerning the introduction, you can probably anticipate my stance regarding the rest of the book. I make it a point of method to always look for what is useful and commendable in a book, but I have some serious misgivings about a few of the central ideas in Armstrong's work. As a result, most of my comments on Ch. 1 are likely to be rather critical. Whether or not the same is true for later chapters depends in great part on what Armstrong has written.
Well, let's get to it. First of all:Concerning mythos and logos
, I think Armstrong's continual assertion that premoderns held the two ideas at arm's length is a great deal misleading. That, in fact, is a philosophical position, one that finds its earliest expression in Plato but doesn't really find its stride until taken up by Enlightenment writers like Voltaire and Renan, which is to say, about 200 years after the beginning of Armstrong's narrative. As Paul Veyne points out in his book "Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?", mythos and logos were not conceived as opposites by classical authors, and the closest they had to a practice of opposing the two was the idea of "purifying mythos with logos", which is to say, getting to the more central facts of myth by sorting out the less rational elements. They were not, however, two distinct modes of living or understanding the world, and the idea that they were is of extremely limited utility in terms of understanding the role myth played in religion. Unfortunately, the idea that you can draw a dinstinction between the two seems to permeate Armstrong's historical inquiry, and is likely to distort her conclusions.
For example, in her examination of Lurianic Kabbalism, Armstrong emphasizes that the scheme of zimzum, shekinah and tikkun was conceived as a pure mythos, and that any logical application of the system was not only improper to its nature but contrary to the intentions of Luria himself (p. 14 and p.28) . She provides no evidence to support this inference, and indeed it would be difficult to do so given that Luria himself left no written records to explain his intentions. It seems highly unlikely to me that Luria had a specific stance on the notion of mythos v. logos, and given the lack of evidence one way or the other, we ought to feel impelled to ask why Armstrong feels qualified to conclude that this serves as an instance of her theme rather than merely an instance of a man whose ambitions were inherently impractical.
That example should suffice to illustrate my objection, and it leads us to a second concern.Armstrong's method of historical discourse
is an issue that seems worthy of scrutiny to me, and one of my foremost objections is one illustrated by her bibliography: namely that she uses very few primary sources. So far as I can tell, out of the two dozen or so sources cited for the first chapter, only two are primary sources, Spinoza and Ferdinan de Rojas' play "La Celestina". Now, her secondary sources are all likely top notch. I can personally vouch for Gershom Scholem, whom I highly recommend if you're interested in Jewish mysticism or mysticism in general. Bernard Lewis I've read, and can recommend with slight misgivings (as of late, in particular, he's been a bit inconsitent on his stance towards the Islamic nations). And several other of her sources I know by reputation. That said, as a matter of theory, a scholarly work should always make its first course of inquiry to the primary texts, using secondary texts and commentaries only in order to shape the authors views concerning the primary texts.
There are practical consequences, though. Take, for example, Armstrong's characterization of Isabella and Ferdinand's intentions and responses on page 7. She says that they were "alarmed" at the hostility of their subjects towards the Marranos and "disturbed" to hear of the relapse of converted Jews. She provides no textual support for this characterization, and the critical reader may well wonder how she came upon such insight or even why she is so interested in ascribing personalities to figures that have a largely juridicial role in her narrative.
I would suggest that her reason relates back to her conceptual distinction between mythos and logos, a distinction that she attempts to pass off as a historical continuity. Throughout the first chapter she has painted Ferdinand and Isabella as the custodians of modernity in the Spain of the New World, in contrast to the mythos-dominated Jews. These are ideas that I plan to revisit later on.
Another, less savory reason may be that Armstrong intends to color her story in a particular way, one that requires a certain amount of distance from her sources. Having read Gershom Scholem, for instance, I can say that his discription of the doctrines of Lurianic Kabbalah tend to differ in tone from those of Armstrong's summation on page 10. Take a look at the language used in Armstrong's passage: "ruthlessness", "inflicted", "violent", "primal explosions". Her introduction has already introduced the theme of violence, and without direct reference back to primary sources, the reader has no way of knowing whether or not such reiterations of that theme are consistent with the topics under discussion.A second issue in terms of historical method
is the structure of Armstrong's narrative. Having only finished the first chapter I'm in no position to question the entire pattern of her book, but I don't think this an inopportune time to ask the question of why she has chosen to tell her history in the way she has. For example, we might well ask why she has decided to divide her preliminary material by religion rather than strict chronology, or better yet, why she begins with the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain or with the Jewish crises of the Andalusian exile. Having made reference already to the preceding Crusades, we might ask why she did not begin with those as an expression of early Christian fundamentalism. On a surface level that would appear to make more sense, given that she has made very little attempt so far to connect the "new" forms of Judaism discussed in this chapter with modern notions of fundamentalism -- the Crusades would at least have the virtue of conforming with her earlier intimations of fundamentalism as "militant piety" and "faith perceiving crisis". I suspect that her starting point has far more to do with Columbus' discovery of the "new world" than she has so far discussed, a new world that serves as a symbol for the new world she believes to be at root in the development of modern fundamentalism. The problem with this (so far unstated) suggestion is that her discussion of the background information in Part I suggests that fundamentalism as we understand it has existed in other forms even prior to its recognized birth in the modern era. I hope that in later chapters she will find the time to justify her starting point and method.A final note on method
: it may be worth asking whether or not it's even possible to write a coherent "history" of fundamentalism. To do so suggests a measure of continuity between the various expressions of fundamentalims, a continuity that I suspect is not truly present. If, rather, fundamentalism is a recurrent phenomenon within forms of belief, it might have been both more practical and enlightening to have written a theory of fundamentalism, or a general discription based on a study of isolated instances. This is a question that I think we should revisit throughout the course of the discussion, as our answer should ultimately color our response to the reasoning behind Armstrong's project. For the moment, I'd like to get back to a discussion of the themes Armstrong has woven into her narrative.Modernity
is a term related in large part, I would say, to her previously expressed theme of the boundaries between mythos and logos. As of yet, however, she has not given a specific idea of what she means by modernity. We may assume from certain passages that she believes modernity to be dominated by reason as opposed to mythos, though she clearly expects us to take this for granted. Personally, I see no reason to do so.
Her early examples of the march of progress towards modernity are, to say the least, mixed. The conquest of Spain she characterizes as "a part of the advance guard of modernity," but why is not so clear. For most of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance the Muslim Empire made far more progress in mathematics and the physical sciences that nearly anyone in Christendom, so the expulsion of the Muslims from Europe in itself would not necessarily serve the end of progress. For that matter Armstrong herself shows how Christian Spain proved less tolerant that Muslim Andalusia, so much less so that we might be tempted to view the expulsion of Islam from Spain as a major victory for Christian fundamentalism. But Armstrong makes precious little comment on the ambiguity of a nation that could foster the discovery of her emblematic New World while simultaneously imposing the Inquisition on its own citizens at home. Perhaps she'll devote more space to this in Ch. 3 but even an ironic parenthesis would have been welcome here. Too often it seems as though she is attempting to contrast the Jewish decision between increased mythos and decreased faith against a background of progressive secularism. She speaks of Ferdinand and Isabella as "aggressive modernizers," but without a strict guideline for understanding what she means by modernity, we're left to question how the evidence supports that claim. It seems just as reasonable to me, if not more so, to say that the new Christian Spain was an attempt to destroy the progress that had been made during the Islamic conquest of Spain, a conquest that fostered three often incompatable religions simultaneously for well over 400 years.
Further, Armstrong characterizes the formation of the Society of Jesus as a modernization of Catholicism. The passage on page 6 in which she argues this point warrants scrutiny, so far as I'm concerned. Again, a lack of textual support makes her characterization of Ignatius of Loyola as "determined to exploit the power of mythos practically" highly suspect, and her desciption of his "Spiritual Exercises" as "a crash-course in mysticism" is a dubious anachronism. She might have easily provided some counterpoint by hinting at the fact that the Jesuits were formed with an emphasis on public service and evangelism, which would more than account for their desire to minimize the tendency towards isolation and sabbatical in other religious orders, but she is again attempting to paint a picture of the permeation of some nebulous idea of modernity in 15th and 16th century Spain, and so leaves that aspect untouched.A few loose ends
worth examining: It is a bit of a disappointment that Armstrong didn't divert more of he attention towards the question of why the Sephardic Jews had the particular reaction they did. After all, this is a significant group, but one that stands in contrast to a number of other Jewish groups who had significantly different reactions to the exile.
Nor does she spend much time examining Messianic fervor as a sort of fundamentalist reaction, presumably because we are still dealing with a pre-modern era -- fundamentalism is apparantly a reaction to a modernity that has not, by this time, arrived. That said, the excesses of messianic zeal during the campaign of Sabbatai Zevi strike me as more in line with the notion of "militant piety" than her introductory examples of the Muslim Hajib and Jewish Orthodox practice of the Law. Incidentally, if you're interested in the reaction of 17th century Jews to Zevi, you might check out Issac Bashevis Singer's novel "Satan in Goray". For my part, Gershom Scholem's compendious study on Sabbatai Zevi has moved up onto my short list of books to read.
Meanwhile, Armstrong's suggestion that the example of Uriel da Costa demonstrates that there was "no secular alternative to the religious life" seems to me a potential hyperbole. Da Costa's example alone, even added to the example of Juan da Prado, is too isolated to be taken as definitive proof. I would say that there is equally enough evidence in both cases to suggest that the culprit in both instances was rather an inescapable social urge. Neither man could comfortably survive outside of their chosen communities, but it must also be noted that both were emigres. The religious communities were islands of familiarity in comparison to the rest of Amsterdam, which in both cases served as an adoptive home. Spinoza was, no doubt, possessed of an independent spirit and a particular genius, but his ability to survive without the shelter of a religious community might have had as much to do with the fact that he had been born in Amsterdam. Armstrong hints at this nuance, but does not, to my mind, give it sufficient emphasis.
And finally, I'd like to point to a missed opportunity towards the end of the chapter. So far, Armstrong has given every indication of treating fundamentalism as a strictly religious phenomenon. On pages 30 and 31, however, Armstrong gives a brief description of the career of Jacob Frank. She describes him as "radical secularist." But based on her characterization (and here, notably, we have one of the few instances of a direct quote from the subject), I would say that it's worthwhile discussing the possibility of Frank as an example of secular fundamentalism. Edited by: MadArchitect at: 1/29/05 4:15 pm