the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Peterson's Paul: Romans 1:18-23

buy your figurine here, folks, to warm your heart in hell

But God's angry displeasure erupts as acts of human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate, as people try to put a shroud over truth. But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can't see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being. So nobody has a good excuse. What happened was this: People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn't treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives. They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand.

I'll do this like an explication de texte. Around the middle of the first chapter of Romans comes a complete turnaround, with Paul launching an attack, in the name of his invention, on whatever he happens to abhor or fear. Of course the attack is launched in the name of yahweh – Paul presents himself as merely the messenger.
There seems nothing objectionable in the first sentence because the observation is vague and general, and it could easily escape our attention that Paul is telling us when and why yahweh is angry, that he seems privy to the most extraordinary knowledge of the god’s innermost feelings. After all, what good and moral god wouldn’t be angry at his creation’s wrongdoings? Yet the ‘shroud over truth’ seems to refer to a denial of yahweh, for Paul next makes a common-place and common-sense claim for the god’s obvious existence.

Apparently, yahweh’s existence is so obvious that anyone denying it is either a fool or a charlatan. These sorts of remarks are made in lieu of proof – anyone actually requiring proof of yahweh’s existence beyond this isn’t worth bothering about and is eternally outcast.

It’s an argument with some appeal, and I’ve had it used upon me: take a look at the world, look at its depth and complexity, see how, as a whole, it’s beyond our limited comprehension – no don’t try to separate bits out and comprehensively explain or analyse them, just recognize and be awed by the mysterious complexity of the totality. It’s clearly god’s handiwork.

Whether we’re inclined to agree or not, it’s certainly obvious to Paul, and probably obvious to his contemporaries in an age more prone to religious awe than our own.

This is why Paul’s next criticism is not of unbelievers but of those who don’t believe in the right way ‘refusing to worship [yahweh]’and buying cheap figurines instead. Now, presumably those who bought cheap figurines were thereby engaging in worship of some sort, whether of yahweh or some other god or gods we don’t know, Peterson’s text doesn’t enlighten us. In any case what are we to make of Paul’s accusation that these figurine-buyers ‘pretended to know it all’, presumably as opposed to the believers in the true, unable-to-be represented-by-figurines god, who either really did know it all, or, Socrates-like, knew only that they knew nothing? How does Paul know that these figurine-buyers are only pretending to know it all if he himself is just a know-nothing messenger? The fact of the matter is that throughout this text Paul really is claiming to know better than anyone else, to be the one who is truly literate regarding life and this is what marks him out as a cult leader.

The overall point to make with this passage is that Paul is distinguishing between what we would call pseudo-knowledge, or just plain ignorance, which he associates with the figurine buyers, and true knowledge, which he associates with those he considers to be worshipping the 'right' god in the ''right'' way. He doesn't of course present any real argument or evidence beyond this. Maybe there's some justification in the old testament, but that too would be just a matter of taking someone's word for it. Do it right or you'll go under.


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