Tuesday, April 03, 2018

The Mosaic Distinction

Jaideep Prabhu in firstpost.com:

Theo Sundermeier, professor of theology at Heidelberg University, makes an insightful distinction in his Was ist Religion? Religionswissenschaft im theologischen Kontext between primary and secondary religions. The former, Sundermeier explains, developed over hundreds, if not thousands, of years, usually within a single culture, society and language with which the religion is inextricably intertwined. These would include the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian religions as easily as Hinduism. The latter category of religions are those that originate from an act of revelation or foundation and are monotheistic, universal, and of the Book. Secondary religions denounce primary religions as paganism, a collection of superstitions, and idolatry. The three Abrahamic faiths fit this description well.
Note the Primary and Secondary Religions.
This seemingly obvious categorisation holds an evolution of great import. From primary to secondary, religion changes from being a system that is irrevocably embedded in the institutional, linguistic, and cultural conditions of a society to become an autonomous system that can transcend political, ethnic, and other boundaries and transplant itself into any alien culture. As Jan Assmann, an Egyptologist at the University of Konstanz, describes in his Die Mosaische Unterscheidung: oder der Preis des Monotheismus, this change, which he calls the Mosaic distinction, is hardly about whether there is one god or there are many gods, but about truth and falsehood, knowledge and ignorance.
Note Jan Assmann (thanks to a friend!)
Assmann argues that the Mosaic distinction created an entirely new category of truth - faith - and draws an interesting parallel with a scientific development that Werner Jäger, a 20th century classicist at Harvard University, described as the Parmenidian distinction in Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture.
Before the Mosaic distinction, there were four kinds of fundamental truths: experiential (water is wet), mathematical (two plus two is four), historical (the life of Mokshagundam Visveswaraya), and truths conducive to life (ethics). The Mosaic distinction cleaved faith from knowledge and installed the former as a fifth truth that claimed knowledge of the highest authority even if it could not be verified on scientific grounds.
Read the whole essay, please. Here's another key passage.

For the first time in history, justice, law, and freedom are declared to be the central themes of religion and the sole prerogative of god. Though technically true, this is a misleading statement. The monotheistic point of view is that since god is the true authority, only he can be the final arbiter of justice; the temporal laws of man are inferior to the divine. The story of the exodus from Egypt ties in well with ideas of liberation of the Jewish people from slavery. Furthermore, their escape, divinely sanctioned, also took the power to sit in judgment over them away from the pharaoh and invested it in god. The Shemot, or the Book of Exodus, is thus more concerned with political theology than with idolatry (the story of the golden calf). Thus, in monotheism, the political role of justice was given to religion. The authority of the king was superseded by that of the high clergy, god's representatives on earth, as papal power well into the Early Modern era demonstrated. This fusion of the political with the religious in secondary religions, but not primary belief systems, is exactly what makes secularism a requirement solely of the former in the modern era.
In pagan religions, justice was of this world for even the gods were of this world. A Roman or an Egyptian who had been wronged could appeal to the local magistrate for justice for its own sake without reference to the gods. Indeed, in Hinduism, dharma is not only properly a function of kaala, desha, and paristhiti but the chaturanga purusharthas mention it along with artha and kama as one of the three goals of mortal life. The ultimate goal, moksha, is beyond short-term earthly consideration. As Hindi novelist Gurudutt explains in Dharma tatha samajwad and Dharma, sanskriti, aur rajya, the individual is free to interact with the divine in a manner of his choosing but wherever he must interact with another, their conduct must be guided by the precepts of dharma, artha, and kama. Ethics and the law were intrinsically this-worldy and had no business to be under divine purview. Thus, justice, or ethics at least, existed much before secondary religions came on the scene but were not truly a part of the religious system.
 kaala = era;  desha = country, place,  paristhiti = circumstances (e.g., historical/social/political circumstances); chaturanga = four-fold; purushartha = object of human pursuit, goal of life;  artha = material prosperity; kama = pleasure; dharma = right way of living, human behaviors considered to be necessary to maintain right order in the universe,  duty, etc. (difficult to translate); samajwad = socialism; sanskriti = civilization, rajya ~= politics.

If you've come this far, here's a bonus for you:
(PDF file) Jan Assman, The Mosaic Distinction, Israel, Egypt and the Invention of Paganism.
The space "severed or cloven" by the Mosaic distinction was not simply the space of religion in general then, but that of a very specific kind of religion. We may call this a "counterreligion" because it not only constructed but rejected and repudiated everything that went before and everything outside itself as "paganism".  It no longer functioned as a means of intercultural translation; on the contrary, it functioned as a means of intercultural estrangement.  Whereas polytheism or rather, "cosmotheism" rendered different cultures mutually transparent and compatible, the new counterreligion blocked intercultural translatability.  False gods cannot be translated.
Primary and secondary religion; religion and counterreligion!  Where does it end?