07 February 2013

Times and means of rapprochement (V)

In Cult and Character, the red cow ritual (Numbers 19) is interpreted in an inescapably contradictory manner (see pp.183-184). On the one hand, Gane states that “the red cow ritual avoids bringing corpse contamination into any contact with the sanctuary". But he had just written that “in other purification offerings... the blood, carrying the moral or physical impurity, affects the sanctuary", meaning specifically that “sacrificial purification of the offerer necessarily involves transfer of his/her evil to YHWH". Why would anyone avoid “bringing corpse contamination into any contact with the sanctuary" when the whole point of expiation is, according to Gane, to bring sin and contamination into expiatory contact with the sanctuary? On the other hand, Gane is among those who see the red cow ritual as a sacrifice. The sevenfold sprinkling toward the sanctuary is a remote application of חטאת blood to the sancta. How can Gane concede then that “the red cow ritual is the only חטאת sacrifice in connection with which automatic defilement is mentioned, and this defilement only occurs when the impure person does not receive the benefit of the sacrifice" (his emphasis)? It would seem that Gane cannot help defiling the temple. Rebellion and sacrifices alike dump man's iniquity upon the holiest. Sacrifices only dampen (“downgraded toxicity", as on page 179) an otherwise boomeranging blow to the fickle flame of Yahweh's gory glory (I admit I got carried away).

Returning to Leviticus 16 and “the goat unto Azazel", one cannot escape the similarity the Yom Kippurim ritual bears to the apotropaic gestures of Leviticus 14:7.53. In neither of these instances is there any intimation of transfer (of disease or impurity) or of blood functioning as a “ritual sponge". The cleansing human is a healed human, while the house to be cleansed has never been declared unclean (we have already noted the post-quarantine rite of passage in Leviticus 13). Similarly, whenever the temple is to be rededicated, any agent of impurity (idols mostly) is removed before the performance of inaugural sacrifices. The כפר sacrifices are nothing but gestures of approach - “rituals that confirm and routinize the recognized borders of the sacred place" (Ron E. Hassner's definition from a decade old article on interreligious conflict). Yom Kippurim was not the antidote to, but the culmination of a whole year of ritual activity. There was no reversal in ritual semantics, but a deepening of the כפר purpose - coming as close as possible to the flammable presence of God. Sacrifices were not meant to decontaminate the temple (Milgrom's theory) or contaminate it throughout most of the year (Gane's). They only mended fences. In this context, the suggestion that the horns of the altar (or human body extremities, for that matter) functioned as boundary markers (Gn.31:52) and therefore as (covenant) memorials (Ex.24:4) seems quite plausible.

04 February 2013

Kicking the Lord out of the church

At a friend's prompting, I attended yesterday's Sunday Assembly (The Guardian chronicled the event). It's fashionable nowadays for atheists to attempt to salvage whatever's deemed good in religion. Alain de Botton even wants to go back to building atheist temples. As if humans have ever built anything but atheist temples, or held anything but atheist worship services! To the eye unforgetful of the simple fact that all gods are of our own making, any temple, shrine, synagogue, church or mosque is an atheist monument. There is barely a need to invent an atheist alternative. The cityscape is, as ever, saturated with atheist sanctuaries.

While it's true that I enjoyed the “sermon" on Dirac's equation, it's no less true that I found the address delivered in last December's Christmas Carol Service at St Paul's Cathedral equally atheistic, humorous and enjoyable. Whether it's Freddie Mercury (“Don't Stop Me Now") and Stevie Wonder (“Superstition"), or Herbert Howells (“A Spotless Rose") and John Tavener (“God Is with Us"), music is music. Whether one attends a spiritual retreat, a party conference, or the Super Bowl, words are words, ritual is ritual, emotional manipulation is emotional manipulation, the money collected is money collected. One cannot escape being religious and atheistic. And, by the way, tautology is the atheistic font of all religion (“I am who I am").

An atheist church can be no better and no worse than any other religious congregation. More reasonable, maybe. More meaningful, not at all. Will I go back?