Reading Sacred Texts
Charity, Structure, Gospel
Drawing significantly on the work of Emile Durkheim and Claude Lévi-Strauss, this book proposes a way to navigate between two pitfalls that undermine comprehension of alien cultures and their sacred literature. First, it offers a vigorous defense of the principle of charity when interpreting religious texts. But this, then, must confront the oddity, even deep implausibility, of many religious claims. The "way out" of this dilemma takes seriously Durkheim's seminal hypothesis that religious belief systems reflect native efforts to understand the social realities of their society. It brings to bear Lévi-Strauss's claim that the structure of religious narratives reflects attempts to bring intellectual order to those realities in a way we can decipher through the use of certain analytic techniques.
The next major element to this book is philosophical. What are such things as social roles, institutions, and conventions? Finding possible answers to that question enables the discovery of match-ups between religious concepts-of souls, gods, demons, and the like-and social realities, giving substance to Durkheim's general thesis. But what about the Bible? The second half of this book is devoted to exploring what the implications might be for an understanding of the origins of Judaism and Christianity. It does so by applying anthropological analyses to puzzles posed by stories found in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, especially the Gospel of Matthew. The upshot is both a political reading of the texts and a conceptual re-framing of such baffling claims as the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Transubstantiation.
Evan Fales (PhD, Temple University) has spent his teaching career at the University of Iowa. Interested especially in metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of science and of history, he has worked for roughly twenty-five years on issues in the philosophy of religion, among them the problem of evil, the causal efficacy of divine volitions, the evidential implications of mystical experience, and the metaphysical foundations of morality.