Humanity, Danger, and “Knowing”: Ancient and Modern Worldviews

Note: This is part of a series of pieces providing a pastoral response to COVID and lockdowns in the church. Read more and subscribe here.

How do we know what we are, as humans? How do we know what we know? On whom or what do we rely in order to determine what is safe and what is dangerous?

Definitions: “Modernity” and “Technologizing”

In this series I frequently resort to two terms, one of which is used in a rather broad sense, and the other with a more specific meaning.

By “modern” or “modernity,” I mean broadly the worldview underlying contemporary life in Europe, in which God is no longer looked to in order to account for knowledge, coherence, and meaning in the world—having been displaced by human reason and will.[1] This worldview is associated with notions developed or advanced in the Enlightenment, including the autonomy of reason, secularity of the public sphere as contrasted with private religion/spirituality, and a general belief in the “progress” of human knowledge and ability. At the risk of eliding important differences between these notions, I am using “modernity” in this broadest sense as encompassing the ways that we think about reason, science, purpose, God, and transcendence that differ from how someone in Medieval Europe would have thought. In this sense, “we are all moderns now”[2]—even Christians.

In my 2019 article, I examined examples of “technology” that mediate within worship, and “technology/technologizing” were broadly understood as any human invention used in this way. In this series, digital communication technology and its rapid pace of change is the primary focus: the two-way transmission of words, sounds and images in real-time which can simulate human presence—in contrast to televised religious services or programs, for example, which have existed for decades but are a one-way transmission, non-interactive experience. The advent of instant messaging, social media, and multi-way video-conferencing at a very low cost (the quality of video on a smartphone or a laptop being quite high) open up new possibilities for remote human interaction on a grand scale that were not possible twenty years ago and were barely feasible ten years ago. These technologies deserve special scrutiny due to their rapid adoption into everyday life, including the life of faith.

Purity, Danger, Ritual, and “Knowing”

Inevitably, one’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic in its initial phase was colored by one’s vocation which was diverted, interrupted, or restructured by fears about the virus. My own experience of teaching, research, and ministry provides just one point of entry into these broader questions. It so happened that when Lithuania went into lockdown and our university switched to online instruction, I was teaching an undergraduate elective on the Book of Romans, and completing an academic article on a topic related to the Priestly literature of the Pentateuch.

The “Good News” of Rome

As the Romans course turned toward the implications of the gospel for all of society, including the question of “gospel and empire,” our readings stressed the artificiality of the modern distinction between “religion” and “politics.” If we think of the Roman imperial cult and its claims to have provided “salvation,” “peace,” and “good news” of a “savior”[3]—Caesar—merely as means of political manipulation, we will fail to understand the tenuousness of daily existence for many within the ancient Roman empire, the influence of the empire on ritual practice, and also the direct competition of Christ’s lordship to Caesar’s.[4]

Imagine the following scenario. A Roman legion shows up in a small town on the outskirts of the empire, claiming that they possess the power of a “son of god,” favored by the gods, to protect this town from the chaotic forces that exist just on the other side of that mountain. The requirement is that the town offer sacrifices to Caesar alongside the gods of the local area (seen not as competitive, but as complementary forces); restructure their civic space to build a temple for Caesar and to celebrate his contribution to their peace in their monthly and annual rituals; to contribute taxes; and to support Rome if war were to break out. Though of course we know that in reality this imperial arrangement came with a great many other downsides, this basic arrangement would have made sense to many ancients. Though in our modern scientific worldview we might distinguish between various sorts of “chaos from over the mountain” and their distinct causes and remedies—demons, pestilence, barbarian raiders—the intimate connection between what we call the “physical” and the “spiritual” allowed ancients no such distinction.[5]

In Leviticus: Unknown Danger, Purity, and Trust in Israel’s Sovereign God

Similarly, the Priestly worldview, with its understanding of sacred space, makes no clear delineation between moral and ritual purity. Protestant readers of the Pentateuch, accustomed to interpreting the Mosaic Law through Calvin’s lens of moral, civil, and ceremonial aspects of the law, find that the purity laws themselves defy such discrete categorization. Some forms of ritual impurity have no correlation to “immorality” as we understand it;[6] for some immoral acts, no sacrifice is sufficient.[7] Sympathetic modern readers of the Priestly purity laws suggest rationales for individual laws based on science[8]—with limited success, because some prohibitions appear to be based on analogy or association.[9] But such explanations are beside the point. Regardless of underlying causes that we might offer, an ancient Israelite would have understood that unseen forces affect everyday life, and that maintaining right relationship with those forces is essential for survival. In the Priestly worldview, all of the sources of “life” (food, sunlight, rain, blood, reproductive fluids) ultimately belong to YHWH, not to other entities;[10] the chaotic forces in the world (disease, famine, wild beasts, the sea, goat-demons [Lev 17:7], lesser divine beings/gods) are subordinate to YHWH.[11] Thus, the fears of forces that threaten to overwhelm human existence are now concentrated: we need only fear YHWH.[12]

The temptation for those of us living in modernity is to offer a “god of the gaps” explanation for the widespread acceptance of the Roman cult and the ritual purity laws of the ANE (including the Israelite laws)—the sort of account that Charles Taylor terms, “subtraction stories.”[13] The common Israelite who adhered faithfully to the Priestly laws did not fully understand why the laws worked, but they trusted that the “experts” in ritual matters had been delegated special insight into the unseen realm. The town on the edge of the Roman empire perhaps had a better understanding of the material benefit of the Roman garrison who protected them from barbarians, but also perhaps believed that devotion to the Roman idea and its gods was necessary to avert disaster. Whereas humans formerly explained calamity and danger in spiritual terms, so modernity’s story goes, now we understand the material causes behind them—and so we can disregard the beliefs about the immaterial as mere superstition.

Modern Priests, Purity, and Danger

Lest we look back on pre-moderns with condescension, let us consider the narratives of public discourse in industrialized nations, including Europe, in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was clear to the public that many people were getting sick and dying due to some previously unknown threat. Priests (“experts”), who were acknowledged as possessing special insight to perceive a menace that lay-people could not, began to instruct the public about forms of physical contact between people and surfaces that should be avoided, lest the force of death be spread unwittingly. They told us when and how to cover our faces; they taught us ritual washings for our hands, bodies, and cloth coverings.[14] Those possessing police power issued restrictions on places that we could go and certain kinds of contact that would be considered “unclean” and worthy of sanction with the threat of force, since even private actions between consenting actors pose a threat to the society.[15] Foreigners were looked upon with suspicion as potential conduits of this deadly force—some citizens called for forced expulsion of migrants.[16]

My aim is not to criticize any of these decisions as unwise or unjust (though I have my opinions which will be come apparent), but merely to highlight the worldviews behind these measures. Few of us have ever seen the microbes that cause diseases (and none of us has seen them without the aid of a microscope)—yet we trusted the “experts” who instructed us because we generally accept the scientific worldview of modernity. Our epistemology accepts that certain kinds of knowledge are generally possible, and so the hypotheses and remedies proposed by experts were plausible to the public.

Next…

In the next entry, we will study the significance of ritual in worship as a form of “knowing” about God that is essential to human being.

For more in this series, click here.


[1] Colin Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 28.

[2] The expression in English, “We are all ___ now,” was made famous in the realm of economics by Milton Friedman who acknowledged the dominance of an idea to such a degree that even those who wish to oppose it must adopt its key elements to some degree: “In one sense, we are all Keynesians now; in another, nobody is any longer a Keynesian.”

[3] All of these terms were part of the rhetoric of the Roman imperial cult; see “General Introduction,” in Richard A. Horsley, ed., Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, International, 1997), 5–6. See also the detailed summary of the relevant literature provided by N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 279–347.

[4] S. R. F. Price, “Rituals and Power,” in Horsley, ed., Paul and Empire, 47–71; this chapter summarizes material from Price, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

[5] Price sees this tendency as “Christianizing” and individualizing (“Rituals and Power,” 50–51), but one might also attribute this gap in understanding to the Enlightenment: “Scholars have often searched the imperial cult for evidence of real feelings or emotions towards the emperor. The problem with emotion as the criterion of the significance of rituals is not just that in practice we do not have the relevant evidence but that it is covertly Christianizing. That is to apply the standards of one religion to the ritual of another society without consideration of their relevance to indigenous standards” (Price, “Rituals and Power,” 50).

[6] For example, a woman being ritually impure during and immediately after menstruation (Lev 15:19–30) or childbirth (12:1–8); a married couple being ritually impure after sex (15:18); or corpse contamination (Num 19:11–13). Schnittjer rightly points out, “The concept ‘unclean’ does not mean physically dirty but ceremonially polluted or ritually contaminated—perhaps ‘ritually challenged’ in politically-correct terms.” Gary E. Schnittjer, The Torah Story: An Apprenticeship on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 329.

[7] Note that covetousness (Exod 20:17) is a strictly internal sin—if it is acted upon, it becomes stealing or adultery. No reparation offering or restitution is required for covetousness (perhaps why Paul latches onto this strictly internal sin as his example in Rom 7:7–13). “Accidental sin” may be atoned for, but “high-handed sins,” including murder and adultery (cf. Ps 51:16–17), may not be atoned for by sacrifice (Num 15:27–36).

[8] For example, the impurity contagion of surface afflictions (skin diseases, mildew in a house) mirroring microbial contagion (Lev 14); or the list of prohibited animals including predators (that themselves eat pests) and carrion-feeders (which could spread disease) (Lev 11); or postpartum ritual impairment as protection for mother and child from contagious disease (Lev 12).

[9] See the groundbreaking work by Mary Douglas in this area; for example, the explanation of the difference between analogical thinking and rational-instrumental thinking in Leviticus as Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 15–25.

[10] “Some scholars have interpreted Leviticus by invoking a universal fear of blood, or the people of Israel’s fear of corpse pollution. But the people are not afraid, quite the contrary; they are being taught about the world, and, the world being the way it is, they ought to be more afraid than they are. The work of the book is to establish an ontology. With formal symmetries and parallels Leviticus expounds the relation of life and death and the pivotal role of blood in giving access to God.” Mary Douglas, “Atonement in Leviticus,” JSQ 1.2 (1993/94): 109–130 [129].

[11] For a compelling and thorough exposition of the Bible’s conception of the divine council and lesser divine beings, see Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2015).

[12] Taylor considers this a thread running through the Judeo-Christian tradition, which comes to prominence in moments of disenchantment. He writes of the reformist movements in the late middle ages, and of certain humanist and Reformation strands: “Revolting against all this [‘white magic’ of the medieval hierarchical church] meant facing a barrier of fear. But one of the potentialities of Christian faith was a reversal of the field of fear. The power of God will be victorious over all evil magic. So much is common to all variants of the faith. But this victory can be understood as that of white magic over dark magic. Or it can be understood as that of God’s naked power over all magic. To draw on this power, you have to leap out of the field of magic altogether, and throw yourself on the power of God alone.

“This ‘disenchanting’ move is implicit in the tradition of Judaism, and later Christianity. Fundamental to both is a break with a world in which what they judge to be bad magic, the worship of pagan Gods and forces, is rampant. But this breach can take one of two forms; in a sense, it hovers between them….God’s power conquers the pagan enchanted world. And this can proceed either through a good, God-willed enchantment; or else by annihilating all enchantment, and in the end emptying the world of it.” Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 73–74.

[13] Taylor defines these stories, which he considers inadequate to explain secularity, as “stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge.” Taylor, A Secular Age, 22.

[14] Some “priests” observed that a significant aspect of the benefits of cloth face-coverings was symbolic communication of the wearer’s recognition of society-wide distress. In a widely-publicized New England Journal of Medicine essay, a group of physician-scientists suggested: “There may be additional benefits to broad masking policies that extend beyond their technical contribution to reducing pathogen transmission. Masks are visible reminders of an otherwise invisible yet widely prevalent pathogen and may remind people of the importance of social distancing and other infection-control measures. It is also clear that masks serve symbolic roles. Masks are not only tools, they are also talismans that may help increase health care workers’ perceived sense of safety, well-being, and trust in their hospitals. Although such reactions may not be strictly logical, we are all subject to fear and anxiety, especially during times of crisis. One might argue that fear and anxiety are better countered with data and education than with a marginally beneficial mask, particularly in light of the worldwide mask shortage, but it is difficult to get clinicians to hear this message in the heat of the current crisis. Expanded masking protocols’ greatest contribution may be to reduce the transmission of anxiety, over and above whatever role they may play in reducing transmission of Covid-19. The potential value of universal masking in giving health care workers the confidence to absorb and implement the more foundational infection-prevention practices described above may be its greatest contribution.”

This is not an assertion that there is no practical benefit of cloth masks, though earlier in the article the authors write: “The extent of marginal benefit of universal masking over and above these foundational measures is debatable….And then the potential benefits of universal masking need to be balanced against the future risk of running out of masks and thereby exposing clinicians to the much greater risk of caring for symptomatic patients without a mask.”

M. Klompas et al., “Perspective: Universal Masking in Hospitals in the Covid-19 Era,” New England Journal of Medicine 382.63 (May 2020): online (DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp2006372).

[15] In the face of the COVID-19 threat, some tight-knit communities, such as friendship groups or educational “pods,” have had to agree amongst themselves about the level of contact they will each have with those outside the circle, to ensure a common acceptance of a certain level of risk. Cory Stieg, “Is it safe to have family or friends in your Covid-19 ‘bubble’? What you need to know,” CNBC, 2020 June 27 [online].

An analogy might be found in Taylor’s description of the pre-modern “porous” conception of the self, as compared with the modern “bounded” self: because harmful forces can pass into the individual and thereby be admitted into the society: “Living in the enchanted, porous world of our ancestors was inherently living socially. It was not just that the spiritual forces which impinged on me often emanated from people around me; e.g., the spell cast by my enemy, or the protection afforded by a candle which has been blessed in the parish church. Much more fundamental, these forces often impinged on us as a society, and were defended against by us as a society” (A Secular Age, 42).

Compare to the ancient Israelite cultus: given the sorts of regular, morally acceptable activities that could render an Israelite priest ritually impure and unfit to serve at the shrine (e.g., Lev 15:18), the priests probably discussed with their brothers and cousins (co-priests) their plans for intimate activities, to ensure that there was always a ritually-clean priest available to serve. Any hard boundary between “private” and “public” activities was artificial; private behavior affected the whole community.

[16] Nina Lakhani, “US Using Coronavirus Pandemic to Unlawfully Expel Asylum Seekers, Says UN,” The Guardian, 2020 April 17 [online]. Gaia Pianigiani and Emma Bubola, “As Coronavirus Reappears in Italy, Migrants Become a Target for Politicians,” New York Times, 2020 August 28 [online].

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
This entry was posted in Bible-Theology, Culture-Economics-Society, Research and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Humanity, Danger, and “Knowing”: Ancient and Modern Worldviews

  1. Pingback: Franklin on Metaphysics, Medicine and Modern Science | think hard, think well

  2. Pingback: Pandemic Sermon: Numbers and Chronicles, “God Draws Near” | think hard, think well

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