To her points:
Yes, indeed, Islamic theology is interesting to a lot of people, as the excellent sales of Robert
Spencer’s books show. That is a clinical interest, though — a hostile one, in fact. Psychiatrists are interested in insanity, but they don’t want to be insane.
When I said that “Any given theology is of zero interest to anyone outside the tribe,” I meant of interest in the way that a real intellectual discipline — math, biology, history — is of general interest. From the fact that a person wants to study microbiology, I can deduce nothing about his tribe or fictive tribe (e.g. religion). From the fact that a person wants to make a serious, engaged, non-hostile study of Islamic theology, I can deduce with high probability that he is a Muslim.
Talmudic study “involves logic and law.” Sure it does. As I said, it is intellectually formidable, as are the other high and ancient theologies. However, my space-program analogy applies: If you want non-stick frying pans, go develop them — the Saturn V rocket is not a necessary piece of equipment. If you want to train kids in law and logic, go train ’em. The Gods and the Afterlives aren’t necessary parts of it.
(You can make a case that they might once have been. Perhaps you can’t, in the historical development of a culture, get to law and logic without going through theology. I think that’s possible. As an argument for persisting with theology, though, it falls to the midwife counter-argument. You need a midwife to deliver a baby, but she’s no use to you thereafter, and just gets in the way. Pay her off gratefully and send her home.)
Now, a conservative might say to that: “Well, the religious-based teaching is our customary approach. It’s worked well for us in the past, and we can’t see why we should change it.” I’m sympathetic to that. I’ll only note that properly theological study is founded on supernatural precepts — on fantastic and miraculous things that are supposed to have happened in the remote past. That has to subtract something from a student’s appreciation of logic and natural science.
(Though from what Ilana says, the Talmud she studied seems to have had the supernatural stuff taken out, like Jefferson’s Bible. That doesn’t remove the tribal element — nobody not Jewish is going to learn logic and law in just that way — but it makes it pretty innocuous.)
Ilana quotes Paul Johnson: “The Bible is essentially a historical work from start to finish.”
If that were true, every Jewish and Christian theology course would really be a history course. Which is not the case. The Bible is a religious document, with lots of history (and some really good stories, beautiful verse and prose, and first-rate expositions of ethics.) Paul Johnson is a committed old-school RC: see his book of apologetics. His opinions about the Bible are correspondingly colored. If you think that Christianity is all true, then of course the Bible will, for you, be as factual as an auto-repair handbook. And if not, not.
“The central error of anti-religion crusaders is that they consider the Jewish and Christian traditions systems of ideas, denuded of historical context, to be accepted or rejected on the strength or weakness of their intrinsic logic (or lack thereof). Judaism and Christianity, however, are who we are historically (the same is true, unfortunately, of followers of Islam). One can no sooner denounce them than one can disavow history itself.”
Ilana loses me here. From the point of view I was applying — i.e. casting a critical eye on the claims of theologians to have anything useful to tell us about non-theological topics — the Jewish and Christian traditions are systems of ideas. What else are they?
“What we are historically” is a mess of stuff: Jewish and Christian religion, Greek philosophy, Roman law, Enlightenment science, and all sorts of lesser tribal threads — the moots and parliaments of the Teutonic forests, their religion (I am at this moment listening to Das Rheingold ), Arabic numerals, and so on. No thoughtful person accepts the whole shebang uncritically. Probably I’d find Wagner more thrilling if I actually believed in Wotan and Fricka. Alas, I don’t. You can cast a wistful, even loving, eye back on the traditions of
humanity while rejecting some of them as untenable in light of later understanding. You may even “denounce” aspects of our tradition without having “disavowed history.”
I must say, though, I think Ilana would make a splendid Rheinmaiden; and if she mocked me, I’d be just as upset as the Nibelung dude.