Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Theology Outside the Tribe

The ravishing and brilliant Ilana Mercer has a column on input from Judaism to economic principles.

In line with its efforts to educate about Judaism’s philosophical affinity with the free market, the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies has inaugurated the Center for the Study of Judaism and Economics …

This got me thinking about theology.  What’s it for ?  It’s obviously tribal in essence, though you have to extend the meaning of “tribal” to include “fictive tribes” like Christianity and Islam. (Well, I think you do.)  Any given theology is of zero interest to anyone outside the tribe.  If someone tells you he’s making a deep study of Rabbinic Literature, you can be 99 percent sure he’s Orthodox-Jewish; if deep in Thomism, he’s Roman Catholic; etc.

And yet the intellectual effort that’s applied is tremendous.  Think of an Orthodox-Jewish shul, those rows of earnest young men rocking and chanting as they memorize vast chunks of material.  The material is difficult.  Rabbinic literature is a colossal edifice of intellection, by some very smart people indeed.  It’s not just memorization; there’s a strong tradition of debate and textual analysis, with great respect awarded to those who can most subtly elucidate what Rabbi So-and-so meant back in the 13th century.  And yet, for all that intellection, the material is of no interest to anyone who isn’t an Orthodox Jew.  Similar things apply to Roman Catholic theology, which RC readers keep urging me to explore.  Why would I — as opposed to picking up the Talmud?  It’s all just tribal chanting.

When, as in Ilana’s piece, theologians apply their lucubrations to topics of universal interest, I find myself thinking of the early space program, when billion-dollar projects to put men in orbit were justified on the grounds that we would get non-stick frying pans out of it.  If it’s a non-stick frying pan you want, get some materials scientists together in a lab and let them work the problem.  You don’t need a Saturn 5 rocket. Similarly, if it’s rational, maximum-benefit economics, you want, how does it help to know what that rabbi said back in A.D. 1250?  Get some economists, historians, sociologists, and business people together and let them thrash it out.

I don’t see how theology helps.  And I’m sure that if your theologians can come up with theological justification for free markets, his theologians could offer just as robust a defense of state socialism.  Where is the informed guidance here?

Perhaps I just don’t— well, obviously I don’t — see the appeal of theological study.  It doesn’t seem to make anything happen.  It’s just a waste of good brain power, in a tribal cause. 

Ilana’s piece, in any case, disabused me of one of my consolations.  I’ve always assumed, based on occasional and casual encounters, and a priori assumptions about Ashkenazi intelligence, that Rabbinic theology is intellectually head and shoulders above any other, a sort of gold standard for theology; but that it is very intensely tribal, so that the scholars of it don’t bother the rest of us with it.  RC theology, by contrast (what happened to Protestant theology, by the way?  is it still around?) is much more at ease with going out of the tribe and trying to make things happen in the larger world; and Islamic theology of course even more so.

I don’t really have a conclusion here.  I’m just thinking out loud.  And trying to get Ilana’s attention.

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  • David Gillies · November 28, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. Is theology any more intellectually respectable than any intense study of something that does not exist? It gets the same spurious respectability as anything related to religion (in the Russell’s teapot sense), but in reality I can’t see how it is any less vapid than some spotty social outcast compiling a Klingon dictionary.

    A friend of mine has a great saying: “like two bald men arguing over a comb.”

  • Matt · November 28, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    Well, I think you right to question the real value of theologians outside their own groups. I think we both appreciate their intellectual rigor. Besides, if you are going to have a worldview, might as well make it somewhat complex and interesting and try to have real reasons why you believe certain things. I actually hope that members of religious groups would study their own theological histories, but also, others as well. Religion is all around us, we should understand it as best we can.

    So I for one am very interested in Biblical books, and currently those written by (or supposedly written by) the Prophets of Judgment. It’s fascinating. But this is purely for academic reasons, I don’t believe any of it is divinely inspired. I would hope that more people take interest in religious text and study them from a secular point of view as much as they do from a more insular religious view. Secondly, some of it just great literature. Lastly, if secularists, atheists and agnostics are to debate these types of things, they should know what they are talking about.

    Also thinking out loud – I guess I would hope that people at least try to be a little agnostic (whether they are religious or not) and understand that a lot of religious theology is “objective, universal truth” only because it says it is. As you seem to say, let us question the actual universal value of some of these things. I will say that I do think the book of the Bible, some, speak of universal truths about human nature and the human condition and so on, but lets try and apply them instead of just saying God says so, how can I question God?

  • Author comment by FarRightDemocrat · November 28, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    “Judaism’s philosophical affinity with the free market” is actually kind of funky. If you’re Orthodox Jewish, you’re usually into the free market (and usually quite successful at it). If, as opposed to being religiously Jewish, you’re secularly “Jew-y” (to use Sarah Silverman’s adjective), you tend to admire (if never actually aspire to) the socialism of the kibbutz. Generally, an American secular Jew is a liberal, not a party to the secular right. But, as you say, “I’m just thinking out loud”. (P.S.: And, Jewish here, so I can use words like “Jew-y”.)

  • Matt · November 28, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    Eesh, sorry for all the grammatical errors in that comment!

  • jrb · November 28, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    Perhaps it is just the narrowness of my background or reading. I have often reflected, and commented on rare occasions to trusted individuals, on the ‘tribal’ character of religion, but I have never before read anything that actually used that very accurate term.

    Thank you.

  • jrb · November 28, 2008 at 5:05 pm


    re: Secondly, some of it just great literature.

    H L Mencken made precisely that observation regarding the Bible.

  • Author comment by The Zman · November 28, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    I think it is a bit lazy Derb to dismiss all religion as tribal superstition (I’m not assuming you are here). In fact, it requires a redefinition of a perfectly decent word, “tribal”, into something it is clearly not (you touch on this a bit). Further, it requires throwing all religion into the same bucket as all other superstitions.

    Contained within some religious dogma is a great deal of learned observation of the human condition. Granted, much of what passes for religion these days in some quarters is simply self-gratifying nonsense, based on nothing more than the ether of of the self-help movement.

    Your example, however, is something to ponder. A great deal of wisdom about the human condition is contained in the dogma(s) of Judaism. This is just as intellectually rigorous as any other social science, including economics.

    This of course leads to the issue of comparative religion, which is no longer permitted. So, I best stop now.

  • matoko_chan · November 28, 2008 at 10:04 pm

    Well…in the Bad Old Days religion was science and science was religion.
    The study of god-or-gods was all there was.
    Actually Science and Evolution are deeply conservative, Evolution especially in that it is parsimonious and form follows function. Likely the dichotomy arose when conservatism was stealth colonized by judeoxian mores and social taboos masquerading as traditional forms.
    A kind of convolution of religious, superstious values with the pure form of conservative thought.
    The Founders were scrupulous in sticking to references to a “generic” god.

  • Deep Thought · November 29, 2008 at 1:09 am

    Not to be rude, but as a Catholic Theologian, I run into this fairly often and, well – its an argument based on ignorance. Here’s why – the goal of understanding what Rabbi so-and-so wrote isn’t to be an expert on rabbi so-and-so, but his topic. And that topic is generally a universal, be it a moral universal or a human condition universal (often the same) or how human ideologies affect how we react to social systems.

    Want to know the moral, ethical, and social impact of, say, increasing the marginal taxes on a laborer’s wages? Theologians have been arguing about this and studying the real world for evidence since before the printing press. When certain welfare rules were put in place in the ’60’s, for example, a lot of theologians said ‘Whoa! The sentiment is great, but this will lead to an increase in out-of-wedlock births, absentee fathers, and such. That, in turn, will lead to poorly educated kids, increased crime, and larger drains on the public coffers! You really should modify those laws like x’. They were ignored.

    They were right.

    The Jewish/Catholic/Orthodox theological world has been studying Man in relationship with work and money since, oh, before iron was common as a tool metal. I humbly suggest we might have learned a few things.

  • gene berman · November 29, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    Deep Thought is entirely correct and has a practical summation. The religious scholars of the past were concerned with far more than theology and provide a window to the history of thought on still-relevant topics. Problems of concern to the most modern economists and legal scholars, of great, continuing importance in the present, were known to and discussed by the ancients. Some of their conclusions, of course, are foundational to present legal and political institutions; others less satisfactorily “solved” continue to hamper and haunt us today.

    That all of these investigations and considerations should have been made by a comparatively restricted group studying a more or less restricted “core” of already-accomplished studies is no more remarkable than that “life was simpler in those days” and that the various fields of knowledge or of potential investigation had not been, therefore, so vastly expanded.

    Quite beside the arguments over the existence of a deity (and the claim to political authority of the representatives of such) is a quasi-theological question of long existence which still vitiates the development of a large portion of the world and its peoples: the matter of “interest,” “usury,” etc. (I don’t mean this for discussion,—merely as an example.)

  • gene berman · November 29, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    That (foregoing) being said, and despite sharing the opening commentor’s assessment of Ms. Mercer’s well-distributed charms (i.e., between personal and intellectual), I can’t find much enthusiasm for consulting the ancient sages in search of ammunition in support of one or another position regarding present problems, particularly in the economic sphere. As a matter of fact, such pronouncements, from writings in one or another of the dominant religious groups, are not acceptable, even-handed prescriptive aids for the present: to believe otherwise would recommend many practices with zero probability of practical success. Those most likely to believe that ancient recommendations such as we discuss are numerous among just such as are not us: the true believers.
    Ms. Mercer’s piece, in this light, is nothing new–it’s a throwaway,
    at most embodying a reminder that the contraindications for the announced policies have been around for a very long time. My own guess is that the piece was written specifically to be “picked up” by sites which number a much greater proportion of “believing” readers.

  • Barely A Blog » Updated: Your Godless Government At Work · November 29, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    […] (Nov. 29, 2008): At the “Secular Right,” John Derbyshire, also the only interesting writer at National Review Online (there you go, Ilana, making friends […]

  • Donna B. · November 29, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    Religion of some sort has been a part of human history for a long, long, time. Do you think there might be a reason for that? It’s reasonable to think it all started out with tribes and that satisfactorily explains to me why there are so many different creation myths.

    What it doesn’t explain is why so many tribes who never knew about the others experienced a need to develop a creation myth? The similarity of some of these myths are evidence of contact between groups, perhaps.

    I think it would be plain silly to avoid learning theology, especially the theological thinking of the past. It’s impossible to fully understand history without it. And you know what they say about those who don’t learn from history!

  • Secular Right » Ilana Counterblogs · November 30, 2008 at 9:17 am

    […] Ilana Mercer counterblogs (read down a bit) to my post on “Theology Outside the Tribe.” […]



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