REVIEW: Baigent's Book On Fundamentalism in Abrahamic Religions
Racing Toward Armageddon: The Three Great Religions and the Plot to End the World by Michael Baigent (HarperOne, 2009), hardback.
Michael Baigent is probably best known to many readers as co-author of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which in part formed the basis for Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code. Baigent is author of three other books on religion, and co-author of seven others on metaphysics and religion, including, The Inquisition.
First let me get out of the way my objection to the word "The" in the subtitle,"The Three Great Religions...." By specifying "The" the publisher (and my bet is that the subtitle wording is the publisher’s not originally Baigent’s) implies inaccurately that there are only three great religions. It would have been far better to leave off the word "The," so that the title means three of the Great Religions (I know, for some the word "great" may be problematical, but if we think of it as meaning "large" rather than "wonderful" we can get by). Even better would have been "The Three Abrahamic Religions..." but my guess is that although Baigent uses the term "Abrahamic"(meaning religions that can be traced to the patriarch Abraham: Judaism, Christianity and Islam) in this book, it wasn’t used in the subtitle because it is not yet immediately understood by the general public.
Okay, moving right along: It’s important to keep in mind when reading and evaluating this book—and Baigent does endeavor to make it clear—that he is not writing about the belief system and actions of all people in Abrahamic religions, but rather a small segment of each of these religions which have a growing influence not only on religion but on politics and world events. Baigent examines each of these fringe groups in great detail and gives an overall view of what they have in common: they are anti-democratic, subordinate women, want to establish theocracy, are messianic, believe that the end of the world is at hand and that this is a good thing, and are militant—with some factions embracing militarism and other forms of violence to achieve their goals which, in Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, include world domination.
Baigent sees the geographical nexus of Abrahamic fundamentalism as Jerusalem. He begins the book with a map of the city as well as a very helpful timeline in 2 parts: "Israel and the Middle East to the End of the Crusades," which begins at the 4th Millennium B.C. and ends in A.D. 1291 (his abbreviations), and "Middle East, 1917 to Present," which ends in 2006. The book also includes, in the center, 8 pages of color photos of places and people in the Middle East and southern Europe, including the Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount, an "enigmatic" circular temple in Megiddo, a small temple dedicated to Isis in the ruins of Pompeii, and a modern artist’s portrayal of the Christian fundamentalist idea of "the Rapture."
To better understand Baigent’s discussion of Jewish fundamentalism, which exists mostly in Israel, it’s useful to know that Jews in Israel define themselves as either secular (in Hebrew, hiloni) or traditional (masorti). Other terms Israelis use to describe this difference are "religiously observant" (dati) or "not observant" (lo dati), and though there are some Israelis who align themselves with the more moderate Conservative and the liberal Reform types of Judaism, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate recognizes as legitimate only rabbis ordained in the Orthodox tradition and only they are permitted to perform Jewish marriages and grant divorces. In addition to just plain Orthodox, this includes rabbis who are ultra-Orthodox (haradi) and ultra-Orthodox-Nationalists (hardal). If you want a fuller explanation and more background, here are some links: NY Times article on the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem, ending with an anecdote about women having to sit in the back of the bus; Library of Congress (LC) 1988 article on Varieties of Israeli Judaism ; a more recent Wikipedia article, Religion in Israel.
Baigent’s investigation of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel begins with an examination of the belief that the existence of a perfect red heifer is necessary before the messiah can appear (and the "end times" proceed). He traces this back to the biblical descriptions of the sacrifice of a red heifer as part of purification rituals. He also relates it to the creation of the forbidden golden calf by the Israelites while waiting for Moses to come down from Mt. Sinai. (Some spiritual feminists have for some time wondered whether the golden calf was a Goddess symbol. A "perfect red heifer"–a young cow who hasn’t yet given birth–raises the similar questions about conscious or unconscious connection to what we are now certain was a history of Goddess worship among the Israelites and Judeans. Asphodel Long has written that the "cow and calf are universally a sign of the mother goddess," and are associated with the Hebrew Goddess Asherah.)
An ultra-Orthodox group in Israel, which Baigent considers fundamentalist, called the Temple Institute, is intent on re-building the Jewish Temple and reinstituting blood sacrifices, which were eliminated by rabbinic Jewry centuries ago. The Temple Institute has been trying to breed a perfect red heifer. In this endeavor they have had with the financial help of fundamentalist Christian groups. They thought they had achieved the feat, but uh-oh, the heifer grew a white tail. Apparently this breeding program continues, including at a least one place in the Louisiana, according to Baigent, but has been unsuccessful. Baigent also looks into other fundamentalist Jewish groups in Israel whose intentions include eliminating the Muslim Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount so that the Jewish Temple can be rebuilt. Baigent notes that despite Islamic contentions to the contrary, "many Jewish people do not share the view of the fundamentalists." Baigent also looks into a number of other groups and individuals he identifies with Jewish fundamentalism, including (and this was a surprise to me) the late American physicist and Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, among whose works are books on Jewish mysticism, including Kabbalah. Baigent thinks the following 1976 quote by Kaplan demonstrates his fundamentalism: "In Jerusalem, the Jewish people will thus become established as the spiritual and moral teachers of all mankind" and the Foundation Stone (now covered by the Dome of the Rock) is "the very center of creation" because it is "the place where all spiritual forces come together to influence the physical world." Baigent says Kaplan's view demonstrates "breathtaking arrogance" because it leave no room for other religions or spiritual systems.
In a chapter on "Armageddon," Baigent begins to look into fundamentalist Christian beliefs, including opposition to the theory of evolution, and the battle of Armageddon. He points out the absurdities in the Creationist arguments and the numerous inconsistencies when Christians try to apply the biblical book, "Revelation," to future occurrences. In the next two chapters, Baigent gives a clear and minute explanation of Revelation–and if you’ve ever wondered what in the world Revelation is all about this material will be very helpful to you. Along the way, he brings into the discussion King Arthur and the Grail legends, Saddam Hussein, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Islamic beliefs about the "end times." There is also an extensive discussion of the significance of the number 7 in Ancient Near East cultures including not only the Hebrews, but also the Mesopotamians (including mention of Inanna/Ishtar) and Egyptians. Regarding the Revelation description of "A woman, adorned with the sun, standing on the moon, with twelve stars on her head for a crown" (Rev. 12:1), Baigent does not get into any relevance to ancient goddesses but instead relates the image to the Virgin Mary, who, through this description, he says, "assumes the role of mother of the entire messianic community—in other words, the Christians." Baigent also explores Revelation’s dragon, or Leviathan, as being an allusion to a Canaanite creation deity. (Many Goddessians consider that the Leviathan was originally the Goddess Tiamat, who was then demonized as the Leviathan and slain. [See Asphodel P. Long’s In A Chariot Drawn By Lions, and Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, among others].) Baigent convincingly concludes, after deciphering the number of the Beast (666) that the author of Revelation, whom he calls John of Patmos, didn’t intend his scripture to be a prediction of future events, but rather a tract against the Romans of his own time, and that John meant Revelation to be taken metaphorically, not literally.
What about The Rapture? You know, that time right before Armageddon, when fundamentalist Christians say if you’re one of them, even if you’re dead, you get gathered up bodily, lifted up off the Earth to heaven, while below cars and planes you occupied crash, meals you were cooking boil and burn, etc., and that this comes before Armageddon and the subsequent thousand year rule of Jesus. Baigent finds some possibly-related Christian scriptural material; for example, Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17) which says in part:
At the trumpet of God, the voice of the archangel will call out the command and the Lord himself will come down from heaven; those who died in Christ will be the first to rise, and then those of us who are still alive will be taken up in the clouds....but Baigent finds no specific biblical reference to an event called "the rapture," nor to the sequence of events Christian fundamentalists associate with it. Baigent concludes that origin of the rapture scenario can be traced to the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States, and gives what he considers to be the two sources. But he maintains that
the fully formed picture of the rapture with its crashing cars and airplanes and its chosen ones vanishing up to heaven where they can view the horrors from ringside seats...was fashioned as recently as the 1950s and was first launched to a large public audience by Hal Lindsey in 1970 with his book The Late Great Planet Earth.In the chapters "Fighting for God," and "Planet Rushdoony" Baigent discusses world figures through whom the Armageddon/Rapture scenario has become incorporated into world politics. These include (but are not limited to) US Presidents Reagan, Bush I and II, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, several members of US Congress, various US military higher-ups, Ron Paul, and Sarah Palin. He decodes the code-words some U.S. politicians use to send signals to their fundamentalist base, and claims that a layer of evangelical Christian ministry has been placed on top of the already existing US armed forces military chaplains program. His explanations are fully detailed, as is his discussion of the Christian fundmentalist groups known as Reconstructionists and Dominionists and groups and people related to them. Baigent writes:
Those who have allied themselves with Reconstructionist ideas share in the plan to create, firstly in the United States, a theocratic state where democracy and the rule of manmade law no longer function....They want these laws [based on the 613 laws of Moses] to replace those of the U.S. Constitution...as well as all state law or those determined by the decisions of the Supreme Court....And they want a heavily armed theocracy, since they hold that a crucial task of the U.S. government is to maintain armed forces that are trained to conquer "in the name of Jesus."What is their rationale for advocating this?
Christian Reconstructionists hold that Jesus will not return until the Christian church has completely taken over all governments and the world has been converted to Christianity.Baigent writes that the late Rev. Rousas John Rushdoony, founder of the Chaldedon Foundation, a Christian Reconstructionist group, called for "death without mercy" for idolators (that would be, by their definition, most of us), and quotes others in this movement who have made extremely misogynist and anti-Jewish statements. He compares the Rushdoony mindset to the European Inquisition, discussing Malleus Maleficarum, the justification for killing many women for witchcraft. Baigent describes this text as "written by men who...were completely terrified by women, especially pretty women."
Next, Baigent explains the history of and difference among various factions of mainstream Islam and then zeros in on Islamic fundamentalism which, like Christian fundamentalism is misogynist, anti-democratic and intent on world domination in a time they term the Caliphate, which begins with the appearance of the messiah, whom they call the Mahdi. Baigent gives much detail about the various Islamic fundamentalist groups, their leaders and their beliefs.
He then begins wrapping up the book by comparing the attitudes and beliefs of the three Abrahamic fundamentalist groups and seeking some solace in groups within Abrahamic religions, such as the Sufis, that give hope for a more peaceful, balanced version of these religions. Yet in the closing chapter, "Welcome to the Gods," he wonders if monotheism leads inevitably to the views and actions manifested by religious fundamentalism. It seems to me, though, that the view that monotheism is the culprit is refuted both by his own description of the policies and actions of the polytheistic Romans and by contemporary fundamentalism in polytheistic religions, such as Hinduism.
IMO, the fundamentalism Baigent describes is at root motivated not so much by theology but more by the quest for territory and power, bolstered by tribalism and xenophobia. Theology is used (and twisted) to justify territorial conquest. Fundamentalist theological literalism prospers when people, many of whom have difficulty understanding metaphor, are comforted by easy answers to complicated theological (other other) questions. From its presence in polytheistic religions, I would conclude that fundamentalism is not based on how many deities are worshiped, but the on the nature of the deity(ies). Are the deities warriors or war-like? Do they dominate, or seek to dominate humans? the natural world? one another (if multiple deities)? Is one gender and type of sexuality favored over others? If so, then it matters not whether the religion has one deity or many, it is bound to end up in disputes, wars, and other power struggles. Baigent gets into this a bit, writing:
Surely it is obvious that the concept of "God" has long been misunderstood: this idea of an elderly father god in the sky.He calls for "a new vision of God" that isn’t a vengeful, jealous warrior. I would have liked to see this lead you know where, but instead it drifts into a brief discussion of the "inner understanding" of various religions including Roman Catholic saints, Greek hero cults and mystery traditions, ancient Egyptian beliefs, and esoteric Christianity and Judaism, including Kabbalah and the Hermetic traditions. He writes:
For the outer popular understanding a god or goddess is important as an authority figure, a source of morality, justice and social harmony, one who can impose fearsome sanctions on those who transgress and promise gifts for those in favor. For the secretive inner understanding, such an authority figure is irrelevant, all gods and goddesses are focusing and symbolizing different expressions of the one divinity.First, it seems to me his seeing many deities as "different expressions of one divinity," is itself monotheistic. Call me an panentheist, but rather than using the word one, as in "the One" I’m more comfortable with the term "All" as in "the All." Second, not all polytheists, even in "the popular outer understanding," see their deities as authority figures who impose sanctions. Most Goddessians, in particular, have rejected this view. But I see an even more practical problem with his idea: the "inner" trads he enumerates are not likely to be adopted by the people who are involved in fundamentalist religion, and in the instance of Abrahamic "inner understandings," such as the various versions of Kabbalah/Cabala/Qabalah, many of the same problems that lead to fundamentalist thought, such as hierarchy, opposition of the physical and the spiritual, and misogynist representations of feminine/female, still exist (for more on this, see Goddess Spirituality for the 21st Century: From Kabbalah to Quantum Physics).
Baigent seems to be suggesting that the problems posed by fundamentalism can be solved on a metaphysical/theoretical/philosophical level. Though this approach may be effective in the long run, I think it is too late in the game to rely on it alone. Rather the resolution, which needs to be as immediate as possible, is best attempted on a pragmatic level. What is needed, imo, is for us to be more aware of the issues and actions surrounding fundamentalism (a good first step is reading this book), to take (hopefully nonviolent) steps to make sure that the belligerent fringe doesn’t gain more political-military power, and to knuckle down and deal with the disputes in a secular, very down-to-earth, concrete manner to insure human rights and equality to all involved.
Despite my quibbles, I consider Racing Toward Armageddon a valuable book, packed with very helpful information, to help us understand the rise of religious fundamentalism and encourage our thinking on how to deal with its most insidious and militant aspects.
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