I actually just finished My Ishmael, the third book in the trilogy. So, I am far behind in reflecting on my thoughts on The Story of B, the second book, particularly as the ideas and themes come up again and again from other sources. Two recent connections were 1) an interview with Adele Diamond on Speaking of Faith that had a lot of similarities with Quinn’s thoughts on education and 2) Bill Moyers’ interview with Jane Goodall about her work with gorillas and trying to change the way we relate to the natural world.
What can I say? I will try to do better. Here is one attempt.
Of the three books, The Story of B has the most to say about religion. I previously talked about Quinn’s fascinating interpretation of Genesis and the idea of original sin. Quinn sees religion as a complement to totalitarian agriculture. Totalitarian agriculture is a destructive force that creates tremendous suffering and need. Quinn’s thesis is that salvationist religion, religion that is based on the idea that we need to be saved (primarily from ourselves), arose out of the need created by totalitarian agriculture. People look around and say, “Wow! We have totally screwed up the world. There is definitely something wrong with human beings. We need saving. Help!” Therefore we have religions that save us from ourselves.
Narrowly construed I would have to pretty much agree with the author’s take on the matter. When we narrowly define sin only as having to do with the individual human being, then we are responding to a flawed understanding of the world. I see how this thesis fits very neatly with his understanding of the rise of agriculture and civilization. However, when something is tied up so neatly with a pretty red ribbon, it is almost certainly not so simple (I think that could be said for a lot of his ideas). It’s also true that making simplifications and generalizations can help us see things that we miss on the confusion and complexity of reality.
Is Religion Part of the Problem?
Quinn certainly believes that salvationist religion, as he calls it, is part of perpetuating the myth that the problem is something inherent with human beings instead of looking at the destructive ways we have ordered our lives, particularly around agriculture and civilization. I have no beef with anything he says about agriculture or religion’s role in perpetuating myths. I do have a problem with the idea that this is grounds for dismissing religion (or salvationist religion) outright. I find my own Christian tradition robust enough to embrace what he is saying even as some of it undermines many of our traditional and historical ways of thinking about history, sin and salvation. I think he gives religion short shrift in order to prove a point and that’s unfair.
We, Christians and others, must own the ways our tradition has failed and been used destructively. We also must realize that it is a long history full of many ups and downs. The Bible itself is full of violence and mercy, texts of terror and texts of grace, love and hate, disturbing and comforting passages. To try and box this diverse collection of sacred writings into one simple message is reductionistic.
I continue to believe that my tradition, the one I know best, has the seeds within it of offering answers and hope to our deepest questions and longings… including the questions raised by Quinn.