Friday, January 06, 2006

InG we T - Supernatural expansion

In Gods We Trust
Communication 2.2 - Supernatural expansion

Humans have an ability and tendency to take small packets of infromation and assume large background stories. Put in Atran's words,

A few fragmentary narrative descriptions or episodes suffice to mobilize an enormously rich network of implicit background beliefs.


When this is applied to the malleability of abstract beliefs, we have the potential to create our own Gods complete with fully fleshed out narratives.

All things being equal, some supernatural beliefs are better candidates than others for cultural transmission and retention in any given population of human minds because (1) they are more attention-arresting; (2) they have greater inferential potential (3) they cannot be processed completely; (4) they are more emotionally provocative.


Atran cites a number of examples that make this list easy to understand. Perhaps applying this list to the most famous Christian narrative of them all is reasonable. A 30 year old man doesn't seem to make an overly arresting as a deity. Certainly the Jews of Jesus' time didn't think so. His virgin birth has high inferential potential. His human nature certainly leads to the idea that he could be fully processed, however, his trinitarian claims oppose this. Emotional provocativeness seems to depend on his acts of charity, the cruel (although for the time, not unusual) death, and his low caste status. These are rather ordinary things that probably become significant because of their baseness.

From my perspective, the areas where God could be made more supernatural are the areas where things may have become leavened. Perhaps it is just my perspective, but it seems like these are also the areas that traditional Christians defend vehemently against corruption: virgin birth, mystery of the trinity, and significance of the cross. Has traditional Christianity unknowingly done its best to supernaturalize the possible down to earth nature of divinity?

5 comments:

jeff g said...

I think that your account of Jesus' story should be modified. What Atran would really claim about Jesus' story is that the parts (and possibly inventions) of his life which were better candidates for transmission were the only ones which survived the oral transmission into the New Testament as we now have it. This is a far more interesting claim in my opinion.

chris g said...

Yeah, I actually edited out the extra paragraph I had that said basically that. However, it sets up a slippery slope that would carry away some things that are probably quite concrete.

I certainly think gospel reporters expanded on areas they found the most interesting. No doubt these involved the 4 points Atran mentioned. However since this leaves so much room for handwaving, I feel more comfortable just sticking with the way we now interpret the gospels. (Some how this seems much less sacreligous, and more conducive for acceptable reference points)

However like you say it is interesting to think of the ways one would expand on Jesus to make him more memorable. Some definitely make him more supernatural (modern trinity), others make him more human (humble birth, charity). All in all it seems like another plug for the propagation of minimally counter intuitive beliefs.

Jesus gets portrayed as the ultimate low caste human juxtaposed with the most supernatural of all possible gods. Quite the mix. Unfortunately this type of reverence seems to obscure much of his character. Is this because many would have trouble worshipping God as he may actually be?

chris g said...

Just a question Jeffrey, of the 4 points, which would you say has seen the most focus for expansion?

I would tend to say (3) incomplete processing. It seems like the modern trinity really focusses on this aspect of Christ. Well, at least this really stood out for me at the Christmas Mass I just went to.

jeff g said...

Well the second and third ones obviously allow for a lot of innovation in retellings of the stories, however the first form can also serve an important "editing" function as well where lots of information which simply isn't very attention arresting gets either forgotten or modified.

John Meier's work on Jesus jives very well with such a notion.

chris g said...

Yeah, I have always found it a shame we never get presented with more monotony is Jesus' life. I wonder how much this colors our perceptions of divinity. Perhaps it is like people's perceptions of missions. They hear the stories from the homecoming and assume that arresting miracles happen every day, when in reality it is mainly months of tedium interspersed with the occasional significant event.