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666 and all that, 6 – Conclusion

(Photo credit – One Mile at a Time)

How can the Christian world ever shed the broken model of the Imperial Church?  For 1700 years the siren-song of worldly power has lured prelates and zealots to the Circean Shore (see Homer’s Odyssey if you’re not sure what that is) of using the power of the sword and state to drag the unwilling into a phantom of the Kingdom of the Prince of Peace. 

It started with the Roman Caesars’ call to the pre-Schism Catholic clergy to bolster the Roman state in return for building it cathedrals and episcopal palaces, and granting extensive lands and benefactions.  After Rome fell, the various new kings discovered they also desperately needed the Church’s ministrations to help them rule and organize their fractious realms.

In the high Middle Ages Pope Innocent III (of ultra-ironic name and fame) claimed that the “Vicar of Christ on Earth” (a.k.a., himself, the Pope) had the power to anoint, even appoint, and dethrone monarchs of all ranks of power.  Popes called on princes to bring fire, sword and anathemas down upon Muslims and infidels of all sorts.  They authorized Inquisitors to flush out, hunt down, and eliminate dissidents, heretics, witches (sic.), and rogues of every description to force them to recant (under terrible torture) and all too often be consigned to the flames even after repenting as an example to any who might dare to question the anointed guardians of the Sacred Mysteries.  Sometimes even the greatest saints stood on the brink of condemnation. Too often they ended up bitterly disillusioned with the co-opting of their message and example to be channeled back into paths more readily manipulated by the ecclesiastical bureaucracy and office-holders.

During the Reformation, Master Reformers like Luther kept the old lie alive as they called on the princes to wipe out Anabaptists like wild dogs, root out and crush Jews as Christ-killers, and bring the wrath of God down upon the Harlot Papists. 

We will leave that tormented (and far from complete) record there.  

The great illusion is that somehow the old imperialist ways can be married to the Gospel of the Prince of Peace as “Christendom” and produce the Kingdom of God. In the New Testament that Kingdom is described as “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit”, the “peaceable Kingdom” where justice and mercy kiss each other and oppression and violence are banished for ever. The early Christian witness to their persecutors was “see how they love one another” not how they condemn and slaughter one another, let alone the unbelieving pagan masses.

Still, the light of hope has never departed.  Messiah has ever found little lights to fan into flame with new hope and to fulfill the call to go out into all the world and heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, teach and lift up the downtrodden, and defend the defenseless – even if it means going to die with them as Christ died with the criminals on his right and left hands and suffered the penalty of death for all who are alienated from their Maker.  Most of Christ’s light-bearers and truest witnesses are anonymous and unknown, even today, and as they ever have been.  Some come to wider notice and stand out so starkly that even the most brilliant high-flyers and loftiest and power-robe bedecked Church-leaders are made to see their own arrogant bankruptcy.  These humble ones no one can ignore come like Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa.  Most have gladly died unrecognized. Many have been women, ignored and erased from notice by men who declared them out of place and outside God’s proper order.

An imperialist church seems primarily to be a Western phenomenon.  African Christians, as those in the Arab world, and those in hostile places like the People’s Republic of China, have never known this phenomenon of the church openly partnering in the molding of society alongside government in order to gain and hold onto the reins of power.  It is in the West, and perhaps now especially in the USA, that the allure of holding the levers of power for Christians still lingers.

In the West the general populace also most resists the claims of Christians to speak truth about the Creator and His desire to bring the Good News of peace and goodwill to all humanity regardless of gender, colour, language, tradition, and socio-political class.  For it is from the once “Christian” West that the most terrible offences against these very benchmarks in the quest of equality and equity have issued, or so it is commonly claimed and widely believed.

The paradox is that it is also from the much-maligned former leading nations of “Christendom” that all the greatest steps in progress towards actually achieving meaningful advances in these very things have issued.  It is from these same nations that the forward movement in snapping the chains of oppression against women, racialized oppressed peoples, and downtrodden impoverished classes has come.  It is from the West that modern medicine and science have emerged to alleviate so much suffering.

The Capitalist West did not invent oppression and slavery and exploiting the poor.   Crushing peasants, serfs, and labourers and keeping them in their “assigned places” has been universal to almost every culture in recorded history.  Slavery in its many guises has been found in every society ever discovered, from primitive to most civilized.  The impetus to actually end it has flowed almost exclusively from the Christian heritage of the West.

Rather than recoiling from hopelessness at the retreat of its influence (as Western Christians tend to lament), the Church (as the united community of followers of Jesus) needs to rejoice in its apparent powerlessness and impoverishment.  We need to wholeheartedly renounce all the old imperialist ways and to take up the enormous challenges of doing the things that our Founder and Master called us to do from the very beginning. 

Let us take to heart that taking up the sword leads only to dying by the sword; seeking power by the “world’s” (the usual broken human methods) means only leads to corruption and destruction because they violate the Master’s criteria of successfully advancing His Kingdom.  To be great in His Kingdom is primarily “being the servants of all” and shaming the captors and oppressors by standing up to them and showing what real freedom looks like, unshackled by the delusions of grandeur based on showy exhibitions of glitzy one-upmanship based on money and position in the socio-political hierarchy.

It is the deep paradox of simplicity defying complexity. Yet if is so deep it defies the nimblest scientific and economic calculations.

As we conclude this extended meditation, let us return briefly to the enigma of Revelation, that last trumpet-blast of the Bible.  The picture it ends with is of the New Jerusalem in the New Heavens and New Earth, the renewed and redeemed Kingdom of God brought in by the triumphant return of Yeshua Messiah – Jesus Christ.  In that book He appears as both the Slain Lamb who redeemed the world and the Lion of Judah who will judge all the nations, setting right all wrongs and ending all sin and rebellion against the Creator.

Some find the book too gory and bloody to accept as a legitimate picture of the Loving God’s final word.  Yet our culture’s narrative does not quibble about a tremendously violent beginning called the Big Bang.  “Yes, but no one was alive to die yet,” they reply.  And that is true as far as it goes.  But what ensued – billions of years of evolution with death upon death upon death until now – untold quantities of death so that we might live.  “Yes, but that’s just Nature’s way (with nature as a personified stand-in for God). It’s completely impersonal and without malice.”  But somehow it gives all the appearance of intentionality and has led to personality and individuality.

The paradox is that if it is all random and apparently impersonal (yet somehow intentional), it is OK.  But if there is a Creator who made things happen and gave us life, the whole thing is unjust and wicked.  Especially because, according to that narrative, the Creator dares to pronounce that some of His/Her creatures can and will live forever because they have accepted an offer to reconcile with Him/Her and join His/Her family.

On the one side, everything will cease to exist, forever, and everyone who has ever lived and will live dies and stays dead forever – but that is not evil because it is mere impersonal (?) Nature, although it appears personal and individual everywhere you look…

The alternative narrative says a Personal Creator has left His/Her signature everywhere and on everything and in everyone. He/She offers eternal life to anyone who chooses to accept it by coming into relationship with Him/Her through His/Her chosen representative Redeemer.  But since masses of people want no part of Him/Her and that offer, He/She is unloving and wicked for not adopting them all and saving them all anyway, dragging them into something they reject and abhor with no respect for their personal right to choose their own destiny.  So in the case God is condemned for not being a tyrant and oppressor and not respecting your rights.  Sounds like having your cake and eating too…  In philosophical terms for the logical hair-splitters out there, this is a basic logical fallacy, a tautology along the “Gotcha both ways and either way, buddy!”

The message of Revelation is that we have a choice to come into reconciliation with the Creator; that the way of power, riches, exploitation, abuse and all that have no place or role or position in the Creator’s order.  They are human contrivances that enslave us to dark powers personified as things like the Great Dragon and a lot of smaller versions of the Dragon. 

In the end, all these things will be wiped out by the Creator.

In the meantime, we have a choice to take the old Imperial Highway – like the ancient “King’s Highway” that ran from Egypt to Mesopotamia and like the remorseless Roman roads built primarily to facilitate the expeditious passage of Rome’s irresistible juggernaut from one end of its dominion to the other.  Or we have the choice to take the King of Heaven’s highway down through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (death to all the delusions and illusions the other road offers) and out and up into the brilliant light of the Resurrection City of the Creator’s full purpose for us and all His/Her creation.

Maranatha!   

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Mountain-tops and Dark Vales

(Photo credit – Lanark County Tourism)

I make no claim to be a mountain-climber.  I am more of a mountain-hiker – someone who has backpacked and hiked through a considerable variety of mountainous and hilly terrain since I was a young man.  These include the Canadian and American Rockies, the Pacific Coast Mountains and Cascades, the Alps, Mount Sinai in Egypt, the Appalachians and Laurentians in Eastern North America, and a variety of smaller heights elsewhere.  Some of the best are even close to home, such as Blueberry Mountain at this time of year with its sweeping panorama of orange and red and yellow and gold foliage stretching over at least two hundred square kilometers.

I am not laying claim to some sort of special status.  I’m just saying that, upon reflecting, I was actually quite surprised at the various places I’ve been, things I’ve done, and experiences I’ve had over seven decades of an all-too-brief and quickly passing lifetime.

God-willing, I may yet get to put a few more pips on my life-map, and even another hilltop or two.  I certainly hope so and have more on my bucket-list as long as my knees and other physical attributes hold out. 

For me, going up a mountain has always been as much about the trip up as the reward of the stupendous view from the top.  There are some peaks I would never consider attempting – Mount Everest, for example.  Or the Matterhorn, or Mount Logan, Canada’s highest mountain. 

I understand the tremendous allure of doing something above and beyond what the rest of the crowd have done.  It’s one way some gain the fifteen minutes of fame Andy Warhol talked about back in the 1960s.  But if the main goal of doing all that excruciating work and subjecting your body to often significantly life-shortening strain is to get some sort of recognition and public acclaim, a sort of flash of the next-best-thing to immortality with your name marked down as one of a select few who ever did A, B, or C, well, maybe you need to re-examine your perspective on what we are in this world for when there are simply so many other aims and goals we can choose to pursue. 

The thing about getting “up there” with all its thrill of “making it to the top” is that you discover when you get there that, even with all that amazing landscape or seascape spread out before you, the ground you are standing on is usually pretty barren.  It is very rarely a very propitious place to build a home and put down roots.  The paucity and special adaptation of any vegetation and resident critters to the generally inhospitable environment at the world’s rooftop graphically illustrates this truth.  After taking appropriate time to absorb the vast splendour down below and all around, and to bask in the thrill of having made a climb a relative few have made, it dawns on you that what goes up must come down.

Few if any humans can live on a mountain-top for any appreciable period of time.  The air above ten thousand feet is pretty thin, although some groups have been able to do it if there is enough plateau or valley terrain to allow them to glean or produce enough to survive on.  But even they do not live on the peaks.  Even they have to come down from them to get home where they can actually live and enjoy life from day to day.

There is a bit of a parable here, one of those succinct little stories based on real-life experience that illustrates a deeper, inner, even spiritual side of reality.

Think about any mountain-top or peak experience or achievement your have ever had.  Maybe it was finally breaking through in your career or chosen role in life and getting the recognition and reward you longed for and felt you justly deserved.  Maybe it was winning the heart of “the One” and believing your “live-happily-ever-after” dream was coming true.  Maybe it was winning a big competition, or the big championship, the gold medal, the highest individual honour in the that thing you are really passionate about!  Maybe it was an heroic act that wowed the people all around and astonished even yourself in the doing – and still does when you think back on it.  Maybe it was the “eureka” moment of your conversion to God when you decided to live to honour the Creator.

There have probably been several such moments.  How incredible, precious, even sublime it seemed then, and can still seem even now in its reflected glow down through the years.  Some have been higher and more intense than others.  Some you realize were one-off for all time and could never be recaptured. 

I have known people who have never gotten over some such moment or moments.  It’s like the tremendous rush a drug-addict gets on the first hit of cocaine or meth or opioids.  They are hooked on the high and run after it constantly.

There is nothing wrong about wanting to feel good and seeking a special sense of fulfillment, but life is lived mostly in the mundane, among ordinary people doing ordinary things.  An orgasm is a great thing in its time and place, but we cannot live in continual yearning for the rush and continual regret of what has been.

In doing that, we become blind and insensible to the beauty and wonder that lies just outside the door.  We also miss what lies inside the door as we discover each other and learn to enjoy what lies within as much as what lies without.  Inner space is as wondrous as outer space.

Continually lusting after the misty mountain-top splendour leaves us paralysed down in the valleys of life, especially when, as inevitably we must, we encounter Death Valley.  As Psalm 23, written 3000 years ago by one of the great poets and composers of antiquity, puts it, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” 

The poet has a secret for getting through the worst times, and it isn’t desperately trying to scramble up the steep slopes of darkness closing him in.  He knows he cannot escape the ordeal.  He must walk through, but not alone.  For he has learned that the key to everything in life is in recognizing and accepting that he is not just a heroic individual standing alone against a host of foes or fighting his way to the top of the heap by his own strength and valour.  He stands on and in a real, living relationship with his Creator.

In several of his Poem-Songs, of which we still have about seventy-five, this great writer, who was also a person of decisive action when the time called for it, describes this intimate relationship, based on total acceptance that he has not been made just to pursue his own appetites and purposes, but to submit to a greater purpose and calling, one he is discovering as he lives life from day to day and year to year.

We have other information about this extraordinary man in other parts of the Book we call the Bible.  He was far from perfect, and made many mistakes.  Some were real doozies which cost him, his family, and even his nation very dear.

He was no better, and sometimes definitely worse, at least in certain actions, than most of the rest of us.  But he gives us a vivid and true picture about Mountain-tops and dark valleys, things we all experience as we reach the heights and sink into the depths as we explore the adventure of life.

In case you haven’t heard of the Poet-Composer to whom I refer, his name is David and he rose to the heights of power as a shepherd-boy who became the King of ancient Israel.  He won everlasting fame as a teen-ager by single-handedly slaying a real-life giant named Goliath.  As to the rest of his story, including some real dismal valleys, I leave you to explore it in the Biblical record of the Books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.

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666 and all that, 5 – The Imperial Church, 2

As long as the Christians faced—or feared—persecution by the Roman authorities…the book of Revelation provided consolation for their present sufferings, real or imagined, and the promise of a bloody revenge in the end-times.  But the contempt for imperial Rome that suffuses the book of Revelation was rendered suddenly and wholly obsolete when the Emperor Constantine (ca. 280-337) embraced Christianity in the early fourth century…. the Christian church was elevated from a marginalized and criminalized sect into the favored and protected faith of the imperial family, and, eventually, a kind of shadow government whose reach extended throughout the Roman Empire…. the condemnation of imperial Rome in the book of Revelation no longer made sense.  Indeed, the Christian church now styled itself as “the Church Militant and Triumphant.”

Jonathan Kirsch, A History of the End of the World.  (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p. 108

(Photo credit Wikipedia Pope Gregory 1)

The conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity (traditionally dated in 312 CE) was indeed one of the most revolutionary events of history, ancient or modern.  Within a generation, the once hounded and persecuted Christian minority within the Roman world went from underdog to top dog.  As that world fractured and withered on the vine, the Church became more and more the one truly cohesive social force within the Roman state, and increasingly a political power supplementing and sometimes even replacing the broken ligaments of the imperial administration.  Bishops became as powerful as governors in some instances.  As Kirsch puts it — “a kind of shadow government”.

When Constantinople became the primary imperial capital, the Bishop of Rome began to exercise an increasingly assertive role of overall leader of the Christian world, thus providing a counter-point to the distant Emperor for the Christians of the Western Empire, as long as it continued.  When the Western Empire died with a whimper in 476 CE, the Pope still stood in Christianity’s western regions as the symbol of Roman leadership, although no longer in the political sphere.

From that point on the divergence of the East and West of the old Roman world in culture, faith, and politics became sharper and sharper as the centuries passed.  We cannot rehash the whole tale here.  Plenty of accounts—short or lengthy—are available to the curious.  What is of interest in our reflection is how the Church was henceforth haunted by the memory and the nostalgia of its first 200 years even as it became anchored in its imperial identity.

Henceforth the Christian Church suffered from a dual personality, an inner tension between those who longed for and strove to recover the early days of innocence and total devotion to the true King, Jesus the Messiah, whose Kingdom is “not of this world” (or this age), and those who adopted a posture of “realism”, employing methods and models long used in human affairs for exercising power and influence and gaining control of the social and political agenda.  Increasing economic power followed, sometimes through huge donations and bequests of the rich and powerful seeking to buy “fire insurance” as death raised its spectral head in their path.

The resultant tension and sometimes open conflict between the two personalities inevitably resulted in a pendulum of guilty attempts by the “realists” to find ways of appeasing and even accommodating the prophetic elements confronting them with their sell-outs and compromises, punctuated by occasional outright repressions and persecutions of the fanatics, who were usually officially excommunicated as heretics before force was called out to either bring them to heel or eliminate them altogether.

The earliest of these brutal episodes was the infamous Donatist suppression in the fifth century CE.  In that case, there was abuse and guilt enough to go round on both sides.  The interested reader is invited to consult any competent history of the Church, such as Kenneth Scott Latourette’s.

The tension was quite visible well before that, when the first hermits appeared and became best known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  Yes, Mothers too!  There were thousands of women who also adopted withdrawal from the world and its affairs.  [i]  The hermits and desert communities of disciples gave rise to the whole monastic movement, which was born out of the need to provide, for those wanting and needing it, a release from the increasingly compromised and syncretised lifestyle of the now “official” religion of the Empire.

Another clear signal of a growing hybridization was the adoption of an elevated view of the Church’s leaders from that of “servants” to “Clergy” – an elite class of persons called out and set apart to lead and direct from a position set above the rest of the believing congregation.  It is significant that the chief proponents of this kind of elitism were people like Ignatius of Antioch, Cyprian of Carthage, and Pope Gregory 1 (the “Great”), bishops recommending the veneration of bishops especially, but presbyters (local congregational leaders, or elders) as well.

All these changes, along with the early adoption of liturgy to formulize ceremonies and practices along with the selected “ministers” for these, created the “Church” as an institution sharing many of the same characteristics and ceremonial of the Jewish priesthood and even some pagan garb and titles.  When the priests of Jupiter in Rome ceased to carry the title “Pontifex Maximus” (greatest High Priest or ‘bridge-maker’ [between humans and the gods] the Bishop of Rome quickly lay claim to it as appropriate for the leading “Patriarch” (a Greek word meaning ‘father-ruler’) of the Christian world.  By that point the leading Bishops (Greek episkopoi) of the Church had adopted that title as appropriate for the highest-ranking prelates in a few of the great metropolitan centers (e.g., Rome, Alexandria, Ephesus, Corinth).  Not all “Metropolitans” were equal either.  Eventually it boiled down to a supreme rivalry between the Patriarch of Rome (affectionately styled ‘Papa’ – Daddy, now rendered ‘Pope’ in English, ‘Pape’ in French, but still “Papa” in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese) by the Roman populace, and the Johnny-come-lately upstart Patriarch of Constantinople who only gained that dignity because of his close connection to the Emperor, now based in that city on the frontier between Europe and Asia.

Thus we see that by the end of the Fourth Century CE, the Imperial Church had emerged full-blooded, while the original sense of Jesus calling His followers apart to follow a different path was far from lost among millions of his followers who looked with alarm on this heavy-footed march into full-blown political and social involvement of the most injurious kind for a movement supposed to lead people into the peaceable and love-based Kingdom of God rather than a holy-water-sprinkled repurposing of “Caesar-is-Lord” (even of the Church) as per the Roman (morphing into Byzantine by that point) model.

TO BE CONTINUED


[i]  The very important and significant role of women in the early Church has been mostly buried since the 5th Century.  It is a tale which men have too often refused to admit took place and that their counterparts of those generations actively sought to suppress. 

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666 and all that, 4 – The Imperial Church, 1

Above all, the Book of Revelation has always been used as a kind of codebook to discover the hidden meanings behind the great events and personages of history—war and revolution, kings and conquerors, pandemic and natural disaster.  And the words and phrases of Revelation, its stock figures and scenes, have recycled and repurposed artists and poets, preachers and propagandists—all in the service of some religious or political or cultural agenda.  The conquest of Jerusalem by medieval crusaders, the Bonfire of the Vanites [1492-4] in Florence during the Renaissance, the naming of the newly discovered Americas as the New World, and the thousand-year Reich promised by Adolf Hitler are all examples of the unlikely and unsettling ways that the book of Revelation has resonated through history.  Even today, end-of- the-world fears and fantasies are peddled by Hollywood moviemakers and best-selling novelists, hard-preaching televangelists and presidential hopefuls.

Jonathan Kirsch, A History of the End of the World.  (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), pp.3-4.

(Photo credit – Alamy)

Professor Kirsch has given only a very short list of examples of how Revelation has been (ab)used by fanatics, zealots, and cynical manipulators to justify their own wickedness as Divine will.  From Augustine of Hippo (early 5th Century) calling for the Emperor’s wrath on the Donatists to the Inquisition to some of the US’s farthest Right in the last few decades, the refrain has been the same.

The sincerity of someone’s belief in their own rationalization for taking on the role of God’s avenging angel to bring judgment on apostates and infidels does not reduce their delusion or the downright wickedness of their deeds.  All the more if those deeds were done in full knowledge of their ability to inflame others to do their dastardly work in the name of Christ.

It is the shame of the Church (the Universal Church of Jesus, not any particular denomination) to have sanctioned and participated in some of the bloodiest and most reprehensible deeds of history by invoking the glorious King of Kings as their Commander in launching aggressive and murderous war.  As Kirsch notes, even Hitler used that angle to deceive, or at least salve the consciences of, millions of German Christians as he went about “cleansing the earth” of the unworthy in order to inaugurate his own version of the millennium.

Fanatics are not peculiar to Christianity.  We have seen them in action within other religions with the same manifestations of justifying heinous and diabolical actions in the name of their god(s).  We have seen them in action in atheistic socio-political ideologies with fury that at least equals and often exceeds that of religious zealots.  When Christians slide into that yawning abyss it is a fundamental betrayal of everything their Master taught and exemplified.  Only the deepest (self-) deception about who Yeshua is, why he came, and what he did can move those calling themselves his disciples to behave like the Devil himself.

Which brings us to what I call the “Imperial Church”.

The Church (Greek – ekklesia – the assembly of the people, of the citizens, of the community) is the institutionalized form of the community that Yeshua left behind him when he left this world, promising to return someday to renew it from top to bottom.  Meantime he instructed his disciples and followers to go into all the world and teach and demonstrate what the Kingdom of God should be like in action, not just in a theology about judgment and punishment of sin (human failure to turn back to the Creator and to treat one another and His creation as they should).

In the Bible there are plenty of metaphors and images of what that Kingdom is and what it should look like when put into place and lived in action in the here and now, not just in some future age when Yeshua will return to actually rule as the final King.  Jesus once told his disciples that they should be “in the world, but not of it”, that they should not seek to rule and dominate “like the rulers of the nations do” – by fear, coercion, manipulation, oppression, and violent force to bring compliance or face annihilation.  He told his followers, “If you want to be great in God’s Kingdom, be the servant of all…. Wash one another’s feet.”

“Aye, and there’s the rub,” as Shakespeare would say.  The Yeshua way is a lot harder than gathering a powerful army, marching into some place, ordering everyone to believe or face the alternative of, at best, being a slave or lower-class menial serving the elite, or, at worst, death and destruction.  The Yeshua way is feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, caring for the poor and destitute and downtrodden, lifting up the oppressed and bringing them hope, and even offering mercy and the opportunity to repent and change to the most depraved and criminal.

The truth about the Yeshua way is that it takes a long time to bring about change in human hearts and society itself.  And you still have to always contend with the rebels, the recalcitrant, and the plain old incorrigibly wicked who still want to use and abuse and control and dominate others.

In an ideal word where people were really inherently good rather than broken and selfish and prone to take advantage of others for self enhancement and personal gratification, we could bring in the Kingdom of the Messiah by lived example and persuasion.  According to all the evidence available in history, psychology, sociology, and anthropology, we find ourselves in a world where humans do not naturally (perhaps with some odd exceptions) treat one another nicely and fairly with any constancy.  Even the best of us fall into patterns of behaviour that put ourselves in the place of the Creator at the core of our being.

Which is why we need one another’s help; which is why we needed (and need) the Creator to take a direct hand in showing us the way out, and giving us a changed heart.  Which is why the Creator sent the embodiment of all that in an actual living human being – Yeshua of Natzeret – two thousand years ago.

We will not engage here in the debate about whether what Christians traditionally believe about Yeshua-Jesus is true.  The purpose of this reflection is to consider what those who profess to follow him and to desire the coming of his Kingdom in this realm of time and space have made of his legacy.  That legacy was entrusted to a community, not merely to individuals to figure and live out on their own.  Yeshua called that community his ekklesia – see the definition above – more like a great extended family acknowledging God, the Creator, as its Father-King, and the members as sons and daughters, sisters and brothers.

For about 250 years after Yeshua bodily left the earth, the Ekklesia more or less remained true to the intent of its Founder.  But things were often hard.  Most of the family lived inside the Roman Empire, and the Roman authorities were capricious in their treatment of them.  Some Emperors ignored them as relatively harmless idealists suffering from delusions of mystic grandeur.  Some decided they were a threat to the social and even political order of the Empire and sporadically persecuted them.  Some local governors sometimes took it upon themselves to use force and coercion against these dissidents who claimed there is a heavenly King even above the Emperor and discouraged their sons and brothers from serving in the Roman military and government.

The numbers of the family grew into the millions over the generations, and finally the Roman State decided to destroy this insidious social infection.  Massive persecutions broke out in the Third Century.  Tens of thousands of Christians were killed.  Tens of thousands more recanted, at least publicly.  Tens of thousands more went underground, but carried on – and the numbers continued to grow.

A crisis was at hand.  It seemed that one side or the other must give way in the great contest of Caesar versus Jesus Christ (Messiah Yeshua).

TO BE CONTINUED

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666 and all that, 3

Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword. – Yeshua/Jesus in Mattthew 26:52

God’s Kingdom, you see, isn’t about food and drink, but about justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. – The Apostle Paul to the Romans, chapter 14, verse 17.

The large majority of American white Evangelicals have adopted a particular brand of militant, militaristic, and America-is-God’s-chosen-land centered “gospel”.  In their view, the message of peace and reconciliation so loudly and clearly proclaimed by Jesus and the early Christians is relegated to the sidelines as a sort of wimp-out only fit for acceptance after the Second Coming when Jeus will destroy all the infidels and mete out hell-fire justice on all unbelievers.

This thinly disguised, racialized and military form of “gospel” has seized control of the dialogue in the “good-ole-USA” and driven the socio-economic divisions between the haves and have-nots in that great nation deeper and deeper.  Despite the heroic “we’ve got to save the country from the Beast (whatever the latest appearance of that may be)” rhetoric, it is a gross distortion of the spirit of everything Jesus exemplified and taught.  It uses very select excised Bible references to create a pseudo-Jesus transformed from the Redeemer, the Reconciler, and the Prince of Peace to the ultimate warrior and avenging angel.  

Interestingly, the deepest roots of this dark ideology are in the Deep South, the states that once formed the slavery-based Confederate States of America and launched the Civil War, which very nearly destroyed the United States.  The current ideology does not, of course, promote old-style slavery, but preaches the need for virile white evangelical manhood to stand up strong and keep the wrong sort of people from running the USA.  From these roots, southern-style colonial enclaves of “Jesus the ultimate Manly-man and Warrior” ideologues have established camps in other key areas, such as Colorado Springs.  This baptized and thinly spiritualized socio-political ideology appeals most deeply to white working class and middle-class people feeling threatened by the rise of egalitarianism and the progressive movement’s quest for recognizing in fact and not mere words the full equality of women, Afro-Americans, and other long-sublimated ethnic groups.

To legitimize this “Church-militant” stance, a crusade is always essential.  Causes against which to take up the battle for the national soul and throw down the social gauntlet may shift as needed.  First there was Communism in the Cold War, along with its many leftist disguises, such as disarmament.  That old bogeyman still lurks in the closet to be pulled out whenever the Left moves into power and espouses radical changes ranging from social medicine to gay rights (and all the latest addenda to that original social revolutionary sex-wedge).  Terrorism is another and Islam is its most virulent form, making Muslims a choice target.  Family values and issues are always a great rallying point, as is abortion. 

Even fellow Christians of the more moderate and liberal strains can be good foils to mobilize the troops.  After all, the clear-eyed warrior must push out those who compromise and even betray the “true Gospel”.  This “gospel” somehow seems to be found only in America and only among the right kind of passionate disciples who stand on a particular set of principles regarding Biblical inerrancy and exclusive male leadership and headship, especially as regards the family and the Church.

What has all or any of this to do with 666, the Apocalypse (Revelation), and Eschatology?  It is essential to hold to the imminence of Christ’s return in order to stimulate the necessary zeal and garner the necessary funds to keep all the machinery of evangelical empire and socio-political culture strong enough to heavily influence the power-brokers and decision-makers in Washington and the states which form the core of this power-bloc.  Fanning the hope of Christ’s imminent return creates urgency, and the threat of the latest iteration of 666 and the Beast makes that more real, and justifies the massive propaganda machine that has been erected and underpins this huge bloc.

To expose all of this is far beyond the scope of this blog and its blogger.  What is of enormous concern here is that this whole worldview permeates the lives and lifestyles of between 80-100 million Americans, the massive majority of whom are white Evangelicals who have adopted a triumphalist, ultra-nationalist ideology disguised as “true Christianity”.  Its chief promoters are no doubt fanatically convinced that they are the exclusive elite who truly understand and must lead the rest, even at times by subterfuge and outright manipulation of the truth, if necessary. 

It matters little how often such distortions and manipulations are exposed for what they are.  It matters little how often the preachers of purity and righteousness and strong family values are caught out in flagrant scandals that totally discredit what they proclaim themselves the champions of.  The other leaders then provide covers and excuses and half-truth justifications, or offer some token of reprimand, but then declare that the truths are still true and the cause is still pure and just.

The narrative declares that America is still the only real hope of the world, the home of freedom and the true light among the nations.  Despite whatever seems to contradict this, the USA still has its sacred mission, appointed and anointed by the Lord Jesus Himself, built on the faith of the Founding Fathers as the City on the Hill in the New World.

There is no mistaking that at times America has been an agent of enormous good in the world, and still has the potential to be so again.  But it has also produced another image and persona of itself that puts it out of line with anything the true Gospel of Jesus Christ could be as a genuine reflection of the Master who willingly died on Golgotha at the hands of the ancient world’s greatest Superpower and the instigation of the ancient world’s most God-fearing religious establishment.

What the US brand of ultra-Evangelicalism most resembles historically is the fanatical Crusaders who believed that killing those who refused to accept Christ or opposed the preaching of His message was both just and essential if His Kingdom is ever to be brought into the world.  There is none of the humility and self-understanding of being a fallible sinner who might even betray the Master that we find in the Apostles or the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Fathers and Mothers of the ancient Church.  There is no hint of the first believers who “turned the whole world upside down” and shook the foundations of the Empire itself by turning the other cheek, turning back to be crucified with his people, as Peter did, or heading to Rome to face the Emperor himself even if it meant death, as Paul did.  There is no hint of “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you and persecute you, and so you will prove yourselves to be the children of your Heavenly Father”.

Instead we see a militant, militarized, triumphalist pseudo-Gospel ready to wage war on all evil-doers (as identified by the rabble-rousers naming the latest incarnation of anti-Christ) and changing the Jewish Rabbi Messiah into a westernized Terrible King of vengeance bringing the wrath of God on all sinners because the time for soft-hearted mercy has passed.  In the world of America’s iteration of Evangelicalism, “true Christian men” must stand up and man-up and take up arms to defend their wives (who need to submit and accept what hubby says as God’s will) and protect their children.

It is perhaps not too far-fetched to say that in all this what we are witnessing is a national cult, and a genuine 21st-Century heresy.

(Suggested reading for the dubious, the curious, or the furious: Jesus and John Wayne, How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, by Kristin Kobes du Mez, 2020)

TO BE CONTINUED

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666 and all that, 2

You see, the royal appearing of the Son of Man [Jesus’ own term for himself] will be like the lightning that comes from the east and flashes across to the west.  Where the carcass is, there the vultures will gather.

Jesus – Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24, verses 27-8

(Photo credit – Jesus film project)

When faced with the kaleidoscopic symbolism found in the Biblical Book of Revelation, many readers of the New Testament throw up their hands and decide to ignore it.  It is among the least read books of the Christian Scriptures, although among the most written about in the last half century or so.  Those who favour it believe that it holds the secret to understanding “the Last Days” or “End Times” and deciphering when the “Great Tribulation” will begin and what that will look and be like.

For instance, certain verses in the book suggest that that terrible last age will last seven years and be characterized by the coming into global rule of “the Beast”, seconded by the great “False Prophet”, his main henchman.  Behind the Beastly throne stands the Great Dragon, Satan, whose spirit the Beast incarnates and whose word the False Prophet speaks with deadly authority.

One popular school of interpretation among Conservative Evangelicals includes the Pre-Millennial “Great Rapture”.  This particular approach to the overture of the Great Tribulation (and, by extension, Revelation) is largely rooted in a brand of North American (and especially United States) Evangelicalism mostly held by whites.  There it has taken deep cultural root, while many Evangelicals of “colour” find it a largely racist, militarist, nationalist stream that contributes to their own continuing exclusion from the mainstream of American society.  Unfortunately, there is rather good reason for their perception.  The early genesis of this peculiar form of eschatology is found among some eccentric sects of extreme mid-19th Century English Brethren (Darbyites and Millerites) and offshoots, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

It is rather concerning that the presently favoured (North American) Evangelical doctrine about the “End Times” was born among such origins.  It crossed into more mainstream and “respectable” Evangelical avenues largely thanks to Schofield’s innovation of Dispensationalism.  This took root in the Pentecostal Movement, and later in the charismatic prophetic strand of American Evangelicalism, and now in a generalized way across many denominational lines.

The Pre-Millennial Rapture perspective was thus unknown until less than two hundred years ago.  The ancient Christians knew nothing of it.  In current use some verses of the Apostolic writings are interpreted to say that it was the original teaching of the Apostles and what Jesus meant in a few of His Apocalyptic sayings, but for 1800 years the greatest interpreters of the Scriptures said nothing about this understanding of how the End Times would play out.

Sadly, many of those who hold most steadfastly to this special understanding of Eschatology (the study of the last or final things) seem unprepared and unwilling to consider very powerful arguments that place the accuracy of this whole scheme into serious doubt.

For instance, in the first part of this series we noted that seven is one of those especially important numbers in The apocalypse.  Throughout the rest of the Scriptures, its primary meaning is “complete, whole, full, perfect” and not primarily, although it may be that sometimes, a mathematical quantity.  Tribulation means “great trouble”.  Anyone who lives past the age of seven knows that trouble and even great trouble is not and cannot be limited to a seven-year window.  And such is true in history too.  The primary meaning is not seven literal years, but the fullness of time till “the age of the Gentiles is done” as Jesus put it in talking of the destruction and desecration of Jerusalem.

Yeshua (Jesus) said “In this world/age/time/life, you will have tribulation/great trouble.  But take comfort, for I have overcome the world (the brokenness of the creation and the pains of our existence).”  Seven stands for something quintessential and “full-up” with regard to many things in other references.  To insist that in this single instance it must be a literal time so it fits with a certain modern way of interpreting the most symbolic and allegorical of all Biblical books does not do it justice and even distorts it.  The real point is that very great trouble is always to be expected in this age before it ends with the coming of the “Son of Man”.  Jesus warned, “If the Son of Man had not returned, no one would be left,” and “When the Son of Man returns, will He find faith in the world?”  That is a perennial existential question.

The “prophesied time” has already been much longer than seven years.  There has already been unimaginable tribulation in many places over the last two thousand or so years since the Ascension of Christ.  Ask the tens of thousands who died in the Roman persecutions under some of the most horrific tortures ever devised.  Or the millions who have died in “religious wars”, or under Nazi, Soviet, Chinese Communist, and Islamist persecutions.  It is the filling up, the finishing that is being emphasized, not the specific number of days, weeks, months, and years that we need to be counting down.

In describing the signs (in The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24, verses 27 and following)that will accompany or precede his Second Coming Jesus says:

You see, the royal appearing of the Son of Man [Jesus’ own term for himself] will be like the lightning that comes from the east and flashes across to the west.  Where the carcass is, there the vultures will gather.

Vultures gather where dead bodies lie.  The Son of Man comes and is coming and is to be looked for at all times, and all the more in the times of great trouble when the bodies pile up.

Straightway… after the suffering that those days will bring, “The sun will turn to darkness, and the moon won’t give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will shake.”

We are not being told that the universe will cease following the laws of physics here.  We are being told in Apocalyptic language to expect the most extreme forms of evil and spiritual darkness to break through.  It will seem as though all of existence is crashing down.  There may well be physical phenomena at play creating the blocking of light.  In God’s order, the physical and spiritual are one reality, not two.  The heavenly bodies also speak of “the spiritual powers of wickedness in heavenly places” (Ephesians chapter 6:10 and following) which battle against the coming of the Kingdom of God with all their might and main.

And the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven; then all the tribes of the earth will mourn.  They will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.  He will send his messengers [angels] with a great trumpet-blast, and they will collect his chosen ones from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other….

Nobody knows what day or time this will happen…

In His own time, the Messiah will break through and come (again) to deal with the rebellion and chaos of satanic lawlessness, but trying to lay it all out in a modern schemata is a diversion.  Moderns (even modern Western Christians, who are people of their own time) want to calculate it all like we calculate an engineering problem, but we cannot box God or His plans in no matter how minutely we dissect the verses that tantalize us.  It is our modern rationalism that drives us to do what the ancients knew better than to attempt.  It is actually weak faith, not strong faith (trust) that drives us to this kind of obsession.

The royal appearing of the Son of Man will be like the days of Noah.  What does that mean?  Well, in those days, before the flood, they were eating and drinking, they were getting married and giving children in marriage, right up to the day when Noah went into the ark.  They didn’t know about it until the flood came and swept them all away.  That’s what it’ll be like at the royal appearing of the Son of Man.

This is transparently not about being snatched out of peril, but being swept up in it because of rejecting the way out (salvation) God has provided.

On that day there will two people working in the field.  One will be taken; the other will be left.  There will be two women grinding corn in the mill.  One will be taken; the other will be left.

In this illustration, Yeshua was speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem, not the Great Rapture at the End of Days.  The whole description is of a terrible siege as per the Roman Army’s masterly way of taking strong cities and fortresses.  It is also what happened in the fields around Jerusalem when Titus’s juggernaut descended on that area to lay siege to Israel’s great city.

So keep alert!  You don’t know what day your master will come.  But bear this in mind: if the householder had known what time of night the burglar was going to come, he would have stayed awake and wouldn’t have let his house get broken into.  So you must be ready!  The Son of Man is coming at a time you don’t expect.  (The Kingdom New Testament, a Contemporary Translation)

We think the “burglar” in this little parable is the bad-guy and the householder is the good-guy, but the whole context turns that on its head.  The “householder” is the strong-man (as he is called in a parallel passage) who invaded the house and usurped the property of the rightful owner.  It is the Satan who has done this to the beautiful world God created.  The “burglar” is the rightful owner coming back to claim his own.  That is why Jesus says “he will come like a thief in the night”.

It is time we started seeing our time more clearly by shedding some distorted lenses we have fallen into using for the last two centuries or more.  It is time to also begin to see the lamentable condition of the Master’s House partly caused by distortions of reality we have adopted in the name of the Kingdom of God since ancient times.

TO BE CONTINUED

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666 and all that, 1

“This calls for wisdom.  Anyone with a good head on their shoulders should work out the monster’s number, because it’s the number of a human being.  Its number is Six Hundred and Sixty-Six.”

Revelation 13:18 – The Kingdom New Testament, a Contemporary Translation

(Photo – Nero. Credit: History.com)

For 1900 years, the number 666 has spooked Dooms-Day prognosticators.  It has been much used in horror movies, fantasy, and science-fiction.  We find it in religious sensationalism and prophetic predictions.  It is strewn across centuries of literature and dire warnings of the coming of the Final Judgment.[i]

It is the Apocalyptic Number of “the Great Beast”.  For those who first heard it used two millennia ago, it was code for the mad Roman Emperor Nero.  Then he died.  Then he was rumored to have come back to life, like the head wounded unto death but returned to life in the final book of the New Testament, Revelation, also called “the Apocalypse of St. John”.

To many and perhaps most readers who try to fathom that mysterious scroll, it comes across as a fantastic sounding and seemingly confusing set of visions (confusing to us two thousand years later) full of sevens within sevens, wheels within wheels, conspiracies within conspiracies, and mysteries within mysteries.  Six Hundred and Sixty-Six was also the “Mark of the Beast” stamped on the hand or the forehead, or both, of those who would give in and become the servants and slaves of the Beast.  This last book of the Bible has given limitless scope to fertile and fervent imaginations, both for those who revere the Bible and those who see it simply as a fascinating source of imagery and fantasy.

There is no doubt that the Apocalypse (a Greek word that means “unveiling” or “revealing” – thus the translation “Revelation”) is a fascinating book, even to those who do not adhere to Christianity or the Bible.  It is actually an especially powerful example of a certain genre of ancient literature known as the “apocalyptic”.  The ancient Jews were especially prone to produce such works in the Second and First Centuries BCE, with some carryover into the First Century CE.  There were even some non-Jewish apocalyptic works.

John, the author of Revelation, is firmly anchored in the apocalyptic tradition, although quite unique within it as well.  Unlike most other apocalyptic writers, John (usually believed to have been Jesus’ “beloved Disciple”, the Apostle John) is actually crystal clear in the central message of his story (and yes, he does tell a story – a very powerful one).  Many other such works are rife with mysterious obscurities and veiled meanings only the special initiates (Gnostics) can fathom.  John’s basic purpose and story are totally transparent when you get past a few primary keys that open the locks to the combinations of sevens and other numbers – such as the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”, references to three and a half “times”, and the use of triple six.

The book and its story are obviously not a literal history of the times and culture of the late First Century CE, but they are full of recognizable allusions to that time and its major cultural features, just as other Biblical books are the products of their time and set within the culture of their periods.  Revelation is set in the form of an extended letter to seven particular late First Century Christian congregations in the Roman Province of Asia (now west-Central Turkey).  That is an important contextual point.

This series will not rehash and reinterpret all the Book’s very complex structure and imagery.  The intention is to set out a few major points which will provide us with a basis to deal with some of our own time’s and culture’s critical issues.  Despite the temporal difference of almost two thousand years, there are remarkable parallels which we may do well to consider as we work our way through the turmoil of our own years of great and rapid change.

First, a point about numbers and numerology.  There are many numbers in Revelation.  They almost never mean an empirical, scientific, mathematical quantity.  They are representative of other notions and ideas which bridge the visible, sensory Cosmos in which we mostly, consciously experience reality and the spiritual but just as real side of reality.

Two numbers in Revelation stand out above all others – 666 and various groups of seven.  In ancient Biblical numerology (the study of the symbolic use and meaning of numbers), six is the number of humans, “Man”, the human race (see opening citation).  Why?  Humanity was the apex of all creation, created last on the sixth and last day of creation.  In contrast, seven is God’s number, as well as the number of completion, wholeness, finality.  God rested after the creation on the Seventh Day, consecrating and declaring it holy – set apart for Him.  There are not seven days of creation, but six, for seven is the “Sabbath” – the Day set aside for rest, renewal, regeneration.  “And God rested on the seventh day.” (Book of Genesis 1)  It is the number of completion, maturation, perfect work.  God named it His own day.  On it humans were to turn to their Creator and be renewed, stopping all their work and striving.

If seven first of all refers to God’s finished, perfect, good work of creation, what is it with all the sevens of judgment and destruction in Revelation?  That is complicated.  It has to do with all the wickedness and rebellion and destruction of the Creation against the Creator – most especially by humans, egged on and bamboozled by the “Great Serpent” – the beguiler and deceiver, the “Great Dragon” we meet in the twelfth chapter of the book.  Judgment is primarily the failure to enter the Sabbath rest of the Creator, to take the extended hand of God and draw closer to the Creator.  That rejection entails abusing and exploiting the creation for our own purposes rather than what we and they have been created for.  The creation then becomes broken, twisted, contorted and full of pain and thrashing about in futility.  The sevens of judgment are all about what that looks like in various guises.  Over the millennia, this brokenness has accumulated and become an exponentially inflated mountain to the point that we have become capable of physically wiping out the great gift of life God made to us on Planet Earth.  Revelation talks about the filling up of the vials and cups of “the wrath of God”.  When the cup is overflowing, there is nowhere for all the putrid corruption to go but out, flowing down over the Earth and polluting everything. 

In the Bible, several examples are given to illustrate this outcome.  The two most terrible are: first, Noah’s Flood, and second, Sodom and Gomorrah.  Yeshua-Jesus refers to both in his comments about “the last days” – the days of coming judgment.  This makes these examples worth paying attention to as severe warnings to us in our time.

There is something of a conspiracy craze afoot these days, especially here in the West.  Conspiracy is a fascinating term.  If you’ve never noticed, it shares the same root meaning as “piracy”.  The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “Conspire – [to] Combine privily [secretly] for unlawful purpose, esp. treason, murder, sedition; [to] plot, devise [to ruin, attack].”  A conspiracy is the act of conspiring.  Piracy is the continual action of conspiracy to seize and take and even destroy whatever the pirate conspires to take for himself.

From the Biblical perspective, conspiring has been going on since the beginning of human history.  Most criminal activity is born of conspiracy.  Humans have been plotting and planning in all kinds of ways and at all times to undercut, usurp, and exploit the creation for their own goals and purposes rather than bringing it into its most perfect expression as God’s wonderful work and gift to us and all its participant creatures. 

In the Bible, there is a rebel counter-force named as “the Satan” – the adversary and accuser.  This power is portrayed as “the Serpent”.  The Serpent is a particular serpentine being, not a characterization of all snakes.  He/it is so subtle and deceptive that he is able to fool the most intelligent humans, hiding in plain sight.  Yeshua once described the goal of this anti-God force thus: “The Satan [usually identified as an actual personal being(s)] comes only to kill, steal, and destroy” and “is the father [inventor, originator] of lies.”

But humans are also “serpentine” on their own, not requiring the “Accuser’s” assistance to conceive and execute malignant schemes and behaviours.  The Serpent is only too glad to stimulate and spur those innate human tendencies into full activation.

The coming together of the Cosmic “evil one” and the human propensity to seek our own aggrandizement at the expense of everyone and everything else typically and periodically produce especially monstrous eruptions that leave the whole world reeling and the human race lying in a shambles.  Shifting the blame, we point the finger at God as if the Deity is responsible for allowing us to behave demonically rather than exercising His omnipotence to prevent such horrors.  The Accuser laughs all the while from behind the Oz-Curtain, and we fool ourselves that we are justified because God doesn’t just cut evil out of our hearts and kill the most monstrous perpetrators.

This series will follow some of the threads that emerge from this perspective and compare them to various episodes of history as well as aspects of our conspiracy-mad current global and Western culture.

I invite readers to consider their own ideas about these phenomena and to comment with their own observations.  I also invite interested readers to read chapters 12 and 13 of the New Testament Book of Revelation as a reference point.  Of course the more complete context is the whole Book of Revelation or Apocalypse, and not only two chapters.


[i] Belief in judgment of life by the gods or some supernatural beings (ancestors) after death has existed for many millennia.  The Final Judgment is not just a Christian doctrine about the Creator coming to judge everyone who has ever lived and assign them to Heaven or Hell, salvation or perdition.  In some version, It has existed from time immemorial in earlier religious teachings, including polytheistic systems and other major World Religions, such as Judaism (which gave it to Christianity) and Islam.  Hinduism has its twist on it, and the notion that wickedness will ultimately be dealt with by the supernatural forces of good extends far into the remotest reaches of antiquity.

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Faith and Hope –  Assurance and Conviction 9 – Conclusion  – Hope and Assurance, 2

While there is life, there is hope. – Marcus Tullius Cicero

A ship should not ride on a single anchor, or a life on a single hope. – Epictetus

When hope is taken away from a people moral degeneration follows swiftly after. – Pearl S. Buck

A great Hope fell

You heard no noise

The Ruin was within.

– Emily Dickinson

So, now, faith, hope and love remain, these three; and of them, love is the greatest. – Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul.

(Photo credit – Wikipedia)

Life without hope is the slide into despair.  Anyone who has lost hope for any length of time has discovered that road.  Whether small or great, millions feel it.  Winston Churchill called it “the black dog”.  Abraham Lincoln confessed to times of deep despondency during his Presidency, particularly after the death of his youngest son.

The devastating disappointments and betrayals of life drive people into emotional dark depths where they find themselves in the pit of despair.  Occasionally it can be turned around by a momentous event or revelation of why there is reason to hope.  Churchill’s refuge of hope was his wife’s rock-solid faith in him and his deep faith in his sense of a Providential calling to play some great role in the world.  Knowing large swaths of the Bible by heart and many passages of classic literature gave him deep reserves to call upon.  He typifies Epictetus’ wise dictum that we need more than one anchor to get through life’s roller-coaster.

Cicero, Epictetus, and Paul were Roman-era thinkers of very different backgrounds.  Buck and Dickinson are great writers of the 20th Century.

Cicero, one of the great orators of all time, was also one of Rome’s truly original philosophers.  He believed in the essential benevolence of the Creator.  While observing and performing the public forms of Rome’s polytheistic religion, he personally believed that there was really but one great God.  He held that this Creator was fundamentally benevolent in creating a good world and giving us life in the first place when He had no obligation to do so.  Life is thus a declaration of hope that there is goodness in the world even in the midst of evil.  When death came to him by a vengeful Caesar Augustus’ assassins, he met it in keeping with his convictions.

Epictetus was a second century CE Stoic philosopher much admired by his contemporaries.  He inspired Rome’s unique philosopher-Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (d. 181 CE), whose Meditations are much read to this day.  The Stoics were not optimists, but strongly believed in a created order in which one must find and live by one’s calling and do one’s duty within that calling.  One must do as much good as possible for the greatest number and obviate as much as evil as possible. 

Stoics believed that since suffering and death are inevitable, it is one’s allotment to live well, suffer well when that time comes, and die well in the end, offering example and inspiration to those who follow.  They also believed in one Creator presiding over all, although not opposing the observance of polytheistic religious conventions for the sake of maintaining public unity and order.  The “Good Emperors”, from Trajan (98-117 CE) to Marcus Aurelius (161-181 CE), presided over the the second half of the Roman Empire’s “Golden Age” of the Pax Romana (Roman Peace).  They were Stoics.  Under them, the persecution of Christians was sporadic and largely confined to specific localities.  Marcus Aurelius found any form of persecution distasteful and inconsistent with his philosophy, but, as a Stoic with a higher duty to the Divinely sanctioned Empire, felt compelled to restrain the growth of this counter-culture which contradicted the Order of the world that Rome embodied.  For him, hate played no role;  it was nothing personal.

Marcus Aurelius’s successors proved to be far more interested in enjoying their power and playing god than being philosophical.  Buck’s comment (see above) about moral degeneracy resulting from the removal of hope had been seen previously under the worst of the early Emperors (notably Caligula and Nero) before the Antonines (Aurelius being the last of them).  It truly came to light during the next centuries when Rome drifted into constant internal and external strife.  Since then over the last 1800 years, societies everywhere in the world have played true to Buck’s observation.  By many appearances, the West of the 21st Century is acting out its own version of this drama.

Dickinson’s poignant lines tell us that the worst form of death is the ruin of the soul. Inevitable physical death is not the worst fate.  It does not at all mean the internal ruin of the person.  Moral ruin within is really a far worse death, for it renders life itself futile, meaningless.  To die well with hope that life means something and one’s own life has meant something takes away some of its sting.

Which brings us to Saul of Tarsus, better known as the Apostle Paul.  His statement is immortal.  It is among the most oft-quoted in history, even among those who know and care next to nothing about the Bible, from which it is taken.

Paul marries three of the great, “Divine” virtues that transcend worthy lesser ones such as honesty and valour.  It is hard to segment virtues in some sort of hierarchy, for the “greater” and “lesser” are really quite interdependent, giving life to one another.  But the “Higher” virtues are perhaps more readily linked to the core of how we are made in the image of God, at least in Christian theology.  One does not need relationship with God to understand the value of honesty and integrity, or even courage, for example.  It is even possible to find some degree of faith, hope, and love outside of consciously striving for relationship with the Maker.

But Paul’s point is about how such virtues can only be truly fulfilled and lived in their highest and best expression in relationship to the One who completes all faith aspirations, fulfills all hopes, and perfects love.  Over and over again, we have referenced the essential hopelessness of a vision of the Universe as an accidental congruence of totally improbable events for which we can provide no reason.  Lately we are seeing quite respected and respectable scientists admitting that the Cosmos not only superficially appears to have come into being as a result some intentional design, but consistently has behaved that way since its very first instant.

And this brings us back to hope.  Evidence says more and more convincingly (allowing us to live with conviction) that there is a true and real design inherent in the very fabric of all that is.  Denying it harder and harder will not make it go away.

We are now closing the circle that began, in the Enlightenment mythology of the emergence of modern science, with Galileo being persecuted and silenced by the willfully blind and ignorant dogmatists of the Catholic Church’s established hierarchy.  It is now the hardline dogmatic rationalists to refuse to see what the evidence more and more clearly declares about the probable existence of a Personal Designer. There is a diminishing number of real active scientists who say “it does not move”, while the scientific “heretics” are coming out of the woodwork and no longer whispering, but saying more and more boldly, “And yet it moves.”[1]

Why is all this hopeful?  Because when we have gone as far as reason can take us, we find there is much more to learn and experience beyond that boundary.  We can begin to accept the testimony of humans from all of our history that there is a Maker, there is a Creator who has put us here for a reason – to know and relate to Him/Her and to discover that wonder and majesty of all that He/She has made.  And within that incredible outpouring of His/Her glory, we discover who and what we are and have always been intended to be and become.

All human existence testifies to the incredible power of love to inspire, to move us to great things.  Behind all that is, is the Power of an infinite Person, not an abstract principle, calling us to know and be known in relationship to Him/Her, and through the One who is, to know and be known by one another.

And out of this understanding comes that which we began this series with – Trust-Faith.  For knowing the Maker, the Creator who is really and truly there, and even incredibly here and near (as close as your jugular vein in the graphic phrase of the Quran), grants us a real ground to hope, to love, and to trust.

As we conclude this series, let us reflect for a moment on why Saul-Paul said “the greatest of these” (the three paramount virtues – faith, hope, and love) is love.”  It goes back to what the Creator has done out of sheer love, without any obligation to any other.  The Maker of all that is needed nothing or anyone.  Out of sheer selfless love, He/She chose to make a universe where His/Her love could be given out without limit, like a super-explosion (Big Bang anyone?), and freely offered to creatures made in His/Her own image, who could choose to love back and love one another and manifest the nature of the Maker in themselves.

That, essentially, is the Judeo-Christian story which for most of two millennia anchored the West and gave it reason and even enabled it to produce some pretty amazing advances in shedding some of the worst aspects of what happens to people without that kind of faith, hope, and love. 

We will finish this series with an allusion to a very old story from Christian tradition.

It is said that, in the early 60s of the First Century CE, after many adventures, the Apostle Peter had made his way to Rome.  When 60-70% of Rome burned in the great fire of 64 AD, the mad Emperor Nero blamed it on the Christians in order to deflect the blame the populace was laying on him.  A terrible persecution of Christians broke out and thousands were being put to death in a series of great spectacles to divert the outraged populace.

The Christians of Rome urged Peter to leave the city to escape so that he might continue to minister and witness to Jesus elsewhere.  Peter headed south along the Via Appia, Rome’s equivalent to the I-95 in the eastern US or Highway 401 in Canada.  Somewhere along the way, the resurrected Jesus met him.  Jesus was walking towards the city. 

Shocked and trembling, Peter asked him, “Quo vadis, Domine? – Where are you going, Lord?”

Jesus replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again with my people, for you have abandoned them.”

Struck to the heart and weeping, Peter went to his knees and repented.  Jesus comforted and reassured him that He would be there with him.  Peter got up and hurried back.  Soon after he was arrested and crucified, having brought great comfort and renewed faith to the condemned.  The Apostle asked his killers to be crucified upside down because, “I am not worthy to die in the same way as my Lord.”

This very likely true story illustrates all that we have been trying to say about faith, hope, and love – and the assurance and conviction that give the strength to live by what one says about believing and acting.  The source of Peter’s trust in Jesus was a living personal relationship rooted in experience of his Lord’s love for him and for the people he too loved.  The source of Peter’s hope was this personal love and experience in seeing that this was the real deal, and that he would not be abandoned and proven deluded.  Conviction was part and parcel of it all.  Trusting what his Lord had promised, Peter fully committed himself to die well. His conviction was based on what he knew already and what he had good reason to believe would be fulfilled in the future according to his Lord’s promises.

The Christian story is not about “pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by”.  A future wonderful renewed world and an afterlife of bliss is all well and good, but the life we have today is to be lived in trust and hope that even now, we have good and sufficient reason to know we will have the strength to be a light in a dark world, even when that means figurative and literal crucifixion.

If you are not a follower of Jesus, you have no less need for that kind of trust and hope to make it through the inevitable trials life will bring you.

Pax vobiscum.


[1] I am referring the (in)famous trial of Galileo before the Inquisition in the 1640s, when Galileo, under threat of being burned as heretic, recanted his statements that the planets moved around the sun and the whole universe is in motion, and that the earth is not the center of the Universe.

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Faith and Hope,  Assurance and Conviction, 8 – Hope and Assurance, 1

(Photo credit: Biography.com)

In 2021 the Ultra-Left term themselves “the Woke”.  Apparently they have entered a state of New Enlightenment that is wiping out the old one inspired by the likes of David Hume, John Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau.  A great many more names could be added to that honoured list, but the point is that, according to the Woke, all these old-school scientific and logical thinkers suffered from two major faults: first, they were all European, white males, and secondly, they had all been much too exposed to Christianity, even if they largely repudiated its institutional forms and most of its basic tenets.

It is true that Western society of the fourteen hundred years or so prior to our own much more liberated 21st– Century version failed to grant women their rights and proper and due place as the equals of men in politics, economics, and society.  It is true that for centuries it condoned slavery and belief in its own racial superiority.

For forty or fifty years a growing trend among the Western intelligentsia has been to eviscerate itself with conspicuous self-flagellation and deep shame over these failures.  Its abnegation of the foundational long-cherished adherence to reason, sound evidence, and scientific inquiry has rendered it a shadow of its former formidable force for finding truth.  Instead it has made itself a penitent lapdog of the boundlessly expanding Woke agenda, doing curious mental gymnastics to cover its self-inflicted abject spiritual and intellectual poverty. 

On the other hand, there is no avoiding historical Christendom’s dismal failure to live by the early Christian statement that “in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free” as the Apostle Paul put it in his letter to the Christian congregations of Galatia, a province of the ancient Roman Empire in what is now Turkey.  Neither is there any use in denying the successor First Enlightenment society’s equally dismal failure on the same account.  This guilty dual failure is the fodder the Ultra Left uses to induce the West’s self-loathing, screaming that it must all be torn down.  The Woke have only an agenda of destruction and offer nothing but nihilism in return, in flaming fulfillment of Nietzsche’s so-clairvoyant prophecy of 150 years ago.

Despite all the despair and hate-screaming, there is still a light shining.  Even today, 2000 years after he made it, the Apostle Paul’s statement is a beacon of hope in a dark world, a truly revolutionary statement, totally unlike the Ultra-Left’s pseudo-progressive nihilistic radicalism.  Despite the self-flagellating oddity of the West’s admission of guilt, it is paradoxically out of the much-maligned West that all these much needed calls for reform and equalization of injustices and rights have come.  The silence among all the other extant civilizations and cultures has been, on the whole and through many centuries, deafening.

On the surface, such a statement would seem to smack of yet more “racial” superiority – unless it is actually true.  However, as per the Woke’s screamology, even truth is racist if it has a “Eurocentric” origin.  But truth has nothing whatsoever to do with race or skin-color, which is after all nothing but melanin pigmentation.  By declaring truth we are not absolving the failures or excusing the perpetrators of crimes and abuses.  The West’s failures and crimes are just the “best” (or least) of a bad bunch.

We do not time or space here to produce the voluminous documentary and anecdotal evidence which substantiate that the West has been more progressive in its views and treatment of women and minorities over the last millennium and a half.  However, the evidence is real and abundant for anyone willing to find it and take an impartial look at it.

Of course there are some very dark places and times and backslidings in the progressive (in the true sense of that word) movement of the West to achieve something approaching greater equality of the sexes.  Incidentally, sexual equality is a different from “gender” equality, which has become the new cause of causes since “gender” was co-opted to refer to any and every choice of sexual behaviour.

In fact, the very emergence of the modern movement towards equalities and rights of all kinds emerged from the West, and no other culture, despite historians’ and anthropologists’ valiant efforts to offer spot-sightings and hints of these things elsewhere in the other major cultures and civilizations extant over the last two millennia.  By itself, the West’s pre-eminence in this by is infuriating back-door evidence of the truth of the claim.

Christendom’s emergence is not contemporaneous with Christianity’s appearance as a rising faith in the 3rd and 4th Centuries CE.  “Christendom” was a post-Charlemagne (ca 800 CE) idea.  For beginners, we find that Western womanhood in the last 1500 years has generally lived with a greater measure of consideration and respect, and even inclusion in society’s affairs at large, than her counterparts in other civilizations.  No doubt, this statement will displease some readers, but it is demonstrable historical fact.

When it comes to hope and assurance, the rights of women are the flagship of all human equality rights.  That is why Paul, that oft-maligned, supposed misogynist who apparently warped the ancient Church’s mindset to exclude and subjugate women, put women’s full and true equality at the head of his short list of the kinds of equality Mashiach Yeshua (Jesus Christ) opened to any who will come into his “Kingdom of God”.  This Kingdom was conceived as and offered more like a great extended family than any sort of “Kingdom” that has existed or exists in human governance in the records of history.

It is a declaration of real and true equality of men and women being made “in the image of God”.  Both have a full and equal part in manifesting and experiencing that “imageness” here and now as well as in the final consummation to come.  The physicality of sex is very real and is the source of begetting children and co-heirs for and in God’s Kingdom.  That is why this equality tops the three fundamental kinds of equality the Kingdom ushers in.

But what of the other two fundamental equalities: “Jew vs. Greek” and “slave vs. free”?

When Paul refers to “Jew and Greek”, he is speaking of all being fully equal before God and in His family, regardless of ethnicity, “race” (skin color and any other physically distinguishing characteristics one might choose to select as some sign of superiority), language, or culture.  None of this matters to the Creator or should to anyone claiming to truly seek Him/Her and follow His/Her ways. 

Finally, Paul designates the true and full equality of both “slave and free” within the Creator’s Kingdom.  This addresses all differences of social class and economic standing, both things which count for so much today – as they always have in “the present age”, the human Cosmos as we find it operating outside the Creator’s Kingdom.

Why is this triple declaration so powerful, so revolutionary, and full of hope?  Why did its first emergence “turn the world upside down”, as was noted by those who witnessed and feared its coming into their midst within the first thirty years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Yeshua-Jesus?

It simply challenged (and challenges) every means of creating division and preference humanity has ever devised or fallen into because of our broken “imageness” – our fundamental deviation from the design and purpose of the Creator.  It still challenges all of the same things, no matter how they have manifested themselves over the centuries and still do today.  Same-old, same-old.  “There is nothing new under the sun” – except the startling, dazzling coming of the Sent One, who came to lay the axe to the root and declare the true Revolution, the only Revolution that offers true hope and a real end to all our woes.

We will finish today with an ancient one-word Aramaic prayer – “Maranatha!”  If you are curious, look it up.

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Faith and Hope:  Assurance and Conviction, 7 – The Smell of Blood

As far as I can make out in reading scientific treatments of the question of origins written for ordinary folks, the farthest the cosmologists can reach back is about 14-15 billion years to the Big Bang.  Whether and why there was anything before that to “Bang” is, for the present and foreseeable future, enshrouded in mystery.  Some evolutionary astro-physicists prefer to leave any hint of an uncreated Creative Power or Being which, or who, is not somehow the pre-Bang stuff of the universe itself, out of consideration.  This decision is an article of faith, a theological statement based on no evidence.  All that can be seen is that, from what looks awfully like everything coming out of nothing and nowhere, the original stuff of the Cosmos suddenly just was and at the very instant it was, it exploded with a violence and heat beyond any semblance of calculation.

Moving fourteen billion years forward, the Palaeontologists and Evolutionary Biologists tell us that 3-4 million years ago the first hominids appeared, walking upright and using their growing intelligence and hand-ingenuity to manipulate the environment.  Once more we meet mystery.  Why did these creatures appear in the first place?  It is part of the larger question of why life appeared, and how apparently chaotic combinations of atoms and sub-atomic particles could, would, and should formulate anything orderly, let alone life-bearing.  In other words, why did what, by all the odds, should have remained fundamental chaos begin to organize itself?

The scientifically unsophisticated are carefully instructed that someday science can and will be able to penetrate these great mysteries.  However, an rapidly increasing number of more forthright scientists do not dogmatically restate Stephen Hawking’s position on God that “we do not have need of that hypothesis”.  Instead, they gingerly use the word “God” now and again, without attaching a specific description of who or what God may be.  The tentative and usually unspoken admission is that the why of it all is beyond science to answer.  Even in the specifically scientific realm of why just the right sort of particles should appear in just the right proportions and just the right kind of combinations in defiance of all laws of probability is also a deep mystery, for it presents all the appearance of design and intentionality.

The particle researchers and Cosmologists admit the appearance of intentionality even at the origins of things, as if the “universe” or “Cosmos” somehow “knew” to go in a direction leading to increasingly complex organization and, finally, at least in some places, that most complex of developments – living things, with the most amazing of those being, as far as we can tell, humanity.

Nevertheless, believers in the Creator who follow ancient revelation are still seen as simpletons, fanatics, or irrelevant relics. Meanwhile, the new faith propounded over the last two hundred years, has entrenched itself against all challenge in a fashion every bit as founded on dogma as any creed proclaimed by any Council or Synod of Church or Temple, or any mullah or ayatollah.

The point we have been hammering is that at ground level faith is implicit trust in basic beliefs put into practice.  Ideologies and “secular”, god-denying worldviews (and materialistic Scientism, aggressive atheism, and militant progressivism are undeniable worldviews which now dominate our education systems and academic establishment) are every bit as dogmatic as any religion their proponents abhor, and at least as intolerant as any sect of Christianity has been.  “The proof is in the pudding,” or, as Yeshua said, “You will know them by their fruits.  You won’t get thorns from a fig tree and you can’t get figs from a thorn-bush.”  (I am liberally paraphrasing, but remaining faithful to all the sense of his aphorisms about such things as discerning the truth about things and people.)  In that last two hundred years, there have been 100-200 million corpses to illustrate the innate fanaticism of militant secular ideologies.

Here in Canada, it is facile and frequent to hear the denunciation of the apparent evil and hypocrisy of the rapidly eroding Judeo-Christian foundation and heritage of the West.  The more quickly we shed it the better, it would seem.  Then we will be free of all the vestiges of that cloying sanctimoniousness about the superiority of European civilization, largely rooted in that reprehensible Christian claim to be the one truth all need.  We must celebrate every aspect of the new diversity without judging any of it, however implicitly.  It would seem that “judgment” comes in almost every form of “euro-derivation”, even in the foundations of our mathematics and science itself.

Talk about having your cake and eating it too!  We are told on the “traditional” left that reason, logic, and science are the true way to enlightenment, then on the even farther left that that kind of thinking is also implicitly racist because it emerged from the West.  Anything tainted by the West (the European heritage of Canada), was, a few generations removed, Christian and founded on the Christian perspective of a personal God who made the universe according to definite design and is maintained in being by principles of order and function so delicately balanced that any slight change would have meant, and will mean, chaos and extinction.  But apparently we should disregard all that: (a) because it came out of the West and is therefore by definition racist and thus evil, and (b) because, having emerged from the West it is, by association, and however obliquely, rooted in Judeo-Christianity.

It would seem that the old progressives are now a prime target of the new radical ultra-progressives.  The new progressives have set their sights on the extinction of all vestiges of the old Christian consensus, and, secondarily, of its derivate, the scientific Enlightenment heritage.

If you find yourself a bit at a loss as to what this is even about, a look at what is being propounded in faculties of education and written into major curriculum revisions all across the West will quickly enlighten you.  Peruse the blatant ideological agenda of many of the trendy new faculties and programs of study on offer in our higher institutes of learning – even those still clinging to some vestiges of their old Christian founding principles.  Survey what major publishers are putting out – and what they are not offering anymore.  Watch the collections still available in your local libraries – and see what you can no longer find, at least very readily.  Watch how the news is reported and what is not reported.  For example, when was the last time you saw anything about the killing of hundreds of Christians because they are Christians every week across the globe? 

All these things are faith-inspired and faith-motivated, conviction-inspired and conviction motivated.  That is so self-evident, and we have belaboured it now so much for weeks, that we need spend no more time on it. 

What we still need to discuss are the aspects of hope and assurance, without which conviction and faith are desperate posturing akin to Ophelia’s declarations of her undying love for Hamlet. The desperation and tone have the opposite effect of causing us to doubt its sincerity.  Violence and vehemence are too often a betraying cover-up for the inadmissible but intuitively understood truth that the Emperor is wearing no clothes, no matter how often we admire their splendor.

The naked Emperor is exactly what the new ultra-radical left vividly portrays in all their screaming denunciation and shouting-down of their much more composed and rational opponents and targets.

As Jordan Petersen has brilliantly deconstructed this fanaticism, and as Friedrich Nietzsche so amazingly predicted 140 years ago, it all boils down to childishly murderous temper tantrums about rights to everything and responsibility for nothing.  It is all about what Nietzsche, the greatest modern philosopher, called “The Will to Power”.

Very strangely, the old enemies of Scientific Rationalism and Judeo-Christian fundamentalism (and not Fundamentalism) about basic truths may very soon find themselves allied in a desperate effort to save what is left of the West’s best heritage from what Arnold Toynbee dubbed the Internal Barbarians, who are far more dangerous than any assemblage of external tribes and circling vultures smelling blood in the sand.

TO BE CONTINUED

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Faith and Hope:  Assurance and Conviction, 6

… this thing we all know, this thought, this mind, cannot in fact be really alien to the nature of the universe.  Or, putting it the other way round, the nature of the universe cannot be really alien to Reason.  We find that matter always obeys the same laws which our logic obeys.  When logic says a thing must be so, Nature always agrees.  No one can suppose that this can be due to a happy coincidence.  A great many people think that it is due to the fact that Nature produced the mind.  But on the assumption that Nature is herself mindless this provides no explanation.  To be the result of a series of mindless events is one thing: to be a kind of plan or true account of the laws according to which those mindless events happened is quite another.

C.S. Lewis, in “De Futilitate”, Christian Reflections, The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis, (New York: Inspirational Pre

For every thinking human, faith is a given.  One of the first (and almost always unarticulated and assumed) articles of human faith is that, somehow, thinking relates to reality.  Even fantastic and magical thinking starts from what is known, from what has been thought of as the “real” universe which exists, in order to create an alternative.  Even in magic and fantasy there is some acceptance of the processes of basic logic –actions beget reactions, what is done and left undone produces consequences.

In our previous discussion in this series, we related that all approaches to reality are essentially religious, in the original sense of interpreting what exists through a system of concepts which ties it all, or at least most of it, back together (Latin religio)so as to be able to function in the universe as we find it.  Science is not “religious” in the popular sense of delimiting how to approach whatever God, gods, or spiritual powers may exist, but it is inevitably, etymologically religious in imposing a system of constructs, principles, and methodologies through which to understand what our senses and reason discern about reality.

The same can be said of socio-economic- political ideologies claiming to be objective and secular.  They may deny or ignore God, but they are inevitably religious.  In fact, no system of human thought (philosophy in its widest sense) is without theology, for all take a position on whether there is a God, and, if the existence of some form of Deity is acceptable, how to relate to such (a) being(s).  Agnosticism, the “I don’t know about God” approach, is just lazy atheism because it says “God may exist, but I choose to ignore Him/Her/It as irrelevant” (to me, at any rate), which is really passive atheism.

We always return to the core issue of faith, which we have described as trust in its most practical manifestation.  As we have said, faith without trust in what is (or is said to be) believed is not faith, but a sterile intellectual position.  The Christian Scriptures describe such “faith” as sterile, dead, empty of real meaning and content.  Real trust means acting on the basis of that trust.  Science and post-modern philosophy function on trust in human reason.  For post-modernism this is a self-inflicted contradiction, because post-modernism assumes the fallibility of all positions except, of course, its own basic premise that all thought is fundamentally personal interpretation, which allows all opinions and views equal validity.  Of that absurd position, more another time.

Science and rational thought of every variety, whether Occidental or Oriental, must trust the efficacy of human Reason, the ability of logic and rational thinking to truly relate to what is, not what might be, if only things would or could just work differently.  So we speak of scientific laws, experiential proofs, systematic exploration until we uncover the secrets of the universe – from its tiniest to its most gigantic aspects, including the very function of human reason itself.  There is enormous faith involved in the power of the human mind to uncover all the most hidden mysteries of existence and its meaning, if not now, then in the future, for as long as the species homo sapiens sapiens will exist.

In our opening citation, C.S. Lewis, a great thinker of the mid-twentieth century, discussed the amazing phenomenon of human logic and thinking with great insight.  He also deconstructed the fallacy that it could spontaneously emerge from the sort of universe posited by so much of modern and post-modern science and then be able to understand all the “how, when, why, what” with any hope of trusting it could make valid conclusions about such huge questions.  As he said:

No one can suppose that this can be due to a happy coincidence.  A great many people think that it is due to the fact that Nature produced the mind.  But on the assumption that Nature is herself mindless this provides no explanation.

Consider the essential post-modern posit that all thinking is first and foremost personal and subjective and that therefore no absolutes can be found, and perhaps none exist to be found.  This statement is blatantly absolute, exposing the fallacy of post-modernism at its root.  The element of truth in it is that we humans, as self-aware individual persons, must by nature think personally.  Thus there is always an element of subjectivity in all we experience, observe, discern, and, however tentatively, conclude.  So far we can agree.

The conclusion that there is therefore no real discernible truth or absolute anyone can discover or experience manifestly does not follow.  Yet the West has bought into this self-destructive hoax to the point of denying most of its inherited wisdom hard-gleaned from millennia of human discernment.  Why?  Because of unresolved historical issues which have left a bitter legacy.

Our ancestors made many mistakes, and some were among the most terrible and destructive kind based on the fanatical profession of absolutes about the nature of reality and our identity as humans within that reality.  There is no excusing any of those dreadful misdeeds and their misappropriation of higher principles to act in the most fearful fashion against dissenters and deniers of the prevailing interpretations of truth. 

What came after as the replacement of religious truth with secular wisdom and the power of Reason and Science to set us all free began with solemn affirmations of Tolerance and Respect for all.  It eventually precipitated its own apocalypse which outdid anything ever done previously (Gulag and its Chinese Communist equivalent anyone?  Holocaust anyone?  Killing Fields anyone?  ISIS and Jihadism anyone?)

Humans do not function as merely and simply biological machinery.  All our history and experience from all the history we have any clue about declare that we have ever held to the Cosmos being an awesome and awe-full place which shouts that it was and is created by an operative will according to a design.  The will and design are demonstrated by what is, what is in evidence, in actual existence all around us, inside and out, in all things and everywhere all the time.  And it all points to Something higher and greater than we – in fact, Someone much more than Something.

What shall we do, then?  Blame the Designer for designing us as flawed beings who can choose to be stupid, to think and act selfishly?  Shall we say that the Creator had no business creating an open-ended Cosmos because that means we can make bad choices and suffer for them – both our own and those of our fellow creatures?  Shall we say that it is unjust that we are subject to the processes unleashed by all the magnificent powers and processes this Cosmos includes?  Shall we rant and rave against His/Her sadism in not protecting us against the sometimes wild destructiveness  of the processes of Nature, large and small?

Shall we proclaim how unkind and ungenerous this Divine Immensity is in not empowering us to understand all the aspects of His/Her own intentions and thoughts and designs as if we could encompass all this in our finite mind?

It is a lot to ask us to trust such a Being who cannot or won’t show Him-Herself to us.

TO BE CONTINUED

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The Parable of the Three Birds

© Vincent J. Marquis, 2021

(I offer this little story as a change of pace from the usual fare in this blog.)

Once upon a time, Mrs. Eagle, Mrs. Vulture, and Mrs. Crow met around a grizzly bear’s carcass.  The bear had simply died of old age.  Mrs. Eagle ate her fill and set aside some large portions at her feet to take back to her nest for her young.  Then Mrs. Vulture did the same, and finally Mrs. Crow had her turn.  At last, all were satisfied.

Mrs. Crow was a very curious bird, and, setting down a choice piece meant for her nestlings, she turned to ask the eagle, “I mean no disrespect, Mrs. Eagle, but why are you still sitting there observing me and not returning to your nest to feed your eaglets?”

“There is no rush,” replied Mrs. Eagle.  “My mate is there with them and will remain till I get back.  They are in no danger.  Only humans sometimes bother us by climbing our cliffs or trees to steal our eggs.  Some of them like to hunt us for our feathers from time to time as well.  I can never understand why they do this, though, as they do not eat either our eggs or us, nor can they use feathers to fly.  But we really don’t have many dealings with those earth-bound creatures on two legs.  We keep our distance from them as much as possible and try to attract their attention as little as possible.  But they are a curious people and there are always a few who try to interfere with our lives.”

The lively black bird with the twinkling eyes looked at the eagle, thinking to herself, ‘How large and powerful and majestic she is.  I would like to be that big and powerful.  And how high she flies – so high she can see almost the whole world in a sweep.’  Then she turned to Mrs. Vulture and asked, “And you, Mrs. Vulture, do you not have nestlings to return to feed, yet you have remained while I have eaten.”

Mrs. Vulture was not the most astute of the three, so her answers were simple.  She replied, “I always watch where the eagles are, as they always point to food.  My eyesight is almost as good as Mrs. Eagle’s, and my sense of smell is even better.  But she is the better flyer and she sees farther.  I am not a hunter, so I can only wait for a kill someone else makes before I can eat.”

Mrs. Crow was the smallest but the smartest, although she would never say so aloud with Mrs. Eagle, at least.  But Mrs, Eagle was very observant.  She saw much but said little, and waited to consider before she spoke.  She addressed Mrs. Crow.  “Mrs. Crow, I have often seen you and many of your tribe around carcasses.  And I have observed that you are not above stealing the eggs and young of other tribes.  Yet I find you here alone today.  Where is your tribe?  Are you not the scout sent to find the food today?”

The black bird with the twinkling eye hopped onto a convenient branch so she could look Mrs. Eagle more equally in the eye.  “You are very observant, Mrs. Eagle, and are reputed to be wise.  My tribe is not far, and I have only to call them.  But you and Mrs. Vulture are still here, and courtesy says we must wait our proper turn.  Am I mistaken, Mrs. Vulture, in saying that there are also usually others of your tribe who come when you find a carcass?”

Mrs. Vulture answered, “No you are not mistaken.  That is so, but as we are much larger than you, we do not call the whole tribe when we find food.  Each of us must eat much more than would fill your belly, so if there are too many of us, there is not enough for anyone.  So we watch one another, and those who can see and smell a kill go down to it, or follow the one who finds it.  And those who are not there and cannot see or smell or follow must find their own food somewhere else.”

“Very interesting,” observed the crow.  “But do you not also hunt sometimes?  You have the size and strength to do so.”

“We are not a fierce tribe like the eagles,” said the vulture, “but we follow animals we sense are injured or sick and likely to die soon.  If we become a large group circling and waiting, some of us who are more daring may go down and begin to feed even before the creature dies.  I suppose that might be considered hunting of a sort.”

Mrs. Eagle scanned the vicinity and, grasping the portions for her nestlings in her beak, she leapt into the air with a great beating of her wings.  She began to ascend, searching for the updraft she knew was there.  A dead grizzly bear was not her family’s usual bill of fare, but the fishing had not been good of late, so she took what she could get.  She noticed more vultures circling down towards the carcass.  She would tell her mate where it was, and if he came the other birds would move off till he had eaten his fill.  Being the King and Queen of bird-kind had its perks, after all.

Mrs. Crow decided it was time to feed her young and let the rest of her murder in on her find.  If she delayed any longer she risked a severe reprimand from the murder elders.  She also saw the careful approach of more vultures, but crows and vultures rarely quarrelled.  They could share a large carcass, as long as the crows respected the claims of the larger birds.  She remarked to Mrs. Vulture, “You are about to have company from others of your tribe.  You did well to come early.  I am calling in my friends as well.  I will stand watch for them while they feed, since I have already fed myself.”  She took her portions for her nestlings and departed.

Which tribe are you?

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Faith and Hope:  Assurance and Conviction, 5

… when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” – Yeshua in the Good News of Luke, The New Testament.

…the battlefronts … are myriad, and … terribly complicated … all tangled up in the historical allegiances and cultural traditions and political interests … the plight of the unborn.  Problems of poverty and housing.  Issues of nationalism and militarism.  Of war and peace.  Of racism.  Of sexism.  Of ageism.  Of consumerism.  Of environmentalism … But I would encourage us all to struggle with these issues in the light of the principle of a consistent life ethic …. We seek out ways the most expressive of the love of God and love of neighbor.

Richard J. Foster, Streams of Living Water.  (Harper SanFrancisco, 1998), p. 175

In 2021, we still face the issues Richard Foster listed in Streams of Living Water in 1998, plus a few more.  The pandemic has graphically illustrated that human civilizations have largely melded and we face a massive global crisis that encompasses all societies and all economies.  Life on Planet earth itself is facing a turning point.

Never have we needed faith, hope, and love (charity as it used to be called) more, and it seems too often that it has rarely been in shorter supply.  Unless we relearn to look in different places and with different eyes than “the usual suspects”.

Masses wonder what there is to really to trust in now.  Will science fulfill the oft-recited litany of broken and ever-amended promises we have been told  keep trusting in?  Will reason and good-will prevail over renewed nationalism and militarism, solve the widening chasm of wealth-distribution and the spiralling crisis of affordable housing?  Will rebooting our economies by a new wave of consumerism be somehow married to the almost point-of-no-return environmental crisis to magically solve both at the same time? 

Everyone with a modicum of observational acumen and common-sense knows the whole system is broken and in need of a radical (as in down to the root) reset.  But fear is threatening to drive out hope and faith – as it so often has.

This brings us to Yeshua/Jesus’ enigmatic question, “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on the earth?”  Despite everything laid at the charge of his followers and the churches, Jesus is still a much admired figure.  Some see him as the ultimate “good person”, a well-meaning idealist who talked about seeing the world and one another with a different heart and set of eyes rooted in the way the Creator intended us to be.  If you take away the Creator, was he just platitudinously saying that we can just boil it all down, Beatles-and-Hippy-style, to “All you need is love?”  If so, poor well-meaning but naive Jesus went the way of all deluded idealists.  He ran into the stone-wall of the “Establishment”, who decided such fanatics must be removed before they stir up too much trouble.

That is how the Jesus story is often told these days, at least in the public realm when his name crops up despite all attempts to keep it out.

If that is who he was and what he was all about, it’s incredible that such a simple, harmless, loving fellow just preaching love and acceptance could be so misunderstood.  How could such a meek and gentle soul end up being crucified?  After all, he was just naive in believing that he could recruit a band of counter-cultural rebels and begin to infiltrate the culture of force and oppression and exploitation to change it gradually from the roots up.  Couldn’t the authorities have just let his whole ridiculous “Kingdom of God” movement peter out on its own, as such things always do over time?  Why so drastic a solution as killing him, and then, a few years later, going after those hapless and harmless disciples of his?

As Shakespeare said, “Aye, there’s the rub.”  The problem with this prevalent, popular, secularized version of the Jesus story is that bears little to no resemblance to any of the actual and plentiful historical evidence.  It is a complete, whole-wool fabrication created to bamboozle the historically uneducated into dismissing Yeshua/Jesus, and his movement (of which the Christian churches are the outcome, warts and all) as at best now irrelevant, and, at worst, a conspiracy to manipulate, coerce, and control the gullible.

Trust-faith is always a personal affair, a decision made by individuals based on particular reasons that make a convincing case to the decider.  Such is conviction.  Assurance is a strong confidence that our conviction and trust is well-founded, having weighed the evidence from different perspectives, including the possibility that we may just be wrong in our conclusion, but that that is quite unlikely.  Hope is what flows from this combination for hope looks to the future with new eyes, new understanding, new possibilities and vistas founded on trust-faith, and the conviction and assurance that ground it and give it depth.

Although humans still live in distinct cultures with strong elements of what used to be much more differentiated civilizations, we are moving into an amalgamation and blending such that we can begin to speak of a global culture and civilization. 

Not everyone is pleased with this.  How do we bring so many belief systems together?  How do we overcome suspicion and fear of what “they” are inserting into “our” culture and way of life?  How do we learn to deal with so many disparate concepts of what we are here for?  How do learn to live together in an increasingly interwoven world and society?  How do we overcome the prejudice of racism and all other sorts of animosity flowing from so many sources?  How do we learn not to think, speak, and act from an “us vs. them” mindset?

We return to the central questions of “Who am I?  Where am I?  What’s wrong with the world and with us?  How do we set the wrong right?”  (See also Middleton and Walsh, The Transforming Vision, from which these four essential questions are lifted and slightly modified.)

Can all the proposed answers to these questions be equal?  Is everyone’s preferred way of expressing their own identity based on their answers equally valid?  Is there any best faith-trust answer to the questions.  As to “what’s wrong” we have a pretty good idea about a lot of that.  Foster’s list with a few additions is about as good a list as any.

Does trust in a Creator have any place in finding our way through and out of our crisis?

It is useless to propose another long-drawn-out debate or some sort of symposium on whether God/the Creator and or some sort of supernatural realm exists.  Intellectual argument has not satisfactorily settles this issue in that last “X” number of millennia, and it will not now either.  Many of the best intellects in history have tried their hand at devising an airtight proof for or against the existence of God.

And the secondary discussion that has occupied so much academic (and even personal) energy is: “If a Creator were to exist, would that be a Person or a sort of anonymous Supreme Being/Power/Energy that originated it all but does not manifest any active presence since then?”

To any reader who has followed this blog at all, you know by now that my position is that there is a Creator and that the Creator is a real Person.

Doesn’t millennia of human experience and testimony, apart from speculative intellectual activity, have anything of value to tell us?  Doesn’t personal testimony weigh at all in what is perhaps the most critical issue of our, and every age of human history?

It is not critical only for humans either.  For we now know beyond a doubt that human powers of creation and destruction are decisively changing the face and climate and the very life-sustaining fabric of Planet Earth, the only planet we absolutely know engenders and sustains life of even the most delicate kind.  If we and so much of our planet’s life are to continue to survive, let along thrive, it is critical that we, the human agents, unify to stop and reverse our terrible rape of the great gift we have been given by the Creator.

And to do that, we need to come together in trust-faith, conviction, assurance, and hope.

TO BE CONTINUED 

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Faith and Hope:  Assurance and Conviction, 4

Reason, Observation, and Experience—the Holy Trinity of Science.

-Robert G. Ingersoll

Science has made us gods even before we are worthy of being men.

-Jean Rostand

Life does not consist mainly—or even largely—of facts and happenings.

It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s mind.

-Mark Twain

Citations in Metaphors Be with You by Dr. Mardy Grothe.  (HaperCollins, 2016), pp. 352, 398.

Science serves humanity well in its proper place. 

But as a Supreme Deity, it becomes a monster because it is made in its creator’s image.  Humans created Science which, despite the best of intentions of its secular apostles, has become a religious ideology based on Ingersoll’s Holy Trinity of Reason, Observation, and Experience.  Science moves under its own impetus to reveal all and do all that can be done as proof of humanity’s mastery over reality, over the Cosmos.

Which brings us to Rostand’s piercing insight. 

Science unleashed from its proper moorings recalls the ancient tale of the Garden of Eden.  The tempter, Satan, the Adversary and personification of rebellion against the Creator, slithered up to Eve, the Mother of all living, and said, “Did Adonai (Hebrew meaning “my Lord” instead of saying God’s holy personal name) really say you are not to eat of any tree in the garden?”  The Adversary knew full well that the humans could eat of every tree in the garden except one.  The whole point was to turn their minds away from all that they had to the one thing they were told not to seek.

Eve was hooked and she answered with an expanded interpretation of what God had actually said, “We may eat from the fruit of the trees of the garden, but from the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden God said, ‘You are neither to eat from it nor touch it, or you will die.”

In the original statement, Adonai had said to Eve’s spouse, “Red” (which is what the name Adam indicates), “You may freely eat from every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  You are not to eat from it because on the day that you eat from it, it will become certain that you will die.”  Not instant death, like a fast-acting poison, but slow deterioration till the body, which was made to live forever in its primal state, gradually breaks down from the destructive effects of continued rebellion and rejection of how the Creator meant things to work.

Incidentally, Adam was there the whole time and overheard the whole transaction.  Like many males of the species, he chose to cop out and passively stand by, letting his woman take the risk and blame if it all went south—the whole time having privately thought about doing the very same thing himself.

Interpreters of this story have found all sorts of reasons to reject it outright or change it into something less straightforward than what it says.  It has been allegorized since well before the time of Yeshua (Jesus), and ever since by theologians.  More recently, and with very shaky foundation, it has been considered a reworking of old Babylonian tales.  Its great antiquity cannot be doubted, even if its historicity may be and has been relegated to mythology by modern scholarship. 

Myths are now understood to have some root in history and experience.  They are attempts to make sense of aspects of human experience and species memory that lie far back in both our origins and our consciousness or, as Freud put it, our “unconscious mind”.  Carl Jung described such things as “archetypes” – the visualized, articulated symbols of primary, elemental parts of who and what we are.

There is great mystery in our self-awareness.  It is inseparable from our knowledge of the very real existence of both good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, selfishness and selflessness—all side by side in each of us, all vying for pre-eminence in our thinking, feeling, and acting.  A famous Biblical verse refers to it this way, “We are fearfully and wonderfully made”.  We are woven together inextricably as a mysterious being which intuitively knows itself both as a self and as a creature of the Creator, whom we cannot escape no matter where we flee and how hard we try.  (To get the full picture, read Psalm 139 in the Hebrew Scriptures, usually called the “Old Testament” by Christians.)

It is a curious thing to observe the contortions human intellect performs in avoiding the Creator in order to come up with plausible reasons for the universal human sense of basic moral truths and ideas about justice and good and evil.  All sorts of evolutionary scenarios are proposed, and none answer in anything like a truly fulfilling fashion.  It is a matter of faith that somehow some great sociologist or evolutionary psychologist or anthropologist will finally close that circle and lay to rest the old “Created in God’s image” fable.

For the simplest, cleanest, most obvious solution is that there is a Supreme Being, a Creator, and a Personal One at that, who has left His/Her signature in and on everything that He/She fashioned.  The problem of God will not go away, no matter how hard we strive to block it and reject it (or rather, Him/Her).

But that question cannot be resolved by Science (the secular atheistic ideology, as explained above) or science (the methodology of discovery and investigation of the Cosmos).  Science as methodology is a tool open to anyone regardless of their ideology or theology.  Science as an ideological position is really a religion without the Creator.  The god within is Humanity as the supreme arbiter.

Faith is the decision to trust.  As with Eve and Adam, our personified primal ancestors, we always have the choice to trust in the Creator who has signed His/Her work everywhere, or in human ability to refashion the Cosmos, the reality of existence as we find it, according to our evolving wisdom and understanding.

It cannot be denied that religions of all kinds—monotheist, polytheist, Deist, pantheist, animist, and whatever other variations of these there may be—have served too often as agents of the unscrupulous and powerful, justifications for oppression, coercion, control, and even genocide.  Godless ideologies have done no better.  As we have seen, they are but reworkings of the religious imperative which is native to humanity.

We cannot help ourselves.  We must strive to understand, to know, to delve into the secrets of existence, and even of our own drive to seek, to search, to know.  It is a compulsion we see at work from Day One of an infant’s life outside the womb, and it is increasingly clear that this drive is present even very early in foetal development prior to birth.

This makes nonsense of the old fable of the “recapitulation” of evolution in the womb  as we behold the marvel of a child being woven in that most secret, sacred place within a mother.

Anyone gazing at the absolute awesomeness of the Cosmos, from its tiniest bits in the microcosm to its most stupendous manifestations in the macrocosm, knows intuitively that it is not an accident.  Our willful blindness to all this is human hubris lusting to throw off the boundaries set upon us as creatures, no matter how amazing and remarkable we may be among all creatures.

Ockham’s Razor has long been seen as a stroke of logical genius in philosophy.  It says that  the simplest explanation for any problem, mystery, or conundrum that accounts for the most known facts and disposes of most of the objections is not only the best explanation, but in all likelihood the true one.  Ockham’s formulation remains the most elegant and most serviceable ever devised for understanding almost anything, inasmuch as human logic can understand.

Mark Twain was not a Theist.  He classified himself as a realist when he said, “Life does not consist mainly—or even largely—of facts and happenings.  It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s mind.”  He was describing the inner life, how we experience it.  And all of us seek to make sense, to bring order to the “storm of thoughts…blowing through one’s mind.”

In the heat of doing, we may not immediately be processing, but in the moments, in the intervals, in the “in-betweens”, we turn to the innate impulse to understand, to know the “who, what, why, how” of it all.  If we have driven away the Maker and all desire to know and relate to Him/Her, we drift to whatever else will take His/Her place.  In thought-storm we inevitably seek a port.

We hunger for truth, we must trust in something.  Like Ophelia in Shakespeare’s masterpiece Hamlet, we “protest too much” – about our autonomy, our independence, our absolute right to determine for ourselves just who and what we are, even if that means changing that from one day to the next.  And underneath it all we are hollow, empty, adrift in an accidental Cosmos which has no essential reason for being there at all.

Which is how we arrive at our post-modern world and society.

TO BE CONTINUED

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Faith and Hope:  Assurance and Conviction, 3

 We are so constituted that we believe the most incredible things; and, once they are engraved upon the memory, woe to him who would endeavor to erase them.

Johann Wofgang von Goethe

Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.

William James

(Photo credit Alamy – The Goddess Reason enthroned by the French Revolutionaries in Paris)

Everyone lives by faith, by trust.  We cannot avoid it.  To live without trust in anything or anyone is despair.  That is why the early secular existentialists conceded that, without God in the picture, humans must still choose something to trust in, to have faith in, in order to give their personal existence enough meaning to keep on living.  (See William James above.)

That is why Nietzsche, the icon of modern philosophy, resolved that, having killed God, we must have the will to assume the godhead ourselves and raise the human race to the pinnacle of wherever evolution may take us.  If we cannot do that, we do not deserve anything more than the fate of the dinosaurs.[1]

As Goethe observed “we are so constituted that we believe…”  Because we have no choice in the matter of believing in something, when nothing reasonable and probable (at least to our way of thinking) presents itself, we will, inevitably, choose “the most incredible things.”  The more outrageous something is at first blush, the harder we have to work to convince ourselves to believe it.  Paradoxically, once we have done that hard work, “once they are engraved upon the memory, woe to him who would endeavour to erase them”.

Hence the unshakeable conviction in the most bizarre ideas of what the USA was about to apocalyptically become of the wannabe saviours of the Great Republic in January 2021.  Hence the ineradicable fables of Holocaust deniers, or of those who say the Lunar landings were all staged, and on and on.  Evidence to the contrary be damned – no matter how mountainous!  “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts!”

There is more than a small element of fable and fantasy added when the truth-brigades from the other side of the spectrum lump in all those who hold to trust in the Creator and the Christian Story with the outer-limit fringe.  This lumping in even goes as far as saying that, because so many of the conspiracy-addicts seem to come out of fervent religious sects, it must be due to the essentially lunatic nature of religious (and especially Christian) faith in the first place.

Circa 200 CE, the ancient Christian theologian and apologist Tertullian once told the Roman opponents of Christianity: “It is by all means to be believed, because  it is absurd.”  This oft-quoted pithy paradox is almost always taken out of context and fired at Christians as evidence of the absurdity of their faith.  Tertullian was actually side-wise referencing the Apostle Paul’s declaration to some early Greek disciples about how God’s apparent foolishness puts all human-based wisdom and expectations of how reality works to shame.  (See Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapters 1 and 2 in the New Testament.) 

Tertullian’s point was that relying on forms of wisdom which exclude the Creator as the final source of truth maroon the seeker in the empty desert of forever chasing new propositions, forever seeking another savant with the next level of understanding, and forever discovering yet another dead-end road with no food for the empty heart and soul.  A very fair-minded man, Tertullian criticized Christian deviants as vehemently as he took apart the nonsense the secularists of his day spouted against Jesus and his followers.

In the 21st Century West it is a given that science and faith are incompatible and are even at war with each other, at least in public discourse (or lack thereof).  Science purports to be the search for truth and understanding rigorously pursued according to certain “objective” criteria.  The only reason this has been turned into a “war” with faith is that it is not admitted that science requires great faith and that all faith has a foundation that is not primarily “scientific”.  That is the paradox at the core of science. 

Setting up the rules to exclude certain categories of knowledge, experience, and findings a priori proclaims a rigged game which allows the rule-makers to declare the forbidden forms of evidence and conclusions based upon them “out of bounds”.  It is a case of the pot calling the kettle “black” (in a non-racial sense).  True that the Christian Church(es) used to treat secularists in a similar way – as the famous case of Galileo illustrates as we are repeatedly reminded.  But we now find the scientific establishment meting out the same treatment to thinkers and scholars who dare deviate from its established doctrines, especially when it comes to the kind of explanation for any phenomenon science cannot account for.

The assumption in such cases is strictly one of faith according to the dogma of science that someday reason and “science” (a sort of super-entity now possessing a kind of supernatural ability to someday explain what is cannot presently explain) will reveal and explain all.  This smacks far more of theology than of evidence-based conclusions.  “Science” in this way has attained a religious status, a sort of personified stand-in for the ultimate power of human rationality and ingenuity.  We are well on our way to a trinity here.  Science sits on the throne, or perhaps it is Reason.  Like the Father and the Son in Christian doctrine, but supposedly emptied of the mystique and the mystical.

Yet they have betrayed themselves.  The doctrines are there, the dogma is in place, the first two powers or forces of this Secularized Trinity sit on their thrones.  We are just lacking the parallel to the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity.  Where to look?  If the Holy Spirit in the Christian Trinity is the personal power of God in action, then the Holy Spirit of Science is the personal power of the Human Mind.

And there we have it – the religion of science made in the image of the dethroned, defrocked, demoted ideology, theology, and worldview of its great rival which has apparently been defeated once and for all!  Father Science depends on the incarnation of the Son Reason, which operates in power through the Holy Spirit Human Mind!  An astonishing and unwitting reversal and doubtless unintentional imitation! 

“Imitation is the highest form of flattery,” as the saying goes.

But perhaps there is something far more subtle and deep at work here than mere coincidence, or even unacknowledged imitation.  Perhaps it is rooted in the very fabric of reality itself, the signature of the Creator manifesting itself even in the creature’s attempt to wipe the knowledge of the Creator from human consciousness. 

Ultimately, the creature cannot deny its own nature, especially the human creature which, it has been said since time beyond memory, is made in the image of the Creator for the express purpose of personifying and signifying the will and presence of the Creator in the very warp and woof of His/Her manifest handiwork.  For the signature of the Creator is in every part of the creation, in every being, in every star, in every atom.

The efforts of the human species to deny, efface, and erase this Presence in order to take the Creator’s place and be unaccountable except to itself cannot wipe out that intended purpose no matter what we do – including creating the ultimate “non-religious” paradigm.  When we boil it down to its essence and uncover its deepest inner workings, it betrays itself as one more manifestation of who and what we really are and it only points us back to the One who made us to be in relation to Him/Her.

TO BE CONTINUED


[1] Incidentally, dinosaurs still exist.  They have been right in our faces since humans appeared on earth.  The current iteration just doesn’t reach the same size as their ancient predecessors, and are in far less variety.  We call them reptiles.  Some of them, like crocodiles and alligators and turtles and monitor lizards, are virtually unchanged from their remote ancestors.  This picture does not fit the narrative our modern scientific faith propounds.

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Faith and Hope: Assurance and Conviction, 2 – The Great Divide

“I’m telling you the truth: if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed [a very small seed], you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.  Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Yeshua/Jesus, in Luke 17:20, The Kingdom New Testament, a Contemporary Translation

(Preface: Please note that the following is not a discussion about institutionalized, formal, organized religion, but about the universality of religious thinking.)

At its most basic level, faith is trust.  Faith is deciding to trust that something is true because you trust the source of the information, or the results of the observations and experiments that provide the evidence for whatever you are accepting as truth.

In the first part of this series, we observed that everyone, no matter their stance regarding God and religion, lives by faith.  The popular mind, propagandized by secular persuasion about science not being a faith-based enterprise, has largely relegated faith to the realm of spirituality and personal relationships while not admitting or understanding science’s utter dependence on trusting that the road to truth is via the empirical scientific method .

Scientists and scholars of all stripes, from antiquity to the present, have always operated as much by faith as any fervent religious believer.  The honest and forthright ones know it and acknowledge it.  Science and engineering are as much faith-based as spiritual and relational activities are.  They believe that their faith is in “the facts” derived by the more or less application of the scientific method.  But it is really far more in the trust that “the method” will provide the necessary facts, the evidence that there trust is not misplaced, even when the facts are not actually there – at least not just yet.

The etymological meaning of “religion” is “the thing or system which ties or holds things together” – Latin religio: re = once more, legio= to bind, to tie – ergo, to rebind, to tie together.  Some people hold things together by reaching out to God or gods or a supernatural side of things.  They put their trust in the existence of such a side of reality, a side which is normally invisible and insensible – not normally evident to our physical senses.  Some people decide that without such sensory evidence they can only put their trust in what they can perceive via their senses, without recourse to any form of supernatural existence.  There is an assumption that there cannot be any “real” evidence for an incorporeal side to reality.  In both cases, these are equally “religious” decisions and positions which direct the living of life.  They are both fundamental positions about the nature of reality and what can be trusted.  In short, they are equally faith-based positions.  And, despite the declarations of the dominant Western paradigm that the spiritual side cannot be trusted any more to determine truth, the proponents of that worldview are every bit as religious and faith-motivated as the believers in a God and a “super”-natural element of reality.  (“Super” just means above and beyond – again from Latin.)

It is the old story of who gets to decide the meaning of words and inject, indeed impose, their meaning and worldview on the culture and the popular mind.  The secular Enlightenment campaign which began in the mid-18th Century with the agenda to take control of the West’s social and cultural narrative has thoroughly taken over almost all of the West’s knowledge and education establishment, and thus has been diligently redefining the meaning of words to even further push “religious” faith to the fringes.  There the gullible theists can be ignored and even ridiculed with impunity – and sometimes even sanctioned when they offend the new sensibilities too greatly.

But, whether labelled as religious or not, everything we do in life is based on faith, on trust, on conviction that we know enough truth to be assured that we are taking the right path to find meaning and make some sense of a reality which just keeps exponentially expanding in complexity.  We operate on faith in even the most mundane activities.  We just don’t think about it.  If I’m a God-believer, I trust that He/She will continue to will the universe (and me) to exist and keep operating in an orderly way.  If I’m a thorough atheist, I still trust that whatever forces and serendipitous circumstances produced this fantastic and totally improbable outcome of marvelous existence that we experience will keep on rolling along for another 50 billion years or so.  In both cases, experience says these are reasonable, even scientific conclusions.

The great malaise of our time is rooted at least to some degree in the oft-professed conviction that everybody can invent their own reality and that all choices are equal in value.  Why then are we not all equally happily creating and living in our own private Gardens of Eden?  Why is there so much outside interference in arriving in our personally constructed versions of Paradise?

The answer is shockingly simple and obvious, but most unwelcome and barely mentionable in our present intellectual, spiritual, and social whirlpool of “You can’t tell me my version of truth is not as good as yours.”  Science fiction and fantasy and quantum multiverse theory aside, there are not infinite realities out there.  As far as we can know and experience, there is but the one within which we live and move and have our being.  I can fantasize all I want tonight, and even dream wild dreams, but tomorrow I will wake (God-willing) to continue in the same life and reality I know today.

I betray my own “religion” – not just my public “religion” (as in the Latin sense of what helps tie things together for me), but my personal religion – in the simple everyday things and attitudes I manifest as I do normal things more than in any of the high-falutin’ philosophies, ideologies, or theologies I may spout.  Atheists and agnostics and sceptics are as equally faith-driven as any disciple of Yeshua, Moses, Muhammad, or Buddha.  Paradoxically, we all live our faith both publicly and privately.  What I say and do in public is one side of my life and may or may not be consistent with my private faith.  Frequently, we are prone to profess some things for public consumption while privately holding divergent and even quite contradictory views in our heart of hearts.  Will the real Mr./Mrs./Ms. Smith please stand up?  How can I tell what I really believe?

Jesus gave some pithy principles for discerning the mountains of bovine excrement we are being fed and feeding ourselves in the great denigration of “Religion” and faith: “Nobody can serve two masters.  Otherwise, they will either hate the first and love the second, or be devoted to the first and despise the second.   You can’t serve both God and wealth.” (Gospel of Matthew, 6:24)  Bob Dylan once wrote and sang it as, “You’re gonna serve somebody.”  Jesus added, “By their fruits you will know/recognize them” – i.e., what people do says a lot more about who they are and what they really trust in than their affirmations and declarations, both in public and in private.

Our malaise is the disconnect created by the evidence that “it just ain’t so” that we can and must discover our own special version of truth.  We are told over and over that we can “actualize” and discover our true selves and thus reach our full potential to “be all that we can be” and arrive, ipso-facto, in our own personal “kingdom of god” (with me as that god/goddess) here and now.  We are all entitled to everything.  It is a matter of faith. 

It is also all patently impossible.  “Wishing just don’t make it so.”  Instead, we have created a Frankenstein monster which is beginning to destroy its creators.

The need for faith has never been greater, but the proposition that we can choose any sort of goal and ambition to aim at and any vehicle to achieve them has never been so flagrantly false.  All choices are not equal, all belief systems are not valid – at least not in terms of outcome or synchrony with the way things really are.  You are entitled to choose just about any road, but you are not entitled to force everyone else to accept such choices as beneficial to the general commonwealth, or even consistent with the evidence of history and science.  Just because I have the ability and may want to make fantastic choices that fly in the face of being “normal” and “healthy” in any common sense does not entitle me to impose such choices on everyone else as having to accept those choices as normal and healthy.

In most cases your private world is not my business.  But when it begins to exert harm around you which brings suffering and destruction to others, it is no longer merely private.

Your faith matters.  What you choose to trust in matters.  The thing you put at the top of that pyramid of values and beliefs is in fact your god.  If that is your success, status, prestige, power, wealth, and pleasure, you are your own god.  This comes out even more forcefully when you insist on redefining even human and general nature to conform to your personal system of faith and belief.  That is indeed a claim to divine power.

Will this sustain you when you stand at, or lie on your last bed, on the edge of the great divide? At that moment, just about everyone starkly realizes that the personally formed god you have believed in, the personal version of faith you have trusted, is about to die as it meets the One Who Is in the Great Beyond. 

The West is in moral, spiritual, and a deepening social and cultural crisis.  As the world’s global cultural engine over the last two hundred years, it has dragged the whole world into the maelstrom of its Mr. Toad Wild Ride which shows no end in sight.

Te morituri salutant!” said the gladiators as they stood before the Emperor in the arenas of ancient Rome.  At the end of the battle will the One Emperor’s thumb be up or down?

TO BE CONTINUED 

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Faith and Hope, Assurance and Conviction, 1

Apologies to readers for the following deluge of alternate definitions of the same term before we get into the meat of this exploration of what we variously understand by “faith”.

Hebrews 11:1 – The New Testament

“Estin de pistis elpizomenon hupostasis, pragmatōn elegchos ou bleposmenōn.”

(Original Greek transliterated to Latin alphabet)

Variously translated:

Now faith is the evidence of things hoped for, the substance of things not seen.  (KJV – King James Version)

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  (New American Standard Bible)

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.  (New International Version)

What then is faith?  It is what gives assurance to our hopes; it is what gives us conviction about things we can’t see.  (Kingdom New Testament)

Trusting is being confident of what we hope for, convinced about things we do not see.  

(The Complete Jewish Bible)

Avoir la foi, c’est être sûr de ce que  l’on espère, c’est être convaincu de la réalité de ce que l’on ne voit pas.  (La Bible en français courant)

 Tener fe es tener la plena seguridad de recibir lo que se espera; es estar convencidos de la realidad de cosas que no venemos.  (Spanish – El Nuevo Testamento, Versión Popular)

 Faith, n. Reliance, trust, in; belief founded on authority… belief in religious doctrines, esp. such as affects character & conduct, spiritual apprehension of divine truth apart from proof…

(The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964)

Here in the West in the 21st Century of the Common Era it is fashionable and comfortable to set people with religious faith (most especially Christians) aside as deluded and probably unreasonable and fanatical.  As “evidence” and “substance” of this statement, let the Western reader consider the way religious subjects are either avoided altogether in the public forum, or appear there only as news reports of yet more demonstrations of the negative effects of religious fanaticism. 

This seems most prevalent in the way Christianity and its most dedicated adherents are frequently portrayed in comparison to those of other religious persuasions.

For example, a popular new show from one of the major Internet entertainment producers is exclusively concerned with rather outrageous sects of Christianity.  While not aimed overtly at discrediting all churches or Christian belief, it provides virtually no information about “normal” Christian faith or its core story and normal practice. What will the titillated viewer conclude by implication?  It takes no great insight to see the insinuation about all serious Christians filtering into the subconscious worldview of followers of such stuff, however accurate it may be about what it reports.

A generation or two ago, it might have been correct to say that there was still enough residual knowledge and understanding of what is still the West’s most adhered to religious segment (Christianity) that educational, documentary, and entertainment producers did not owe their consumers any broader contextual framework when publishing their material, as long as they avoided defamation.  Even then, the entertainment industry could take refuge behind artistic licence as to why their “art” might not reflect objective facts.  However, the new show referred to above presents itself as documentary, highlighting abnormal and extreme forms of religious behaviour practiced by groups identifying themselves as Christian. 

Whether what is presented is true or not is not the issue.  It is about the choice of what to expose.  Christianity is an easy target.  One has great difficulty thinking the same sort of “objective report” would be ventured on deviant segments of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Judaism, although perhaps there in light of the latent and sometimes still blatant anti-Semitism of large segments of the population.  Tolerance and political correctness have their preferred vectors too.  The dormant abortion debate is conspicuously absent in Canadian (and most Western) society in this respect, even in private conversation at this juncture.

One of the most pernicious myths propagated in our current educational and popular culture equates Christianity in particular with being the source of virtually every form of injustice and inequality which civil rights advocates and civil liberties innovators drum and drub into the public forum and drag into tribunals to seek inclusion under the Constitution.  In Canadian education curricula and materials produced to support them, the Church and churches and Christian leaders and states-persons who participated actively and effectively in many of the early phases of our history, and even in modern movements for equality and fairness, are rapidly shunted to the side lest we look and see too closely the critical roles and influence they had in so much of what has become Canada as we know it.  If we have to spend time speaking about them and their impact, the motivation and vision of such people is secularized and sanitized to fit the post-modern narrative.

But Christians and other religiously inspired activists and workers are not the only ones operating on the basis of faith, “conviction of things not seen”, and “assurance of things hoped for”.  In truth, everyone who sets out to achieve something in life operates from the very same set of starting points.  It is only, and quintessentially, human.  It is innate to homo sapiens sapiens to believe there is something greater than just “I, me, me, my” as John Lennon lyrically put it in 1968.

Theists, atheists, agnostics, polytheists, Deists, monists, pantheists – it matters not.  We are bred to believe, not just to exist.  We are made and formed to trust that there is meaning behind the blind-seeming, ineluctable powers and forces enveloping us in the time-space continuum, or the quantum-chance continuum if you prefer.

The early secular existentialists despairingly conceded that, if there is no inherent meaning behind existence, the individual has to choose one in order not to just die in despair.  Sadly, their distortion of Kierkegaard’s original Christian existentialism in which the seeker must choose to trust God did not alleviate the creeping despair that was already deeply infecting the soul of the West.  The assault of the Enlightenment on history and culture, seeking its liberation from all taint of religious infection, strongly abetted by Darwinism, ran amok into the pseudo-science of Social Darwinism in all its dark permutations.  It still holds us in its thrall.  It has still not freed its servants from the bedrock of human nature to seek and find a reason to believe in something/someone greater.

The bravest and most honest thinker and philosopher of the Enlightenment’s trajectory was and remains Friedrich Nietzsche.  Nietzsche has been considered a mad genius by some, but his own crystal clear and brutally honest analysis of the ultimate meaning of the Enlightenment’s century-long assault on God, Christianity, and all the working of that faith in the West’s fabric was that humans must still have a greater reason and purpose than mere existence.

“God is dead and we have killed him,” he proclaimed.  But we still need a central purpose and meaning greater than and beyond ourselves.  We have chosen evolution as the core story, but evolution in and of itself cannot fill the void at the core of our being.  We must have the strength of will to admit this and choose to make our own meaning, because the ultimate end of the evolution-story is extinction.  Humans are made to rise above these limitations – at least for a time until the final laws of physics and chemistry close everything down.  Someone, a select breed of superior individuals, must lead humanity into the next phase of evolution and step into the void left by God.  It takes the “Will to Power” to do this, and the Man of Destiny will show the way.

And so we arrive at the Superman and the Super-race, and eugenics, and Hitlerism and Fascism and the great Socialist Utopia and the horrors of the World Wars and the Personality Cults of the Man of Steel (Stalin), of Mao, of Pol Pot, of the Kim Dynasty in North Korea, of our own current quest for the perfect child and the quiet elimination of inferior breeding results via abortion and euthanasia and the practices first put into mass effect in Nazi Germany. 

We now find ourselves watching and even condoning these crimes against humanity reasserting themselves in our own quieter, more scientific and apparently compassionate-based re-adoption of Nietzschean notions.  “A little bit here, a little bit there,” quiet amendments to law and constitution in small steps, and once more we find the acceptance of those ideas of “life not worthy of life” and “life not worth the living” – not just individuals choosing this for themselves, but panels of professional compassion-arbiters making the recommendations and even the decisions for the lesser sorts and their less enlightened families and loved ones.

All this is no less faith-based and ideological and even religious than the now-eclipsed Christian consensus it has pushed aside.  The new slaughter of the innocents is of a magnitude King Herod or even Genghis Khan could never have fathomed.  Hitler and Stalin would appreciate the slick subtlety of it all.

Jesus once said, “Man (humanity) cannot live on bread [physical sustenance] alone, but [we also need] by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.”  And when we are, when we have chosen to be, deaf to God and even deny the Creator’s very being, we speak our own deified, and too-frequently demonic, wisdom to take the Deity’s place.  This comes at the cost of all the good and worthy things we once learned and, however imperfectly, put at the core of who and what we were in the West.

TO BE CONTINUED

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Optics, 2

(This is a repost from 2018 on Blogger.com.)

In things to be seen at once, much variety makes confusion, another vice of beauty. In things that are not seen at once, and have no respect one to another, great variety is commendable, provided this variety transgress not the rules of optics and geometry.

Christopher Wren
Read more at https://www.brainyquote.com/topics/optics-quotes

In the West of the 21st C, we have reached the conclusion that if there is a God, He/She/It is not to be feared.  Somehow, although the Divinity and Messiahship of Jesus are no longer taken seriously, his life and message of love has erased the whole idea of a God/Creator/Supreme being who also needs to be feared.  Somehow, the claims about Himself and His life made by the man Jesus who died willingly on a Roman cross for ‘sin’ have been transmuted into the mere miserable and almost futile martyrdom of a pure and good soul.  

What Jesus said about coming so that ‘sin might be forgiven’ and reconciliation made between God and man has been spun as ‘God, if He/She/It exists, forgives sin no matter what, regardless of whether I make any effort to relate to Him, control any of my selfish, self-serving urges, or do nothing about putting others’ needs before my own.’  Any negative spin on anyone’s choices implying accountability for what we do is intolerant and intolerable.

There is indeed some powerful ‘optical irony’ in this.  Here on earth, possibly the most frequently recited prayer in the world, and certainly in the West, tells us to pray, “Thy (God’s, our Heavenly Father’s) will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 

However, for the most part most of us most of the time live and act and think as if we don’t give a rat’s a– for God’s will being done on earth, let alone in Heaven.  Deep down we really think that this God whom we implore will never care a whit whether we do or don’t attempt to ‘do His will’.  

After all, who really knows what that means?  Surely in my unique individuality, need and quest to find myself and release my complete uniqueness there is no universal criteria for understanding what ‘doing God’s will’ might actually consist of.  God, as all-loving (the one characteristic almost universally ascribed to the Deity), must be incapable of rejecting or condemning anything we do.  And His perfect love must eliminate any requirement on my part to reciprocate.  Therefore, ‘doing God’s will’ simply means ‘doing my will’ after all.

But what was the origin of this quasi-universal prayer?  What did the phrase “On earth as it is in heaven” designate and imply to Jesus and those who first heard him respond to their request, “Teach us to pray.”  (Matthew 6:9ff, and Luke 11:1ff)

The first thing is the context.  Jesus lived the prayer he taught; he modelled it in action, not just tossing out a philosophically nice and pious idea.  He told them to live as if they meant what they said, to live just the way he had shown them.  He never said or intimated that it didn’t matter what they did because of God’s all-tolerating and all-inclusive love (‘agape’ is the actual Greek word in the New Testament).

“On earth as it is in heaven.”  In Jesus’ heart and mind, in his ‘worldview’, if it may be permitted to use this anachronistic term here, earth and heaven are not separate realms, kind of like a ‘before and after’, life and the ‘after-life’.  God is present and active in both.  He has a will for both – but there is really no separation.  His will is definitely being done ‘in Heaven’, wherever and whatever that may look like.  Heaven, in its simplest terms, is just the place of being always in God’s presence, 24/7 (although the concept of time is not really relevant to it), 100%.  Not only being in God’s presence, but wanting to be in His presence, enjoying being in God’s presence – 24/7, 100%.

I suspect that most of us right now would be pretty uncomfortable in a powerful manifestation of God’s presence.  The evidence of history (unless you a priori rule out the possibility that there is a God who can and does act in history, and so disqualify a priori any sources that describe how He has acted in history, and therefore still can if He were to so chose) is that when God or even a messenger from God shows up, just about everyone is overwhelmed.  In the words of some who testify to such experiences, they tend to grovel or tremble or try to hide or fall on the knees or faces in awe and fear – yes fear!  As Isaiah said when he ‘saw the LORD’ – “Woe to me, for I am a man of unclean lips.”  Paraphrased, he was saying “I am dirty with sin through and through.”

Sin, that awkward, unspeakable subject which psychologists tell us is ‘not helpful’ because it ends up in a ‘guilt complex’.  Let’s be kinder and gentler and say ‘failures and weaknesses,’ which bypass the notion of moral responsibility.

If the Isaiah type vision is a little too ‘heavenly’ to handle and therefore more like a myth or legend (as such occurrences as miracles are usually classified), in the next section we will come solidly down to earth with a very earthy fellow called Peter.

Optics, 4

I love Peter; I can relate to him in so many ways.  Continually putting his foot in his mouth, but sometimes just nailing it so well.  Full of bravado but then wimping out in the clutch – except when he was incredibly brave and heroic, as he was at times, including as he ended his days in Rome.  So much like us in so many ways. 

When he first gets to know Jesus, he takes Him out fishing (at Jesus’ request, mind you).  Natural enough for a fisherman to do with a new friend. 

Jesus tells Peter to put his net back in the lake (the Sea of Galilee) after he had fished all night and caught nothing.  The right time for fishing is past; it’s mid-day and the fish are not biting, don’t you see?  “But since you insist, Jesus, well OK,” Peter says, mentally qualifying (‘If it will get you off my back.’) 

As a practiced Avoider (which I can also relate to as a fellow one), Peter doesn’t like confrontation if he can avoid it.  The net is rapidly filled to bursting with nice big fish.  The catch is so huge that Peter has to call his partners James and John to come and fill their boat too.  He is amazed and overjoyed.  Then it dawns on Peter; this guy Jesus in his boat is not just a cool new rabbi who has come to Capernaum recently and seems to have a knack for healing people, somehow.  Just what is an up-and-coming rabbi doing in Capernaum anyway?  Shouldn’t he be down in Jerusalem to recruit religious types and make waves?  Peter turns to look at Him now, standing there in his boat, all wet and smelling of fish from helping haul in the fish He had told him he would catch after all. 

Forgive me if I read details into this story that aren’t there in any of the Gospels, but think about it.  Jesus is a carpenter, a tradesman like Peter, a man accustomed to hard physical work.  Later scholarly and airy Gnostic speculation about Jesus’ mysterious ‘gap years’ between ages twelve and thirty aside, He is not an abstract philosopher or ivory-tower teacher with soft hands and flabby muscles who just spouts out stuff and expects others to say, “Wow, you are so smart, Jesus!”  The first disciples didn’t need to speculate about or describe those years because Jesus’ previous life was not a mystery at all.  The real mystery was how they had not seen Him for who He really was before.  He seemed so, well, normal – except in His degree of wisdom, service, spiritual devotion, caring and integrity.

He is a man acquainted with life in all its nitty-gritty messiness.  He grew up in a large family in a small community, with all that that means in relationships and local gossip and petty rivalries.  He apprenticed with Joseph, his earthly father and learned a solid trade, as all rabbis of that age did.  He built things.  He observed the world and people.  He understood and absorbed the Scripture warp and woof.

He knew about grief and loss.  His grandparents had died.  His father had died recently (at least that is the consensus of commentators).  There would have been others He cared for who had passed as well.  He felt the wrongness of death deep in His bones, and the brokenness of man and the Cosmos in the core of His being.

His family didn’t understand Him.  His brothers made fun of Him and mocked Him (see John 6).  Can you imagine growing up with a perfect older brother as your role model and having to live up to that?  You would resent it to.  Mom and Dad always reminding you, “Why can’t you just be more like your older brother?”  It would have been hard for His sisters too, because what young man would want to marry into that family, having to measure up to that standard?

Even His mother will later try to come and talk Him into going home and acting more reasonably, no doubt for the sake of family peace.  Jesus had made them pariahs in Nazareth and the region.

But at the moment of our story Peter, there in that boat, senses something amazing and incredible about this man whose reputation is rapidly growing.  Trades people get around, and perhaps they had met or seen one another when Jesus might have come to work on some project or other in Capernaum and perhaps on Sabbath in the synagogue.  Have you ever wondered why Jesus made His early base at Capernaum?  He already knew people there.  According to tradition, the family of Zebedee was related to His mother.

However, this day is like they had never met before, even if they had.  Peter the Avoider has been unmasked and feels spiritually exposed and doesn’t want to face this guy who sees right through him.

Suddenly Peter has one of his wonderful moments of crystal clarity.  (We all have a few of those in our lives.)  This man Jesus standing there so close to him is a truly holy man, a truly godly man.  He has never really seen Him before.  He is not like those showy wannabe holy people who dress up in fancy-fringed prayer duds and pray aloud and loudly in public to put on a show and try to tell people how to live and point out all the sins they commit.  (Check out Jesus’ excoriating criticism of this type in Matthew 23.)  This guy, Jesus, is none of that; He simply is holy and godly and doesn’t have to say anything about it.

The other side of Peter’s moment of crystal clarity in the boat is a realization that for all that Jesus is, he, Simon bar-Jonah, is not.  He is not holy; he is not godly.  But he is in the presence of someone who inspires awe in him, someone unique, unlike anyone he has ever met or likely ever will meet again.  He senses, unable to express it, that somehow God is present in the boat with him.

Trembling with fear, undone, Peter goes to his knees.  His eyes are full of tears, and all he can say in a shaky voice is, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  Like me, like us, Peter would rather avoid having to face his true self.  He can’t run away, so he asks this terrifyingly real guy in front of him to go away and leave him alone.  Change is too hard!

“I am a sinful man” will only years later change to “Your will be done on earth as in heaven.”  What Simon-Peter knows intuitively at this irrevocable turning point in his life is that he cannot stand under the piercing gaze of this strange man named Yeshua (Jesus is the Anglicized Greek [Iesous] version – remember?), let alone stand in God’s presence.  (He doesn’t know yet that it’s the same thing.)  This man can see right into his soul, read his heart.  No hiding.  Simon knows that Jesus sees all his unclean, lustful thoughts, unkind words, angry responses, resentments and jealousies.  If this Jesus would just go away, maybe over time he could just slip back into his usually pretty comfortable life.

Instead, Jesus puts his strong, calloused, carpenter’s hand, a strong

hard-working man’s hand like Peter’s, on Peter’s shoulder.  He gives him a manly shoulder squeeze, and smiles with warm affection for this big, bluff, genuine fellow whose heart He sees right into.  “Don’t be afraid, Simon,” He says.  (Simon is Peter’s actual given name; Jesus has not yet called him ‘Peter’.)  “Follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men.”  I see Jesus smiling broadly at Simon, using gentle humour to allay his fear.

So here is our generations’ paramount Optical Illusion: that all that other stuff we are constantly bombarded with and that we talked about earlier is what really matters and what life is really about. 

Optical Reality: as the Apostle Paul, who also knew a thing or two about what we have been calling optics, put it (in my very liberal paraphrase and expansion), “But I now consider all those old things that used to matter s–t compared to the awesomeness of knowing Jesus our Lord [and doing His/God’s will here on earth while I’m still alive to do it].”  (Philippians 3:8)  The actual Greek word Paul used has been politely translated for the sake of our delicate optical and auditory piety, but we now understand that it was actually a street-language term for excrement.  Sorry if this offends your sensibilities, but evidently Paul did not care a (s)crap about the optics of the thing!  Or about the ‘spin’ his hearers and readers would put on it!  You realize that the Apostles’ letters (“epistles” is our fancy Biblical name for them) were read aloud to the whole church in those days.  How shocking would it be if you heard that ‘s-word’ read aloud in your church some Sunday?

That, Biblically speaking, is the final word on our post-modern obsession with the popular pursuit of all the stuff encompassed by what we have been calling 21st C cultural ‘optics’.

May peace be unto you as you shed the optical illusions of our time.  May the joy of being set free by the clear vision of Truth fill your souls.

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Optics, 1

“Optics – the scientific study of sight and the behaviour of light”  

The Canadian Compact Oxford Dictionary, 2002. 

(This is a repost from a 2018 post in Blogger.com)

(Photo: Author’s original)

In daily parlance, Optics refers to the way things look or appear, the way we look or appear to others.  Politicians, celebrities, organizations and even ordinary individuals are obsessed with their image, with the optics of how others perceive them.  Our mass and social media are obsessed with the latest ‘look’ decided on by the super-models, superstars, heroes and anti-heroes of the moment.  We tweet and post our latest selfie and mini-mega moments in the belief that the world needs to know how we look today, how great our kids are doing, how well our newest adventure is turning out moment by moment.

Elementary school students suffer acute anxiety about whether their peers will accept them based on their clothes, their ‘stuff’, and any number of ‘coolness markers.’  By High School, the whole domain of social and self image can be an obsession invading every aspect of teen life: having the right brand of cell-phone, tablet, watch and other gadgetry, the right pants, tops, sweaters, hair-styles, tattoos, FB friends, and twitter followers.  The risk of failure in the optics competition is shame, social mockery, and ‘loserism’.   Being a ‘loser’ breeds depression and low self-esteem like an epidemic.  Never has the toll of childhood and adolescent anxiety, depression and loneliness been so high.

We are probably the vainest culture that has ever existed.  All our public figures are primarily concerned with their images in order to gain or maintain or increase their following and popularity.  They and their parties employ professional ‘handlers’, ‘spin-doctors’, and image-makers to make sure they always ‘appear to best advantage’ as they announce anything and everything in just the right setting with just the right wording and approving audience.  In any contest of optics versus substance we know always know which will win out.

Since the Nixon-Kennedy Presidential Campaign of 1960 initiated the TV debate phenom as an essential part of any self-respecting election, it has been clear that how the candidate appears to the viewer and how (s)he sounds is at least as important as the substance of what (s)he says.  

Tired and worn out regimes can plausibly rebound to win despite all their scandals and miscues if they can successfully ‘rebrand themselves’ in the eyes and ears of the public, and simultaneously make the ‘other guy’ look ‘out-of-date’ and even retrograde (‘non-progressive’ ) or anti- the latest trendy cause, even when the truth is otherwise. 

We have bred a society with little long-term memory or taste for the real discipline of actually learning anything in depth, let alone practicing self-discipline and self-control in order to achieve a truly worthy long-term goal.  Tellingly, the few exceptions appear to be professional athletes and entertainment heroes – exceptions who actually prove the rule!  Their achievements make them role models to those seeking similar goals of wealth and fame. 

The Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes says that “There is nothing new under the sun”.  Rulers and regimes come and go, but the roots of human nature are the same as they have ever been for as far back as we have any evidence in history.  Ancient kings (and the occasional queen) and emperors worried how they looked and what their legacy would look like.  In Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’ a forgotten pharaoh invites the future gazer upon his stupendous statue to “Look upon me and despair.”  We might take the unintended advice of this gigantic, faceless and now historically forgotten titan of the past.  You may be a titan today, but you will be forgotten tomorrow along with almost all the other deluded self-obsessed optics-spinners who have ever lived.  In the end, substance wins over appearance and witty sound-bites in the historical sweepstakes.

 ‘Pharaoh X’ meant that anyone in the future should despair of ever equalling his greatness, opticized by his monumental statue.  The irony is that the things our society most admires and aspires to – wealth, beauty and glamour, fame (or notoriety, its reverse), power – become exactly what Solomon said – vanity – when we near our end.  Solomon, who certainly could speak from personal experience, said, “It’s all vanity and chasing after the wind.”

Solomon certainly concerned himself with the optics of his reign and engaged in supreme power-image-making – vast treasuries, huge chariot depots and impressive garrison cities, his own magnificent palace, the “House of Cedar” in Jerusalem, the incredibly opulent and gilded Temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem, his accumulation of a harem of one thousand beautiful women (many of them hostages to keep the powerful of the region in line), meant to impress all the kingdoms round-about with his power and influence.  His father David had beaten all the neighbours into submission, and to keep them there Solomon exacted onerous tribute in gold and kind.

Today, Solomon is one of the minute minority of people who have ever lived whom history has not forgotten.  Almost all of us alive today will not qualify for this minority, including most of the popular trend-setters and image-makers of this age, despite the delusion we all have about our own importance. 

For all his worldly ‘success’, as Solomon neared the moment of facing his Maker, he came to the conclusion that everything he had built, accumulated, tried, learned and distilled as wisdom in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes was empty.  A thousand wives – how much sex does it take to satisfy?  In his euphemistically charming metaphor, eventually “the almond tree no longer flowers.” 

Gold, silver, jewels, and precious things beyond counting and measuring – how much is enough?  When is the addiction to wealth and power filled up?  In his own comparison – “the eye is never filled with seeing or the ear with hearing; the ocean is never filled no matter how much water flows into it.”

He had tried and looked into ‘everything that is done under the sun’.  He wrote Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as advice to his son, if we believe the introductions to these works.  He had many sons but it is reasonable to think he meant Rehoboam who succeeded him.  That son quickly forgot everything his father might have told him.  But that is another story.

Shedding all the glitzy glamour and optics of absolute imperial power, Solomon boiled it all down as follows.  I summarize and paraphrase brutally here: “Fear God and prepare to give an answer for the deeds done in the body.  Be satisfied each day with the simple things being fulfilled – enough food, adequate clothing and shelter, a happy home.  Be happy with the spouse of your youth.  Work hard and honour the God who gave you life.  Be moderate in all your habits – neither giving way to greed or jealousy of those who have more, nor bitterness at what you do not have.  If you live as if today is your last day and rejoice that you have this day, you will not fear the day when God calls you back to Himself.  If you live as if only what you want matters and do not take care of others or have concern for their well-being, you will live in fear of losing what you have and in so doing commit injustice.  Then you should indeed fear the day of your death when you must answer to God for ‘the deeds done in the body.”

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The Third Way, 60 – Walking the Walk

“…. humanists, having no god, must put something at the center, and it is inevitably society, government, or the state …. the Judeo-Christian consensus … has weakened and all but disappeared, [along] with the lack of vision even from a pragmatic perspective, let alone principle ….”

Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Volume 5, a Christian View of the West.  (Crossway Books, Wheaton Illinois, 1982), p. 482

            Francis Schaeffer was an American Presbyterian minister, philosopher, evangelist and apologist who, for thirty-five years after World War 2, lived and worked in Europe, based in Switzerland.  He and his wife Edith founded L’Abri Fellowship in Chesières, Switzerland 1955.  Schaeffer died in 1984, but his thought and work has continued to exercise a profound influence on the thousands who met him and listened to and studied under him, as well as the millions who have read his books.  Few Christian thinkers through the last two millennia have created such a well-articulated and carefully thought-out and practiced view of both humanity and the cosmos.

In the summer of 1979 at Swiss L’Abri (there are other locations) my partner and I met and talked with the Schaeffers for a time almost daily as we worked at their chalet and in their garden.  His works and thought continue to exercise a profound influence on me.  Like all men, he was faulted, but he never betrayed his primary commitments to Yeshua, to Edith, to his family.  He strove to live what he taught, and to a large extent succeeded.

Schaeffer was not apolitical, but he was not partisan political either.  Politics is an inevitable concomitant of living in society, and, with few exceptions, humans cannot avoid living in society.  Even such exceptions almost always find society (other humans they attract) coming to them even as they attempt to escape it.  The story of Anthony of Egypt (250-356 CE) graphically illustrates this. 

Anthony sought to live as a hermit in the Egyptian desert in order to escape the corruption and distractions of the big city (Alexandria, Egypt) and to live a “pure life” dedicated to knowing God.  People heard about this radical holy man and began to come to him.  After twenty years of trying to be a hermit, he rather found himself a “Father” to a growing community of hundreds of God-seekers.  Despite himself he founded a community that focused on union with God first.  In 311, at the height of a terrible persecution, he was sent by his Lord back to the city to bring warning and to preach repentance to a corrupt and tumultuous populace and administration which threatened to kill him for his trouble. He hoped to be gifted with martyrdom, but was not.  Instead he brought conviction and hope to the suffering Christians and confusion to the Emperor’s agents.  There is much more to Anthony’s story, but the reader can find the details elsewhere.

With respect to the Christian aspiration to a Third Way, the most common mistake is in identifying a particular set of ideological posits and positions as where peacemakers and searchers after justice and true equity must commit themselves.  Taking up a party cause and socio-economic ideology has never led to the real objective of the Christ’s Third Way, which is the birthing of “the Kingdom of Heaven” on earth.

Schaeffer advocated civil disobedience, even at the risk of persecution and imprisonment.  He stood in a long line of Christian disciples from Peter and John the Apostles telling the Judean Sanhedrin “Judge for yourselves if we should obey God or you” (my paraphrase) when they had been arrested and told not to mention the name of Yeshua or teach anything about him among the people.  That line travels through time across twenty centuries down to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany and the tens of thousands of anonymous martyrs in the Soviet Bloc and even China and North Korea right now.  Nor must we forget the quiet efforts to bring hope and freedom to love and speak truth of Christians in Islamic societies where they have a death sentence fatwa hanging over their heads which anyone can carry out and be immune to punishment.  More thousands have been put to death there.

But the Third Way is not primarily about civil disobedience to unjust governments.  It is about pointing to and working towards a different way of doing life in the here and now, a way that puts a premium on compassion and empathy and real, practical efforts to stand with the victims of injustice and oppression and neglect and denial of the most basic elements of human dignity.  It is about being Christ’s “body” even in the middle of whatever version of “this age/cosmos” prevails at the moment wherever the scorn for the Creator and the callous treatment of those made in His/Her image is reducing God’s human children to mere animals or tools to be used to enhance the power, wealth, prestige and personal glory of whichever set of haters and oppressors holds power at the moment.

It is about showing another way among the community of those who name the name of Yeshua/Jesus as Lord, about practicing the principles of His Kingdom among themselves and trying to bring some of that influence into expression in the larger society and culture.

Because that has been the calling and mission of the disciples of Yeshua/Jesus since he commissioned his ekklesia – the assembly of the people called to follow him and live as God’s children in the midst of what Jesus called “a wicked generation” – the koinonia, the community of love and compassion He meant for His disciples to become and be, has never been, was never meant to be, a closed, secret society.  It was never meant to be merely another human-created institution interested in gaining political and economic power and compelling everyone to go along with its agenda.

That agenda is quite simple – bringing the Kingdom of God into real manifestation here on earth.  But, as ever with flawed humans being the agents, great transgressions were committed and brought (and bring) great discredit to all Yeshua’s followers.  Those who hear the talk about all the wonderful ideals of the coming Kingdom are justified in holding Christians accountable for acting just like the usual human authorities. 

Historically, it is no surprise that the failures and excesses of the official leaders of Christianity here in the West, where they gained great political, social, and economic power, should have led to the present situation.  The loss of the power and influence of the Church (churches) is lamented by many Christians, but too often as a sort of political and social deprivation rather than as it should be – a repentance for having fallen into the perpetual temptation to take the road to compulsory control using the levers of position and coercion.  The reduction of the Church’s power and influence and its being shunted to the periphery would be better seen as an opportunity to do a reset and a return to first love, a true repentance, rather than as a trumpet call to take up political weapons to try to restore something that would better have been left aside in the first place.

Much more has been better said on all this by many down through the centuries and the last two millennia.  For two thousand years, the Lord’s Prayer has warned us and continues to warn us about taking the wrong path.  Its priorities are explicit and crystal clear: “Creator’s Kingdom, come!  Creator’s will, be done!  On earth as in heavenly realms.”  The original is as much an imperative as a plea.  It is a command, a mandate. 

But the practical side is also crystalline: “Give us today our daily bread” – a request that we receive what we need (not want, lust after, crave to get) materially in the here and now.  This is for two purposes – first so that we can carry on with the business  of bringing God’s Kingdom into this age for as long as we are here, and second so that we can meet the needs of others who do not have enough and so show them the real love of their Creator.

This amazing masterpiece of prayer, which is the format for all prayer and relationship with our Maker, ends with “And do not lead us into (“lead” is not the best translation of the Greek word –more like do not let us fall into) temptation, but deliver us from evil (again, the Greek is better rendered as the evil one).”

It is an indivisible unity which we too often treat as separate pieces, compartmentalized to suit our own purposes.  The greatest temptation for each of us, for leaders, and for the ekklesia as a body is to take up the apparently easiest and most direct path to “bringing in the Kingdom”.  The temptation, the allure, is to outpolitick the politicos and cleverly dominate the social molders of “this age” who hold the reins (and reigns) of power and control.  It is the song of Odysseus’s Sirens luring us onto the rocks of shipwreck.

We will give the last word in this series to Yeshua.  Shimon (Peter), the prospective leader off the ekklesia after Jesus, took out a sword and used it in an attempt to stop the arresters who had come to take Jesus to be crucified.  Yeshua sharply reprimanded him, “Enough of that!  If you live by the sword, you die by the sword!”

Shalom!

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The Third Way, 59 – Reprise 3 – Finding the Door

“From the point of view of Christian faith, personality is not something given, which only needs development, but it is a relation.  Personality is rooted in relation to God.  It is the “self” of man which is called into existence by the divine “Thou”.  Its centre is responsibility, understood as the response of man to God’s call.  Its true realisation, and therefore the true humanity, is existence in divine love becoming concrete in love towards our neighbour.”

Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation, II, Specific Problems.  (London: Nisbet & Co. Ltd, 1949), p. 54.

(Photo Credit – Unsplash)

Everything comes back to the the basic worldview questions and how we answer them:

            – Who am I?

            – Where am I?

            – What’s wrong?

            – What’s the remedy?

(This version comes from Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton in The Transforming Vision.) 

We could easily add several more essential questions to this list – “Why am I here?  Why is anything here?  How did I/it get here?  Is there anything after death?”, etc.  Walsh and Middleton’s formulation has the beauty and simplicity of subsuming all the other possible issues as corollaries of their four.

Over and over again in this blog and in the “Third Way” series, we have brought out Brunner’s statement that “personality is rooted in relation[ship] to God…. the response of [hu]man[ity] to God’s call.” 

We are still persons if we refuse the call to relationship to the Creator, but we can never be the sort of person we are meant to be, we can never fully discover and become what being human truly is and is meant to be.

We live in an age and culture which insists on the complete equality of all responses, all conceptions of being and exploring being—especially of being human.  But we know in our gut that all forms of exploring and being human are not equal.  We are equal as being designed and created as humans and in experiencing our humanity.  But while much of our human experience is “the same” no two of us experience even the “sameness” in an identical way. 

You cannot live my life for me or I for you.  I was not born to your parents (unless you are my full sibling) nor you to my mine.  Even growing up in the same family does not extinguish the differences in how we experience our humanity, how we process even our common experiences.  Genetic makeup and environmental factors preclude all such “equality”.  Some are endowed with more or less intelligence, height, physical strength, beauty, and on and on.  Much of our western education system has degenerated into a Neo-Marxist dreamland of somehow eliminating the natural gifting and limitations we all have to deal with so that no child experiences the trauma of “losing”, of being left out, of being traumatized by discovering that others are smarter, stronger, faster, more popular, etc. – or, on the opposite end, of experiencing the thrill of success, the joy of excelling, of winning something as a reward for their effort and ability.

It is a complete denial of what nature, left to its evolutionary side, shows us—that we supposedly survive as individuals and a species by being the “fittest” – (viz. strongest, fastest, healthiest, most intelligent, most agile, most clever and cunning, etc.).  Having spent forty years as an educator, one learns that no matter how compassionate and accommodating one is, you cannot enable the one child to outdo the other in an area where the other simply has the innate aptitude to excel, at least when the one so naturally gifted sets him-/herself to excel.

This drive to create the “great leveling” actually denies the humanity of all those who supposedly will benefit from it.  For, as Brunner said, our humanity is fundamentally rooted in relationship with our Creator first and with one another second.  But the two cannot be separated, even if the “one another” part of our humanity appears and is presumed to be most important – to the very exclusion of the Creator from the equation.

Without the Creator we relegate ourselves to animality – to being accidental evolutionary outcomes.  With and in relationship to the Creator, personhood and personality are the very essence of being and becoming fully human.  They are not accidents; they are gifts.  They are not a survival strategy but the essence of purpose and the expression of the Creator’s being in and through His/Her creative handiwork and artistry.

We see God’s signature everywhere and in everything – every singularly different galaxy, star, solar system, and planet on the cosmic scale, and every microbe, mouse, and living thing on the micro-scale.  While we seem to randomly come into existence through the agency of our parents, there is nothing random about it, for it is all made to live and move and have being within the incredible design and living action of the One who gives it , and us, life and movement and being.

The Third Way in its perfection is the way modelled, lived, taught, and passed on by its ultimate incarnation, Yeshua/Jesus.  It is the way of redemption, of reconciliation, of repentance (as in turning around, turning back to the One who made us for communion with Him), and integration into His family, His Kingdom, and relationship with Him.

The struggle we face in this age, for as long as it continues, is finding the way to bring it as much into our lives and the life of our communities and nations as we possibly can, even in the face of the hostility of the system which rejects it because it contradicts so much of how we humans want things to work to validate our claim to primacy and even demi-deity. 

The Third Way is not a way of right or left, Conservative or Liberal, Socialist or Capitalist.  As Jesus put it, paradoxically, he came to bring both peace and a sword.  Too often those claiming to speak and act for him have resorted primarily to the sword.  The peace mission of the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed and Sent One, is universal, as so much of the story declares.  When Simon-Peter took out a sword and struck one of those arresting Jesus to have him crucified, Yeshua rebuked him, “Enough of that!  Put away your sword!  Those who live by the sword die by the sword!”

Yeshua taught that his rule was opposite to all the coercion and manipulative control by fear and cajoling and threat of violence implicit in how our systems work.  But until He returns to rule in person, those claiming to follow and emulate him are in the thick of the dilemma of being called out of “the world” (the old system of power-politics and power-games for selfish gain) but still living in it and having to navigate not being “of” the system.

So it is not a game of right versus left, but of justice versus injustice, personal wealth and well-being versus commonwealth, restraining evil and stopping evildoers while offering them restoration and reconciliation.  It is not a question of personal privilege and absolute personal rights, but of personal and mutual responsibility and respect for one another as equally entitled to just treatment and fair opportunity, just as we have been gifted by the Creator.  And where our sin (failing) has robbed any of this mutuality and equity, it is a question of finding the path to removing the injustice and restoring what has been stolen.

It is delusion to create a false sort of equity which says that the tall and strong must be penalized to compensate the short and feeble.  It is a question of learning how to serve one another so that my gifts serve you and yours serve me in those areas where I cannot do what you can do.  It can never be about denying your individuality, gifts, abilities, and personality, and your enjoyment of them and their special strengths in order to “level everything for everyone” in the name of a false “equal opportunity”.  At 5 ft. 4inches, you cannot justly give me an equal opportunity to play in the NBA. You may legislate it, but it is not just.

There are real equalities of opportunity – such as the equal opportunity to choose good or evil, to choose service to others rather than self-promotion over everyone else. We all equally have a choice to seek and be found by the Creator and so discover our true purpose in Him/Her, or to seek all the personal advantage I can right now and discover how empty it all was when my hearts and breath stops and I cross over to meet my Maker. 

Even my very opportunities flow from my personality and bodily gifts – as in my unique personhood as gifted by the One.  When I focus fanatically on discovering “my true self” and “self-discovery and self-actualization” as the whole story, I paradoxically lose myself in the maze of endless byways and blind alleys.  As Yeshua put it, “The one who goes seeking his/her life [in the selfish quest of self-deification] will lose it, but the one who loses his/ her life for my sake will truly find it.”

The Third Way is the Way of Yeshua, and not the way “Christianity” – as in “the Church” as a system or an institution.  The way of Yeshua may well be partly found in such places, but has also been lost there.

It is not a call to found a new nation in any “normal” sense.  It is not a call to political revolution as in setting out to tear down Fascist, Communist, Capitalist, and/or Liberal Democratic states.  It is another path which operates like “leaven in the lump”.  It is like the unseen essence of life found in a seed which only appears when it is planted and watered and nurtured.

What it looks like is a subject with no definable boundaries in our “normal” way of talking about human societies.  It is also impossible to fully know in “this present age” even though those who find the Door into it begin to experience it as they travel its road. For the Door is a Person, not a place or a thing. And the path is a relationship, not a set of doctrines, dogmas, or commandments. At best, such things can be signposts, but they must not be mistaken for HIM.

Peace be with you in your seeking and finding.

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Myth, Conspiracies, Shame, and the Quest for Truth, 5 – The Third Way, Reprise 2

“Even now. . . the Christian world view still affects—indeed, permeates—the Western cultural psyche, even when the latter is most apparently secular in disposition.”

– Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind, Understanding the Views That Have Shaped Our World View, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1990). p.91

(Photo credit Pinterest)

Tarnas’ statement in the opening citation is still as true now as it was thirty years ago.  In some ways we have become even more secular, but in others considerably less.  When Tarnas wrote his much-acclaimed The Passion of the Western Mind, the internet was in its infancy and the World-wide Web a mere zygote.  Star Wars was still just a trilogy and the big-screen production of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit not even on the horizon.

Since then, we have seen an explosion of fantasy and dystopian post-apocalyptic tales, and the pulp-entertainment industry churns out so much magic and dragon-world mind-narcotics as to keep anyone hungering for escape of an kind able to spend the rest of her/his days doing just that – or playing super-real video-game versions of such imagined realities.  For many, virtual reality has become reality, for therein they can be a super-hero(ine) or super-villain and reach some sort of nirvana as they arrive at the pinnacle the final great quest.

All off this testifies that, as far as the deepest needs  of the human spirit and soul go, the secular paradigm which keeps the wheels of Western society more or less functioning is empty at the core.  It cannot truly inspire,  It offers a degree of bodily comfort and security, but has no vision to inspire the soul and engage the heart-of-hearts seeking real significance rather than the cold comfort of existential angst and the uncertainty principle married to quantum infinities.  Without the myth of a “supernatural” realm, in the end there is finally only a cold, dead universe left when entropy has finished its work in fifty billion years, or the implosion to the microdot of super-heat once more exploding into whatever random formulation appears the next time around.

Humanity is hard-wired for the quest for meaning, the hunger for significance, the driving passion to either find God or be god.  All of our known history shows it.  All our personal experience shouts it in our faces.  When we cannot or won’t find the Creator (although the Creator finds is, truth be told), we turn our innate drive for eternity to making stories and myths to set in the vacuum of the soul until the Light of Truth finds us.

That is why we have myth.  That is why, no matter how much we have been told and programmed to deny the myth, we keep replacing the old ones with new ones.  Denying the oldest “myth” of the Creator making humans in His/Her own image so that we might seek and find Him drives us literally insane – as in being of unsound mind, denying the most basic of all things about ourselves.  We compel ourselves to act even more terribly than the “Old Believers” ever did, creating Holocausts of whole inferior races and cultural groups instead of sacrificial holocausts of reconciliation with our Maker.

The most beautiful story ever told is about the Creator becoming one of us in order to lift us out of our spiritual suicide. It has been repeatedly and minutely deconstructed in the hope that He (not an “it”) would just fade away as a quaint old memory and irrelevant folk-tale.  As Saul-Paul of Tarsus once put it, writing to the Congregation in Corinth in ancient Greece in the mid 50s of the First Century:

“Where does that leave the philosopher [scientist, intellectual super-star], the Torah-teacher, or any of today’s thinkers?  Hasn’t God made this world’s wisdom look pretty foolish?  For God’s wisdom ordained that the world, using its own wisdom, would not come to know him.  Therefore God decided to use the “nonsense” of what we proclaim as his means of saving those who come to trust in it.  Precisely because Jews ask for signs and Greeks try to find wisdom, we go on proclaiming a Messiah executed on a stake [cross] as a criminal!  To Jews this is an obstacle, and to Greeks it is nonsense; but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, this same Messiah is God’s power and God’s wisdom!  For God’s “nonsense” is wiser than humanity’s “wisdom”.

First letter to the Assembly in Corinth, Chapter 1: 20-25, The Complete Jewish Bible

            The “Jews” and “Greeks” in Paul’s analysis represent all of humanity in our dual approach to circumventing our desperate need for communion with our Maker and the incredible Cosmos He/She has made us a part of.  Our end-run around who and what we are and are made to be takes the two forms the Jews and Greeks of Paul’s days incarnated- the religious-spiritual-supernatural search for truth under our own terms, and the “philosophical” road.  But we need to understand that the “philosophy” of Paul’s time was not the dry, esoteric pursuit of a select group of academic theorists endlessly fussing about the definitions of terms to the point of not even being able to meaningfully communicate with one another, let alone the rest of society. 

            Paul, himself no slouch in the philosophy and literature of that time, summarizes it as “the wisdom of this world”.  The object of the search was “wisdom” – understanding of the cosmos and the human place in it.

            In today’s successor-West that role has largely devolved upon Science and its Siamese Enlightenment twin, Reason.  Part of the mythology of the present paradigm of wisdom, which is of the same character of the “wisdom” of the thinkers of Paul’s day, is that the story of the Messiah as God-come-as-a-human is nonsense.  In our reasoned scientific wisdom we know that a personal Creator cannot be behind the Cosmos, and therefore no human can be that Person incarnate.  It is still “foolishness to the Greeks” (everybody banking on the way of Science and Reason) and still an obstacle to the religious seekers. 

            The religious seekers of truth and the secular de-mythologizers have this in common: if we are to find the truth (wisdom), if such is to be found, about Reality as it exists, it must be on our own terms and by our own efforts.  We are, must be, in control.

            The Christian Third Way proclaims something so different that it lays an axe to the root of both these still-prevailing paradigms.  It first says that the true myth is that of human independence and self-sufficiency, that we are and ought to be proudly in control.  Secular wisdom warns, “The Maker robs us of our independence and demands our submission because He is ungenerous and wants to deny us our rights.  Therefore, away with the Creator!”  Or, if we can’t really get away from Him, we need to define how to relate to Him by deciding how and when and where. 

            Now we hear two whispers.  One is Marcus Aurelius’ echo of the elusive dream and vision of the world as it is supposed to be – the perfect “Rome” which is actually the pale reflection of the “New Jerusalem”, the everlasting City where the Creator abides and calls us.  The other is that of an ancient deceiver lurking in the shadows, trying to stay out of sight as part of the old discredited myth – “Did God (Elohim in the original, the same name of the Creator when He/She said, “Let us make humanity on our image… ”) really say…?

            Neither whisper is going away.  Both will remain, breaking ever in upon us, piercing our armour of self-sufficiency and independence at the most inconvenient and unsuspecting moments.  The monstrous Nazi and Soviet horrors of the twentieth century remind us.  At such moments the whispers become warning shouts, alarms, that our true nature is other than the myth of self and independence, the conspiracy of silence (or rather silencing) about the greatest story of all time.  Even a great leader of the West in that moment (Winston Churchill) recognized that it was really about the survival of “Christian civilization”, which even in 1940 was well on the road to a fading echo, although not then quite a whisper.

We will make one more foray into the Third Way in our next episode.

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Myth, Conspiracies, Shame, and the Quest for Truth: 3

“A learned fool is a greater fool than an ignorant fool.” – Molière

“People are never nearer playing the fool as when they think themselves wise.” – Mary Wortley Montagu

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” – Alexander Pope

“The fool has said in his heart, “There is no Creator.”” – Psalm 14:1

Last time we finished with this:

“The game was on.  Whose way would yield the most results – the team of Scientific Reason and Progress, or the teams of the model “City on the Hill, the New Jerusalem”?  Who would win the reins of influence and power to direct the future of the West?”

VJM

As we survey the civilization of the West in the third decade of the 21st Century, it is not unreasonable to give the decision to the secular progressives.  In the public forum – the world of politics, general culture, and social policy – secularism undoubtedly rules.  Matters of personal faith have been, and often by law are now required to be, kept as private, personal convictions.

We still publicly profess all the requisite “freedoms”, including those of conscience, religion, and expression.  We have enshrined them in constitutions and Bills of Rights.  

Human societies have always engaged in excluding deviants and misfits, in shunning and shaming them by subtle and, if necessary, blunt and even brutal sanctions.  It is just a question of who and what will be placed in the “too be shunned and shamed” category.  That is a moving target – just as it was with the original ostracisers of ancient Athens in the 5th Century BCE.  Once a year they would write the name of the latest pariah on their ostrakoi (pottery fragments used to vote someone out of the polity and into exile).  A few years later they could invite him back to save them from the dreaded Spartans.  (I am referring to the gripping story of Alcibiades in Thucydides’ great classic, The History of the Peloponnesian War.)

For certain sorts of behaviours and thinking, severe sanctions are entirely appropriate and essential.  No one wants sociopaths and psychopaths running wild and claiming they have every right to legally declare and practice all sorts of perversion and destructive behaviour.  Occasionally, as in totalitarian societies where the sociopaths and psychopaths take over, we have witnessed the results of such legalized horrors unleashed on the general population.  The pariahs rule and outlaw the former good people.  But here in the Post-Christian West we find ourselves walking a razor-thin line.  How do we handle the now much-frowned upon, old Christianity-tainted ideologies of our forebears and still maintain the reality, or at least the veneer, of our all-inclusivism?

Other cultures have less of an issue with forthright discrimination.  Islamic countries make no bones about it.  Islam is #1 and the rest may be tolerated up to a point.  Nominally communist societies d0 likewise, although there is no genuine communist society anywhere, nor was there in the soviet era.  Soviet countries were communist in name and in official ideology, but a far cry from the Marxist version of utopia, however they rationalized their horrendous performance.

The saddest part of the West’s identity crisis is that the triumphant secular establishment does not have the courage of its own proclaimed convictions.  It has gone beyond the pendulum-swing analogy of a strong reaction against the stifling shackles of the old religion and its clinging tentacles.

“Civil liberties” zealots have militantly sought out and, with the assistance of their acolytes and adherents in positions of legislative, judicial, and cultural power and influence, sought to expurgate or at least silence the vestiges of the Judeo-Christian roots of this culture from public consciousness.  In many disciplines, no respectable, serious student and scholar would adopt that sort of worldview for themselves (at least never in any public way) and hope to retain their reputation and ability to advance to the highest levels of their chosen field.

Our cultural amnesia conveniently sets aside the clear evidence that the very foundations of all the best progressive features of the very culture we luxuriate in are more than a little derived from the very foundations we wish would just disappear under the sediment of history.

What are we talking about?  What do I mean by such a statement? 

What are the actual origins of the progressive social-democratic West?  Is it really rooted in the Enlightenment minus Christianity?  The progressive elite will not say so in so many words, but they still believe in “our” (the West’s) sacred mission to show the rest of the world the way past Marcus Aurelius’ “whisper” to the reality of the coming utopia.  This is nothing more than a retooled evangelistic mission to “save the world” – minus the Cross of Christ.

After all, isn’t the West the beacon and example of how to educate a population into the great pluralistic, inclusive, multicultural all-embracing paradise?  Isn’t the West the example for all of how to include everyone in being cared for in a universal health-care system, a universal welfare system, a universal pension system, etc?  Haven’t all these things been born in the West, instituted in the West, and now been exported to all the rest of the benighted world who need to learn the “right” way to look after their own people?  Haven’t we developed the economic methods, the technologies, and the organizational methodologies to bring all this to pass?  Didn’t we spearhead the United Nations, the Red Cross, and so many other great benevolent institutions to bypass the blockages of the pernicious old nationalisms and particularisms? 

Isn’t the emerging World Order due to the West’s great leadership, humanitarianism, and compassion for all?  And isn’t all this the outcome of the magnificent breakthrough of the Enlightenment in shattering the old superstitions and dark fantasies of supernaturalism?

But what is the whole notion of the progress of history, of human society from one phase to another, from “worse” to “better”, less-developed to more developed, really rooted in?  Did the secular worldview derive this from the “Classical” past which its proponents place with the brilliant Golden Ages of the Greeks and Romans, the great minds of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and so many others?

To put it bluntly – No!  The whole notion of progress in history, in human development, in the rise of human life and society from darkness into light, brutality to civilized polity, is Biblical!!  It is straight out of the Creation epic and the saga of the human journey from its Creation to its “Fall” – rebellion against the Creator, to its Redemption, to its journey in this world towards the promised completion in our ultimate destination in a New Heaven and a New Earth, promised by the Creator and guaranteed by His sending of His Son, Yeshua ben Yosef of Natzeret at the right time.

The roots of the other story we are being asked to accept lie in the great “Classical” philosophers who have inspired so many since.  The great secular philosophers of the modern and postmodern West are all their disciples, generations removed indeed, but still the children of the Ancients.  But the Ancients’ whole notion of the big picture was not linear or progressive at all. It was cyclical. 

“But what about the evidence of science and evolution as the “real” story of beginning and progress to greater and better?  Doesn’t the whole line of evolution take us “naturally” to some ultimate goal or destination with a humanity of unlimited potential?”

It may seem so superficially.  But the same story concludes with a return to elemental disintegration, full circle, dissipation, the end of all meaning.  It’s a great big “SO WHAT?”  After all that movement for billions of years, what does it mean?

We are left with an empty void – just like the old creation myths describe the beginning.  Except this is not the beginning, but the end.  And then, just perhaps, it all begins again to go back around ad infinitum.

Thus “progress” is really an illusion, a trick we play on ourselves to give us a sense of meaning while we are here, as long as we don’t think too long and hard about the glossed over brutal meaninglessness of it all.

There is no reason that it should mean anything at all in any ultimate sense.  The only other possibility is that we are wrong about the beginning and about how things have moved in time and history and why they move that way.  Unless there is a real story of progress rooted in a real series of events that have had a sense and meaning right from that beginning.

That is what the Judeo-Christian story has said, what it still says, and what it has passed on in the very heart of the West’s, worldview.  Today’s secular progressives can try with might and main to change the story of origins and why we value what we value.  But their very foundation-stone, the very “cornerstone”, as the Bible calls it, is the story of the Creator’s action to create, to create humanity in His/Her own image, and to give humanity an infinite value and an infinite purpose, with a story to live and co-create, and with a goal to arrive at – eternal union with the Person of the Creator Him-/Herself.

Meanwhile, our culture is running as fast as it can the other way with its fingers stuffed in its ears like a rebellious child yelling, “No! No! I don’t want to hear this!  Stop it! Stop it!  I won’t listen to this!”

TO BE CONTINUED

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Myth, Conspiracies, Shame, and the Quest for Truth: 2

“All truth is God’s truth.”

John Calvin, ca 1560

(Photo credit – Quotefancy)

How does a society change?  How does a culture shift?  How does the basic belief system of a whole civilization turn in a new direction? 

The casual reader may not have great patience for this kind of discussion.  But in the West of the 21st Century, we signify the importance of such questions by referring to how things now are versus how they used to be, as recently as forty or fifty years ago.

Previously, we have noted that change is one of the very few certainties we can all count on.  Even if we sit still and do nothing, the Law of Entropy decrees that everything will decay and fall into ruin and corruption over time.  That is a law of physics, of inevitable change. 

For some things, this is a rapid process – like the cycle of life for many plants, insects, and micro-organisms.  Even stars, solar-systems, and galaxies manifest this Law.  It is universal.  At the personal level, our bodies remind us of it as we age and find ourselves gradually losing strength, agility, flexibility, hair, teeth, potency, visual and auditory acuity, and even height!  Looking at photos of our families and relatives – and ourselves – is a good reminder of all this and keeps/makes us suitably humbler than we might otherwise be.  “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.”

As we see this inexorable process in nature, so too in societies, cultures, and civilizations.  Arnold Toynbee’s monumental A Study of History is still a great introduction to how we see entropy in action over centuries and millennia of human societies.  Like an individual’s life, it ebbs and flows – Conception of a society and culture, Birth of a Civilization, Decline, Partial Recovery, Final Decline as morbidity takes hold, Demise (Death), as the forces of decay set in beyond the ability to stave them off any longer.  Often, even usually in the case of civilizations, outside powers, waiting for the signs that the time is right, issue the coup de grace by mercifully (?) kicking in the door and knocking down the derelict structure so they can take what they want from the ruins and expand or start their own time in the sun.

We describe the pinnacle of a civilization/culture/society’s existence and achievements as its “Golden Age”, and the later “Recovery” phase after a period of initial decline as its “Silver Age”.  Humanity has also always yearned for an illusory “Utopian Age” – the time of the reign of the gods, of the heroes, of the legendary supremely virtuous founders who inspire us still with their example.

A civilization’s greatest flourishing happens its Golden Age, producing the greatest thought, the greatest art, the best and most beneficent rulers, the most equitable overall prosperity, an era of unparalleled peace and security, etc.   When this departs, as it inevitably must, following generations hark back to it and to its great people with deep longing, drawing inspiration from them. 

As in the film Gladiator when the old Emperor Marcus Aurelius says in his secret conversation with General Maximus, “There was once a dream that was Rome.  It was so fragile that you could only whisper it…” our Utopias stir us with some deeper spiritual vision, so fleeting but so real, moving like a chimera in and out of our awareness that, as unreal as it is, it is still more meaningful than the “real” .

We in the progressive West live double-mindedly, with divided souls.  We serve two masters trying desperately to please/serve both.  We have self-induced amnesia about how that works out in the end.  We have seen this saying before: “Nobody can serve two masters.  Otherwise, they will either hate the first and love the second, or be devoted to the first and despise the second.  You can’t serve both the Creator and wealth.”  (Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament, chapter 6, verse 24)  It is from Jesus of Nazareth, historically the West’s once most revered figure. 

We are riven between the lust for an ever greater degree of material comfort and pleasure built on a foundation of predatory capitalism, and, on the other track, dreaming of a Utopia of perfect harmony of rights and individual liberties coupled with responsible behaviour towards everyone regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, religious belief, etc., etc.  The list of special status keeps lengthening by the year as everyone with some claim to exclusion comes to the table for recognition.

Buried in our Jungian collective memory and our civilization’s foundations there is an old dream.  We now see and hear only its “whisper” as Marcus Aurelius put it.  Its ghost is fading in and out of our ability to perceive it.  It was the dream of a Christian world and a truly Christian society.  Saul of Tarsus (the Apostle Paul), its earliest ideologue, described its inclusiveness in two ways, like the double-aged Roman sword of his time, a razor-sharp instrument that cut both ways equally.

“There is no longer Jew nor Greek; there is no longer slave nor free; there is no longer “male nor female”; you are all one in the Messiah, Jesus.” (New Testament, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, chapter 3, verse 28.)

And then, “For there is no distinction: all sinned, and fell short of God’s glory…” (Letter to the Romans, chapter 3, verse 22b-23)

For more than a thousand years, the divide in the West’s soul created the dream of “Christendom” on the one hand while still lured and divided by the old habits of heart and mind of power, greed, and lust.  The cynics, or perhaps realists, have always had plenty of ammunition to question the dream of the coming of the Kingdom of Christ in the warp and woof of human history – Christendom!

What brought that hard-fought battle for the soul of a civilization to a crescendo was the evidence of spreading rot at and in the heart of the official institution that stood as visible sign of the presence of Messiah on earth – the Church.  The “Body of Christ on earth” – the Church – seemed itself to have succumbed to the three great temptations – power, greed, and lust – at least in its upper hierarchy, and the calls for purging of the sickness seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Finally, the most desperate of those seeking for a return to “first love” decided to challenge the very order of the Christendom which had emerged in place of the “peaceable Kingdom of Messiah”.  That Kingdom facsimile was built as a hybrid of what Jesus and Paul exampled and taught.  The old ways of power and control inherited from the Roman era with Roman-styled concepts of how to create conformity through the use of “this age’s” methods had taken hold.  It had fallen far from “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female”.

We will not retell the long and complex story of the West’s weaving, sometimes staggering dance from right to left, longing after a sort of purer, cleaner “Christendom” and veering towards the other ditch of “wipe the slate clean and find a new way forward towards the “whisper””.  Suffice it to say that after a very complicated “civil war of Christendom” that lasted about two hundred years (we will arbitrarily say from ca 1450-1650CE), the idea of Christendom itself was fading to chimera status.

In the 17th Century, thinking movers and shakers of a new sort emerged, proposing that the old Greco-Roman ideal of Reason, used now with the new methodology of Scientific method and logic, could show the way forward, could propel the West out of its delusion of “Christ-on-on-earth-in-his-people” being the way to create the longed for Utopia of harmony, unity, and liberty.  But “Christendom” did not “go gently into that good night” and kept reappearing at the meeker, national scale rather than as a remodeled Roman imperialism.  True disciples and believers sought to create smaller-scale models – a “City on a hill”, a “lamp on a lamp-stand” to give light to the whole house of fragmented Christendom. 

One line of this thinking was that it could be better done in “the New World” west across the Atlantic if you just started with the right set of dedicated, committed people.  Experiments of this sort were set up in New England, New France (Ville-Marie), and New Spain.  Some were even tried in the Old World in areas less under the sway of conformist Imperial or Royal tyrants – (the Mennonites, Hutterites, Moravians, etc.)  Idealist Roman Catholic attempts were made too, inspired by Jesuits to large degree.

The divergent Western path followed the new “Enlightened” philosophes, arguing and persuading that, however reformed, the old superstitions could not take us out of the darkness. These must be set aside all together.  God could be kept on as a sort of magnanimous cosmic clock-maker who set out the laws of existence, but left the outworking of our sojourn in the Cosmic drama to us, to be done within his discoverable parameters within His/Its universal benevolence, justice, and equity.  These Enlightenment “Deists” were the old Roman Stoics reprised.

The general target in all these notions, schemes, and attempts at implementation of the Great Dream was the “whisper”, the here-again-gone-again chimera of the ideal age and society of universal harmony and justice.  The ideal of “progress” was born to indicate moving towards the goal at long last.

The game was on.  Whose way would yield the most results – the team of Scientific Reason and Progress, or the teams of the model “City on the Hill, the New Jerusalem”?

Who would win the reins of influence and power to direct the future of the West?

TO BE CONTINUED

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Myth, Conspiracies, Shame, and the Quest for Truth: 1

“I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” –

Frederick Douglass

“Be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” – Jesus

“[To] conspire – combine privily for unlawful purpose, especially treason, murder, sedition…plot…” – The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964

 “The garb of religion is the best cloak for power.” – William Hazlitt, English journalist, 1819.

(Photo credit: Quotefancy)

For years now, we have been witnessing the growing the gullible credulousness of many millions in believing and accepting as “cash” the most egregious falsehoods.  E-media and its social (anti-social?) counterpoint have greatly exacerbated and accelerated this unfortunate side of human nature.  It has manifested itself via the “grapevine” and “rumor-mill” since time immemorial. 

Even sadder is the tendency of professing and practicing religious people (no particular religion holds a monopoly on this) to engage in these tales and even commit themselves to propagating them and, to some degree, acting on them. 

No more blatant illustration of this can be found than the recent events in the USA surrounding the defeat of Mr. Trump and the election of Mr. Biden.  Substantial evidence has come to light that probably 50% of those engaged in the pre-inaugural assault on Capitol Hill were “good folks” of Evangelical persuasion and regular Sunday Church attendance.  On a personal note, I find this very sad and disturbing, but not too surprising.

Violent phenomena have recently occurred in a series of religiously motivated murders and attacks on strangers and tourists in India based on wild rumors.  Islamists have long used the same methods to generate ferment and outbreaks against “infidels” in areas of Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and African states.

As to “true believers of whatever persuasion convinced of the rightness of their extreme behaviour, I am certain that nothing I can say will change the minds of those deeply steeped in what has actually become (for Christians) a false gospel, so interwoven with the Bible and a certain strain of triumphalist theology that they cannot separate them.  For them, the religion of Christ has become (or maybe always was) the religion of a certain conception of national and political righteousness, committed to preserving, restoring, or (re)creating a lost dream of what the USA was founded for back in its early years when the Pilgrims and other idealist pioneers sought to create the “City on the Hill” in the “New World” because hope for its coming in the old (Europe) had faded.

As we are leaving Black History month, it is an appropriate moment to let a great Black and Civil Rights pioneer, speaking as a Christian, be heard on this subject.  These words were penned 160-170 years ago and are still frighteningly relevant:

“Between the Christianity of this land [the United States], and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.  I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.  Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.”  – Frederick Douglass – Autobiography…, quoted in Common Prayer, a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  Zondervan, 2010, p.153.

As a Canadian, I cannot be smug about my own country’s participation in deceiving itself about its Eurocentric concept of “civilizing the savages [the indigenous peoples]” – i.e. assimilating them to be “good Christians like the rest of us”.  And our history of welcoming and including Afro-Canadians and other minorities is not much more (it at all) distinguished.

Point of fact, there are no cultures or societies on the planet which have any reason to believe themselves more righteous in this sort of history than any other.  Indigenous enslaved and oppressed other indigenous –even before the coming of those devilish Europeans.  Ancients enslaved other ancients in the millions. Muslims perpetrated (and some still do) all the same sorts of evils on peoples they conquered and forced to assimilate or face all the usual sorts of consequences for not doing so.  Let us put aside the legends of Islamic toleration and magnanimity in comparison to the “Crusader States”.  The Jews and Christians they overran, raped, pillaged, and slaughtered to “serve as examples”, or the Parsees of Persia, or the idolatrous Hindus, etc., would beg to differ. 

No one anywhere has lived up to what most “progressive” people will at least publicly profess as the “proper, correct” way to respect differences and build a truly pluralistic, inclusive society.

What is most interesting about where such modern progressive ideas are most deeply implanted is that they are found in the self-same nations that were most guilty (at least as the “official” versions of history now dominant in Academia have it) of perpetrating the most horrible historical crimes, sins, wrongs (or whatever term you prefer).  It is a striking paradox. 

The “official” progressive version of this apparently amazing turn-around in a culture so steeped in subduing the rest of the world to exploit as its mass-market and resource-base is that the Enlightenment broke the millennial spell of religious quackery over the minds of the leading thinkers, who then gradually disseminated the new truth of “liberty, fraternity, equality” (the French Revolution’s toxin-cry) or “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (the USA Declaration of Independence toxin-cry) among the populace.

Apparently, nobody before Rousseau, Jefferson, and Tom Paine ever thought or wrote about such things!  Apparently, their “new” wisdom was so electrifying that it galvanized all right-thinking people into action to overthrow the moribund Christ-religion’s hold and awaken the West to surge into a new age when, at last, Utopia was within reach!

The biggest problem with this version of history is its patent lack of support in how and why the “turnaround”, as imperfect as it was and still is, actually occurred.

Not that Rousseau, Jefferson, Paine and other salient thinkers like Voltaire did not play a role and say and write some stimulating stuff to get some people thinking and talking and even willing to act.  To attribute to the Enlightenment and the new “Religion of Progress” (!) – and yes, the French “progressives” even invented such a thing to replace the Roman Catholic Church in France as the (First among several) Revolution got into full swing – all that changed was and is simply a new mythology, a very selective and very truncated account of what actually transpired and who was responsible for most of it.

We hardly have time to do more than offer a snippet of that story today.  Let us take Mr. Hazlitt’s cogent aphorism (see above) as a starting point.  Mr. Hazlitt, as well as William Cobbet, another well-known journalist-pundit of that time in England, was criticizing William Wilberforce and “the Saints”, an Evangelical faction in Parliament, for justifying a series of repressive measures aimed at suppressing the early efforts to give labourers the right to organize.  On this occasion, the “Saints” did merit some hard criticism.  In fact, some of them also criticized Mr. Wilberforce, without the acid sarcasm.  (Now there’s mindless religion for you- disagreeing with your mentor and leader!)  Effectively, Hazlitt, Cobbet and others saw only hypocrisy in professing religious convictions while actively engaging in the dirty world of politics on the “wrong” side – the one you don’t like!

The exercise of power in the hurly-burly world of politics, business, and commerce is always messy.  Even within the confines of religious institutions, where one might expect (hope, anyway) them to be minimal, they can be vicious and devastating.  It is not unfair to be more acerbic and bitter against open professors of high moral principles who fail to measure up to their own expectations.  But to accuse them of being villains because they do not live up to their critics’ expectations is another thing.  (People who live in glass houses and all that…) The details of the affair in question in this instance are not important for our point.  The issue is whether it is always hypocritical and false to put on a “garb of religion [a]s the best cloak for power”.  Using religion as a “put-on”, as we ex-wanna-be hippies “put” it?  Definitely not cool!

But what if the “religion” in question is not a mere “garb”, not a “put-on”?  That is the falsehood on the other side.  So let’s ditch the pejorative term “religion” and say “conviction” or “worldview”.  You can fake “conviction” and even a “worldview” up to a point.  Today religion is seen as an outward performance more than anything else – a “mere garb”.  In the post-modern West it has virtually no status as a sincere set of life-principles. 

But no one who does not really and truly hold a conviction and worldview in their soul can fake it for a lifetime.  It is not a garb.  It is who they are. 

Wilberforce (the architect of the abolition of the slave-trade and ultimately of full emancipation in the British Empire), was no faker or fakir.  He was a Christian through and through, as were most of his closest collaborators (the “Saints”) both in Parliament and beyond. Like anyone else, he made mistakes of judgment and action. But his historical record large-writ speaks for itself.  

That is the precisely the kind of fallacy about what really happened in the attainment of our modern-post-modern progressive Western society we have to debunk.  Its roots were not miraculously planted by a gaggle of Enlightenment philosophes who suddenly discovered the truth about basic human rights and amazingly seeded and then brought them to fruition in the rocky soul of a religiously purblind society.  But that is the standard caricature that has bemused our intellectual and educational establishment for the last 160 years at the least.

We will suspend this tale here for this week and pick it up next time.

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The Money-Game

“The love of money is the root of all evil.”  The New Testament, 1 Timothy 6:10

“If you make money your god, it will plague you like the devil.” – Old English proverb

“The price we pay for money is paid in liberty.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

(Photo credit – Pinterest)

(Note to the reader: The following is not meant as a put-down of honest business-people and entrepreneurs who act with integrity and fair-mindedness.  Rather, it is a sort of parable of how so many “regular folks”, even honest business-people, become trapped by and in the moils of the money-game which has produced so much misery and evil in human history over the six or so millennia in which the “game” has been on.)

In the 21st Century, it is pretty much impossible to live without money.  It’s nice to fantasize about retreating to the deep wilderness somewhere and “living off the land” as we conceive our remote ancestors once did.  Cro-Magnon humans or Neanderthals, and the earliest groups of homo sapiens sapiens, would have done so, according to Palaeontology and Anthropolgy.

The earliest myths and legends do not tell tales of money, although some speak of quests for gold and riches of some sort, usually coupled to a quest for power.

A moneyless society, we imagine, would be a sort of proto-paradise.  If only we could return to the barter system, the just and equitable quid-pro-quo method of doing business, cutting a deal to mutual advantage, fair trade between equals.  “You want/need this thing which I have, and I want/need that thing which you have.  Let’s cut a deal we can both live with.  Let’s give our solemn mutual pledge; let’s shake on it; let’s give each other our left shoes.” (This was an ancient custom between negotiators in Hebrew and Canaanite societies about 1200 years BCE).

The perpetual roadblock to realizing such fantasies is stubborn old human nature.  You and I may be happy to negotiate as equals, but there have always been shrewd aggrandizers and manipulators looking for the thrill, the pleasure, the “rush” of putting one over on the gullible dupe.  “Ah, Suckers!  There’s one born every minute!” famously said P.T. Barnum with great relish (or was it mustard he preferred on his circus hotdog?).  There have always been lazy, sleazy types ready to latch onto the unscrupulous manoeuvrers and ambitious people seeking advantage over regular folks.  The “shifty” types are happy to help the shrewd to “play” the dupes who only seek a quiet life among their neighbours.  Scammers call us up regularly offering impossible get-rich-quick schemes, or, in more recent schemes, telling us to pay up or face prison.

Flash back to 3000 or so BCE.  Here comes Mr. Shrewd looking ahead to what others are probably going to want and need next season, even if they haven’t realized it yet.  He plans how to have it ready or knows how to get it ahead of time so the seekers will come to him first and negotiate on terms to his advantage. 

This year, Mr. Shrewd has a bumper crop of emer or barley far in excess of his own needs.  He goes out and trades with Mssrs. Hunter and Herdman for their skins, offering them seed, pots, or perhaps tools in exchange.  Hunter and Herdman are happy to make the exchange to ensure they will be able to plant and harvest and store what they reap and hunt.  And everyone needs skins for clothes and leather.  Leather is universally useful.  Everyone also needs seed and tools and pots to plant and harvest crops. 

Mr. Shrewd has it worked out.  In time, everyone will come to him, once they find there’s not enough to go round (and all the moreso since he traded for much of the excess).  He has become the essential man.  He can even hire a few fellows to serve and “talk” to some of the locals who maybe promised things they haven’t come across with.

In time, and probably not that much of it, the Mr. Shrewds began to network and develop a system of exchange among themselves to make sure that, when the time came, they did not lack the things Mssrs. Local, Yokel, Hunter, and Herdman would inevitably require.  Flexibility and collegiality were necessary skills to stay in the game, and the Shrewds who didn’t learn this dropped or were forced out to join the “marks”.

But how to keep track of all this?  How to create a trust network where Mr. Babylon-Shrewd and Mr. Assyria-Shrewd would help each other out even if one or the other didn’t have a suitable direct exchange right at the moment when one or the other needed something for his Locals and Yokels?  Write it down!  Pay it forward!  Keep it on record to be redeemed/made good later.  Invent writing and create “hard-copy” records that could be carried over distances and stored in a safe place to be kept track of.  (Clay tablets were definitely “hard-copy”! Cuneiform was definitely a contract etched in quasi-stone!)

One more stroke of genius was required to perfect the Shrewd System.  They needed a substitute form of payment rather than the cumbersome barter system.  After all, Mr. Shrewd-Babylon might not have what Mr. Shrewd-Assyria needed, but he knew Mr. Shrewd-Elam did.  So if Mr. Shrewd Assyria would give him something to offer Mr. Shrewd-Elam, all three could be happy.  And he, Mr. Babylon the middleman, could make a little (or a lot) extra for doing the extra work at both ends.  The substitute payment medium would have to be accepted by everyone in the network, something everyone thought was special and valuable.  Gold!  Silver!  Some other special things too – precious stones, rare things of beauty or special status.  Everyone likes those glittery things.

Voilà money!  Naked Power is already on the ground.  The local King-Priest-Chief Strongman’s tough boys demonstrate that.  The powerful immediately see the usefulness of getting control of the trade routes that everyone needs and wants. The Mssrs. Shrewd quickly learn that their access to this rapidly growing network rooted in both the local and wider economies gives them a fast in with the powerful.  It also gives them a sort of power of their own which, used carefully, could even move the warlords to forward the interests of the Shrewd network.

The rest, as we say, is history.  Eventually, money needed to become even more readily portable than lugging around rings and bars and ingots of gold, silver, bronze, and even copper and iron.  In the early Sixth Century BCE, King Croesus of Lydia found the solution and minted the first honest to goodness coins.  Henceforth, currency minted by some bona fide person of power and authority vouching for its purity and consistency becomes the medium of exchange.  And, just as in the old barter and trade system, the more you have the more powerful and influential you become, or can become.

Croesus lost his kingdom to Cyrus of Persia (ca. 550 BCE), who was so impressed by Croesus’ invention (and legendary wealth) that he made coinage the universal means of trade and exchange in his vast empire.  From Persia, the money-dance-and-romance spread like a prairie-fire around Eurasia and into Africa.

Such is a very bare-bones story of the coming of money.  But what of its intimate relationship with the phenomenon of evil?  After all, how can something so indispensable be “the root of all evil”?

The old English Proverb of our second citation tells us, and Mr. Stevenson seals the deal about money in the third.  Money can and does very often climb, wheedle, and claw its way into the heart of the one needing and seeking it.  And it is not only the rich and ultra-rich who become bewitched by it, thinking that if only they had more of it, life would be all wonderful. 

The madness of gold, silver, precious stones, and even our (in reality almost worthless as real things) plastic and paper symbols of those ephemeral baubles has driven countless millions and probably billions away from what can make them really content into the arms of the beguiler who claims he can make us content as he dangles the golden carrot in front of our noses and keeps it just out of reach until we are so crazed that we can no longer see or even think about the road back to harmony of body, soul, spirit, and peace of mind. Now the insanity is at the point where most money is not even a real physical thing but a digital accounting engram which has no substance except in human minds, yet the lust for it has never been greater!

“Money is the root of all evil,” a saying of the Apostle Paul, must be understood as part of an even bigger picture: that humans have turned their faces away from the Creator towards the bewitching glitz of things that can never do more than give fleeting pleasure and simulated happiness (and yes, even fifty, sixty, or seventy years is fleeting beside eternity).  Beneath the hunger for the glamour and shine and sense of being in control that real or digital bullion promises, there is the age-old original lie.  “You will not die if you take it, but you will become as wise as God, knowing all about [and by implication controlling] good and evil.”

The old Liar of liars (who goes by many names, including Satan, Lucifer, Ba’al, etc.) has found the lure of lures to keep us swallowing the same old rotten fruit.  It’s on us that we keep on reaching for it to taking the fatal bite that, like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, makes us comatose to our real situation.

How many fruit-(f)lies (one of Old Nick’s Biblical names was “Ba’al-ze-bub” – Lord of the flies!) does it take to justify accumulating into billions the innumerable small holdings weaseled from billions of simple honest folk, or speculated out of driving up the cost of most everything they need to live on?

Yeshua of Natzeret put “paid” to this discussion when he said, “Nobody can serve two masters.  Otherwise, they will either hate the first and love the second, or be devoted to the first and despise the second.  You can’t serve both the Creator and wealth.” (Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament, chapter 6, verse 24).

Choose your god wisely.

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Certainty, Doubt, and Faith

“Doubt is the vestibule of wisdom which all must pass before they can enter the temple of wisdom.”

– Charles Caleb Cotton

“I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.” – Wilson Milner

“Modest doubt is call’d the beacon of the wise.” – William Shakespeare

“There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Last time we mentioned the very short list of life’s certainties – birth, change, and death.  But I think we can legitimately add a fourth item to our list.  It is certain that we will believe something and, on the flip-side, come to doubt what we believe. 

Even people deprived of some of the most basic functions of the body and mind arrive at belief, or “faith”.  Even those who cannot vocalize their faith and belief still have it.  For example, I have a beautiful grandson with severe cerebral palsy, but he knows and believes he is loved and cherished by his family.  He knows by experience, by relationship, and has arrived at trust that it is so.  Although he cannot speak, he shows by his responses that he really knows and trusts that he is safe and loved.

It is helpful to use another word than “faith” with all its modern aerie connotations stemming from existentialist angst and post-modern sceptical deconstructionism.  A more specific, positive, and helpful word is “trust”.  In Hebrew the same word is used to say both, and ancient Greek does the same thing.

In other words, these two ancient foundational cultures whose genius gave birth to so much in the West, along with the later Roman and Germanic streams, saw clearly that faith is not a blind leap in the dark without good reasons to go that way.  Our super-sophisticated Western sceptics (although they have nothing on the ancient Roman cynics!) have so often and unhelpfully characterized “religious people” as merely weak-minded and credulous.  In truth faith is almost always a deliberate decision based on evidence and experience.  That’s what it is for my disabled grandson.  That’s what it is for any little child.  That’s what it is for almost all Theists and Atheists.

It’s always good to re-examine the evidence which has led us to “trust-faith”, but it has never been the “blind leap off the cliff” straw-man so much mocked by the likes of Richard Dawkins.  Perhaps some religious people have arrived at a real faith by such a route, but only after discovering that, after all, there really is someone to have faith in and be in relationship with.

The “jump-off-the-cliff-and-hope-for-the-best” route so often attributed to Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard (often called the father of existentialism) is actually a caricature of what Kierkegaard was saying about belief in God.  His point was that faith is a choice that must be made on the best evidence available.  Ultimately, it is a choice to trust that “still, small (quiet) interior voice” telling them they will be “caught” by strong arms when they “take the plunge”.  The New Testament defines faith, or “trusting”, as “being confident  of what we hope for, convinced about things we do not see”, or, as another translation has it, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. (Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11, Verse 1.

Atheists and sceptics love to pillory theists, and particularly Christian theists, as gullible and naive because they put their trust in a personal Deity whose existence can never be proven.  “Proven” is a narrowly circumscribed term as they use it.  What they mean is “scientific” or perhaps philosophical, and therefore “irrefutable”, proof. 

By their own criterion, neither is there ultimately any “proof” for even the most sacrosanct “truths” of science.  Science’s trust-faith is entirely founded on the long-term reliability of human reason and the scientific method to conclusively demonstrate the nature of reality.  This is dogma, not science, for there are as many formerly scientific “truths” and “facts” which have been debunked as there are apparently now disproven religious dogmas in the trash-heap of history. Theologians also rely on reason and logic. Like any tool, these can be used for many purposes.

The long-standing “war between science and religion” is not the real point of our reflection in this post.  The real point is that we humans cannot live without “faith”, without trust, at least not for long.  We are inevitably going to believe, to choose something to trust as the foundation on which we take a position from which we will “do life”.  As Bob Dylan once sang, “You’re gonna serve somebody.”

Much stems from what we experience and what we are shown by example and instruction in our early years.  “Nature or nurture?” is the old debate.  The answer is “both”, nuanced by the discoveries of later experience in relationship to the immensity of Cosmos, our world, and our fellow humans.  Somewhere in all of that arises the growing “substance” and “evidence” that we are not in fact alone, that behind and within and through it all there are huge questions all pointing at the same answer.

Those very basic questions come out something like (with many variations possible), “Who am I? What is all this?  How did I/it get here?  What does it mean?  Why do things die?  Why is life so wonderful and painful all at the same time?  Is there anything after death?” etc, etc.

Ultra scepticism (systematic doubt) takes two forms.  The first is the post-modern type that denies we can ever be certain of anything and so have to question everything all the time.  (As mentioned above, this “post-modern” practice is really a reprise of the Greco-Roman cynics.)

This position instantly disproves itself by refusing to be skeptical of skepticism.  The second type of ultra-skepticism is of the mystical variety that says “all that is here is maya” (illusion, not really here at all).  This denies even that the individual doing the questioning  is really here, for there is no such thing as an “I” with an identity. 

In our “veriest bowels”, as Shakespeare puts it, we all know, or can and should know, as Descartes famously said, that “Je pense, alors je suis!  (I think, therefore I am!)”  The cynical response is to say, “The thinker thinking they exist because they know they are thinking may only be a deception of some greater being forming a thought that thinks of itself as an individual able to think.” This is patently absurd, but we will not here take the rabbit-trail that reveals its complete absurdity except to say it is totally self-contradictory. 

Such intellectual gaming is really a ploy to avoid Descartes’ and Kierkegaard’s very (to them) unacceptable ultimately identical conclusion that, “God is real.”  Both great thinkers also conclude that  God is a personal Being who gives us our being and our ability to conceive Him in thought and discover Him by experience in and through His creation.  Therefore, with open eyes and clear minds, they (and we) take the plunge in trust-faith based on the substance and evidence we can now see and experience all around us.  We find it even within our own hearts and souls.

We all long for certainty.  We all naturally experience doubt.  Doubt is the questioning of what we have taken as true up to the time we begin to seriously question that “truth”.  If we are to be honest, we must not run from our doubts, but face them.  We must allow our questions to come into the light.

Most simply, faith is trust, but not blind trust.  It is evidence-based trust.  It is knowledge-based trust.  It is relationship-based trust.  Is has “substance” based in reality, not mere imagination and wishful thinking.  For example, I know I can completely trust my spouse after almost five decades of doing life together.

The scientist trusts, has faith in, science and reason because of the repeated evidence that it works.  By it we discover how things work.  We know how its methodology can help us solve problems, give answers in practical ways to real critical issues.  We know it can show us how to protect people from deadly infections like COVID-19, how to create usable energy by controlling the forces and elements of nature, etc.

The “War” between science and religion is a misconception.  Theists and atheists both believe we can discover much about reality by the scientific method.  Both believe that our innate creativity and remarkable intellect can use the creation to bring into being things that would not exist without human invention. 

A theist easily explains why that is possible: the Creator made it in such a way that we can use the abilities of reason and faith to discover how the creation was made to function and how we can direct it to produce previously non-existent things.  In the best scenario, we can learn to protect it and care for the creation the Creator has placed us in. 

The atheist believes it just somehow happens to work that way as an inexplicable result of blind “evolutionary processes” that defy all the “laws” of probability.  Beneath it all, there is no real, compelling reason for it to be that way.  Nor is there any ultimate purpose in what is.  We are just here, and while we are here the best we can do is to try to make our existence as pleasant as possible for both ourselves and our fellow humans.  Or perhaps we only need to concern ourselves with our own comfort.

Let us conclude this reflection with this thought and a couple short open letters:

Thought: “Let the believer not be afraid to doubt; to question opens the path to greater wisdom.”

Dear Theist,

Doubt is not the enemy of trust-faith, but the way to new trust and stronger evidence for your relationship with the One you have discovered is really there and has been all along, even when His voice was silent (or, rather, when your eyes and ears were blocked).

Dear Atheist,

Dare to doubt your total faith in reason and science as the sole path to truth and wisdom.  Dare to consider some great thinkers and scientists who moved beyond dogmatic skepticism.  Finding a Creator did not suddenly make them scientific and intellectual weaklings.  Newton was no weakling.  Descartes was no weakling.  Pascal was no weakling.  Bacon was no weakling.  Einstein was no weakling.  Francis Collins is no weakling.  Hawking notwithstanding, we do “have need of that [the God] hypothesis”, now more than ever.

Pax tibi, amice!  (Peace be with, my friend!)

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Transitions

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves.  We must die to one life before we can enter into another!”

Anatole France, French author and philosopher.

“There is no sin punished more implacably by nature than the sin of resistance to change.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindberg the aviation pioneer.

“Change is the process by which the future invades our lives.”

Alvin Toffler, American futurologist and author.

(Photo credit: emindful.com)

(Note: Biblical citations in this piece are taken from The Kingdom New Testament as translated by Anglican theologian and Bible scholar N.T. Wright.)

The list of certainties in life is very short: birth, death, and change.  Some people add taxes to that list.  However, it is theoretically possible to conceive a life without taxes, and we are told by anthropologists that in primitive societies they didn’t exist – although contributions to the common weal were expected.

I suppose birth is not even inevitable if we accept that a child in the womb is alive, but may not make it to birth.  Of course, this has become a very uncomfortable and largely ignored subject in polite progressive societies like Canada, but scientifically there is no denying that an unborn child is alive.  The US is not as “polite” as Canada, so this subject is still a hot public one there.  But we will not follow that trail today, as worthy a discussion as it is to have.

The US has just undergone a very important change, a transition from one President to another, with the legislative reins of power also significantly shifting from Republican to Democrat hands.  Some readers of this blog are doubtless also going through major life-changes, transitions from one chapter to another.  All of us, young or old, rich or poor, famous or ordinary folks, partnered or single, are going through change, experiencing transition.  As Henry Ford once said, “Life is just one damn thing after another.”

Our three citations above all point to different facets of how everyone experiences transition.  I could have given many more.  I will simply add the gist of a few of them: “… [the] gate of change…can only be unlocked from the inside” (Marilyn Ferguson); “Most of us are about as eager to change as we were to be born…” (James Baldwin); and finally, a famous one, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” (Alphonse Karr)

Toffler speaks of change “invading” our lives.  This is because most of us, if we reach a place of comfort and ease, or just plain old being used to how things are even if they are pretty dismal, like “the devil we know rather than the devil we don’t know”.

Anne Lindbergh, who went through horrendous pain in her personal life, knew what she was talking about when she said that resisting the inevitability of change brings on “implacable punishment”.  In her case, she was speaking of deep grief never being able to bring back her once fairy-tale life after her dead child was kidnapped and killed and her family destroyed.  Anyone who has lost what is most loved and precious either learns this truth or ends up emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually destroyed.

It is easy to be philosophical about change as you observe it from afar.  It is a far different thing when I am the one in the midst of it.  When it involves great pain, loss, and prolonged suffering, whether physical, mental, or spiritual (and they are inextricably interwoven in the long run), philosophy becomes very thin.  At that point, survival becomes primary.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s paradigm of loss and grieving comes into play with all its messiness. 

There are many variables in how individuals, groups, and whole societies undergo transition and change.  There is no fixed template.  Kubler-Ross’s brilliant synopsis, nuanced since then by her and others, remains a tremendously helpful reference point, allowing that there is no clean order in which the phases occur, the length of time they may endure, or the intensity of the feeling.

“Navigating” change and transition is a helpful analogy.  Traveling the road of transition and change is much more like a voyage in an old sailing ship than in a vessel equipped with powerful engines to combat the forces of nature.  Even powerful modern ships are often blown off their planned course.  “Nature” and Life do not play by our rules.  Life is embedded in Nature and not governed by how humans hope, yearn, and strive to control its course and outcome.

With few exceptions, none of us knows ahead of time when “the end” will come.  Paul Anka and Frank Sinatra famously sang “I did it my way!” with more than a little autobiographical hubris.  I suspect that upon reaching the other side we find that what awaits us is not about “doing it my way” anymore, and in fact never was.  A very old aphorism says, “You reap what you sow; if you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind.”  If all you have is now and then you go into oblivion, perhaps the complete ego-centrism of “doing it my way” and telling everyone else that they can just go down “the highway [to Hell? – as per ACDC]” – has appeal.  But the deadness at the centre of such a life kills what is essentially human even for atheists.

“Doing it my way” is described by the Biblical author Kohelet (King Solomon’s pen-name) as “chasing after the wind.”  You can never catch up to it or cage it.  We like to think we are quite clever because we have found some technology to make the wind work for us when it is blowing the right way.  But we always rediscover that, as Jesus described the work of God’s Spirit, “The wind blows where it wants to, and you hear the sound it makes; but you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going to.  That’s what it’s like with someone who is born from the spirit.” (John’s Gospel in the The Kingdom New Testament, Chapter 3, Verse 8.)

We can never really have it all our own way.  There is indeed a highway to Hell.  Jesus once described it like this.  “The gate that leads to destruction is nice and wide, and the road going there has plenty of room.  Lots of people go that way.  But the gate leading to life is narrow, and the road going there is a tight squeeze.  Not many people find their way through.”  (Matthew’s Gospel in the The Kingdom New Testament, Chapter 7, Verse 13.)

Born of the spirit.  That’s the difference between insisting I do it my way and everyone else can just take “go to Hell”, and discovering a life full of greater meaning and enduring fulfillment.  Humans are spiritual beings, but many of us spend our lives neglecting or even denying the inner source of our life.  When we do that, change become hell, because the darn old world and cosmos keep insisting that we’re not in charge, no matter how carefully we strive and contort ourselves to make the reality we want happen.

That is the deep truth that Anne Lindbergh was referring to when she said, “There is no sin punished more implacably by nature than the sin of resistance to change.” 

That is what Anatole France was driving at when he said, “We must die to one life before we can enter into another!”

The future will “invade our lives” as Toffler said.  And when it comes, if we have not prepared to meet it with openness and grace, it will “punish us” and perhaps even destroy the life we led up until that time.

We will conclude these reflections with another saying of Yeshua/Jesus that is really the last word about changing, for it speaks of the only way to really change permanently to open the road to birth into what the Creator made us to be.

“Let me tell you the solemn truth,” replied Jesus [to a Jewish leader named Nicodemus two thousand years ago].  “Unless someone has been born from above, they won’t be able to see God’s kingdom.”

“How can someone possibly be born,” asked Nicodemus, “when they’re old?  You’re telling me they can go back a second time into the mother’s womb and be born, are you?”

“I’m telling you the solemn truth,” replied Jesus.  “Unless someone is born from water and spirit, they can’t enter God’s kingdom.  Flesh is born from flesh, but spirit is born from spirit.  Don’t be surprised that I said to you, You must be born from above.  The wind blows where it wants to, and you hear the sound it makes; but you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going to.  That’s what it’s like with someone who is born from the spirit.”

(Gospel of John, Chapter 3, Verses 3-8)

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Water

“… a mist went up from the earth which watered the entire surface of the ground.” – Genesis 2:6 – Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)

Fog. Vapour suspended in the atmosphere at or near the earth’s surface, obscurity caused by this…

The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964

Mist. Water vapour descending in fine drops smaller than raindrops and causing obscuration of the atmosphere. Ibid.

H₂O.  Water.  Water gives life.  Life needs water.  Science fiction and fantasy aside, everything we know about life requires water for it to exist, to come into being, to persist in being, to evolve, according to both the evolutionary and the creationist paradigms of life.

You may have seen episodes of science fiction series and films in which life somehow has come to be in crystalline or gaseous (not water-vapour) form.  There is no evidence for that anywhere, and no science that can even propose how it could ever happen.  Such episodes have crossed from science and even science-fiction into shear fantasy.

Even the standard evolutionary tale we have been given for the last 160 years since Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) is not so much science or even science fiction as science fantasy.  Somehow all the gaps and “missing links” are filled in without much more to go on than some fragments and deposits often found in the wrong geologic sequence but pry-barred into appropriate position in the chronology to maintain the tale.  Meanwhile, the Flood Story is relegated to some sort of Jungian “collective, species memory” engraved in our genes by our remote ancestors fleeing in terror from a local cataclysm.  More pry-barring!

Micro-evolution is indisputable.  It is observable.  “Extinction events” are indisputable.  They too are observable and the geological evidence is everywhere.  But macro-evolution is highly disputable, as even honest evolutionist academics will admit.  They will justify it because “there is no other possibility” in a materialist, closed universe – as Stephen Hawking famously did in his conclusion to A Brief History of Time.

Let us therefore admit that our a priori presuppositions create “obscuration of the atmosphere”.  Let us admit that every culture and people since time immemorial has operated with such presuppositions and that now, in this Age of Reason and Science, our presuppositions have obscured the perception of the fine, delicate mist which envelopes us and, in its quiet omnipresence, has become invisible to us.

Here we have an amazing fact – a blue and green water and oxygen clothed planet teeming with life, a water-based system which is so delicately balanced to renew and replenish itself that, allowed to function as it is designed to do, and as long as good ole Sol, our local star, keeps doing its regular thing, it closely approximates the mythical “perpetual motion machine” imagined by early modern physicists operating under a Newtonian paradigm.

However, “unNewtonianly”, it is not an inanimate “machine” but a pulsating, living, breathing oneness, a co-dependent, interdependent and incredibly wonderful, beautiful, miraculous contradiction of everything that mindless matter and chaotic energy should ever produce, regardless of however many eons of time may be allotted by those seeking to open the door to it without conceding that other option – a Creator-Designer-Executor.

We have made ourselves spiritually and intellectually blind to the “mist [going] up from the earth which water[s] the entire surface of the ground”.  The presence of water ensures life, and water vapour is physically present in every nook and cranny of planet earth –“the entire surface of the ground”—even in the hottest and coldest, remotest deserts. 

Two thousand years ago, a man named Yeshua said some outrageous things about water and himself.  He called himself “the water of life”.  He said that if we would drink of the water that he gives to drink, we would never thirst again.  He said that it—He!—would give us eternal life.

Once, to show his intimate connection to and command over water, the very essence of life, he wordlessly (as far as we know, although he may have prayed some silent words) changed about three hundred liters of water into the finest wine at a wedding feast.  Many would love to have a power like that at their command!

On another occasion, he commanded the wind and waves of a violent storm to be still, and they became so. There were twelve eye-witnesses to this event. Who can command both air and water?

As to the water-into-wine story, some have tried to understand why Yeshua, a much revered holy man, made it possible to keep a crowd of people happily tipsy at a days-long wedding celebration when the standard image of his followers is that they’re such party-poopers and sour-pusses when it comes to celebrating and cutting loose.  I certainly don’t subscribe to some of the more dour interpretations of this indubitably real event in Yeshua’s public life in ancient First-Century Israel.  Contrary to such sanctimonious interpolations, it was not non-alcoholic wine he made!  Sorry, but that is Queen Victoria era evangelical theology talking anachronistically.  In its details, with the singular exception of having a real-life prodigy-worker in its guest-list, it is entirely consistent with the Jewish culture and society of that time.  And Jesus was fully a First Century Palestinian Jew.

I have my own theory about the marriage at Cana episode where this transformation occurred.  Water means life and wine means enjoying it.  Yeshua wanted to gladden the hearts and lift the souls of the people there in a time when life was really pretty hard and often grim. 

Which raises many questions, such as, “Why did the Creator make a universe with life?  Why did the Creator make (material) life such that it cannot be without water?”  Here on Planet Earth, the only world of life we know, and the only one where life can in some respect know the Creator and be in personal relationship with Him, water is a physical testimony to the Creator’s omnipresence and our total dependence on Him.

The judgment on land life of Noah’s time and tale was by water, the very means and primary agent of life.  Life was given via water in the beginning –whether you believe in direct act of creation or a process of (Divinely-directed?) evolution.  Life was temporarily erased from the land (but not the water) by the Creator’s direct action, just as it was His direct word which made it in the first place by calling life out of the waters He had separated “in the beginning” (see Genesis Chapter 1). 

The cause of the cleansing of the Noahic Deluge was the depravity of humanity. Humans had betrayed their mission to cause earthly life to flourish and abound and to care for it.  They had so polluted and befouled the land that the Creator decided to purify the land.  Although He would leave a remnant to regenerate it, God knew that the root of corruption in human hearts was not really healed.

But the permanent healing and restoration of the earth and of humanity’s brokenness requires a new kind of water.  This water would fill the heart, renew the mind, and give eternal life to the spirit so that broken, polluted human nature would be healed and conformed to the image of Himself God had put there in the first place.  Mere physical water cannot do this.

To make it happen, the Creator came in person as Yeshua, Israel’s promised Mashiach (Messiah) who brought the water of life—Himself!  Coming into direct relationship with the Creator’s “Son” – an actual living, flesh-and-blood human being who would bridge the chasm between the Creator and His creation.  The spiritually renewing water heals the heart and fills the soul.

One of the most poignant water stories in the New Testament concerns a meeting between Yeshua and a woman of Samaria at a town well.  It is found in John’s Gospel, Chapter 4.  It was to this lost woman whose life was a mess and who was an outcast that Yeshua said that He could give water that would quench the inner thirst.  It was Himself, as healer and renewer and redeemer—Israel’s and the world’s Messiah!

That offer is still valid and open to anyone who wants such water, such life everlasting.  “Come to me all who are loaded down [burdened] and heavy-laden [with cares and troubles of whatever type] and I will give you rest for your souls…. I will give you water for your spirit such as will heal your heart for good and bring you into eternal life.” (That last bit is my interpolation.)

Thus, it is no accident that you absolutely must have water to live, both physically and spiritually.  You need it for cleansing, healing, comforting, soothing, warming, cooling, nurturing, and on and on. 

Let us open our eyes to see through the fog and see, and be enveloped in God’s omnipresent mist.  Open your ears to hear His waves splashing and crashing all around you.  Be reminded when you look at a river, sit by a shore, paddle on a lake, sail on the big waters, take a refreshing drink when you are parched, or when taking your shower or bath to cleanse your body.  Receive the water that washes you clean, inside and outside.

And thank God that He has put water everywhere to remind you constantly that He is very near, as the Muslims put it, “Closer than your jugular vein!”

Shalom!

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Breath

“Yes, everyone, no matter how firmly he stands,

is merely a puff of wind.

Humans go about like shadows:

their turmoil is all for nothing.

They accumulate wealth, not knowing

who will enjoy its benefits.”

Psalm 39: 6b-7, The Complete Jewish Bible

Photo credit: ledgerinsights.com

It is rare for a child, a youth, or a young adult to think they are “merely a puff of wind” and they “go about like shadows”.  I doubt that the obscenely wealthy, (e.g. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos) give much consideration that “their turmoil is all for nothing” and that all their immense riches will one day pass beyond their control to someone(s) who may completely overturn whatever they had conceived should be done with it.

But really now, who can conceive of amassing a personal fortune of $200 Billion?  That’s greater than the GDP of a host of poor and small countries, or several of such countries combined, being in the bank and investment accounts of a single person!  Think of all the works of mercy and compassion it would be possible to do with such means available!  You could relieve much of the poverty on earth, finance hundreds and even thousands of worthy research and development projects to relieve suffering, etc…  But I guess you don’t create a personal fortune of such stupendous size based on a philanthropic disposition. 

People of mega-wealth should heed the story of King Solomon of ancient Israel.  He lived in the late 10th Century BCE and, building on the great success and empire that his warrior father King David had left him, accumulated an incalculable treasure, built immense works of prestige to show it and his power off, including a gold-plated Temple to Israel’s God (but only after he had built a shatteringly opulent palace complex), fathered dozens of sons and daughters through his hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of wives and concubines whom he kept in his vast palace complex, and no doubt expected that all this would endure long after he died because he believed he was in a virtually impregnable position based on a prophetic promise from God to his Dad.

Solomon is said to have written the fascinating Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes as he neared his end.  If so, he seems to have had a sort of late-great awakening to the total vanity of all his efforts to create more and more wealth and show off his power and riches and reputed wisdom to all far and wide. 

Ecclesiastes has some priceless passages worth reading whether you believe in God or not.  Its opening line is a real attention-getter: “Vanity!  Vanity!  Everything is vanity!”  or “Meaningless!  Meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!”  Look it up some time if you are ready to consider why you’re on planet Earth and what you want your life to have meant when you stop blowing your “puff of wind”.

In Hebrew, the word for wind also means breath.  Each time you exhale, you are emitting a tiny bit of wind to mark the passage of another few moments of your brief-candle-life.  (We won’t mention the other body part associated with “breaking wind”.)  When you can no longer give an “answer blowing in the wind” (Bob Dylan), time’s up!

You and I are not Musk, Bezos, or Solomon, but we have the same questions to ask and answers to seek.  What will be the meaning and legacy of our “three score and ten, or, if you are strong, four score” (70-80) years on our tiny glorious Gaia-ball in the Cosmos? 

Mssrs. Musk and Bezos, and a host of others I’m sure you could name, and some whom you probably know personally with much less but much more than enough for anyone, are zealously busy accumulating and amassing “stuff”, power, and prestige as their life’ passion.  They probably think they know and can control “who will enjoy its benefits” when their breath gives out.  No doubt clever lawyers and accountants are devising ways and means for their wills to reach out from the grave (or urn) to direct the disposition and use of their massive fortunes, perhaps even in some posthumous works of charity to allay some of what may be a glimmer of inconvenient conscience.  We can always hope.

But Solomon’s story and all of history’s tales of such intentions almost always belie such ideas and hopes.  In Solomon’s case, as in most similar cases since, it all came down to what his heir(s) would actually decide to do with the greatest fortune the world had yet seen to that time, despite what the Big Boss had willed.  The Bible says that Solomon was richer than anyone had ever been and could imagine.  Historically, we have no reason to think that wasn’t true.  People who don’t like the Bible may dismiss it just because it’s a Bible story, but that’s their problem and loss.  According to the Books of Kings, Chronicles, and Ecclesiastes, Solomon certainly acted like the richest man of all time.   

Presumably, Solomon’s principal heir was very carefully chosen after due process.  Or, perhaps not, given that so much else that ended up happening even while the Great King was alive seemed to have come from a sort of moral and intellectual deterioration and negligent arrogance that set in as he got richer and richer and more and more powerful. 

The young heir’s name was Rehoboam, one of his sons.  Other than that, we have no information as to his qualifications for the job of Israel, Inc.’s new CEO and major shareholder.  Upon assuming power, he needed to be acknowledged by the other major stakeholders – much like a new Corporate CEO or major owner needs to get a vote of confidence these days upon taking over the reins (in Reho’s case, the “reign”).  The “Board of Directors” of “Ancient Israel, Inc.” was the chief tribal elders.  They asked Reho what his policies would be – more of the same as dear old Dad, or was he prepared to give them a break from the escalating taxes and levies and compulsory labour that had been the cornerstone of Solomon’s super-wealth?  The heir asked for a few days to consult and think about it. 

He went to two sets of counselors – the Old Boys who had guided Dad, and whom Solomon had increasingly ignored as he aged, and his own crowd of young bucks chomping at the bit to get their teeth into the pie and enjoy all the perks and advantages of having climbed to the top of the heap on the coattails of the New Boss.  So much of this is so familiar today in both government and any significant business.  The Old Guard advised restraint, a time to ease up and give the ordinary people a break.  The Young Guard said, “No way!  Show them who’s boss now!  Be even tougher than Dad!”

Rehoboam wanted to make his mark and went along with his buddies.  The outcome was and is completely predictable – revolt!  The stakeholders /major shareholders told him, “Enough already!  From here on, you’re on your own.  We’re splitting the company and already have a new CEO ready to take charge up north.  We no longer recognize your authority and will not contribute a dime more to your lust for gold and power.”

As per real life today, it was not long before the main competition smelled blood.  The CEO of Egypt Inc. moved in and made a hostile takeover of Judah, Inc., the much reduced southern by-product of Israel, Inc.  North Israel, Inc. kept the name “Israel” and most of the shares and power.  Rumor had it that Egypt’s CEO had played more than a small role in the whole dirty business.  From then on, things were never good between the former partners.  (Sounds just like modern life with its political, business, and family squabbles.)

Pharaoh, Egypt’s CEO, simply stripped Judah Inc. of all its best stuff and then calculatingly dumped it back into the hands of the incompetent management of Judah, Inc., figuring he could walk back in for more whenever he found it convenient.

Did anyone learn anything in all this?  Debatable.  The same pattern repeated itself over and over for centuries in both Judah, Inc. and North Israel, Inc., until finally two super-powers simply took them over lock, stock, and barrel.  It’s no different now in business and commerce, politics and families.

Back to breath.  Ultimately, breath is the gift of the Creator to every living being.  We are told [in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 of the Bible] that as the crowning touch to His work, “God formed a person [adam] from the dust of the ground [adamah] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that he became a living being” made “in the Creator’s own image”.  What sets the breath of humankind apart from that of other living creatures?  It is that the “living being” called human is made to be like, to reflect, to mirror God in the creation.

As long as we have breath in our bodies, we have the opportunity to aim at becoming what we were originally intended to be.  We can choose to use that breath, which in Hebrew also designates the living essence of who and what we are, to act like the Creator’s agents and image-bearers or to pursue what Solomon and every other great potentate and magnate has typically pursued in place of that.

One day, when the breath of life which is God’s greatest gift to us leaves these “puff of wind” bodies, we will face the Creator to give an answer for “the deeds done in the body” as the New Testament puts it.  One thing we know for sure is that heaps of wealth, satiation of pleasures, and lust for stuff and prestige and power manipulation will not impress the One who made us to reflect His intention for what He made.

For you and me, as long as we have breath there is still time to heed Solomon’s conclusion to a life very largely misspent (his own “famous last words”).  He had finally seen that he had messed it up terribly, despite having been handed all the means and opportunity to make it count for something immeasurably better.  At the last, he knew it and said:

“So remember your Creator while you are young, before the evil days come…. Here is the final conclusion, now that you have heard everything: fear God and keep his mitzvot [Hebrew word often translated as “commandments” but which means far more—good deeds, general principles for living a good life]; this is what being human is all about.  For God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or evil.”

Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 12:1,13,14

Scary!  Time to get ready!

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Cat’s Eyes

© Vince Marquis

(Photo credit, Nature Canada)

How beautiful this day has been!  Quiet and peaceful down by the river, listening and being with the birds and small creatures, reading and dozing pleasantly in company with my Most Special.  The river moves around and through the rocks and boulders, eddying along the shore, cool and soothing to the spirit as it gurgles and splashes, ever constant and ever changing.

In mid-July the bugs have mostly gone, while our little gazebo on our tiny islet provides just enough shelter from any persisting little blood-suckers and biters still seeking our tasty flesh.  Since early afternoon we have enjoyed our haven, the sun shining off the moving, shimmering water, and dappling the shores and their slopes with an ever-changing artistry.

If we get too warm, our little bathing pool awaits along with at least a score of young fish who come curiously to see if we have anything for them.  If not, they will try a little nibble at a mole or spot that looks like a grub or little worm on our legs or torso.  Disturb a rock here and there, and the crayfish scamper away to seek shelter.  These little pinchers have a surprisingly hard nip if you tempt them with a finger.

There are frogs along the shallows – leopards mostly but a few bulls too.  The two do not mix, for the leopards know that their big dull-green cousins will happily make a meal of them.  The leopards are energetic in their hunting, while the bulls mostly sit stalk-still waiting for unwary prey.  Both species like damsel- and dragon-flies, or deer- and horse-flies, the staple of their diet at this time of year.  But they are opportunists and will snag anything they can swallow that comes within range of their lightning fast tongues or a powerful kick and thrust of their rear legs through the water.  How incredibly fast are their reflexes and precise their brains in computing those flies-in-flight trajectories! 

Every once in a while we may catch sight of one of the neighbourhood turtles, painted or snapping.  If the snapper is around, it is time to be cautious about venturing into the water, but she is very shy, while we are happy to observe her sly movements as she seeks a good hunting hide-away.  Froggies beware!  And perhaps a rat-snake will pass through, maybe even sunning itself on a flat rock.

The great blue heron may occasionally glide into the shore-weeds along the other bank and take post in its own frog-hunt or fishing sally.  Perhaps mother wood-duck will tootle along with her gaggle of fuzzy little cuties.  Or Mr. Ferret will nimbly hop and jog along the shore.  All in all, frogs have a lot to look out for – even raccoons! 

The pileated woodpeckers are never far off, frequently making the rounds of their best boring trees with the most grubs and wood-digging pest-nests.  Their patient, solid knocking is easy to recognize, while their smaller relatives, the downies, rat-a-tat like cartoon Woody.  And many other birds can be heard with their various chirpings, cooings, and buzz-songs.

The hawks have been nesting atop one of the big, tall trees and we can hear the parents calling the hawklets in their piercing cry, coaxing the young to practice flying.  Sometimes we get to see them.  Hawks always return to the same nests if they can, so they are regulars.

As wonderful as all this “regular” riot of nature’s life all around us is, it is not quite la pièce de résistance.  Every once in a blue moon, there are true rarities that only presence and patience can harvest by being there serendipitously at the right time.  Over the years, we have seen the sort of stuff which most people will never see in their whole lives, even if they are wilderness trekkers. 

Perhaps an indomitable nature photographer may catch something of the sort.  There was Mother Otter with three kits coming down the river to play around our special standing rock in our pool, delighting my spouse as she stands on the rock revelling in their game and very quietly “chatting” with the boldest of the three gambolling young-uns.  For an instant, their eyes lock, the playing baby wide-eyed and tremulously curious, unsure, just a meter from her fingertips, until Momma chatters to back off and the family jauntily turns about to head back upriver to their den.

Or the time when she heard a great splashing coming downriver from behind her and turned to see a yearling deer bounding in panic as a large coyote was in hot pursuit.  Her sudden “Hey!” to the coyote balked it while the deer caught a break and raced onto the opposite shore and up the wooded hill before the coyote could regain its stride.  She had given the losing dear a few precious seconds, maybe just enough.  The coyote returned to his hunt, but now with far less chance of catching his prey.  “Interfering in the natural order!” you might say.  Our natural sympathies favour the underdog, I guess.  Maybe it’s the old human fear of wolves who hunted our ancestors.

Unfortunately for me, I missed the otters and hunting coyote dramas.  These are my spouse’s special moments.

We have both had encounters with bear cubs down there, Momma Bear not in sight, I with two grand-daughters in tow.  For obvious reasons, these are not comfortable encounters.  In P’s case, the cub got so close that she took refuge with her cell-phone up a nearby tree and called me to come rescue her with something very noisy to scare the bruins away.  We keep boat-horns to blast if there is any real danger, but the horn hadn’t worked!  I resorted to the weed trimmer running at full-tilt, and it did the trick!  Lesson learned to check the horns regularly.  They are actually much better and safer than bear-spray – or a clumsy weed-trimmer.  We take these dandy super noise-makers with us when wilderness canoeing.

My personal summit of sightings was two summers  past with a creature so rare to encounter that I was at first quite incredulous that it had really happened.  It was at the end of the particularly idyllic day in question above.  It was the day before P’s birthday, and she and I had quite enjoyed our afternoon together.  She went back to the house ahead of me to put supper on the table.  I was savouring the last half hour or so before heading back. 

Finally, it was time to go.  I gathered my things and got off my chaise-longue, putting on my clogs.  I rose and picked up my day-pack, then exited the gazebo.  It was a lovely evening just before the sun really begins to retire.  I stood quietly, just listening to the river’s soothing patter and savouring the fresh evening air.  I took a few steps to the flat rock that is our step as you go down into the water.  There was some extra splashing coming from the right, and from the corner of my eye there was movement a good way off.

When I turned my head to see what it was, I perceived a large animal in mid-stream, about 75 meters away.  I could not quite fathom what it was – tawny beige colour, too short for a deer, too big for anything else in my categories of “the usual suspects” of river denizens and neighbours.  Right general size for a middling bear, but totally wrong colour.  A really big dog?  This animal was lunging about in the deeper pool down there.  It dawned on me; it was fishing!  Its movements were wonderfully graceful in a feline fashion.  What??? 

As it was turned away from me, I gazed intently, waiting for it to present itself in full profile as it continued to poise for successive plunges.  Certainly no deer, or dog, or wolf-kind!  Catlike in movement and grace and poise.  Then it turned full sideways and I clearly saw the curve of its back, the long, furry tail with the end-tuft rising in that very catlike manner, and, finally, the massive head.  Cougar!!  No possibility of mistaking this top-of-the-food-chain monarch!  Full-grown and quite large, archetypical specimen in size, colour, form, and grace.  Absolutely awesome!

He turned his head, sensing he was being watched.  He had not scented me, for the breeze was from him to me, and I had been stalk-still, entranced, transfixed!  He saw me and his yellow eyes locked onto mine.  Neither moved, but there was an electric moment of contact and acknowledgement. 

“I see you there,” was what I sensed from him.  I should perhaps have been afraid.  After all, if he had decided to change his menu to go for bigger game, he was far faster than I, and trees and logs are no obstacle to a creature who climbs trees like a baboon.  But I felt an uncanny calm.  My own sense was, “You are king of your domain, but I, the human, am your master in God’s order of things.” It was not a contest of wills or a challenge.  It was a moment of mutual recognition.  Satisfied that I was no threat to him, he turned once more to his graceful fishing venture.  I decided that it was a good time to make my way home.  No hurry, no running to convey fear, just keep a good pace and go quietly, leaving him to enjoy his mastery of the land that evening.  For my part, I felt like I had been hugged and kissed by the Creator.

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What Trees Say

“In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments—there are consequences.”

Robert G. Ingersoll, American Free Thinker

I love trees.  I have lived in and among them for well over thirty years.  I love the “official” discovery of forest therapy, that spending two hours in the woods has a positive impact on your psychological disposition for up to a month.  And yes, this is a real thing, now established by legitimate scientific research.  Perhaps I should credit the forest with keeping me reasonably sane for the last three decades of my life!  My spouse would attest to the woods’ overall good influence on me, I’m sure.

But the forest is not just a spiritual, psychological, and emotional tonic and booster.  It’s a parable, a symbol, a home, a macro- and microcosm all rolled into one. 

We all know the saying, “(S)he can’t see the forest for the trees,” and its converse, “(S)he can’t see the trees for the forest.”  It’s all a matter of perspective, a question of being where you are and seeing what is there right at that moment. “Mindfulness” is the new buzzword for a very old practice.

I’m not a certified forester or a trained arborist by any means, but over the years I have learned something about the trees I find in eastern Ontario, where I live, and am always interested in those I find on my travels, wherever these have taken me.

I suspect that for most Canadians and even most of the earth’s human inhabitants, trees are just a vegetative part of the natural landscape to be assumed—or perhaps noted by their absence, or lamented because of the human propensity for over-zealously cutting them down and (ab)using their abundance.  According to National Geographic and treefoundation.org, just about 50% of the earth’s land surface was once forest-covered and just under 50% of that 50% has now been cut down by human exploiters.

I’m not among those who decry all tree-cutting as evil.  I’m not a tree-hugger and I use a chain-saw when necessary. Trees are like every other living thing – they are “born” (“germinate”, as plants), they grow, they mature, they die over time.  Some have shorter and some have longer life cycles.  Some die early because of disease or injury, some are misshapen and deformed and therefore not strong enough to survive through a normal life cycle. Some are just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Nature culls its own “problem children” and careful human herders cull the deformed, sick, and old of their flocks.  Natural events such as tornados, hurricanes, fires and floods wipe out vast expanses of forest without any human aid (although humans cause about half of all forest and bush fires now).  For humans to use trees to provide shelter and fuel is not an evil thing.  Animals of many kinds use the trees to live and we do not proclaim them evil exploiters. Some even cut or rip them down (e.g. beavers, elephants). But only humans can choose to wantonly destroy and use the gentle giants of the plant kingdom just for pleasure and luxurious overconsumption. 

If we take a walk in the woods or forest, or camp out in the wilderness surrounded by these majestic plants, most of us hardly give a thought to the idea that each of the trees we find around the lakes, rivers, streams, and mountains is an individual entity.  Of course, as far as we know, they are not a self-aware, conscious sort of being with a personality and with which we can form a mutual recognition, like we can with many animals, but they certainly have an individuality, an individual history, a species-character that differentiates them from other kinds of trees.  A spruce, pine, fir, poplar, birch, maple, apple, ash, oak, elm, or ironwood (all varieties I find readily close to home, plus many others) are not the same.  You tell them apart by what they look like, how they grow, what they produce, the character of their wood, etc. – very much like we do with animal species and, dare we say, human beings!

And there are multiple varieties (sub-species) within each of the sorts of trees mentioned above, just as people of one ethnicity can also widely vary, or dogs of one breed.

But we can only carry the analogy so far.  Aside from their majestic beauty, the quality of trees that most impresses me is their steadfastness, their dependability, their sturdy life-force, their continuing presence.  They won’t run away because storms come up and hard times set in.  They hang in there and stick with the role and the job they have been given by the Creator, or “Nature” if you prefer. 

If I can have a plant-friend, trees are it.  They have been with me and my family for decades.  I have learned to recognize them and value each species regardless of its being coniferous (evergreen, “softwood”) or deciduous (leaf-bearing in season, “hardwood”).  I have also learned something about how to cull.

When culling (cutting them down), they need to be treated with respect.  They are not tame.  They can hold secrets—even dangerous secrets—that can suddenly jump out and lash you, even imperil your very life.  There are lots of stories I could relate—mine and those of friends or relatives—on that score.

You may not live in the woods or forest, but I’m sure you can find many parallels in life and nature to this our human role on the amazing and miraculous planet we inhabit.  As well as to the forest of your relationships among the most amazing creatures of all—your fellow human beings.

On the one hand, we all just kind of happen—come into the world unbidden by the coming together of two cells in a reproductive act.  Even plants have to cross-pollinate (most of them, at least).  At that level, it all seems random, just “the luck of the draw”.  But on the other, each of these entities is so miraculous and special, it is a miracle just in its being alive at all.  And there is so much incredible variety and, still, each person is unique, one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable.  That person is there instead of a virtually infinite number of possibilities of others that could have been instead.

Think about that the next time when you’re relegating someone to the dustbin of your life as “such a jerk, a bother, a nasty person”, etc, or, on the other hand, when you’re appreciating them as so wonderful and special.  You did nothing to deserve to exist, nor did they, but there you are.  Both of you and all of us are here by the pure and simple grace of the Creator.  Even if you believe we are all just random evolutionary outcomes, you have to be blown away by what you see and find, out of all the incalculable possibilities! 

To me, and most people, it takes a heap more faith to believe that you and I and the trees and all the rest were just spit out by the Big Bang in some sort of totally chance + time defiance of all probabilities than to see what seems so clearly the design and act of a Presence and Being wanting it all to be. My friends the trees constantly remind me of my proper place in the big-scale of things

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2020-2021 and Hope

“Those who have never been ill are incapable of real sympathy for a great many misfortunes.”

André Gide (French novelist and playwright).

“It is easy for the one who stands outside the prison-wall of pain to exhort and teach the one who suffers.”

Aeschylus (ancient Greek playwright)

(Image credit – Dani Pettrey)

No one who has lived through and is old enough to remember it will forget 2020 – the “Plague Year” of a century.  We tend to forget that there have been many plague years in human history, and many far worse both in absolute numbers of victims and in proportion. 

But saying, “There have been many worse times,” is no comfort to the loved ones of those who have fallen victim to this latest iteration of the fourth (pale, pestilence) horse and horseman of the Apocalypse (see Chapter 6 of the Book of Revelation in the New Testament).  Neither can we say, entering 2021, that it is over yet.

M. Gide (see opening quote) had an earned right to talk about sever illness based on his own experience in a rather tragic life.  I would add that those close to someone who is passing through the “Valley of the Shadow” very often truly begin to suffer with the sufferer.  Not the physical pain, but, as we now realize, the psychological and emotional and spiritual dimensions of pain can be just as acute and devastating.  Otherwise, what Gide says is totally true.

Compassion is a word derived from Latin – cum passione  – meaning “with intense feeling, with passion”.  It is the act of “feeling with”, being alongside someone in the depths of their suffering.  If we are not the direct victim of a serious illness or great misfortune, we do not know its suffering in the same way as its primary target, but we can still know very much what it means through the pain of seeing what it has done and is doing to someone we care for.  Grieving for and with a suffering dear one is a true and real form of intense suffering, and it begins even in the middle of a great ordeal.  From our cum passione presence with those suffering, we learn to have “real sympathy for a great many misfortunes”, even of a sort we have not lived with or had to help someone else through.  We come into a place of wanting to do and doing whatever we can to alleviate their suffering.

It is only by suffering the pain, the sickness, and the calamity ourselves, or by choosing compassionately and with a real commitment to enter and walk through the Valley of the Shadow with another, that we cease offering the inane sort of comfort Aeschylus refers to.  It is only by giving up some sort of right to “exhort, advise, adjust, and correct” the people in the Valley from outside “the prison-wall of pain” that we actually begin to become compassionate people.  The best birthing coaches are women who have been there.  The best addiction counselors are former, “recovering” addicts.  The most merciful people are those who have received great mercy.

Generally, the deeply suffering don’t need more banal advice such as “keep up the good fight” and “don’t give up hope”.  Advice, encouragement, and exhortation best comes from people who have earned the right to give it.  In any specific life, they are actually few.  It becomes irksome and (maybe not just a little) irritating to have “wisdom and insight” offered by people who mean well but are not really part of the sufferer’s journey.  Assuredly “experts” with special knowledge have their place, but it’s relationship that opens the door for the needy person to “have ears to hear with”.

General assurances of “thoughts and prayers” are of little worth.  Many people utter these clichés who rarely if ever pray.  The idea of sending positive thought-vibes too often flees our conscious minds as soon as we move on to the next thing.  By all means express sympathy and concern if they are sincere, but refrain from empty assurances if you know you are unlikely to follow through.  You may feel more like a compassionate person in that moment, but the recipient will usually know what such declarations are actually worth by the sort of relationship you already have.  If, despite all that, you succeed in praying and sending “positive vibes” their way, great!  But don’t salve your bad conscience about your shallow relationship and spiritual life by declaring meaningless intentions.

Year-Ends and New-Year beginnings are full of banal good intentions.  For my part, I have given up making “resolutions” because I know that if I really mean to take care of myself and work on becoming a “better person”, I will put in the daily effort of deciding and doing what I need to one day at a time.  Overcoming temptation is always a one-at-a-time struggle to build up the spiritual and mental muscle I lack, just like building muscle mass to keep my body from deteriorating is a matter of doing the physical exercise involved every day. 

I am not without hope as we end 2020 and begin 2021.  But saying a bunch of nice-sounding but empty piety is not hopeful.  It is delusional.  “Saying so don’t make it so!”  As the Apostle James expressed it when talking about how compassion really works,

“Supposing a brother or sister is without clothing, and is short of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; be warm; be full!”—but doesn’t give them what their bodies need—what use it that?…. faith, all by itself and without works, is dead.”

James Chapter 2, verses 15-17, The Kingdom New Testament

Real hope is based on faith, and faith is not an empty leap in the dark – not even, in fact least of all – in Christianity.  Despite the caricature of Christian (and “religious”) faith so often used by sceptics and critics, some of them even within the Churches, the Bible never suggests “blind” faith.  The best definition of faith in the Bible, perhaps in all human expression in any language of any time, is this: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  In another translation, “It is what gives assurance to our hopes; it is what gives us conviction about things we can’t see.”  (Book of Hebrews 11:1 – New Testament.)

Scientists have just as much faith as any religious believer.  Everyone lives by faith in and about some things.  Otherwise, it is impossible to carry on.  For the scientist, reason and the scientific method give him/her faith about discovering “truth” and “reality” – facts that point to the big picture.  Contrary to the prevailing paradigm about science versus religion, they are not really so far apart.  At least not for Christianity and Judaism.

The source of hope in Christianity is available to all, regardless of “race”, class, gender, age, or any other human distinction one cares to suggest or invent.  It is also as factual as any fact of human experience can be.  The conflict is in that some (if not most) scientists of the modern and post-modern age classify it as a priori outside the realm of possible facts.

I speak of the “miraculous” as attested by history, and specifically as pertaining to the person of Yeshua ben-Yosef of Natzeret, Jesus of Nazareth to the world at large.  Hope for Christians is not a vague wish for better things to come.  It is an assurance based on a promise sealed in blood, and verified by the resurrection of Yeshua as God’s guarantee that He keeps His word.  He had promised He would redeem broken humankind.  He sent His Son to do that and to show all how to return to Him and find their true worth and destiny.

Even in dark times like 2020, and there have been many much darker in many ways over  the centuries, the Creator has not departed.  He remains anchored among us through the presence of a living Redeemer, a presence shared far and wide wherever those who know Him bring His light.

May you know Him and His light more than ever as we leave 2020 behind and throughout 2021.

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Reason for the Season, 2

Three things go by the name of Christmas…. a religious festival…. a popular holiday…. the commercial racket.”

C.S. Lewis, “What Christmas Means to Me”, in God in the Dock.

Observing this year’s Christmas hubbub, I am more convinced than ever that the whole origin and meaning of “Christmas” is sliding more steeply and deeply down the slope to cultural irrelevance. 

In “What Christmas Means to Me”, Lewis points out that seventy years ago the “second Christmas”, the popular holiday, still had “complex historical connections with the first”, and the two together gave people a good “occasion for merry-making and hospitality” – which he had no objection to!

Things have moved on considerably since Lewis’s time.  Of the “three things called Christmas”, we now observe but two in the generality of culture and people’s awareness of why we have a “Holiday Season” at all.  As Lewis says, few object to throwing a good party and being hospitable, at least for a few cheery days of the year – all the more as we deal with the onset of the long cold and lengthy nights of winter (as we experience it here in the great white north, anyway).

What do you note people saying, if anything, in reference to the “Holiday Season” and any particular reason for celebrating it?  Is it anything more than “merry-making” for the sake of merry-making and plunging into the tide of the “commercial racket” so you won’t be classified with Uncle Scrooge or the Grinch?  Certainly it is a good custom for family and friends to gather to symbolically demonstrate love and affection and concern for one another – although this year this is problematic. 

There is no denying that we need some cultural markers to allow us reasons and ways to be together to support one another and experience some more intimate human community.  So even if there is no Jesus factor involved, a merry-making and gift-giving binge once or twice a year is not a bad thing.  As Lewis said, no need to be the party-pooper harping away at telling everyone they are missing the real point – although it is appropriate to mention the birth of Yeshua-Jesus now and then as a reminder.

But, without Jesus, beyond the binge and after the bloating indigestion, mega-sugar-crash, and fortified  eggnog and other spirits hangover, what was it about?  Fantasizing about Santa and goodwill to all people for some vague reason?  Receiving some gifts that symbolize a love which is usually neglected in practice?  Feeling a nice glow for a few days but then crashing back into the loneliness or shallowness of regular life for most of the rest of the year?

Think about what all that maudlin Santa-elogizing and schmaltzy glitter and twitter really says.  What about all that “Commercial Racketeering”?  “Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself—gaudy useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before,” as Lewis described it.  “Long before December 25th everyone is worn out—physically… by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally… by the effort to remember all the right recipients and… suitable gifts for them.”

Lewis recognizes that for many businesses, the whole thing “is good for trade” and they can’t survive without it.  The whole thing is topsy-turvy.  Tongue-in-cheek, he suggests that it would be more meaningful to just tell the businesses to shut down and give the shopkeepers charitable donations.  (Hmm-sounds like 2020…)

Meanwhile what have we made of “Christmas”?  it is now a mostly shapeless cultural lump called “the Holiday Season” in which we wish one another a vapid “Happy Holiday(s)” according to whatever you choose to make it mean.  “And so this is Christmas, and what have we done?” asked John Lennon in one of my all-time favourite Christmas songs.

Without the (shudder) “religion”,  the merry-making is actually poisoned by the gross usurpation of what was once a joyous but reverent celebration of the coming into the world of the very Person and Being of God in the flesh of a human baby over two thousand years ago in an animal shelter in the village of Bethlehem in ancient Judea.  No amount of gooey sentimentality and nostalgia for a fuzzy lost innocence of bright hope for something eternal to be born in us can ever substitute.

To be sure, there are remnants of Jesus, or “the Christ-child”, still invoked or slid in among the multitude of cloying old and new “Christmas music” and trendy films about happy-ever-after love-finding or old hurts being reconciled somehow miraculously.  An angel may glide in here and there too, or a nod to a little shepherd-boy or gentle farm-animals lowing softly at a baby in a manger.  But who understands what these oblique references are even about now?

It’s a daring and risky school pageant that allows anything like the Bethlehem story to appear.

How do we return to joy in all this, especially when the year ending that has been so full of gloomy-doomy shadows?  At least, for the most part, the “crowded shops” that wear us out have been far less wearing.  And, if this year of shadow has had an positive effect on our spirits, it might be that we are more open to considering why we are here in the first place.  And so, why can’t we say “Merry Christmas” without worrying that it might offend someone’s hypersensitivity to a specific Christian festival in a culture that was largely built by professing Christians?  I have met Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists who are less hung up about it than many Christians.  And they could care less what the militant secularists think if they say it.  Can we face the shallowness of what we now think and do and believe about the real meaning of so much in our Western cultural jungle, including the Reason for this Season?

Thank you for the seventy-year old reminder, Professor Lewis!

Merry Christmas, and may God’s peace (shalom) fill you up unto overflowing so that you can’t help passing it to others!

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Reason for the Season, 1

This week and for one or two more, World.V.You will take a short break from the ongoing series “Inconvenient Conscience” (see the previous ten posts in the Archives).  We are rapidly approaching both Christmas and the end of the memorable year 2020.  At Christmas-time, faithful readers might appreciate a break from the usual sort of articles found on this site, and it is a good time to turn to thoughts about the “reason for the season”.

What is that reason?  That question is more relevant than ever in 2020 and in this season of our society’s and culture’s development.

Many Westerners are now so secularized that they barely recognize that “the Holiday Season”, “Yuletide”, etc., are substitute names for “Christmas” – a term now somehow often considered offensive in the public forum and even much commercial advertising.  “Christmas” is an old religious term derived from the public celebration of the birth of Christ, but even in that we miss something of the historical origin of what was a central event in the Western calendar for almost 1500 years.

“Christ” is not a personal name, but a title transcribed from Greek, Kristos – the Anointed, the Chosen of God.  The Greek term translates the Hebrew word Mashiach (Messiah) – which is also a title meaning exactly the same thing.  Both words point to the same person whose birth the “Christ Mass” commemorated and celebrated with proper and due joy and solemnity for Christians – the followers of the one whose birth is the real “Reason for the Season”.

Jesus “Christ” is, in his humanity, Yeshua ben-Yosef of Natzeret, a humble Jewish village in Galilee of northern Israel.  You can still go visit this place.  His parents were very humble folk in ancient Israel two thousand years ago, but their ancestry joined them both in direct line of succession to the most celebrated King in ancient Israeli history – David of Bethlehem. 

The human Jesus story was never really lost over the last two thousand-plus years since that humble birth took place, but over time it was obscured and heavily overlaid with opaque layers of piety.  The story of this man’s extraordinary life and death became the stuff of legend and initiated startling change in both the History of Israel and that of the wider world into which it became inextricably woven.  Yeshua the man morphed into a semi-mythological being called “Christ” and for centuries all but disappeared behind a wall of theology, liturgy, and ritual.  The wall was built and maintained by usually well-meaning people, mostly men, who became its keepers and guardians, protecting it against questioners and unorthodox thinkers and practitioners.  To reach the man-god behind the wall and actually have a relationship with him became harder and harder.  It was easier to find proxies (priests and saints) who could stand in less exalted posts which ordinary sinners could approach without fear of immediate thunderous judgment and rejection as unworthy.

The last hundred and more years have seen an ongoing “quest for the historical Jesus” among Biblical scholars and archeologists and many others from almost every discipline thinkable in academia.  But, like so many demythologization campaigns, the actual, historical truth which undergirds the myth and the wall and, in the case of Jesus-Yeshua, the theology, has all too often rejected even the real man, or buried him under even more levels of obscurity in attempting to shed anything that does not fit the new framework (theology?) of rationalist empiricism.

The central meaning of the story, as it swiftly emerged from the events of his life, death, and reputed resurrection from the dead, is simple when accepted as it was told by his earliest followers.  The man Yeshua was in fact the incarnate Son of Israel’s God, the One God, the only God, the very Creator of the universe and all that is.  He had been promised to the first humans as a Saviour and Redeemer to restore humanity’s broken relationship with and estrangement from the Creator.  As such, he was the heir of King David, and thus the rightful King of Israel, but he was not to make Israel the new world superpower overwhelming all the nations with judgment and wrath, but to bring universal peace, reconciliation, and restoration between God and humanity, and among all humans, and between humanity and the broken creation.

The story continues.  Yeshua demonstrated who he was/is by the works he did and the things he taught.  He was rejected and killed by crucifixion by both the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities.  His death was freely accepted by him and was, in fact, the once-and-for-all sacrifice for all the sin and brokenness brought into the whole Kosmos by the rebellion of humankind since its first days and by its first progenitors.  God confirmed what that death meant and accomplished by raising his Son from death on the third day after his execution-murder.  Before he returned to his Father, Yeshua-Jesus commissioned his disciples to go out into the world and preach, teach, and demonstrate the coming of his Kingdom, a new kind of Kingdom called the Kingdom of God.  Its characteristics include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.  It seeks no earthly dominion except over people’s hearts.  It welcomes anyone who seeks it and will follow Yeshua-Jesus as Lord.

The story of Yeshua fits no other parameters in human history, philosophy, or ideology.  In fact, it redefines the parameters of human history and society.  Many attempts have been made to explain away its miraculous aspects, especially the resurrection.  These are declared by dubious scholars to be later accretions and pious (or even malicious) fabrications.  They are even categorized as a continuation of pagan and Oriental mythico-theology of a dying and rising god(dess) as the personification of the cycle of being, the wheel of existence.  But all these attempts to wave aside Jesus utterly fail, for they all run into the same adamantine wall – the evidence-based claim that was there from the very first that Yeshua really and truly and physically rose from the grave alive and transformed into an incorruptible but still recognizable human being.

Thus we arrive at all the modern and postmodern relativistic probing and questing, desperately trying to elicit a non-miraculous “historical” Jesus from the original events.  This despite the fact that, as the Apostle Paul told the Roman Governor Festus and the Jewish King Agrippa II, “these things did not happen in a back alley” but in front of hundreds and even thousands of eye witnesses.  Every rationalization of these things hits the wall of Good Friday followed by Easter Sunday.

Christmas is a special time and event fully worth celebrating in its proper context as the recognition that God sent His Son to live among us to show us how to live in restored relationship with our Creator.  But in and of itself it is not enough.  It is not the whole story and cannot be understood and truly absorbed into the heart or change the soul without its completion in Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Otherwise, it is just a nice cultural tradition we use to gather together, eat good food, say nice things, and have nice family times hoping to support one another and trying to be nicer to one another for a few days in the year.

Santa the merry elf is a poor substitute for the King of Kings and Prince of Peace bringing His Kingdom of righteousness, shalom, and joy.

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Inconvenient Conscience, 10 – Turning Around, 6 – England and Slavery

“With regards to myself, I have nothing whatsoever to urge, but the poor Publican’s plea, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”” – William Wilberforce, July 11, 1833 – eighteen days before his death. 

Quoted in William Wilberforce by Robert Furneaux, Regent College Publishing, 2005 edition, p. 453.

“IN AN AGE AND COUNTRY FERTILE IN GREAT AND GOOD MEN,

HE WAS AMONG THE FOREMOST WHO FIXED THE CHARACTER OF THEIR TIMES

BECAUSE TO HIGH AND VARIOUS TALENTS,

TO WARM BENEVOLENCE, AND TO UNIVERSAL CANDOUR,

HE ADDED THE ABIDING ELOQUENCE OF A CHRISTIAN LIFE.

EMINENT AS HE WAS IN EVERY DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC LABOUR,

AND A LEADER IN EVERY WORK OF CHARITY,

WHETHER TO RELIEVE THE TEMPORAL OR SPIRITUAL WANTS OF HIS FELLOW MEN

HIS NAME WILL BE SPECIALLY IDENTIFIED

WITH THOSE EXERTIONS

WHICH, BY THE BLESSING OF GOD, REMOVED FROM ENGLAND

THE GUILT OF THE AFRICAN SLAVE TRADE,

AND PREPARED THE WAY FOR THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY

IN EVERY COLONY OF THE EMPIRE…

Excerpt from the epitaph inscribed on the base of Wilberforce’s statue in Westminster Abbey

We occasionally find instances of national repentance accompanied by a substantial change of culture and society in the Bible.  With one exception, they occurred in ancient Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah.  They also came “from the top down”, so to speak, being initiated primarily by royal decree. 

The one prominent Biblical example of a Gentile nation repenting is found in the Book of Jonah, when, to Jonah’s chagrin, the pagan Assyrians, the most terrible aggressors and terrors of the ancient Near East in the ninth to seventh centuries BCE, listened to Jonah, an Israelite prophet, and repented in sackcloth and ashes.  The Assyrians begged the mercy and forgiveness of the “God of Heaven” – Israel’s God – lest they be brought to death and utter ruin.  From the evidence of archeology and Biblical scholarship, the Book of Jonah appears to be authentic to the culture and historical and religious context of the period 785-770 BCE, when it is best dated.

In the History of the West where “Christendom” once prevailed, we find that the same sort of “top-down” leadership seems necessary for a nation to truly turn around (“repent”) from its dissolute and destructive course.  There may be an exception or two out there, but they do not come to mind as I write this.  Our previous case study of Germany started that way. 

This post will consider the seismic shift which occurred in English and British culture beginning in the late 18th and on into the first half of the 19th Centuries.

For the last hundred years it has been easy and fashionable to satirise and even mock the “Victorian Era” as a funless, humorless age when official morality and censoriousness stifled personal self-expression.  Asked for one-word descriptions of British culture in that century, we frequently hear pundits and commentators use “prudish”, “intolerant”, and “racist”.

Without debating the justice of such sobriquets, what is the “real deal” about why Britain moved into such a morally and socially “unprogressive” (by anachronistic 21st Century standards) state?  It’s very hard for people such as ourselves to wrap our heads around the answer, and many, perhaps even a majority of post-Christian, post-modern Westerners are likely incapable of crediting it.  I suspect that even many professing Christians of our time accept the now stereotypical characterization of that age in Britain and much of the West as supremely judgmental and closed-minded, following Britain’s lead.

Given our opening quotes, the reader will justly suspect that the answer I propose has to do with William Wilberforce.  That extraordinary Englishman, still venerated in the former British colonies in the Caribbean as “the Great Liberator” (although there is strong resistance to that description even there now) and entombed in Westminster Abbey, the ultimate recognition of national greatness in Great Britain, certainly played a huge role in the dual transformation of the general British society and the British Empire of his time and several generations following, with remnants of that change still functioning.

Here is an illustration of our age’s revulsion from the whole ethos that produced that moral and social revolution.  Not long ago my beloved and I were viewing an episode of the BBC series “The History of Britain”.  The episode was concerned with the late 18th and early 19th Century.  The eminent British historian narrating was fascinated by the rise of Romanticism and the ferment produced by the French Revolution and the beginnings of the struggle of the working class and women for rights.  I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: “But what about slavery and the slave trade?  What about the movement for moral transformation that was paired with it?  What about that, Simon?” 

It was fine to analyse those other aspects of the age, but the absence of the number one internal imperial issue had become a yawning abyss.  Then, just as the episode was ending, the slaves were suddenly free and there was a nod in the direction of “the Church and the Chapels” as somehow having had something to do with it.  And that was all!  Astonishing! 

William Wilberforce and his and his monumental group effort and their prodigious forty-year campaign were invisible.  Not a word about the man declared “the greatest living Englishman” all over Europe during his lifetime, and the “the greatest Englishman of the 19th Century” later by the considered opinion of British historians!  How does a first-rank historian deliberately neglect and avoid something so enormous in a well-regarded media production?  How does it slide by the BBC, let alone the great mass of modern media-consumers undetected?

I see this neglect as a manifestation of both the modernist materialist perspective that moral and spiritual motivations cannot be true primary causes of any great change, but are masks, disguises for power, money, and reason, which are always the underlying real motivators of any group and individual claiming they are acting for moral and spiritual reasons.  Now we also add the fear of offending someone or other if we let the old Christian influence back into the public sphere in any way – even if only by recognition of its previous importance in public and private life, perhaps for fear and horrific idea that we might see it come back.

Today in this blog is not the place to debate this.  Today we are merely noting that in the England and British Empire of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, the moral and spiritual motivations manifested themselves as the determining forces in excising the most pernicious practice of that age, and perhaps of all history, from the commercial, social, and moral fabric of the then greatest power on earth.  The influence of that mighty work led to a radical (in the true sense of “right to the root”) transformation which percolated into political and social progress of the most substantial kind, changes which launched the very progressive world we have come to expect, with a social conscience and expectation that it is the job of rulers to seek the general welfare and to reach a helping hand to the most downtrodden.

All of this is an enormous topic.  Repentance was at its core, and actions following testified to the reality.  All luminary claims that these immense changes stemmed from the Enlightenment, shunting the obscurantist “religious enthusiasts” to the side as obstructing rather than leading in all these struggles are irrelevant to the actual historical record. 

Guilty conscience over the terrible inhumanity and atrocious degradation of whole sectors of humanity based on race and class had to be reawakened, and the powerful brought to shame and acceptance of guilt – at least a critical mass thereof.  It was the work of William Wilberforce and his growing army of collaborators who undertook this impossible-looking task.  And they won the hearts of the masses along the way with their practical demonstration and savvy campaign strategies. 

We will not rehash this story.  It is extremely well documented and remains readily available and researchable for any who care to seek it out.

Like every long-lived nation and society, England and Great Britain have many sins and failings to repent of, and some they have.  In this instance, it was done and, on the whole, well done, although, of course, not perfectly.

The story of real revolution that makes change deep and long-lasting is not that of political violence and upheaval mass vengeance taken by under-classes against elites and overlords.  That is the usual picture of history, but the universal record of such reversals is the eventual, and usually quite precipitate replacement of one set of tyrants by a new set and a new regime just as monstrous, if not moreso, as the old soon oppressing the new underclass.

In his England in 1815: The History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, Elie Halevy, an eminent French historian (1870-1937) declared that England was spared the terrible upheaval of revolution and class warfare which had swept Europe because of the virtually miraculous transformation of its society through the efforts and influence of its Christian reformers.  Although a pretty small minority, they were the leaven in the lump which allowed the English to ride out the waves of violence and mass destruction and slaughter and emerge as the world’s superpower.  Halevy was a Jew, not a Christian.  His “objective” analysis and interpretation (as objective as any could be, at any rate) was widely accepted, although it has since been drowned out by a more “rational, scientific” way of seeing things through “hard facts and statistics”.

The trouble with facts, statistics or other, is that their interpretation is always through the lens of worldview.  But in the case of England’s repentance and transformation, the statistics point even more powerfully to the power of the spirit operating within the reformers than to a “hard-nosed” argument from economic and political “inevitability”.

Next time, Canada in the Dock.

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Inconvenient Conscience, 9 – Turning Around, 5 – The USA

“Everything clarified and articulated becomes visible…. Why avoid, when avoidance necessarily and inevitably poisons the future?”

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos, Random House Canada, 2018.  pp. 272-3.

As we saw last time, Germany’s successful emergence from its terrible past and dark night of the soul is a signpost of hope.  As per Peterson’s insight above, Germany allowed its desperate soul-sickness to be articulated, to be clearly declared in full light of day.  Once it was confessed, real steps became possible and were and continue to be taken in turning things around.  In large part, they have succeeded.  Failing to do so would have poisoned Germany’s future for generations.  Germany’s repentance is shown in action to have been real and genuine.  The Germany of the last thirty years has been Europe’s anchor rather than its terror.  Its most ancient and bitter foe, France, is now its closest ally and firmest friend.

While never condoning the 100 million (including in Asia) or so deaths directly attributable to those wars, we can see one good thing to have come out of the horror of World Wars 1 and 2 – Germany’s substantial redemption.  (Until the final wrap-up of all things by the Creator, everything is partial, even the best things.)  As Saul/Paul of Tarsus wrote to the ekklesia in ancient Corinth almost two thousand years ago:

“We know, you see, in part; we prophesy in part; but with perfection, the partial is abolished…. For at the moment all that we can see are puzzling reflections in a mirror; then [at the great culmination], face to face.  I know in part, for now; but then I’ll know completely, through and through.” (First letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, verses 9 and 12. 

The Kingdom New Testament, a Contemporary Translation, N.T. Wright, 2011.

As to the rest of the West, we have not seen such a turn-around, such a turning about, such a recognition of having so terribly missed the mark and needing to repent, needing to lean in a new direction and actively take a different path.  Perhaps, as we watch with fascination the increasing signs of the unravelling world order largely created by the Western victors of the World Wars, we are approaching the reckoning.  Or, more optimistically, perhaps we are the threshold of an awakening of the spirit, in the Spirit.  Every crisis is also an opportunity.  It need not be for evil to take charge.

When it comes to candidates of nations with deep, unresolved, unrepented sins buried in the closet, or even having come out of the closet but still not dealt with, there is no lack of examples we could pick and choose.  As a white Canadian, I could quickly sketch out a list for my own homeland and its European-stock population, as could my Canadian readers.  Take, for example, our utter, shameful, and so far unpardonable failure in dealing justly with our Native Peoples.  And, as a Canadian, that is perhaps what would be proper for me to do.  After all, “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others.”  And then there is, “Before you go taking the speck out of your neighbour’s eye, take the log out of your own,” – a saying of Jesus, by the way, and one which Canadian lumberjacks can appreciate.

According to international perceptions, Canada is a model of progressive multiculturalism and accommodating, inclusive pluralism.  So non-Canadians (and even some Canadians) might yawn from lack of interest in dissecting the internal squabbles of a minor state such as Canada.  While I am well aware of the possible impropriety of picking on someone else, we will take the United States as our next case-study while reserving the right to deal with Canada later.

After all, the USA is the leader of the democratic world, the self-acclaimed “land of the free and home of the brave”, the “cradle of democracy”.  For over 240 years the USA has touted itself as the “champion of the oppressed and down-trodden”.  It is not hard for outsiders, and even many Americans, to poke eighteen-wheeler sized holes in these brash declarations.  But Americans have been bold about wearing these labels and dressing in these cloaks since 1776, when the “Founding Fathers” signed and proclaimed the Declaration of Independence in breaking from the “Mother Country” of Great Britain.

So let’s just consider the Declaration’s opening statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” – except… Africans and African-Americans, Native peoples, Latinos… 

The Founding Fathers themselves did not really believe what they said, as much as some were probably at least consciously quite sincere in saying it.  It is the hidden (and for some of them not hidden at all) reservation beneath the high rhetoric that, from the very first, cracked the Liberty Bell and undermined the very cornerstone of the nation’s constitution.  In 1776 and 1787, the problem was reserved for future resolution, but never resolved.  Instead, as Jordan Peterson put it, it was systematically avoided by the vast majority, left unclarified or excused, obfuscated instead of clearly articulated—until it produced the inevitable result Peterson states: it poisoned the future.  It continues to poison the US.  Even the Civil War did not really lance the boil and extract the poison.  And so the race issue continues to do its devastation, having set profound hooks in the nation’s very soul from the very beginning.

The second profound flaw that took root in that now distant time was class domination, apart from race, but inextricable with it.  Of course, class distinctions in human societies have existed for thousands of years.  They seem to be an innate aspect of fallen, mark-missing human nature, despite all the ideal scenarios human ingenuity can imagine.

It’s not that there has been no repentance or attempt to reconcile in the USA.  There have been some valiant initiatives to undo the most serious consequences of the sins of the Fathers.  For example, in 2019 there were some important ceremonies and activities to repent for and commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of the first importation of African slaves into the British colonies of North America.  So why has American society slid into such a dire state of division and turmoil, apparently even deeper than what we see in other nations of the West?

There is no perfect or scientific answer to such questions, and no one alive (apart from the Resurrected One who will someday give the answers) has the wisdom to unravel it all and find the perfect road out.  Abraham Lincoln might have been that person, at least a Pathfinder, but he was martyred shortly after giving the most splendid oration of his career (the Second Inaugural) which included the phrases “with malice towards none” and “binding up the wounds of the nation”.  He eschewed the road of revenge and punishment towards the defeated Rebels while signifying that the newly freed African-Americans must now be integrated as full citizens.

His death meant the death of his unique, hard-earned authority to lead the nation on that very path.  Instead, it was vengeance and retaliation which took hold, and ten years later this engendered the return to power of the old southern racist and ruling-class elite bound and determined to both keep the blacks in their place and the poor whites in line through fear of the negro and manipulation.  The industrial magnates and financial plutocrats of the North also played their role in condoning and conniving in the South’s backdoor revenge, for class suppression was in their interest too, and they were no less racist than southerners, just not outright slavers.

Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy might also have been Pathfinders to the way out and up, but they too were martyred and the path since then seems to have reentered the quagmire.

Thus, until the American nation as a substantial whole repents and renounces these sins and their continuing deep racist and elitist class roots and their blatant current manifestations from the heart , forgiveness cannot be asked and given, and true healing cannot begin.  The Southern myth of the noble “Lost Cause” must die.  it remains a deep poison. Northern complicity in that myth must be repented.  We could say the same about the terrible and repeated genocides of American First Nations. 

Without such deep and wrenching measures, which cannot be done in any short time and once truly begun will have to be ongoing and continuous, as Germany as done in its national repentance, the US will not lose its violent, divided heart.  That can only be a work that begins by a massively turning towards the One Being who has the power to move on human hearts and spirits to break the chains of slavery and the festering wounds of unresolved internal conflicts.  It involves surrendering the blame-game and the right to make the other side pay “the last full measure”. 

The example for doing that was given on a small hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem two thousand years ago when the Creator chose to take it all upon Himself in the Person of His incarnate Son, Yeshua/Jesus of Natzeret, rightful heir to the throne of Israel.  Instead, He accepted a crown of thorns and took the full wrath of His own people’s leaders and sins as well as that of the quintessential world empire, Rome, representing all the rest of humanity. 

Instead of saying how He would make them all pay “the last full measure” once His Father vindicated Him and raised Him incorruptible and immortal from the grave, He prayed for His executioners, and for the whole human race, so blind and enslaved by the depth of their “failing to measure up” (hamartia –missing the mark, sin), saying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  Would He have prayed a different prayer even if they had known what they were doing?

If you know Him at all, you know the answer to that question.  Because, let’s admit it, since then, millions and even billions of us have known very well what we’ve been doing, and how wrong it has been and is, and how these things so deeply wound Him, His Father, and those humans we sin against, and the rest of the Creation we sin against by our destruction of it.  But he still offers His full forgiveness “to the last full measure, for the last full measure”, thus robbing us of any right we have to claim it of those who have wronged us.  He has claimed it and paid for all of it, from Eve and Adam to you and me.

To paraphrase a young Swedish maiden, “How dare we!” keep claiming we have a right to extract the last measure of vengeance, of profit regardless of how its getting has made others suffer?  On the other hand, if we will not turn from our wicked ways to the Healer Who can really bring us to the healing we all so desperately need, the Creator will leave us to do our own will to persist in our sin and thus to also experience the terrible consequences thereof.

“Domine, in Tua gratia, misericordiam Tuam nobis da.”  (Old Latin Liturgy – “Lord, in Your grace, give us Your mercy.”

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Inconvenient Conscience, 8 – Turning Around, 4 – Germany

If we review the various ages of history, we will see that in every generation the Lord [the Creator God] has offered the opportunity of repentance to any who are willing to turn to him.”

– Clement of Rome at the end of the First Century CE

In 1929, Germany was considered by many Europeans to be the most progressive, civilized, highly educated, and scientifically sophisticated nation in Europe.  Its historical cultural attainments were also highly admired.  Theologically, it was considered the leading Christian nation.

It had been over ten years since the end of the Great War of 1914-18.  Germany had greatly struggled to find itself following the catastrophe of crushing defeat and the ensuing social and political revolution.   The Versailles Peace Treaty had been so vindictive that many Germans were unable to accept all the territorial and financial penalties and limitations on their status as a Great Power which it had imposed.  But as 1929 dawned, it seemed that Germany had adapted and was finding a new future as a peaceful, once-more prospering nation in the international community.

Many Germans were still angry about how the Allies had treated the Fatherland and imposed a diktat which made Germany the scapegoat for all the terrible things that had happened since 1914.  But reasonable, liberal people were leading the country and seemed to have found a road back to respectability and reintegration in the international community.  Even the onerous reparation payments had been renegotiated with the Allies and made more tolerable.  The economy was once more humming, workers were once more getting a living wage for their families, and German culture was once more regaining its leading edge among the enlightened nations of the world.

Then came the Great Crash of October 1929.  Within a year, Germany faced economic Armageddon – six million unemployed in an adult male workforce of about 22 million, millions of pauperized families destitute, thousands of businesses gone, banks going bankrupt, and on and on went the tale of woe. 

The lurking forces of extremism rapidly thrust themselves front and centre after having spent the previous five years in the political wilderness.  A quirky, brooding, charismatic fringe-party leader with a Charlie Chaplin moustache catapulted into national prominence with electrifying oratory and promises of German redemption and the restoration of all Germany’s old, lost greatness. 

His more outlandish views about Jews and other undesirables could be ignored as demagoguery if you didn’t know any better, which 95% of Germans didn’t.  A few restrictions on “those people” wouldn’t hurt anyway, eh?  And if you really thought about it, history and culture really did show that Germany was a superior nation and Germans were superior people – compared to the half-barbarians of the East and the mongrel nations to the south, or even southern France.  The Nordic nations and England were the only countries that could racially compare.

Hitler thundered that Germany had been cheated and betrayed from within by those wretched connivers and manipulators – the Jews and Communists.  Germany had not really lost the Great War because of military defeat; internal enemies had undermined the nation’s effort, sapped morale, and engineered a socialist revolution which still threatened to destroy the German people and rob it of its true destiny.

So went the tale, and, over the next two years, it sounded better and better to millions.  The fiery, hypnotic orator with the funny moustache and mesmerizing eyes looked more and more like the man who could lead them out of their wretched national condition and give regular folks a new chance to have secure jobs and a country able to protect and provide for them.

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler, who had become the most powerful politician in Germany, was constitutionally sworn in as Germany’s Chancellor (Prime Minister) by octogenarian President Field-Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the icon of the old leadership establishment.  The Old Guard thought they could control and use the ex-corporal; within two months they learned that they could not.  He used and completely outwitted them, and, with Hindenburg dead in August 1934, his hold on power became absolute.  Der Fuhrer had arrived!

Twelve years later in May 1945, Germany lay in utter ruin, along with most of Europe.  The German people had lost at least six million war dead, not counting the “subhumans” previously removed from the population.  The country was completely occupied by the victorious Allies, who quickly fell out among themselves while dividing Germany into two – West and East.  The two halves were fashioned in the image of the occupiers – the democratic, capitalist West, and the Communist, totalitarian East. 

The division ended in 1989 when the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe collapsed, the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain were torn apart, and Germany proclaimed its own reunification.  Some trembled at the thought of a reunited Germany in the heart of a Europe where the old Occupiers had faded away.  The new Germany (Fourth Reich?) was born with a pledge to be democratic, peaceful, and dedicated to cooperating with its neighbours to build a European Community where all were equal and could prosper.  The government swore that the new Germany would never allow the old ultra-nationalism and racism to once more raise its head.  It seemed reassuring that the leading party in Germany was (and still is) the Christian Democratic Union Party.

In contrast to East Germany before reunification, West Germany emerged into prosperity and repentance and reconciliation with its former enemies in the period 1949-89.  Its first Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was a deeply committed Christian.  Although the general population of West Germany was still too numb and absorbed with recovery to follow in his spirit for the first twenty years, he led West Germany to full recognition and relationship with the new Israel.  He negotiated generous annual reparation payments to the Jewish state as early as 1951, and reached out to other nations to seek reconciliation. 

From 1965-68, there was a series of West German trials of SS war criminals and Nazi officials who had operated the most notorious death-camp of Auschwitz between 1941 and 1944, and later of other death camps.  This marked the full acceptance in West Germany of what had happened, and taking full responsibility for it within the populace.  From that point on, the people and country embarked on a road to make amends.  After 1989, that effort moved into the former East Germany, however reluctantly, and it continues in all Germany to this day, both by deliberate government policy and at the grass roots level, where it had really begun even before the Frankfurt Trials in the 1960s.

Jesus once said, “By their fruits you will know them.”  We also say, “Actions speak [much] louder than words.”  Germany has produced fruit pointing to the nation’s true repentance.  The Nazi past has been accepted and repudiated; Nazi criminals have been brought to justice; Israel has had firm support and received (and continues to receive) generous reparations to Holocaust survivors and other aid from Germany; Germany has endeavoured to reach out to its neighbours for reconciliation and with practical help; Germany is the backbone of the European Union and has been more than generous in helping the other members when they have been in crisis.

While not every German owns what happened in 1933-45, there is a large majority that do and abhor it.  What can we learn from the German example?  Many things, but we can only mention a few here.

First, pious apologies at an official level for historic wrongs mean little or nothing.  In the last two decades, it has become a bit of “a thing” for Western governments to issue official apologies to ethnically oppressed and victimized minorities, throwing conscience money along.  Here in Canada successive federal governments have apologized to all kinds of groups and minorities for racism and neglect and victimization by the majority European stock population over the last four centuries.  But does this signal repentance and a real acceptance of and desire for it?  The lack of meaningful action that leaves so much as it has been suggests otherwise.

Some other states have done better at this than Canada.  Some have done less.  None have approached Germany’s effort.  What is the missing ingredient?

Repentance!  And how does one truly repent?  That comes from within, in and of the spirit, the full acceptance of what an awakened conscience shouts at our hearts.  It cannot be contrived by an intellectual process or a superficial emotional response of regret and remorse.  Political posturing does not constitute repentance, as necessary as political action is at the national level.  In Germany, there was, from the beginning of the movement, an underlying spiritual movement.  It came out of the country’s long-neglected Christian roots. 

Repentance is not a “one and done” deal.  It is an inner disposition which initiates and sustains action over the long haul.  After all, “sin” (missing the mark, falling short, committing moral offence) is a problem that has to be dealt with all the time since we all continue to miss the mark.  When we are speaking of the sins of a nation, the terrible damage runs very deep and very wide.  The repentance must be commensurate with the offence.

There remain at least two major aspects of this subject to discuss before we conclude.

Next time, we will look at some other national situations in the light of what we have noted so far in this exploration.

Finally, we will apply whatever we have gleaned to the individual, personal level.

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Inconvenient Conscience, 7 – Turning Around, 3 – Repentance

 “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand/nearby/right here/among you/in your midst/within.” –

an expanded translation of the meaning of what Yeshua/Jesus said about beginning to change one’s life and seek the Creator.

We now come to a very hard word for our ears to hear and our Post-modern minds to accept: Repentance.  This word is encrusted with religious connotations which our culture has generally rejected.  There is no substitute or synonym which conveys its basically simple meaning without all the baggage rife with religious judgmentalist connotations.  It is not the same as sorrow or regret or remorse, which are basically passive responses.  To “get it” we have to revert to etymology and the New Testament (koine) Greek word it translates so poorly.

The English word is imported from French – (se) repentir, la repentance – which in turn is derived from Latin poenitere.  The prefix “re-“ refers to a repeated action, not a single one.  The French pentir(e) refers to a leaning posture.  Thus repent(ir) is to turn or change a direction to its opposite, to turn back, to turn around.  The Latin is very close in meaning to the Greek verb – metaneō – to turn (right) around, to go in the opposite direction.  The French originally retained the sense of the Latin, having been directly derived from it.  The English is thus third-hand and, as we noted, has morphed into a caricature of the original.

Repentance is therefore an action, an active, ongoing posture. It is not a one-and-done deal, although it must begin sometime, somewhere with a positive decision, followed by the act of turning away from the destructive way to the positive, life-giving way.

The English word “sin” comes from Old English and its Saxon roots.  Its meaning is the same as that of words in other languages designating a religious and/or moral violation which offends God or the gods.  The Greek word is hamartia, and, while it means “sin” it denotes and connotes “missing the mark/target”, falling short of the desired goal.  Thus, it is not exclusively about religious or moral fault.

Why belabour the semantics of words which are out of vogue and are among the new “four-letter words” in our brave new progressive West?  (Meanwhile, the old “four-letter words” have become cultural mainstream.)  Simply, our relegation of such things to the dim fringe of our language and conceptual framework is one more symptom of our deliberate cultural and moral impoverishment. 

Do we really have to talk about “sin” and “repentance”?  Who today believes people are “sinners” other than religious fanatics?  As for moral standards, we all know they are quite malleable and can be legislated to suit the newest and latest research from psychology, anthropology, sociology, and moral philosophy – or even bio-genetics, physics, and chemistry.  Moral guilt?  I suppose we still need some semblance of that to assign blame for anti-social acts.  But an anti-social act is itself conceptually a changeable thing according to evolving popular standards.  Heck!  Professors professing the wrong set of ideas in university, or even playing devil’s advocate in a discussion, may be guilty of anti-social acts these days!  (So much for the great commission of the universities to explore truth with some sort of objectivity!)

Meanwhile, in the back reaches of our souls, the little inner voice still whispers, “But you know you are a sinner, that you have been and are immoral.  You know there really are right and wrong things, things in your mind and that you actually do which really should change, however much they can be rationalized and temporized by your own inclinations and the wink-winking of society.”

The debate within goes on, poked alive from time to time – maybe by one of those religious-types or some passing reference in a show or a book or a magazine.  Old terms like “(in)equity” and “(in)justice” still evoke moral outrage, whatever they may now be directed at. 

And then the “celestial spark” flares up at you and irritates you:  “When you took that little thing at work, you know it was stealing, eh?  When you lied that little black lie to your partner or your boss to cover up, it was a lie.  When you tell yourself your drinking, recreational drug-use, gambling, and porn “dabbling” are not really hurting anyone else, you know damn well that’s so untrue.  When you go out on another shopping binge and spend way beyond your discretionary spending budget, you know it just ain’t right or fair and everyone else in the family will suffer for it.  When you habitually gorge on junk-food as some sort of emotional therapy, underneath you know how bad it is for your health, and that you will pay for it, and so will those who have to care for you.  And, in all this stuff, everyone else pays for your guilty conscience’s desperate gymnastics and your manipulative antics to justify and bury your – um, er, gulp – sins!”

This litany is not my way of saying I am more righteous than anyone else.  The reason I can make the list is that I am well-acquainted with sin myself, and with some of the things on that list.  But denying that they make me feel guilty (just another way of saying they spur my conscience into appropriate reaction) will never give me peace or help me change.  For that, well, there’s only one road out – get ready for it! – Repentance!

I suspect that a great many of us here in the West will not even be able to accept that this primal need is more than a sort of vague cultural memory that can be dismissed out of hand, or at least by procrastination and neglect and rereading/rehearing all the rant and cant against subservience to religious claptrap.  But if we accept that this old concept still lives in our hearts and souls because it is a reality, however hard we have worked to bury it, we then have to come to terms with how we actually go about it – this “turning right around to go in another, radically different direction” so that we can really begin to change and experience a new way of living at peace with ourselves, our loved ones, and the world.

Perhaps a recent and very powerful historical illustration will help.  I speak of Germany.

Absurd Holocaust denial aside (yet millions still buy the Big Lie that it never happened, or that it didn’t happen on anything like the scale all the historical records declare), the whole word is aware of the unspeakable crimes of the Nazi regime in Germany between 1933-45, aided and abetted by a great many accomplices in other states of Europe, whether directly ruled by the Germans or coerced.  Six million Jews and as many more other “subhumans” (Romani, gays, disabled, etc.) died in extermination camps or by massacre or execution.  Tens of millions more were killed by deliberate policy of reprisal, starvation, deportation, intimidation, etc.

We now know that the fable that the ordinary German populace did not know, or knew little, about what was going on is mostly bunk.  It is easy to judge from the outside that they should have stood up to oppose this horrendous and monstrous action, that the Army should have taken action to stop it and punish the SS and perpetrators.  However, we don’t have to look far afield to find numerous examples of bystanders looking the other way while terrible things are done right under our noses.  Fear and the desire for personal peace (“just stay out of it!”) keep mouths shut.  It is costly to step in to confront injustice and just plain old evil.  You may very well end up the next victim.

World War 2 ended and some of the worst war criminals were tried and executed by the Allied victors.  Others vanished, while still others were quietly slipped into the shadows to serve the new masters who wanted their expertise to use against new enemies.  A great many minor players just blended back into the general population, hoping to remain more or less invisible.

But in Germany, after a decade or so, a remarkable thing began to happen, and it lives in that nation still.  There was a real, genuine, national repentance!

TO BE CONTINUED

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Inconvenient Conscience, 6 – Turning Around, 2 – Paradigm Shift

“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities—brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”

John W. Gardner

“We need not only a purpose in life to give meaning to our existence but also something to give meaning to our suffering.”

Eric Hoffer

 “paradigm n. 1. a typical example or pattern; a model. 2. a mode of viewing the world which underlies the theories and methodology of science etc. in a particular period of history.”

The Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002

Paradigms do not die easily for any of us.  Every people and culture in history has had and has its ruling paradigms.  We are acculturated to believe that the world and cosmos work according to this common understanding of reality.  Families and communities operate within the shared paradigm of a clan, a nation and a civilization.  Some local expressions may deviate to a degree, but on the whole are rooted in the bigger picture.

 In the 21st Century, the overarching Western (and, to a large degree, global) paradigm is scientific, technological, and evolutionary.  This tells us that all things can be learned and understood, formed, reformed, fixed, and improved by Science and its applied side, Technology.  The downside is that those two demi-gods can just as easily be turned to evil and destructive ends as used for good.

Western humans entertain a sort of self-hypnosis that we can and will master nature, compel it to do our bidding, because, tiny on the cosmic scale as we are, we are smart, really smart!  We can learn everything we need to because we are so smart.  We apparently are in the process of uncovering the very secrets of the Universe Itself – its when, what, and how at least.  Our current paradigm mostly sloughs off the why and who and makes the where irrelevant.

A near synonym for paradigm is worldview.  We all have one.  Worldview is a broader concept than paradigm because it takes in everything we believe, whether we are conscious of those beliefs or just operate from them without ever formulating them in so many words.  Much of our worldview is simply absorbed from our infancy on, and perhaps even in the womb, but the human infant rapidly moves beyond mere instinctual responses to learn how things fit into its little world and how to begin manipulating aspects of that little world to satisfy its basic needs and begin using things.  As we grow, huge new parts of our worldview are added by imitation, absorption, formal instruction, and experience.

Worldviews are not static structures within our psyche.  Events and experiences constantly impact them and make us modify them on an ongoing basis.  Big events, whether positive or negative, bring acute crises in our worldviews and challenges to our paradigms.  An accumulation of small factors may also do this over time.  This is true for everyone individually, and just as true for societies.  Our responses to these crises reveal our fundamental character and direct our future course.

Our opening citations tell us that there are two basic responses to every major challenge – rise up to meet it as an opportunity to grow, or run and try to hide from things we can’t or won’t face up to.  There are two variations available.  First, a tactical withdrawal, as the military would put it.  Draw back temporarily to regroup, to gain some time to reform the lines so that we can move forward later with a plan to meet the crisis and find and perhaps even exploit the hidden opportunity within it.  The second is to bravely (or abjectly) surrender to fate and let disaster triumph.

We of the West in the early 21st Century are at a major crossroads.  The crisis in our culture and souls has been growing for many decades until it is now screaming at us.  Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water being very gradually heated up, we have been ignoring its growth until it has become the elephant in the room.  Every now and then it startles us with a resounding “BOOM!”  We are briefly forced to come out of our stupor and self-absorbed quest to accumulate and satiate ourselves, but then hasten to “get back to normal”.

Think World War 1, the Great Depression, World War 2, the 60s Counterculture ferment, Civil Rights and race riots, 9/11, and even the economic meltdown of 2008.  All everyone wanted after these times of turmoil was to somehow bury it all and get back to “personal peace and affluence” as Francis A. Schaeffer put it.  We operate with an illusion that we deserve and can achieve something like Utopia via luxury, ease, and convenience.  Discovering the world does not promise this, we seek to approximate it in our personal lives.  Here in the West, we believe we deserve it, we are owed it. 

Other civilizations seem to have kept a more balanced perspective.  Buddha’s wisdom that “All life is suffering” guides hundreds of millions to understand that the kind of Utopia the West propagandizes is an illusion that just begets more suffering.  Hinduism says “Amen” and offers eventual perfect unity with the One after multiple lifetimes of vain striving.

We of the West have taken the opposite tack and succumbed to a materialist worldview that tells us that the only version of Paradise is one to be found here in the one lifetime we know we have.  Such a Paradise must perforce consist of maximum pleasure and comfort, for what else is there?  You cannot offer people a vision of the future perfection of the human race as a substitute and expect them to sacrifice their own chance at some joy and contentment here and now in the name of evolution.

Ideology fills no heart’s void.  It divides.  Science in itself answers no ultimate questions.  How does it help you even if it’s true that the Cosmos is 14 billion years old?  Humanly, it’s meaningless to tell us that it will go on for another fifty billion years before it either implodes to start all over again, or just dissipates into a cold, dead, never-ending expanse.

We cannot avoid wanting “something to give meaning to our suffering”, as Hoffer says.  Truly, existence without meaning is suffering at its worst – viz. Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist classic, La Nausée.  The need to know “Why?” ever haunts us, and the “Just because” of Evolution falls dead in our hearts.  Even the hardest atheist hopes his/her life has meant something to someone.  Humans are cursed with the terrible, tremendous, burning need for hope.  We are bred to the bone with the aspiration to know the truth – about ourselves, about our earthly home, about this enormous reality called Cosmos.

Every child learning to discover knows in the gut that all this cannot be just a freak, a huge cosmic joke, a meaningless illusion that tricks us into believing it is here for a purpose, into which we fit somehow.

Despite more than a century of intellectualized propaganda that there’s really no meaning and that there is no Creator-Being behind it all, even most Westerners still stubbornly cling to the belief that there is such a Being, that it does mean something, and that we do have some unique place and role in it all, both as individuals and as a species.  The very fabric of our being is formed to believe.

Hence the gnawing doubt that eats at our subconscious and keeps blowing on the smouldering wick/ “celestial spark” of conscience to annoy us and prick us and remind us that we have a moral obligation to seek justice and act humbly and do mercy to one another in the name of and in honour of that Creator who, it has long been said, made us in Their own image.

Hence the mostly sublimated but always-there suspicion that we really do need to repent!  For something!  Even when we find some good reason to, it’s never quite enough.  The heart, mind, soul, and spirit still hunger for something deeper that the partial points to.  For without turning to the Creator, there is no ultimate reconciliation possible, no final resting place to find.  The still small voice thunders inside our deep of deeps, “Turn around!  Turn back!  The Kingdom of God is within, in that place of the broken Divine image waiting to be made whole again.”

TO BE CONTINUED

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Inconvenient Conscience, 5 – Turning Around, 1

“You reap what you sow; if you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind.” The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible)

“Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana

“Turn right around, for the Rule (Kingdom) of God is at hand/right here/right now/among you at this very moment.” – Jesus

I have been a student of history for most of my life.  I grew up in a home surrounded by books and steeped in a love for music.  My father had a large library of serious books about all kinds of things – history, philosophy, theology, psychology, and science among them.  He had never finished High School because, when the Depression hit in 1929, as the oldest of five, and a sixteen-year-old boy, he had to drop out of school to help feed the family.  Despite this, he always hungered to learn and accumulated and read books, encouraging his children to do what he had not been able to do.

My parents not only made sure we had the basics, but strongly encouraged us to go farther than they had been able to.  (My mother had completed High School.)  Mom made sure we had an impressive array of good children’s books and Encyclopedia – the Britannica Junior, Britannica (Adult) and Americana, and a complete set of The Book of Knowledge.

I was a strange kid.  I rarely read the Hardy Boys, but loved adventure stories, especially those based on History, like Enid Blyton or G.A. Henty books.  But I loved “real history” most of all and began devouring all the Encyclopedia articles about history – in all three sets of Encyclopedia by the age of Ten.  I began to rummage in my father’s library too to find interesting stuff I could at least partly understand.  I read Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of the Second World War  the first time at ages thirteen and fourteen.

It was my strange taste in books which opened up a door to a friendship with my paternal grandfather, a man with a reputation in the family for being hard and at times mean to kids, a veteran of WW1 who never spoke about it except with a few old army friends he still had – and me, under an oath of silence until he was dead!  (I have written and published an account of my unique friendship with “Grandpa” in Grandpa’s Hands, available on Amazon.)  This is one big reason true war stories have always drawn me.

What fascinated me about history was that it reveals what people are really like – the good, the bad, the ugly, the sublime, the stupid, and the downright wicked.  I discovered that historians don’t always agree about exactly what happened and why, and sometimes not even when, but through all of that muddle the truth about who and what we humans are really like as we show by deeds rather than words keeps breaking through.  Psychology has its place, but history, I found, is the context for everything and teaches the best and worst about human nature set in the nitty-gritty of both the big story and all the little stories as they fit into the big story.

I also found that all the great leaders displayed some degree of deep perception of human nature.  Great thinkers might have this too, but many of the great ideologues seemed to lose sight of it in their flights of imagination and fascination with the stratosphere of best-case scenarios if only humans would stop being so damn contrary.  This led me to read extensively about the two extremes – the amazingly good people and the downright evil ones.  So I read a lot about heroes and discovered that they all have clay feet, like Churchill and Lincoln, both of whom remain among the “greats” despite their flaws.  And I read a lot about horrendously wicked people such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, mad (as in insane) genii who functioned at a high enough level to do very terrible things while somehow convincing and coercing myriads to acquiesce in their infamy.  (The psychology of why people follow such monsters is quite another issue.)

The three brief references at the top of this episode point to the most important but most neglected truths about humanity that paying attention to history teaches us:  (1) the Law of Karma is almost completely borne out over time, to the degree that it invites belief in the old-fashioned idea of fate; (2) everyone knows that we should learn from the past, but almost no one ever does – both as individuals and as societies from the smallest level (family) to the widest (nations, civilizations); (3) nevertheless, there is a way out of the trap of being the pawn of history and the mere victim of fate, – both personal and collective.

First, about Karma.  I am not a Hindu or a Buddhist, but the idea of karma is quite simple: sooner or later your past, or our past, will out and catch up with us.  There is always a price to pay, whether now or later.  Biblically, it is “You reap what you sow,” and “Be aware; sooner or later your sins will find you out,” and, as Jesus said, “What was said in secret will be shouted from the housetops,” and “You will be accountable for every idle word that you say.”  Physics tells us that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” and also now tells us that even chaos theory and the uncertainty principle seem to sort themselves out to take every obscure event into the equation.  We best see this illustrated by the “butterfly effect”, that the beat of a butterfly’s wings in China may be the final factor in unleashing a typhoon on Hawaii.

History is full of “might-have-beens”, “what-ifs”.  What if the assassin in Munich at the beer hall in 1939 had succeeded in killing Hitler?  What if the British Tommy in 1917 who had him dead to rights in the Battle of Arras had not just let him walk away?  What if John Wilkes Booth had been stopped and shot by Lincoln’s AWOL bodyguard at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865?  What if Julius Caesar had heeded the seer and his own wife Calpurnia on March 15, 44 BCE?  Etc.

And, perhaps the greatest of all, at least in the West, what if Yeshua ben-Yosef had never been born in Bethlehem, probably in the year 4 BCE?  We could then have just been gradually transformed into Stoics or Epicureans, or, perhaps by the gradual progress westward from India of monks and adherents, we would have evolved into an Asokan-style Buddhist culture.  Or perhaps we would have all become Jews, or just remained pagans of various varieties.

But the West’s history turned down a very different road following the coming of this single person and the life and death (and reputed resurrection) of this extraordinary comet of a human being named Yeshua ben-Yosef.  He came from “Nowhereville”, from a very obscure village called Natzeret in the north of an insignificant province of the Roman Empire on the eastern fringe of the Roman (and then Western) world.

The absurdity of the West’s identity-crisis and the extent of its conscience troubles are no better illustrated than by its attempts to divest itself of direct association with the Person of Jesus.  Failing that, we exert might and main to transform him into something far less potent and challenging than he was or can be made to be by even the most extreme efforts. 

Since he was born and lived and died, despite the completely asinine but still persisting attempts to say that he never really existed (!!!???), we then proceed to a bunch of other “if-onlys”.  If only he hadn’t made it so damn hard to reduce him to another nice philosopher and moral teacher.  If only all those wretched miracles didn’t keep popping up to confuse the record, and to confuse the gullible masses who keep insisting they can and do still happen!  And worst of all, if only the absolutely absurd tale of his resurrection from the dead could just be disposed of, once and for all!  Then we could ignore all the really challenging bits of his life and teaching, and the kinds of extreme behaviours to repeat those challenges and make us rethink our own lives and society that some of his most dedicated (fanatical?) followers have kept confronting us with over the last two thousand years.

That word of his they keep repeating just plain sticks in the craw of the modern psyche.  Metanoia in the ancient Greek – Repent in English!  Sounds too freaking religious, eh?  It just means, “Turn around!  You’re going the wrong way, straight to destruction!  There’s another way, a better way, but you have to turn around!”

TO BE CONTINUED

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Inconvenient Conscience, 4 – Conscience vs. Tyranny

“For now we see [ourselves] in a mirror, dimly, but then [we will see] face to face.  Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”

from The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians Chapter 13, verse 12, in The New Testament

As we once more pick up the question of conscience in the West, we ask, “Why are we so afraid to face ourselves and admit the truth?”  – the truth about why the West has run from the “celestial spark” (see Part 3) of conscience. 

The process of running from ourselves began long ago.  It has gathered tremendous momentum since the ferment of the 1960s Counterculture Revolution.  Since then, there has been a continual impetus to shed the Judaeo-Christian elements of the West’s character and foundation.  It would be unthinkable now for any leading statesman to speak as Winston Churchill did in 1940 when inspiring the people of the British Empire during World War 2 as he declared that it was a war to save “Christian civilization”.

Today we live a culture where people are often shamed for holding strong morals and principles based on the conviction that God holds us accountable.  However, if you hold such notions because of a philosophy or ideology other than the Judaeo-Christian, there is a shade more tolerance.  The public face of the West is now that all principles are mutable in the face of new notions of truth about what constitutes progressive tolerance and an open social order.

Churchill never claimed to be a model of devout Christianity.  However, he recognized that the foundation of the West stood on its Judaeo-Christian heritage as much as upon the Greco-Roman tradition of reason and rational thought.  He was not denying or excusing excesses committed in the name of Christ, or of any religious leader or institution.  But neither was he under any illusion that human nature is basically good and our powers of reason and scientific discovery of truth and wisdom will take us into paradise on earth.  He was no fan of utopian schemes and well knew that the real meaning of “utopia” is “nowhere”.  The results of utopian thinking were rampant before his eyes in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and the Fascist countries of Europe.

Churchill preferred democracy.  He famously quipped, “Democracy is the worst possible system of government – except for all the others.”  He was not deluded that the popular masses would somehow find and decide what is best because, after all, people are all basically good when you scratch beneath the shallow exterior.  It was because he believed the opposite that he fought tooth and nail to save democracy throughout his whole political life and in his prolific literary output.

His iron faith in democracy was based on the understanding that the ruthless and brutal will naturally rise to the top if not checked.  After several thousand years of trying various schemes of oligarchic, monarchic, and tyrannical rule, the verdict was in that the great and powerful individual or oligarchy will inevitably degenerate into selfish, abusive, corrupt, dissolute, brutal, and oppressive government, regardless of the best of early intentions.  As Lord Action (an eminent British historian of the 19th Century) put it, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Churchill was himself a scion of the privileged English aristocracy.  Paradoxically, he firmly believed that for the inevitable abuses of power by the powerful to be held in check, ordinary people have to be empowered through constitutional arrangements and a relatively impartial system of justice.  None of this was “natural” to any civilization that had yet existed until it gradually emerged where Christianity had taken root, buttressed by certain ideals of the Greeks and Romans at their best.

 For Churchill, this sort of government found its best and most effective expression in Great Britain and was extended to its Empire thereafter.  This happy marriage emerged only in the culture and civilization of “the West” – in Europe and its appendices in North America and a few other places.  (Please note, I am not advocating the innate superiority of the West.  We are discussing an historical phenomenon.)

The essential difference between Western leaders like Churchill and those since is their fundamental view of human nature.  Churchill’s view, shared by most educated people and leaders of his generation, was that humans are not basically good, but flawed, marred, and ever ready to take advantage of others, circumstances, and nature for personal gain and benefit.  People are not born as blank slates imbued with benign complaisance and readiness to treat others with equity and justice, all things being equal. 

Where did Churchill’s pessimism about human nature spring from?  Three main sources: (1) a deep reading of the Bible and understanding of its core message[1] of fallen human nature in need of Divine salvation, (2) a profound interest in and study of history which continually illustrated #1, and (3) personal experience and astute observation of human behaviour, his own and everyone else’s he ever met.

The second and third of Churchill’s sources are still wide-open to anyone who cares to consult them and draw appropriate conclusions.  For the most part, the first has now become a closed book.  Oh, it is still available to be read, but it has been discarded as a religious relic or an irrelevant mythological curiosity by our educational authorities and intelligentsia.  What reputable person aspiring to be taken seriously and become influential today would now publicly refer to it as a source of wisdom?

Why did Churchill (and so many other leaders and thinkers back then) use quotes from and allusions to “The Good Book” regularly in his speeches and writings and still keep his credibility?  Is it just a question of different times and less enlightened generations of the past?  Did Churchill and other leaders and serious academics of his time actually think they could use the ideas based on such a source to inspire people to reach beyond their own limitations and to effect meaningful, progressive change in society?

This is not an article about Churchill, as interesting a person as he is.  It is about our feeble grasp on truth and our society’s vaporous idea of conscience.  Part of the cause of our social and ethical disintegration is that we have pushed the old “sources of truth” which people formerly considered crucial to the side.  Even completely secular thinkers and admirers of the Enlightenment tradition such as John Ralston Saul (Voltaire’s Bastards) have deplored this phenomenon.

The truth about us as a collective, and probably for many of us as individuals, is that we are adrift, “at sea” with no landfall or reference points in sight.  Oh yeah!  There is an old map still around somewhere, but everybody says it’s like those medieval charts with pictures of sea serpents and is completely fanciful.

The pursuit of fame, fortune, the perfect body, the perfect career, the perfect partner, all turns to sand after a while.  When we wake up to that, we begin to search for an identity beyond our technological prowess and our mania for “self-actualizing” ourselves as anything we care to imagine.  For most of us, the refrain of “you can be and do anything you like or can imagine, even totally reinvent yourself and your gender” turns out to be the pursuit of a phantom which keeps disappearing around the next corner or curve in the road.  Or maybe the Phantom sneaks up from behind and laughs snidely that it’s a chimera.  The Phantom smirks that we should have known all along what we are really supposed to become, but now we’ve burned so many bridges it’s too late, or seems to be, to go back.

The West now suffers from a two-fold collective guilt-complex.  The first element of it stems from the residual effect of the old paradigm of the missionary impulse to “civilize the world” – i.e., to Christianize it, which also meant to Europeanize it.  This bred imperialism and exploitation while covering it in a veneer of a holy mission.  Not that every missionary or even every imperial administrator was a conscious agent of oppression and exploitation – although some of the administrators were crassly so.  We rightly rejoice that this arrogant hubris has now been shed (or so we think) as wickedness.  And we feel rightful guilt for it.  In this, our conscience has been true.

The second part of our collective guilty conscience is that in having thrown out the very sources of the West’s well-developed sense of social justice, we have lost the very values that have always kept us on track towards that goal.  It used to be called the promise of the coming Kingdom of God taking root in this age, however imperfectly it was done.  Now, without a compass, and having undermined our very foundations, we have only the very thinnest notion of what real justice and mercy look like.  In making ourselves free to pursue whatever vision of ourselves we choose, we have made ourselves slaves to the baser parts of our nature.

[1] Churchill was raised with the Bible by his Nanny.  He had sections of it memorized and continued to read it from time to time as an adult.


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Inconvenient Conscience, 3: Whatever happened to our conscience?

“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.”

George Washington’s “Rule of Civility”, adopted from a now unknown Jesuit priest of the 16th Century.

We finished last time with three questions, the first of which was “Why have we become so morally, ethically, and spiritually bankrupt as communities and nations?”  Today we will attempt an answer.

The West has lost its bearings when it comes to foundational principles and values.  It is fractured and fractious, with its public face deeply cratered between “Right” and “Left”, “Progressives” and “Reactionaries”.  We could find many other labels to attempt to describe our riven soul.

Despite our collective moral, ethical, and spiritual bankruptcy everyone retains some sense of morality, ethics, and spirituality, however jumbled.  The bankruptcy consists of our society, our culture, our civilization, having no deep reserves, no central “bank” of long-held traditions and unifying vision from which to draw any more.  Our communities are fragmented and confused as to what is true, what is worth saving and fighting for, what is the core of who and what we are and aspire to be.

While I do not see George Washington as a model of public virtue and probity as our American neighbors’ national mythology so often portrays him, he certainly had virtues and principles, however inconsistently he may have lived by them (his views on slavery, for example).  On the whole, he attempted to live as a man of integrity and honor.  He lived in a time when the general consensus was that to not live by one’s conscience was reprehensible, if not unthinkable.

By contrast, we make heroes of people who have too often parked, seared, and even erased their consciences in order to claw their way to the pinnacle of whatever heap represents the ultimate in achievement.  CEOs, super-rich entrepreneurs, aspiring academics, elite athletes, unscrupulously ambitious politicos, actors, rock stars, etc. all leave behind them a bleeding trail of broken promises to and lives of ex-spouses, children, parents, siblings, best friends, business partners, associates, and team-members.  What was done to “arrive” disappears in the mists of fame, acclaim, ultra-wealth, and even notoriety fanned into a blaze of glory by mawkish media and the cyber-universe.

What Mr. Washington’s Rule called “that little spark of celestial fire” has gone out.  In truth, we no longer have a connection to the Great Celestial Flame that lights and keeps the fire burning.  All I have is my own little fire and no other source to keep it going but my own feeble strength.  This is quickly depleted without a connection to a core of power from which I can draw.  It’s not very surprising if I find my spark overwhelmed by the side-drafts and downdrafts of all the contrary currents wafting into my little corner with every passing fancy of the latest trends of “revolutionary new thinking” and (manufactured) popular fashion, opinion, and pseudo-folk wisdom.  All the more in an age when every wild idea runs rampant across the cyber-sphere with little restraint.

But the saga of taming the West’s conscience so that it no longer presents an obstacle to doing what I want, when I want, with or to whom I want and not having to face any consequences is a long tale.  For the sake of brevity, and not putting you, my readers, to sleep, I will reduce it to a rather crude simplification with which you can then concur or take exception.  If it merely succeeds in provoking you to turn around and check on your own little “celestial spark”, even if you reject my version of the story, it’s all good!  Argue with me, but, as a once-popular Christian chorus put it, “fan [it] into flame”.

Here is my crude tale:

“Once upon a time, the ancient world was a hodgepodge of warring polytheistic tribes and nations.  All these tribes and nations lived as seemed right in their own eyes and had different ways of holding themselves together and accountable.  Generally, it was recognized that there were divine entities who were somewhat marginally interested in human behaviour, even if only for their own benefit of receiving their worship, which validated their existence.

“Sages, seers, and prophets began to suspect that the stories of their divinities were often less than admirable with regard to promoting general good behaviour among their human adherents.  It was proposed by some of these that beyond these rather low-level sets of deities there must be a Higher, Ultimate Divinity who had created the world to operate on established laws and principles that were valid for everyone, everywhere, and always.  Lawgivers and great spiritual leaders proposed ways of living according to the ways of the Great God, who was increasingly seen as the One God behind all the others, and who may even have created them.

“At this point, paths began to diverge as some peoples followed the Way given them by one of these inspired Lawgivers or Enlightened Ones.  But that there is a Higher Power, a Supreme Deity who esteems moral righteousness and has created a basically good creation became a general principle in much of Asia and then moved into the West.  Two strands of this belief penetrated into the heart of what became the West – the first via the Greeks and their philosophical disciples, the Romans, and the second via the Jews and their theological and spiritual near-cousins, the Christians. 

“Skipping forward a bit, we find an uneasy unification of the two strands forming the core of what became the soul of the West.  Like Jacob and Esau in the Bible Book of Genesis, the two struggled in the womb of their mother [Rebekkah in the Bible story] and the younger [Christianity historically] came into the world grasping the heel of the elder [both Greco-Roman philosophy and Judaism are in this place historically] and ever seeking to surpass him and take his place.”

The Story of the West cannot be in the least understood or kept in any proper perspective unless we keep the reality of its birth in sight.  The civilization that came into being from the unification of these competing twins became known as “Christendom” for about 1500 years.  Only since World War 2 has the West turned its back on that long and tortured but immensely real and powerful saga and sought to substitute another tale for it.

The chief element of the new story is the determination of a new set of self-appointed Lawgivers and Prophets to deny and excise, or perhaps exorcise would be the most accurate term to describe this ferocious campaign, the Judaeo-Christian twin from the family. 

What such an exorcism is producing is becoming more and more appallingly evident.  It is a mutilated, traumatized facsimile of a soul with no depth or substance, incapable of sustaining the body once inspired and invigorated by the uneasy partnership of the twins.  Even the remaining twin (the Greco-Roman) has become so marred that it scarcely resembles what was once so vital and admirable and extolled – its heart of reason and gracious estimation of human dignity as the reflection of the Supreme Divinity.  It seems that by killing one twin, we have killed, or are in the process of killing, both.

Ideology blinds its fanatical promoters and advocates at least as much as any theology.  What we have now seen all too terribly in modern history is that it ultimately kills many more people, much more beauty, creativity, and even creation than any set of Inquisitors, Zealots, Mujehadin (?), Puritans, or whatever other set of religious fanatics ever did.

And one of the most terrible and tragic casualties left in the devastation along the roadside is “that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience”.

TO BE CONTINUED

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Inconvenient Conscience, 2: Seared Conscience Anyone?

“Conscience is extremely well-bred and soon leaves off talking to those who do not wish to hear it.”

Samuel Butler

“The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake.” 

Germaine de Staël

All of us have scars on our bodies.  What is not so obvious are the scars on our souls, and especially on that part of the soul called conscience.  And, just as each of us as individuals have these indelible marks etched into our flesh, our minds, and our spirits, so do our families, our communities, our nations, and our civilization.

Butler and de Staël point towards the universal human condition which the ancient Christian leader known as the Apostle Paul called “the seared conscience”.  Almost everyone who lives long enough and develops normally will eventually develop this condition, at least to some degree.  If you think you are an exception, I will simply ask you to think of two little things you now regularly do without any hesitation and which, if you think about them anymore, you know are not really (1) good for you and (2) good for someone else.  Do “little white lies” always effortlessly slide by?  What harmful little habit do you ingeniously excuse every time, or just about every time, you indulge it?  What destructive pattern of behaviour in a relationship do you maintain despite knowing how much it irks, and perhaps even offends, the other party – not because you intend to be cruel, but just because it’s comfortable for you, or it allows you a small sense of control at their expense, even though it would not cost you much to give it up?  (Of course, breaking a long-established pattern can be quite troublesome.)

You get the point.  But why do you not even have a qualm any more about those little cheats and micro-thefts, those tiny little lies to yourself and others?  And how did they come to be justified in the first place?

Before we go any farther, I will ‘fess up that I am as guilty as the next person, so this is not about me or anyone being better than you or anyone else.  The religious “saints” of any faith you choose to name had and have to deal with this.  We need to give up the tendency to wrap such hallowed characters in haloes and picture them as floating across the ground rather than actually having to walk up and down and stub their toes like all the rest of us.  James, the brother of Jesus, wrote in a letter to the early Jewish (Messianic) Christian community, “All of us make many mistakes, after all.” (James 3, verse 2)  But now we call him “Saint James”, warts and all – and the accounts we have of him do not make him sound very gracious, although very righteous!

Physical weakness and illness are familiar to all of us, some much more than others.  So too are the consequences of accidents or foolish actions that result in injury and even infirmity.  Even the individual who otherwise exhibits no moral compunction about almost everything else will admit they were stupid and wish they had not been that one time that crippled them, or maybe did that to one person who was/is really special to them, at least as far as they are capable of feeling special attachment to or need of one particular person.

As Butler elegantly puts it, the seared conscience results from a habit of “leaving off” listening to the inner voice which used to say, “What you’re doing is not right and you know it.”  When we cease hearing the inner voice, we also become experts at outwardly rationalizing our harmful behaviour as “not really so bad”.  Another favourite line you hear and maybe have used yourself is, “If I’m harming anyone, it’s really just me.”  Addicts love that one!  As if their drinking, gambling, and drug-use costs nothing to their family, friends, and finances!

What are our little bad habits, even if only minor in comparison to the really bad ones (drugs, alcohol, gambling, porn, etc.) except petty addictions?  Bad habits are the little (?) addictions that kill pieces of us slowly rather than swiftly like “real” addictions – you know, those big ones like booze, alcohol, porn, etc.  Porn is now so widespread that it has virtually been removed from the general cultural conscience as an addiction and is even suggested by marriage/relationship counsellors as a therapy for spicing up the flagging sex-life!  Huh?  As if the guilt over porn-use isn’t there and hasn’t sapped the desire for and attraction to real-life sex in the first place.  It’s like saying to the wretched heroin addict in withdrawal, “Say, take this!  It’ll make you feel better!” and handing them their next hit.  (Hmm.  I seem to recall certain “safe-injection” sites in certain cities that do pretty much that very thing.)

Voilà the collective seared conscience in living Technicolor!  Another example is abortion, which, at least here in Canada, has been eliminated from any possibility of discussion in the public forum.  Our Prime Minister’s party will not even allow anyone who questions any part of our lawless approval of it (there has been no law in Canada restricting abortion for any reason since 1988) to stand as a candidate or open a discussion about it at any level.  The Opposition parties are hardly any better, and most of them are at least the same.

The seared conscience eventually leaves us selectively blind and deaf to our own sins – both individually and collectively.  Think Nazi Germany and its incremental persecutions of all those classified as social misfits and parasites (Jews, the physically and mentally infirm who had no one caring about them, Slavs, Gypsies, Communists, gays and lesbians, etc).  The myth that ordinary Germans did not really know what was going on has long since been abandoned and completely disproved, despite the arrant hatred of Jews and other victims by Holocaust deniers who continue to use the Nazi Big-Lie propaganda technique.  You can’t just “disappear” a few million of your own people and pretend you didn’t know, no matter how much Nacht und Nebel you createto cover it up!

Both individually and societally, part of the justification process of developing a seared conscience is excusing the same things in others so that we don’t have to be reminded about our own violations of that dormant “delicate voice of conscience” as Mme de Staël put it.  If I can be tolerant and forgiving of someone else’s substance abuse or petty cheating, or occasional lapses into abusive relational behaviour, well then it can’t be so bad if I fall into it either, can it?

My purpose here is not to stir up a load of guilt in anyone reading this.  Neither is it to advocate a return to old-time religious judgmentalism like the Puritans practiced in New England or in the days of Oliver Cromwell in England, or Calvin in Geneva, or Knox in Scotland, or the Inquisition.  That is no solution either.  That too is a manifestation of seared conscience.  We do not want anything like Iran under the Ayatollahs or Saudi Arabia under the mullahs.  We want a society and culture where we don’t silence and censor and persecute one faction while overlooking the addictions to power and control (and whatever else) of the others, but we face the issues honestly and openly.

I leave it to you and God, or whatever other spiritual sense of greater being you deal with, to keep you headed towards a destination that takes others as much into consideration as yourself.  Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Buddha said, “Do not do to someone else what you would not have them do to you.”  Moses said, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” 

Regaining contact with our personal inner moral compass in our now largely morally bankrupt culture is very urgent and important.  In the long run, it is even more important than taming COVID-19.  At least if we believe that human beings are more than creatures who have only a finite existence defined by birth and death.  And perhaps even then.  The bigger issues are (1) to understand why we have become so morally, ethically, and spiritually bankrupt as communities and nations, (2) why we are so afraid to face ourselves and admit the truth, and (3) what, if anything, we can do about it.

TO BE CONTINUED

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Inconvenient Conscience, 1

consciencea moral sense of right and wrong especially as felt by a person and affecting behaviour; an inner feeling as to the goodness or otherwise of one’s behaviour.

Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002

Conscience is one of those human peculiarities which we have traditionally identified as setting us apart from the animals.  With all the ultra-progressive ferment to abolish traditions and moral categories as sexist gender-oppression, Western racism, and capitalist exploitation, the existence of this quirk of homo sapiens has become rather inconvenient for those pushing hard to change (and even abolish) how society deals with questions of right and wrong and justice and injustice.

The simple truth is that conscience has always been bloody inconvenient.  From the Book of Job (perhaps the oldest literary work in the Hebrew language and one of the oldest philosophical and theological treatises in the world) to the ruminations of Plato and Cicero, it has flayed the dealings of every generation and plagued the footsteps of humans from Emperors to beggars.

 Everyone who reaches the age of reason and accountability has experienced the discomfort of a guilty conscience.  Whatever else might be argued from psychology, philosophy, and ideology, no one can deny that they have, at some point, offended their own sense of fairness and rightness in some way they have treated others, even if only for a fleeting moment.

Occasionally, you meet people who appear to have no operative conscience to speak of.  (It seems as though there are more of them than ever these days.)  A few such whom I have met have been downright scary! I suspect that most callous people have developed the art of successfully ignoring and denying any sense of guilt about (ab)using and manipulating others for their own ends.  Strangely, they are very quick to decry offences committed against them and usually cry for vengeance upon the offender. 

The desire for vengeance is the flip side of conscience. It comes from a sense of moral right and wrong in which the avenger is seeking to redress the balance of wrong committed against them or someone or something they care deeply for.  The irony of successful revenge is that it does not absolve the avenger of guilt for now having reversed the balance of right and wrong by in turn wronging the first wrong-doer to an equal or greater degree.

People of my age and older sometimes marvel at the lack of integrity and sense of shame that appears to be so pervasive in our current version of Western society.  (In all conscience, we must admit that we helped create this sorry state with all our “countercultural” zeal of youth fifty years ago.)  But it is not as if the situation has never existed before, either in the West or every other civilization that has ever existed.  (Of this more later in this series.) The real question is why we humans fight so hard to rid ourselves of the burden of guilt-sense, regardless of the era.

No amount of psychologising about how we’re all victims of social conditioning has yet made conscience go away.  No amount of mental gymnastics guided by Freudian psychoanalysis about repressed sexual desire has rid anyone of having a bad conscience about how they have done and do wrong to others and themselves.  No amount of anthropological research has traced this inconvenient aberration back to some ultra-remote ancestral hominid who somehow evolved this the faculty of feeling badly about inflicting pain and suffering on other humans and even on other creatures.

Is conscience an instinct bred into us by our evolutionary heritage?  If so, it is a strange one.  As far as we know (but of course we cannot know for sure), it is not an instinct shared by any other higher order creature.  Some other “higher” animals seem to share elements of understanding about death and caring and even love.  Some can learn to flee when they have done something they know displeases humans and get caught.  Some even punish members of their pack, pod, or flock for neglecting their role or crossing boundaries. While such behaviours demonstrate remarkable animal intelligence, they are not bred from conscience, but self-preservation.

If conscience were an instinct, it would seem to be related to the general good of protecting and preserving the species rather than the narrower purpose of self-preservation, although that may coincide from time to time.  If nothing else, conscience is closely allied to our superior intellectual and abstract reasoning faculty.  Animals cannot lie and feel bad about it.  They readily steal without compunction.  Predators kill their prey without remorse.  In reproductive rut competitors will fight an opponent to the death without hesitation if necessary.  Many other natural examples of the absence of this weird human behaviour in animals could be cited.

A once well-understood and very descriptive phrase has dropped out of public discourse in the last generation or two. It is “the seared conscience”.  Think of cooking a steak or chop or a stir-fry with meat.  One of the first things to do is to sear the meat in oil on both sides under high heat in order to seal in the flavour.  The New Testament writer known as the Apostle Paul originated the phrase “having a seared conscience” to describe individuals who, by repeated violations, have burned away the tender, delicate exterior layer of their conscience in order to avoid feeling guilty about doing the things they (used to know) are just wrong, regardless of how the general culture and society may view them.  In that sense, they have inoculated themselves against guilt-sense and that nagging inner voice of conscience.

Globally, there is much talk these days of developing “herd immunity” to the COVID-19 virus.  Vaccination seems to be one of the keys to achieving this.  Historical examples of this abound – polio, smallpox, diphtheria, whooping cough, etc.  While it is true that our immune systems can learn to resist infection, without inoculation there really is no such thing as “herd immunity” for a great many diseases once seen as “plagues”.  Even now, for some of the worst diseases and plagues which can and do generate far worse pandemics than the present one, there never has been a vaccine and there remains none on the horizon.  Cancer, diabetes, Bubonic Plague, leprosy, and cholera come to mind as examples.  The only remedy for these is prevention by concerted discipline in hygiene and strict quarantine and treatment should they break out anywhere.  Where COVID will fit in this spectrum we do not yet know.

But the point of this reflection is not our current fight to control the COVID pandemic, as critical as that is.  It is an even larger and, in a general humanitarian sense, more important issue.  It is about a malignant spiritual plague that has set itself deeply in the very core of our personal and collective souls.  It is the searing of our consciences to the point that we have culturally, as a society, reached a condition described by the Hebrew Prophet Yeshayahu (Isaiah to English readers of the Hebrew Bible) 700 years BCE.  There is no “herd immunity” to a bad conscience.  However, we may well be facing the development of the appalling phenomenon of a collective seared conscience.  Here is how Yeshayahu refers to it:

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,

Who change darkness into light and light into darkness,

Who change bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter.”

Chapter 5

It is not so much that this sort of social degradation has never been seen before.  Indeed it has, many times.  But when it appears on a mass scale, it is a sure symptom of a truly sick society.  Perhaps even a terminally ill civilization.

As the great British Meta-historian, Arnold Toynbee, exhaustively demonstrated in his monumental magnum opus, A Study of History, civilizations and cultures (the two are inextricable) have a life-cycle, much like individuals, as indeed do particular nations within civilizations.  When a civilization is approaching its end it shows advanced signs of decay, just as a human body nearing life’s end will. 

We cannot do justice to Toynbee’s twelve volume analysis here.  It must be said that his work has largely been discounted by many of the professional historians of note since he first published it.  The main thrust of those critiques is that all attempts at what is called Meta-History (the academic mortal sin Toynbee committed as he ended a previously brilliant career) are really only an imposition of the author’s already formed worldview on the material.  In this case, Toynbee has been disavowed by his peers as a scion of the Old Western elite imperialist academic establishment and a white male besides. So categorized, his whole approach can be discarded a priori and the man himself dismissed into academic oblivion while others like Herbert Marcuse are elevated into demigod status and their blatant ideological bias declared anointed.

In truth, nobody in any discipline can avoid imposing their already formed worldview on the material studied and what they produce. Thus the charge against Toynbee is spurious, for his critics commit the same sin, even in criticizing him.  That sort of criticism is a ploy to avoid having to actually seriously engage with the astonishing profundity of what Toynbee produced.  (Even supposedly objective disciples as the “pure sciences” (physics, chemistry, mathematics) are practised within a preformed worldview.)

The worst part of Toynbee’s offence is that his whole worldview smacks of the moral categories of the West derived from the now discredited perspective of Judaeo-Christianity.  Judaeo-Christian social philosophy holds that there is a definite gradation of values based on moral scruples and elements of advancement even in a sort of secularized version of “the Kingdom of God”.  In our much more enlightened phase of Post-modern, Post-Christian, decolonialized (etc., etc.) Western society (which is supposedly morphing into [viz. imposing – shades of the old imperialism!] a global, progressive society that will liberate everyone from all conceivable forms of oppression and repression), moral categories must be eschewed, especially any left over from that old paradigm.

Which brings us back to the old notion of a moral conscience.  For there cannot be any other form of conscience.  Bloody hell!  That is so inconvenient!

TO BE CONTINUED

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A Different Kind of Fishing, Part 3

by Vincent Marquis

Copyright ©Vincent Marquis, 2020

(This is the third and concluding part of a re-imagining of the calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John as disciples by Jesus.)

“It was a terrible night,” answered Andreas.

Shim’on cut him off, “We fished all night and caught absolutely nothing.”

Yeshua looked at him soberly, “So why don’t you put back out a little ways and throw a net back in?”

Shim’on looked at him as if he couldn’t be serious.

“Humor me,” said Yeshua with a warm smile.

Shim’on really didn’t want to put in the better part of another hour’s work just to humor someone he hardly knew, but those eyes and that voice were irresistible.  After hesitating, he answered, “Master, since you wish it, we’ll go out again.”  Andreas looked back hard at him in disbelief.  Shim’on motioned to untie the lines and push the boat off the wharf.  They both went to the oars and in a minute the boat was on its way back out onto the lake.

Yeshua stood between them with a hand on the mast and said, “I appreciate a bit of a boat ride.”

Ya’akov and Yochanan, now standing on the wharf, were incredulous. The Shim’on they knew would never agree to put back out right after coming in from a fruitless night.  Shim’on seeking to become friends with a rabbi was a revelation.  Shim’on was not what you would call a serious religious person.

The two junior partners watched wordlessly to see what would happen.  If nothing else, it would make a good story.  They could tease big Shim’on unmercifully and watch him squirm about how easily he was talked into something so obviously pointless by a smooth-talking rabbi.

Andreas and Shim’on rowed the boat out about a stadium.  Shim’on dropped an anchor to keep from drifting.  The likelihood of finding fish in broad daylight, even at this, the closest good spot, was about zero at this hour.  Shim’on nodded his head to Andreas to help prepare a net.  They made sure the tether-line was not tangled. They shook the net loose and moved to the port side.  Shim’on took it himself, readying to cast it so that it opened full and fell into the water at maximum expansion.  Might as well do it right as do it at all!

As he was beginning his move to the cast, Yeshua suddenly interrupted, “Try the other side of the boat.”

Andreas looked at Shim’on.  Would he take this new suggestion?  He knew his brother too well to think he wasn’t already irritated.  What difference would it make?  There were no fish on either side!

He expectedly a sharp retort about wasting their time.  What could a carpenter turned rabbi know about fishing?  A fisherman would not dare to presume to tell him how to build a good house or make a proper table.  For a moment he saw the color rise in Shim’on’s cheeks, then quickly recede.  He shrugged and moved to the starboard quarter.  Then, with a “One, two, three,” and an expert fluid motion he threw it over the side.  It opened perfectly in its parachute shape and landed on the surface of the lake.  The weights carried the bottom down while the cork floats held the top up.

The brothers felt their fatigue.  They sat down wearily on the center seat to wait.  It had been a long, disappointing night, and now they were playing tourist guide to a quirky new celebrity rabbi with strange ideas about fishing.  Shim’on once more thought wistfully of home, a quick wash-up, a nice breakfast with Shoshanah, a cuddle of little Hannah, maybe a nicer cuddle with his wife when the toddler was napping and Grandma was watching her…

Suddenly, the tether line was running out with great speed!  What the??  It yanked to an abrupt halt, even causing their sturdy boat to list heavily to starboard with a sudden jerk.  They were on their feet fully alert and without pause began hauling on the thick tether-line.  Even with their combined strength they could barely move it an inch.  Slowly, agonizingly, they pulled it up one little bit at a time.  Then, without asking, a third pair of strong arms and hands had grabbed on behind Andreas and the line began to move slowly but steadily back into the boat.  Even so, it was back-breaking work.  Yeshua had also stripped down to his tunic.

After what seemed like an eternity in an instant, with burning arms and shoulders, the three men in the boat got the net to the surface.  Getting it up over the side out of the water with all the dead weight of the enormous catch would be another issue.

What Shim’on saw as the net appeared coming out of the depths staggered him.  It was so crammed full of fish that it could not possibly hold more.  And they were all deliciously large and plump!  Every single fish looked like the most perfect the lake had to offer.  It was a catch beyond any fisherman’s wildest dreams!  It was, literally, an impossible catch!  His net should never have been able to hold it; it should have torn from the sheer weight and bulk of it!

They would never be able to haul this over the side, even with all three strong men pulling with all their might.  He told Andreas to yell to Ya’akov and Yochanan to come back out at once.  They had to help get this record catch in now or they would lose it.  It would take both boats and all five of them to get it to shore.

He told Andreas and Yeshua to secure the line till the others came out as he held it braced against the thwart, ensuring that the net would not sink back into the water.  Waiting, he sat down, utterly confounded, looking with awe and wonder at this rabbi-carpenter, full of questions and no possible answers that made any sense.

How had Yeshua known?  Was it just dumb beginner’s luck?  Just a total, freak coincidence?  Or was there something much bigger going on here?  One or two or even a few fish caught in full daylight you could ascribe to luck, coincidence, some sort of freak of water current and temperature.  But this??  Never, ever, not even in a really good night’s fishing!  It had never happened before to anyone in living memory.  And it just happens when this man shows up and tells him to go back out when he’s had the worst night’s fishing that he could remember in years?

He sat in shock, and felt the warm, deep eyes of Yeshua on him again.  He dared a look at him.  Yeshua stood there calmly, returning his gaze.  Shim’on couldn’t look away, although he felt as if the other was seeing right down into his soul, reading the very depths of him even to the most hidden things.  Shim’on trembled, still unable to avert his eyes.

He heard his own voice asking, “Who are you?”

Yeshua’s eyebrows lifted.  The answer left Shim’on no farther ahead.  “Yeshua ben-Yosef, carpenter of Natzeret.”

Ya’akov and Yochanan pulled their boat alongside on the opposite side to the net.  They tied the bow and stern lines to Shim’on’s boat and came over.  As the Bar-Yona boat was listing, they moved gingerly, with Yochanan enthusing, “What’s going on?  What do you need us for?”

Andreas motioned with his head, “Come and see, but don’t lean too far over the side.  One at a time.”

Yochanan moved before Ya’akov, ignoring the precedence of age.  As he leaned carefully and saw the incredible haul suspended in the net, he whistled softly and exclaimed, “By all that is sacred, that’s incredible!  Ya’akov, you have to see this!  You won’t believe it!”  He moved back to let his brother look.

Ya’akov approached cautiously.  When he saw the almost bursting net he simply froze, mouth half-open, eyes wide.  He looked around at Shim’on, still sitting in his own shock.  Ya’akov’s face registered the same emotion as Shim’on’s.  He looked at Yeshua, wondering, questioning, “You made this happen?!”

Andreas had no doubt.  “There’s no other explanation.  We all know what kind of night we had and how foolish it seemed to go back out.  Then, when we got out here, he told Shim’on to throw the net on the starboard side instead of the port side.  Within a minute, the tether line ran out so fast it jerked the boat over like it is now.  We couldn’t even haul it in so we had to call you.”

Yochanan’s awe was all over his face as he looked from the net to Yeshua and back again.  His legs felt weak, and he sat down.

Yeshua’s gaze swept over the four of them with amused affection.  Then he took a couple of steps toward Shim’on, still sitting where he had been.  He said, “C’mon, Shim’on.  Let’s get those fish into the boat.”

As if coming out of a dream, the big man rose and, without any need of direction, the five of them formed a line and systematically hauled the bulging net aboard.  As it hit the deck boards, it opened and the heap of beautiful fish slid out all over around their feet, forming a pile thigh-high.  With five in the boat and all these fish, the gunnels were low in the water. 

Yeshua suggested, “Let’s get some of these in the other boat and head to shore.”

Using baskets, they shoveled half the catch into Ya’akov’s and Yochanan’s boat.  The two sons of Zavdai hopped over and untied their lines.  The two boats were heading to the wharf in a few minutes.

When they docked the boats, there would still be a good bit of work to do sorting and cleaning the fish.  But there was already a group of people waiting to buy and the customers did not want to wait.  Fish were a staple in the Galil and this was the biggest catch of the day.  Other boats had had little better luck than they, and nothing was for sale.

Within half an hour, there were no fish left but what they had set aside for themselves.  Yeshua stayed for it all, even serving some of the customers himself.  Their collective purse was very full.

Home beckoned, but the four fishermen were reluctant to leave their new friend.  Words were inadequate and none of them were sentimental.  Shim’on knew that he should invite Yeshua home to feed him as a small gesture of gratitude, but he was still confused about what was going on in his heart.  Why did this man affect him so deeply?

Yeshua seemed to sense all this, and he said to him, “Follow me, Shim’on.”  He turned to the others and repeated, “Follow me.”

Suddenly, Shim’on understood.  He had been waiting for this for his whole life!  His confusion was that he knew he was totally unfit for this call.  His sense of uncleanness, unworthiness, and inadequacy overpowered his yearning.  He hardly realized that he had dropped to his knees as he said, “Leave me, Master, for I am a sinful, unworthy man.”

Yeshua leaned over and lifted him up by the elbow.  At the rabbi’s touch Shim’on felt the weight of his shame and guilt lift and slide off.  He felt freer and cleaner than he had ever imagined he could.  Trembling, he rose to his feet like a new man.

“He sees it all,” Shim’on’s inner voice told him.  “He knows it all, and he forgives it all.  None of it matters to him.  He accepts me for what I am and he wants me to be his friend.”  Tears filled his eyes as he looked with wonder and gratitude at his new friend.  He understood right then that he would follow him to the ends of the earth.

Yeshua looked at him with great affection.  Once more he said, for all to hear, “Follow me!”  Then, to let the others know that they too were being called, he added, turning to them as well, “and I will make you fishers of men.” 

He took Shim’on by the shoulder and, facing around, said to the four of them, “Now let’s go have some breakfast.” 

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A Different Kind of Fishing, Part 2

copyright ©Vincent Marquis, 2020

(This is the second part of a story about Jesus calling Peter, Andrew, James, and John as disciples. It is based on the relevant New Testament passages in the Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with some literary licence).

Shim’on paused his rowing to look.  After a few seconds he responded, “Hey, I think you’re right!  It’s a bit far to tell for sure, but I believe you.  I wonder what he’s doing there right after sunrise.  I hope he wasn’t coming to buy fish.”

“Yeah.  That would be embarrassing,” chuckled Andreas.  He called across to Ya’akov and Yochanan in the other boat, half joking, “Hey, Ya’akov, Yochanan!  Look who’s on the beach waiting just for us!”

The other two partners paused their rowing too.  After a few seconds, young Yochanan, who also had acute vision, declared without any hesitation, “Hey!  It’s Yeshua, the new rabbi in town.  Cool!  I’ve been hoping to hear him teach and meet him.  There are some pretty strange stories going around about him.”

Ya’akov cautioned him, “We’ve work to finish before you go off listening to a preacher.  Most of those stories are made up anyway.”

Andreas responded, “I don’t know about that, Ya’akov.  I was at the Jordan ford when he came for mikvah with the Immerser.  Something pretty amazing happened.  I saw and heard it all myself.”

“Yes, yes, we know what you say you saw, about a dove coming down on him and the Immerser saying he should be immersed by Yeshua instead of the other way around.  And a thunderclap out of clear blue sky!  We all know what a good imagination you have, Andreas,” finished the sceptical Ya’akov.

“It was not my imagination!” snapped Andreas.  “There were hundreds of people who saw and heard the same thing as I did.  Ask any of them.”

“Yes,” said Yochanan.  “I spoke to my friend Talmai yesterday, and he was there too.  He said that that is just what happened.  But that Yeshua told Yochanan to immerse him anyway because it was what was needed to satisfy righteousness.”

Andreas pondered.  “What a strange thing to say.  I wonder what he meant.  Now that I think about it, after he immersed Yeshua and as Yeshua was leaving Yochanan said something even more puzzling.  He called Yeshua the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.  He said he would immerse people in fire.”

“Yes!” added Yochanan.  “He did say that.  Now I really want to meet this Yeshua.  He was gone for a while, but now here he is again.  I’m super curious.  And now here he is on our beach.  Oh wow!”

Andreas the joker laughed, “Yep!  And he’s there to ask you for the best fish in your boat, Yochan,” he jibed, using his younger friend’s short name.

Shim’on was lost in deep thought and ever so slightly trembing as he listened to this banter.  The chill?  Yeshua, the new mystery man, was standing on the beach, and, he could see, plainly looking out over the lake at the four of them in their two fish-empty boats.  He had only ever seen him very briefly in the last few days that he had been in K’far-Nachum since his return from Y’hudah.  It was rumored he had not even gone to Yerushalayim, but out into the wilderness south-east of the city, down Yericho way. 

If he was an up and coming new rabbi, one even recognized by the Immerser as someone special, why would he come back here to the backside of Israel?  Why didn’t he go to the city and set up in the Temple Porticos like the other rabbis seeking to gather disciples and make a name for themselves?  He would never get anywhere by spending his time up in the Galil among its uncultured peasants and yokels.

Yet here he was.  Shim’on felt uncomfortable.  Yeshua was still staring out at them as they drew near to shore.  What did he want?  They were just about in ear-shot now, and the rabbi’s voice drifted out to them across the water.

“Good morning, friends.  Could you come into shore and let me get into your boat?”  Shim’on knew he was talking to him.  He looked at Andreas, who looked as startled as he was, but quickly responded, “C’mon, Shim’on!  Let’s do it!”

Shim’on shrugged as if he was indifferent, but mumbled, “Alright.”

Yeshua watched them come in as the boat’s prow bumped against the wharf.  He had a huge smile as he said, “I really appreciate this, friends.  I’m Yeshua.”

Andreas reached out to help him up over the gunnels, saying, “I’m Andreas and this is my brother Shim’on.  What did you have in mind, rabbi?”

“If you don’t mind I just want to spend a few minutes talking to the people who have followed me to the shore.  If I’m in a boat they’ll see me better and my voice will carry.”

“Sure, no problem,” Shim’on answered.  He felt as if he were almost standing outside himself listening.  The man’s eyes were uncanny, but not creepy.  He read real compassion in them, a sort of genuine caring.  His voice also intoned the same sense.  It was melodious, somehow soothing and authoritative at the same time.

Yeshua asked, “So this is your boat, Shim’on?”

“Yes, rabbi.  Andreas and I own it together.  Those two in the other boat are Ya’akov and Yochanan, our partners.  You might know of their father, Zavdai.  He owns a number of boats around Kinnaret.”

Yeshua grinned.  “As a matter of fact, I’ve done business with Zavdai.  My father Yosef and I helped him build a dock a while back and we made some furniture for their house a few years ago.  I don’t know if Ya’akov and Yochanan would remember me, but I remember seeing them around and chatting with them back then.”

“Small world!” said Andreas.  “Hey, Ya’akov and Yochan.  Do you remember Yeshua the carpenter working at your house and your father’s dock a while back?”

The other two looked sharply at the rabbi.  “Well I’ll be!.  Of course.  Yeshua the carpenter from Natzeret!  But, you’re now a rabbi?  That’s quite a shift!” said Ya’akov the sceptic.

Yeshua ignored Ya’akov’s tone and answered graciously, “It’s really nice to see you both again.”

He then moved to the sturdy forward shelf in Shim’on’s boat and stepped up where the crowd, now numbering several hundred, could see him.  His voice was resonant and conveyed real authority as he first told them a story about a pearl followed by another one about a treasure buried in a field.  He finished with a blessing on them as he dismissed them to go about their daily concerns.  He reassured them that he would be available later outside the synagogue for them to come with their sick and unwell.  Right now he needed to spend time with his new friends.

He stepped back down into the boat as the crowd began to disperse calmly and peacefully.  As simple as this had all been, lasting no more than ten minutes, Shim’on, Andreas, Ya’akov and Yochanan had been spell-bound.  They had just met him but somehow it seemed as if they had already known him for years.

Something buried deep inside was welling up in Shim’on, something linked to this unusual person, so unlike anyone else he was likely ever to meet again.  In shock, Shim’on the strong, the bluff go-getter realized that this Yeshua scared him.

It made no sense.  There was no threat of any kind.  The young rabbi was of an age with him.  He was a man who exuded peace and compassion, but Yeshua genuinely scared the wits out of him!  It was said that there was no one taller or stronger than Shim’on in K’far-Nachum or the whole region roundabout.  Yeshua was tall too, and his build said that he was also strong, a craftsman used to hard work.  But he exuded shalom.  His stories about Adonai and the Heavenly Kingdom seemed to be about a Person he knew. “So how was the fishing last night?” said the rabbi.  “I don’t see many fish in the boats,” he smiled.

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A Different Kind of Fishing, Part 1

Copyright ©Vincent Marquis, 2020

by Vincent Marquis

(Note: This post and the next two will be different from the usual fare in worldvyoublog.com. I am sharing a short-story based on the first meeting of Yeshua/Jesus with several of his first disciples. The story is a re-imagining of those encounters based on the New Testament. Literary licence accounts for a my not totally strict adherence to the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)

Shim’on was dog-tired and discouraged.  The dawn was breaking and the night’s fishing had been pathetic.  Nothing to show for twelve hours work except sweat, a chill in his bones, sore muscles, and bad humour.  His stomach growled with hunger.  He had long since eaten his midnight lunch of bread, dried fish, and figs.  Their water jar was almost empty, although there was Kinneret to dip into.  As he carefully coiled his net, he was looking forward to a cup of wine at home along with his morning meal. 

He barked at little brother Andreas to get a move on in pulling in the other linen-weave net.  The sooner that got done, the sooner they could dock the boat, get ashore, clean the nets, and go home to eat and rest.

Ya’akov and Yochanan had had no better luck.  In their boat about fifty cubits to starboard, they too were hauling in their empty nets.  Time to call it a night. 

The last few weeks of late spring had been pretty slim, and that would make for a hard summer if it kept up.  With the nets finally in the boat and placed in their spot behind the mast, he and Andreas put their cloaks on over their tunics and sat at the oars to head for shore.  Their destination was the fisherman’s wharf in the center of their home town, K’far-Nachum. 

K’far-Nachum boasted a large market district where most anything could be bargained for, even pigs from the Decapolis for the Gentile residents.  Right next to the market was the fine new synagogue with its boundary wall, its colonnaded courtyard, and well-tended garden.  The congregational assembly hall was large enough to accommodate hundreds at prayer.  The interior decor included a finely tiled mosaic floor laid out with colorful natural scenes to glorify Adonai as Creator.  It was complemented by the fine craftsmanship of the ark where the sacred scrolls were kept.  Unlike poor villages and towns whose synagogues could afford only the most essential scrolls of Torah and a great prophet like Yeshayahu, K’far-Nachum’s had many.

Although the town fell under Antipas’ Tetrarchy rather than the Roman Governor of Syria or his subordinate, the Procurator of Y’hudah, the great shadow of Rome was never far should trouble arise.  While the majority of the locals were Jews, there were Greeks, Syrians, Nabatæans, Bedouins, and a few Phoenicians.  Most Romans only passed through, but there was a small contingent of Roman auxiliary troops camped on the outskirts.  Antipas was glad to have them there.  They ensured the roads remained free of bandits.  Troops marching south to Y’hudah from Syria were not an unusual sight either.

Most residents of K’far-Nachum, as throughout the Galil, spoke at least two languages.  Shim’on and his partners spoke Aramaic among themselves and were conversant in Greek.  They could all read the Hebrew scrolls in synagogue as well, although Hebrew was not a daily language.

Shim’on and his partners had prospered since settling here.  Fish were always in demand and the lake was usually generous.  The P’rushim and Scribes disdained the Jewish Galileans as unclean and ignorant, but Shim’on was a good man who followed the Law as best he could.  His irritating younger brother had lately been going off for days at a time to go listen to that rabble-rouser, Yochanan the Immerser.  The man was considered a prophet by many, the first in over four hundred years.  His message was mainly about repentance, telling people to undergo mikvah and prepare for the coming of someone greater who, he said, would baptize with fire!  Presumably he meant the long-expected Mashiach.

What in the name of the Blessed One did “baptizing with fire” mean?  He could understand undergoing a ceremonial mikvah to symbolize a desire to live a pure life for Adonai.  He hadn’t done mikvah yet, but he sometimes felt a tug in that direction.  He was well aware of his faults and that, as an example of Adonai’s chosen people, he fell far short.  About this baptism by fire he had no clue.  It sounded downright unpleasant!  But prophets were always rather cryptic.

He was a man with responsibilities, with some property, with a place in society in this part of the Galil.  He was the respected heir to a family business that his grandfather and his father, Yona, had worked hard to establish in neighboring Betsaida.  After Yona had retired, Shim’on had moved to K’far-Nachum, a more strategic location, and the move had proved a good one.  Andreas had followed him.  Shim’on had a decent house, a good wife, and a charming little girl.  His wife Shoshana’s mother had recently come to live with them because she was now a widow and her health had been deteriorating.

Brooding, he pulled on his oar.  “Life is basically good,” he told himself, “so why do I feel unsettled, as if I’m missing something?  What is this?  I’m not like this!  I’m a joyful fellow.  I love what I do.  A few weeks of bad catches are part of the game.  It will all balance out in the end.  Besides, this is what Adonai has given me, so it is wrong for me to grumble and be unhappy.”

But still he brooded.  He made no pretention about trying to live a perfect life like the P’rushim who paraded around all day in prayer-shawls with long t’alit, making sure everyone heard them and saw them as they went to synagogue or scolded someone for violating some minute rule.  Who made all those rules anyway?  He could remember few such minutiae from the hearing of Torah in synagogue, or even in the rabbi’s teaching for his now long-past Bar-Mitzvah.

The nature of his work and the people he dealt with exposed him to “uncleanness” every day.  He did his best not to build up resentment or hold grudges, to let his eye wander after pretty young maidens or, worse, the sensuous women of the night that lived in a certain part of town.  They could be seen walking around the market to advertise their availability.  There were occasional days or nights when he had been tempted to sneak off.  He shook his head to clear it.  Shoshana was a good woman and mother and all he could desire.  Little Hannah was the delight of his eyes.

“Stop it, idiot!” he mumbled aloud to himself.

Andreas, sitting on the seat at the other oar on the opposite side of the mast with its folded sail and tied down spar, looked over at him quizzically.  The morning breeze was up now, making the rowing a little stiffer.  “What are you mumbling about, Shim’on?”

“Nothing important,” he answered.  Then, to change the subject, he asked, “So do you think the Immerser is the Mashiach?”

Andreas was emphatic.  “He’s a real Prophet, and when I listen to him, I feel like I’m hearing the words of Adonai!  I like to listen to him, and you should come sometime.  We could do mikvah together with him.  It would do you good.  I’m planning to do it soon – next time we have a few days without fishing to do.

“And he says very clearly that he is not the Mashiach.  He says that Mashiach is already among us, and bringing an axe to cut down the trees that don’t bear fruit.  Really, Shim’on, you should come to hear him.  He knows how to put those arrogant P’rushim in their place.  Sometimes he really gets them mad, tearing a strip off them about their hypocrisy.  And he lays into Prince Herod too about his sleazy behaviour with his sister-in-law.”

Shim’on laughed, his humor improving.  Andreas had a knack for lifting his spirits.  He was blessed to have such a brother who was also his best friend.  He had always wondered why his father had given Andreas a Greek name.  Yona had only said that it was to honor a close friend who had died in the time of his youth.  There was a story there which he longed to know.  His father had had some sort of adventure with a Goy friend as a young man, but no one ever talked about it. 

Family and neighbors had gossiped about Yona naming a son after a Gentile ever since.  It made Shim’on self-conscious.  He and Andreas had to be extra careful so as not to bring more shame on the family by being accused of compromising.

He glanced behind him.  They were still at least eight hundred cubits from shore and the morning breeze was getting stiffer by the minute.  The sun was over the horizon and now giving some warmth.  His quick glance to shore had shown him a bit of a crowd gathering.  What could make that happen at this hour? Andreas had seen it too.  He had especially good eyesight and piped up, “Say, I think that new rabbi from Natzeret is on the beach.  He has quite a group there with him.”

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Autumn Beards

“Rise up in the presence of the hoary head…”

(a Biblical proverb)

During the pandemic, several of my male friends decided to grow beards, while others have let their beards grow without trimming.  (Super Movember??)  While I have not had a beard for over twenty years, the results remind me of what I now look like were I to decide to let my facial hair proliferate.  Combine this grey facial frazzle with thinning gray hair, and this is what Solomon’s proverb refers to as the male version of “the hoary head”, as per the old King James Version Bible rendering.

Centuries ago, rising up when an old geezer (male or female) or two entered the room where the younger set sat or reclined was an expected sign of respect.  There were cultural assumptions behind such a practice, which in our time would just seem weird and very much unnecessary. 

First, there simply weren’t large numbers of elders around, given the much shorter life-expectancy prevailing up to the twentieth century.  Someone who made it into their sixties or beyond must therefore be specially favoured by God or the gods.  That alone was reason enough to respect them, if only to avoid incurring divine disfavour for failing to recognize that these people probably had God’s protection and maybe even a special connection to the Lord.  Hence, you would do well not to slight God by treating them with disdain or lack of courtesy.

Second, the elders who had survived were usually the community’s rulers and advisors and had earned their place and the respect of the younger, less life-experienced people aspiring to the prestige of recognized leadership.  In those days, the world had a lot more constancy about it. Contrast this with our usual present-day practice of relegating our elderly to the sidelines because, supposedly, they can no longer keep up with all the new ideas and progressive advances in technical and social development.  Since these are almost always supposed to be improvements over the “old-fashioned” methods and traditions of even one or two generations ago, where the seniors are assumed to be stalled, why would we want the old-timers in charge?

Thirdly, centuries ago, parents and grandparents were simply owed respect and esteem because they were your parents and grandparents and had raised you and cared for you.  If they had done it moderately well, your respect for and honour of them was just their due.

We all know how much this whole cultural paradigm has shifted.  “Seniors”(what a wretched word instead of elders!) get out of the way!  Yet we are seeing two seniors face off for the Presidency of the USA.  “Naturally”, in the 21st Century psyche, numerous questions abound as to their fitness to take on that most powerful of all political gigs in the world, even though one of the contestants has been in the job for four years.  However one may assess his performance, on cannot say that he has not been as politically cunning and wily as many an aspiring younger fellow.  But still, the assumption is that the two contestants can’t or won’t be able to keep up – in just about any aspect one cares to mention.  Are Mr. Trump’s peregrinations the result of senile instability?  (Hardly!)  The old guys will need younger, stronger, smarter, more adaptable people to guide them, rather than their guiding their team of supporters – constitutional niceties aside.

Absent from our current society’s way of considering such profundities is the true end, the real context, in which all this plays out.  But, as our old friend Qohelet might have said, “This too is not a new thing under the sun.”  To the ultra-rich and powerful down through the ages of recorded history, the greater context has almost always been, in application, invisible or just plain ignored.  Bloody inconvenient too, admitting there is Someone or something greater than you to give account to.  Alternatively, official homage to the Greater Power has been observed as a means to manipulate the rest of the human herd and keep or make them subservient.

No one ever born has ultimately been able to avoid facing the “greater context”, however much they may deny it or how hard they may work at staving it off.  A Buddhist meditation preparation (paraphrased) puts it thus:

“I am of a nature to die; I am of a nature to become sick; I am of a nature to become weak; I am of a nature to be forgotten soon after I depart this world.”

Yet most of us in this society of “First-World” dominants, perhaps more than in any other age, seem to live as if none of this is true – until suddenly we are forced to face our own mortality, transiency, and ultimate insignificance.  As the whole world has been forced to do in this pandemic pause to ponder.

The Queen of England (and Canada, and Australia, and New Zealand, who is also the reputed most famous and wealthy woman in the world) and Jeff Bezos (the reputed wealthiest person in the world) must eat, drink, and use the toilet same as the rest of us.  Their wealth and power and influence will not exclude them from the common fate of all referred to by Buddha.

Perhaps in centuries past the elderly really did merit the roll of “elders” – those qualified to lead by wisdom and life experience.  Even now, it may well be true that the elderly who have not become demented and not given in to despair and cynicism still have a great deal of practical wisdom to share about how to live a “good life” (a long and complex subject in itself), regardless of their supposed lack of technical prowess and inability to or simple disinterest in keeping up with all the foolish trends and spurious causes of dissent and outrage that so plague our increasingly uncivil society.

The art of dying well is never out of date, but the wisdom to prepare for it is more and more rare.  Instead, we have created a culture which obsesses about prolonging the illusions of youth.  Our culture denies that those raging hormones need to be given proper channeling or they will curse both the individuals who abuse them and their victims.  The strong and aggressive may use their raging energy (which is largely sexual repression and misappropriation) to subdue and destroy others.  A subtler method of destroying the repressor and oppressor of one’s urges, or anyone who dares challenge the actions, causes, and words of the new class of revolutionaries, is to engage in outrage at every voice which suggests your preferred cause may be hollow.  We now have whole masses substituting rage for the love they are seeking in all the wrong places.

Life’s journey towards death may be long or short.  Rage and constant outrage tend to make it short and brutal, bereft of almost all the most rewarding experiences and elements we have been offered by our Creator if we seek to do it His/Her way.  It may be rich and full at almost any length if it is cherished and wielded well.  For those who unrepentantly destroy others’ lives by using them for their own pleasure, benefit, and selfish purposes, there is a special place in hell.  In my own humble experience of watching historical examples and those of some people I have known in the course of seven decades, few succeed in escaping the trap seeking revenge or even some notion “justice” via anger and violence which they make for themselves.  “You reap what you sow.”  “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”  Karma is a real thing, whatever religion, philosophy, or ideology you hold to.

As to the COVID whisker proliferations?  They may just be a whim.  Or the onset of laziness about personal appearance.  Or an admission of defeat in fending off old-age and its inevitable conclusion.  Or perhaps an attempt to recapture in even a teensy way some of the magic of that mythological stage of virile youth.  Or, finally, just a way of coping with the lack of new scenery to gaze at from the confines of COVID isolation.  Or, most improbable, maybe someone sweet and irresistible asked you to grow the thing back.

The one thing we can all do as we continue along this globally shared journey in 2020 into 2021 is to remember what Buddha said.  And here is another piece of ancient wisdom along those lines from The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews: “It is given to humans to die once, and then comes judgment.”  We have one go, one kick at the can, one journey to make.  COVID reminds us that our age (personal and societal) doesn’t guarantee how short or long our personal trip will be.  The one guarantee is that we will all arrive at the same destination. 

In meeting our Creator at least that one time, the most important question will be what account we will give for how we made our journey, which was His/Her great gift to us, given out of sheer love and under no obligation on His/Her part.  Rationalizations and justifications will be irrelevant, for, as Hebrews also said (my rough paraphrase) “All is visible and open to view to the Lord. . . . It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”.  Especially if you face Him/Her alone and have to stand on your own merits. 

Personally, I’m trusting my Advocate to be there with me, as He has pledged He would be two thousand years ago to anyone who asks.  In my own case it was not quite so long ago that we had that talk.  I’m sure He would be willing to stand with you too, but you’ll have to ask Him ahead of time.  Don’t wait too long!

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Summer 2020, 2: Talking Points

Like many I know, I have been paying less attention to the swirling morass of the news these days.  Most of it is glum and discouraging anyway, and, here in the “Great White North”, summer is all too brief to waste on keeping up with the latest blasts in the present mockery of “discussion and dialogue” in uber-confused Western culture.  Besides, between true news (??) and the boundless volume of the less reliable variety, it is often hard to draw a firm line in the midst of all the spin and vehement opinion masquerading as considered point of view. 

Everyone has a point of view, of course.  But the problem is that it is now uncommon to find any serious attempt to talk about an issue.  Most of what passes for commentary consists of dismissing the writer-commentator’s submission as mere strong bias or even some sort of incipient “Communism” or “Fascism”.  Lamentably, those accusing “those other people” of being the bogeyman have little real understanding of the ideologies involved, and probably don’t care that they are ignorant thereof.  In place of dialogue we are stuck with polemics, histrionics, and ad hominem denunciations of “those Nazis/Commies”.

Canada is very similar to many other First World nations in much of its public life’s dominant trends and concerns.  I find the near impossibility of having real discourse about important things in my home country, let alone the Great Republic to our south, increasingly disturbing.  What are the repercussions of this stark polarization for our social and political life?  Its impact can be seen in virtually everything, as can the disdain and scorn for any opinion and perspective other than one’s own.  This disease proliferates in social media and even some of the supposedly professional media. 

What is of even greater concern for me than most of the general “Right vs. Left” screaming sessions that populate the public and private commentosphere is the penetration of this malignant ethos into the Christian sector, especially in North America.  There too listening and a desire to achieve real insight have taken a serious hit.

Cynics and critics of the Church (no specific branch or denomination in mind) will say that this has always been true of Christians and Christianity.  Unfortunately, this has too often been valid.  The history of the persecution of “heretics” and the infamous wars of religion after the Reformation and Counterreformation illustrate this, plus crusades, slavery justification, pogroms, colonial invasions and genocides, and witch-hunts perpetrated in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace and the great Reconciler of humanity with the Creator.

So many of the scenarios and diatribes coming from too many voices declaring that God has shown them the truth behind the politics, economics, and social programs of this age, whether they are for or against any specific Party, candidates, or ideology, sound so familiar to so much that has happened since late antiquity.  It would be a very long story and series to go back over all that.  As Qohelet said, “There [really and truly as regards human nature and behaviour] is nothing new under the sun.”

It may prove true that we are quite close to or even in the last, Last Days and on the verge of the Great Tribulation.  I am aware that quite a few believe that we are now seeing such signs, and they may be right.  My generation thought this back in 1973. People thought it in World War 1, and in WW2 called Hitler the Antichrist.

But Jesus told us that it is not for us to know the times or the seasons.  Rather, above all other things, we should be busy building the Kingdom.  While we shouldn’t be ignorant of the enemy’s nature and schemes (stealing, killing, lying, destroying), neither should we be glorifying them, even inadvertently, by obsessing and spending great swaths of our time searching for them in every subtle nook and cranny.  That stuff has always been there and will continue to be for however much longer Yeshua ha-Mashiach tarries.  I too long for His coming, but all my worrying about how dark things are getting won’t hasten it one micro-second.

The mistake is to obsess about such signs and prophetic pronouncements and apparent sort-of-look-like-fulfillments to the point of forgetting what the true and perpetual calling of Jesus’ earthly Body always has been and remains today.  It is to love God, love our neighbour, look after the helpless, defenceless, least esteemed and able to care for themselves, the oppressed, etc., and tell people the good news that the Lord-God Creator has given us a way back to Him through Yeshua.  It is not rocket science depending on abstruse calculations of what constitutes the fulfillment of all the signs given in Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21, the apocalyptic passages in the Epistles, and, especially, the Book of Revelation.  It is certainly not that peculiar North American obsession about being raptured out of this vale of tears in a sort of Great Escape before the Devil gets control for a few years.

A sure measure of our life in Jesus is to what extent the peace which is His great gift to His people, even in the midst of trouble and turmoil, continues to bring forth His light in our own lives and in the Church.  Another is the presence of the Spirit’s fruit: “For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Against such things there is no law,” says the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5.

That fruit should come forth in both words and actions, including, as hard as it may be, graciousness towards those who mock us and belittle us.  Especially moreso when strong differences emerge among sisters and brothers of God’s family.  As James tells us regarding our propensity to pass judgment on the purity of one another’s faith, “Who are you to judge another person’s (God’s) servant?”  And as Paul admonishes us, it is often when we think we are strong enough to lay the truth (as we see it) on others like a scolding parent that we are most likely to fall.  “Pride goes before a fall.”

Obsessing about and continually lamenting the toxic political and social realm of today is a form of deadly, creeping deception.  The enemy of our souls is quite pleased to see us mired in it.  For when we sink into that pit, it is quicksand with its fascination upon our minds and what seems like the estimable desire to “be aware of the enemy’s schemes lest we be deceived”.  We become so weighed down and fatigued and drained that we lose sight of and motivation to be engaged in the straightforward life of Christ’s Kingdom being made manifest on earth.

It is clear from all of the New Testament that the “spirit of this age and this world” (aion and kosmos in Greek) are opposite and opposed to those of the Kingdom of Jesus.  He told us, “By their fruits shall you know them.”  What fruit do we want to both produce and consume?

Yes, He also told as to be “as wise as serpents”, but in the same breath He added “and as innocents as doves”.  At times, we need to “expose the evil deeds of darkness”, as in naming them for what they are, but the best exposition is by being the light.  I have become more aware, or been reminded, that a lot of the darkness is plain enough to everybody, even non-Christians. 

So I must be about the Father’s business, which is essentially not very complicated as we said above: caring for the downtrodden, the poor, the wretched, the homeless and forsaken, the despairing, the forgotten, the sick, the abandoned and friendless, etc.  And that begins in God’s family, but certainly does not end there.

The enemy of our souls and of humanity itself is very happy to see Christians mesmerized by the kaleidoscope of the sorcerer’s brew our culture has become, or fixed upon how sadly backslidden and fallen into error and somnolence so much of the worldwide Church (no particular denomination intended) has become.  Truth be told, most of us (mea culpa) in the West have been affected by those two afflictions to some extent. 

We all need to reread the seven letters to the Seven Churches of Revelation and take Jesus’ admonishments to them to heart.  As to unravelling the seals within seals and wheels within wheels, well, if the best minds in Christendom haven’t been able to do it in two thousand years, (“and they too have the Holy Spirit” as Paul might have said) I doubt that we will either.  But I suspect that a lot of it is already past and whatever’s left to come will take us all by surprise in the when, where, what, who, and how. We already know the “why”.

Above all, trust Yeshua and Adonai and love your neighbour and you can’t go far wrong.

Shalom!