Inconvenient Conscience, 8 – Turning Around, 4 – Germany

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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.

Inconvenient Conscience, 7 – Turning Around, 3 – Repentance

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 “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

Inconvenient Conscience, 6 – Turning Around, 2 – Paradigm Shift

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“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

Inconvenient Conscience, 5 – Turning Around, 1

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“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

Inconvenient Conscience, 4 – Conscience vs. Tyranny

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“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.


Inconvenient Conscience, 3: Whatever happened to our conscience?

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“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

Inconvenient Conscience, 2: Seared Conscience Anyone?

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“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

Inconvenient Conscience, 1

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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

A Different Kind of Fishing, Part 3

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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.” 

A Different Kind of Fishing, Part 2

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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.

A Different Kind of Fishing, Part 1

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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.”

Autumn Beards

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“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!

Summer 2020, 2: Talking Points

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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!

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When Evil Comes, 13 – Rebirth, 4 – The New Human

Agapeo – to love as God loves

“A new commandment I give to you [a plural “you” in Greek], that you [plural] love [agapate] one another even as I have loved you, that you also love [agapate] one another.

(John 13:34)

We have had many millennia to illustrate what the “old” human does.  Human creativity can be stunningly beautiful and incredibly ingenious.  Humans are astounding creatures – inventive, perceptive, and immensely creative.  It is very hard to account for all this from an evolutionary perspective.  Clearly, humans hold a special position within the Cosmos which is hardly relevant to the generally accepted laws governing the rise and survival of species. 

Certainly, survival of the fittest seems to apply to the rise of humans to the apex of the natural world.  In that wider sense, so does natural selection.  But on that crude scale, what survival value does the ethereal, aesthetic creation of a Michelangelo or an Aristotle or a Siddhartha Gautama have?  These sublime expressions of the best of the human spirit set us as a species apart from Gorillas, Orangutans, Dolphins, and Crows (probably the most intelligent species of bird-kind).  But what is their intrinsic “survival value” or natural selective power? 

They point to another dimension above and beyond the merely “natural and material”.  They are no mere expression of vitality for survival and domination.  They are sign-posts to a realm of infinite potential and a yearning for the sublime.  They are the echoes of longing for some other, greater, culminating fulfillment transcending the merely physical like a wistful ghost of a lost memory – of “Paradise Lost” as John Milton put it.

Two millennia ago a unique individual human who epitomized all of this lived in Palestine.  He had a common enough name – Yeshua.  He came from a tiny place called Natzeret in Galilee.  He was not born a prince or a noble into a wealthy, prestigious clan.  He did not become a learned sage of the intelligentsia and establish an Academy or University to inculcate and spread his ideas like a great Greek intellectual.  He did not compose treatises and set down esoteric propositions about the ideal society or life-style.  He did not author any great works of literature or execute any artistic masterpiece.  He did not engender a great political movement or gather a crushing military force to impose his vision for a new world under his own sovereignty.  [This last notion was what many of his Jewish contemporaries were awaiting from a great new leader.]

Instead, he was born among the humblest of the humble in the most obscure circumstances imaginable.  Yet he would become the most controversial and truly radical person to have ever lived. 

Even his birth bordered on the scandalous with his mother pregnant before marriage.  He grew up in a village of no consequence either historically (till then) or in the register of first-Century localities.  His country was occupied by the most fearsome military machine of all time, with no earthly prospect of breaking free.  He became a carpenter like his adoptive father.  His education was what any Jewish lad then had – the rudiments of literacy in Hebrew in order to read the scrolls in synagogue.  By all reckoning, he should have been an historical nobody, like 99.9% of everyone who has ever lived.

Instead, he became the most remarkable human in history.  Yet this was not by conquering great dominions and building huge monuments to his own fame, as so many have done hoping to achieve a sort of pseudo-immortality.  Nor was it by precipitating a revolution to overthrow the oppressors and institute a regime which, like so many others, would in time become oppressive in its own right.  Since then, others have used his name to do just that sort of thing, although it is completely contrary to his own principles.  (“Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” he told his followers at the moment of supreme crisis in his own life.) 

Neither did he go about winning a name in philosophy and erudition to inspire others to study and ponder on his legacy of ideas and concepts – although certainly the by-products of his work include an enormous amount of that kind of material.  Nor did he give us a body of stunning architectural and artistic marvels to be admired and emulated for ages to come – although others have given us that as they have striven to honor him. 

Finally, and perhaps most baffling of all in the light of what received wisdom has so often attributed to him, he did not set up a religious system and establishment to replace previous ones in manipulating and cajoling people to bow and scrape in fear of the wrath of God, and, in his name, the humans who run the system.  This last point is an immense subject on its own, one to which we cannot do any justice here.

We could carry on this litany for a very long time.

Instead of all this, Yeshua, the First-Century Jewish carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee, went completely “countercultural”.  He challenged the most cherished aspects of the tradition and interpretation of “the Elders” and “Fathers” of his nation and the religious system.  He made an end-run around the political powers and principalities, Jewish and Roman, by refusing to engage them on the grounds of nationalism, patriotism, manifest destiny and imperial ideology.  His very message nevertheless challenged them at their very roots.

He spoke to “ordinary folks” about their ordinary lives and dilemmas and afflictions.  He went straight to the heart of the human condition in all its pain and brokenness, its simple joys and sorrows.  He directly addressed the alienation of every individual who is born from their Creator, from one another, from themselves, and from the creation.  He showed them, by example before ever telling them, that the only exit from all of this complex of interwoven brokenness and fragmentation of reality, both physical and spiritual, personal and collective, whicht is found everywhere and in everything, was by “rebirth” into the Kingdom of God. 

He embodied and enacted what he said – reconciliation with the Creator by being willing to put to death all the old “solutions”, which are all really manifestations of the delusion of the godhead of self.  He showed and taught that keeping rules, subjecting oneself to personal discipline, and performing rites cannot bridge the great gap between us and the Creator.  (However, he did say such things were never of value.  He himself demonstrated them in proper order and place.) 

Neither can chasing and even attaining all the perks of wealth, power, fame, and prestige “justify us”.  The person who chases all these things remains just as broken in soul, mind, and spirit at the end as they were at the beginning of their quest.  As he said repeatedly to those who came to hear him, “Let those who have eyes to see, see; let those who have ears to hear, hear.”

But he had no illusions that the majority would give up their “lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life”, as one of his best friends later expressed it.  The allure of the mirage is very great.

Only rebirth from above can break the cycle of bondage and open the heart to the spirit of Adonai, the Creator.  Only the Creator’s Spirit, the Spirit of agape, entering the broken human spirit can break it.  And how that happens is a mystery which, ultimately, we cannot penetrate.  He said, “Many are called but few are chosen,” but he also promised, “Seek and you will find; ask and you will receive, knock and it shall be opened to you.”  For Adonai, the Father, will “in no way cast out those that come to him” with “a broken spirit and a humble heart.”

As the supreme statement of rebirth, Yeshua died on a Roman cross, betrayed to the oppressors by his own people. But he did not stay dead. He was resurrected in his body, rendered incorruptible and immortal, by Adonai as the Creator’s final word of reconciliation and rebirth to a desperate world entrapped in its own hubris. He lives now to offer and give rebirth to everyone who comes to Adonai through him.

Rebirth is open to anyone.  It is not exclusive, but it is not won by personal application as in some sort of self-flagellation, or by diligent study and cogitation of texts.  It is there for the asking.  “Any who come to me I will certainly not reject,” he says.

Rebirth is much more than an once-in-a-lifetime transaction.  It is far more than a “slam-dunk” and move on sort of thing, as it has sometimes been very poorly portrayed in popular presentation and theological misconstruction.  It is not a formula to be recited and dated like some sort of spiritual contract with God.  It is God’s doing in response to a human cry of the heart and soul to have the “old human” die and the “new human” be brought forth.

Finally, it is the transition from spiritual death and slavery to spiritual life and freedom – freedom to become all that we were originally intended to be by the Creator.  It is something that is to be grown into.  Just as we grow up in the flesh, we grow up as a child of God.  It’s a “rest of our lives” journey here on earth as those who have received it learn to live it now.  It is the final resurrection in the New Heaven and New Earth which Adonai has promised and his Son Yeshua will bring into being in its fullness “when the times are fulfilled.”

“… the creation itself will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groans in the pains of childbirth together until now…. we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for our adoption as sons [and daughters], the redemption of our body.”  (Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:21-23)

(THIS CONCLUDES THE SERIES ON “WHEN EVIL COMES” AND THE SUBSERIES “REBIRTH”)

When Evil Comes, 12 – Rebirth, 3

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“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?

Adonai is in His holy temple.

Adonai, His throne is in heaven.

His eyes see and test humankind.

Adonai tests the righteous…”

Psalms 11:3-5a (The Complete Jewish Bible)

Rebirth from above, the way Yeshua/Jesus defined the way to enter the Kingdom of the Creator, Adonai – is completely contrary to how humankind conceives its salvation and redemption.  It cuts completely against the grain of our gut-sense that we have to do it.  We innately believe that somehow we must find within ourselves the means, the will, the motivation to fight, climb, and work ourselves out of the pit of our weakness and brokenness. 

All across the millennia of recorded history, religions and philosophies, whether Oriental or Western, have taught and inculcated, consciously or by osmosis, as well as by reflexive, unconsidered action, that our personal and collective efforts must appease and win the favor of whatever gods there may be.  Or, if, after all, there are no gods to appease and cajole to be favorable, or perhaps such “gods” as there may be are unworthy of esteem, we must find the right techniques – mental, spiritual, emotional, psychological, ideological, personal and collective – to move ourselves from the pit of misery to the apex of individual and community happiness, peace, and well-being.

Even in the extremely secular modern-post-modern world of today, this quest for salvation and redemption goes on through the application of progressive, ideological, science-based, or science-justified, social engineering.  Religion has been relegated to the fringe for weak people who need a crutch, or repurposed as an individual, private pursuit of “spirituality”. 

Even the vocabulary of rebirth has been repurposed as “revival” and “revivalism”, or renewal and reform.  But in his conversation with Nakdimon (Nicodemus) in Yochanan’s (John’s) account of Yeshua/Jesus, that is the farthest thing from what Yeshua was saying.  We saw in our previous post that this declaration of the necessity of “rebirth from above” was about something called agape, a Greek word we translate in English as love – and in its equivalent in any other western language (e.g. amour, amor, amore, liebe, etc).  But the term “love” is so vague that it cannot grasp what this vastly different sort of “love” meant by agape encompasses.  In English (or French), it means everything from fuzzy sentimentality to sexual passion, or even a special preference for some food or fashion, etc.

Another part of the immense truth of agape is its direct connection to the nature of “Adonai”, the Creator-God.  The Creator is its source, and the power to really agape others, and even oneself, cannot be found within the brokenness of the human heart, soul, mind, and spirit.  For us, love is conditional and dependent and ebbs and flows according to conditions and reciprocity.  From time to time we may find some exceptions in its durability and commitment.  From a Biblical perspective this still flows from our “God-connection” in that humans are made in the Creator’s image and therefore retain a capacity to reflect the Creator’s characteristics, however feebly and partially.

The Kingdom of God is all about agape and entering it can only be by that road.  Otherwise, we are once more trying to prove we can do it ourselves, trying to prove we don’t really need the supernatural power of the Creator to really love the agape way, the way the Creator loves each of us and everyone, and indeed the whole Creation that Adonai made in the beginning.  Even those claiming to be Adonai’s children are not automatically agents of agape.  It still hinges on being born again from above, by the coming of Adonai’s own Spirit into the very soul and spirit of the one calling on Adonai to partake of this rebirth from above. 

Huge numbers of books and treatises have been created and expounded on how this happens and what its effects are when it does.  This writer and blog will certainly not attempt to sum up the past nearly two thousand years of those discussions and debates among Yeshua’s followers and those who have critiqued them, whether sympathetically or with hostility.  In fact, at least to some degree, the whole history of the Christian faith and its component divisions into three major “Branches” (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) and a myriad of subdivisions (denominations and sects), is due to differences in how all of this works in theory and in practice.

I will limit this discussion to saying that the evident fracturing of “the Church” into hundreds and even thousands of subsets was hardly what Yeshua had in mind when he told his first followers “I will build my ekklesia (badly translated as “Church” in English) and the gates of Hades (“hell”) will not prevail against/overcome/ it.”  Whatever infernal powers there might be would gladly lay claim to having overcome Yeshua’s disciples, at least to some extent, by shattering them into many fragments fighting, wrangling with, and even killing, one another.  Such agents are hardly ushering in the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Even the Church needs to be born again from above, just as every individual “naming the name of Yeshua/Jesus as Lord” does.  A rebirth of this sort in agape means death – death of the old way, of the illusion of self-salvation, of self-sufficiency and autonomy.  It does not matter what form of this “realization of true self and potential” the individual is choosing, it is begin from the wrong starting-point, the same old one seen since the first legend, myth, history of humankind began.  It begins the primeval lie that we can be god ourselves, that we are wise enough to discern and really understand for ourselves the “mystery of iniquity” as the Apostle Paul-Saul once phrased it.

Whether there was/is an actual malevolent supernatural being or set of beings that seduced toe first humans into believing they did not need the Creator and could manage their own affairs, as well as those of the planet, without the Creator-Adonai is not finally the question.  If “the satan” was present at the beginning as an actual spiritual entity of malice, it did not compel those first humans to choose themselves and their own “godhood” over against the limitless agape-goodness of Adonai.  Until that point of decision when “Adam and Eve”, the progenitors of humankind, had moved and flowed in union with Adonai in agape.  After, they had lost it and could not, by any power or method at their own disposal, return to it.

Likewise, with Yeshua’s sojourn among humankind, there came the offer and open opportunity to turn back to Adonai and His agape, as to a Father who had come to his lost children to offer full reconciliation.  When the offer is accepted, the gift of agape is extended and poured into the broken wounds and empty heart.  Then there comes a new mind and a new heart, empowered by agape.  From that, everything else flows and becomes possible.  That is rebirth from above and the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Yeshua-Jesus is its embodiment and the Father’s extended hand and actual human presence.

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 11 – Rebirth, 2

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“…evil is not an essential part of creation, but is the result of a distortion within a basically good created order.  As a result of this distortion, humans have lost the glory of the creator, that is, the wise stewardship of the creation…. any attempt to state a monotheistic doctrine of whatever sort carries certain implications about the analysis of evil in the world.”

N.T, Wright, The New Testament and the People of God.  (Fortress Press. Minneapolis: 1992), pp. 258-9.

In the statements above, “Tom” Wright, an Anglican Bishop and eminent scholar of the New Testament, sums up the foundational perspective of both Judaism and Christianity concerning the presence of evil in the creation.  The work in which he wrote these statements is the first volume of his monumental study of the foundations of Christianity, Christian Origins and the Question of God.

Of all the great religious books, the New Testament has provoked more controversy, venom, and sublime exaltation than any other.  Despite the numerous hammer blows it has taken over the last 100 years from its detractors and denigrators, both from within its main historical base in the West, and from its outside opponents, Christianity still remains the largest faith in the world,. 

The major source of its cultural and ideological fall from grace has been its own adherents’ cataclysmic failures and lapses through engaging in actions and proclamations of truth contradictory to their faith’s declared ideals and the character of Yeshua/Jesus, its founder.  Those abysmal events and distortions have given all the ground needed by its enemies to lambaste it and claim its irrelevance as a spent force which should now be relegated to the trash heap of history.  Forgotten in the recriminations are all the positive contributions that the fundamental message of Jesus and his best followers have bestowed on both the ungrateful West and the larger world.

Those immense positive gifts begin with the idea of rebirth, or new birth – being “born again from above” so that a vision of the Kingdom of God takes hold in the heart, soul, mind, and spirit, supplanting the destructive obsession with “me, myself, and I”.  The beginning of understanding the necessity of this new birth from above is monotheism, which makes a declaration that there is a Creator who designed and made the universe from nothing other than His/Her will and “word”.  (“Word” here is not a passive idea, but a personal active power.) The Creator designed and made all that is according to His/Her own nature.  That nature is one of goodness, love, and compassion – along with other attributes such as perfect wisdom, perfect justice, and perfect mercy.  All of these characteristics, or personality traits (attributes in theological and philosophical language), are perfectly balanced.  The Person and Nature of the Creator is far beyond a creature’s ability to understand, and what the Creator makes must of necessity reflect Who the Creator is.  It cannot be other. It is supreme arrogance and hubris of the creature to presume to judge the Creator for not behaving as the creature conceives “godhead” – an arrogance really based on making ourselves god, and therefore God’s judges.

The bedrock of the Western view of humanity for the better part of two millennia was that humans are “made in the image of God” but that, by rejecting the Creator and seeking to replace Him/Her with the god of self we have created – a distorted, contorted, corrupted image of what we ourselves are intended to be.  Out of this broken image flows all the twisted, broken, destructive results one would expect – all the abuses and pain and suffering we humans inflict upon one another.  At this point we no longer know, or even really wish to know, who we are.  Even within the wider “Church”, effective denial of this truth has intruded. 

Instead, we find the general proposition, apparently based on psychological “science”, that there is nothing basically awry in the human heart, soul, or mind.  Evolution’s perspective tells us that we are simply what we have been made to be by ineluctable evolutionary development.  We are called on to “progress” in our individual and collective development, and part of that is to affirm that pretty much anything that makes us feel better about ourselves, even in a delusional sense, is to be encouraged.  We can verbally, and by a sort of Nietzschean decision based on willpower, declare the changes we want to embed – for example changes in the meaning of identity as humans, changes to biological gender realities, changes to morality and ethics that prove personally inconvenient.  We appropriate and promote social constructs of which some are manifestly much more destructive and productive of terror and horror for multitudes than others – all in the name of “progress” towards the “higher good” of the new, utopian society where personal liberty and choice is all, regardless of how it will really play out in our families and communities.  Everything is a heroic struggle because nothing is a duty or the plain old “right thing to do”.

Yeshua speaking to Nakdimon about “spiritual rebirth from above” was talking about true radical change, because more of the same – using the power of the state, of religion, of fear and manipulation and control to compel outer conformity, whether by actual law or social pressure, cannot produce true readiness and willingness, let alone ability, to enter the Kingdom of the Creator.

The New Testament uses a word for the heart of this birth from above, a word which is repeated over and over in the writings of Yochanan and Saul-Paul, in imitation of what Jesus/Yeshua taught and lived out with his disciples.  That word is agape.  It is  translated as “love”, but has a different denotation and connotation from other Greek words also translated as “love”- philia – the love between friends and siblings, for example.  Eros applies to sexual love and passion, and storge applies to parental and protective love.  Some modern psychologists have added two more, but the ancient Greeks distinguished among these four. 

The three besides agape are “normal”, human forms of love that we all know and experience to some degree.  But these three are incomplete in themselves and imply a dimension of personal benefit and good.  In the case of eros the mutuality is quite evident – the reward of sexual fulfillment and intense pleasure and a mutually supportive intimate relationship makes it very desirable.  In the case of philia, the same can be said minus the sexual passion.  In the case of storge, there is perhaps more of an element of self-sacrifice, at least in the short term.  Dependents grow up and, hopefully, can be positive supports and affirmers of their parents, guardians, and mentors as they age.

But agape is used as the “love from above” – a love that is given freely regardless of the merit and reciprocation of its recipient.  It is characteristic of the Creator’s love for His/Her creatures and creation, and most especially of those who bear His/Her image.  It is also the love that His/Her image-bearers were made and called to lavish upon one another and on the creation which they were originally made to steward, to care for, to bring into its best and fullest manifestation of what the Creator intended it to be and become.

But, in our self-directed usurpation and rejection of what the Creator designed and made us and that creation to be, we brought in all the elements of destruction, death, and futility that we find now all around us in ourselves and in the Cosmos.  The Cosmos too knows the futility and expresses it by letting us undergo the aberrations of its brokenness – natural distortions and disorders we call “acts of God” or the terror of nature’s sheer power-out-of-control.

There is no cure or healing possible of any of this without a reordering, a rebirth from above by turning back to the Creator and receiving once again the infilling of His/Her agape so that we may once more know who we are and what we and all that was made truly were made to be and become.  The coming of the Kingdom of the Creator is the return of agape to each of us, individually first, then as a community, and finally in making it real in the human and natural Cosmos within we “live and move and have our being”.

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 10 – Rebirth, 1

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There was a man among the P’rushim, named Nakdimon, who was a ruler of the Judeans.  This man came to Yeshua by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know it is from God that you have come as a teacher; for no one can do these miracles you perform unless God is with him.”

“Yes, indeed,” Yeshua answered him, “I tell you that unless a person is born again from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

Nakdimon said to him, “How can a grown man be ‘born’?  Can he go back into his mother’s womb a second time?” 

Yeshua answered, “Yes, indeed, I tell you that unless a person is born from water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.  What is born from flesh is flesh, and what is born from the Spirit is spirit.”

Yochanan (John) 3: 1-6.  Complete Jewish Bible, translated by David H. Stern, 1998

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The citation above comes from one of the best known passages in the Christian New Testament.  Many besides confessing Christians have pondered it and debated its meaning over the last two thousand years. 

The standard translations used by most Christians use different names than those above for the characters (in English, Jesus for Yeshua and Nicodemus for Nakdimon, while the P’rushim are the Pharisees and the Judeans are “the Jews”).  The Hebrew names help us to see this within its original context as a secret encounter between two First-Century Jewish leaders (whose real-life names were the ones given above) who spoke in Aramaic.  Our version of this encounter is derived from the Greek New Testament Gospel of John (Yochanan).  Perhaps Yochanan was privileged to have witnessed the meeting himself, which would make his story an eyewitness account.  Yochanan (John to us) was one of the “inner three” of Jesus’ disciples – Peter, James, and John and may well have been permitted to “sit in”.  He might even have been Nakdimon’s contact with Yeshua, as we learn later that “he was known to the High Priest” somehow.  David Stern’s translation beings us closer to the historical characters and setting in which this conversation took place. 

Stern’s translation of the Greek word “Ioudaiōn” as “the Judeans” rather than the oft-used general term “the Jews” is helpful in recalling the socio-political situation that existed within the Jewish world of the First Century of the Common Era.  There was no state or Kingdom of Israel or Judea.  It had ceased to exist (once again) as an independent, unified political entity in 63 BCE just after the Roman General Pompey subjugated the Seleucid Empire.

As an afterthought, Pompey headed to Jerusalem to resolve the squabbling over position among the Jewish authorities who had sought Rome’s protection against the Syrian-Greek Seleucid Kings.  Pompey made the Jewish Hasmonean state a Roman protectorate and declared it to lie officially within the Roman sphere.  Rome would appoint and acknowledge the accepted leaders.  He then walked into the Holy of Holies of the Temple, saw no idols, and concluded that the Jews were a very peculiar people bordering on atheism.  Having satisfied his curiosity, and not been struck dead by God as the Jewish leaders thought he would be, Pompey decided to leave their religious business alone as long as they accepted Roman supremacy and did what they were told when Rome told them what that was.

We will not rehash all the ensuing anguished perturbations of Roman-Jewish relations over the next 170 years.  Roman rule varied from using on-site proxies, such as the half-Jewish Herodean dynasty, to direct rule of some sections of “Palestine”, as Rome dubbed this minor-province of their vast Empire.  Palestine came under the overall direction of the Proconsul Governor of Syria, one of the most important provinces of the Empire.  The Governor of Syria had direct command of three and sometimes four Roman legions, as well as an equal number of auxiliary troops stationed throughout the region.  This army of 30 000 – 40 000 Roman troops was a very formidable force to reckon with for any ruler contemplating rebellion.

In the time of Yeshua (Jesus), Judea was under a Roman junior governor (a Procurator) who was subordinate to the Governor of Syria.  Galilee, where Yeshua came from, was under one of the Herodeans, who also reported to the Governor of Syria.  That is why there is a distinction of “the Judeans” in Yochanan’s story.  Nakdimon was a member of Judea’s Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, which had no direct authority in Galilee.

A great deal more could be said to explain the underlying subtleties of this conversation, but it might prove tedious to readers to chase down all those rabbits.  However, a certain amount of explanation is necessary to divest the narrative of some of the more bizarre ideas that have been grafted onto it.  Then there is also the whole issue of anachronistic theological and philosophical attributions flowing from later Christian (and other) theological and allegorical interpolations.

Before we get into the meat of what Yeshua was telling Nakdimon, we should at least attempt to undo some of these layers to, hopefully, free up our ability to see and hear what this meant and still means.  Many great Bible interpreters have labored over this story.  Whatever can be said here is said in acknowledgment of their work.  However, over the last few centuries, our modern culture’s peculiar obsessions have been so woven into and over this account that we have grown almost deaf to what the original people were saying to each other.  Perhaps we cannot really recover all of that now, but we can at least try approach it.

Let us remember that even the “original” Greek of the New Testament is a translation of an oral tradition that was originally in Aramaic, the language spoken among Jews of Palestine in the First Century.  That is what Stern is trying to convey in his version of it.

For me, understanding “unless a person is born again from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God” is still very much a work in progress.  Although I am a committed Christian, I strive to remain open to other points of view as well as those of fellow Christians.  I prefer to not engage in polemic or strident “preaching”.  I hope to invite reflection, rethinking, and response, my own very much included, through this blogging vehicle. 

First, a few comments about what Yeshua was not saying.  He was not proposing reincarnation or the transmigration of the soul.  Some gurus and teachers of major faiths (even some claiming Christian identity) such as some sects of Hinduism and Buddhism have said that Jesus was really an avatar of Vishnu, like Krishna, or a bodhisattva, like another Buddha, who reincarnated among the Jews in order to lead them to moksha (liberation from the wheel of samsara [futile existence]) and nirvana (blissful union with the World-Soul).  There have even been far-fetched stories of his having journeyed to India to learn from the great gurus and bodhisattvas during the “hidden years” between ages twelve and thirty.  After all, how do we know he didn’t do this?

Why didn’t the Gospel-writers tell us about this?  Was it a conspiracy of silence in order not to freak out the Jewish believers?  Was it another case of the later Church leaders suppressing this “truth” like they supposedly suppressed the other “lost Gospels” (like Thomas’ and Mary Magdelene’s and Barnabas’)?

Because this kind of story keeps raising its head, we owe it a brief consideration to evaluate its worth.

First, Jews did not believe in reincarnation.  In the First Century they were divided on whether there was any sort of after-life.  Jewish teaching was that a human was a body-soul being who lived and died once.  No reputable teacher would propose reincarnation, a doctrine of pagan idolaters.  Their sacred writings, which we now know as the Jewish Bible (“Old Testament” to Christians, the Tanakh to Jews), nowhere hinted anything else.

As to Jesus somehow making some sort of “pilgrimage of spiritual discovery” to India or Egypt, or both, as has also been suggested, this amounts to pure invention. Matthew’s account tells us that his parents took him to Egypt as an infant to escape Herod’s plan to kill him following the Magi’s visit.  He stayed there, in all probability in Alexandria among the large Jewish diaspora community there, perhaps up to age 4.  The family then returned to Galilee and settled in Natzeret, where Joseph and Mary (Yosef and Miryam) came from.

There is no evidence anywhere, other than the fertile imaginings of speculators with an agenda to show Jesus to be something beyond a “mere Jewish rabbi” with prophetic leanings, that he ever returned there or went off an a quest to distant India to meet gurus.  If we could categorize him as a guru, we can discredit the Messiah identity.

Culturally and practically, there was no possibility that an oldest son of a respectable Jewish family would simply “take off” on such a journey, leaving his aging father, his mother and numerous siblings, to fend for themselves.  This would be completely out of character within the culture and for the Jesus we see in the Gospels.  Any oldest son who did this would lose all standing and respect.  He would have no credibility to presume he could then become a teacher and leader they would listen to.

We see in his ministry that he adopted the recognized methods, teaching style, language, and model of a rabbi.  He did not use highly esoteric mystical language when he spoke to ordinary folks.  He taught in parables – everyday tales illustrating spiritual truths for uncomplicated people.  The unusual aspect was his itinerant ministry among the lowliest people (for which he was disdained by most of the respectable elite) and his numerous healings and occasional outright miracles.  These things so disconcerted the establishment that they accused him of sorcery and being demon-possessed.

Nakdimon was one of the elite.  He, however, did not disdain or outright reject Yeshua.  His opening remark, “Rabbi, we know it is from God that you have come as a teacher; for no one can do these miracles you perform unless God is with him,” shows that he had been pondering the contradiction in the elitist line of saying Yeshua was a sorcerer or a demonically controlled charlatan.  By this point, the popular Galilean rabbi had a reputation and a following and his teaching was known and reported regularly to the Jerusalem Sanhedrin.  It centered on the coming of the Kingdom of God.  (We glean this information largely from the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)

Nakdimon declares, “We know it is from God that you have come as a teacher…”  In this he is not voicing an official endorsement of the elite.  Who, then, is this “we”?  He is bravely separating himself from the great majority of his peers.  He is coming open, looking past the humble origins of this Galilean yokel.  He is saying that any sensible person with eyes and ears can see that Yeshua is not demonic and is exhibiting a powerful connection with Adonai, Israel’s God.  

Yeshua accepts Nakdimon’s sincerity and does not deny that he, Yeshua, is sent by God.  Instead, he goes straight to the heart of the matter and tells him that “unless a person is born again from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 9 – Exit Strategies

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“… the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” – Henry David Thoreau, On Walden Pond, 1854 CE

Henry David Thoreau, On Walden Pond, 1854 CE

“I don’t understand what I do.  I don’t do what I want, you see, but I do what I hate.”

Saul/Paul of Tarsus, The Letter to the Romans, 7:15 (The Kingdom New Testament, a Contemporary Translation), ca. 55 CE

(Photo credit – The Walden Woods Project)

Almost everyone can relate to the sentiments expressed by the two men quoted above. 

In Thoreau’s case, he had chosen to go apart from the hurly-burley of everyday life and live in almost complete seclusion for two years as a kind of experiment.  Thoreau was one of the early Transcendentalists, who were a group of American idealists seeking harmony and unity first within themselves, then with the creation, and finally with their fellow humans.  Ralph Waldo Emerson is perhaps the most notable thinker and philosopher of this movement, but Thoreau has had the most enduring impact through his more accessible works On Walden Pond and On Civil Disobedience, both works still worth reading.  The second is perhaps the earliest and remains one of the essential manuals for non-violent protest. Gandhi in India cited its influence on his own methods, as did Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thoreau found that in order to attain the desired ideal harmony of being within himself, he first needed to bring his soul into a state of peace and internal order so that harmony could take root.  Before he could be at harmony with others, he needed to find it in himself.  And part of that was to find out who and what he was within the greater order of being, in relation to the origin of all being.

Saul/Paul of Tarsus is better known as the Apostle Paul, one of the founders of Christianity.  He underwent a tremendous personal upheaval about twenty years before he penned the words cited above in the mid-50s of the First Century CE.  Born a Jew in Tarsus, an important city within the Roman Empire in what is now southern Turkey, he had nevertheless gone to Judea and become an ardent Pharisee.  The Pharisees were a strict sect of Jews seeking to live a perfect life according to Torah, the way of God`s law, or at least according to an interpretation of the Torah that included a myriad of strict rules governing almost every imaginable scenario of life. 

We need not concern ourselves here with the fine details of either Thoreau’s Transcendentalism or Paul’s journey out of Phariseeism to belief in Yeshua ben-Yosef of Natzeret as Israel’s Messiah and God’s anointed Savior of the Cosmos.  What we are noting is the divergent paths each chose.  Each was seeking to overcome the tendency within to behave against the very principles they declared their lives to be rooted in.  Thoreau and the Transcendentalists and Saul-Paul represent divergent answers to the personal scandal of the evil we find within ourselves. 

Thoreau represents the way of self-effort, self-salvation.  The “natural way” to seek to subdue the evil within is to strive to save yourself.  This quest often takes a religious form, as in subscribing to fulfilling commandments, performing proper rituals and ceremonies, self-discipline and self-abnegation, and becoming a zealot for one’s chosen creed.

Alternatively, it can come out as a philosophy, such as Thoreau’s Transcendentalism or Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ (161-181 CE) Stoicism (a similar philosophy popular in ancient Rome’s intellectual circles), or perhaps Taoism.  There are many variations of this. 

Our modern socio-politico-economic ideologies also fit this category.  With the right programs based on the right principles, implemented by the right people, we can fix ourselves by fixing our societies and eliminating the systemic roots of evil.  The only problem is that since we have been using this sort of substitute for religion over the last two hundred or so years since the Enlightenment generated all our modern political religions, none of them have lived up to their promise.  Some of them have been downright demonic when they gained total control over a nation.  Some of them are still doing that, and killing thousands more every year to add to the tens of millions whose massacre they have sanctioned in the name of the “true path” to humanity’s ultimate future.

Humans are creatures born to seek meaning and find personal purpose.  We can find no peace without putting something to live and die for in that interior vacuum.  We will put something there.  If it is not a “higher purpose” it will be a selfish purpose which will sanction our use of people and things to allay the emptiness – pleasure, power, esteem, “success”.

But, in the end, it all comes crashing down when we face the “vanity” of all that, as our old friend Qohelet in the Hebrew Scriptures reminds us.  “Meaningless!  Meaningless!” – all the fantastic chase after wealth, power, sex, pleasure, fame.

Will running through the life-cycle over and over teach us to empty ourselves of all this chaff, as reincarnationist belief-systems suggest?  Will doing extreme things to please god, such as persecuting and killing infidels in order to prove our worthiness?  (I do not capitalize “god” in such a context, for the true Creator is not such a being.) 

In all these chimeras, we are striving against the wind.  For we cannot save ourselves.  We cannot by main effort somehow remove all the selfishness in the human self so that we will never know it, feel it, or be overcome by it ever again.

Not that it is not worthwhile to discipline oneself to keep one’s worst things in check – such as a bad temper, a nasty mouth, a careless disregard for needs of others, etc.  But all the greatest exercise of our wills will still leave us short of the mark and, upon occasion, experiencing the anguish Saul-Paul names: “I don’t do what I want, you see, but I do what I hate.”

What if we just accept that we cannot overcome this “heart of darkness” we find thrusting itself forward?  But the more we let it have its way, the easier evil becomes, and the less it bothers us as we go along giving in to it.  If that’s just the way we are, why not use it?

For one thing, if we all do that, we will degenerate into a chaos of violence and exploitation.  The world will be a lawless hell.  So we learn to accept limits in order to live together.  Fear motivates us to be “good”.  Or perhaps, having a “good image” is a good tool to gain some of those “good things” like wealth, pleasure, power, esteem, “success”, control.  Moderation of selfishness allows one to get more in the long run.

And maybe there really is another realm after we die?  So maybe the religious path will gain us enough merit to pass the Deity’s final “performance evaluation”?

As a Pharisee, Saul-Paul was all about passing the Final Performance Evaluation.  He could boast about how well he dotted all the “i’s” and crossed all the “t’s” in the Creator’r rule book.  But he knew that, underneath all that, he still was a raging bull full of hatred and judgement for everyone who didn’t see or honor God the right way.

Until he was waylaid by someone he had judged as an imposter, a poser, a deluder, a fraud. 

We do not have time or space to retell that story.  It can be found in the Christian New Testament Book of Acts, Chapter 9. 

Saul-Paul’s solution to the dilemma of overcoming evil in the human heart and soul is rebirth!  The truth is that, no matter how hard we try, no matter what schemes of whatever formulation we devise, no matter how ingenious we are at conceptualizing what kind of nature we have and why we do what we do, we are still stuck with a heart and soul that is alienated from the Creator.  Being alienated from our Creator, we are alienated from who and what we are really made to be. 

On our own, says Saul-Paul, we can’t fix it.  It’s simply impossible, no matter how hard we try, how zealously we work on ourselves or others around us or our systems and societies.  We are spiritually dead!  We have to be born again!

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 8 – The Root

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“… looking around on the national and international scene, we must confess that it is a very wicked and corrupt one.  Strife and famine, oppression and injustice, flourish on a scale which makes a mockery of our dream.  We are tempted to lend an ear to …. “How can you believe in a good God in the face of the mess that the world is in?” [to which we can reply] “How can you expect the world to be other than in a mess when the good God and his laws are ignored?”

Harry Blamires, The Post-Christian Mind, Exposing Its Destructive Agenda. (Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Servant Publications, 1999), p. 119.

We finished last time with the question, “Why is evil still so prevalent and persistent?”  To which we may add, in the same vein, “Why has it always been, since the earliest records of human society?  Why has it always manifested in even the most primitive and simplest societies?”

Blamires, a well-known and respected English Christian teacher and author and disciple of C.S. Lewis, puts forward a very simple and succinct answer: “How can you expect the world to be other than in a mess when the good God and his laws are ignored?”

But do we really need to revert to tales of God and fables of a human “Fall” from grace and innocence in a perfect Garden of Eden?  I do not intend to run down the rabbit trail of the literal historicity of the Bible’s account of origins.  I do not think that is really to the point in this discussion.  However, in saying this I am not declaring that the Genesis story is not true.  Whether we accept it as actual history or as poetic allegory, it is completely true to human nature as we find it and experience it in our own lives.

Everything begins with a Creator.  If we deny this essential starting point, we have already thrown away the road map for the journey.  After that, we wander “lost” in an uncharted wilderness, having to discover everything for ourselves and to find our own meaning for everything.  We become subject to all kinds of fancies and whims about “who, what, where, when, why, and how”.  We create all our own answers to all the basic questions of existence.  And we are tremendously proud that we can do this and have done it, like fully matured and emancipated adults.

Over and over again, we run into this wall.  We of the West and the Postmodern, Post-Christian world, have “emancipated ourselves from God”.  We have bravely and with “mature” wisdom found that God, or at least the old legend of God, held us in a kind of childhood bondage.  But now, through the liberation of reason and science and technological prowess, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis.”

Now we can re-imagine our primordial beginnings.  We can use the sciences (actually, speculation inspired by science) to reconstruct our earliest evolution and the emergence of human consciousness and self-awareness.  Like Rousseau, we can postulate that, long ago (although very recently in the evolutionary timeframe) the human race emerged in a state of innocence, or “noble savagery”.  Then, as awareness and the first societies began, order and rule began to assert themselves.  Tradition, custom, and “law” appeared, backed up by awe and fear of the unknown.  It was for the good of the whole to accept law, and the unknown powers and forces were personified and placated by resort to forms and rituals of propitiation.

Nature was/is cruel and impersonal, we are told by Darwinism.  The strong survive.  But humans are an anomaly.  As soon as we see homo sapiens present, we already see a deep sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice, caring and compassion – and their opposites, jealousy and ruthless selfishness.  But it is already clear that that sort of character and behavior was reprehensible.  It was and always has been part of human nature and experience to know and revere both the wonderful beauty and majesty of nature and its terrible power and cruelty.  And even in “primitive” cultures, life is cherished and valued, even “weak” life.  Although, for the good of the greater number, the weak and unfit are sometimes left to perish in hard times.

The question of questions is the origin of such sense and awareness in the human heart of hearts.  Evolution really has no satisfactory explanation for such sensibility.  In fact, in any objective account of human nature, it is a fundamental need from the core of our being to acknowledge and seek the meaning of what is, not least of our own relationship to the Great Mystery of Being.  Every human being is born with it, and there is no accounting for it from any inventive application of evolutionary principles that has ever been devised or is likely to be devised. 

It is easy to ascribe the sense of the worth of human life, even the weakest and most fragile, to “the instinct for survival of the species”.  We do not find this in the animal kingdom.  And now, in our enlightened, emancipated world, we find it dissipating in the Post-Christian West as well.  We kill our own young almost indiscriminately because of inconvenience.  A quarter to a third of all pregnancies are now aborted.  We have so desensitized ourselves to this monstrous behavior that we refuse to even discuss it as a matter of principle, citing issues of “personal choice” and using bogus science to treat the unborn as “not yet human”. 

For all our vaunting of the “law of Progress” in human development, it is impossible to justify this sort of flaunting of the most basic laws of nature (let alone of the Creator) as any sort of “Progress” in either our evolutionary development into some sort of higher, superhuman kind of being, or into “God’s children made in the Creator’s image” from the other perspective.  Yet we find ourselves incapable of even the most primal honesty with respect to it.

Once more, we hear Blamires’ question, “How can you expect the world to be other than in a mess when the good God and his laws are ignored?”

The question of abortion is a terrible symptom of a society gone far, far astray from any true standard of what is right and just.  In the West, we find the same moral sickness, disorientation, and bi-polar behavior infecting every other question about the worth and quality of human life.  Increasingly, we find the same phenomenon at work in the non-Western world, although in some cultures the level of value and respect for human life never rose to that of what was once Christendom.

In “The Moral Compass” (#7 in this series), we noted that even a growing number of secular western thinkers are acknowledging that it is perhaps really not possible to hold a firm standard of “good” in the struggle with evil without an appeal to an absolute standard based on some sort of Divine authority.

But is it really and finally as simple as returning to “the good God and his laws” as Blamires puts it?  It is certainly a place to start, rather than remaining adrift on an ocean of chaos.  That sea is becoming more and more choked with the nature-killing rivers of our death-filled industrial pollution while we devalue everything that is truly good and noble and beautiful and praise-worthy in the name of our fantastical, wild Mr. Toad ride of self-indulgence and “self-actualization”.

Whether we believe in “nature restoring order and balance” according to the “laws of the Universe” or in “the good God” ultimately restoring that order and balance according to His/Her laws placed within us and the Creation He/She made us to steward, enrich, and enhance, we would be wise to view the present pandemic crisis as a pause, a brief reprieve, a time to take stock.  If we have eyes to see without being overwhelmed by personal economic and/or health crisis (a tall order, I admit), we might note how clean the air has been, how clear the water has flowed, how much our consumption addiction has decreased.

There is grace even in suffering.  There is hope even in facing evil, especially when we open our eyes and look past our personal pain to the One who is saying something in and through it.

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 7 – The Moral Compass

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The nitty-gritty of our struggle with the evil within is not resolved by abstract reasoning.  It is faced every day in our decisions about how to treat family members, friends and acquaintances, business and work colleagues, schoolmates, strangers, and our planet.  Most of these decisions are made casually, on automatic pilot so to speak.  They are made in accordance with an (however unconsciously) internalized set of principles and criteria we have imbibed from our family of birth, our more extended community as we grow and mature, and the cultural influences we encounter and move in and through along our road to maturity.

Traditionally, religious communities and institutions played a vital, primary role in the moral and ethical development of the members of a family, clan, tribe, and nation.  Here in the West, we have adopted a public posture of “secularism”, or “no-religion”, and we propagate this perspective in our publicly funded education system.  The secular, Enlightenment-based concept of human nature holds that religion is, at best, to be tolerated in the private sphere but not to enter the public realm.  In consequence, morality and the judgment of evil has become largely a private concern, as long as they do not cross legal boundaries which are set according to current socio-ethics.

There are historical justifications for this approach to efface God and religion from the societal framework of right and wrong.  These justifications involve the once deplorable excesses of various brands of Christianity in persecuting and eliminating dissidents and “infidels”, even to the point of mass-killing in persecutions and crusades.  The problem generated by removing religious concepts of good and evil and their origins from our public life is that we must then provide a plausible substitute for holding to any durable, quasi-absolute standards of what is good and what is evil.  As said above, such substitutes have proven rather fluid since they have been increasingly adopted over the last fifty to sixty years.

In the still early years of the 21st Century we have reached a stage when the elimination of God has really begun to matter far more than the Enlightenment philosophes who pushed it so hard could ever have anticipated.  Those earlier generations of Enlightenment thinkers were supremely confident that religion was an almost wholly pernicious force and that reason and science could provide a much “purer” guide to finding a moral compass.  However, the forerunners of modern relativism left their successors with scant intellectual equipment to begin developing any practicable alternative to the Judeo-Christian order of things in the area of morality and issues of good and evil.

However much we might wish to do so, the truth is that here in the West (or anywhere humans live in societies) we simply can’t escape that discussion, no matter how militantly we strive to exclude it from every area of public discussion, whether in politics, economics, social order, education, climatology, personal living, and, yes, even science and technology.  We may wish desperately that it would just go away for “good”, but it just won’t.

“But,” you object, “hasn’t all that been settled once and for all?  Haven’t we declared God dead, except maybe as a nice, comforting personal crutch when we’re desperate?  Haven’t we demonstrated with sufficient proof that bringing the Deity into the public picture only engenders fanaticism and terrible excesses?  Hasn’t recent world history reconfirmed all that outside the West, allowing us to congratulate ourselves and thank our forebears for removing that sort of ugliness from our society?”

If only it were so!  Or, perhaps more appropriately, if only our intelligentsia over the last two hundred and fifty years had not thrown out the baby with the bath water.  There is now a remarkable phenomenon beginning to stir among the neo-philosophe heirs of the Enlightenment.  Where once they asserted as a firm dogma that morality and a sense of strong moral compass do not require God or the Church, there is a growing awareness that without a foundation based on an absolute standard and origin, there is no anchor, no central position or authority from which to make pronouncements that some things are always wrong, always evil, never acceptable or justified.  And without such an anchor, it seems we cannot escape the eventual admission that everything is equally valid in the moral and ethical sphere.  Or it is all just arbitrary according to the current majority view or the officially sanctioned view.

Some of the more astute thinkers among previous generations of Enlightenment-principle proponents saw this clearly and strove mightily to find some new foundation for a firm, immovable set of moral and ethical standards and the judging of questions of good and evil.  A few such figures include Auguste Comte, Immanuel Kant, Georg Friedrich Hegel, and, in his own way, Karl Marx.  And then there is the gigantic, clairvoyant figure of Friedrich Nietzsche, the bravest of them all in his strict adherence to total intellectual honesty.

The others, Comte, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Darwin, and some lesser lights of their ilk danced around the issue.  Nietzsche faced it squarely, honestly, and with brutal frankness.  If we “kill God”, we are only left with ourselves.  We must then choose what we will and find the will to live with it, to make the world we choose come to be.  But only those of superior will to power, the forerunners of the new humanity, can find such a will.  They must transform themselves and bring the rest of humanity with them.

All Kant’s torturous intellectual dancing around “pure reasoning” (a self-contradictory term to begin with) and “critical, practical reasoning” were about finding a way into moral life without the Creator.  Perhaps there was/is a Creator to set up the Universe, but the rest is up to us.  But, in the end, Kant couldn’t find the way into it and left those who tried mightily to follow his convolutions baffled, although quite intrigued.

Hegel read and admired Kant but decided to take a different route, returning to the basically Socratic methodology of the dialectic.  We begin with an assertion of “truth” – a “thesis”.  At some point, the “thesis” is exposed as problematic when evidence seems to contradict it.  This generates a basic question such as, “What if the opposite of this thesis is as true as the thesis?”  The opposite is the “antithesis”.  We then struggle with finding a way to combine the elements of both which seem to be true.  Finally, we find a formula which satisfactorily brings the opposing concepts together, and this becomes our new “thesis”, our new assertion of what is true, right, good, etc.  Until new evidence crops up that we still haven’t arrived at the final truth.  And on the process goes, possibly forever.

Marx loved Hegel’s adoption of the dialectic.  He used it to find the “thesis” he believed the society of the West was operating from in its economic and social dimensions in the 19th Century.  The thesis was Adam Smith’s version of economic development – free-market, laissez-faire liberalism and personal rights.  Marx said it didn’t go far enough.  Only the rich and powerful benefited.  The antithesis was the overthrow of this exploitative system.  That was the next, necessary step in human progress (Auguste Comte’s contribution was the Philosophy of Progress).  This overthrow had to happen and it had to be violent in order to free the oppressed laboring classes and create a socialist society.  The final synthesis would be a sort of purified form of socialism called Communism.  However, this could not happen without the intermediate stage of Socialism.

Darwin added the refinement of not even needing a Creator to explain the natural world.  He also effectively short-circuited all discussion of absolutes in any moral sense.  After all, if the two ruling laws are survival of the fittest and natural selection, what does talk of “good” and “evil” even signify?  The only “good” is survival for its own sake.  The only “evil” is extinction.

How do we find the solution to where evil comes from and how to deal with it from among this cacophony?  Here are some succinct summations of the “answers” which come out of the various approaches cited above. 

For Comte, whatever denies progress based on science and the supremacy of reason must necessarily be evil.  

For Kant, the liberation of the human intellect from dogmatic entrenchment will, over time, enable us to discover what the real absolutes are, based on “pure reason”.  (He never resolved how pure reason could evolve given the subjectivity of human life and experience.)  At that point, we will be able to create a society based on the final, distilled purity of knowing what right and wrong are. 

For Hegel, there is no final version of right and wrong, of total moral certitude.  We can only, hopefully, improve our understanding of such things as we dialectically engage them.  Ideally, as with Comte, humanity will begin to approach a Utopian society based on its ongoing ability to improve itself.

For Marx, there is a shortcut to this hoped-for Utopia: diagnose the present situation, viz., a terribly oppressive, exploitative system benefiting the few and crushing the many for the benefit of the few.  Take affirmative, strong action to overthrow this system.  Create an interim system that will enable the once-oppressed masses to move into the desired totally egalitarian, decentralized Utopia.  Voilà!  No more revolutions or changes necessary!  Earthly paradise!  God is then really dead because the Deity is just a tool of the now-eliminated old Oppressor class to keep the oppressed in line.

Final question for today:  Do any of these lead us to a final answer as to why evil still and always has been so prevalent and persistent?

Short answer: No!  We will discuss why they don’t and can’t next time.

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 6 – The Two “Wisdoms”

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“Behind the technical revolution of the last two hundred years there is a much deeper spiritual process. . . This process begins with the Renaissance, leading on to the Enlightenment, and beyond it to the radically positivist secularised man of today.  Modern technics is the product if the man who wants to redeem himself by rising above nature, who wants to gather life into his hand, who wants to owe his existence to nobody but himself, who wants to create the world after his own image, an artificial world which is entirely his creation.  Behind the terrifying, crazy tempo of technical evolution, there is the insatiability of secularised man who, not believing in God or eternal life, wants to snatch as much of this world within his lifetime as he can. . . . the tempo of its development is the expression of his inward unrest, the disquiet of the man who is destined for God’s eternity, but has himself rejected his destiny. . . the necessary consequence of man’s abandonment to the world of things, which follows his emancipation from God.”

Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation, Volume II. (London: Nisbet & Co., Ltd., 1949, 1955), pp. 4-5.  (Originally given as the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrew’s University, 1948)

Brunner’s analysis and diagnosis has lost nothing of its validity in the last seventy years since he first pronounced it.  If we exchange a couple of words (technology for “technics” and humanity or humankind for “man”) it is as bulls-eyed as when he first composed these lectures.  Of course, if you are one of the secularised of whom he speaks in general terms, you rejoice in the “emancipation from God” but deny that humans have rejected their destiny as eternal beings made to be in relationship with their Creator.

Notwithstanding, how better to describe modern-post-modern Westerners than striving to “redeem [themselves] by rising above nature” and wanting “to gather life into [their] hand[s], who want[] to owe [their] hands to nobody but [themselves], who want[] to create the world after [their] own image, an artificial world entirely of [their] own creation. . . . who want[] to snatch as much of this world within [their] lifetime[s[] as [they] can. . .”?  Other than his politically incorrect use of “man” to refer to the generality of the human race, would Brunner need to change one word of this to describe our ultra-frenetic media-obsessed and information and sensory overloaded society of the 21st Century?

What is the relation of this to our discussion of confronting the evil we find in our faces?  A great deal.  We ended #5, “Know Thyself”, by suggesting that the fundamental disconnect in our present (mis)understanding of ourselves is “on the level of who we are really meant to be, or what we have really been created for.  In other words, we were not meant to be (become) agents of evil, and, being such now, we are not meant to remain in that condition.”  Much of the evil we find distorting and even destroying so much of what is good and noble and admirable, worthy of value and life-enriching, is perpetrated by our own species on us and nature because of our blindness, our loss of “In-sight”, and our failure to grasp who and what we really are and are meant to be.

It is easy in our scientific smugness to lament the superstitious ignorance of our ancient and Medieval forebears in their idolatry and ritualistic flummery.  We mock their use of idols and temples but fail to see our own equally and perhaps even greater idolatry and flummery.  If the old priesthoods and shamans were reprehensible in their manipulation of the poor masses they bamboozled, we are even more guilty because our manipulation and control is more occult, for we pretend to be enlightened and to no longer need to use such deception as we practice it even more powerfully via our technological prowess.  

Meanwhile we have bamboozled ourselves that we owe nothing to anything or anybody, except perhaps to some mystification of the Cosmos that unaccountably could burp up such creatures as ourselves who cannot prevent themselves from believing that they are somehow destined for eternity.  As Qohelet said, we are made with “eternity in our hearts” and cannot seem to expunge that conviction, no matter how hard we try to eradicate it by science, technological overstimulation, and thundering, Goebbels-style [Josef Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, 1933-45] repetition.

Socrates is still sitting in the agora warning “Know thyself!”  Jeremiah is still in the temple courtyard thundering, “Your hearts are above all things deceitful!”  Buddha is still calmly admonishing, “The self you think you are, that is illusion.”  As Brunner points out so well, we have rushed forward with proud science and technology outstripping any moral and spiritual advance we fancy we have made.  In fact, if we believe the evidence of history, we have regressed in the very areas which raise us above the level of mere sophisticated animality.  Unless we really are just cranially enhanced animals .

“In-sight” allows us to see the wonder of the Cosmos and especially of our living planet and of our own incalculably astonishing nature as beings who can in fact “see into”, look above and beyond and deep into the depths and nature of what is.  Our reductio ad absurdum conceit that we understand what the universe, life, and being are because we can see how much of it seems to work is the height of hubris and conceit.  Describing how in no way defines what or tells us why.

By denying the wonder and incredible, unfathomable character of what is and where and who we are, we are laying the foundation of evil itself.  The root of evil lies within, just as the root of knowing the potential for all that is noble and beautiful and worthy lies within.  We encompass within ourselves the ability to conceive and perceive both, and to enact what portrays and produces both.  What is wonderful and terrible both lie in the human heart, and so we see both coming forth in our personal lives and in the history of families, communities, and whole nations and peoples. 

“. . . no one can  tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing,” said James the brother of Jesus in an ancient text admonishing the early followers of Jesus. 

He goes on to contrast the two types of wisdom that flow from the human mind and heart.  One directs us to pursue ambition and pleasure and self-fulfillment.  This, he says, is “demonic” because of the bitterness which it produces like a curse on our lives.  It is “restless poison”.  “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.”

James describes the other wisdom as “from above. . . pure, peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.”  (This discussion is found in the Christian New Testament Letter of James, Chapter 3.)

For many of us, the last few months of living with a global pandemic have, perhaps for the first time ever or in a very long time, brought us up against some of the deeper questions that we have buried or pushed out of sight.  Occasionally we may have glimpsed them when someone dear to us has died or when we ourselves have skirted the shores of Charybdis and seen Hades approaching.  But we usually succeed in rushing on with a fleeting concession that “someday I’ll think about that stuff, but for now I’m basically a good person.”  For many, too much procrastination amounts to the day of taking account of “that stuff” never coming, or finding it comes so abruptly that there is no time to find the path through it.

This moment is an opportunity for many to actually reconsider what we are here for, what our being is about, why we live in the crazy way we do, how much time, energy, and money we spend on “vanity” as Qohelet put it.

The other thing that swims to the surface is this whole issue of evil, whether of the variety that comes anonymously from a natural source, or the very personal kind coming from a fellow traveler or group of bandits on the road, or even from within our own hearts.

If we confess that there is real evil, we must also conclude that there is real good, and that there is a choice to be made.  As James puts it, which “wisdom” will we pursue?  Where has “emancipation from God” actually brought us?

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 5 – Know Thyself

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“Know thyself.”

The Oracle of Delphi and Socrates

We finished last time with this Hebrew Bible quotation: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick.  Who can fathom it?”  (Yirmayahu/Jeremiah 17:9)

If you are like me, you don’t usually see yourself or your heart as “deceitful” or “desperately sick.”  The culture of the late 20th Century and 21st Century West encourages us to see ourselves in exactly the opposite sense.  “I’m OK; you’re OK.”  I/you/we don’t do anything really bad, so we’re all good people.  And, if you hold with an afterlife, we all get to “go to heaven”, whatever that might mean.  In other verses, the Bible even tells us to love ourselves, and to love others the way we love ourselves. 

It would appear that loving ourselves and understanding how deceptive we can be and often are about what’s really going on inside are different issues.  It can be quite a challenge to love myself when some of the dark stuff buried inside my heart leaks up into the light.  If I can be honest about that, it should make it easier to have compassion for others in their brokenness, even when their darkness lashes out at me or others. It it about loving myself just because, or despite what I sometimes manifest in my nature that is quite unlovable? And does loving myself have anything to do with knowing the truth about myself? These are deep questions which we are now sadly ill-equipped to deal with.

Despite our pop psychology about all being “good people”, I am (and I suspect you are) ready enough to see the deceit in others.  The world is not out to get me, but our common behavior in a competitive society encourages us to fudge our own self-aggrandizing antics and exaggerate the failings of others.  Knowing myself with some clarity (even if only in a backhanded way) makes me suspect their good intentions, for mine are all too often less than purely altruistic. 

Another ancient Hebrew proverb declares, “Many proclaim their loyalty, but a faithful person (or person of integrity) who can find?”  I am adept at hiding my own deceit behind rationalization and evasive manoeuvres resembling fine motives.  I’m so good at it that I have become largely immune to my own slipperiness.  I don’t care for too much personal examination of my less admirable motivations lurking in the shadows, but I quite readily impute such subterfuge to others.

When Socrates taught that the road to wisdom began with “Know[ing] thyself”  was he preaching pop psychology 101 of the “I’m OK; you’re OK” variety?  Asked what he meant by such an enigmatic declaration he said that few ever care to learn what’s really buried inside them or to learn the truth behind their common preconceptions.  His “Socratic Method” of perpetually and dialectically probing was designed to uncover the deepest roots of what is hidden.  He made so many people in power so uncomfortable that they decided to frame him as an atheist and a subverter of good morals and social order. He was condemned to death for “leading the youth astray”.

Socrates still makes people uncomfortable.  The Oracle of Delphi named him the wisest man in the world.  Asked why, Socrates replied that the only way that made any sense was because he understood that he really knew nothing.  Knowing how little we know is the first step towards wisdom because it is the first step to teachability, correctability, and taking responsibility for finding out what we don’t know but pretend or delude ourselves that we do.

We see the same idea reflected in an even older source – the Proverbs of Solomon: “The fear of Adonai ⁄ the Lord ⁄ God is the beginning of wisdom.”  The unfathomable Creator is the true Source of all that is, including our personal being.  Surely wisdom begins with a bit of healthy fear of the One who made all that is!

Again, we are confronted by the contrast of our modern-post-modern paradigm of our innate, basic goodness which, in the end, approves us as all “good people” regardless of any amount of destructive and hurtful stuff we’ve perpetrated over our wind-puff lives of a few decades.  We reassure ourselves constantly with this refrain about being good people when we dig deep even as we live mostly selfish and self-indulgent lives.  We can rime off some good deeds along the way and think that that much shorter list compared to the other one erases all the not-so-good stuff.

Of course, if there is no Creator what does it matter in the cosmic scale anyway?

Our version of the Creator is of a sort of Super-Being made in our own image, rather than the much more ancient idea about us being made in His/Her image.  Inasmuch as a Deity is accepted in 2020, He/She is a Great, Loving, Grandparent up above who could  never think badly of us no matter what we are and do.

After all, why should I fear my loving, supremely indulgent Grandparent above?  How can fear rather than love be the beginning of wisdom?  How does Socrates’ insistence on digging and probing into what goes on underneath help us anyway?  Exploring your inner stuff, as in psychotherapy, never ends, because we are masters of self-deception.  We comfort ourselves with being a good person because what we really mean is “because I/he ⁄ she never do ⁄ did anything really bad, we must be “good”.” 

As numerous scientific polls and personal discussions about people’s belief in an afterlife tell us (think about all the funeral-parlor visits, wakes, memorials and funerals you’ve attended), we are ready to believe in some sort of heaven or nice “place” for the departed, but very few (even self-proclaimed Christians and Jews) believe in a “Hell” any more.  After all, the loving, grand-parently Creator whom 60-70% of us now believe in could not send anyone to hell just because they were wicked.  Well maybe a few especially sordid individuals like Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, or mass-murderers and sadistic killers, rapists, etc.  Even the Great Heavenly Benefactor must have a few limits, right? After all, even we have a few limits.

However, it seems rather counter-intuitive that good people often seem to die more cruelly and earlier than bad ones.  And too often as victims of the bad ones.  This is an observation found in numerous ancient sages and modern commentators on the human condition.

Perhaps that isn’t the way the Creator intended it to be in the first place.  Perhaps there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface of our truncated empirical, physical-material worldview.  Perhaps, as we saw from C.S. Lewis, we have gone “blind” to anything but the atomic structure of trees (and anything else we believe we can sum up by measuring it), so that we no longer have “In-sight”.

Maybe, if we could begin to lift our eyes from our self-absorption and take our noses out of our navels, we might begin to fathom what Socrates meant about “Know[ing] thyself” and what Jesus meant when he said things like, “Those who have eyes to see, let them see,” and “If you want to save your life, you must lose it.”  Buddha and other Oriental sages said, “What you imagine to be your self is illusion.  You are not that.”

In the Christian Bible, the Apostle Paul spoke about “the mystery of iniquity” and “the son of lawlessness.”  There is also talk of the “spirit of antichrist”.  Our own duality remains very much a mystery.  As the ancient Christian teacher (Saint) Paul observed in one of his letters to a group of Christians in Rome (Romans 7), he found the evil inside himself baffling.  He wanted to do good and be righteous but found himself doing the nasty things he despised.  He cried out, “Who will deliver me from this?  How can anyone be saved?”

His answer was that, contrary to our modern-post-modern conviction, we actually can’t bootstrap ourselves out of breaking our own internal commandments (let alone any we accept from the Creator), even simple things like New Years’ Resolutions.  We need help on two levels.

First, we need help to find the strength to fight the battle of defeating the continuous urges to do and say all kinds of stuff that, in our honest moments, we know is going to hurt someone, or whole groups of someones.  Why do we have such urges?  Because we get some advantage over others in comfort, nice rewards, pleasure, feelings of power and control, etc.  It is natural to want pleasure and control and safety and the rush of power, of victory.

Why should we even fight to repress these urges?  Some today would say we shouldn’t, just learn to wait for the right moment to indulge them. But there are many reasons to resist them, not the least of which is that we may end up as pariahs. A list of reasons to resist the evil within us would be long and tedious.

What is Paul’s second level where we need help?  It is on the level of who we are really meant to be, of what we have really been created for.  In other words, we were not meant to be (become) agents of evil, and, too often being such now, we are not meant to remain in that condition.

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 4 – Conspiracies

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“Christian dogma …. is dead, at least to the modern Western mind.  It perished along with God  [cf. Nietzsche’s declaration about where we have brought ourselves in our quest for freedom from dogma and superstition].  What has emerged from behind its corpse, however—and this is of central importance—is something even more dead; something that was never alive, even in the past: nihilism, as well as an equally dangerous susceptibility to new totalizing, utopian ideas.  It was in the aftermath of God’s death that the great collective horrors of Communism and Fascism sprang forth (as both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche predicted they would.  Nietzsche, for his part, posited that individual human beings would have to invent their own values in the aftermath of God’s death.  But… we cannot invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe on our souls.  This was Carl Jung’s great discovery…”

(Italics are in the original source.)

Jordan B. Peterson.  12 Rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos
(Random House Canada, 2018), p. 193

The COVID-19 Pandemic has quickly taken its place as a conspiracy theory. As with most conspiracy theories, some of the current rumors about Novel-Corona doubtless hold grains of truth.  In fact, some quite reputable sources are asking some very serious questions about what we’ve been told and evidence that very plausibly points to some rather unsettling origins and actions or inactions related to its rapid propogation.

History illustrates all too starkly that there really are dark and sinister people and forces working to undermine society, world order, and democracy.  Many of the current batch of these agents of evil are blatantly obvious.  Fascists, neo-fascists (China is nominally Communist but, if you compare it to Nazi Germany, it is really now a Fascist State), Islamists, Anarchists, Cut-throat Capitalists, and Communists who hate Capitalism.  Throw in the numerous haters of liberal (or any) democracy and the West who would love to bring it down so their version of Utopia might somehow emerge from the chaos and ashes.  

The haters are part of the society they hate, projecting on it and their fellows their own alienation from humanity.  They wear ideological disguises or simply wallow in sociopathy. 

Amoral, unscrupulous people and organizations always improvise in order to reap the maximum selfish profit and benefit out of any opportunity for whatever nefarious purposes they aspire to achieve.  Such behaviour sometimes inhabits a national leadership elite and will use completely immoral methods to undermine the societies of their real or perceived enemies.

Some conspirators are Capitalists without a conscience seeking a freer rein for their corporate greed and predatory practices.  Some conspirators are in positions of great political and social power and influence, both within nations and in international affairs.  They include financial super-players and mega-corporate entities in the economic and socio-political realms.

Conspirators pride themselves on being master manipulators of the gullible classes and masses, the ordinary, “unenlightened” regular people just striving to live a reasonably peaceful, productive, and happy life.  Many conspirators are fanatical ideologues (religious or other) whose agenda is a new world order according to their vision of utopia, with themselves at the helm, of course.  Before taking power, Fascists in Italy, Nazis in Germany, Bolsheviks in Russia, Maoists in China, etc, were all conspirators hiding in plain sight.

Because such people like to move and manoeuvre out of the public limelight, they leave that plane to the next level below them – the ambitious and idealistic (or just plain greedy and self-serving) cadres who seek to gain access to government and para-government agencies where power and control over public policy can be had.  Their ambition makes them vulnerable to suggestion, subtle bribery, and blatant manipulation.  Meanwhile, the masters move in the shadows, content to use money, spider-web connections, the media, and social networks to pull the strings from the shadows.  History is chalk-full of the records of all this, from Ancient Egypt to modern-day ISIS, drug cartels, and internationalized crime syndicates.

For the great unwashed mass of humanity who never see this level of power and have no or very little notion of it, save a caricature perhaps portrayed in popular literature and film, all of this sounds very much like mythology and hyper-imagination.  Do the Illuminati exist?  Is there really a Bilderberg Group?  Have these groups morphed into a new incarnation (the Davos select super-elite?) devising a scheme to impose a world government on the unwary common crowd?  According to the conspiracy watchers, the elect pull all the strings from the back rooms of the UN and its super-national agencies (e.g., WHO, IMF, UNESCO, World Bank, etc.)? 

Every institution and organization is political.  Politics by its nature is full of back-room secret meetings and hidden agendas.  The wheeler-dealers manoeuvring for position, influence and control are hardly likely to raise a flag to identify themselves and openly declare their plans and intentions.  What appears in public is the tip of the iceberg, whether we are in a liberal democracy with freedom of expression and association or in an oligarchic totalitarian society such as China.

In the present case, the rumors are that this COVID thing is a clever and choreographed dress rehearsal for the next step in moving the world to accepting the necessity of a central direction for the whole planet.  After all, could we not once and for all end world poverty if we had a central authority to (re)distribute the world’s resources more equitably?  Could we not end famine if we could centrally direct the food supply so that the great surpluses in some places could readily be sent to alleviate the dire need in others?  Could we not end war if there was a central political authority to resolve international disputes?  Could we not save the planet’s ecosystem if we could centralize an authority to rein in the unconscionable rape of nature?

None of these ideas are very new, except perhaps the new awakening to the perilous climate situation.  A conscious plan for One World Government (under UN auspices as the most obvious route) is not a far reach, and the European Union has evolved as a functional working prototype for the One World Movement.  It is certainly not difficult to credit the One-World idea as an eventual goal among the leading internationalist intellectuals and plutocrats.  Some of them have even said publicly that they hope for this.

Of course, the underlying question about a One-World Cartel system is who would be at the top?  We can quite plausibly see much of the international manoeuvring as the game of positioning for that role.  Obvious rivals are China and the US, and China still has to supplant the US and bring the West into disrepute to take its place.  Thus some of the rather disturbing questions about this whole COVID outbreak and its (mis)management.  The economic and social damage done to the West has been monumental while China seems comparatively unaffected and now can portray itself as the great benefactor – a role it has already been playing in the less developed world.

Attempts to create international agencies and apply versions of the One-World ideology have been made in both ancient and modern times.  “World Empires” were one method – the Roman being the most effective and long-lasting outstanding example.  This is undoubtedly one the main reasons it fascinates so much to this day.  (See blog Archives – “The Allure of Rome”)

I would not presume to diagnose where we are on the road to instituting a One-World System of ultimate political, economic, environmental, and social control.  But there is a huge amount of history behind this gradual process.  Since the Scientific, Industrial, Economic, Intellectual, and Social Revolutions began to take hold in the latter half of the 18th Century, the “System” has been generating itself almost like a living entity evolving before our eyes.  The catalyst was the Enlightenment. 

In all probability the historical trend to one-world is not the result of a single (human, at any rate) conscious mind or even group of minds working within and through a well-knit secret elite society such as the Illuminati or the Freemasons or the T’ang, Islamist Mahdiism, or a Super-Corporate Cartel such as Davos or Bilderberg.  But perhaps such groups are taking a serious hand in the present phase of this movement.

There are undoubtedly groups operating, manipulating, conspiring, and using aspects of the system in the present exceptional circumstances to further their own agendas, among which a One-World System would be included as a means to achieve their own vision.  Some of those listed above may well be manoeuvring to help the process along, and even functioning in temporary alliances of convenience.  Regardless of the extent to which any of this corresponds to real people, organizations, and events past, present, and future, at bottom they are manifestations of something much deeper and more hidden.

The term “occult” means hidden from view.  Conspiracies of all kinds are, by their very nature, in that sense, occult.  Those who foment and participate in them want to remain hidden so that they can manipulate and move in the shadows.  Only at the end do they emerge from that realm to take the place of final power and control to triumph in the revolution they have executed.

All things occult crave hiddenness, and thus darkness.  The occult’s native language and modus operandi is conspiracy.  Its nature is to undermine, to distort, to corrupt and poison until it overthrows and destroys the thing it hates.  Conspiracy is a kind of evil engendered at the most destructive level of deceit, lying, defrauding, calumny, misinformation, and a long list of many other practices – all steeped in the “dark arts” that lead to theft, death, and destruction.

At this point some readers may think I am speaking about “Occult Arts” like Black Magic, Satanism, necromancy, séances, etc.  While these are certainly “occult” in their naive and rather superficial (but nonetheless possibly nasty) way, I am talking about the kind of occult activity that is practiced by hosts of people who would never self-identify as practitioners of the above “Occult Arts”.  I am speaking about the heart of evil that has haunted humanity since its inception – however people account for human nature, whether by direct fiat creation by a personal Deity, by the ineluctable processes of evolution with its brutal universe of survival of the fittest and natural selection, or, as many religions suggest, by the existence of a purely malevolent set of beings conspiring to destroy humanity.  Or a combination of all or some of the above.

But, whatever the origin of evil, humankind has been its own biggest destroyer, its own worst devil, its own greatest enemy.  The evil that proceeds from deliberate human choice and action (or inaction) and speech has done far more than any natural disaster or “Act of God” on record.  In that sense, as we have said throughout this series, evil always wears a personal face, and it is not God’s.  It may be Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s, Pol Pot’s, the Grand Inquisitor, or an African tyrant or Islamic terrorist at different moments, but, beneath them, and following the lead of such horror-creators, it wears the face of “regular folks” who decide to do as their told because of some benefit or reward they believe will be theirs, or perhaps because they have swallowed the Big Lie about doing it “for the greater good”.

We cannot depersonalize evil.  And, as Perterson points out in our opening quote, we can’t blame God any more.  The bankruptcy of the claim that religion (God) is the cause of almost all the really evil stuff humans have done to one another has been exposed as utterly wrong.  It is not religion, it is the moral corruption and deadness of the human heart and soul, now left with no fall-back at all without God as a convenient whipping-boy.

Even the Devil, Satan, or whatever term we use to name the evil power at work in the occult realm (remembering the root meaning of occult), is not ultimately to blame for what we do to one another.  Perhaps such a power conspires and seduces the human perpetrators, but the humans choose to execute the terrible deeds. 

The issue of God ordering some horrible things done is really a red herring.  The ‘normal’ pattern is human decision to be evil for selfish purposes born of the evil in our own hearts.  The oft-repeated accusation of an all-good God ordering genocide is usually a dodge to avoid facing the innate capacity of humankind to do great evil on its own hook. 

Whether any or all or none of the latest batch of conspiracies hatched and hatching out of the COVID-19 crisis prove to be true, we need to recognize the root of all of it, past, present, and future.  One of the oldest comments on this wretched situation is this one from the Hebrew Bible: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick.  Who can fathom it?” (Yirmayahu/Jeremiah 17:9)

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 3 -Star Wars

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“May the Force be with you.”

Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars

Happy May the Fourth! Today is “National Star Wars Day” to those who are into that modern-day saga of the struggle of good and evil. 

We have lately visited the Cosmos’ dualism. The Star Wars universe is one of almost pure Dualism – the “Light Side” versus the “Dark Side”.  The good-guy Jedi wield light sabers of white or green light while the bad-guy Sith wield light sabers of hellish red light.  The good guys can always be tempted to turn to the Dark Side and follow the current Sith Lord, who is a master plotter, calculator, and manipulator, and filled with the power that comes from anger and hate.

In the original trilogy the Sith Darth Vader tells Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi standing , “Luke, release your anger and find your power,”.  Luke does not know that Vader is his fallen father, once a powerful Jedi himself.  He will learn this later.  Vader had been seduced to the Dark Side by the secret Sith Lord, Darth Sidius (insidious!).  Together Sidius and Vader had established the Galactic Empire to replace the moribund, corrupt, semi-democratic Galactic Republic. 

For Sidius it was all about power, used however necessary to gain absolute control.  But Vader had been motivated by revenge and anger and a desire to control the Cosmos in the name of “the greater good” of universal peace.  The problem was that this peace was like the Roman peace of earth’s antiquity: “They [the Romans] created a wasteland and called it peace,” as one Roman historian daringly quipped.

The Star Wars saga is one of the great cultural allegories of our time, embodying most of the great questions that lie at the heart of human civilization and society.  All the great conflicts are subsumed – social and political order versus personal freedom, individual rights versus societal duties and demands, economic advantage and exploitation versus personal needs and security, individual wellbeing versus collective wellbeing, etc.  In the telling, we meet the Tempter over and over again.

But the Emperor-Tempter does not force Vader to “turn” to the Dark Side, just as Vader cannot ultimately force Skywalker to turn.  The choice must be made freely.  Even if the temptation seems overwhelming, consent comes from personal choice.  Vader and Skywalker are the protagonists, one seeking to turn the other.  Skywalker believes against any reasonable evidence that somewhere deep inside, a little spark of good, of true light, still smolders in Vader.  In the end, he is proven right and he “redeems” Vader as they destroy the Emperor together, although Vader gives his life in the doing.

In the last instalment of this blog series, we suggested that there is a cross-over between the personal face of evil and the impersonal events we call “Acts of God” which inflict more widespread, generalized pain, suffering, and misery.  Star Wars makes this connection too.  (It would be interesting to know just how much of all this George Lucas was consciously incorporating in his greatest masterpiece.)

Let us consider for a moment how Lucas presents it.  In the original series it is not as clear as he makes it in the second trilogy.  In Episode 1 (actually the fourth film in chronological production), the Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn’s apprentice, the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Queen Padmé of Naboo discover Anakin Skywalker, a young boy who is a slave on Tatooine, a planet on the fringe of the Republic.  Anakin has an extremely high “Metachlorine” count which indicates a child with a very powerful connection to “the Force”, the fundamental energy of life and the universe.  The Force has a light and dark side (like Yin and Yang) and takes personal, incarnate form.  It is in everything and everyone, but some people have a much stronger connection, or presence, than others.

Of course, there is no exact parallel between this allegorical universe and ours.  But, as in the Star Wars story, we all experience the very real, personal manifestations of the forces of nature as both beneficial and destructive.  We also all have within us the ability to use our own power and ability to good or ill, benefit or harm towards ourselves, others, and the rest of the creation.  My response to what is can be on the light side or the dark side.  Even when life and the Cosmos throw pain and suffering at me, and even death, there is still that choice.

I may be a helpless, hapless victim in the sense that what comes to me and those precious to me brings the evil of death, pain, suffering, and misery.  It doesn’t matter that the cause of the suffering is some impersonal “natural” power.  It is evil because it does evil to me and mine.  But I am not entirely powerless, for I still have the power to choose how I will meet this evil.

As we said last time, it is no good to say that the coming of these afflictions is not evil.  For you and me when they come, they are.  Occasionally we find some mystics and saints calling even these events good because of their faith that they are ultimately God’s doing, even if only because God permits them to happen instead of stopping them and protecting us from anything bad that could happen.  For these great souls, the good breaks through as they learn to suffer well and praise the Creator for giving them the grace to go through them and find Him/Her there in their midst.

In a perfect spirituality, I do not disagree with this perspective, and have had some experience of it myself, as have many people I know.  But that has never taken me to the point of the great mystics welcoming the coming of evil in whatever form it takes as an opportunity to know my Creator better and more intimately.  If that is a result of what comes, it is great, but I won’t go looking for it, and, frankly, I personally don’t know anyone who would.

I recognize the Star Wars universe with its light and dark.  It is everywhere around us, but, as C.S. Lewis put it in his essay “Evil and God” (see previous post), evil is a parasite on good.  It is not an equal “partner” in truth and what is meant to be.  Darkness is the absence of light; as soon as light breaks in, the darkness begins to fade.  As soon as truth breaks in to our awareness, the wrong and the lie begin to fade away.\

And so with our sense of why death and pain and suffering feel “wrong”, not “normal” in the ultimate sense.  Even now, even with COVID devastating society, the economy, and many thousands of individual lives, families, and communities.  All through history we see the battle fought over and over – to restore and even create life and peace where there has been destruction and rampant death and evil.  Only very warped and deranged people want war more than peace, death as an amusement over peace and life and harmony.  Hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, droughts, etc. all come and will continue to come and wreak havoc on us and the other living creatures of this world.  But they are never “right” and “good” in any meaningful sense.  Instead, what we have always seen afterwards is resurrection and renewal in the natural world, of which we are part, despite our schizophrenic behaviour towards it.

As long as the human race lives, we will not just “lie down and die” and meekly submit to “the inevitable”.  We are not made that way.  We are made to rise, to overcome, to create, to renew, to enhance.  Our innermost soul tells us this even in the midst of the worst.  Most often, our soul tells us without words, but nonetheless with great clarity through our drive to live, to repair, to make better.  Our “dark side” too often disrupts the truth of who we truly are meant to be, but, as Saint Paul puts it in one of his letters to an early Christian community called the assembly (church) in Corinth, “Death is the final enemy”.  Even so, “Death has lost its sting.”  He calls death a personal power, not an abstract, inevitable result of evolutionary law.  It is wrong and not meant to rule or have the final word.  The final word goes to Life, perfect Life, the very Life of the Creator imparted to human beings through the mediator of the Creator’s personal presence among us – Yeshua ha-Mashiach, who truly died but was raised as the personal guarantee that pain, suffering, misery, and death do not have the last word.

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 2

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“If evil has the same kind of reality as good, the same autonomy and completeness, our allegiance to good becomes the arbitrary chosen loyalty of a partisan.  A sound theory of value demands something different.  It demands that good should be original and evil a mere perversion; that good should be the tree and evil the ivy; that good should be able to see all around evil (as when sane men understand lunacy) while evil cannot retaliate in kind; that good should be able to exist on its own while evil requires the good on which it is parasitic in order to continue its parasitic existence.”

C.S. Lewis, “Evil and God” in God in the Dock, Chapter 1, 1970

When evil has a personal face, it is easy to recognize, at least for “sane men” as Lewis points out in his brilliant little essay quoted above.  It is when it comes anonymously, as in a killer-virus such as we are now experiencing, or a terrible tsunami, or some other “Act of God”, that it is not so obvious. 

Evil is, as he so aptly describes it, “a mere perversion”, a “parasite” on the good.  Most of us can pretty readily accept that good health is good, but disease and injury are not, at least not in any meaningful personal sense.  Disease is a “perversion” of what normal life is meant to be, what we believe we are truly made for.  That is why we work so strenuously to avoid it and prevent it, and, when it comes, to overcome it and restore “normal” life as much as is possible.

We may get bogged down here by racing after the rabbit of evolution and its “laws” of natural selection and survival of the fittest.  The sociological counterpart of these “laws” is the doctrine of inevitable progress towards a more and more perfect society where everything becomes better and better for everyone over time.  From those two perspectives (which are really manifestations of the same belief system in different domains), some apparent “evils” are really good because the dialectical process (Hegel’s contribution to the endless progress ideology) demands a constant see-saw between the two poles (“thesis” and “antithesis”) in order for progress to occur. 

In other words, our whole modern-post-modern foundational perspective and ideology are actually built on a deeper worldview of Dualism.  In the essay quoted above, Lewis makes devastatingly short work of this ideology, leaving it as exposed as the Emperor with no clothes whom everyone ignores for the sake of living in peace because we are afraid to admit that insanity rules.

Lewis’ point is that Dualism itself is a false trail.  He concedes that it is better than admitting no evil at all exists, but its deception is that evil has an independent status on the same footing as good, “the same autonomy and completeness” reducing good and evil to simple partisan preferences of equal validity.  The Hebrew prophet Isaiah once commented on this kind of thinking and belief by denouncing 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.” (Isaiah 5:20)  As Lewis sums it up, “A sound theory of value demands something different.”

The proposal that an immoral and even evil course of action is justifiable because of the “good” end benefits, whether at a personal or communal level, is the subtlest end-run around “a sound theory of value”.  We have all heard this as “the ends justify the means”. Thank you for that pearl of cynical wisdom, Machiavelli!  The German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck phrased it for politics and state-craft as “Realpolitik”. 

In a perfect world we would not have to deal with such thinking, but we have all run into conundrums in our own lives about whether or not to tell the truth, or perhaps “to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.  Whether or not to “snitch”, be a tattle-tale.  When is it more right, or better, to withhold the truth or part of it, to perhaps allow a little larceny to produce a much better result for someone (or oneself) which will promote a greater long-term good?  Or perhaps to protect someone from harm and even death – as in sheltering a Jew during the Holocaust?  Or a fugitive slave?  A human-made law in and of itself is not necessarily right.  We all understand that there is a “higher law”, a “sound theory of value” that we are all yearning for.

At the personal level normal people have a conscience to guide them regarding good and evil.  Children need to learn not to hurt others, not to take what is not theirs, not to lie, but there is an innate sense that there are good and bad things – even if only at first in learning that some behaviors result in bad consequences.  But the ability to differentiate is already inborn.

Evil has a personal face, all the time.  A natural process is not “evil” of itself, but can have evil effects on the living creatures sometimes caught in its path.  Since we do not control these processes, we call them “acts of God”. 

But the Creator is not “evil” for creating a cosmos in which its elements and processes may bring pain and suffering on the beings inhabiting it.  Those beings are also part of that cosmos, but the difference is that some of them are aware of how things proceed, of the kinds of effects some actions can produce – both on themselves and on other creatures, and even on the non-living part of the cosmos.  That is where the moral element enters.

This is a very complex issue and relationship, much debated by philosophers and theologians since humans could record their thoughts.  The Biblical Book of Job is possibly the first treatise dealing with it in depth ever written.  It is still a compelling read, even for people who do not normally look into the Bible.  If you have a few hours during your present confinement, I recommend you (re)read it!  The end is rather shocking but quite a revelation and certainly humbling.

So what of the issue of God and evil, as per Lewis’s little essay?  Is the existence of evil, in all its forms, impersonal “acts of God” and personal acts of malevolence, a convincing “proof” that no eternal, infinite, all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator can possibly exist?  Or perhaps it proves, as per Dualism, that there are really two battling deities at war in the Cosmos?  Or is it really, contrary to modern-post-modern received wisdom, proof that there is such a Creator as the West’s traditional all-good, all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator?

As Lewis tells us (if you look up his little essay it is a ten-minute reading gold-mine) in “Evil and God”, the Dualism choice is better than the first one in the above paragraph, because it explains more of what we really meet in the Cosmos as it is.  But it is much inferior to the third choice he offers.

Our problem is that we westerners have so little foundation in metaphysics and spiritual formation that we do not have a way to fit a God who could allow evil to exist into any box we are capable of constructing.  Our scientific, materialist mindset insists that any Deity who can really exist must be measurable and reducible to categories that our finite minds can create. (Of course, if we could so delineate and define God, He/She would not be God!)

The paradox is that we don’t want to be told that there is an absolute truth and standard that is above and beyond what we are willing to accept either within our society or within our personal lives.  After all, I am an autonomous, independent, self-aware, self-determining being.  How dare some God tell me, in any way, what I am really made for and how I can best discover all I am meant to be!  We want the right to tell a Creator what He/She ought to do and be, and how!

However, despite all our Ophelian protests to the contrary (Hamlet saying of his lady-love, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much…”), our nature tells us that we are made to know that there is a Creator and that we are made to be in personal relationship with Him/Her. 

Somehow, when we arrive there, the good-evil dilemma, dialectic, paradox, etc., begins to take on a different face.  We become the “sane man” in Lewis’ phraseology, who is “able to see all around evil (as when sane men understand lunacy) while evil cannot retaliate in kind”.

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 1

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“… we ignore evil except when it hits us in the face.  Some philosophers and psychologists have tried to make out that evil is simply the shadow side of good; that’s it’s part of the necessary balance in the world, and that we must avoid too much dualism, too much polarization between good and evil.  That, of course, leads straight to Nietzsche’s philosophy of power and by that route back to Hitler and Auschwitz.  When you pass beyond good and evil, you pass into the realm where might is right, and where anything that reminds you of the old moral values—for instance, a large Jewish community—stands in your way and must be eliminated.

“… we are surprised when evil hits us in the face …”

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God.  (IVP Books, 2006), pp. 24-25

I am not among those who regards evil as an evolutionary social convention evolved and adopted in order to protect the community over many millennia.  There has been change, or evolution (which just means change, after all) in the way people perceive morality and apply it in ethics.  But humans are built and born with a sense of right and wrong, good and bad.  It is part of being self-aware, self-conscious, human.

The evolutionary adoption and adaptation theory of morality is the prevailing paradigm of the West’s intelligentsia.  But a strange thing happens “on the way to the Forum” when a whole community, rather than an individual or family here and there, is confronted with the close personal tragedies of death and severe illness, or other traumas.  The intellectual construct of a sort of evolved, community-approved code of evil drops away like a mask in a Greek tragedy and the malevolence of some things in the Kosmos becomes very personal and very real.

For me and everyone I know, when death passes near it has an amazing faculty of clarifying the mind and focusing the spirit.  This seems true even for those who choose to deny that they are spiritual beings as well as physical.  In the community where I live and another one just a dozen kilometers down the road two seniors’ residences have been very hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Multiple people have died and are dying, many are quite ill, and the courageous staff are under siege.  Because of the quarantine, the rest of the community is powerless to do anything of the usual “practical” stuff in the face of this tragedy.  Those who pray believe that is at least something, while the rest voice moral support and offer whatever other aid the afflicted sub-community can accept.

Today we are witnessing what Bishop Wright stated above: that we only seem to clue in to the existence of real evil, not a mere intellectual construct, “when it hits us in the face”.  For us here in our town, we are staring into the very real face of evil, and it has taken on a very personal dimension.  The pain, suffering, and anguish are right at home.

Why have we as a people become so divorced from the reality of evil, so unwilling to name real things that are just plain WRONG?  Tell the suffering that they have been “selected according to the laws the universe” and see what they say.  The laws of survival of the fittest and chaos theory bring no comfort to the “chosen” and their loved ones.

As Jordan Peterson tirelessly points out in 12 Rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos, if you trundle along through life adopting the posture of the victim of cruel fate, the personal prey of a sort of dark conspiracy “out there” to crush you, you will sink into a quagmire of bitter despair and hopelessness.  Then we all become the butt of a supremely cruel joke, sentient beings who seem innately built to seek and find meaning only to discover that there is none—unless you somehow contrive to invent one for yourself.  But is there an alternative?  God, perhaps?

The heirs of the Enlightenment, as Steven Pinker calls the West’s intellectual elite, Voltaire’s Bastards as John Ralston Saul terms them (and among whom he numbers himself), cannot countenance putting God anywhere near the equation, let alone in it.  But, in that universe, when the shit “hits us right in the face”, all that is left is to “rage, rage” like Dylan Thomas, cursing the soulless universe as we go into the night of oblivion.

Every generation has a wake-up moment or two.  It comes when evil hits them right in the face without a mask on.  Remember 9-11?  This is one for us now.  Even an impersonal “act of God” (a phrase now quite inappropriate in our culture) is really intensely personal when it is your loved one killed by brutal terrorists or dying in the disaster.  There seems no justice in death’s selection process, good and evil people died together on 9-11 or Hurricane Katrina.  Or perhaps it is perfect justice, since we are all condemned to die by some means at some time. 

We are told over and over again that evil is the main reason we should not believe in God.  Well, maybe it’s OK to believe in a sort of impersonal, generic Power that generates everything and keeps it being and moving.  “The Force” anyone? 

But that is not whom we curse when the virus is slaying thousands, the bullets and bombs are flying, the terrorists are destroying, and ISIS or the SS is carrying out genocide.  Dylan Thomas, Voltaire, Nietzsche, et al, all go raging into “that good night”, (which is not a good night at all, in case the ironical meaning of Thomas’s poem escaped you) because, underneath it all, they intuitively know that it all really should mean something, not just appear to.

Who says about the mass-murder victims, “Oh well, that’s the luck of the draw?”  No one!  Instead, we turn in rage against the Personal God we spend so much time denying exists or totally ignoring because, way down in our heart of hearts, we wish and believe that He/She could and should exist.  Way down in our innermost soul we know that that Being is our only real hope.  The deep truth is that we cannot live without hope that somehow, sometime, things will and must “be set to rights” as C.S. Lewis puts it.  But we know very well that we can’t do it.  Only a real, personal Creator with all the power and wisdom necessary could ever do that. 

Viktor Frankl’s landmark work on Holocaust survival (Man’s Search for Meaning) was conclusive in pointing out that those who found God or a spiritual anchor like God in the midst of the most senseless horror conceivable found the will to live.  By contrast, those who did not tended to die much more often despite not being chosen for summary execution/extinction.

While COVID-19 is not a human genocidal agency, it is still evil come in the guise of the brokenness of the world and a universe where natural things have gone terribly awry.  Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, tornados, hurricanes and typhoons, blizzards, forest- and bush-fires (those not caused by human neglect), are more “spectacular” natural agencies of death and destruction.  But a killer-virus-generated pandemic is another form of this evil face of nature.

It is easy to identify evil as bad stuff that humans do to other humans and life-forms.  It is less obvious to call an impersonal natural force “evil”, but our gut tells us that when nature runs amok, it is inflicting great suffering and mass death on us and, as with the typhoon and volcano, on all the other living things in its path.  All this death and destruction cannot be good, can it?   

I am not advocating a return to animism or the polytheism of capricious gods and goddesses playing deadly games with us and the world as their toy-box.  I am suggesting that we take a reflective look at our culture’s inadequate categories to relate to and understand the kind of Kosmos that actually exists.  We ignore the evidence at our peril – both individually and collectively.  As Peterson says, the universe is not a placid, benevolent place.  There is a duality to it all, everywhere we look.  Powerful forces and entities abound, with the ability to affect us for good and ill.

What is within moves us to act benevolently or maliciously.  We are capable of both.  More simply, the spirit within wills to use the body without to do good or bad things.  If we are honest, we can all recall things done by people who we know acted from an evil intent within.  All of us have the capacity to choose either mode of action, but sometimes we meet people who we know have taken the dark road.  They exude it even when they are not actually acting it out.  That’s why some people just make us feel “creepy” or “cold” when we are around them.  The more darkness we choose, the less light we have.  The more often we choose to do right and good stuff, the easier it gets to keep doing it. But the converse is equally true.

The ancient Christians educated new disciples about this dual path to life or death in a document called The Didache.  It is still worth reading.

But what about a virus?  Does it choose to be evil?  Of course not!  It is just doing what its chemistry and nature make it do.  It is not a conscious agency.  Same for the wind and the earth and the chemistry of fire raging out of control.  Then why does it feel “evil” (although not in the same way as the Nazi SS doctor coldly selecting victims for the gas chamber)?

The short answer is that we humans are also made to work according to our nature, to see and sense things farther than a mere calculation of the preponderance of one or more physical factors over another or others.  It is who and what we are, creatures who see inside, who look beyond the seen into the unseen.  For we have another kind of sight.  We have In-sight, the power to see within, to see into.  Call it the spiritual nature.

Humans are creatures which bridge the physical and non-physical sides of reality.  Unfortunately for we Westerners (and, via our invasion of every other culture, everyone else now too), we have cultivated and inculcated a way of seeing (or, more accurately, not seeing) without reference to the unseen.  In other words, we have deliberately forsaken Insight, the very human and precious ability to See In.  Thus, we have crippled our humanity.

Ergo we have a very hard time even admitting that real evil, evil which is not just a convenient, malleable social convention, exists.  We are often self-blinded when it takes personal form and, on occasion, even inhabits actual living persons and beings.  We excuse perpetrators of horrendously wicked deeds as somehow “victims” themselves – of bad parenting, of social conditions, etc.

But how does this transfer to the non-living side of nature and being? 

TO BE CONTINUED

Resurrection

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The ancient world abounded in stories of death and rising.  After all, nature puts on this show every year.  Even semi-tropical areas see vegetation lapse into dormancy for several months, and the animal kingdom has its “mating seasons” often coinciding with the time of vegetative dormancy.  The subsequent birth of young comes as the vegetation awakens and the seeds break open to release the new shoots of plant life, ready to feed the new shoots of animal life.  For some plants this is the season for flowering to entice insects and birds to bring them mating pollen.

The first civilizations went a step beyond this sort of simple observation of the natural cycle.  Many (all?) of them attributed the natural cycle of dying-and-rising to a divine display in the natural world of actual divine activity breaking through to where we could see it.  The gods were saying that the divine order moved within this same kind of cycle, linked to the sensible realm.  This truth was communicated in myth, and various forms of such myths were propagated and disseminated at large so that many cultures told similar stories with similar elements.

Thus, the sun dies every evening and must be escorted through, or perhaps battles its own way across, the underworld of death and shadow to come forth once more and give heat and light to the visible cosmos.  The moon lives as a light in the shadows, waxing and waning until it too fades into the dark underworld, finding its way back once more in a few days and gradually regathering its strength, only to fade and die again.  And ever on.

Specific important deities were named and identified with the stories of the conflict between light and dark, also conceived as good and evil.  For example, in Egypt Osiris, the great and good King and giver and maintainer of life and order, son of Amon-Ra the Sun, is slain in jealous rage by his treacherous brother Seth, Lord of the dark realms which he rules.  But Isis, Osiris’ Queen, defeats Seth and raises Osiris, at the price of his return to the underworld each night. 

In Greece there was the story of Persephone and Hades, who had allow her to return to the world of life each spring to allow the earth to flower once more.  The Egyptians also told the story of the Phoenix, a bird which, when it died, turned to a great flame from which it emerged regenerated, ready to once more fulfil its appointed role as a harbinger of the will of the gods among humans.  You get the idea. 

Our modern/post-modern, scientific worldview reduces all these concepts to quaint tales told by the primitive, or at least prescientific, ancients who had no sophisticated knowledge of how all these natural phenomena actually work according to the laws of chemistry, biology, and physics.  But I think it is fair play to have the ancients turn the tables on us, who are the greatest reductionists and over-simplifiers in all recorded cultural history.  It is we who have reduced the natural, created order to dead, demystified, mere “stuff” made of atoms and all-sorts of micro-atomic bits and pieces.  We are all about reduction and deconstruction till we become blinded by our microscopes and telescopes.  As C.S. Lewis once said, we no longer see the wonder and beauty of a tree.  We have reduced it to a mere collection of cells doing things which convey nothing of the miraculous wholeness and unity of the tree as a tree, let alone the amazing phenomenon of a vast forest of such creatures.

Even with all our scientific calculation and sophistication, we still hit the wall.  “What wall is that?” you say.

The wall of life versus death, or, if you prefer, life versus non-life.  And, by extension, life and death.  We can measure and study and speculate and presuppose that we will one day reduce it all to the measurable and studiable as much as we like, but we still meet the same mystery as our ancient forebears met.  We still stand and laugh and cry in awe as a baby is born, emerging inexplicably from the combination of two independent cells to form a whole new living being.  We still weep and grieve in utter bemusement about what is actually happening and where that once so vibrant soul goes as we watch with a dearly loved one as their miraculous life-force slips out of its flesh-bone-and-blood vessel.  The ancients saw all this with appropriate awe and wonder.  They observed with other eyes than the two organs of light reception in their upper head.  They saw with the eyes of the heart and soul.  So looking they gained some genuine insight into what these twin ultimate mysteries portend.

If nothing else, the mystery of life and death remind us very graphically and regularly of a few very basic, fundamental realities.  First, that we did not make ourselves.  We were/are made;we are creatures of a Maker.  Second, we are finite – we are born, we live for a while, we die.  We have a beginning and an end to our existence, at least insofar as we can measure it according to the super-sophisticated precision of our ever-developing technological prowess.  The corollary of this temporal finiteness is that it is also spatial.  But, paradoxically in all truly significant respects, our wonderful tools of observation of the material realm are ridiculously crude and next to useless in measuring the reality of life and why it even is.

As one ancient sage put it, “We see through a glass (an old term for a window) darkly” as far as anything beyond what our senses can tell us.  (And, yes, the ancients actually had glass windows, at least the well-off did if they fancied them and wanted to pay for them.)  No matter how great a telescope or microscope we may now have and yet invent, with it we will still only see mere stuff, “dark matter”, maya as the Hindus call it.  Light and life still lie and will always lie beyond any sort of material construct or model we can concoct. 

Saul-Paul, the ancient sage quoted above, meant something like this: “Our bodily senses (and all the aids and accoutrements we make to enhance their abilities) can only take us to where material stuff ends, and not even that.  Beyond that you need another kind of sense.  But if you don’t even accept that there is another whole dimension or domain beyond “mere stuff”, then you can never see beyond you own limitations and confined perceptions.”  He goes on after that to say, “No eye has ever seen and no ear has ever heard what the Creator has prepared for those who love Him/Her.”

You may groan that we are heading back to religion.  My answer is that in fact you cannot escape “religion” – even if you’re an atheist or agnostic.  But we are not talking about a particular “religion” in saying this.  At this point, it’s irrelevant to ask, “Which religion?”  We are not talking about “converting” to some set of performance criteria for appeasing a Deity of whatever description.  Rather, we are talking about the Latin (as in the language of the Romans from which we get the term) sense of religio – the system, the principle that ties “it” (the Cosmos) all together, that binds up all the loose ends and begins to make sense of them.

“And what, pray tell, has any of this to do with Easter and old myths about dying and rising?” 

Everything!!  As we age (as I am doing), those willing to pay attention see it more and more clearly.  Dylan Thomas wrote “Do not go gently into that good night [death]; Rage, rage, against the fading of the light.”  Yes, he was a great poet.  But he died a bitter, addicted man at age 39.  He was an atheist, but he felt intensely the “wrongness” of death, of the “night”, the fading of life into feeble old age (“the fading of the light”).  He preferred to die young and raging against the injustice of the universe because he longed so intensely to find meaning but still knew he was lost.  Our scientific brain says life and death are the natural order, the way it has always been since the first single-cell life form wiggled into life in the primordial slime and replicated. 

Let us say that as long as what lives is not self-aware and self-determining, which we humans are, at least to a respectable degree (setting aside discussion of the philosophy of determinism and the theology of predestination for the moment), I guess it’s just, “Sound and fury signifying nothing” as Shakespeare had Lady Macbeth say.  You’re born; you live for a bit; you die.  The universe could care less.

But Shakespeare did not really accept that.  Lady Macbeth was not Shakespeare speaking soto voce.  Shakespeare was giving voice to the despair lurking behind having no Creator to give things meaning.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the ultimate realist and super-philosopher of the modern and post-modern West, did not really believe it either.  His own inability to concede what all his great rational philosophizing told him drove him insane and to suicide.  “God is dead and we have killed him.”  But in “killing” God/the Creator, we have only killed our souls.  The Creator still lives, and we cannot expunge this knowledge from our hearts and souls.  We can deny it, and work very hard in doing so, but we cannot expunge it.

Charles Darwin, who constructed the evolutionary worldview expressly to remove the need for a Creator from the reality of life and existence, did not really believe it.  He confessed as he neared his own end that he regretted having written what he did and feared he might have led the world astray.

François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, the quintessential Enlightenment philosophe and professed atheist, the trenchant mocker of Christianity, did not really believe it.  On his death bed he lamented that he knew there was a God and that he feared he was going to hell.  But, having lived as an atheist and scorned the “simplicity and gullibility” of “believers”, he would not accept having a priest summoned.

They all desperately wanted their lives to mean something.  They all desperately wanted their thoughts and influence to carry on after them – somehow.  They all wanted, somehow, to defeat death, to live beyond it.  It was the desire for eternity bred into their very souls breaking through all the manoeuvres of a life-time seeking to deny it and repress it. 

Many of us now find ourselves twisting and turning every which way in the same tortured dance.  I too once danced that dance, and will not say that I never have the least doubt to this day.  But the wonder of an incredible but real Cosmos that can only be here because a Creator fashioned it, and me within it, overthrows all the objections.  Even the hardest ones – the pain, the suffering, the evil-doing, the senseless (from our perspective) catastrophes – must give way to the fact that things are and that, being there at all, they are “fearfully and wonderfully made”.

In the Hebrew (Jewish) Scriptures a verse says, “The Creator has placed eternity in their (humanity’s) hearts.”  It is a thunderous statement!  It reputedly came from the most learned and “wisest” man of his age, in a book called Qohelet, which can be translated as “teacher” or “preacher” – a bit of both. 

Qohelet was King Solomon writing under a pseudonym.  As any teacher will tell you, all teachers preach, because they all have their worldviews and believe the students in front of them need converting.  They need to be brought into wisdom, which the teacher-preacher happens to believe they have to some degree.

“Eternity in our hearts” is what this Easter thing is really about.  It’s about the ultimate fulfillment of the old stories of death being defeated by life.  It has nothing to do with denying the “natural order” or the “self-evident laws of evolution and natural selection and survival of the fittest”.

Easter is a Western tradition about life returning.  In the pagan era, it was focused on the winter gods and spirits giving way to the gods of new life and fertility.  But by a few hundred years into the “Common Era” it had been transformed into the celebration of actual resurrection – the promise of life returning to the dead, their being raised into an indestructible, eternal body to live in all the fullness of all the best that could be.  It was centered on the ultimate resurrection, the resurrection of God-come-in-human-flesh, the returning-to-life-from-actual-real-death story of a real man who was also the real Creator-God.

That story is the Jesus Story, which was treated in the series previous to this one on this blog.  We will leave this discussion here.  Anyone so inclined is invited to see the previous series on “The Jesus Story”.  Or, better yet, you could seek it out in the original sources.

Lent 5- Forgiveness

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“Forgive us our debts/trespasses as we forgive those who are indebted to us/have trespassed/sinned against us.  Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  

For if you forgive those who sin* [make a mistake, offend] against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 

But if you do not forgive their sins [mistakes, false steps, errors] your Father will not forgive your sins.”  

(Matthew 6: 12-15)
  • Greek; paraptomata – is the word used. It has a heavy connotation of owing a contracted debt you must pay.  It implies that the only way to get off is for the debt to be forgiven, written off, by the one to whom it is owed.]

Last time we spoke of temptation and what Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness, dogged by the devil and temptation, teach us about ourselves and our own struggle with our own demons.  Just to recap: Jesus’s “demons”, the things the Tempter thought he could most entice him with, were (1) worry about the provision of the most basic things, (2) achieving superstar religious recognition, and (3) achieving worldly power, fame, fortune.

#1 is about the stuff it takes to make life work from day to day.  The Tempter says, “Hey dude, you’re famished, literally dying of hunger.  So if you are the Son of God, then just turn these stones under your feet into bread, and voilà, problem solved!  No big deal; just a little perk for being God’s Son!  Who’s to know, eh?”  But Jesus refused to use his special position, power, and status to gain an advantage and take the easy way, answering, “Man shall not/cannot/must not live by/on bread [the physical stuff our bodies demand] alone, but by every word that comes from God’s/the Creator’s mouth.”

#2 is about achieving superstar religious recognition and status by showing off how spiritual and totally lined up you are with all that people expect from a Messiah – a really spiritual person.  The Tempter smarms, “Hey Jesus, if you’re really God’s Son, the promised Messiah, make a dramatic arrival on the scene by throwing yourself off the summit of the Temple in Jerusalem.  After all, doesn’t on of the prophecies say that you could throw yourself down and God would send his angels to catch you so you wouldn’t even stub your toe?  Imagine the impact!  Everyone would know immediately how great and anointed you are and follow you just like that.  No need to go through all the performance-criteria to convince the big-shots of the Temple and Sanhedrin.  Even the Zealots and hothead fanatics would be convinced!”  Jesus rejected this too, saying, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” 

#3 – Finally, the Tempter plays his last Ace.  “All right then.  If those two things don’t appeal to you, and you really are anointed and appointed by the Holy One to be Israel’s last King and the world’s Saviour, I can spare you a lot of struggle and war and grief and pain and suffering – not only for yourself, but for everyone else too.  See, I actually have control of things down here, and I can hand it all over to you – today if you like!  Remember how Adam and Even listened to me?  When they did, they gave me control.  Even you have to admit that.  And today I’m offering that control to you.  All you have to do is one little thing – not very hard, really.  Just bow to me and worship me, just this once, just for a second or two.  And I’ll just fade into the background and let you have it all, all the power and glory and fame and acclaim.  Just think of it, man!  No wars!  No slaughters!  Just take the throne and I’ll get them all to bow to you.  I’ll do all the finagling and convincing.  How could that not be a good thing, huh?  Even your Father would have to agree this is a great thing – to stop all the wars and selfish slaughters and personal ambition all these human rulers operate by.  Just a bow to me!  Just this once, eh?”  And Jesus answered the Tempter, “Get away from me, Satan.  It is written, “You shall worship only the Lord your God, and Him alone shall you serve.””

Jesus defeated the Tempter in these archetypical allurements.  We all must face the specific manifestations they take in our own lives.  He was modeling for us that there are no shortcuts to a real relationship with the Creator.  He was portraying the character of what we each will face as we travel our roads.  We will struggle and worry about provision; we will seek spiritual wisdom, or at least the answer to the meaning of who we are, what this reality is, what it’s about, and whether there is anything beyond what our material perceptions tell us.  We will be greatly drawn to make that meaning a question of what we can achieve and become noted for in the eyes of the world (kosmos, in Greek).  But what Jesus shows us is that it all turns on knowing our Creator first and foremost, and recognizing our own personhood as a gift, given out of pure love from Him/Her, and for which we are accountable.

As he said more than once, it all boils down to two basic things: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.  And love your neighbour (fellow humans) as you love yourself.”  Loving God is not a thing done in the abstract, but in the world where you live.  It is an inner orientation which flows out by loving the other humans God made in his/her own image, just like He/She made you.  And that also extends to loving the Garden of Planet Earth He/She made you and me to inhabit and look after.  All the Creator’s creatures and creations are, in that way, our “neighbour” too.”

However, we all stumble and fall and make mistakes and act, sometimes, in terribly selfish ways.  But the Creator is concerned enough about that to have sent His/Her special envoy, or Son, to show you the way out, in fact, to be the way out.  The Creator is ready and willing to forgive your mess-ups, even the really bad ones.  But it’s not just about getting a free pass, no matter what you do.  There is a promise that you will be forgiven almost anything, no matter how gross, terrible, atrocious, etc.  Just one exception – something called by Jesus “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” – which we will not deal with here and which is much debated to this day.  No one is quite sure what that is, even since the very earliest days of the Jesus Movement.

There’s this one other thing too, a thing that doesn’t get much attention in our eagerness for total, unconditional forgiveness and love.  The problem is that “unconditional love and forgiveness” cannot be found in the record of what Jesus said.  As we said, it’s not that he, and God, are not willing to completely forgive everything you could ever do wrong, (except that mysterious blasphemy of the Holy Spirit).  But there is one condition attached to my receiving full pardon.  You can see it in the citation that stands at the head of this post.  It’s how we forgive those others who have done us wrong.  After all, they don’t really deserve to be forgiven; you just don’t know how badly they hurt me!

Our human automatic fall-back position is “tit-for-tat”, this-for-that – revenge, in other words.  You did me wrong, so I want justice.  You deserve to be punished and hurt just like, or with the same measure which, you did to me – even more!  (After all, it was me, the most important person who’s ever lived, that you hurt!)  Jesus’s statement is very sobering and powerful: “If you do not forgive their sins [mistakes, false steps, errors] your Father will not forgive your sins.”  If I won’t forgive, neither will the Creator.  If I forgive, so will He. 

I really wish that verse wasn’t there.  It feels like a sword of Damocles hanging over my head.  Especially if I get to the end of my journey and have stubbornly held tight to my “right to be avenged, to demand justice.”

That’s why Jesus, citing the Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly, says things like, “Go and learn what this means; I (the Lord) desire mercy over sacrifice,” and, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities (nasty deeds), then who could stand?”  Who has more right to demand justice than the Creator, whose creation has been violated, raped, pillaged, defaced, wasted, and ruined since humans first rebelled against His/Her offer to live in relationship and harmony with Him/Her?  Who has more right to say to all of us who have mistreated and abused our fellow humans made in the Creator’s image just as much as I and you are, “You can’t be my son or daughter after denying that other people are by the way you treat them and think about them and reduce them to mere animals or things by the way you act towards them?”

But instead, this all-loving, all-merciful Creator comes to us in Person, even as a human Person, and says, “You can be fully forgiven.  Just forgive one another as I forgive you, and accept that if you hold unto me, I’ll see you through into God’s eternal Kingdom.”

Refusing to forgive one another is retaining the posture of rebellion, of making myself judge and jury – in other words, still claiming the prerogative of being my own little god, to make the final decision about right and wrong, good and evil, just like that original lie of the old Tempter.

There we have it!  Full circle!  The Tempter again: “See, honey, you can’t trust God to do what’s right.  You have to judge right and wrong for yourself, because that Creator is just too damn lenient.  You’ll never get justice [vengeance] if you rely on Him/Her.  Take it from me!  I know!  He never gave me the recognition I deserved.”

We are nearing the end of this Lenten season.  Good Friday is just ahead, followed by Easter Sunday.  Good Friday – so ironic!  A “good” day – on which the ultimate innocent and best Person who ever walked the Earth was taken and convicted of. . . .  what exactly was His crime again?  Pilate, his judge, said, “Why?  What evil has he done?  I find nothing deserving a death sentence.”  But then he sent him to be executed anyway – not in a nice, clean, modern “humane” way, but after horrible torture and unspeakable abuse.  And in the most excruciating fashion ever designed by the cruel refinements of human ingenuity to inflict pain and suffering on another human.

But even as he was drawing his last breaths, he asked the Creator for mercy, not justice, on all those who had done all this to him.  “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  Incredible!  After being beaten, spat upon, whipped to within an inch of his life, mocked, and abandoned even by his best friends: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

First there were the ordinary people, soldiers and just regular folks – who screamed for his blood, mocked and spat on him, even as they worried about Temptation #1 about how they would meet the needs of the day. 

Then there were all the religious types and claimants of righteousness before God/the Creator.  Temptation #2:  Do you hear them saying, “Hey Lord!!  See how well we keep your laws, do the sacrifices, perform the ceremonies, pray and give a good example of how to live right?  Pretty impressive, eh?  So we really deserve to be in your Kingdom, right?  And look, this wretched poser and quasi-Messiah, we just got rid of him for you.  He would have undermined everything we’ve done for You.  He kept saying that none of our stuff impresses You, that all you want is to love us, have us love you back, and love one another.  But we know it takes a lot more than that!”

And then there was that Roman Governor and those Herodians saying (Temptation #3): “We can’t let a dude like this become too popular.  His whole message will undermine our whole message – telling people that their true King is God, the One God, the Creator, and that he, Jesus, is the one true Anointed and appointed spokesperson and embodiment of the Creator’s actual Person.  He’s telling them that all the power and glory of Empire is an illusion and only leads to oppression and disillusionment.”

So there isGood Friday, and there is Jesus, hanging by his nail-pierced wrists and bleeding out through the slashes and gashes of his head-to-toe, front-and-back flogging, the thorn piercings through his scalp, and the spike holes though his wrists and ankles, his face swollen from the punches and blows of his mocking captors.  Even then he says to his Father from the Roman cross, “Father, forgive them.  For they don’t know what they’re doing.”

So if I want forgiveness, I’d better remember whom I have not forgiven in my self-righteous, petty-god clinging to my “right to justice”.  I’d better consider what Jesus says about God’s forgiveness to me.  I’d better realize that his stipulation has no loop-hole that allows me to claim the right to vengeance.  I’d better put this in front of me like a moral and spiritual GPS: “But if you do not forgive their sins [mistakes, false steps, errors] your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Yikes, friends!  Just YIKES!!  It’s time to give it up – that old grudge, that “right” to be right; to “have justice”, seek vengeance.  If you insist on straight justice against that person, you are insisting on it against yourself too.  That’s what it means.  So choose, remembering that Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, mercy triumphs over justice!”  But to receive mercy, you have to extend mercy – real, undeserved, pure grace mercy. I would much rather have God’s total mercy than cling to my (illusionary, after all) right to demand justice.  And the Creator would much rather give you full mercy and pardon than leave you standing naked before the Judgment Seat where the Son will sit when it comes down to the last and ask you, “So why didn’t you forgive?”

Lent 4 – Quarantine, Lead Us Not Into Temptation

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The year 2020 will now be long remembered as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic.  We find ourselves in unprecedented territory, at least for the last hundred years.  It is just beyond 100 years since the Spanish flu pandemic, the last real global “plague” of a highly contagious disease.  SARS, H1N1, Ebola, were mere scares which, happily, never lived up to their advanced publicity.  Unless you are someone in sub-Saharan Africa with Ebola or AIDS.

The Spanish flu of 1918-19 lives on in the memory of the West because it hit hardest in those countries – carrying off perhaps 50 million at the highest estimate – at a time when the world population was much lower (about 1.5 billion) and a terrible war had depleted resources and weakened many people’s health and constitution through long-term privation.  The Spanish flu did not discriminate against the elderly but was most devastating to the young.  My father caught it at age six and was at death’s door for at least a week.  (Obviously, he survived.)

We know that an effective quarantine is the best way to limit the spread of deadly disease.  It is not a cure, but must be done to protect those who have not been infected, while providing the best care possible for those who are suffering from the disease. 

It is interesting for those of us of Christian conviction (for me at least, at any rate) that this pandemic is hitting its global stride during the season of Lent.  Of course, from a scientific standpoint, this is irrelevant and mere coincidence, of no more import or interest than if it happened during Ramadan (Islam), Sukkot (Judaism), Diwali (Hinduism) or some other religious season for another major faith.

But its occurrence is calling the whole world, even its most wealthy and powerful, to mindfulness about the most basic issues of existence – what we live for and why we find life so precious that we are (or being made to be) willing to shut down all sorts of things that we normally choose to spend so much time, energy, and resources on.  Things like amusements and entertainments and public gatherings, shopping and restaurants.  Vacations and trips of all kinds cancelled.  Emergency centers and measures which we normally would resent or ignore being applied under government auspices, and, for the most part, with ready compliance because the potential consequences of non-compliance and pursuing blithe self-indulgence are too risky.  Or perhaps we simply fear being shunned as selfish and so self-absorbed that our peers would despise us.

The English world ‘quarantine’ is lifted right out of French – quarantaine – meaning “about forty”. 

In the Bible forty is a much used and symbolic term.  It first appears with Moses in exile from Egypt for forty years before God speaks to him in the burning bush. Then it recurs with the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for forty years, and Moses up on Mt. Sinai for forty days before God gives him the Ten Commandments.  Forty seems to symbolize a period of searching and preparation, withdrawal to regroup or retreat, to find the way.  In the New Testament, Jesus fasts for forty days as he begins his public life, being tempted by Satan and learning the will of God.  And at the end of his earthly sojourn, he visits his disciples off and on over a period of forty days before his ascension.

Here we are with a once-in-a century phenomenon of a world practicing quarantine (quarantaine again in French).  We are told to practice social self- isolation.  As we do, we cannot help reflecting on life’s fragility and death’s randomness.  We can hardly help getting back in touch with the most basic questions about why we live.  A century ago in 1918-9 the Spanish influenza had the same effect at the same time of year.  It seems that most of us in the West will not turn aside from our frenetic pursuit of so much that is frivolous and far from what is really important unless forced to by some sort of personal crisis.  Now we have one for all of us at the same time.

We have an opportunity to take stock.  What have we made our lives about?  What have we made our civilization about?  What are the great idols in our lives which rule our hearts and minds?

When Jesus spent his self-imposed quarantaine fasting and praying and meditating, we are told that he faced three “temptations”, or great questions.  The first was hunger.  The second was to prove how holy and tuned in to God he could be by daring to try something only God could do, or could save him from.  The third was to turn away from God to worship a false god and in return receive all the success and power and worship and adulation this world can offer.

Jesus did not give in to any of them, but they were very real temptations, very powerful attractions for a human wanting to find a formula for success or an easy way to get through life with the least hassle.  Jesus was a real human, so resisting these allurements was neither easy nor automatic.

In his first test the Tempter had said, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.”  He had just completely fasted for forty days!  I will not debate whether Jesus had the real power to transform stone into bread, but there are the stories of his turning water into wine and multiplying a few loaves of bread and some fish into enough to feed thousands.  But what Jesus faced is exactly the sort of thing we all face every day, but hardly ever think of in that way. 

Now, I can’t turn smooth round stones into loaves of bread. My temptation is to worry about how my needs and my family’s needs will be met, whether there will be enough, or whether we’ll find a way through our present trials and tribulations, whatever these look like.  Bread represents the day-to-day basics we can’t get along without. Maybe now more than ever as many face unforeseen loss of income on a massive scale.

Jesus was in the Judean desert (which I have seen and gone through) and there was (and is) nothing to eat or drink for many kilometers.  In some way and at some point, almost everyone faces a desert where there looks to be nothing to sustain us.  For many right now, that point is now. Jesus’s response to the Tempter was “Man (humanity) does not live by bread alone (mere physical bread), but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  For me, I may not see how my needs and my family’s and loved ones’ needs will be met or how we will get through our valley of the shadow of death. But, like Jesus, I can say that the Creator will meet me/us and walk through to the other side with me/us – and in the process provide what we really need, beyond what the appearance seems to tell me/us that I/we need.

In the second test the Tempter takes him to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.  For doesn’t the Scripture say that God will not suffer you to fall or even dash your foot against a stone?” 

I don’t expect to be taken to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome or some other great holy place of renown and splendor and be tempted to jump.  And of course that’s not the point.  This is about the second path people often choose to “lose their lives while seeking to save/find them” as Jesus puts it in another place.  It is the path of religion and striving to be known as a great spiritual leader, guru, mystic, model, shaman, witch, ayatollah, priest, bishop, preacher, etc.  It is the path of making religion and recognition for spirituality one’s god rather than turning to the Creator Him-/Herself to find the way to truth and peace and harmony – “Shalom” as the Bible calls it.

It is the path of making God serve me rather than me serving the Creator, imposing my agenda and ambitions over those that come from His/Her heart and mouth.  For those of the population still hungering and thirsting for something deeper than the “stuff” and all the pleasure it can offer, this is a great temptation.  I can become someone respected and looked up to and listened to if I can rise as a holy person, a gifted person who “hears from God” or is “in tune with the spirit-realm” and able to channel such energy or “bring in the lost”, etc.  Or perhaps, if I do some heroic thing of self-sacrifice and self-immolation I will win a great reward and a place of honour.

This is a road I know something about, but it is a dead-end.  Religious performance and “getting it all right” as per a set of dogmas and rules will not create a bond with the One who made me to be part of His/Her family.  Jesus had some of his harshest words for people who were all about religion and hardly at all about caring for the needy and helping those who needed a little practical love so they could feel the love of the Creator.

The final test Jesus faced was to bow down and worship the Tempter himself.  In return, all the kingdoms of the world would be put at his feet.  He would have all the power and dominion possible for anyone to have.  Jesus’s answer was, “It is written, “You shall worship the Lord God alone, and He alone will you serve.””

I don’t expect to be offered great riches or worldly power any time soon (or ever).  Or fame and fortune and acclaim to make me the envy of millions (or thousands, or even a few hundred or dozen).  But once again, the temptation Jesus faced is generic – to bow down to the great idols of success of our culture, which the West has so idolized and made the great symbols of “success”: Money, Fame, Acclaim, Reputation, being envied by others, having the best job, car, house, stuff, nicest partner, best (most accomplished) kids, etc., etc.  To do whatever it takes to get there, to reach the top of the heap. 

The promises of the Tempter are all empty.  They may fool for a time, but in the end they whither and fade and leave the deluded one empty in heart and dead in soul.

Now, back to quarantine.  We have an opportunity, while we are waiting for the return of ‘normalcy’ so we can all turn back to running after our own particular set of goals.  Before we turn back to making sure of where all the stuff I “need” will come from, putting on a good show about how spiritual I am, and seeking to climb to the top.  The opportunity is to use our own “forty” days in the wilderness that we have been collectively given to turn away from our vanity and turn towards the only two things that really matter: finding our home in the Creator’s heart and arms, and sharing His/Her love to take in the others around us as we find that home, that Center.  In the old language it was called “Love God with you whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Love your neighbour like you love yourself.”

Lent 3: Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

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“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. . . . Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”

The New Testament: Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20

Spring begins to warm our lives like hope returning as we march through March.  The cycle of nature promises renewal.  The sun warms our bodies and hearts just as it awakens the ground from its death-like slumber.  The somber landscapes of winter (not lacking in austere beauty at times) will soon give way to the bursting out of new things, new life.

The physical reminds us that the spiritual, mystical life also has its cycle – joy and sorrow, advance and withdrawal, activity and reflection, peace and upheaval, harmony and disarray.  Human psychology marches in tune with these things just as nature does.

The timing of Lent corresponds with the winter-spring transition.  It is a time to step back and take stock of what has become sterile, barren, and dead in our lives and to find paths back into life and renewal – first with our Creator, but equally with our fellow human travellers, and finally with the natural world in which we all live and move and have our being.  For the Creator made it and made us to be in it and tend and nurture it.

As we consider this, we cannot avoid the climate change debate.  It has become an obsession which so polarizes people that we seem incapable of admitting that, whether we put ourselves on its “left” or the “right”, the creation is groaning in great travail, as the Apostle Paul comments in Chapter 8 of his Letter to the Romans.  Whether you accept that the world is warming dangerously or not, we must all see that we, the human species, have recklessly pillaged Earth’s resources and polluted our whole nest from top to bottom, stem to stern.

It began many generations ago, and we have not stopped doing it.  Now, however, we are without the excuse of ignorance.  Our rape and pillage is deliberate and totally devoted to present comfort and convenience with no regard for what is to come in a few decades.  It is of little use to point fingers at the parties we choose to hold (most) guilty – we all participate to greater or lesser degree.

We are told that prosperity depends on this exploitation, that fundamental rights and freedoms are involved in allowing it to continue, that a free and democratic and liberal society holding out the promise of life without poverty depends on it.  Free enterprise demands that we leave things run their course.

A reflection on Lent is not the place to debate whether Capitalism or Socialism is most compassionate and appropriate.  The key problem is deeper than a vehement debate full of vituperation against the evils of one or the other.  It is a problem of the brokenness of the human heart and our emptiness of the soul. 

Poverty is the lack of the most basic and essential things that make a decent life possible.  We lose sight of its terrible effects on real people when we turn it into a statistical exercise by reducing it to a question of income.  Talking about it as a question of money eases our conscience because we can then advocate remedies such as offering more money and more services to the poor with a measurable, impersonal price-tag.  Those of us who are not poor can regain some perspective by volunteering to help at the Food Bank or the Soup Kitchen or the Goodwill or the Street Ministry.  All good things to do, of course.  And they need to be done. And getting out of our comfort zones may lead to where we really need to go- to get in touch with our own poverty of spirit.

The deepest poverty is referred to by Jesus as “poverty of spirit” – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven [God].”  (Matthew 5:3)  Luke has him saying, “Blessed are you who are poor, for your is the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)  It is good that we have both, for we must not lose sight that both forms of poverty exist.  Someone might suggest that the Luke verse is saying that actual material poverty is somehow good.  That is certainly not what he is saying!

But let us begin with poverty of spirit, and why Jesus says it’s a blessing.  First, it is the opposite of self-sufficient pride and confidence in our ability to get along without the Creator.  It is not an automatic posture, especially in the 21st Century West (if it has ever been automatic).  It is actually a rather rare revelation.  Few humans attain it for very long.  It takes a lot of counter-intuitive cultivation to “arrive” there and abide in it.  (I make no claim to abiding there!) To the extent that we do and can, Jesus assures us that we actually begin to experience God’s real presence – for by getting our self-sufficiency out of the way, we make room for the Spirit of the Creator to break in. 

We discover humility: humility as a dependent creature acknowledging my personal emptiness; the hole in my soul which only knowing my Creator can fill.  Humility is knowing that I cannot earn my way into this; I cannot perform a bunch of good deeds and sacrifices to enter this fundamental relationship.  Until I humble myself before the One who made me and seeks for me that I might come to know Him/Her, I remain locked in my pride and arrogance, my illusion that I am, in effect, a god unto myself.

If I can begin to live in poverty of spirit before God, I can begin to see my fellow humans as other lost souls desperately trying to fill that inner void.  They may well be unaware of it themselves, but, knowing my own poverty, I can relate to them in real compassion and humility and offer to come alongside them.  Not by preaching or cajoling or showing off my advanced spirituality, but by offering to walk humbly and openly with them and bring what is needful where they are. 

The materially poor are often already aware of their spiritual poverty and may well be beyond me in that understanding.  To those who are deluded by the illusion of control over their own lives, I can offer relationship when the illusion begins to dissipate amid the inevitable tribulations of life.  But no one can (re)enter or discover their true identity as a son/daughter of the Creator without first coming to poverty of spirit.

Finally we must come to the creation with that poverty of spirit.  It teaches us that we do not own it and it is not mere “stuff” for me, for us, to use, abuse, chew up, and trash when we’re done with it.  I understand that, like my loaned (lent) life, the creation has been loaned to us, that we do not own it, that we are responsible to care for it, to steward it, to bring it into its best state.  We are meant to appreciate it for what it really is, the Creator’s amazing gift, where He/She has placed us for whatever short span of years we have. He/She has also given us the potential to enjoy and glorify it in gratitude for allowing us to love all He/She has made in all its incredible wonder and beauty.  And we too are part of the incredible wonder and beauty to be enjoyed and brought to be the best we can be.

Lent is a good opportunity to deliberately choose one or two small ways to cultivate poverty – first, of spirit – but perhaps also alongside the materially poor.  Perhaps I will find myself actually meeting the Creator more intimately as I move this way.  If you ask, He/She will doubtless show you.

Lent 2, Sowing and Reaping

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“Do not be deceived; you reap what you sow. If you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind.”

Dwight L. Moody

As a culture and civilization the post-modern West of the 21st Century is quite peculiar.  It (we, really) do not have much regard for tradition, for customs, for the ways of our ancestors.  Most cultures and civilizations (and there are still quite a few others out there despite our Western global encroachment on everybody else) still place a high value on the things that have made them who and what they are.  Somehow, we have gone in an almost diametrically opposed direction.  Somehow we expect to survive and thrive by turning our backs on most of what has made us what we have become.  We also prefer to denigrate and devalue most of the people who once upon a time played the greatest roles in that becoming.

In a (relatively) short blog such as this it is impossible to explain or describe with any justice how this amazing state of affairs has come to be, let alone the “why”.  And naturally, for any sense I could propose to make of it, a myriad of other voices, more potent and noteworthy, would rise up to denounce or disprove my interpretation.  Which is at least in line with what the West has been for the last three hundred years – a society open to the challenge of new ideas which can be debated and accepted or rejected, or perhaps nuanced into something more true and balanced.

My point here is that for those of us noting and to some extent currently observing a certain season called “Lent” in English, we now find ourselves in a twilight zone, a cultural back-eddy, while the vast majority of our co-travelers on  the S.S. West are either oblivious to it or could care less even if they have heard of it.

Here are two of the probable reasons for our amnesic cultural disregard of Lent – a chosen amnesia which is symptomatic of the greater current we find ourselves in on our ship’s journey.  For Lent is a practice found only in Christianity, although, as we previously noted, other traditions have their own times of fasting, self-denial, and spiritual reflection.  And, in the West, until perhaps sixty years ago, awareness of this season would have been pretty general throughout the ship’s company, even if many of the voyagers did not observe it.

I rather like the play on words which the English name for this solemn season opens up – even though it doesn’t work in any other language I know of.  “Lent” reminds me that my time aboard Spaceship Earth has been “lent” to me by our Creator or, if you prefer, the universe.  I do not own my time.  It is a gift to me, lent to me for as long as I live and breathe.  There is a Bible verse in the Book of Acts which reminds me of this, when a man named Paul tells the great philosophers of his day in Athens that everyone lives on borrowed time, that “the Unknown God” is the One in whom we all “live and move and have our being”.  Basically he’s telling them (and us via them, for we are very much like those skeptics of two thousand years ago), that we didn’t make ourselves, that we have very little power to change the nature of reality (self-delusions aside), and that there is a Power far higher and greater than any we can conceive of to whom we owe both life and even our feeble ability to understand existence itself.

Thus, Lent points us to something that, Christian or not, sceptic or not, atheist or not (as many of that crowd of the intellectual elite of that age were), we must all face: we are not God; we  are not gods; we did not just appear as some sort of cosmic hiccup that the ever-gyrating maelstrom of universal energy suddenly and quite unintentionally just barfed up one “day”.  And yes, even back in Paul’s long-ago day, that was a serious philosophical and proto-scientific proposal which both Greek and Roman thinkers had considered – Democritus on the Greek side and Lucretius on the Roman side being two examples of such thinkers who were taken quite seriously by the great professorial and sartorial dons of Athens to whom Paul spoke.

The second part of thinking about life being (like) “Lent” is that something “lent” is supposed to be returned to the lender.  If we realize that this “lender” is in fact the Creator (once we get past our arrogance and blinding pride about being “in charge or our own life and forgers of our own destiny” – or perhaps our call to “self-actualize” in this age’s usual ultra-individualist formulation), it puts a whole different perspective on who we are and why we are here (two of the most basic of all questions of existence, questions everyone who thinks asks at some point).

But what do we make of someone who refuses to admit they have borrowed, or been given, the most basic thing they have, with an expectation from the Lender, or Giver, that that precious thing will be returned in good working order?  Or perhaps rather that it will have been used to enhance the lives and general well-being of all the rest of what the Giver had created.  What will the Lender-Giver make of such an outcome as refusing to accept the conditions or mandate of being gifted?

In our dominant current Western way of thinking about it (or, rather, adopting an avoidance-strategy in order not to think about this), if there is indeed a Lender-Giver, He-She-It-They will just be so kind, generous, and loving that it won’t matter.  It’ll be a big shrug of disappointed love at worst, but have no real bearing on what, if anything, follows.

We are not going to rehash the old debates about heavenly rewards and hellish punishments.  There is, however, the issue of reaping and sowing.  If I sow a life-course that is based almost entirely on personal satisfaction and self-fulfillment, what return have I made to the Giver for having invested in me as a contributor the Big Vision of creating a better, more harmonious universe?  It does not take Christian theology to know that, eventually, generally, “you reap what you sow” and “if you sow the wind you shall reap the whirlwind”.  What we all find as we come into the world is what is being reaped from our ancestors, their works, their words, and their deeds.  This sobering realization begs us to think about what we are bequeathing our own descendants, at least once in a while.

Lent is a good time to consider our sowing and reaping, our use of what has been lent to us by the Creator, or, if you prefer, our ancestors and the universe.  It is a good time to consider how to improve our use of the great gifts we have been given, and how to stop abusing them – whether those gifts be other people and their gifts of love to us, or the gifts of resources and time we find all around us.

Fasting is a practice often associated with Lent.  In line with sowing and reaping and learning to truly appreciate and value the gifts we have, and the Giver who gives them, practicing a little self-restraint to teach ourselves to begin returning love for love and appreciation for the gift of life, which comes before all others, would not be out of place.

Which is where tradition comes back in.  Tradition is a way of acknowledging how much has been passed on to us by those who have preceded us.  Traditions recognize that our forebears sowed into our lives and created things we enjoy.  They gifted us, in many cases with loving intent, and with a faith that what they were passing to us would make our lives better, would enhance our ability to give back in the future.  In our trendy phrase, they are saying “pay it forward”. 

The West has by and large chosen to discount many of the best gifts of  the previous generations, especially those coming out of the religious and concomitant moral aspects our cultural heritage.  Consequently, the West has also by and large lost its coherence and way. “Without a vision for the future, people perish,” and struggle to find viable ways to maintain any coherent sense of worth about both themselves and their world.

So we now find our ship S.S. West aimlessly meandering, perpetually searching for some anchorage. The port of haven is proposed in the shifting target of the supreme humanist values of individual identity and rights and freedoms. As good as these may be theory, they have to be continually redefined to suit the newest trends.  It is time for the  West to begin practicing some of the old Lent discipline and turn towards the compass of a much Higher Ground of Being than mere personal preferences.

The foundations are shaking, and it may just be that the Creator is allowing the ground to quake beneath us and the whirlwind to stir around us, according to the old law of reaping and sowing. The wake-up Trumpet may be tuning up.

Lent, 1

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I will begin this post with a thank you to all my regular readers and subscribers for your faithful support and interest.

We are now in the season of Lent, which will end on Easter Sunday, April 12.  The word “Lent” in English is derived from Old English lencten, referring to the time when days lengthen or a long period.  Latin-based languages such as French derive their world for the season from the Latin word for forty –  quadraginta – of fortieth – quadragesima, e.g. – French la Carême.

During this season, i.e. for the next five or six posts, we will be taking a break from the usual fare of this blog.  There will not be a fixed theme, except along the line of what our topic today indicates – things appropriate to Lent.

Once upon a few generations ago in the West, this season of about forty days was publicly acknowledged and discussed as a time to dial back our usual bent towards self-concern and self-indulgence.  It was even mentioned in public institutions and political and cultural events to encourage people to “get a grip” on their bad habits and help one another out.  The purpose was to commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The forty days was as an imitation of Jesus’s time in the wilderness before he set out on his public ministry.

Whether you observe the traditions of Christianity or not, dialing back and slowing down, taking the focus off oneself for a season, deliberately finding a time and some self-discipline to regularly turn aside from “the usual” – the  pursuit of self-fulfillment for good ole Number One – cannot be a bad thing.  Other faiths do it and encourage it too (Ramadan in Islam is a prominent example), and even the sages of the health and well-being industry who promote forms of alternative spiritualities or secularized forms of such things (yoga is the most common) tell us that periodic fasting and self-denial is a good thing, especially when we mix in some genuine altruism to get our heads out of our own belly-buttons.

Many people set themselves a goal of “fasting” in some way during this time.  In the “old days” when most people in the West were at least nominal Christians, this meant doing without some favourite foods, for example.  Many people still do this, and add in more focused attention to daily prayer, meditation, and devotional reading.  Other forms of “fasting” might be setting aside forms of personal entertainment, abstaining from social media obsession, or watching less or even no Television or videos.

Now we live in a culture which hardly registers Lent as a blip.  There is a good side to this.  As a Pastor friend pointed out when we were talking about church attendance and declining numbers, the good part of this is that the people who are in church or “walking the walk” these days are there because they want to be and are committed. 

Some dominations and affiliations within the “Church” (I use the word here in its “catholic” sense of “universal” – the One Church which crosses all the denominational boundaries and enfolds everyone who follows Jesus, regardless of their affiliation as “Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic, etc.” – are more deliberate and formal about this whole Lenten season and making it a real observance.  I encourage those of you in that persuasion to “go for it” with all your might.  For others who may have more of a hesitation about being so deliberate and intentional about “observing days and seasons” as if they can create more godliness in us or impress God somehow, I would encourage them to see this season as an opportunity to more consciously implement the kinds of disciplines their background values.

No one can compel us individualist Western Christians of the 21st Century to do much of anything “religious” these days.  We love to say that faith and salvation are an individual choice, “by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).  Coercion and manipulation by guilt or social pressure are pretty much done for most churches and individuals in North America and Europe.  All the statistics about religious adherence and practice demonstrate this.  But our self-indulgence and claim to individual rights cross into every aspect of how we live our lives.  Lent is one of those.

We might say that we have the same choices to make every day God gives us to continue enjoying (or enduring) our lives.  True enough.  But if all days are the same, no day is special.  The truth is, we really don’t live the rest of our lives that way at all.  We all want and need to feel unique and special, to have special occasions and days.

Our cultural hypocrisy then excludes this from the religious and spiritual side of our humanity.  And this is just another manifestation of what has occurred over the last century.  Despite all the attempts to remove religion and spirituality (the old Enlightenment progressive code-language for Christianity in particular) from the public sphere, humans are innately spiritual, even those of atheistic bent.  There is a hunger and need at our very core.  We deny it at our peril.

The point of Lent is to stop denying it and awaken it, encourage it to search for what can finally bring us to real  fulfillment – to set aside the counterfeits that can never fill the hole in our soul.

Of that, more next time.

The Third Way, 58: Saviours and Salvation, 13 – Boomers

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“The three most formative thinkers of the darker moments of the modern era are Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche.  In one way or another, most baby boomers were fed a steady diet of heightened awareness of human exploitation, oppression, and illusion, coupled with the insight that the received world of common opinion and tradition was a chimera.  Suspicion of progress and optimism, and dread of a world breaking down, became de rigueur.  After all, most… baby boomers were highly receptive to the radicalism of their teachers and the books they thought important…. our culture was lost to the homogenizing influence of Hollywood, public policy was massively influence by the power structure, marginal peoples were oppressed… consumers were passive dupes of subliminal advertising and the corporate manufacture of false needs…

“…. Baby boomers were a generation with a deep desire for commitment, yet, ironically, many were persuaded that all bonds were distorting and colonizing, and that they should commit to nothing permanently.  While a corrective to platitudinous boosterism of the status quo, this teaching was also highly corrosive to civic trust, partisan loyalty, or pride of inheritance.  Indeed, the image of a human being it vaunted was that of a drifter: Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur who is a detached street voyeur, Claude Levi-Strauss’s bricoleur who deconstructs and sifts ideas, compounding them at will, Jean-Paul Sartre’s skier who leaves no tracks.  There is neither commitment nor investment required by such lives, which surf above life, where traditional pieties give way to chic cynicism and disassociation.  It allowed baby boomers the sophomoric mien of being against “the System” without having to commit to a specific alternative.”

Peter C. Emberley, Divine Hunger, Canadians on Spiritual Walkabout.  (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd,, 2002), pp. 36-7.

Being of the Boomer Generation (first cohort), so deftly described by Professor Emberley in our lengthy opening citation, it is the one I am most familiar with.  He evokes the ethos of the late fifties and the sixties very well.  While most of us did not consciously adopt Baudelaire’s or Levi-Strauss’s posture towards society and life (few of us having actually read these authors), many of us practised it, having been seduced by its illusion of “freedom”.  Having no obligation to commitment meant “free love”, “tripping out”, “being cool” rather than having to grow up and take responsibility.  There were plenty of more accessible models of these postures (e.g., The Beatles, Timothy Leary, etc.) than these rather esoteric, heady ones. 

Emberley gives a short list of books which signified this whole cultural shift, particularly in the Canadian universities.  Here a few of the better known ones, at least to Canadians (his list gives only Canadian authors of that era): Marshall Macluhan’s seminal and ground-breaking Understanding Media (to which I would add Macluhan’s other, more accessible offering, The Medium is the Message), John Porter’s The Vertical Mosaic, and Pierre Vallière’s White Niggers of America.  Many non-Canadian titles were as widely read in Canada as in the U.S.  I am sure that some readers of this blog could offer their own list, but here a few more that come to my mind: Thomas Harris’s I’m OK, You’re OK, Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, Leonard Cohen’s (another Canadian) Beautiful Losers, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, John Robinson’s Honest to God, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Neil Sheehan, et al.’s The Pentagon Papers,Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,etc. 

In that age, everything was up for questioning and the sense of crisis and radical change in values and old patterns pervaded every domain of life, at least in the West.  Music, drug shortcuts to temporary nirvana, fashion, moral values, ethics, the sexual revolution accompanied by easily accessible and usable birth control, government turmoil, the threat of nuclear annihilation, brutal war (Vietnam) waged in full Technicolor on TV, and civic disorder and violence seemed to confirm  the diagnosis of the end of the old world and the desperate need for a new way of doing things at every level.  A few paragraphs cannot capture or convey the “feel” of that time, any more than they can that of any other generation and its time. 

Emberley goes on to describe the enormous letdown that ensued when the dreams of “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius” disintegrated in disillusionment in the ‘70s.  Having questioned everything and come up mostly empty and short of any real solution to what so obviously seemed a need to fundamentally change the way power, economics, and society work, by the ‘80s boomers “had a paradoxical relationship to the workplace.  Many boomers achieved a level of success and affluence which… bordered on the obscene.  Both their real spending power and the senior positions of influence with which they were already flush in their forties represented a new apex of worldly success.” (ibid.)  Thus, the boomers who had eschewed commitment in their libidinous and “sophomoric” youth stood it all on its head by insisting on and getting posh pension and benefit plans in addition to fat salaries and wages.  If they had to now “work with the man” and even “be the man”, they would redefine what this looked like and negotiate their own terms. 

In the name of freedom and equality for all, the 60s activist impulse was diverted from idealism to cynicism in a scramble for “a fair piece of the pie”.  Luxury items and lifestyle took the place of failed ideals.  “Bliss out” was replaced by “drown out” the pain and the repressed gloom with stuff and games and substances.  Depression became the new epidemic, and Prozac (or cocaine) the new drug of choice.  The quest for personal freedom to enjoy life and not “be screwed by the system” or “ground down by the Establishment” had to be diverted into “making the system work for you”.  You could now use that old evil of money to capture life on your own terms with whatever amusements and pleasures took the place of the old ideals of “universal love, brother-and-sisterhood, peace, and freedom”.  However, the old inequities and class divisions had not really gone away and the rich got progressively richer and the poor fell farther and farther behind – which is where we find ourselves now.

The boomers had largely abandoned the old, inherited paths to salvation through tradition, established ways, adherence to religious custom, respect for class and appropriate expectations for one’s inherited position, marriage and family, financial reward for hard work and integrity, and “doing one’s duty”.  Now it became all about personal expectations and agenda.  The old paths to “salvation” out of chaos, failure, and disorder had been replaced by finding one’s own way to meaning.  Salvation was in whatever you chose as your personal path to “self-actualization”.

As Emberley points out, some reverted to “that old-time religion” as they aged, but moved to more energetic and active forms of it in Evangelicalism and Charismaticism, or perhaps into soft forms of oriental faiths, especially Buddhism and Yoga—which are still very popular.  In fact, recent data on religious affiliation and practice in the US suggest that, next to “no religious affiliation”, Buddhism is the fastest growing faith preference in North America.  Many serious scientists have been quietly turning in that direction as well in order to seek inner peace and meaning as they deal with the semi-mystical and elusive realities of Chaos Theory and the Quantum Universe.

“Personal peace and affluence”, as Francis Schaeffer diagnosed the age even as it unfolded, was the boomer road to salvation, the way of escape from despair and hopelessness.  Every society which exists and has ever existed either lives by a path to meaning which has already been established and generally accepted , or, if that established path has collapsed or been radically uprooted, sets out to find another one.  When such upheavals occur, the times are troubled and great turmoil ensues.

The Boomers sowed the wind when, as the Chicago 1 album put it, it sought to “Tear the system down, tear it down to the ground”.  Lamentably, as they forsook their old idealism, they went over to the hedonistic side of their “cultural revolution”.  Now, forty years later, what they seem to be leaving to their Gen-X children and the Millennials resembles a cultural wasteland filled with a whirlwind of violence and expectations of impending apocalypse.  The planetary environment is in severe distress and the socio-politico-economic infrastructure is strained to breaking point and quite unsustainable for much longer.  Yet the boomers still control and refuse to relinquish their self-serving stranglehold on the levers of power in the corporate, social, and political institutions which dictate most of what life will be like for the 99.5% of the rest of humanity who support the elitist paradigm.

For the Millennials and Gen-Xers who will soon be and already are moving into the positions of executive power (as in Canada where our two-term Prime Minister is a Gen-Xer), they have the opportunity to learn from the Boomer debacle.  Rather than being irresponsibly seduced by false promises of some sort of hairy-fairy Aquarian Utopia built on romantic dream-castles, they see quite well and more practically that the old ways are disintegrating, and have been for decades.  What is also clear is that their parents have done very poorly at managing the foundations as they have pursued a completely unsustainable paradigm of luxury retirement built on unceasing GDP growth .

The big question is where the upcoming movers and shakers of the world will turn to for their answers. What will be their salvation strategy to preserve enough of Planet Earth to continue as a living, thriving “Garden of Eden” in a universe that seems to have produced only one of its kind?  At the very least, it seems that they can hardly do worse than their immediate forebears.

The Third Way, 57: Saviours and Salvation, 12 – The Jesus Story, 9: The Third Way

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“Jesus called himself the Son of God and the Son of Man, but he laid little stress on who he was or what he was, and much more upon the teachings of the Kingdom.  In declaring that he was more than a man and divine, Paul and his [Jesus’] other followers, whether they were right or wrong, opened up a vast field of argument.  Was Jesus God?  Or had God created him?  Was he identical with God or separate from God?  It is not the function of the historian to answer such questions, but he is bound to note them, and to note how unavoidable they were, because of the immense influence they have had upon the whole subsequent life of western mankind.  By the fourth century of the Christian Era we find all the Christian communities so agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments about the nature of God as to be largely negligent of the simple teachings of charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”

H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, Volume One.  (Doubleday and Company, 1971), pp. 456-7

Not all readers of this blog or all Christians will agree with H.G. Wells in every detail of this citation from his magnum opus The Outline of History.  I would agree with his view that it is not the historian’s function to pass judgment on questions such as Jesus’ ultimate identity.  He is fair in recognizing that Jesus did accept the titles of “Son of Man” and “Son of God” as proper to himself.  He is right in saying that Paul (and the other Apostles and first disciples) opened up “a vast field of argument”.  These arguments came in later generations, but, while they had disagreements among themselves, the Apostles did not disagree about Jesus’ identity.  As Wells says, perhaps the later arguments were “unavoidable” and have been historically significant “because of the immense influence they have had” on all the generations since.

I would not agree with Wells that Jesus “laid little stress on who or what he was, and much more upon the teachings of the [coming of the ] Kingdom [of God].”  If one considers only the three “Synoptic” Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, one could reach that conclusion on a superficial reading.  But the major emphasis in John’s Gospel is the central issue of Jesus’ identity.  It focuses on his proclamation that the Kingdom of God had arrived in the form of his person.  The heart of the message was really that the coming of the Kingdom was not just coincident and correlative to his own coming among humanity with a new teaching at a specific time and in a specific place, but that it was intrinsic to his being present.  It was and is bound up in his person, and entering that Kingdom was and is through him, through commitment of one’s life to God through him.  When we look carefully at the Synoptics[i], we will still find Jesus declaring this. 

The difference is one of “optics”—focus and perspective.  The focus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (synoptic means seeing the same, taking the same perspective) is Jesus’ public ministry and persona as seen by the witnesses involved as he travelled through Israel and met his death, and then rose from the grave.  By comparison, the perspective of John is an intimate look at how Jesus related to those closest to him and with those who opposed him and eventually engineered his crucifixion. 

Wells is effectively doing what so many have done when trying to sort out “the historical Jesus” from “the Jesus of faith”; he is reducing him to a message, a set of teachings and admonitions to be applied, comparable to what the typical mystical prophets, philosophers, and sages have done for millennia.  But, as we said in our previous episode, we cannot reduce Jesus to that; he does not fit the mould or stay in our neat categorical boxes.  His message was really himself, and in that he is really and truly unique among all the great religious figures of history. 

Buddha, Muhammad, Lao-tse, Confucius, Zoroaster, etc. did not say things like “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father/Creator except by/through me.”  We could give many more examples of Jesus making such statements.  Here are a few to reinforce the point: “I am the door; I am the bread of life; I am the Good Shepherd; … I am the resurrection and the life,” etc.  Any of these others “greats” saying such things would have rightfully been declared a megalomaniac.  As C.S. Lewis so cogently puts it, “He does not leave us that option.”  He is so sane, so manifestly not a Lunatic!  So manifestly not a Liar!

Jesus also openly claimed to be sinless and publicly challenged his critics to produce one instance in which he had sinned.  He had lived a very public life for at least a couple of years by this point, and had been shadowed at every turn by hostile critics who should have been able to produce at least one tale of his having acted badly.  There were no takers.

Jesus did indeed teach extensively, often in parable form.  He challenged hypocrites wherever he found them.  He discredited stereotypes, stood up for the poor and downtrodden, and commented critically on many issues such as the way the powerful control, oppress, laying heavy burdens on people and inflicting suffering.  He criticized the wealthy and their lack of compassion. 

He said that his followers needed to be different from all this—to be like him!  Everything he brought to the table as a new way, a Third Way, was bound up in knowing him and following him.  It was not about a new set of rules or a new philosophical insight, or even a different way of performing religious rituals and routines—or not performing them, for that matter.  He elucidated and illuminated what they already knew, declaring that the scriptures spoke about him.  As we have said before, it will not do to confine him to being a sort of nice, peacenik guru saying “All you need us love, so stop being selfish and nasty.” 

Certainly, we need to stop being selfish and nasty, but the problem is that, in and of ourselves, we just can’t do it very well, at least most of us can’t, no matter how hard we try. There area few who somehow manage it much better than most, like Buddha, for example.  But even most of the prophets, gurus, and sages come out pretty splotchy when we dig a little deeper.  Most of us are like the Prophet Daniel’s dream of a giant statue of a King-God made of massive, shiny, metallic sections of gold, silver, and bronze.  We (try to) look shiny, powerful, and impressive, but we’re standing on clay feet which cannot support us at all when the waves crash in.

At the end of our citation Wells says, “By the fourth century of the Christian Era we find all the Christian communities so agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments about the nature of God as to be largely negligent of the simple teachings of charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”  Unfortunately, this part of his assessment is all too true.

At the end of The Third Way 56, we noted the tremendous positive and progressive impact of the legacy of Jesus and the best of the work of his disciples over the last two millennia.  As Wells puts it—the “charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”  Too often though, we have seen large segments of those followers turning inward on one another, “agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments” with one another about God’s nature, Jesus’ nature, the Holy Spirit’s nature and work, questions of Church order and government, questions of right ritual and observance, and on and on.  And when the workers turn in upon one another, the anathemas proliferate and the love evaporates, evening  climaxing in war sometimes.  This does not even include the completely twisted notion of crusading to convert or crush “the infidel” or “heathen” of another religion.

When the Church, which is really just the community of his followers which Jesus commissioned to be “the light of the world and the salt of earth” loses its way and does those things, it has gone over to the “Dark Side” and lost its salt.  It breaks faith with its Founder and shames and dishonours itself.  So do all who take Christ’s name in vain by using it to say and perpetrate things and actions which in the end he will denounce and declare dreadful distortions of everything he is and calls those who follow him to be.

Nevertheless, Jesus has always had followers “muddling through” to act and be as he calls them to be and do.  There is still and has always been a remnant of communities and individuals who are “doers of the word, not mere hearers” and fancy talkers and theologians.  Now, at this time in history, and especially in the history of the West, faithful hearers and doers are more needed than ever, for much of the earth is in spiritual famine and dying in its vapid materialism and self-absorption, without hope or vision.  “Without a hope, without a vision for the future, people perish,” says a verse in the Book of Proverbs.

The core of the Christian proclamation is about hope—Good News—which is what the word “Gospel” really means.  That Good News is the coming of God’s Kingdom into our midst.  And it has come and continues to abide in a living Saviour who promises to “be with you always, even to the end of the age.”  He said, and says, “In this life, in this world, in this age, you will have trouble.  But take heart, for I have overcome the world.”

The “First Way” is the way of Religion—seeking peace and safety through appeasement of the universe and its dominant forces by the right kind of actions and staying out of the way of what can destroy us.  The “Second Way” is the way of Power, the way of control and manipulation and domination, to (re)make the world in our own image, even if it is just our own corner of it.  The ultimate form of this kind of counterfeit safety is world mastery—political, economic, and social domination and forcible conformity.

Both of these “Ways” of trying to make sense of reality are alive and well.  None of us is entirely free of them, either within ourselves or in our dealings with others, or even with nature.

The “Third Way” is what Jesus offered and offers—to cease from the first two and become truly free, as only he can make us free: “For if the Son (Son of God and Son of Man) shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.”


[i]  “Synoptics” = Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  These three take a similar, more or less biographical perspective to Jesus’ public career.  They see Jesus through the eyes of witnesses who were there, although takes a somewhat different witness perspective.  Matthew’s perspective is very Jewish – Jesus as the fulfilment of Torah and its reinterpreter for the New Age, the renewed or new Covenant.  Tradition says that Mark’s perspective is based on Peter’s stories about the Messiah Yeshua.  For much of the account, Jesus seems to be keeping a low profile, but is finally revealed to be the Son of God and the Messiah.  He is then arrested and crucified.  The end is wonder and amazement, and there is scholarly controversy about the last part of the final chapter being a later addition.

Luke takes a more scholarly approach, systematically accumulating evidence and eye-witness testimony.  Tradition says Luke was a well-educated, articulate, very literate physician, perhaps even a Gentile convert of Paul’s.  His story focuses on the humanity of Jesus while including details of healings and relationships which a doctor would note.

With this understanding, John’s approach becomes more illuminating as a bridge from the very public record of Jesus to his more intimate, personal dimension and the things he said about himself both with his closest followers and those who challenged and opposed him.

Lincoln and Douglass

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This is a slightly revised post from another page two years ago. It is in honor of Black History month.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress … Power concedes nothing without demand.  It never did and it never will.  Find out just what people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both.  The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Frederick Douglass, former slave and American Abolitionist, spokesman for full Black Rights in the late 19th Century.

            In 1838, Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in Maryland by hopping aboard a train near Baltimore and making his way to Boston.  He did not flee to Canada, as thousands of the refugees from slavery did in those days before the Civil War (April 1861- May 1865)[1].  Instead, he settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, found work and eventually married a free woman.  He worked hard to educate himself and became not only literate, but eloquent, both as an orator and a writer. 

He became an icon of the Abolitionists, as well as the premier advocate for Black Rights, including the right to bear arms in the Civil War.  He worked tirelessly to have Blacks become full-fledged US citizens with voting rights and freedom to do anything (legal) they chose and live freely anywhere in the country. 

During the War, his relationship with Abraham Lincoln grew from doubt of the President’s ability and commitment to end slavery to one of warm respect.  They met many times, as Lincoln recognized his need of input on dealing with the issue of abolition and granting rights to the former slaves and the Free Black population.  The President found Douglass abrasive to deal with at times, but grew to respect his intellect and his insight.  Douglass criticized Lincoln (as did many) for not moving more quickly on Abolition and not fully immediately accepting Blacks as entitled to equal rights.  Lincoln saw that this had to happen eventually, but thought they needed to be educated into it and that the country needed to be prepared for it.

Perhaps there is some justice in Douglass’s critique of Lincoln.  Both were men of their time and products of their heritage.  Lincoln may not have been fully ‘modern’ in his views of the equality of the ‘races’, but Douglass recognized that the President was vastly in advance of the great majority of his compatriots.  In his time, he was one of the most misunderstood, maligned, underestimated, and undervalued ‘greats’ of history ever. 

Today, the US recognizes both these titans, wary allies and occasional opponents, as unquestionably great men.  Both were necessary, and both fought the same battle, but from very different vantage points.  As a young man of nineteen, Lincoln had already begun to abhor slavery and the oppression of ‘the African Race’ as an abomination.  He had said, “If I ever get the opportunity, I will hit this thing hard.”  This was long before he had any notion of becoming President.  He was not yet even on the road to becoming a lawyer.

Lincoln refused to succumb to radicalism, at least to the kind of Abolitionist radicalism of William Lloyd Garrison.  He was, however, a moral and constitutional radical.  Yet, even though he abhorred the evils of the whole slavery institution and system, he equally abhorred the idea of a wholesale violent demolition of it.  His view was that solving one great evil by wreaking havoc, mayhem, and destruction as some sort of hand of Divine Retribution (as per John Brown) would merely compound evil upon evil.

Lincoln sought a firm, measured, gradual approach.  He learned as he went, and grew into the man people would later revere.  He was far from a simple, simplistic ‘yokel’ lawyer from the backcountry of the Mid-West, as so many tried to portray him – ‘the Original Gorilla’ or ‘the Buffoon’, as the press so often vilified him.  Even his closest collaborators failed to see the real man and the subtleties of his mind and soul being worked upon by ‘the Deity’, as he sometimes called the God he increasingly turned to as his burden and need increased.  The great suffering in his personal life also drove him to God, although he was never “an enthusiast”, remaining quite private about his personal faith.

Frederick Douglass was understandably more one-dimensional.  His calling and mandate were simple and always remained clear.  His goal was fixed, and he strove to advance towards it for the rest of his life.  He too felt a sort of ‘Divine calling’ to do the work he knew he had been given.  It is perhaps understandable that he took time to recognize that, in a different way, Lincoln also knew he had been chosen for a great work and must see it through to the end.

For Lincoln, the work and the goal evolved in his vision and understanding as he evolved into the greatest President the US ever had.  His basic persona did not change, but his wisdom and understanding increased, and his insight into how to move in practical ways grew exponentially and rapidly as he found himself catapulted into a context no one before him had ever faced, and never has since then.

The Civil Rights Movement in the US rightly gives Douglass a prominent place in its pantheon.  He did much with little, and greatly advanced the cause of racial justice.  He also had enduring and significant support from a strong base of well-intentioned, well-positioned, and financially prosperous white Americans.  He was the leader of a nascent movement at a time when circumstances were opening new doors. 

Lincoln was often surrounded by those who disdained him as a person, mocked his ‘inferior’ abilities (as they considered them), and questioned his every move (including many of Douglass’s supporters).  He would have said, if the expression had been in use then, that all this ‘came with the territory’. 

Lincoln was rarely angered by attackers, detractors, and opponents.   He preferred to laugh – both at himself and the absurdities he was the target of.  He became exasperated at times, and frequently discouraged, but he would remain philosophical about the whole business, and seemed able to look at the issues with a kind of calm detachment.  Like Douglass, once he could see the goal, Lincoln’s eyes remained fixed on it.  He began to see how he had to move, how to find his way through the maze, how to bring some good out of the Apocalypse his country had fallen into. 

One of Lincoln’s strongest opponents was his main rival for the Republican nomination of 1860, William Seward.  A second major opponent was Salmon P. Chase, another rival for the nomination.  A third was Edwin Stanton, a powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives who sought to bring every decision in the early conduct of the war under close scrutiny in order to discredit Lincoln and his administration.  Lincoln’s gift as a political genius enabled him to incorporate each of these one-time bitter opponents into his Cabinet, although Chase continued to secretly undermine him.  Lincoln could have ruined him because of secretive conspiring but instead, he manoeuvred him into quietly resigning from Cabinet to become a Justice of the Supreme Court.  He brought Stanton into the Cabinet to replace the corrupt Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, in 1863, thus giving him a chance to ‘put up or shut up’ about how to prosecute the War.

What was the eventual estimation of the President by his former arch-rivals, men who saw him almost daily and got to know him intimately?  I will paraphrase Seward’s response to a critic of Lincoln still protesting his bumbling and mishandling of things in 1862, with the war in full swing and the North in disarray.  The critic suggested that the country would be far better off if Seward took over, if they could somehow manoeuvre Lincoln into resigning or being impeached.  Seward told this man, “I have since completely changed my mind about Mr. Lincoln and his ability.  None of us measure up to him, and he outweighs all of us put together.”  Mr. Seward never changed this opinion thereafter.

Stanton often found himself crossing swords with Lincoln over strategy and assignments of personnel and resources.  They could engage in bitter arguments, with most of the vitriol and bitterness on Mr. Stanton’s side.  Lincoln’s calm persistence, often attributed to brute stubbornness, frequently later proved the justice of his perceptions.  Stanton was eventually completely won over by Lincoln, although he continued to be headstrong.  When Lincoln lay dying after being shot in Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, Stanton sat the whole night by his bedside mute with grief, for he had come to regard Lincoln as a true friend and a very great man.  When Lincoln finally expired, Stanton was heard to say with a tear-choked voice, “And now he belongs to the ages.”

Frederick Douglass had also come to recognize Mr. Lincoln, for all his ‘limitations’ on the race question, as a truly great and unique man.  He said this:

In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race.  He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color, and I thought that all the more remarkable because he came from a State [Illinois, and born in Kentucky, a slave state] where there were black laws.  I account partially for his kindness to me because of the similarity with which I had fought my way up, we both starting at the lowest round of the ladder. . . .

There was one thing concerning Lincoln that I was impressed with, and that was that a statement of his was an argument more convincing than any amount of logic.  He had a happy faculty of stating a proposition , of stating it so that it needed no argument.  It was a rough kind of reasoning and it went right to the point.  Then, too, there was another feeling that I had with reference to him, and that was that while I felt in his presence that I was in the presence of a very great man, as great as the greatest.  I felt as though I could go and put my hand on his shoulder.  Of course I did not do it, but I felt that I could.  I felt that I was in the presence of a big brother, and that there was safety in his atmosphere.

Frederick Douglass, On Slavery and the Civil War.  Philip S. Foner, Ed.  (Dover Publications, Inc., 2003), p. 52.

It is amazing what time and perspective can do to help us see things more clearly.  He realized that if Mr. Lincoln had survived, the reintegration of the South and the racial integration of the Blacks would have gone much differently and with far less longstanding bitterness to pass on to future generations.

The survival of the United States was Lincoln’s true legacy along with the final abolition of slavery.  His closest contemporaries, along with millions of his fellow citizens, attributed this uniquely to him, a man whom they concluded God Himself had chosen for the task.  Lincoln himself had an inkling of this, more than once voicing the premonition that when it all ended, he would be gone too, his appointed work finished.


[1]  The last significant Confederate force actually surrendered May 25, 1865.  Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 12 did not end all the resistance, although it is usually cited as the war’s end.

The Third Way, 56: Saviours and Salvation, 11 – The Jesus Story, 8: Conclusion – The Crucified and Risen Messiah, 3

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#5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

#6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as most of his followers have claimed for two thousand years?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

#7. How believable is this whole story?  And what does it mean now?

In episode #55, we concluded that Jesus indeed claimed the unthinkable – to have been (a) the Son of God and (b) God Himself, clothed in human flesh.  We did not resolve how this is even possible.  If God is indeed infinite and eternal, with all the “All” attributes (Almighty, etc), it is in fact, humanly speaking, insoluble.  It is a true mystery, in the classic sense of “mystery”- a hidden thing beyond our understanding.  As such, it rankles with us Westerners of the 21st Century who pride and preen ourselves on our science, determined to solve all the riddles of being and the universe by the collective superpower of our minds enhanced by our technology.

As to what Jesus meant when he accepted worship as God, and the title “Son of God”, we are helped by putting him and these ideas in their proper historical and cultural context.  The idea of “Son of God” was already current in the Roman Empire, and had already been in use for three millennia in Egypt.  Although the position of Emperor was still rather new in Rome, it had been quickly, if at first only unofficially, associated with divine status.  In Rome itself, deceased emperors, beginning with Augustus, the first Emperor, were posthumously accorded divine status by the Senate.  However, in Asian provinces the Emperors were being acclaimed as gods while still alive, and temples were built and cults initiated for their worship even during the reign of Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE). 

But the concept “Son of God” in relation to Jesus was far different in nature and degree from this honorific sort of deification already known from Egypt’s Pharaohs and Alexander the Great’s hubris.  Jews totally rejected such pretensions from a human as blasphemous and abhorrent.  They successfully revolted (the Maccabees) when the Seleucid monarch, Antiochus Epiphanes attempted to impose this on them in the 160s BCE.  They revolted against Roman attempts to bring idols into the Temple, including the mad Emperor Caligula’s statue (as Jupiter with his face on it) in 42 CE and paid dearly in lives, but eventually won their point.

In Jesus’ time and not long before, some Jews thought that the Messiah might bear the title Son of God, meaning Son of Yahweh, but it was unclear if this would involve actual sharing the divine nature in some way, or would be an angelic incarnation of some sort.  Angels had been called “sons of God” in the Tanakh (what non-Jews call The Old Testament), as had descendants of Adam and Eve’s third named son, Seth, in the Book of Genesis.  But, as we saw previously, it became clear that Yeshua ben-Yosef of Nazareth in Galilee was claiming actual identity and equality with Yahweh Himself as well as Messiahship.  This was a step too far even for most Jews hoping for the Messiah to come in their time.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ amazing healing ministry, his down-to-earth association with the humble and downtrodden, and his challenging teaching “with authority, not like the Scribes and Pharisees”, as the Gospels put it, made him very popular with regular folks.  He was also terribly clever and knowledgeable for a supposedly uninstructed country bumpkin, even setting down the best challengers of the Sadducees, Scribes, and Pharisees. 

But most outrageous of all was his claim of authority to forgive sins, authority he claimed to have directly from “my Father in heaven” – the God of Abraham and Moses.  He added to this the authority to reinterpret the Torah itself, such as how to observe Sabbath and tithing, two of the pillars of the religious observance of Judaism.  He suggested that his presence boded the coming of something even greater than the Temple itself and, by implication, that superseded the whole Temple system.  He hinted broadly that his authority came from Yahweh Himself, but when the leaders’ agents plainly asked him, he told them he would tell them if they answered a question of his first – whether John the Baptist’s baptism was from God or from men.  They said they did not know, and he said therefore he wouldn’t tell them where his authority came from. 

On another occasion he repeated that he had been very plain with them about his identity, but no matter what he said to them or how he explained it, they would not believe.  He then challenged them, “If you will not believe what I tell you, then you should believe because of the works (deeds) that I do.”  But even these they stubbornly rejected, outrageously stating that he did then by demonic power.  Jesus asked them how he could cast out demons using the authority of a demon.  Satan’s kingdom must surely fall if it is so divided; but if he was casting out demons by the power of God’s spirit, “Then the Kingdom of Yahweh is among you.”  He warned them that every sin but one can be forgiven – blasphemy of the Holy Spirit – attributing God’s work to the devil.

In other words, Jesus offered “many proofs” of his Messiahship and special relationship to Yahweh as His Son during his earthly life, but the final and ultimate proof came after he died – the resurrection!  Without the resurrection, we could assign Jesus to a well-known sort of category—the well-meaning prophetic voice preaching God’s coming judgment on the oppressors and abusers of humanity and creation and his coming reign when all will be set right.  But in the end, like all the others, he is eliminated by the powers he denounces, and ends up as another footnote in history.

But, as we have said now repeatedly, Jesus won’t stay in that box.  No such category fits him.  He is not a Buddha, “showing us the way”; he says “I am the Way”.  He is not another prophet in a list of twenty-eight (as Islam categorizes him) who preach Islam (“submission” to Allah) or eternal hellfire and earthly annihilation for the infidel.  In contrast, he boldly declares “Before Abraham was, I AM.”  “I AM” is a direct claim to the name of God Himself as applying to him.  So did his hearers at that time understand what he had said.  They took up stones to stone him then and there, “but he hid himself from them.”  At last, having been put to death for his frontal assault on what the establishment and, in the end, even regular folks were prepared to possibly accept about him, he simply did not stay dead!

Perhaps he was just a madman?  In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis masterfully dismantles the typical categorizations people over the millennia have concocted to dispose of this so-disturbing historical anomaly.  He says there are only three options: Jesus was a Liar, a Lunatic, or Lord.  If he persistently claimed things he didn’t mean and even knew not to be true for some nefarious purpose of deceiving people, or even for a good purpose of getting people to live better and be nicer to one another, he was a liar, not just a kind but misguided religious teacher teaching “love is the answer”.  Why do we continue to take him seriously if that is what we are reducing him to?  If, on the other hand, he really believed what he said about himself, but was deceived about himself, suffering from hysterical delusions of grandeur, then he was a pure madman, and we should certainly shun everything about him.  But if what he did and all we see of his character and teaching totally line up with what he said about himself then we have only one option left: He is who he said he is – Lord of life and God-in-the-flesh.  No other options are possible. 

So what proof is there for his actual, real, physical resurrection?  We are not talking about some sort of ethereal continuation of his presence and legacy in a mystical sense, although many would attest to that.  Many liberal theologians say that is all that really happened.  Jesus himself promised that his Father would send his followers the Holy Spirit to empower them to continue his work and bring his life and message to the whole world.  BUT!!  he was very clear that he would rise physically from the grave, just as the prophets had said: “The only sign that will be given to this generation is the sign of Jonah.  For just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will lie in the belly of the earth and be raised again.”

All the “proof” of the resurrection is circumstantial, unless Jesus himself pays a personal visit in his resurrected form, as we see described in the Four Gospels.  There is millennia-old Christian tradition associated with two empty tombs in Jerusalem.  One of the two is extremely likely the actual tomb in which Jesus’ corpse was laid on a late Friday afternoon in April 29 or 30 CE (or perhaps 33 CE).  There were multiple eye-witness encounters with the risen Jesus, both in the Gospels, then in Acts, when Saul of Tarsus encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus. 

Outside the New Testament, there are personal testimonies of such encounters of many with the risen Jesus since then, including in the recent past.  (Personally, I tremble at the thought but I still long to see him in person, in the flesh.)  But of course, none of this will qualify as scientific or “definitive”. 

Historically and socially, there is the enduring Christian Church and religion, which both stand on the declaration that Jesus Christ is the risen Messiah and Son of God.  Millions across two millennia have claimed and continue to claim to have had personal encounters with Jesus, rarely in his “glorified” physical body, but unmistakably with his presence through the Spirit.  (This I can claim too.)  

Millions have been ready and willing to die as witnesses to his reality and his resurrection, and millions continue to be ready and willing.  In the last decade alone, close to 100 000 Christians have actually done so in many countries (Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, Syria, to name a few), and now  including even churches in the United States where Christ- and Christian-hating terrorists have several times rampaged on Sunday mornings in the last few years.

Attested and verified healings and miracles continue to happen regularly under the authority of the name of Jesus as risen Lord and God’s Son.  The media ignore these things and skeptics mock, but there are incontrovertible occurrences of such things. 

Works of love, compassion, charity, and justice continue to be done daily by thousands around the world inspired by this living Lord’s presence and Spirit in those who do them.  In fact, a very large proportion of such work on behalf of the most oppressed and most downtrodden is done by compassionate souls acting because of their commitment to Jesus’ mission to bring God’s love and compassion – essential elements of the coming of His Kingdom – to those who are most despised, afflicted, and defenceless.  Scratch below the surface of almost any such work, and Christians will be found intimately involved.  (Jesus: “If you give even so much as a cup of cold water in my name to the least of these brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.”)

It is easy to point the finger of fault and accusation at the human failings of those who have followed Jesus in the past and who follow him today.  At some point, this becomes empty and tired refusnikism.  There are mountains of evidence about the actual reality of Jesus and his claim to be humanity’s one true Saviour and Lord.  Writing it all off with facile mockery and disdain because of the wrongs committed by some who have claimed to have acted in his name but done horrific things he would never countenance will not excuse refusing to actually look at him and daring to see if he will encounter anyone who comes seeking. 

His words about seeking him out were simple, generous, and crystal clear:“Ask, and you will receive.  Seek, and you will find.  Knock, and it will be opened to you.”  And, “The one who seeks me I will certainly not reject.”

While none of this evidence (see above and below) “proves” that Jesus is the Son of God and God-Man, little of most of the enormous works now in progress for the betterment of our human condition would be happening if it were not for those who are passionately inspired by their faith in and personal experience with Jesus as a living Saviour today.  If Christ were not truly risen, his followers would long ago have abandoned his teaching, for it was centred on his own mission and identity as God’s final answer to humanity’s estrangement from the Creator, from one another, from our own true selves, and from the Creation we were made to care for and watch over as its intended caretakers.  And if those followers had not been doing his works and were to cease now from doing them, however inadequately they have been done and are being done now, the human condition would be immeasurably worse and more hopeless.

Those who wish that Jesus would just go away, or that his followers would just shut up or disappear, thinking this would make the world a better place, are incredibly naive and deceived.  They have adopted a wilful blindness and incalculably impoverished themselves and the world they think they know how to save.

There is a great deal more that could be said regarding areas such as education, social justice, and healthcare and their Christ-inspired roots in the West and, via the West’s world-reach, all over the world, but we will conclude with what Jesus said:“No one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friend….  Do not believe only what I have told you [and shown you]; believe because of the works that I do [and that my followers now do as my bodily presence in the world].”

The Third Way, 55: Saviours and Salvation, 10 – The Jesus Story, 7 – The Crucified and Risen Messiah, 2

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#5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

“Son of Man, Son of David, Son of God, son of Joseph the Carpenter of Nazareth” – these are the sonship titles of Jesus.  We saw previously that the first two in this list were not-so-subtle claims to Messiahship.  Jesus of Nazareth, the upstart son of a carpenter from a nowhereville little village called Nazareth in First-Century Israel’s boondocks in Galilee, had outrageously accepted each of those appellations as his own proper designation.  He constantly called himself “The Son of Man” and he never refused being called “Son of David” when others called him that.

As to “Son of God”, there are several occurrences of his being openly called this by someone else, and he does not deny its relevance.  The first time is when Jesus calms the storm.  The disciples are recorded to have worshipped him and said “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:32).  Later his closest disciple, Simon bar-Jonah, whom Jesus renamed Peter (the Rock) – see Matthew 16:16 and The Third Way 54 – answered for all the disciples after Jesus had asked “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  Jesus tells Peter that his Father in Heaven had revealed this to him.  Therefore, Jesus fully acknowledges the title and identity. 

The last time is far different.  It is during Jesus’ trumped-up trial before the Sanhedrin.  The High Priest challenges him to answer clearly, “Are you or are you not, the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One [Yahweh-God].”  Jesus answers “(It is) As you say” or “You are right in saying I am” (Luke 22: 70b).  It is a definite, “Yes I am.”  It was enough to have the court condemn him to death for blasphemy—assuming it was false, as all the judge-jurymen did.[i]

The other more subtle approach to claiming a special “Sonship” status with God which Jesus makes is by consistently calling God “my Father” and “my Father in Heaven”.  This was not a time like ours when everyone went about calling all humans “children of God” or “sons and daughters of God” by virtue of being God’s creatures.   The Gospels are contextually quite clear that Jesus was consistently and repeatedly claiming some kind of unique relationship with the Creator-God, with Yahweh-God, the God of Israel who was also the One God, the only true God, the Maker of the whole universe, which is how Israel and Jews saw their God.  The gods of all the other nations were false, zeros, nothings, no gods at all or, worse yet, demons.

But just how far did this claim to a unique relationship with the One-and-Only-True-God go?  The short answer is “far enough to get him killed by the Jewish leaders for blasphemy, and far enough to convince Pontius Pilate to collaborate with even though he appears to have had significant misgivings.”  As John’s Gospel recounts, Pilate sought to find a way to release Jesus as innocent, but priests tell Pilate, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”  They convince Pilate to crucify him by saying that Jesus’ claim to be a king makes him Caesar’s enemy, and Pilate cannot escape his duty as governor to condemn anyone suspected of raising rebellion.

Thus, it is clear that Jesus accepted worship and being called “the Son of the Living God”.  When asked directly by the High Priest, he declared he was the Son of God, and that the Jewish leaders understood this to mean that he claimed a supernatural identity, not just the ordinary Jewish status of being a “son of God” through Adam and Abraham, the God-chosen ancestor of all Jews.  The Talmud’s vitriolic references to Jesus and the “sect of the Nazarenes” reinforce this understanding.  The ensuing hostility of First-Century Judaism to the Jesus Movement also confirms this.

What did Jesus himself mean by “Son of God”?  We can get closest to it by referring to what the Gospel writers report as his description of that relationship.  Here are some of those declarations:

“Whoever acknowledges me before men [human beings] I will also acknowledge him [her] before my Father in heaven.  But whoever disowns me before men [human beings] I will also disown him [her] before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10: 32-3)

“He who received you receives me, and he [she] who received me receives the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40 – the context clearly refers to God as “the one who sent me”.)

Most of what we see Jesus saying about this is reported in John’s Gospel, which makes that Gospel seem the least authentic (most distasteful?) to the more liberal school of critics and scholars who least appreciate the supernatural elements of the Jesus story.  Throughout John’s version of the Jesus Story, we find Jesus saying things like:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (3”16-7

“My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.”  For this reason the Jews [Jewish leaders is the meaning] tried all the harder to kill him … he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (5:18)

“I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty …. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.  For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” (6: 35, 37-8)

“When you have lifted up the Son of Man [an oblique reference to his coming crucifixion], then you will know who I am and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.  The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” (8: 28-9)

“My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me.  Though you do not know him, I know him …. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews [leaders] told him, “ and you have seen Abraham!”

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”  At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.” (8:54b, 56-9)

The upshot of all this is that, according to the first-hand sources, Jesus clearly claimed divine status, equality with God, a special relationship of what he described as a unique “Sonship” in which all that he taught and did was in complete harmony and union with God’s will and nature.  The final occasion we will mention is the Apostle Thomas worshipping Jesus and saying to him “My Lord and my God!” after the resurrection. 

Thomas was a sceptic, and needed a personal physical encounter with the risen Messiah and Son of God to accept him and his true identity as God incarnate in human form.  Having missed the first appearance of Jesus to the assembled disciples on the previous Sunday evening (Easter as we now call it), Thomas had refused to believe all the other disciples’ account of their Lord’s physical resurrection.  A week later, they were again assembled in the same “upper room” and Jesus once more appeared in their midst.  He turned to Thomas and told his to stop doubting and to put his fingers in the nail holes of his hands (wrists) and his hand into the lance-wound in his side, as Thomas had declared the conditions on which he would believe.  Thomas, all-atremble, declared, “My Lord and my God!”

We will leave this question here for today.  The records as we have them certainly point to Jesus claiming divine status.  As to “proof”, we must acknowledge that the Gospels in themselves do not satisfy everyone, especially in a culture now immured in scepticism.  Those who accept the Gospel accounts are a dwindling minority of people.  Now, when actual historical and archeological research is affirming their substance more and more, after hundreds of years of systematic (and often spurious) deconstruction and relegation to the “religious” sphere, they are seldom admitted into the rank of truly reliable historical source-documents.

We will close with the observation that all points of view are biased by faith-based presuppositions, and none more than those regarding the consideration of the identity of the historically titanic person of Jesus of Nazareth.


[i] There may have been a couple of exceptions—Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.  However, there is no record of any dissent with the verdict in the Gospels.  Some suggest that these two, whom Luke and John call “secret disciples”, were not present at this “trial” in the middle of the night, perhaps not having been notified that it was to take place.  Or perhaps their fear of being ostracized, or worse, kept them silent.  This is no worse than Peter’s triple denial or all the other disciples fleeing.)

The Third Way, 54: Saviours and Salvation, 9 – The Jesus Story, 6 – The Crucified and Risen Messiah, 1

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“All sins are attempts to fill voids.” 

Simone Weil

In the previous two instalments we answered:

1. Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  (When?  Where?)

2. Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)

Here are our remaining questions:

3. Did Jesus of Nazareth really die on a Roman cross?  If so, why?

4. Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as most of his followers have claimed for two thousand years?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

Four questions are too much for one instalment, but we cannot easily separate these questions from one another in any clinical fashion.  They all dovetail, and so we will have to consider them together.

#3 can be disposed of quickly.  For #1, the extra-Biblical sources confirm that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person who lived in the early First Century in the Roman sub-province of Judea, which was part of the greater Province of Syria.  For #3, those same sources, both Roman and Jewish, confirm that he was crucified during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was Procurator (a Junior Governorship title) of Judea between 26 and 36 CE.  As far as those sources go, there was and is no question that his crucifixion mean absolutely that he died on that cross.  Roman executions never missed, and crucifixion was a centuries-old near-science adopted from their old arch-enemies the Carthaginians in the Third Century BCE.  They had since refined it into perhaps the cruelest and most excruciating form of execution ever devised.  No one survived it.

Why then do we find strange proposals cropping up in the 20th and 21st Centuries in the West (e.g, The Passover Plot, 1965), suggesting that in fact Jesus never really died on the cross, but swooned from drugs and was taken down when he appeared to be dead?  This unlikely proposal says he was supposedly revived, thus fabricating the whole resurrection scenario.  One version of this tale suggests that he later succumbed to his wounds, but had hung on long enough to create the deception of his resurrection which his followers used to deceive multitudes into accepting Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah.  Another says that he actually did recover and secretly made his way to southern Gaul (France), married Mary Magdalene (if they were not already married) and had a family.  We are told that only a small circle of faithful followers actually knew of this, but they founded a secret community to carry on the true mission of Jesus.

Islam goes so far as to say that Jesus was never crucified at all, but Judas was substituted for him by Allah, who deceived the Romans and Jews but whisked Jesus off to Paradise to await being sent back to show the later Christians the error of their ways.  How this created the Church is unexplained, except to say that the Apostles deceived people somehow.

Of course, the sensationalist e-media and conventional tabloid media love these kinds of conspiracy stories and are very ready to capitalize on them for purposes of profit, entertainment (e.g. The Da Vinci Code), or perhaps straight-on hostility to establishment or any form of Christianity.

One way or the other in these scenarios, Jesus died and is still dead (except in the Islamic account), like everyone else who ever lived, so why get into knots about it?  But that is the whole (missing of the) point.  Citing eye-witnesses who had nothing to gain by lying, and in fact risked their lives to testify that Jesus resurrected,Christians and the Christian Church have declared since the very first that Jesus really and absolutely died on that cross, but did not stay dead!  Thirty-Six hours later, he was alive again, and he is still alive, with a real physical body, to this day.  No human agency participated in his resurrection in any way.  And, Christians say, he will remain alive forever.

Furthermore, Jesus himself declared ahead of the event, and the Church maintains, that his resurrection is also a seal of promise from God that those who commit their lives to him will also be raised from death in the same way with the same kind of indestructible body.  There is thus a universe of difference between saying he died on the cross but the story of his resurrection was untrue, or he escaped death on the cross but died later like anyone else and is still dead, and the declaration of his disciples and the Church that he rose incorruptible and promises the same to anyone who will accept him as Lord and Saviour.

Let us consider #4 – Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

Once again, we find some modern interpreters saying that Jesus never clearly claimed to be Israel’s expected Messiah, and probably claimed nothing more for himself than being a prophet in the long line of prophets found in ancient Israel’s history since the age of the Judges beginning before 1000 BCE.  As with so much else when it comes to this sort of debate, much of it hinges on modernist reductionism in the treatment of the New Testament accounts and those of the early Christian (“Patristic”) sources. 

Once more, we must reiterate that the latest and best scholarship, both textual and archeological, weighs heavily against those kinds of disclaimers.  If Jesus claimed no more than prophet status, his disciples seem somehow to have badly misinterpreted his life and message from the get-go.  The authorities seem to have thought he claimed a lot more than that too.  Seems like all his contemporaries, even the Romans, misheard him to the point he was taken as a direct personal threat to the whole established order, including the Emperor.  Leaves one wondering how two thousand years later we seem to be the only ones who have understood him!  Or maybe he was just a whack-job and they decided to get rid of him rather drastically, rather than just ridiculing and ignoring him?

It is true that, during his public ministry, Jesus could be rather cryptic about his identity at times.  His favourite title for himself was “Son of Man” and, at least until his trial before the Sanhedrin, he never openly claimed to be “the Son of God”.  But the “Son of Man” assignation, as per the prevailing view among the Jewish teachers of Jesus’ time, was tantamount to saying “I am the Messiah.” The Son of Man was the the one the Prophet Daniel prophesied about who would manifest the very presence of Yahweh Himself among the Jews of the Messianic Age, the time when Messiah would finally come.  There are many scholarly and contemporary-to-Jesus Jewish confirmations of this.

Another such title was “Son of David”—i.e., the royal heir of King David (ca. 1000 BCE Israelite King) who would establish God’s rule (and Israel’s) over the whole earth according to Yahweh’s covenant with King David made in the 11th Century BCE.  Jesus was acclaimed as the Son of David more than once and never said “No I’m not!”  In that environment, silence, or lack of denial, was indeed consent.

How about the identity “Son of God” then?  He overtly accepted it from his disciples when Peter declared it on behalf of them all at Caesarea Philippi (see Matthew 16:16): “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!”  Jesus affirms this and calls Peter “blessed” for having received this revelation directly from his Father in heaven, the God of Israel.  (Mark and Luke give shorter versions of this declaration.)

Well then, does accepting the identity of “Messiah” and even “Son of God” mean he claimed to be God?  This is less obvious, and it directs us to how the Jews of the First Century understood this issue.  Was the expected Messiah going to be a sort of “super-Prophet”?  Was he going to be a being actually sent to earth from Heaven?  Or was he going to be a regular human being with some sort of direct connection to God as God’s anointed and adopted Son?  Not a “son/child of God” like everyone else “made in the image of God”, but a unique, divinely empowered and one-of-a-kind son who acted and spoke like God Himself?  All these concepts were current and circulating.

 The leaders themselves differed sharply on them.  The Priestly caste, the Sadducees, even questioned that a Messiah was ever promised.  The Pharisees believed a Messiah was promised, but did not agree as to which version was correct.  All who believed in a coming Messiah agreed that he would deliver Israel from Roman and pagan oppression and establish the rule and reign of Yahweh on earth, with Israel as the ruling people and Jerusalem as the capital.  A smallish number thought there might be two Messiahs—one a “suffering servant” figure who would be martyred by the infidels but show Israel how to truly live for Yahweh, and the other who would come after as the mighty ruler.  Or could the same one be both?

More on this next time.

The Third Way, 53: Saviours and Salvation, 9 – The Jesus Story, 5 – The Problem of Miracles, 2

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miracle – an extraordinary event attributed to some supernatural agency. 

The Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002

In our discussion of the candidacy of Jesus for the position of universal Saviour, we began dealing with the following list of questions in Episode 51 of The Third Way:

1. Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  (When?  Where?)

2. Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)

3. Did Jesus of Nazareth really die on a Roman cross?  If so, why?

4. Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as most of his followers have claimed for two thousand years?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

7. How believable is this whole story?  And what does it mean now?

So far:

#1: We have established that Jesus/Yeshua of Nazareth, the subject of Christian faith and The New Testament, the principle Christian documents, is a real historical person who lived and died in the First Century CE (Common Era, Current Era, Christian Era).  We have established that, historically and archeologically speaking, these documents are at least as authentic and worthy of serious consideration as any other ancient documents which are generally accredited as holding genuine authority about the persons and events which they relate.  Our confirmation of these questions in the limited space of this blog has certainly not been extensive, but sufficient to point inquirers in the general direction of very convincing authorities on these matters.

#2: In The Third Way 52, we began a consideration of the claims made in the Four Canonical Gospels that Jesus performed many spontaneous healings and even some astounding feats of command over natural forces and laws.  For anyone wanting to or insisting that we consider non-Canonical sources, such as the “Gospels of Thomas, Peter, or Barnabas (parts of the Pseudepigrapha), they will find many such stories there as well.  In comparison, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are downright modest and subdued, even rather prosaic about the whole thing—as one would expect of a reporter recounting an event by mostly stating “the facts”.  In fact, their rather bare-bones approach, citing characters (who), time (when), place (where), circumstances (why), and occurrence (what happened), mostly without dramatic embellishment, should be quite convincing of their authenticity.  The only problem is, as we have said before, that the subject matter is the miraculous which, as we “awake” modern-postmoderns simply know and understand according to the laws of Science and the dictates of Enlightened Reason, cannot have actually happened and does not happen now.

But can we so easily dismiss the eye-witnesses as overly credulous and easily duped?  Can we so facilely discount the source-documents as having been posthumously “doctored” to play upon the superstitious gullibility of subsequent recruits to the new Jesus Movement?  How soon were such reports in circulation?  Immediately, according to the Gospels and even near-contemporary non-Biblical Jewish sources.

The Gospels themselves declare that Jesus began to perform his wonders as soon as he undertook his public career.  His reputation spread very quickly from Galilee to Judea and even into nearby Gentile territory and reached Jerusalem very soon.  The Jerusalem authorities sent investigators to see what was going on.  Their scepticism and disbelief is well described.  They were, after all, not the uninformed local-yokel rabble of the boondocks up north in the “Galil”.  When they could not deny that what was reported was really happening, they decided to impute it all to nefarious spiritual powers like Beelzebub.

When Jesus took his miracle-show to their very doorstep in Jerusalem and the intelligentsia could not deny what had happened in front of hundreds of eye-witnesses. For example, a local man born blind who was a regular mendicant known by many in the city now had become normally sighted and declared to one and all what Jesus had done for him, (John’s Gospel Chapter 9). The account reads like a totally true-to-life account based on intimate eye-witness testimony.  It is completely true-to-life in its characterization and story-line. 

In Galilee we hear of the scepticism even of those who had known him his whole life, even (especially?) his own brothers.  The Jerusalem establishment and their acolytes in the outlying districts know better than to credit such tales of abundant healings and even exceptional miracles. Even in the presence of the healed blind man of Jerusalem himself they refuse to accept any proof.  They sound very “modern” in their attitude. Even the healed man’s own parents are called in, and testify that the healing is real, although they tremble to contradict the official perspective.  All they say is to affirm that he is their son and had been born blind.  They had no explanation for his new normalcy except what their son had told them.  So much for the supposed superstitious gullibility of the witnesses!

The incredible story of the raising of Lazarus, a close personal friend of Jesus who had been dead and buried for four days when Jesus raised him, reads very similarly—very unlike a later made-up tale.  This event takes place on the very doorstep of Jerusalem.  Once more, the scepticism of even ordinary Jews is very much on display — the very improbability – impossibility – of calling a dead body well on its way in decomposition back to life!  His own disciples can scarcely believe he is going to attempt it.  The man’s own sisters warn Jesus that the body stinks terribly by this point.  But, to everyone’s absolute astonishment, Jesus orders the tomb opened and calls to the dead man, “Lazarus, come out!” and out he comes, his body restored to life and health.

Once more we see the authorities unable to deny it but unwilling to accept it.  If there is any explanation, it must be some sort of demonic force.  But the Priests cannot even accept that, being semi-materialists, basically Deists.

We could recite story after story, but the characteristics remain consistent across all four Gospels (some of the same incidents being recounted in more than one of them).  The facts are retold almost as if the writers are following the journalistic 5-Ws.  The stories do not sound or look like mythical or legendary inventions in the least.  “Believe it or not, but this is what happened.”

Of course the Jews of First Century Palestine were not sophisticated in their scientific and technological knowledge, but they were far from the simplistic, easily duped and easily manipulated caricatures of modern-day sceptical commentators and old-style “higher-critical” studies.  The well-educated classes were very like our modern-postmodern liberal “enlightened” intelligentsia.  Of course, there were factions of the “left” and “right” as we would now classify them.  But they were not stupid or superstitious just by virtue of being “ancient”.

The real question is why we deem ourselves qualified to write off eye-witness testimony, especially when, if it were given in almost any other source but the Bible, we would recognize that we should consider the possibility and probability of its authenticity seriously.  And, as we have observed before, the real reason is our cultural worldview, our operative reality-paradigm.  Here in the West it has been quite systematically developed over more than two centuries to eliminate Jesus and the Christian story from our cultural and social foundations.

If we can discredit the sources, we need not credit the worldview or continue to value its influence.  Yet now it very much appears that after all this enormous expenditure of scholarly energy and resources, those very sources have stood up against all of this scrutiny and profound scepticism.  They have come through substantially verified and validated in great detail.  How are we then to maintain with integrity this posture of automatic dismissal and ridicule of Jesus and his claims about himself as outlined in those very sources?  How are we to, with integrity, summarily to discard the Jesus Movement now called Christianity which is founded on faith in those claims?

We shall close this reflection on the miraculous elements of the Jesus Story by a look at the nature-miracle stories.  It is one thing to see a healing as perhaps explainable by some natural factor unknown to the ancients—like a psychosomatic illness, or some amazing spontaneous release of the body’s own “natural healing power”.  However, some of those stories, like those someone born blind or being definitely dead and returning to life, don’t fit any of those explanations.

But what possible “natural” explanation can we find to the tale of Jesus and Peter walking on water—in the middle of a violent storm no less?  Or for Jesus simply commanding a storm to cease, and it does?  Or changing water into wine?  Or multiplying a few buns and fishes into enough food for a throng of thousands?  We might have the story of the loaves and fishes covered by the “spontaneous” eruption of good-will sharing among the crowd.  However, the story is very prosaic and suggests nothing of the sort.  One would have thought that at least one of the four Gospel-writers, who all recount it with slight variations, would have observed such a wonderful spirit of sharing, especially since Jesus was all about loving your neighbour, right?

We might, very implausibly, explain away the water-into-wine episode by saying that everyone was already so drunk after several days of celebrating that they didn’t notice that what they were drinking at the end was just wine-flavoured water.  Seriously people?!  And yet this has been suggested by some determined parties seeking to find a way around these (for us scientific, sophisticated moderns) uncomfortable episodes.

Unfortunately, we can do nothing with the storm and walking on water stories but suggest the disciples were mass-hallucinating because of panic and fear.  Or maybe when Jesus commanded the wind to quiet down there was a totally incredible, freaky coincidence.

Let us conclude this episode with a comment attributed to Jesus when someone asked him about how to get incredulous people who are determined to go on living as they please while headed for perdition to change their ways.  He gave an oblique reference to what he knew would happen when the greatest of all his miracles would occur:  “Even if someone were to come back from the dead they still would not believe.” (Luke 16:31)  He later saw this very refusal happen when he raised Lazarus as the precursor to his own resurrection.  According to Jesus, those who don’t want to accept the most blazing evidence walking and talking right in plain sight will still refuse to believe.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

The Third Way, 52: Saviours and Salvation, 8 – The Jesus Story, 4 – The Problem of Miracles, 1

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“Like the jester, Christ defies customs and scorns crowned heads.  Like the wandering troubadour, he has no place to lay his head.  Like the clown in the circus parade, he satirises existing authority by riding into town replete with regal pageantry when he has no earthly power.  Like a minstrel, he frequents dinners and parties.  At the end, he is consumed by his enemies in a mocking caricature of royal paraphernalia.  He is crucified amidst snickers and taunts with a sign over his head that lampoons his laughable claim.”

Harvey Cox, quoted in Common Prayer, a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. (Zondervan, 2010), p. 73.

 “You have conquered, O Galilean.” – Roman Emperor Julian “the Apostate”, 363 CE

In the citation above, theologian Harvey Cox powerfully summarises the paradox of Jesus. 

As Napoleon once said of Jesus, he never claimed or sat on a throne (at least not on earth), never commanded an army, never wrote a book, travelled no farther than two hundred kilometers from his home (not counting his brief sojourn in Egypt as in infant), never married and had children (despite the revisionist fantasies about this in postmodern culture), never got rich or, after he set out to minister, owned anything except the clothes on his back, and during his lifetime had but a few dozen faithful followers, even if masses followed him around admiring and hoping to get something from him.  He was revered and reviled by the same masses within a week at the end of his pre-resurrection life.  He was born in a far from pristine and sanitary stable-cum-barn.  He died the most cruel, terrible, and humiliating death imaginable.  He was even buried in a borrowed grave.

Yet, as the dethroned French Emperor who had ruled almost all of Europe and held all its great nations at bay for fifteen years remarked, “He has more followers today than any man in history and is the most revered and honoured man in the whole world.”  In comparison, he, the great Napoleon, had achieved nothing, and he too would bow before this greatest of all rulers.

Our last post concluded with this list of questions:

1. Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  (When?  Where?)

2. Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)

3. Did Jesus of Nazareth really die on a Roman cross?  If so, why?

4. Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as most of his followers have claimed for two thousand years?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

7. How believable is this whole story?  And what does it mean now?

Let us briefly consider #1: Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  We have discussed this before and the definitive answer is “Yes”.  The Roman historian Tacitus (Annals of Imperial Rome, written in the early 100s CE) acknowledges him and the existence of his followers, even in the city of Rome by the time of the reign of the Emperor Nero (54-67 CE). Tacitus states that Nero used the Christians as scapegoats for the great fire of Rome in 64 CE: “the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.” .  Jewish historian Flavius Josephus mentions both Jesus and his disciples in his Antiquities, written in the decade of the 90s CE.  The Talmud mentions Jesus and his followers in a most unflattering and virulent fashion, pronouncing curses upon “the Nazarene” and his followers.  In addition, there are literally thousands of papyri fragments dated within less than a hundred years of Jesus’ death and resurrection that demonstrate his historicity.

#2: Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)  This question opens the issue of the reliability and historical validity of the official (canonical) Christian sources about Jesus, the Four Gospels found in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Whole libraries of books and articles and scholarly commentaries have been written on this subject over the last 1500+ years.  Once more, we notice the recent efforts of some very “progressive” scholars to discredit those sources and insert other “lost” gospels in their place, or at least alongside them, as equally valid and authoritative.  We do not have time or space to deal with this here, but we can say this: the sensationalism of such claims makes great headlines and attracts a lot of Web chatter.  But what is seldom said afterwards is that all of these attempts have collapsed in their own flimsy absurdity upon due analysis by competent authorities.

This leaves us with the issue of how much credence and confidence we can impute to the Canonical (accepted as authentic by the Church) Gospels.  Once more, this is not the time or place to rehearse the long process of establishing which accounts of Jesus and the early years of the Church could be relied upon.  Even in the churches today, relatively few ordinary adherents know and care to know much of this story.  That non-Christians and non-church-goers are often quite misinformed and filled with rather distorted ideas about Christianity’s foundations is hardly astonishing.

Over the last two hundred years, serious Biblical scholarship and textual criticism has become a rather arcane discipline, even to the point that it allowed extreme critics such as the Jesus Seminar to be given far greater time and consideration than they really merit.  When we cut through all this, the conclusion remains that the New Testament documents are the only really reliable sources giving worthwhile details about Jesus and his earliest disciples.  Archeology—inscriptions, ruins, texts and artefacts—has over and over again confirmed many of these details and vindicated the New Testament accounts.  Examples of this abound for anyone wanting to go search them out.

Let us therefore consider “the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story”, things like healings and miracles.  We will leave the whole issue of his reported resurrection from the dead for a separate discussion.

Why do we have so much trouble with reports of miraculous healings and outright miracles, such as calming a storm and walking on water and changing water into wine?[i]  Were people two thousand years ago just that much more gullible, simple, and superstitious than we are?  That has become the standard answer in the Modernist and Postmodern West.  Now we just know better, right?  Whatever was going on there, it wasn’t really supernatural—i.e. performed by some sort of divine or semi-divine power operating outside the laws of nature.

To be able to give the Gospel accounts a fair hearing, we have to do two things: (1) recognize our own operative worldview-paradigm for what it is, along with its limitations, and (2) understand, at least to some extent, the context in which the Biblical stories happened, including the operative worldview-paradigms of that time and culture.  Once again, we can give only a very brief version of both of these.  Nevertheless, I hope that what I say will still be “just”.

First, let’s state our operative paradigm in the modern-postmodern, post-Christian West.  (Apologies to regular readers.  We have flogged this almost to death in this blog over that last year.)  The West has eschewed anything but what can be reasoned and verified, or at least analysed, by the Scientific Method.  If there is a Deity of some sort, we do not consider the intervention of God or any supernatural power a factor in explaining reality, at least not for discussing “how the world and universe work”.  We recognize that we do not yet know and understand many things, but we trust that someday we will, once again by means of and with the power of reason and Science.

Further, our attitude towards the people of the ancient world is that, because they were so ignorant of so much about nature and the universe that we now know, they must have been quite naive, gullible, and superstitious, and therefore easily deceived, or at least misguided, about things they witnessed, such as apparent amazing healings and miracles over nature.  Even the treatment of such reports by liberal, more “scientific” modern Biblical scholars demonstrate this. 

For example, we meet an explanation of the miracle of the multiplication of the bread loaves and fishes, recounted in all four of the Gospels, as a charming moment when one act of generosity by a child ignited a whole crowd to share what they had with strangers who had none, and so everyone ate.  It seemed miraculous, but the Gospel story of Jesus praying over the first donated few loaves and fishes and their spontaneously “multiplying” is just silly.  Same idea for changing water into wine.  How about walking on water?  Well, that had to be some sort of mass hallucination by the twelve apostles who were crazed by fear of drowning.

You get the idea.

There are lots of problems with these facile “explanations” so commonly offered by 20th and 21st Century Bible critics, but I will limit myself here to one which, to my mind, is the most lethal to this whole approach, an approach which has outlived its “best-before” date by quite a few years now.

The major problem is this: the critics’ basic assumptions/presuppositions about the witnesses and reporters of these long-past events are just wrong!  The vast majority of them were Jews —men, women, and children of First Century Palestine.  Yes, almost without exception they believed in Yahweh, the Personal Creator-God of the universe.  Yes, almost without exception they believed that the Creator was all-powerful and able to perform miracles and supernatural events.  Yes, some of them were superstitious and many believed there were malevolent spiritual entities who afflict people with maladies and misfortunes.

So they must have been pretty naive and gullible, right?  Hmm.  But this doesn’t sound very different from most regular folks of even the postmodern West now, does it?  We see the same stuff now—just in modernized guise.  We all see and even experience this in some way.  What is your favorite talisman—your lucky bauble or day?  Check you horoscope this morning?  Say your ritual prayer yet?  Recite your mantra yet?  Avoid that black cat yesterday?

The real issue is whether we live in a closed or open universe.  Back to square one: Is there, or is there not, a personal Creator-God, able to act within our time-space continuum, and who sometimes actually does?  Are there other sorts of spiritual entities who also can and do occasionally manifest themselves?

Presuppositionally, there are only two practical answers – Yes or No.  “I don’t know” doesn’t cut it here.  If you say that, you are, in practical terms, saying “No” because you are not willing to ever acknowledge it if such an intervention really does occur.

[i]  C.S. Lewis wrote a marvelous treatment of this whole issue simply entitled Miracles if any reader is inclined to go into this issue in real depth.

The Third Way, 51: Saviours and Salvation, 7 – The Jesus Story, 3

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Santa has returned to his Polar enclave for another year.  Gifts have been exchanged and appreciated.  Family and friends gatherings have been enjoyed.  The northern hemisphere is locked into its white winter blanket for the next few months.  Dieting and detoxing from the annual binge of “holiday cheer” is under way.  For many there is a residual glow of well-being abiding for at least a few days, perhaps even a week or two.  For those of us who have nodded in the direction of the old Christmas traditions of the Bethlehem birth by singing carols and attending a church service or two and having a ceremonial crèche on display, we can return such things to their closets and go on with normal life.

If only the rest of life were so conveniently classified.  As long as things hum along in their expected course with only fairly minor inconveniences, we can mostly manage to keep all the big questions quiet.  But… sooner or later … there is always something.  “Stuff happens!”  Nasty stuff, painful stuff, even deadly stuff.  Sooner or later, it comes, and we all have to face it.  As Maximus in Gladiator tells Emperor Commodus before their final combat (paraphrased), “Every man stares death in the face; all you can do is smile back.”  It is a question of how we face the hard moments when they come.

Shall we be “as those who have no hope?”  Or shall our answer be courageous as we take our stand.  Shall we rail and scream at the injustice of it all, like Dylan Thomas advising, “Do not go gentle into that good night … Rage, rage against the dying of the light”?

Ancient cultures typically offered little hope of anything looking like “salvation”.  It was more like facing what appeared finally to be “sound and fury signifying nothing” (Shakespeare).  But what about the cycle of samsara (Hinduism and Buddhism)?  After many reincarnations one could achieve moksha  and enter nirvana and so be (re)absorbed by Brahman, at last finding bliss and peace, although ceasing to exist as a person.

Perhaps a Buddha, a bodhisattva, would come along and show and teach the speedier way out of the cycle of suffering via the discipline of raja yoga, the way of very disciplined deep meditation.

Perhaps some prophet would reveal the strict path that would satisfy the wrath of the gods or the one God through a scrupulous adherence to these precepts.  Then, when you died, you might be promised a place in some realm of peace beyond the grave, or at least spared from the worst suffering of the spectral realm.

Or, perhaps, when you die you are just dead and no longer exist.  Then at least your personal pain is over, although the cosmos goes on in its meaninglessness (vanity), as Solomon put it in Kohelet.  If you are one of the most unfortunate for whom life has indeed been largely a “vale of tears”, this is quite possibly an acceptable outcome.  Solomon didn’t actually think so, though, with his cogent comment, “Better to be a live dog than a dead lion.”

In the end it all boils down to what the universe really is, and who we really are in it.  “Why are we/am I here?”  That is the seminal question which, sooner or later, haunts everyone who thinks.  As long as we seem to have the strength and means to avoid it by finding temporary sources of meaning, or at least distraction, most of us run from it pretty quickly.

When it comes down to it, our final answers are faith-based.  Even an atheist answer is every bit as much faith-based as a “religious” answer.  Everyone who thinks takes a theological position for or against the existence of a Creator, a personal supreme Deity who made everything that is.  What one says about this foremost of all questions directs everything else in our life, consciously or not.

The real reason we have a Christmas time is The Jesus Story.  This story begins with affirming that all that is was created by a personal, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator.  Over and over in this blog we have discussed this as the very ground of reality.  It is the most economical and consistent explanation of why anything at all “is”.   Even great scientists who do not accept a Creator have admitted this.  By turning from it they are compelled to expend enormous time, imagination, energy and resources in searching for alternatives—such as evidence that matter is a constantly changing and morphing manifestation of eternal energy.

But even the most refined science and imaginative theoretical constructs cannot answer that still haunting question, “Why? Why does that energy even exist?  Where does it come from?”  (Usual answer: “Nowhere!  It just is!  It just came to be!  It is just always coming to be!”)  And on to, “Why am I here?  What does it mean that I am here?  Why does it look and feel like it really does have meaning?  Like I should have meaning?  Why do we spend so much time looking for this primal ground of existence and purpose if, after all is said and done, there just isn’t a purpose?”

And, perhaps more immediately applicable in a time of “Climate Crisis”, “Why are we so torn up about the crisis of our tiny little speck of existence called Planet Earth if it isn’t really special at all?  Why are we so driven to cling to our meaningless personal and species existence as if it is really wonderful and awesome in some way, and not just an illusion of being special and awesome and wonderful?”  Etc., etc, etc.

As we have said again and again, the best and most sufficient answer to all of this, the one answer that answers all the basic questions and is thus most probably the real truth (“true truth” as Francis Schaeffer put it), the “Ockham’s Razor” answer for any philosophic types reading this, is: “There is a Creator who made all that is, who made us to know Him/Her and be in relationship to Him/Her, and to learn about all that He/She has made as a way to knowing Him/Her and becoming all that we are made to be.”

The best answer is the answer that most completely, directly, and simply answers the most basic questions all across the spectrum of our search for understanding and truth.  Out of all our contrasting theologies and worldviews, how can we settle on the one that is “best”?  How do we weigh the competing claims?

The Postmodern approach is, “Don’t bother.  Just choose one and go with it.  When it no longer works for you, just switch to another, or invent your own.”

The Modernist approach is to swear off all mysteries and religion and stick to “the facts, only the facts” as reason, logic, and Science, the greatest application of the first two, reveal the “true facts” to us via the proper methods of research and inquiry.

As to the claims of the Great Religions of human history – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, in chronological order of appearance – it becomes a bit of a mug’s game to try to “prove” the superiority of one over another.  From an apologist’s point of view, all of them can be argued, although it can also be said that they do not all stand up equally well to serious examination regarding the integrity and verifiability of their sources, evidence, and the character of their major leaders in history.

For Christians and Christianity, it all boils down to Jesus.  And as to this faith’s founder, it all boils down to a series of “True or False” and “Yes or No” questions.  Theoretically, this should make Christianity a basically simple faith to discredit, if that is the agenda a questioner is adopting, as so many have since the 18th Century.  And what should make it even easier to discredit this particular candidate for “most probable true story” is that its most basic elements are historically based, or at least purport to be.  Just prove its history is false, and voila!  

But first, we must first hear/read the story.  Then we must consider its historicity and what it tells us about the historical person Jesus/Yeshua.  Only then can we examine what it might mean, including what others have said it means.  At that point, we are in a personal position to decide meaning, and what we will do with the decision we reach.

It all sounds very rational, even “scientific” in the methodological sense of the “Social Sciences”.  But no one comes to a quest unbiased.  All hold expectations of what will be discovered, what we hope to discover, however loosely formulated or consciously held.  We all have presuppositions.  

Today we will end with a short list of basic questions that must be considered by anyone wanting to find out the “truth” about Jesus.  The reader may have other questions, or may have better versions of those listed here.  I offer these:

1. Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  (When?  Where?)

2. Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)

3. Did Jesus of Nazareth really die on a Roman cross?  If so, why?

4. Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as his followers claim(ed)?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

7. How believable is this whole story?  And what does it mean now?

The Third Way, 50: Saviours and Salvation, 6 – The Jesus Story, 2

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Our last chat in this series disposed of the two most egregious attacks on the Christian story of humanity’s need for salvation and its nominee for the role of universal saviour.  Any reasonable and serious consideration of this story and its leading figure must first accept that Jesus called Christ actually lived and died as an historic person in First-Century Palestine, then a minor sub-province (within the greater province of Syria) in the Roman Empire.  Next, any serious consideration of the story and of Jesus the person must accredit its main sources (the New Testament documents) with a considerable degree of integrity and validity.  To treat them with the sort of cavalier arrogance and blatant hubris that has so often been the case since the Enlightenment (e.g. the so-called “Jesus Seminar” referred to in our last post) can no longer wash if the scholars involved wish to retain any measure of honour in their profession.

As with “climate change”, a great many intellectuals of all stripes in our present cultural climate need to undergo a paradigm shift regarding the meta-story of Christianity.  They have latched and continue to latch onto a now obsolete and superseded “liberal orthodoxy” created by a concerted effort over two centuries to “demythologize” both Jesus and the Gospels and go hunting for the “historical Jesus”.  The underlying assumption in this “quest” has always been that the Jesus seen in the New Testament could be only superficially related to the “real Jesus” who lived and died in time and space.  Supposedly, the New Testament Jesus is a later divinized “Jesus of faith” created by manipulative theologians to keep the ignorant, superstitious masses in line so they could be manipulated, controlled, and used.

The continuance of this modern-postmodern myth about Jesus, the Gospels, and the early believers is a shameful blot on true scholarship.  Admittedly, the course of New Testament scholarship in the last sixty years has been far from smooth.  Old notions and preconceptions die hard for those who have invested most of their professional and intellectual capital in a preconceived framework which painstaking new archaeological and documentary research have shredded. 

I will not bore the reader with details about this bumpy journey.  Within its sphere, it is quite public for those wishing to explore it.  There are even some flirting references to it in revisionist historical fiction such as Dan Brown’s da Vinci Code, and the much ballyhooed finding of the so-called Feminist Gospel fragments about Mary Magdalen’s “secret marriage” to Jesus.  The popular and Internet media are quick to pick up such threads and trumpet them for their sensationalism, but usually neglect to mention their subsequent complete debunking by responsible scholars. 

The thrust of the new understanding of both the New Testament and the time and culture in which it emerged is that the documents are amazingly attuned historically and culturally to that era.  There is wonderfully detailed corroboration for this view through archaeology and documentary analysis of both the New Testament and an abundance of new and old sources (now better understood) from outside it.  It has become a question of openness towards what we actually find there rather than dogmatism determining interpretation.

While this does not “prove” that the account of the life and teaching of Jesus and his Apostles contained in the Bible and the early Christian writings is “true” in its conclusions about who he is, it certainly creates a good probability that the record is “authentic” in its recounting of events, and probably in the content of what the participants and early witnesses tell us of those events.  In a court-case based on circumstantial evidence, the verdict would have to favour the genuineness of the testimony.  It then becomes a question of assessing the best and most accurate accounting for the evidence and testimony.

Of course, for those determined to automatically dismiss and reject the elements of the story that “smack of” divine power and the miraculous, this will not change their mindset.  The issue then is their own operative worldview and that of our culture as much as that operative in First Century Greco-Roman and Jewish culture and of our witnesses. 

Our culture’s operative worldview discounts and disqualifies a priori the action of God in time and space, even when the person observing something “outside the box” may intellectually accept the existence of God/a Creator/spiritual things.  The observer therefore prejudges as in error the reports of such happenings from the culture of two thousand years ago.  In or superior wisdom, we now “know”  that that culture was open to the miraculous, which we also “know” stems from as simplistic ignorance, credulity, and superstition.  In the same way, the modern-postmodern observer automatically discredits current reports about miracles and amazing, mysterious occurrences as either impossible or erroneous in detail or interpretation, or both.

After all, we “know” that it is simply impossible for anyone to walk on water, calm a raging storm by commanding it to stop, raise a dead person by telling him/her simply to “get up”, heal the eyes of a person born blind by smearing saliva-mixed mud on them, commanding “demons” (who we are certain do not really exist) to “come out” of a person and finding the person immediately afterwards “in their right mind”, etc., etc., etc.  And, to top all this off, we have the totally incredible report of the person accredited with performing all these marvels having been crucified after terrible torture, being incontrovertibly dead (water flowing from the heart-cavity as per an eyewitness can mean nothing else), and, thirty-six hours later, being seen and reported very much alive and completely over it, except for some scars.

How are such things to be believed by any self-respecting, rational person?  Even in antiquity the rationalists rejected such reports, as did even the religious leaders of Judaism who, theoretically at least, believed in miracles.  And if, by some insane freak of the quantum, that person did come back to life, what could it possibly signify?

Here we have the crux of the matter.  Did this Jesus person not only actually live and die, as even the hostile extra-Biblical sources amply confirm, but actually resurrect!?  To accept that as an actual historical happening is simply beyond the pale.  If that really happened, it is an utterly unique event, as far as we know.  How can we avoid asking some truly enormous and significanct questions about that, if it’s true?  And the first question is, “Is it actually true?”

We humans are remarkably adept at ignoring what we don’t want to look at and hear about (Sergeant Schultz or a five-year-old child blocking his/her ears and eyes illustrate this nicely).  It’s so damn inconvenient to have to consider things that really disrupt our personal comfort and sense of proper order, or at least my/our sense of proper convenience for me/us and my/our particular sense of priorities.  We/I are/am also especially skilled at blocking out things which contradict the way we/I construct reality within our/my personal space.  A man self-resurrecting from stone-cold death should challenge my personal universe, but even two thousand years ago most refused to look upon it or hear of it!  So much for gullible, ignorant, superstition!

In our in-turned self-orientation, it is easy to forget  that our personal constructs are still very much formed by the larger culture and society in which we “live and move and have our being”.  In this age, our society and culture have been very much reshaped by the Enlightenment and its ensuing waves to drive the religious and supernatural elements of the human psyche out of serious and conscious consideration.

This governing paradigm characterizes humanity as a purely animal phenomenon, neither morally good or bad in itself, and certainly not “sinful” or “fallen” and therefore in need of “redemption” and “salvation”.  Therefore, there is no need of a “saviour” as per the old tales, which are simply mythological and legendary memories of the prehistoric emerging human consciousness and self-awareness.

The eruption of this Jesus-character into time-space is a most unwelcome distraction which must be contained within the operant “laws” of proven science and reason.  He is tremendously inconvenient.  It is actually impossible to overstate how inconvenient he is.  He was even then, two thousand years ago.  After all, that is why the powers-that-be of that day took so much trouble to remove him.  They were every bit as skeptical and scandalized by this guy as our powers-that-be are now. 

For us, he must be “put back in the box” of uniformity and conformity within the known, predictable parameters of the laws of standard-model science.  It was the same story two thousand years ago, although culturally nuanced.  But people back then knew every bit as well as we do that dead people stay dead.  Even in our age of supremely individualistic reality construction and quantum unpredictability where everything becomes at least theoretically possible, this remains an absolute.  After all, even within a quantum universe, the universe itself is a freak exception against all “laws of probability”.  How much more is God-as-man-in-time-and-space, even if the “God-hypothesis” is allowed?

Nevertheless, that is the outlandish, extraterrestrial claim made for Jesus/Yeshua of Nazareth in Galilee of the First Century CE.  Even more outlandish is that this claimant seemed utterly sincere in what he said and did and believed.  His followers were shockingly sincere about it too.  How could such a claim be made for anyone, even by first-century simpletons and bumpkins? 

The Third Way, 49: Saviours and Salvation, 5 – The Jesus Story, 1

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“And there is salvation in no one else.  For there is no other name [than that of Yeshua/Jesus] given among men [humans in general intended] under heaven by which we must be saved.”

Peter the Apostle of Jesus speaking to the Jewish Sanhedrin ca 33-4 CE, according to The Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 4, Verse 12.

The present series of articles on this blog is considering the whole panorama of the innate human orientation towards the absolute and the transcendent, and the sense of our need to both save and be saved in some great sense.  December 23, 2019, the date of this post, two days before Christmas, is an appropriate occasion to contemplate the greatest of all salvation-saviour stories, that of Jesus/Yeshua of Nazareth.  This Jesus, called “Christ”, is the Christian candidate for saviour of the whole human race, and indeed of the whole creation itself, and December 25th is the date in the Christian calendar when his birth is celebrated. 

Let us therefore have a look at Jesus’ candidacy.  We will certainly not exhaust this subject today.  Eventually, we will also pay appropriate attention to other major candidates, and indeed to the whole conception of needing salvation and in what sense it is needed, if indeed it is, in future.

Let us at the outset of this discussion dispose of the most absurd disparagement of Jesus and his “mission” to save the human race and the world.  It is that Jesus/Yeshua was never actually a real historical person, but an invention, a concoction of various elements of legend and myth and fancies cobbled together two thousand years ago by a group of unscrupulous ancient Jewish hucksters from Galilee seeking to dupe their gullible countrymen and take financial and social advantage of them. 

It is embarrassing to even give recognition to such absurdities by mentioning them, but the state of affairs in Western culture has become such that it has to be addressed.  This idea is alive and very well in chat-rooms and forums on the Web.  The author of these blogs has also personally run into enough people in the real world who believe or half-believe this outlandish statement that it must be addressed as an actual idea in a growing percentage of the general population.  My children have all had discussions of this nature with numbers of their peers when they attended college and since.  We meet them at work, at school, and socially.  Unfortunately, it is all too often presented as true by educational authorities in High Schools, Colleges, and Universities who should and, at least in some cases, do know better.  Why they think this is a justified manipulation of their students one may only hazard to guess.  Perhaps the root of this sort of outrageous distortion is their own hostility to Christians and Christianity, plus their own ignorance, as in failure to make any attempt to educate themselves as to the historical facts.

Without creating a tiresome list, let it be said that the historical facts are ample to verify that this person, Jesus of Nazareth, really lived and died in the early first century CE in the Roman province of Palestine.  Contrary to the egregious and facile declarations of too many even quite well-educated people (I’ve even encountered a Ph.D. or two who have said this kind of thing), there are sufficient sources outside the New Testament, the primary Christian documents about Jesus, to verify his life and death in historical time and place.  And it must be pointed out that these “extra-Biblical” sources are, almost without exception, hostile to both Jesus and Christians.  Such sources include both Roman and Jewish historians and writers, as well as references (quite hostile) in the Talmud.  That Jesus called Christ was a real historical person is an incontestable historic fact, unless one simply wants to display one’s spleen and stupidity, or perhaps the extent of one’s ignorance.

In the light of this extraordinary attempt to erase the very existence of Jesus/Yeshua from history, one is left with the question, “Why?”  Why such vehemence, such anger, such stubborn and, it appears at times, unassailable determination to block out that life, that comet in time and place, from any serious consideration as to his identity and the meaning of a life and career that appears to have been astoundingly brief as such things go, but even more astoundingly profound and shatteringly impactful?  Surely there is something there deserving of the most careful examination?  In the ordinary course of things, the execution of a troublesome radical in an obscure part of a great empire should have had ended at most as a footnote about an obscure local folk-hero in a backwater part of the greatest world-state in history.  That it catalyzed the greatest religious revolution and social movement in history instead surely deserves some examination and explanation!

That we are now even compelled to have this kind of discussion in the West is almost as astonishing as the original story itself.  All of this begs a whole host of questions and cries out for the deepest kind of inquiry.  What does it say of us that we deliberately propagate this collective historical amnesia?  After all, once upon a time not very long ago and not far away at all, on this very planet, in that part dubbed “the West”— not some other fantasized galaxy we know nothing at all about – this figure, whose birth used to be “the reason for the season” but whose name our public media and leaders now scarcely dare pronounce, was considered the greatest and best human being who ever lived. 

Not so long ago, he was publicly acclaimed as such by the vast majority of the nations of the West, who used to willingly refer to themselves collectively as “Christendom”.  In fact, we have reached the point in Canada where a certain Prime Minister now in office even called some of the followers of this man “the worst of all Canadians”, or words to that effect.  And most of the major political parties of this same nation have made it quite clear that serious disciples of this man who hold certain unwelcome opinions about certain moral and social issues need not apply to be candidates or party officials.

But today’s blog is not the time and place to rehash such local minutiae.  Our subject is the Jesus Story as a salvation-saviour tale.  All we can do here today is discuss some preliminaries in order to “clear the ground” for the real discussion in the next few episodes.

As already mentioned, the major sources of this story are found in the “New Testament”, a collection of 27 “books” written by disciples of Jesus or disciples of the disciples of Jesus.  The content of the New Testament is partly historical and biographical, as found in “The Four Gospels” of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the Acts of the Apostles, a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, written by the same author.

Part of being able to even discuss this subject is the question of the historical reliability of these sources, which purport to be eye-witness, first-hand accounts, or based on eye-witness, first-hand accounts, of the life, and particularly the public life, of Jesus/Yeshua, and the ensuing first thirty years or so of the history of the “Church”.  The “Church” is the community of disciples and believers which sprang from Jesus’ life and ministry.  This community of followers began to spread across the Roman Empire and even outside of its boundaries.

As with the absurd statement that Jesus never really lived, we are obliged to refer to the extraordinary and even strenuous efforts of many modern scholars seeking to establish the validity, or, in many cases, the invalidity, of the earliest sources and records about Jesus and the early Church.  Once more we must ask the question, “Why this marked animosity and hostility which is so exceptional towards this one particular person, life, community, and institution—moreso than any other except Judaism?”  We do not see the like when we observe the efforts to study the validity of sources for other religions, and far less outright scepticism regarding other ancient documents, such as the writings of the great Greek philosophers or Roman histories.

Let us once more begin with the most absurd of these endeavours to “uncover the real Jesus of history”, who is assumed to have been lost in hagiography and mythologization.  The so-called “Jesus Seminar” is our qualifier for this dubious distinction.  This is a group of self-appointed textual critics of the Gospels, university professors of very liberal bent, who deem themselves the world’s foremost judges of which parts of the Gospel accounts of Jesus are “authentic”.  They dissect each verse and story and vote on it, leaving a very thin husk of rather meager, insipid fare which eliminates all hints of the miraculous and “unnatural” and reduces Jesus to a shadowy social radical who upset the wrong people and got himself killed for his trouble. 

What is left can in no way qualify as an inspiring saviour-figure .  The result is perhaps an even greater mystery than the traditional Christian one of seeing a human being as the incarnation of God Himself.  How could this version of the “authentic Jesus of history” have ever inspired the creation of the greatest social-spiritual institution in the history of the human race?  How could that Jesus have ever instilled the willingness to die for him and his cause in many millions over the last two thousand years?  How could such a saccharin Jesus of so little substance have fueled the faith of thousands who knew him when he lived or shortly thereafter, when the truth of who he was or had been could not very well be hidden? 

The same questions can be put to some other recent, although somewhat less radical versions of the same sort of hyper-scepticism on steroids.  All are quite dubious applications of “higher literary critical” approaches to the New Testament.  Unfortunately, this sort of ethos in Biblical analysis and modern-postmodern interpretation seems to go mostly unchallenged in the Faculties of Religion of the vast majority of our higher institutions of learning. 

We will continue to look at the claim of Jesus to be the “Saviour of the World” in our next instalment.  In the meantime, may all who read this, and all your loved ones, be blessed and have a wonderful Christmas season and holiday.

The Third Way, 48: Saviours and Salvation, 4 – The Three Witnesses

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“Authority, reason, experience; on these three, mixed in varying proportions all our knowledge depends.  The authority of many wise men in many different times and places forbids me to regard the spiritual world as an illusion.  My reason, showing me the apparently insoluble difficulties of materialism and proving that the hypothesis of a spiritual world covers more of the facts with far fewer assumptions, forbids me again.  My experience even of such feeble attempts as I have made to live the spiritual life does not lead to the results which the pursuit of an illusion ordinarily leads to, and therefore forbids me yet again…. the value given to the testimony of any feeling must depend on our whole philosophy, not our philosophy on a feeling.  If those who deny the spiritual world prove their case on general grounds, then, indeed, it will follow that our apparently spiritual experiences must be an illusion; but equally, if we are right, it will follow that they are the prime reality and that our natural experiences are a second best.”

C.S. Lewis, “Religion: Reality or Substitute”, in Christian Reflections.  The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis. (New York: Inspirational Press, 1996), pp. 200-201

We have argued that humans are innately tuned to seek the absolute and to turn towards the transcendent.  Our ruling cultural paradigms in the 21st Century West, Materialist Modernism and Postmodernism, deny this.  In doing so, they also deny what makes humans uniquely human and put humanity on a par with any other accidental evolutionary extrusion.  There is no accounting for all the categories of human experience and awareness of something “other”, “beyond”, “higher”, “greater” than what we are now, and to which we yearn to aspire.

Beyond his well-known Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis was a great English thinker and writer about reality in his own right.  He cites three forms of evidence: the evidence of history, the evidence of reason, and the evidence of experience.  History gives us “the authority of many wise men in many different times and places”.  Reason shows him (us) “the apparently insoluble difficulties of materialism”, a subject which we have previously and frequently approached from a variety of angles.  Personal experience refutes the claim that the transcendent is all an illusion foisted upon the gullible.  Incidentally, Lewis could hardly have been accused of being a gullible simpleton.  He was a well-respected and established professor and scholar of Medieval Literature and culture at Oxford University.  In Surprised by Joy he called himself the “most reluctant Christian convert in history”, or words to that effect.

At this point of our discussion, we will therefore accept that human beings are a union of the physical and spiritual aspects of reality.  As Lewis says, “… the hypothesis of a spiritual world covers more of the facts with far fewer assumptions” than pure materialism.  For many modern/postmodern Western people with their conviction that strict materialism is the only acceptable version of reality, at least in practice if not in theory, this may be unpalatable.  After all, it (re)opens the discussion about God, Creation, and moral responsibility and accountability.  An unwillingness to even discuss these subjects betrays fear and weakness that their case is not nearly as conclusive as they like to assert.

Perhaps it is fair to ask why the possible, even probable, existence of the supernatural opens up the divisive Pandora’s Box of morality, personal responsibility, and accountability.  Let us consider once more the three “witnesses” on the subject which Lewis posits. 

First, the enormous preponderance of the “authority of many wise” people through all recorded human history claims that moral living is incumbent upon each of us and all of us together and that its expectations and standards are rooted in the spiritual side of reality, to which they also bear witness.  Furthermore, this same authority declares that responsibility and accountability are both personal and collective, and that this flows from the same (spiritual) source as morality itself.  

Then reason tells us that moral, responsible living is simply a much more satisfying course of life with much richer results in both the short and long term, for both the present and the future.  (Cf. Pascal and his wager in “The Third Way, 43 – Kohelet 7”.)  Once more, the historical record on this score is irrefutable.  Philosophers from all civilized cultures, from China to England, from antiquity until the modern period, have argued this, whether religiously motivated or merely considering morality and accountability on their own merits, as did Aristotle and Confucius, for example. 

Finally, every reasonably “normal” person experiences guilt and the sense of personal accountability which sooner or later will find them out.  It matters not if you are religious, agnostic, or atheist.  This understanding does not need to be taught, and it is inexplicable as a simple animal fear of getting caught and being punished.  This virtually universal experience is repeated over and over from infancy on.  It is actually a point of “first contact” with the absolute and transcendent aspects of reality, something we call “the conscience”.  It is coupled with the unavoidable sense of wonder when faced with phenomena such as the incredible vastness of the universe, or the amazing and inextricable harmonious complexity of all that is, from the protozoa to the human brain.  Faced with these awesome facts, it is an entirely natural reaction to be overwhelmed with one’s own infinitesimal insignificance and to behold all this with an irresistible sense that there has to be a Maker behind it all, one who knows us through and through.

Even today, with all the weight of our educational apparatus and cultural propaganda against bowing to “the absolute” and accepting our natural awe of the transcendent, the vast majority of humankind still adhere to what the sages of the ages have told us about the spiritual foundation of reality and the presence within it of mystery and things we are intended to seek, but from which we are estranged.

As Rousseau[i] put it, the whole human race is “in chains”, somehow barred from clearly perceiving what Francis A. Schaeffer[ii] called “true truth”.  As tautological as this may sound, it is not nonsense, for we Modern-Postmoderns have become experts at obscuring the evidence and blurring all the categories and methods which might help lead us out of our self-imposed estrangement.  The truth is that we are afraid of the truth because it will actually and really hold us personally accountable for what we do with it once we admit it.  So we find “other truths” to explain away the mysterious aspects of reality.  We convince ourselves that someday, somehow, all the mysteries will fall before the might of our reason, logic, and Science.  Someday, somehow, the deepest secrets of the universe will be unlocked to our intellectual prowess.  After all, has this not given us all the technological and scientific wonders we now know, proving that, as Lamarck told Napoleon about God, and Hawking declared in echo, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis?”

It is the old Goebbels[iii] propaganda technique.  Tell a lie often enough and loudly enough and people will come to believe it, no matter how outrageous.  Thus we can plausibly restructure “the truth” as needed to accommodate the newest and latest reinterpretation of the “scientific data”.  We can redefine human nature or aspects thereof by rewriting the textbooks, for example redefining disorders and abnormalities into normalcy which can then be imposed on those who oppose.  Alternatively, dissidents and recalcitrants harking back to “old superstitions” can be sanctioned and bullied into silence or ostracized so they no longer need be heard.

However, who we really are cannot be defined out of existence.  What our hearts know even as our conscious minds protest against the voice of conscience cannot simply be decreed as unreal when the soul is whispering more and more loudly “Nevertheless…”  What the spirit hungers and thirsts after cannot be made invisible by strident affirmations seeking to shout down the conscience.

In fact, these shouts are really more reinforcement of the testimony of the “three witnesses”.  The more vehement the anger and shouting against the truth, the stronger the truth becomes until its light breaks out of the darkness.  The longer we live in the dark and the deeper we try to bury the light, the lighter it will become and the more it will bedazzle us when it breaks out once more into the clear, as it will again.

The question is, can we, in our own power and strength, break the truth of who we really are free?  Or do we need help to end our estrangement from the light of the transcendent absolute?


[i]  Jean-Jacques Rousseau – French Enlightenment philosophe, d. 1778.

[ii]  Francis A. Schaeffer – American Presbyterian minister and philosopher, d. 1984.

[iii]  Joseph Goebbels – Nazi German Minister of Propaganda, 1933-1945, d. 1945.

The Third Way, 47: Saviours and Salvation, 3 – Estrangement

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“People felt a yearning for the absolute, intuited its presence all around them, and went to great lengths to cultivate their sense of this transcendence in creative rituals.  But they felt estranged from it.  Almost every culture has developed a myth of a lost paradise from which men and women were ejected at the beginning of time.  It expresses an inchoate conviction that life was not meant to be so fragmented, hard, and full of pain.  There must have been a time when people had enjoyed a greater share in the fullness of being and had not been subject to sorrow, disease, bereavement, loneliness, old age, and death.”

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God.  (Vintage Canada Edition, 2010), p. 14.

Like H.G. Wells in our second instalment of this series, Karen Armstrong offers a speculative account of the rise of religion in early humans.  Neither the Modernist nor Postmodernist view of reality has a satisfactory or convincing answer to what Karen Armstrong calls humanity’s innate “yearning for the absolute” and our “sense of… transcendence”.  As we observed in our previous post, the human feeling of “estrangement” from the absolute and the desire to know the transcendent is virtually universal and has existed throughout our recorded history as a species.  It relates to what Ms. Armstrong aptly calls “a myth of lost paradise from which [we] were ejected at the beginning of time”.  A word of caution about the word “myth” before we go on.  “Myth” does not mean untrue; rather it is a quest to put into words that sense of the transcendent which, at some point in life, almost every human being experiences.  It may very well be based on experienced reality, but its source has faded into the deep recesses of our “collective memory”, as Carl Jung expressed it.

How could such convictions evolve?  Why could we possibly develop a need, let alone an ability, to “intuit’ them?  What possible advantage in the evolutionary struggle could this bestow upon homo sapiens sapiens over against our rival species for primacy in a contest of “survival of the fittest” and the process of natural selection?  From a strictly survivalist perspective, it would seem a pointless diversion of focus and energy, subtracting from seeking definite and powerful practical advantages over other competing species. 

It is a completely inadequate response to say that “primitive” civilizations needed religion and superstition to ensure group organization and hierarchical authority structure which gave us a collective, cooperative power no other species can match.  There are surely other, more direct methods of organizing hierarchy, especially for intelligent, self-aware beings, than a massive diversion of energy and resources into “creative rituals” to cement community identity.

Interestingly, as secular, culturally logical, and mature beings, as we now fancy ourselves to have become, we still adhere to group rituals and ceremonies and identity rites as much as the “superstitious primitives” ever did.  We have different, more “enlightened” and sophisticated ways of explaining such things through sociology and anthropology, but we still look for something greater than ourselves beyond our crass, material limitations.  It seems that the hunger for the absolute and the transcendent, as a quest to take ourselves out of ourselves, beyond ourselves, and to connect with some ‘Higher Reality”, is as alive as ever in the human psyche.

But, having outgrown “religion” and the “supernatural” as the road to connect with such realities, inasmuch as they may exist outside of our subjective minds, we now look to ideologies and concepts such as the “nation”, the “people”, the “human spirit”, or the “New Humanity”. It is proposed that we are evolving a higher consciousness and deeper unity with the “One” which subsumes and connects all things.  Quite simply, however we choose to “explain it” by naming it differently, we are still “yearning for the absolute”.

The deep sense of our estrangement from some vital transcendent truth remains, no matter how we strive to mask it and drive it underground.  It is more obvious than ever to almost everyone alive that we are estranged from nature, of which we conceive ourselves the pinnacle in terms of evolutionary development. 

We talk of nature as of something apart and separate from ourselves, even as we insist we are but one aspect of it.  No matter how we idealize it and speak of reintegrating with it, we cannot get there.  We have too much power over it, power to manipulate it and control it and change it.  Thus, all pious protestations to the contrary aside, we actually do not believe in our innermost soul that we are merely another part or facet of it, not essentially greater than an insect, with no more right to be than a microbe, a mouse, a fish, or a sparrow.  We can intellectually declare such things, but we don’t and can’t really believe them. 

Our ideas and words betray us at every turn.  Our interventions in it, from the least (recycling) to the greatest (even now as we speak of our ability to “scrub” the very atmosphere) demonstrate it.  Even by evolutionary calculations we are “above” nature.  We have not outgrown it yet, but we rise above our own natural limitations.  We use nature and what we find there to do extraordinary and even “miraculous things”.  We travel on the ground at speeds multiple times faster than the fastest human or horse can run.  We fly, despite not being biologically evolved to do so.  We travel in space,  we explore the macrocosm and microcosm with means we have made to “astronomically” exceed what our unaided physical senses could ever do.

While mortal and limited, we are godlike.  In old Biblical terms, we are “made in the image of God”, and other faiths have very similar concepts.  We have powers and abilities to remake and refashion this world that so far exceed any other living being of this planet (the only one we know which actually has life on it), that it is dishonest to say we are “just another creature among many”.  We are not.  We are creators and destroyers, preservers and remakers.  To pretend otherwise is simply disingenuous, or perhaps downright dishonest because we deliberately deny what we know in our hearts, beneath all the false humility.

Why then do we “yearn for the absolute”?  Because, as Kohelet said (see previous series), we are beings that, as part of our very nature, “have eternity in our hearts”.  Why do we “intuit its presence all around us”?  Because we can perceive that there is a reality that is far more than anything our mere physical senses can tell us.  We have “intuition” or some sort of “sixth sense”, an immaterial side or “sense” tuned to what we know is actually there, even if unseen, even though our bodily senses do not register it.  And it is not hocus-pocus.

Why do we spend so much energy and effort and resources on “creative rituals” to “cultivate” this sense of the transcendent aspects of reality?  Because we somehow know that we are connected with this transcendent reality, this source of the absolute.  Because we know that we were made or have been evolved to be connected to this absolute transcendence that lies within and above and beyond the limitations of what we can know and experience through these limited physical bodies.

Whether we were created directly with this need and sense or evolved into this state of intuitive awareness is, at this point, irrelevant to our discussion.  Here we are.  As far as we can tell, thus has humanity ever been since humans as we know them first appeared on Planet Earth.

Until this is accepted, we cannot even begin to recover from our “estrangement”.

The Third Way, 46: Saviours and Salvation, 2 – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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“Out of such ideas and a jumble of kindred ones grew the first quasi-religious elements in human life.  With every development of speech it became possible to intensify and develop the tradition of tabus and restraints and ceremonies.  There is not a savage or barbaric race to-day that is not held in such a net of tradition…. to distinguish any individual thing [such as a star, a mountain, a river] was, for primitive man, to believe it individualized and personal.  He would begin to think of outstanding stars as persons, very shining and dignified and trustworthy persons looking at him with bright eyes in the night.  They came back night after night.  They helped him even as the Tribal God helped him.” 

H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, The Whole Story of Man, Volume One. (Doubleday & Company, 1971), pp. 104, 105.

Previously we noted that the notions of brokenness in nature, in creation, and in our inner beings and personality is universal to human experience, both historically and quite personally.  It is fair to say that these concepts are ancestral, innate to being human.  But why do we have the concepts of “salvation” and “saviour” so deeply rooted in our minds and hearts?

The citation at the top of this instalment is perhaps slightly “dated” in phraseology but certainly not in essence.  It represents the common wisdom of the West’s intelligentsia concerning the origins of religion and humankind.  Much truncated and stylized, and inasmuch as the regular layman gives it any thought, it is also the popular mindset of the West concerning the ancestral compulsion to bow before mystery and be “religious”.  Via the cultural imperialism of the West, this perspective has taken hold of the “progressive” global community. 

Some non-Western cultural traditions are not threatened by evolution.  Hinduism and Buddhism, a sort of “New Testament” offshoot of Vedic and Upanishadic Hinduism, both accept a long-ages upon ages and cycles upon cycles view of material existence.  Such a view is required to accommodate the doctrines of maya (impermanence, material illusion), samsara (the cycle of birth-death-rebirth and suffering), and reincarnation/transmigration for millennia before the attainment of moksha (liberation, escape) and entering into nirvana (blissful union and absorption into the One).  The ‘scientific’ doctrine of evolution was not part of this parcel until imported in the late nineteenth century.  It then added a sort of superficial scientific confirmation to the religious dogma.

The tale of evolution as told since Charles Darwin succeeded in popularizing it (and he was far from the first to propose it) in the 1860s and ‘70s does not require any supernatural or spiritual component.  While Darwin and many of the early post-Darwin evolutionists hesitated to outrightly erase God (he might still be the “First Cause” as proposed by many Enlightenment philosophes), the bolder ones agreed with Lamarck’s declaration to Napoleon in 1806, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis.” 

But if we have no Deity to fall back on, we must recognize that we have no one but ourselves (or the random destructive powers of nature) to blame for the woes we find threatening us and our world with destruction.  It is of no consequence to such impersonal forces and powers whether we live or die, or for how long our race continues, or our little pebble of a planet and all the varieties of life it bears.  It is only of consequence to us and that only because our own existence depends on it. 

In the evolutionist sense, the deeply felt hope and desire to find some way of saving ourselves from oblivion is a meaningless freak, an unaccountable anomaly.  Its only plausible cause is as an outcome of the instinct to survive for as long as possible at all costs—as individuals and as a species.

For as long as we have been able to observe our existence as a species from definite historical and archeological evidence, rather than the kind of pure speculation engaged in by Mr. Wells and others of his mind, all human generations of record have imputed a meaning of much greater significance than mere species survival to human existence.  Coupled with our clearly observable sense of awareness of a special role for our species in the grand scheme of universal existence (however delusional this ‘awareness’ may be said to be by sophisticated group and individual psychology), we seem to have an innate sense of intimate connection to and responsibility for all the other forms of life found on our special speck of universe-dust.

It is a chicken-and-egg question: have we become like this as some sort of evolutionary strategy to survive, some sort of “evolution becoming self-aware to preserve life via the agency of the human species”?  Or is there something else entirely at work here that is completely extraneous to evolution as conceived within its own ‘orthodoxy’?  It seems we stand at the threshold of a mystery that not even science can answer and appears likely to be unable to answer for any foreseeable future with any kind of precision.  This leaves the issue of ‘meaning’ outside the purview of ‘Science’ altogether.

The origins of our belief in ‘meaning’ aside, the sense that our planet is in or entering into a time of great crisis, of dire straits, is now almost total within its dominant, self-aware species, homo sapiens sapiens.  Millions, even billions, of us believe that the planet needs “saving” and we, as its most advanced life-form, are intimately and inextricably tied to this need, at least in our own perception.  Our ties are of two kinds: (1) as probable major contributors and perhaps precipitators of the present crisis, and (2) as the only species capable of acting to forestall or at least attenuate the effects of the crisis.  In other words, if a “saviour” is to be found to avert our own potential destruction, or at least drastic reduction, we, the humans, are it!

It is not our purpose today to debate the extent of human guilt in the present slide towards disaster (at least from our human perspective) of earth’s climate.  Doubtless, very many other species are and will be at least as drastically affected as we are and will be.  Debates about guilt are of limited usefulness unless they lead to real ‘repentance’ and change of direction.  Repentance is, after all, all about changing one’s life-direction and behaviours to both stop doing what has been so destructive and move to repair, restore, and do new, healing things.  Repentance is also about contrition, admitting what we’ve (I’ve) done wrong, “’fessing up” and asking for forgiveness of those who have been offended by what we’ve/I’ve done.  It is about restitution, setting things as right as we can in order to restore the damage and mend the hurt.

Let us say, for the moment, that we accept that the planet is on a climate trajectory towards catastrophe for the majority of its living species.  Let us accept that humans are partly responsible for this because of our profligate, heedless exploitation of our home’s resources.  We thus arrive at the conclusion that it is the human species that must restore the equilibrium, “save the planet”.  This “salvation” really means somehow finding the means and method to permit the living things of Earth to survive and perhaps begin once more to thrive.  It is about saving them from extinction.  It is recognizing that their survival is necessary for ours as well.  We are all passengers on our spaceship together.  We are all intimately connected as living entities.

It is a curious and peculiar aspect of human identity, genetic coding, or however else one might choose to explain it, that humans are the only species that concerns itself with the welfare and salvation of other species.  Healthy, mature humans do not perceive these other beings as a threat to their survival or existence.  Too often, we humans have viewed them as things to exploit and use with little or no regard for their intrinsic “beingness” and value as amazing manifestations of life in its unfathomable variety of expression.  But, in our better moments, we do recognize these qualities and the worth of these creatures.  We take action to save them, preserve them, enable them to be restored.

In other words, we find ourselves with a built-in desire to save and redeem, just as much as we also find ourselves with innate tendencies to exploit and abuse and destroy.  We find within ourselves a constant internal struggle to let “the better angels of our nature”, as Abraham Lincoln so beautifully phrased it, win out against the will to power and control and use and dominate for personal pleasure and gain, as Nietzsche described his view of human nature.  In the old cartoons this was pictured as a mini-angel on the right shoulder and mini-devil on the left, each trying to convince the host to do things its way.

It is questionable to what extent we are really capable of “saving the planet”, even if we are largely responsible for what is happening to its climate and environment.  It is questionable whether we, as a race, have the will to personally sacrifice to the degree necessary to effect “saving” action.  Let us say that, by an amazing collective feat of will, we succeed in the next few decades in “turning things around”.  Will this signify a fundamental shift in human nature with its Jekyll and Hyde schizophrenia?  Will it mean we have at last saved ourselves from ourselves and that henceforth only Dr. Jekyll will manifest?

Will it mean that, at last, once and for all, we can lay to rest all the tired old fantasies about a great saviour coming to create final order, peace, and harmony for all the rest of our existence?  Will we thus really and truly have arrived at the age when, as Buddha (in his own way), Lucretius (Roman naturalist and poet), Lamarck, Hawking and Dawkins have been telling us for millennia, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis?”

We will continue this discussion next time.

The Third Way, 45: Saviours and Salvation, 1

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“save, v.t. & i., & n. [verb transitive and intransitive and noun] 1.Rescue, preserve, deliver, from or from danger or misfortune or harm or discredit. . . . 2. Bring about spiritual salvation from, preserve from damnation. . . .”

The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964.

“saviour: n. Deliverer, redeemer (the/our Saviour Christ), person who saves a State etc. from destruction, etc. (Middle English and Old French sauveour from Latin salvatorem (salvare [to] SAVE)

The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964.

“After an age of wars and catastrophes Augustus [first Roman Emperor, 27BCE – 14CE] brought peace.  He was a “savior.”  There was no way to explain a power so prodigious without appeal to a divine. . . nature residing in the soul of Augustus.  According to the customs of the time the feelings of the subjects had to find expression in divine honors.  Thus the same reasoning that inclined to divinize Alexander and the Hellenistic kings worked to deify Augustus. . . .  Thus Rome followed Greek precedents in this as in so much else, but with reservations and with distinctions of its own.”

Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Third Edition.  (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), pp. 207, 208.

“Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, 1754.

Rousseau’s opening line to his 1754 treatise is one of the most resounding open lines ever penned in world literature, ranking alongside Dickens’ “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” in A Tale of Two Cities.  Rousseau gave us one the most succinct, pithy statements of the human condition that this writer and student of history has ever come across.  It needs to be twinned with the Apostle Paul’s famous line, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” in Romans chapter 3, despite Rousseau’s animosity to Christianity.  Paul authored many other like statements of our predicament to which we might refer.  We recall a similar phrase from Kohelet in our previous series, “God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.”

At the risk of over-generalizing, we can observe that every major extant belief system would hold some variation of the above diagnoses of the state of humanity.  Hindus would define somewhat differently how they understand the “chains” which hold us in bondage and slavery, or the idea of “sin”, but they agree that we are in bondage.  Buddhists would closely concur with the Hindu position regarding the fundamental human condition.  Muslims and Jews would agree that humans are sinners, and that no one is completely free in will or in power to act as they ought, or as they desire if their moral awareness reduces the “ought” to irrelevance.  Even modern and postmodern secularists concur that humanity chronically falls short of the ideals we (they) agree we should aim for in our society and in the stewardship of Planet Earth.  Thus, we find the whole human race in agreement that there is a truly serious and perhaps critical gap between what our hearts and minds (and many would say our souls) tell us we were made to be and what we actually are.

As we look back through the five or so millennia of recorded history for which we have documentary evidence, we find that the awareness of this basic human failing and incapacity has been very much part of the human psyche in every time and place.  It is often expressed mythologically, poetically, and imaginatively, especially before the innovation and invention of philosophy by those geniuses of the intellect, the ancient Greeks.  The earliest formulations of this most basic of all dilemmas were often couched in dream, vision, legend, and myth, with reference to a break or disordering in relationship between humans and the higher order of beings who create and govern  the cosmos.

Coupled with this awareness of humanity’s failure to be what it should be, or its lapse into disorderliness and misalignment with the created order (the “Fall” in traditional Judeo-Christian parlance), or perhaps some innate flaw in the original creation itself, was an equal awareness that we humans do not have the ability, and perhaps not even the will, to repair the breech or re-establish the order as it is meant to be.  There is thus a sense of being liable to judgment or subject to the whim of supernatural powers for our collective flaw or failure to measure up.  There is a sense of guilt and shame for having broken the world, so to speak.

We might (and usually do) now mock all this “superstition” and “theological mumbo-jumbo” as basic ignorance of the true facts about reality. After all, we now “know better” what the world is, what the universe is, how it really works, where it comes from, where we come from, etc.  Nevertheless, at the very least everyone still realizes that Rousseau’s diagnosis is as right now as it was 265 years ago.  And really, all the other formulations we referred to still sit in our gut.  Things are broken and we don’t know how to fix them.

The current version of the apocalypse  calling for salvation is the “Climate Crisis”.  It is really not reasonable to deny that Climate Change exists.  The compilation of several Mount Everest’s of data is conclusive that something important is happening to the earth’s climate at this juncture of its history.  The debate is to what extent it is humanity’s doing.  Rhetoric and screeching alarmism aside, the data is much less conclusive on that score.  Besides, climate change has been happening since the creation of the world.  Duh!  Tropical conditions once existed in Antarctica and, clearly, seas once covered much of every continent in existence, as Marine fossils on the slopes of Mount Everest and high in the Rockies point out.

The current Climate Apocalypse, or any other immediate global crisis (e.g., Terrorism, drug plagues, AIDS, etc.) crying out for radical resolution aside, we as a species, and as individuals dependent for survival on our Planet’s hospitality, remain in the identical position of all generations since Nimrod (a real historical figure, by the way) promised the world deliverance sometime in the third millennium BCE.  Over 5000 years, we have record of many promise-makers and claimants to Divine and semi-divine status offering themselves as the looked for saviours ready to make things right and save their people from their calamitous situations. 

Pharaohs were the living “saviours” of the Egyptian people, incarnating the will of the gods to sustain the life-giving cycle of the Nile and the land.  Each of the ancient “King of kings” of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and China called themselves “saviour”, “redeemer”, “Son of Heaven”, etc., granting order and favour from the gods to the peoples under their beneficent rule.  Alexander took all the titles of the monarchs he defeated unto himself and openly proclaimed himself the anointed of the gods, the one come to save the world from disorder and usher in unity and peace.  As Ferguson points out in our citation above, the Roman emperors each began their rule with proclamations from the Senate and themselves as the divinely appointed saviour of the peoples under their rule.

The Jews long expected the Messiah, the anointed and chosen one sent by Yahweh to right the world and usher in God’s rule over all the peoples, wielding justice and righting all wrongs, protecting the downtrodden and turning the earth once more into God’s beautiful garden with peace and plenty for all.  Legends of such a one to come could be found in China and India and even among some of the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (America).  And Islam still awaits the Mahdi, the one sent as the final prophet-scourge who will punish all the blasphemous and the infidels and submit all the world to Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful (his two main attributes in the Quran).

Hinduism presents us with multiple avatars who are incarnations of Vishnu, the most compassionate and loving of their enormous pantheon of gods and goddesses, one of the three most important.  In bhakti yoga (the road or way of worship and praise), such avatars come to remind us of our bondage and show us once more how to shed maya, the illusion and bondage of this world so as to achieve nirvana, union with Brahman, the One and All, the essence of existence itself.  But avatars are not redeemers.  They cannot take our place in the judgment.  Each must find his/her own way out of the cycle of birth›death›rebirth until all negative karma has been purged.

Buddhism offers us the Buddha, the Enlightened One who teaches the path to escape from the ceaseless cycle of suffering, as Buddha defined the wheel of samsara, the cycle referred to above.  But Buddha is not a saviour or redeemer either, but an exalted teacher and guide, showing the way to salvation from our bondage to suffering, not a substitute for us.  Once more, the sufferer must find his/her own path.

But the greatest and most enduring claim to the role Saviour and Redeemer comes of course out of Christianity in the person of Jesus Christ (Yeshua ha-Mashiach).

Does the human race need a saviour?  A redeemer?  If so, in what sense?  If not, why not?  How are we to find resolution to our collective and individual inner sense of missing the mark, of disharmony, of dichotomy, of “brokenness” within ourselves and with the world we inhabit?  Is any permanent resolution really needed?  Is such a concept really practical or beneficial even to consider and discuss?  Can’t we just get on with the business of “fixing things” by the tried and true methodology of logical reason applied via the scientific method?

Let us see where this takes us in the next few instalments.

The Third Way, 44: Kohelet 8 – Judgment

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“Here is the conclusion, now that you have heard everything: fear God, and keep his commands/principles/ways of living; that is what being human is all about.  For God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.”

Kohelet 12: 13 – Complete Jewish Bible

“Teachers who offer you the ultimate answers do not possess the ultimate answers, for if they did, they would know that the ultimate answers cannot be given, they can only be received.”

Tom Robbins , 20th Century American novelist

We have observed that the ancient sage, Kohelet-Solomon, sounds and reads uncannily like a postmodernist apart from one deviation: he does not lapse into existential despair or let his cynical realism overwhelm his underlying wisdom.  In this closing instalment, we consider his final word on keeping things in healthy perspective: there is a Creator, despite all appearance to the contrary, and this Creator “will bring judgment to everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.”

Thus, as he ends his Zola-like[i] survey of the world as it is and has been through all recorded history, he is out of sync with our age’s equivocation about ultimate reality.  Or rather, we are out of sync with the wisdom of the millennia, smug in our conceit of being devoted disciples of reason and science without superstition.

Unlike us, Kohelet does not shrug and say there is no such thing as final truth.  He does not cop out of the quest by saying that truth is whatever you happen to decide it is for you.  He does not commit intellectual hara-kiri with the patently absurd affirmation that everyone has a right (a duty?) to “find their own truth” (a statement that no one really believes in practice), as if there can validly be seven billion different all equally valid versions of “truth”.  Kohelet baldly declares what, in their heart of hearts, almost everyone knows:there are real, unavoidable absolutes, however much we would like to deny and forget them.

Robbins suggests that those who want to compel us to believe in some ultimate answer that they have for us are really trying to convince themselves of it via the back door.  After all, we will take a faith-based position, by hook or by crook, consciously or unconsciously.  Those who rage about others accepting “their chosen truth” are covering and smothering their own doubt by seeking reassurance that, “If I can get others to accept this, it must really be true.”  But, really, “ultimate answers cannot be given, they can only be received.”

We spend most of our lives running from inevitable truths, such as we are all going to die and that, as Kohelet put it, despite death lurking and creeping up on us, there is one truth even prior to that one: we are all born into a world over which we exercise little control.  The when, where, and by whom we came to be is never in our hands.  Neither do we have a lot of control over most of the wider exterior context of our lives.  Our only “true” area of partial control is in our responses to what comes our way, and to the things we find churning in our souls as a result.  Our actions flow from these responses and are our way of exerting some control.  But we cannot control the responses of others to our actions.  Even in this, our feeble bodies, limited senses, and fallible minds too often betray us.

Kohelet-Solomon, in his time a man of great power as the world measures such things, does not issue a kingly decree or prophetic declaration about what to believe.  As he might have put it, there may be a proper time and place for such things, but no decree can resolve “what being human is all about”.  “Ultimate answers can only be received”; it takes a revelation, an unveiling of the hidden, of the thing we missed as it passed us by or as we passed by it without seeing, hearing, and understanding.

To search into such deep things it takes humility instead of our culture’s intellectual bravado and hubris.  We must begin with two “ultimate questions”: “What does it mean to be human?” and “How can ultimate answers be received?”  But surely by now we can answer them via the scientific method, as the West’s great (or at least most widely acclaimed) luminaries have told us since the mid-1600s.  Will not clever reasoning in philosophy and proper research in psychology and the hard sciences at last give us the essential insights to finally solve the mystery of who and what we are and why we are here in the first place?  Could we not then formulate scientific social and educational methods to get everyone in line with this “truth”?

Imposition of “truth”, even disguised as science, has never worked in the past, nor is it at all likely to work in the future.  Remember the pseudo-science of Nazism, Communism, eugenics (genetic engineering is alive and well), racism, etc?  All claim science as their father—using euphemisms like “scientific socialism” or the “economic laws” of Capitalism.  As Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, another very great ancient sage, said, “The enlightened are not themselves the way, they can only show the way.”  (There is one probable exception to this aphorism, but of that another time.)  The way must be shown and exemplified, but the invitation to enter it and live by it must be received as a gift.

For almost four centuries the West has boxed “Enlightenment” into a matter of reason and science.  Like all tools, these two can be and have been used to do great harm as well as much good.  Scientists can discover how things are done.  They can even calibrate how things interact and behave with great accuracy, but they always fail to explain why they work that way, why they came to be as they are.  The actual marvel of being, let alone of being as we know it, is so finely balanced that it defies all probability, it escapes their (and our) grasp.  Insistent and much inflated pretentions that we actually explain why  things are as they are by describing what happens and how it happens persist nonetheless. 

Engineers can use what scientists have revealed about how things work and what to expect from them to design and build amazing things offering all manner of easier access to necessities and conveniences.  But scientists and engineers also give us addictive drugs, gas chambers, bombs, and all manner of nefarious contrivances.  It is not a question of human ability, but of the human heart and soul and why it so readily turns to “the dark side”.

Without pretention that he can explain what his mind cannot fathom, Kohelet offers a very few simple pieces of advice about finding a path through life which offers hope and comfort: (1) Fear God; (2) behave like a human is supposed to by living according to your Creator’s design and purpose; (3) live in awareness that everything, even the most secret things, that we do and say will be judged/weighed/evaluated by the Creator who made us.  Earlier he had also advised his hearers to “remember your Creator in your youth”, i.e., start practising #s 1, 2, and 3 while you’re young enough to make them a pattern for life.  Because, if you wait till you’re too old, you may well never start, and you will end up as an ultimate fool.

Kohelet’s definition of a “fool” is quite simple: a fool denies there is a Creator and therefore denies who and what he/she is at the most foundational level.  There is no hope for any ultimate wisdom or answer for such a person.  It is not about IQ or any other measure of intelligence.  Neither is it about level of education or status within the academic, social, political, cultural, or financial pantheon, however much any individual may ascend in the eyes of the world in any of those domains. 

It is about one very simple thing: do you really understand what being human is about, where it starts?  For if you completely miss the point of departure, you will journey into complete and utter futility.  This is when it all becomes “Meaningless!  Meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!”?  Kohelet’s great service to us and every generation since his time is to guide us through that journey into the depths of meaninglessness and futility and out the other side.  That is the essence of what Kohelet has described for us so well in this incredibly poignant treatise. 

Quite simply, you will have proved a complete fool if you take the wrong bus, train, or plane and end up in spiritual oblivion and present-life hopelessness.  That is why, in another place in this essay, Kohelet quips, “Better to be a live dog than a dead lion.”  For the “dog” still has hope that he/she may yet come back to the right departure point and start on the right journey.

In the 21st Century, we have all become a mixture of moderns and postmoderns.  As such we have become very adept at creating terms and scenarios about finding personal meaning, “self-actualizing”, and declaring who we choose to be to the rest of the world.  Such declarations are mostly about what we imagine we have a right to in our ultralized version of individual rights.  For some, it is a declaration about group rights within which we shelter as individuals. 

From our assumed position of (self-declared) rightness (the new way of being self-righteous, after all), we can affirm that no one else can deny whatever we choose to say and claim about ourselves, no matter how outlandish it may ultimately be.  After all, “It’s all about me!”  At least, we strive mightily to make it so, knowing very well in our souls that all our personal and group yelling “won’t make it so”.  All my bombastic wand-waving will still not make a thorn tree into a fig-tree, as another ancient sage, Yeshua ben-Yosef of Nazareth, once put it.

Kohelet’s wisdom has never been outdated.  It stands as strong and solid today as it did when he first recited it to the cynics and skeptics of his own time.  Hear him once more: “Being human starts, and ultimately ends, with knowing we have a Creator.  The Creator has made us to live and care for His/Her world according to the “commands, ways, principles, manner of being” the Creator has established.  “Being human” can only be achieved within these simple parameters.” (My paraphrase, of course.) 

There is just one final, quite sobering bit at the end of these priceless pearls of wisdom Kohelet leaves us with.  If you are like me, you feel quite uncomfortable with “For God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.”  But I cannot escape the niggling suspicion that even this bit is part of the bedrock I need.  It pushes me to endeavour to live the balanced, fruitful life to which the Creator calls us all.  If, as I believe, we are those whom He/She made in His/Her image to steward the amazing gift of life on our dazzling jewel of a planet, how dare we do otherwise?


[i]  Emile Zola, great French novelist of the Realist school.

The Third Way, 43: Kohelet, 7 – Pascal and Kohelet

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“All truth is God’s truth.”

Clement of Alexandria, ca. 200 CE

“The worship of novelty is closely related to belief in inevitable progress.  The assumption that the new will be better than the old follows naturally from that presupposition.  The extraordinary thing is that it survives in the face of irresistible evidence from every auction room that in a dozen departments of life the new just cannot match the old.  Where is the instrument maker who can produce a violin to match those made by Antonio Stradivari three hundred and fifty years ago?  Where is the writer of today who can be classed with Shakespeare, Dante or Homer?”

Harry Blamires, The post Christian Mind. (Vine Books, Servant Pulications, 1999), p. 91.

Kohelet-Solomon, our ancient sage and anachronistic guide to post-modernism, has been leading us all over the intellectual and worldview map.  Like an existentialist filled with angst, he laments the seeming futility of everything that is and has ever been. Yet somehow he still affirms that there is a Creator who holds it all together and who will someday bring everything and everyone to account.  But then he lapses into his prototype of post-modern scepticism, “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.  They have no further reward and even their name is forgotten.” (chapter 9, verse 5a).

He illogically follows that with “Go and eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. . . . Enjoy life with your wife [mate, spouse] whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. . . . Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (chapter 9, verses 5-10)  He seems to believe that death is the end of personal existence, but, nevertheless, says there is an infinite Creator-Judge whom we should take into account in choosing how we live and treat one another.

Postmodern response: if it is really all meaningless, ultimately futile, and of no particular benefit to strive to be a good person except to avoid being caught and punished by the authorities, then taking God into account as a factor makes no sense.  If death is the end of existence (except perhaps for God, if there is one), why shouldn’t I just be an Epicurean and “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow I die”?  That is what Kohelet seems to say in just slightly different words—like Epicurus 800 years later suggesting that there is still an element of proper order, boundaries, and morality involved.  “Enjoy life with the wife [spouse] of your youth. . . . whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. . .”

Perhaps Solomon-Kohelet and Epicurus needed to meet someone like Blaise Pascal (1623-1662 CE).  In his Pensées, Pascal reflects on discussions he had with skeptics and atheists of his own day (the earliest proponents of the Enlightenment, such as the Deist Descartes) that even if you don’t believe there is a Creator and Divine Judge, living a moral and upright life is still a road to greater personal happiness.  For whether you hold with God or not, you cannot escape your conscience, nor can you escape the shame and ostracism of others for reprehensible behaviour.  And if that is still not enough to deter outright amoral hedonism, which he noted was rampant among the young and the trendy set of his time (there truly is “nothing new under the sun”), there is the increasing likelihood of dying an early death and finding nothing more than momentary pleasure in this brief life, with it ending full of remorse at having added nothing of worth to the world. 

Like Solomon-Kohelet, Pascal sounds remarkably contemporary with our own time in his address to the skeptics and thrill seekers of his day, always running to some party or flashy event, always trying to outdo their peers in fashion and novelties (see Blamires above), always drinking and philandering, oblivious to the reality that they were in fact gambling with their souls’ destiny in eternity, as well as establishing themselves as socially worthless persons in the here and now.  And all this does not take into consideration that they were participating in the ruination of other lives in the process.

Pascal was a child-prodigy, a renowned scientific and mathematical genius (still much studied) before he became a passionate Christian at age thirty following a near-death experience.  His precocious career-fame gave him a platform to speak about the disastrous spiritual condition of his society.  Part of his critique was of the entrenched religious hypocrisy he found all around him in both fashionable society and Church hierarchy, including the foremost intellectuals in both spheres who spent their time justifying practices and doctrines which were in fact crippling society and the Church’s witness.  Once more we are reminded of Kohelet’s observation that “What is has already been, and what has been will be repeated again.” Pascal’s treatise, Provincial Letters, was a reasoned, brilliant and easy to read excoriation of these faults and a massive best-seller for the time (over 200 000 copies sold at a time when the reading public in France numbered perhaps two million).  The Pope condemned it and ordered it banned and all copies burned, so it must have hit home very hard.

Perhaps what brings Pascal closest to Kohelet, our guide in this series of reflections, is what has been called “Pascal’s Wager” (found in Pensées).  This argument was certainly used orally by Pascal during his lifetime in his discussions and comments among his peers about the state of affairs in his society.  It is still a brilliant piece of apologetic, although modern philosophers and anti-theists have long since discounted its validity, on rather dubious grounds one might add.  One suspects that, in their eagerness to shove it into some dark corner lest it disturb them too much, we are hearing the postmodern scientific and philosophic equivalent of Hamlet’s soto voce comment about Ophelia’s remonstrations that what he had said to her was not true, “The lady doth protest too much.”

The following summary of the “wager” will not do it justice[i], but roughly it goes like this:

“You say there is no Creator to whom you will ever have to give an account, and that when death comes, you will simply go into oblivion.  Thus there is no reason to be concerned with the consequences of your selfish and even brutish behaviour, let alone your milder and most secret indulgences, unless you attract the attention of the law and lose your freedom to do as you please.  As long as you avoid this extreme, you can do whatever you fancy and spend your time, energy, and wealth pleasuring yourself with whatever maximizes your enjoyment while pursuing whatever you conceive happiness to be.

“Now, you may be right (although I certainly don’t think so).  If you are, when you die you will never actually know, because when you die you will no longer know or be able to know anything at all.

“However, the possibility that you may actually be wrong is at least as strong as the probability of the option you have chosen.  After all, no one ever has ever returned to tell us what, if anything, actually transpires after death.  Or so we are told ad nauseum.

“Thus, the choice of how to live your life becomes a sort of wager, a gamble.  The odds of making the wrong choice about where you are headed are in fact 50/50.  However impressive, science cannot help you here, nor can philosophy, at least not if it is merely a tool you employ to justify all your self-centered behaviour.  In the end, it is a question of faith. 

Your faith tells you that you need not fear any god or God to whom you will give an account for the things you have done, said, and thought during your very short time on this earth.  But you really do not know whether you are right or wrong.  You are taking a great gamble, like staking everything, absolutely everything, on a single flip of a coin.

My faith tells me that there is a Creator, a Being whom I will face when I die, and who will call me to answer for what I have done, said, and thought, and for what I have not done but should have, etc.  But my faith also tells me that this Being is not only just, but merciful, compassionate, and loving.  He does not desire for me to go into the fires of condemnation and eternal separation from His love.  Therefore, He offers me forgiveness and pardon.  He points me to the One who came to open the way to His love, and if I will turn to that One, the One who actually did rise from death, I too can be with Him for eternity.

“But in your innermost soul you already know that you have this choice.  My question for you is, “Are you willing to wager your eternal destiny on the one in two chance that you are actually right?”  You say that you are, but consider the terrible shock you may well experience when you arrive face to face with the one you say either does not exist or who made you with no greater nature than to die like an animal and cease to be forever.  What then will you have to say in your own justification?

“I, on the other hand, am willing to wager that this Being whom you scorn or say is imaginary will be there when I die, and that He will receive me according to His mercy, grace, and compassion in light of my faith.  What have I gained if I have chosen well?  Everything! An eternity so full of wonder and love that it is beyond any words or imagination to express.

“If, perchance, I am proven wrong, what have I lost in spending my life living according to the faith and principles which flow from my faith?  Nothing! Nothing in the next existence because it is not there to lose.  And nothing of real worth in this realm.  By living out my faith and principles in this realm, I will have ultimately given hope and love and care to some, and even myself.  And that is worth something right now. I will have known the joy there is in giving myself for others.  In contrast, the life centered on self-fulfilment finds itself empty and remorseful in the end.

“You may protest, “One may live a good life without bowing to a fable or myth of a Supreme Judge waiting on the other side.”  I admit, it is not entirely impossible to live well according to high principles because it is good for oneself if others are helped by what we do for them.  But the motive is still to benefit myself for my own ultimate peace and sense of well-being.  And then, at the end, should I discover that the Judge is not a fable, His question for me will be “Why did you despise Me? All I asked was for you to live well for love of Me and others rather than for your own benefit.”

“My friend, you cannot avoid this wager; you cannot escape it, whatever you may think.  Indeed, you make it every day you do not choose to accept the offer of free grace and pardon which remains on the table till your dying breath.  But when you have taken that breath, the offer has gone forever.  You may now make light of it, and you may amuse and distract yourself to avoid facing it.  But whether you wager or not, you have wagered.  And the ante you have put on the table is your eternal soul.  The coin is in the air; how will you call it?  A word of caution: making no call is the same as saying “No” to the offer lying on the table, and to the One who had made the offer.”

In our conclusion to Kohelet’s ancient reflections about meaning in a universe which seems totally futile, we will find that the ancient sage was rather more in tune and sympathy with M. Pascal than first meets the eye.


[i]  Pascal died far too prematurely at age 39.  Pascal’s mastery of written French dazzled his contemporaries and inspired later writers as different from him as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire.  He was called “le Maître”. Some have called him “the Cicero of French”. His French was so articulate, clear, and beautiful stylistically that he has served as a model ever since and greatly influenced the development of French prose writing.  The Académie Française often refers to him in determining the best usage.

The Third Way, 42: Kohelet, 6 – “Folly is in their hearts”

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“Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?  When things are going well, enjoy yourself; but when things are going badly, consider that God made the one alongside the other, so that people would learn nothing of their futures.”

Kohelet 7: 13, 14 (Complete Jewish Bible)

“This state of affairs has led to three things in particular which I see as characterizing the new problem of evil.  First, we ignore evil when it doesn’t hit us in the face.  Second, we are surprised by evil when it does.  Third, we react in immature and dangerous ways as a result.”

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God.  (IVP Books, 2006), pp. 23-4.

Bishop Wright refers to the “new problem of evil”.  By this, he does not mean that evil is a new problem.  In the preamble to this statement he explains that the old problem has taken on a very new twist in the last two centuries.  Modern/post-modern humans are continually astonished at the manifest “wickedness, roguery, and rascality” (see Embersley, quoted in the previous instalment) effervescing from individual humans who have been taught better things and intellectually know better.  This undying denial of what is obvious to any objective observation is maintained despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary that has continuously bombarded the human race for millennia, including the West with its entrenched doctrines of progress and human perfectibility.  Incidentally, it is always convenient to forget that this very doctrine was borrowed from, and then mutilated and eviscerated of, its spiritual origins in Christianity.  

Western culture and society persist in believing in a doctrine of inevitable and ineluctable progress rooted in the idea of the inherent goodness of humanity which will one day evolve into some sort of epiphany of an evolved quasi-divinity.  There is manifestly no historical or observational evidence to sustain this unshakeable faith. 

A few examples, going back 3000 years and more, of the indisputable, well-documented, contrary evidence (roughly in chronological order): the Israelite massacre of the Canaanites, the Assyrian slaughters of their conquered peoples, Roman genocides of the Carthaginians and Jews and various others, the Muslim onslaught on and slaughters in (Zoroastrian) Persia and (Christian) North Africa, Genghis Khan and the Mongol terror over most of Asia, Tamerlane (Timushin), a reprise of dear old Genghis.  And for sanctimonious North Americans (including our indigenous peoples): the Aztec terrors in Central America, followed by Spain’s ‘merciful’ deliverance, the Iroquois genocide of the Hurons followed by the white American genocides of many of their indigenous peoples.  Then there is the generalized wretchedness (including massive body counts) of slavery throughout all history in every continent and down to this day.  Oh, and we mustn’t forget the perpetual exploitation of women, and rampant racism with all its wickedness. 

Oops!  Can’t leave out World War 1!  And how about the Turkish genocide of the Armenians (1915-6)?  World War 2, anyone?  The Holocaust, anyone?  Stalin and Mao, anyone?  The Khmer Rouge, anyone?  Rwanda, anyone?  ISIS (Yazidis, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, 2013), anyone?

You get the idea.  As the New Testament puts it, “All have sinned and fall [far] short of the glory of the Creator” and “There is not one righteous, not even one,” the self-proclaimed glory of humanism notwithstanding.  

But apparently it is only the believers in a Creator who are guilty of blind faith and only they have ever done any mass killing.  It’s the religious factor that apparently makes religious fanatics specially reprehensible—more than the ideological terrorists like Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol-Pot, Baghdadi (just-slain ISIS Caliph), and Hitler.  Admittedly, if you proclaim a God of mercy and love and proceed to massacre those who oppose you, defy you, question your truth, and threaten your control, it is perhaps extra-specially despicable and abhorrent.  But it is all too “human” within the general character of human behaviour.  So it is not the religion that is the root cause, but the “wickedness, roguery, and rascality” that lies in darkest depths of the unchanged human heart.

In Kohelet’s words, as he speaks on our behalf from our extremely limited perspective, we dare to say, “God’s ways are crooked”, therefore He/She is not a good God.  Yet, as we have noted, God made this implacable universe out of love. 

Thing is, the nature of love demands a universe where evil is possible because free creatures made for love must have the freedom to choose not to love but to do evil in its stead.  But to avoid blame, guilt, and responsibility we must then blame God, or deny Him/Her altogether, because we don’t want to look ourselves in the face—especially since, as we are told over and over these days, humans are not fundamentally flawed in their nature.  Nevertheless, as we have just observed, in all the greatest evils inflicted on the human race throughout its history, it was other humans doing the accusing and condemning, then wielding the swords, guns, and machinery of destruction one upon another, expending incalculable energy and creative imagination to find new and better ways to pile evil upon evil and body upon body in the name of vengeance, justice, or plain old avarice, power-hunger, and blood-lust.

In the middle chapters of the Biblical book called Kohelet (Ecclesiastes to we English-speakers), Solomon-Kohelet seems to lose his way through the maze of wheels within wheels of causality and depressing socio-economic analysis, as we would now call it.  In this he is very much like a modern or postmodern sociologist.  He tries to take the stance of a neutral observer, striving to sort out the conflicting stories and sets of evidence from this series of what we would now call “case studies” which constitute his raw material.  His questions (which I herewith paraphrase) abound:  “Why do I see really good people continually being crushed and destroyed while wicked people live long, prosperous lives?  Why are good, honest, upright people so hard to find anywhere, anytime?  Why are wise people so hard to find anywhere, anytime?  Why do we understand so little about why things happen, even when it’s so obvious such things will happen?”  (Perhaps this can be stated as “Why don’t we ever learn anything from history, at least not for long?”)  Finally, “Why do the authorities continually ignore and fail to act against flagrant evil and injustice?”

Solomon-Kohelet never blames the Creator for any of this, despite the temptation to do so (which the supposedly wise people of our time find impossible to resist).  He offers three poignant observations (a diagnosis?): “. . . on looking over all of God’s work, I realized that it is impossible to grasp all the activity taking place under the sun. . . . the righteous and the wise, along with their deeds, are in God’s hands—a person cannot know whether these people and these deeds will be rewarded with love or with hatred; all options are open. . . . Truly the human mind is full of evil; and as long as people live, folly is in their hearts; after which they go to be with the dead.” (8:17, 9:1, 9:3)

First, no human mind or any number of human minds can possibly see or understand “all of God’s work . . . all the activity taking place under the sun”.  What is the implication?  That it is supreme human arrogance and hubris for humans to pit their minds and “wisdom” against the Creator.  They thus set themselves up as prosecutor, judge, and jury of their own infinite Creator, and then pronounce sentence.  They are in fact themselves the condemned by their own choices to defy the Creator’s intention for them and the creation He/She placed them in.  Even if we have millions or billions more years (an extremely dubious likelihood), as per the evolutionary story, we will never reach the end of understanding the Cosmos that is stretched out before us.  To quote the current Swedish climate-Messiah, “How dare you/we?” make such an assumption.

Second, it doesn’t matter who we are, rich or poor, powerful or a social nonentity, wise and well-educated or foolish and uneducated (and these do not necessarily coincide), “their (our) deeds are in God’s hands”.  We can imagine that we are autonomous, independent agents fashioning the future and changing the world (or perhaps just our own tiny part of it) according to our own lights, but ultimately, that level of competence and real power belongs only to the Creator who both made us and all that is, and still directs all things, continually willing them to continue to exist first of all.  He/She is not denying or removing our ability to choose, but whatever we choose, it will be brought within the Creator’s orb and integrated with all other things.  And we simply cannot see enough, either in time or distance, to know the outcome of even ordinary decisions and actions: “whether these people and these deeds will be rewarded with love or with hatred; all options are open.”  What is unchangeable in all of this is the nature of the Creator who loves His/Her creation and creatures (including us humans) and respects our power to choose, precisely because of this love.

Third, and most unpalatable and unworthy and undignified in our current spiritual, psychological, and sociological climate: “Truly the human mind is full of evil; and as long as people live, folly is in their hearts; after which they go to be with the dead.”

Of this, more next time.