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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.

The Third Way, 41: Kohelet, 5 – The Dare of Love

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“The three most formative thinkers. . . of the modern era are Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche.  In one way or another, most baby boomers [born 1947-68] 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. . . .  Baby boomers were ill-prepared for a world of deceit, treachery, and misfortune, where absence of gratitude, reciprocity, or compensation – and the need to pander to others’ desires and anxieties – belied the mythology of their youth. . . . they were incredulous when the world they created in their own image turned out to be a detestable mixture of wickedness, roguery, and rascality.”

Peter C. Emberley.  Divine Hunger: Canadians on Spiritual Walkabout.  (HarperCollins PublishersLtd., 2002), pp. 36, 38

“. . . God takes no pleasure in fools, so discharge your vow!  Better not to make a vow than to make a vow and not to discharge it.  Don’t let your words make you guilty.  Why give God reason to be angry at what you say and destroy what you have accomplished?  For [this is what happens when there are] too many dreams, aimless activities and words.  Instead, just fear God! If you see the poor oppressed, rights violated and justice perverted. . . don’t be surprised. . . . the greatest advantage to the country is when the king makes himself a servant of the land.”

Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 5: 3-7 (Complete Jewish Bible)

As one of the early cohort of the baby boomer generation, I understand Emberley’s analysis of “what happened on the way to the Forum”.  Here we now are in “the Forum” scratching our heads about why everything seems so shallow, sour, and inhumane.  We (I) acutely notice the lack of simple grace in life, the prevalence of deceit (politics, anyone?), treachery (the old belief in a handshake being a contractual bond is long gone, and even written contracts are made to be broken), and absence of gratitude (entitlement to whatever you believe is your right has long since replaced thankfulness and acknowledgement of service rendered).  We could continue with the Professor’s all-too-accurate description of the spirit of our age, which, by our example, the cynicism of current education, and general practice, has thoroughly infected the younger generations following behind us.

As for the “incredulity” in discovering that “the world they [we boomers] created in their [our] own image turned out to be a detestable mixture of wickedness, roguery, and rascality”?  Is this really such a surprise?  Only because we have swallowed and continue to swallow the illusion about the innate and fundamental unsullied “goodness” of the human heart and soul as it emerges pristinely in the newborn.  It is the humanist wish-fantasy à la Jean-Jacques Rousseau of the human child being a blank page waiting to be inscribed (Emile), or the noble savage corrupted by civilization’s nefarious influence (Le contrat social).  It is the Progress meta-story of our age about human perfectibility by the powers of evolution through reason and development  towards a better world and a higher order of (human) being.

Kohelet’s take on the unwelcome revelation of human wickedness, roguery, and rascality, based on the above mentioned die-hard fables is once more refreshingly prosaic: “don’t be surprised!”  Or perhaps, “Are you so shocked that this world is not the delusion you created for yourselves?”  Changing basic human nature and millennially ingrained patterns, engrams, behavioural algorithms – use whatever analogical terminology you like to describe who and what we really are and do – is not just a matter of “All you need is love”, writing protest songs, handing out flowers to police and soldiers, screaming protests, speechifying in outrage “How dare you!”, denouncing hypocrisy, and marching against war, climate change, abuses of all kinds, or whatever other chosen cause.  Most the above have a proper time, place, and context.  But shaming and blaming only beget more of the same in return.  And they also expose the shame-blamer to the strong possibility that their own sins will find them out.

Solomon-Kohelet’s fundamental point of reference is far removed from that of the modern and post-modern age of outrage: “God takes no pleasure in fools. . .  Don’t let your words make you guilty. . . this is what happens when there are too many dreams, aimless activities and words.  Instead, just fear God!”  As to the oppression of the poor, violation of rights, and rampant injustice – “Don’t be surprised!”

Many of us boomers were taken in by all the chimeras of utopian ideas of tearing down the system; simplistic notions of love overcoming war (the worst form of all of oppression), peace somehow breaking out if enough people would just opt out and cop out and “give peace and love a chance”.  The pop-philosophers, hip gurus, and cool new psychologies all promised it could be done.  And while waiting we could take the fast road to bliss via drugs, sex, and rock-‘n-roll.  When the hangover of disillusionment hit, as with a super-hangover after a prolonged binge, in rushed the bad taste, the reality shock – “a detestable mixture of wickedness, roguery, and rascality” – to take the place of the dreams-turned-nightmare.  Mom and Pop must have been right after all when they said, “Just get a good education, a good job to make lots of money and be secure.  Get married, get a nice house with lots of nice stuff, have a few kids, and go for the gusto of lots of neat gizmos and new experiences to fill the void of the lost dream.”

Kohelet’s diagnosis of the boomer age (“too many dreams, aimless activities and words”) would be no different for the generations following with a whole new list for “authentically self-actualizing” themselves and their potential, and denouncing the evil establishment which perpetrates and perpetuates the current world-crisis of climate change.  His prescription for “getting real” (really just staying real) is ultra-simple and ultra-relevant, then and now and through all the centuries in between: “God takes no pleasure in fools, so discharge your vow!  Better not to make a vow than to make a vow and not to discharge it.  Don’t let your words make you guilty. . . Instead, just fear God!”

Translation: Don’t give your word if you can’t or won’t keep it.  Don’t say things you don’t really mean.  Don’t claim things you can’t sustain.  Better to say nothing at all than to speak what you know you don’t mean or can’t or won’t do and make a fool of yourself, and lose all credibility.  And you are accountable, even if you don’t think you are – to the Creator, who does not suffer fools gladly.  As to being a fool, it starts with denying that there is a Creator in the first place.  For there is no greater folly than denying who and what you really and were made to be.  There is no greater folly than shutting Him/Her out, pretending to be independent of Him/Her and instead inventing a universe without Him/Her to sustain it and bring everything into accountability – especially the beings He/She made to manage its most precious jewel called Planet Earth, Terra, Gaia, Midgard, etc.

What about using money, toys, and cool stuff and experiences to fill the void? 

“The lover of money never has enough money; the lover of luxury never has enough income. . . .  When the quantity of goods increases, so does the number of parasites consuming them; so the only advantage to the owner is that he gets to watch them do it. . . .  Just as he [you, I] came from his [your, my] mother’s womb, so he [you, I] will go back as naked as he [you, I] came. . . tak[ing] nothing.” (5: 9, 10, 14)

And as to all the evil being done by humans to one another, Kohelet does not say that oppression, violation of rights, and perverted justice are OK.  He simply says to expect it, while suggesting that its only (partial) antidote (perhaps short of God ruling directly) is “when the king makes himself a servant of the land”.

But “Aye, there’s the rub,” as Shakespeare put it – the king (President, Prime Minister, Governor, Boss, etc.) making him-/herself “servant of the land” (the Pope uses the title “Servant of the servants of God”). . .  In another place, Solomon (Kohelet) is said to have written “Many proclaim their loyalty, but who can find a faithful person/a person of real integrity?”  Once more we find the same issues at play – treachery, roguery, rascality – interfering and edging out the good intentions.  The lure of the temptation of power is great, and few successfully resist it for long.

The Third Way, 40: Kohelet, 4 – Riches, Power, and Injustice

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“Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.  Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”  Henry David Thoreau, On Walden Pond.

“Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton

“At no point does the [Biblical] picture collapse into the simplistic one which so many skeptics assume must be what religious people believe, in which God is the omnicompetent managing director of a very large machine and ought to be able to keep it in proper working order.  What we are offered instead is stranger and more mysterious: a narrative of God’s project of justice within a world of injustice.”

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God.  (IVP Books, 2006), p. 71.

Twenty-first Century humanity is obsessed with the inequities and injustices, real and imagined, of its own society.  Outrage is the tone of the age.  When it comes to considering the claims of a Creator, or the mere existence of a Creator, the principal objection is the existence of evil in the universe.  After all, don’t all the believers in and defenders of a Creator present this Being as infinitely good and loving, or at least benevolently neutral? 

Even pantheists and panentheists come in for scorn and mockery as they try to explain their concept of divinity being inextricably entwined in the very fabric of the Cosmos, indeed as the very fabric itself.  To achieve this, the Cosmos must be in proves of becoming a sort of living thing moving itself towards a sublime summation of all that is in a sort of infinite, amorphous, quasi-conscious bliss of ecstatic communion.  It is amazing to watch how even the great icons of Cosmic science (e.g. Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking) seem to edge ever closer to this sort of “numinous universe “à la Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man)”.  (Once more we run up against the restless human heart with its God-shaped vacuum at its center, as per Augustine and Pascal. . .)

According to the prevailing meta-story of our current culture, if we opt for a personal Creator, we are simpletons and moronic dupes relying on a phantasm because of our moral and intellectual weakness.  Or, if we opt for an impersonal sort of idolization of the Cosmos moving itself towards numinescence and awakening, we are still fools because we can’t bear the weight of being mere burps of an amoral, meaningless, completely random explosion.  In that case, isn’t “evil” really a meaningless concept?  Things just are what they are—no morality involved.  The “laws” of physics and evolution apply at all times and in all places—survival of the fittest, strongest, most adaptable, luckiest, etc., gyrating in the great quantum.  How can the quantum mass of particles and energy have a moral outcome? 

Nonetheless, in our more thoughtful moments when we can absent ourselves from surfing and tweeting, most of us still can’t avoid or evade a nagging sense of something being dreadfully amiss, out of order, off-center, wrong!  There just shouldn’t be this (or any) degree of suffering and pain involved, especially inflicted on the innocent and defenceless—at least among ourselves and, by extension, other living, sentient beings.  Pain as a survival mechanism, perhaps, but as a moral agent. . .?  And, as our hearts and souls tell us as we lie abed a-night alone with our fragility and vulnerability, the greatest wrong, which we see when we watch those we love go through the hardness of life and unprovoked and unmerited strife, pain, and affliction, is death!

But we repress this horror.  We scientifically rationalize: death is part of the natural order; it is the evolutionary order and rule.  It is the agent for elimination of the weak and of renewal and change to make way for the stronger, faster, better which is ever-emerging.  Life needs death – otherwise the planet could never support life if nothing ever died!

But we are still left with an insoluble paradox: why do we, the pinnacle of evolutionary consciousness and incarnation of cosmic self-awareness, have this agonizing, unshakeable sense of unfairness, inequity, injustice?  And death is the “unkindest cut of all”!  How is this innate capacity to conceive ineffable ideas like justice, good, and beauty, and their opposites, of any evolutionary benefit?  How did we ever evolve such conceptions? 

Perhaps they are a means to preserve our species by restraining us from indiscriminatingly slaughtering one another and other species.  They subdue our innate aggressive and competitive instincts; they control our intellect’s capacity to create destructive instruments. 

Until recently, these “controlling mechanisms in the human psyche” were almost universally accepted as instilled by humanity’s Creator (or creators in polytheistic societies).  Remove the sanction of the Creator watching and reserving judgment and, it seems, the only sanction and restraint left is Mutual Assured Destruction (the 1970s MAD principle during the Cold War) which will result from excessive anti-social behaviour.  As the question has been framed, “(How) Can we be good without God?”  Nietzsche proposed that, honestly, we can’t because there is no motivation to be “moral and good” without a Judge waiting to pass sentence.  It all boils down to social convention, not conscience.

Can we be good without God?  Aristotle (see his masterpiece The Nichomachean Ethics)and modern secular philosophers answer “Yes!”  But it still begs the anterior question: “How do we even have a concept of good to begin with?”  And within that, “How do we have a global, almost universal understanding, across all cultures and times, of many elements of what ‘good’ means?”

Fundamentally, there are only two, diametrically opposite, answers: (1) evolution made it happen for reasons we can only dimly speculate about, or, (2) the universe’s Creator made us that way for His/Her own reasons.  And the main argument against the second choice is that evil and wrong and pain and suffering exist.  Surely an infinitely wise and good Creator would not make such a flawed Cosmos, one in which cruelty, deliberate evil, the infliction of pain and suffering abound.  If the Cosmos is a reflection of the Creator’s nature, the Creator Him-/Herself must therefore be a cruel, unworthy being.  And who would want to serve such a God?

Which brings us back to Kohelet, our ancient sage, once more.  Solomon-Kohelet does not defend the Creator, even though he continually acknowledges Him/Her.  Instead, he observes (very dispassionately, like a modern social scientist) the world as it is with all its apparently random outcomes.  The “good and just” sometimes suffer evil and calamity in the same way as fools and criminals; the unjust and wicked too often seem to live easy, fat, comfortable lives while the innocent, the good, and the just suffer.  He never facilely resorts to blaming God for this state of affairs, nor does he ever mention a ‘devil’, a demon, or any other supernatural entity as an instigator; such things just are.  But he still has something to say as to why they are as they are, and his insights are right on target to this day.

In short, the perpetrators of most of the afflictions and injustice humans fall prey to are other humans.  He does not deal with what we call “acts of God”.  His concern is what he observes about the treatment of our fellow humans, one to another, one upon another.  “I realized that all effort and achievement stem from one person’s envy of another. . . . something else under the sun that is pointless: the situation in which a solitary individual without a companion, with neither child nor brother, keeps on working endlessly but never has enough wealth. . . .”  And, as to the zealous young person determined to prove him-/herself greater than any predecessors, attaining acclaim and power (royalty in his language) and all that: “Nevertheless, those who come afterwards will not regard him highly.  This too is certainly pointless and feeding on wind.”  (See Chapter 4 of the Biblical book Kohelet.)

Not doing life alone is always better: “Two are better than one, in that their cooperative efforts yield this advantage: if one of them falls, the other will help his partner up.”  A wise, poor youth is better than an old, arrogant king who no longer listens to anyone’s advice—the corruption of power theme again, which he knew well firsthand.

Having observed these things, he puts them in perspective.

“Watch your step when you go to the house of God.  Offering to listen is better than fools offering sacrifices, because they don’t discern whether they are doing evil.  Don’t be impulsive, don’t be in a hurry to give voice to your words before God.  For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; so let your words be few.  For nightmares come from worrying too much; and a fool, when he speaks, chatters too much.” (4:17-5:2)

Thus, the Creator is not intervening to stop people from acting like fools and doing wrong to one another, but He/She is quite aware of it.  We sail along in our ambitions, self-centered goals to “get to the top”, prove others wrong, accumulate what we covet and make our mark with little or no thought of what we’re doing and, more particularly, how we’re doing it.  Perhaps there is some token gesture towards the Maker here and there—“fools offering sacrifices”.  They are fools because there is no desire or attempt to “discern whether or not they are doing evil.”

Kohelet is not here discussing the “great evils”—natural disasters, plagues, famines, wars and slaughters—which everyone can see and abhor while condemning the human perpetrators when appropriate.  That is another discussion.  At this point he is concerned with the petty evils of everyday life, our habitual mindsets, attitudes, and self-centered behaviours that inevitably injure those around us.  The “fool” is the one rushing and toiling along thoughtlessly, heedlessly as if there is no responsibility, no accountability, and no consequences.

If we live like this, we will spend our lives “chasing after wind” and never seeing it because we have never bothered to “go to the house of God”—turn towards the Creator.  Some of us still pay lip-service in that direction in order to appease our consciences (or please someone else, or create a good impression as part of our public persona), but this is “fools offering sacrifices”.

The only way to escape this trap, this treadmill of “feeding the wind”, is to mindfully, deliberately, and humbly turn to the Creator and begin to listen, even more than you speak, “For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; so let your words be few.”

There is much more insight Kohelet offers.  We will pick it up in the next session.

The Third Way, 39: Kohelet, 3

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“As modern beings, the theological explanation of “facts” cannot be true for us.  No events or persons can be special, as conduits to a different dimension of reality. . . .  Yet nearly everything else in Christianity – and the most cherished ideals of the secularized worldviews which were derived from it, and which still largely inform our present lives – follows from the truth of these facts: theologically, the covenant of God with man, the reality of human sin, the promise of deliverance and salvation; politically and morally, the unconditional goodness of simple existence, the dignity of the person, the equality of all human beings.  Disbelief must, of necessity, dislodge belief.  But. . . .”

Peter C. Emberley.  Divine Hunger: Canadians on Spiritual Walkabout.  (HarperCollins PublishersLtd., 2002), p. 7.

Our 21st Century Western spiritual, emotional, and psychological schizophrenia is described here by Emberley.  In his prelude to the above statement, Emberley lays out the whole psyche of our age, having adopted the scientific, reason-alone approach to understanding existence and any purpose for it.  As he explains  “. . . it has brought us to the recognition that the sacred is no longer a dimension of our consciousness, but an abandoned stage in the history of human consciousness.  Recognition of the innate goodness of individuals, and the potential for limitless perfectibility, renders ideas of human sin and evil, or the need for divine consolation and intervention, unnecessary.” (p.6)  Accordingly, we 21st Century wise-ones hold that, if we can analyze them, we can also figure out how to fix the problems of life and society without appealing to any supernatural agent for assistance, wisdom, or comfort.

And that, of course, is the whole case for ditching any supernatural or mystical element in diagnosing any claim to have witnessed or experienced such things.  Such “events” must be aberrations and delusions which may amount to a form of mental illness (as they were often treated in the Soviet Union and still are in pseudo-Communist, neo-Fascist China).

Even so, insisting and declaiming and psychologising about people’s mistaken hope in spirituality doesn’t seem to convince billions of people today, or explain why the great mass of humans over thousands of years disagreed that that other “dimension of our consciousness” is not really there at all and never was.  We simply can’t be convinced that all mystical sense and experience was/is nothing but a superstitious hope that some imaginary super being will vouchsafe to intervene and save us from ourselves or the natural forces we cannot control.

As a Professor at Canada’s Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Emberly is certainly one of those enlightened, reasonable, rational modern people who knows better.  Yet he cannot help being fascinated as he observes people on pilgrimage in India, or Arabia, or Rome.  Hosts of extremely well-educated and sophisticated, progressive people (who should know better?), “quite suddenly are on spiritual walkabout.  Whether they seek consolation, spiritual ecstasy, an exit strategy from everyday busyness, or hope. . .” (p.7)

Maybe they just irrationally “got religion!” (and will eventually get over it) and we can just move on shaking our heads in amusement at their baffling resort to discredited superstitions.  After all, religion was once all very well in its proper place, like a birth ceremony such as baptism or circumcision, a wedding, or a funeral, but smart people gave it little thought otherwise.  But even though we no longer have much regard for formal, institutional, traditional religion, a large majority of heart-hungry humanity still thirsts for ‘authentic spirituality’.  It seems that many really smart people also feel the pull of the “God-shaped vacuum”, as Pascal called it in his Pensées.

Which brings us back to Kohelet, our ancient guide who is so in tune with our modern malaise. That is why, from even his blasé, jaded perspective, there is no point in engaging in an endless, fruitless, frustrating debate about the existence of a Creator.  Contrary to our dominant, cutting edge view held and propagated by the who’s who of current scientific understanding, we in fact still do “have need of that hypothesis.”  The heart and soul starve without nourishment, and the dry C-rations of evolutionary astro-physics and macro-biology leave these sensitive parts of the human entity starving and withering away. 

Thus, as Kohelet moves forward in his roller-coaster tour of the state of the human heart and soul, he recognizes the paradox and dilemma of what we experience and what our innermost being tells us even in the face of what too often appears as “chasing after the wind.” 

“I have seen the burden God has laid on humanity.  He has made everything beautiful in its time.  He has also set eternity in their hearts; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from the beginning to the end.  I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.  That everyone may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.  I know that everything God does will last forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it.  God does it so people will revere him.” (3:10-14)

Here is the paradox: this creation, this Earth, so cosmically improbable and tiny with its teeming life, is incredibly beautiful.  We awake and awestruck humans perceive it, but in our struggle to survive, thrive, and understand we are burdened beyond bearing.  Our burden is not merely like that which other creatures know—to find sustenance and reproduce.  It is much greater, the burden of yearning for much greater things—“eternity in our hearts”.  All around us we see the manifestation of this eternity—the infinity of the universe and the sense of complete wonder of it all, from the tiny to the immense, and an innate awe of its Creator, a being we intuitively know had to have made all this.  There is an order of things and being that is vastly greater than this mundane scrabbling and quarreling about “I, me, me, mine,” as the Beatles put it fifty years ago.  My stuff, my rights, my anger at the wrongs you’ve done to me (but not the ones I’ve done to you), my right to be outraged, to have recompense, to get back, to have my turn on top. . . .

What Kohelet is saying is that none of that will bring you the peace you crave and or wholeness your heart and soul hunger for underneath all the competing, consuming, and condemning.  Truly, we “cannot fathom what God has done [and is still doing] from the beginning to the end.”  Contentment and “happiness”, one of those “inalienable rights” the Creator has endowed us with according to the American Fathers and the Enlightenment “lights”, is an inner state found at least in part by “doing good” to others, not in endlessly chasing stuff and fame and fortune and renown and prestige and pleasure and vengeance, which are counterfeits that Solomon calls, from his own super-sated experience, “chasing after the wind”.  Finding satisfaction in simple toil, in work, in doing things well according to what you’ve been given (or decide) to do, that is a key.  But to get there, it has to be seen for what it really is—not a burden but “the gift of God”.

It is no good for us to endlessly “kick against the goads” as Jesus once told Saul of Tarsus he had been doing.  Saul had inflicted great pain and suffering on many others in his own battle to somehow win God’s favour through his zeal.  So too with so many of us—if only we could get them to see things “the right way”, to act “the right way” (and the right way is, of course, my way).  When we remove the Creator as the source of all good things, which means all of creation which He/She made “very good” from the very beginning, the only lens we have to determine the “right” way from the “wrong” way is how I/we have analyzed things should go, how we feel about things, especially when it comes to how the rest of humanity does goes about life.

So the fundamental missing link in any hope for our quest is to find, to go back to, the only worthy and reliable starting point—the Creator and the nature of what He/She has made.  And, from there, to confess, to agree, that what He/She has done, which reflects His/Her inevitable nature, is “unfathomable from beginning to end”.  This puts us in our proper place—humble, without arrogant hubris, and in need of facing this great, unfathomable Being with reverence, with respect, with a sense of awe—just as we look into the heavens which He/She “spoke” into being and stand in awe, or as we look deep into the micro-universe and behold in awe.

If we can get this proper beginning perspective and still our hearts and minds and souls to receive this roaring-loud, super-Technicolor truth which dazzles our eyes and overwhelms our ears when we unblock them, we will find the first place of rest and begin to be able “enjoy our work because that is our lot.  For who can bring him/her [us] to see what will happen after him/her/us?”  (3:22)

It is a matter of doing our best to honour the Creator and the creation with what we know and have, in order to “do good”—leave something good to those coming after us.  Nevertheless, we can’t control them or keep them from being fools.  They too have to face the Creator and be accountable.  They too must find their way to the first level of rest, the first repose in understanding and accepting who and what they really are and were made to be.

Peace and harmony can never truly begin to take root until we turn around and face the Maker.  That is Kohelet’s first lesson.  It is as true now as it was three thousand years ago.

The Third Way, 38: Kohelet, 2

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“When the mind is thinking, it is simply talking to itself, asking questions and answering them, and saying yes or no.”  

Socrates

“Humanity has to travel a hard road to wisdom, and it has to travel it with bleeding feet.” 

Nellie McClung

As Qohelet begins his inquiry into futility, he follows the path of both Socrates and Nellie McClung (or rather, he blazed the trails they trod after him).  We are very fortunate that the rabbis later wisely incorporated his musings into that ancient mini-library we now call The Bible.  We now get to read this great sage’s reflective journal, full of the questions he asked himself and the lessons he gleaned as he nears the end of his life-journey with much scarred feet.  If we come with open minds, we can easily recognize ourselves, or at least our times, in his journey.

But just how scarred can his feet be when he lived a life of great privilege and unfettered ‘self-actualization’, as we would now progressively call it?  He had it all, starting with royal blood and great wealth from birth, which only increased over his lifetime.  Add to that almost unlimited power, lakes of fine wine, a huge harem of the most voluptuous women, and the best live music every day—as much as and more than his appetites could ever crave of all these things.  He had fame, renown, and prestige, and was feared by all his rivals.  He could indulge his slightest whim and explore any question he pleased, ordering slaves and servants and ministers to fetch and remove, build and destroy.  Tribute flowed into his coffers from as far as Mesopotamia, southern Arabia, and East Africa, and his traders and merchants moved far and wide to satisfy his curiosity and bring him things he had never seen or perhaps even heard of.

Yet when he had enjoyed all this to the max, his heart was empty, untouched.  Like all great tycoons, he discovered that once you have it all, what’s left?  He discovered that he had been trying to fill a vacuum that no amount of ‘stuff’, admiration, adulation or sycophancy could fill.  No amount of cheap sex could bring the peace and harmony of spirit that one real loving relationship could bring.  No amount of wine or other intoxicants, fine food, beautiful clothing, posh dwellings, brilliant live entertainment, or partying could do more than give a temporary reprieve, be more than a ‘fix’ to relieve the inner hunger and briefly salve the soul-wounds perturbing his conscience.  He read many treatises and listened to many readings; he collected advisors and composed his own proverbs, but his heart and soul remained incomplete.  He tried religion, lavishing immense treasure on it, hoping its ceremonies and rituals would bring favour and comfort, but they did not do that or give peace. 

When it was all said, done, and explored, he still sighed that, “It is all futile and chasing after the wind.”  He realized that when he died, all that he had accumulated would just be passed to a successor who would probably behave like a fool and retain none of his hard-earned wisdom.  No amount of trying to educate a son-successor could prepare him or prevent his becoming a fool if that son’s heart was unreceptive and he chose to behave like a typical young idiot who thinks they already know more than their parents.

As a good Israelite king Solomon knew how to rule according to God’s idea of good government.  He wasn’t supposed to use his position and power to accumulate stuff and lord it over the people like a tyrant, as the kings of the other nations did.  But bit by bit he had contravened virtually everything he knew not to do:  gathering an enormous harem to show off his power and indulge every sexual fantasy; imposing heavy taxation to pay for all his great projects; levying heavy tribute on the conquered provinces, guaranteeing that they would become rebellious in the future; building lavish personal dwellings even more ornate than the much-gilded Temple; erecting powerful fortresses and garrison towns to display his military might and cow any opposition; amassing state of the art chariot forces on top of all that.  “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired …. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done, and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind …” (2:10-11)

Having acquired everything wealth, power, and ambition could give him, he finds it empty.  Yet, as he predicted, three thousand years later we still find these pursuits to be the main goal of life for masses of folk all over the world. Granted, most people do not usually chase these goals on the same scale as Solomon (although the several hundred wealthiest people on Planet Earth today could probably directly relate to a great deal of what he said), but from the USA to China, India, and Kenya, people are still seeking “more and better” of whatever peculiar portion of Solomon’s universal lust for ever more has “turned their crank”. All modern economic theory is built on this covetousness.

Empty-hearted and soul-starved Solomon then reverts to something from his youth. He had once told God something was worth more than any of that other stuff. God had told him he would grant his wish, plus give him all the other stuff he hadn’t asked for. His wish had been for wisdom to rule well and be a godly king.  Now, several decades later he says, “Then I turned my thoughts [hello, Socrates] to (re)consider wisdom, and also madness and folly.  What more can the king’s successor do than what has already been done?”  His conclusion?  “Wisdom is better than folly … but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both [the sage and the fool].”  So, “What do I gain by being wise …. This too is meaningless.”  Whether sage or fool “in days to come both will be forgotten.”  Both must die and disappear from memory.  He confesses to then being very low. “So I hated life … all of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (2:17)  Existential despair anyone?

Much like Solomon, most of us in the West speed along from one thing to the next hoping to “get ahead” and find the sweet spot when all the material concerns seem to look after themselves.  Occasionally we find ourselves with a little too much time, and a few deep questions rear their heads. So to escape them we turn to distractions and amusements, hoping they will go away and leave us alone.  But eventually reality crashes in on us, “For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it …. All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.  [Retirement shock, anyone?] This too is meaningless.”

He is brought up short, standing on the precipice of despair about it all, like what French signature existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called la Nausée.  For most people in the rudderless West today, where is there to turn at such pregnant life moments?  They have no resources within themselves capable of landing anywhere, and the current dominant meta-story underlying our culture and society says there is really only random evolution in back of it—a process so huge, even if true, that it can give no comfort at all at a personal level.  The old myths about a Creator reaching out to the beings He/She created in His/Her own image have been shown to be empty, haven’t they? 

Perhaps meditation and mindfulness can help.  But, as healthful and beneficial as these practices can be in bringing personal rest and internal calm and self-acceptance, what are we reaching for through them?  Typically, we say we seek connection with something greater than superficial self, once we move beyond the physical preliminaries.  They may become another quest to find “the true self” or even the “Greater Self”, or the “Non-Self”.  We will leave a discussion of this quest aside for the moment.

Having meditated long on these perplexing issues and examined his own mind, having dialogued with himself and read his own wayward heart after all his striving, here is where Solomon lands.  “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.  This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?  To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner [not a popular word any more, but one that begs for explanation beyond the usual knee-jerk reaction of outright rejection within our culture] he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over …” (2:24-6)

We are left with many questions to explore from Chapter 2, and as this episode of “The Third Way” ends.

The Third Way, 37: Kohelet, 1

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“Meaningless!  Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!”

Book of Ecclesiastes 1:1-2

The Book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet in Hebrew) in the Jewish Bible (the “Old Testament” to most Christians) addresses almost every existential issue we moderns and postmoderns contend with.  The title roughly translates in English as “the Teacher” or “the Preacher”.  The long-held traditional view is that the author was King Solomon, modestly described in the Bible as “the wisest man who ever lived”.  Modern Biblical critics heartily dispute his authorship, citing the practice of ancient Jewish writers to attribute the name of a well-known, respected and venerated historical figure to their work to give it authority. 

The book is remarkable regardless of its authorship.  Its tone and content seem to have little in common with anything else in the Bible.  Its closest kin is The Book of Proverbs, also attributed by the ancients to Solomon, as was another anomaly, The Song of Songs.  The subject matter of these three treatises is neither historical nor prophetic, unlike most of the rest of the Jewish Bible, at least marginally.  They are grouped in a sort of ‘miscellaneous’ category, “The Writings”, along with Psalms, Job, Daniel, Lamentations, the two books of Chronicles (heavily historical, but with a strongly theological bent), Ruth, and Esther.  Some of these, like Lamentations, Ruth, and Esther, clearly relate to a specific historical episode.  ‘Solomon’s’ writings are stand-alone, although their style and content very much reflect the culture in which they were penned.  For purposes of simplicity in this discussion, we will call the author Solomon.

So what is it that makes Ecclesiastes particularly relevant for our time?  The author has a very postmodern perspective in his approach to finding meaning.  He summarizes and reflects upon his own life-journey, or at least the kind of journey a person such as Solomon might well have traveled in his quest to find meaning and purpose in a world which appears to encompass no inherent meaning at all.  His musings sound an awful lot like the choices people make today to fill in their emptiness as they seek to escape futility and despair.  (The Hebrew words translated as ‘meaningless / meaninglessness’ could be just as readily rendered ‘futile / futility’.  The old English rendering was ‘vanity’.)

The one (very important) difference with the typical post-modern seeker is that the ‘Teacher’ simply declares that there is a Creator.  Yet even assuming that there is a God, the whole business of existence still seems meaningless when we get down to the nitty-gritty of what life is like for most of us.  As we have seen repeatedly in this blog, multitudes today reject a Creator as a starting point, thus making their quest for meaning that much harder, perhaps even truly and finally “meaningless” and “futile” in the spirit of Solomon’s opening thrust.

Over the centuries many pious souls have questioned why this book, with its cynicism and incipient hopelessness, is even in the Bible.  Personally, I am very glad it is.  It brings a strange sort of comfort, a gut-level “reality check” to the tendency to turn the Bible into a super-spiritual, other-worldly story-book easily dismissed as having little to do with real life.  It does not offer easy answers, but instead some common-sense, practical life-advice, reminding us that the Creator, with His/Her baffling ways, is going to remain a mystery, and that I am not God, despite how much I might like or pretend to be.  It tells us that He/She does not owe us explanations, although He/She may occasionally condescend to provide one, even if only dimly and partially.  The other very significant insight it offers about the Creator is that He/She must not be confused or confounded with the creation or any creature, however wonderful or great.

Solomon first observes that, to all appearance, life flows along in an ever-repeating cycle.  Round and round everything goes: “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.”(1:4)  Human life follows the natural pattern; the sun rises and sets endlessly; the wind goes round and round; water flows endlessly into the sea but never fills it.  (There are remarkable hints of some understanding of the patterns of air currents and the hydrologic cycle, and no hint of superstitiously attributing such affairs to the caprices of some supernatural force.)  “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  The language is often beautifully metaphorical and the composition in the original is quite poetic, but the tone could not be bested by the strongest 20th C existentialist or 21st C postmodern cynic.  “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.”(1:11)  Historically, Solomon himself is a good example of this sage reminder of our illusion of personal importance: other than he, whom else do we remotely remember from the 10th C BCE?

What evidence does Solomon offer that there is a Creator to give even a shred of meaning to this seemingly age-old, endless merry-go-round?  He does not offer any within the Book; he simply declares that there is One.  Is he just making a typical, weak-kneed leap of blind-faith?  Is he just caving in to the ancient cultural milieu to unquestioningly accept gods and goddesses everywhere?  There is no hint of polytheism or reference to demons or other entities haunting humanity’s daily existence. He has at least advanced to holding to only one God rather than many.  But how can anyone as wise and intelligent and observant and perceptive as he seems to have been take such a superstitious fundamental position, not even deigning to argue it for future generations to consider?  Perhaps in his wisdom he had resolved that you simply cannot argue anyone into believing in God.  If people cannot (or willfully refuse to) see the Creator in the creation and in the amazing things that are done every day ‘under the sun’, how can the most strenuous argumentation show them?  We of the West have conclusively demonstrated this over at least the last 500 years.

In 1806, the French Enlightenment scientist Lamarck told Napoleon, who had an insatiable desire to know what to believe about ultimate things, that the “God-hypothesis” was no longer required by science to explain the universe because some day Reason and the Scientific Method would explain everything, including how things began.  As a man who believed that God/Providence had chosen him for great things, Napoleon was not convinced.  In the 1980s and ‘90s, in his teaching Stephen Hawking echoed Lamarck.  He put it in print for posterity in his conclusion to A Brief History of Time.  He declared this dogmatically, despite admitting that a Creator was the most efficient and satisfying answer to the most basic ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions.  It is fascinating to observe that the basic argument has not changed in 3000 years, despite all the new knowledge and sophistication in methods of inquiry. 

Napoleon’s answer to Lamarck echoed Solomon, believing that God was still real and had chosen him specifically for great things.  Solomon simply accepts that no other conclusion than that there is a Creator is plausible, despite the apparent everyday banality of everything.  If Solomon had pursued this issue, he could and (I think) would make his case from historical and personal experience more than any appeal to logic and observation of the natural order, as eloquent as that is for “those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.”  After all, Israel’s whole history was a demonstration of it.  His own father, King David, was a direct witness of it, if the stories were to be believed.  He, Solomon himself, had encountered this Being of beings when he had built and dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem.

The argument from personal and historical experience is considered among the weakest by logicians and empirical scientists.  It is an ancient debate, but still a decisive one for many.  But in courts of law personal, eyewitness testimony outweighs almost everything else, although photographic, audio, genetic, and forensic science can now often provide powerful corroboration (or refutation) of personal testimony.  It is interesting to note that when we discuss questions of a spiritual nature, we somehow find personal testimony and experience inadmissible, or perhaps evidence for some sort of psychological derangement of those adhering to it.  We are quite as selective in our dogma of a mechanistic, purely materialist model of the universe as any medieval or ancient authority was in the dogma of God’s existence and the supernatural nature of reality.  We are quite as capable as these died-in-the-wool ‘agents of superstition’ of eliminating and ignoring masses of data which run contrary to our accepted models and paradigms. 

As Solomon said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  The model of reality we must seek, the way ahead in our time of so much spiritual turmoil, must be one which gives us the best match with what we observe in the outer Cosmos as we learn about it and meshes with what we know and experience in the spirit and in the history of humanity.  And this tells us that we are not mere accidental ciphers emerging from chaos with delusions of grandeur. 

Perhaps this was the basic reason Solomon shrugs off the cynical perspective on the most basic of all issues, that of ultimate origins, even as he seems to adopt it with respect to how we experience life.

We will see more of what he has to say next time.

The Third Way, 36: “The Cloud of Unknowing”

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“He [the Creator] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11.

“It was not man who implanted in himself the taste for the infinite and love of what is immortal.  These sublime instincts are not the offspring of some caprice of the will; their foundations are imbedded in nature; they exist despite a man’s efforts.  Man may hinder and distort them, but he cannot destroy them.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1836.

“By making “God” a purely notional truth attainable by the rational and scientific intellect, without ritual, prayer, or ethical commitment, men and women had killed it for themselves. . . . For Marx the death of God had been a project—something to be achieved in the future; for Nietzsche it had already occurred: it was only a matter of time before “God” would cease to be a presence in the scientific civilization of the West.  Unless a new absolute could be found to take its place, everything would become unhinged and relative. . . . The [19th] century that had begun with a conviction of boundless possibility was giving way to a nameless dread.  But, Nietzsche believed, human beings could counter the danger of nihilism by making themselves divine.  They must become the new absolute and take the place of God.  The God they projected outside themselves could be born within the human spirit as the Übermensch (“Superman”) who would provide the universe with ultimate meaning.  To achieve this we had to rebel against the Christian God. . . . As an incarnation of its will to power, the Übermensch would push evolution of the species to a new phase so that humanity would finally become supreme.”

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God. (Vintage Canada, 2009), pp. 256-7.

“Nameless dread.”   That is how Karen Armstrong aptly describes the spirit which descended on the West’s intellectual and spiritual “überclass” as the 19th C ended and the 20th dawned.  The Law of Karma certainly seems to apply.  In Biblical terms, when we “sow the wind, we reap the whirlwind.”  Truly, “You reap what you sow.” 

The dominant view in the West’s intelligentsia had (and remains) determined to divest itself of all the vestiges and encumbrances of prescientific “superstition.”  But, despite all their most strenuous and constant efforts, then and now, they have not been able to remove “eternity” from their (or most of humanity’s) hearts.  De Tocqueville, a brilliant French sociologist, political scientist, and student of human nature who was so fascinated by the great American experiment in representative democracy as it evolved in the early 19th Century that he spent two years in America to observe it, was speaking of the peculiar role of religion in the new, rapidly growing nation when he wrote the quote above.  Seldom has anyone been so prescient about a nation’s fundamental character and the tensions it would have to resolve in order to survive and flourish in the future.  And seldom has any writer so pointedly and precisely described the truth about the essentially spiritual nature of the human soul.

In the 21st C we find ourselves in a “Cloud of Unknowing”, as the Medieval mystics called it.  The essence of reality escapes us despite all our scientific sophistication.  The more we discover about how the natural universe seems to work, the more we discover about how incomprehensible, how fundamentally inexplicable it all is.  We simply drive the ultimate questions back one more step every time we think we have discovered an elusive primal pre-particle or some echo or trace of the moment of ‘creation’ — the Big Bang, if you prefer — (without God, of course, thank you!).  Creation ex nihilo, spontaneous and without any apparent reason or cause, without any point of origin or ultimate purpose or design.  Somehow, it just appears, and in the same instant explodes, like an abracadabra moment.  Supposedly, this is not sorcery or superstition or even “faith-based” assertion.  We are told over and over again that it is indubitable scientific ‘fact’.

But the hunger for eternity remains in the heart, and even the most determined rationalist still sees what is in awe and stupefied wonder.  Having entered the “Cloud of Unknowing” we now see that, with no other point of common reference, it can only begin with the self, the consciousness each individual has of itself residing in and being part of something much greater.  So where to start? 

Enter mysticism, yoga, mindfulness meditation, or whatever label and technique of probing beyond the mere scientifically observable phenomena (which are awesome enough in themselves but stand outside us). We now face a smorgasbord of choices which, we are told over and over, all lead to the same ultimate destination.  You amy choose one and adhere to it almost exclusively or mix and match from the buffet. Only begin from “emptiness”, where the mind loses its attachments and distractions, the multitude of encumbering sensations that block the ability to penetrate beyond self, beyond the boundaries of a body and this physical realm that holds our true being captive to time and space.  Becoming “awake and aware” of being alone, “just being”, that is the place of meeting, the place of becoming one with the oneness of all things, of knowing, if only for a moment, how I too am one with the One.  No longer just this isolated sliver of awareness adrift on a cosmic ocean searching for its true place of rest, but One with the One-in-all.

This is Hinduism’s highest goal, what they call Brahman.  Buddhism names it ‘extinction’.  For both, abiding in the restful bliss of this state is nirvana.  It is the end of karma and all strife, and obviates any need to return to this illusory realm, maya, to continue the fruitless cycle of birth and rebirth.  The most direct route to enter this state is raja yoga — rigorously practiced, guided meditation, as led by a master, a guru. For Western dabblers and samplers, enter gently via some introductory classes, then grow/go deeper.

But is the human mind really capable of such stillness, such “extinction”?  Are humans really “made” to lose their individual awareness and be ultimately absorbed into anonymity and a sort of “pure being” without awareness?  Or is this too an illusion?  Is the Cosmos mere “maya”, a sort of karmic maelstrom-agglomeration of eons of outcomes based on all choices since the One exploded and countless errant entities went astray from the One? Or is extinction and Brahman another kind of maya?

The human predicament of the 21st Century is that we answer both “Yes!” and “No” to these ultimate questions at the same time.  On the one hand, the materialist West with its scientific and technological prowess tells us that this Time-Space continuum, however multi-dimensioned it may be in theory, is all there is.  It had a beginning and it will have an end.  Who we are in it are a sort of freakish accident that has gained self-awareness, against all probability.  We have seen how demoralized and rudderless we have become traveling this road.  In contrast to our schizophrenia, the greatest of all gurus once said, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’. . . . You cannot serve two masters.”

Our “sublime instincts” demand that there be a meaning beyond simple recognition that we are an accidental blip with no more significance than any other outcome of what we call “evolution”, that our true destiny is to become “extinguished” in the great cosmic “Om”.  If extinction of self is what we are here for, why do we so stubbornly hunger to know and to be known as persons?  The guru emerging from the deep meditative state remains a self with awareness.

Why do we have such an ineluctable drive and ability to study the wonder of what exists to the very limits of the Cosmos, to learn, to fashion it in new ways, to admire it and stand in awe of it?  Finally, why do we insist on attributing meaning to it if, ultimately, there is no final purpose, or only a purpose which, as individuals, can satisfy nothing of our natural sublime hunger since we will not even be aware when all is resolved in ‘the One’, or when ‘evolution’ reverts to devolution and extinguishes everything once again?

This hunger, this innate predisposition for eternity which lives in the very core of our being, cannot, indeed will not, be denied.  When we deny it, what is becomes horribly ugly.  Once more, de Tocqueville nailed it: “Man [humankind, if you prefer] may hinder and distort them [the sublime instincts], but he cannot destroy them.”

The Third Way, 35: The Allure of Rome, Part 14 – Finale

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“The spiritual state of our time is characterized by curious paradoxes.  On the one hand, modern man is a naive realist—even a dogmatic absolutist—the material, sensual data being to him unquestionable reality.  If he speaks of reality in terms of indisputable certainty, he points to the material world, to the world of space, filled with matter.  But it so happens that modern science has shattered and riddled this compact conception of the world in such a way that modern man, without giving up his naive conception of reality, has at the same time become a sceptic…. Reverence for the quantum is, so to speak, the new version of the golden calf.”

Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilization, 1.  (London: Nisbet and Co., 1947), p. 31.

Brunner’s observation on the spiritual state of the world post WW2 is no less true 72 years after he pronounced it in a lecture in Scotland all those years ago.  Our sceptical, postmodern, progressive intelligentsia insist on the one hand that no such thing as “spirit” exists, or at least plays any role in what we experience.  Yet they appeal to the invisible absolute all the time in the domain of science; the unseen quantum and the unfathomable random govern all while we somehow, in complete contradiction, observe what seems like organized and analysable phenomena on every side.  We have the conceit that only today do we really know anything worth knowing (yet don’t really know what we profess to know)—even as we discount and eliminate whole categories of experience and accumulated wisdom that we cannot fit into these extremely narrow and limited models.  As Brunner puts it, “… the material, sensual data [are] to him unquestionable reality.”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said, “What experience and history teach is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”  (Quoted in Metaphors be with you, an a-to-z dictionary of history’s greatest metaphorical quotations by Dr. Mardy Grothe.  HarperCollins, 2016, p. 191.)  Despite the likelihood that our long history with Rome will not teach us much, if anything, Rome will not go away, either in life or in this blog.  We ignore the weighty heritage we have received from it at our peril—yet ignore it we largely do and probably will continue to do in future.  Similarly, just as Rome will not go away, neither will our heritage from Christianity, as much and as vehemently as so many might like it to. 

The EU’s atrocious and gratuitous revision of the historical record in 2003 (see previous blog) notwithstanding, Europe is saturated with cathedrals, universities, institutions, ideas, ideologies, cultural treasures, memories good and bad, and consequences so deeply and complexly intertwined with its present that all the wishing in the galaxy cannot make it go away.  Europe, the birthplace of the West, is the product of an ancient super-state that lasted over 500 years.  But it is just as much, and perhaps even more, the product of an ancient faith that has infused its spirit and inspired so much of what it stands for that it is culturally and civically suicidal to abandon it.  Nonetheless doing its best to abandon it, the West slides ever deeper into hopeless confusion about what it is and who it is and who we, its sons and daughters, really are in our heart of hearts. 

But there it is: the city of Rome with all its reminders of past glory remains one of the top five tourist destinations in the world.  Europe from the northern reaches of England to the west bank of the Elbe in Germany, from the coast of Portugal to the Bosporus in Turkey, remains filled with Roman ruins and monuments that the curious dabbler and serious student can visit for the rest of their lives and never reach the end.  Much of the Middle East has all kinds of Roman remains as well, but conditions for touristic or scholarly visitation there are less than conducive at this juncture. 

Like the city of Rome, the Roman Catholic Church still stands and is likely to continue to do so, despite its beleaguered reputation and the disdain of multitudes.  It is good that it should, both as a historical institution that encapsulates so much of the West’s heritage and history, and, when it actually succeeds in acting more like what Jesus was aiming at, as a positive social and spiritual voice.  Protestants, Roman Catholicism’s wayward progeny, will also remain around, and they would do well to cast fewer stones at their living progenitor.  “Those who live in glass houses” and all that…

The West emerged from the ancient twin colossi of Imperial Rome and the Imperial Roman Church after a thousand years of struggle and reconfiguration.  That millennium, conventionally called “the Middle Ages”, was an adventure in figuring out what to do with the massive mountain of Roman remains — material, intellectual, spiritual, psychological, sociological, psychic, economic, cultural, etc., etc. — filtered by each of the successor people’s existing and developing characteristics as they emerged from barbarism.  Even conflicted Russia, on the cusp of where Europe meets the Orient, could not escape.  Japan, which decided 150 years ago to create a hybrid of Western and its own indigenous society, did not escape. 

Even China, still officially idolizing the likes of Marx and Mao, has not escaped and cannot escape.  After all, Socialism, Marxism, and Communism are derivatives of a progressive, utopian view of life and history rooted elsewhere, as is Capitalistic social democracy.  That “elsewhere” is a Biblical conception of linear time from Creation to Final Judgment and the coming of the Kingdom of God at the end, when all things will be resolved in love, peace, and justice for all, regardless of any distinction.  (“In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” wrote the Apostle Paul.)  And the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth is the core message of Jesus and Christianity, at least when it is not suffering from amnesia.  That message has, by and large, been disseminated world-wide by the missionaries of the West.  Unfortunately, it was taken abroad much alloyed with other baggage which had wrapped itself around it and so became much confused with it.  This contamination has led to enormous negative side-effects which have greatly obscured the fundamental positive story of who Jesus is and what He did and is still doing.

As unpalatable as it no doubt is to some billions today, the reality of our global human society and current path of social evolution is that most of our major ideas and governing practical paradigms have emerged from the West’s specific ethos rooted in Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman soil.  It may not be politically correct to admit it, and it may be debated and denied among the academic hoi-polloi, but the human ecology and landscape of the 21st century is as it is because Rome and Judeo-Christianity have made it that way.

 That is why Brunner says justly, and as aptly now as when he first said it, that our progressive evolutionary paradigm is actually terribly naive and fundamentally flawed.  It is a dead end as a road of hope.  After all, what is the ultimate purpose?  Death and extinction lie at the end of it—however long from now that may prove to be.  There is nothing else, and all the struggles to make life better, more tolerable, more just, more equitable, are based on an ideology that is rooted in concepts of a perfect society borrowed from a faith that the same people who, nominally and perhaps really, strive for it profess to despise.

When they cannot face this they demonstrate a lack of integrity.  It is they who become guilty of the sin of willful ignorance of which they love to accuse the supposedly blindly naive and superstitious believers in a fundamentally good and beneficent Creator.  They cannot honestly face the reality that without a Creator their quest is only a plea to lessen misery while existence lasts.  There are so many contradictions in this that it would take a great volume to elucidate them all. 

It is a deliberate choice, quite succinctly put thirty years ago by Stephen Hawking, the supreme icon of postmodern Science.  In his conclusion to A Brief History of Time, the great astro-physicist and cosmologist admits that God is the admittedly most straightforward solution to the existence of time, which represents everything that exists.  But he then completely illogically jumps past his own logic, declaring, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis [God].” 

He is really saying that we (the ‘real’ scientific elite), cannot admit that that is the clear and most obvious and practical solution based on the evidence.  Somehow, sometime, based on pure faith in Reason and Science (the modern, postmodern, Enlightenment substitutes for Castor and Pollux, the twin gods of good fortune and hope in ancient Rome), we will find a non-God answer.  Until then we choose not to turn to God, although He/She/It is the elephant occupying almost the whole room we find ourselves in.  That is what Hawking was really saying without saying it.

As we observed in a previous post, the most admired philosopher of modern times among our intelligentsia is Friedrich Nietzsche, who already saw all these contradictions at least a hundred and twenty years ago.  Like Hawking, he deliberately chose to continue to hold on to them.  Eventually he drove himself to suicide because, as he well knew, his own solutions to our meaningless existence (such as a Superman ruling a Super-race which would emerge to lead humankind into the next exalted phase of evolution) were really soulless and empty.  That ideology was later adopted and personally believed as applying to himself and the German people with vicious zeal by a certain Adolf Hitler and his movement.  We all know the results, but we have begun to forget them to the point that we may well set off down the repeat-history road warned of by Schlesinger’s shortened version of Hegel’s observation: “Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.”

Nietzsche’s most famous line is, “God is dead and we have killed Him.”  We live in a culture that thinks that because we declare God, the Creator, dead, that means that, for real, He/She/It is actually dead—never existed in fact.  The old Enlightenment philosophes used to call hard-core religionists “invincibly ignorant” because they seemed immune to all appeals to Reason and Science (the modern “Golden Calf” as Brunner puts it) to make them understand that there is no God and never has been.  No doubt for most of our entrenched postmodern neo-philosophes, people who cling to faith in (to their mind) an invisible, unknowable Creator, of whatever description, still are “invincibly ignorant”.  As we have seen, the shoe fits them as well as and even better than it does those who “cling to faith in a fictitious Deity.”

If turning once more to the Creator is part of our way forward, we must not make the mistake of trying to resurrect past failed approaches to Him/Her.  Yet that may well appear to be the most natural way of going about trying to restore or initiate such a relationship.  Hegel’s and Schlesinger’s warning is just as applicable in this respect.  Christendom (distinct from what Jesus really taught and meant) was not the answer, as we have seen in abundant detail over the course of this blog.  Trying to reinstate some sort of Christian-Secular Hybrid State will never bring the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in Heaven.”  Neither will an outright theocracy à la Islam where a Church-State holds all the power and enforces a slew of rules to compel everyone to behave rightly, justly, etc.  Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Krishna and many other great spiritual leaders emphatically denied the road of political power as a way to bring mass ‘salvation’ to the human race. 

The one major and unfortunate exception to this rule was Muhammad.  If history teaches anything about using the sword and harsh laws to compel and sustain belief, it is that ultimately this path will fail, but not before it inflicts terrible suffering and massive death.  Eventually the failure must and will become blatantly evident.  Then, if the oppressors will not mend their ways, and as Jesus once so cogently put it, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”

What, then, is the ‘Third Way’ which we seek?  We have seen what it is not and cannot be.  What can and should it be, or, more aptly, what could it be like?  That is our quest.

The Third Way, 34: The Allure of Rome, Part 13 – Back to the Future

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                By 1650, it was quite clear that the shattered unity of Christendom was irreparable.  Humpty-Dumpty had fallen and all the Kings’, Emperors’, and Popes’ horses and men could not put him together again.  Surely at this juncture the hankering for Roman-type hegemony would fade into the dim pages of history?  There was now neither an Empire nor a Roman Church to unify the squabbling peoples of the West.

            Besides, a new way forward towards wisdom and understanding, one that was freeing the West from the shackles of religion which had cost millions of lives over more than a century of fraternal war, was awakening hope of a better, saner, and more balanced and rational future.  Everyone needed to break from theological fanaticism and dogmatic condemnation and anathemas.  It was even beginning to be safe to voice such ideas in some places.  The dawning of tolerance and toleration of differences within society was edging over the horizon in a few lands, such as England, the Netherlands, some minor German States (until 1806, Germany was a crazy geo-political jigsaw puzzle of over 300 sovereignties), and Switzerland.  Incidentally, these areas all happened to be Protestant.  If you were a dissenter in a Catholic land, best to keep your head down and your mouth shut, for the Inquisition was lurking and would continue to do so until the revolution in France (1789-99) broke the Church’s secular power once and for all.

This new way was Science, the path of Reason, rational discourse and discovery.[i]  Its early proponents and practitioners had to proceed cautiously, especially if they happened to be Roman Catholic and carried on their research in a Catholic state.  Everyone knows the story of Galileo (although few really know it, but rather a much mutilated version of it).  Incidentally, the real story of the relationship of religion (mainly Christianity) and science is also much mangled and has been caricaturized in stereotypical revisionist textbook accounts more like fable than the historical reality.  (Fake news anyone?)  We cannot really deal with this issue here today, but it would be worth a visit of some length in the future.

            For the increasingly militant proponents of the new knowledge, there were models to admire and emulate and to study ardently in the new curricula being gradually established in the universities.  National Academies were being created to reward research and grant recognition to the best and brightest.  The best-known example of this was England’s Royal Society, whose declared purpose was the promotion of new science, the scientific method, and discovery of all kinds based on rational pursuit of empirical knowledge.  England’s lead was imitated and followed widely and with success in France, the Netherlands, and Prussia, a new, rising power in Germany.

            Aristotle once more came forward, along with a host of other ancient Greek thinkers and philosophers who had dabbled in science (Pythagoras, Hiero, Ptolemy, etc.), and even the Romans, those most practical of ancient people and the master engineers of History.  Cicero, Juvenal, and Lucretius were much admired Roman rationalists.

            What was most admired among these ancient authorities was the ability to think independently, setting aside religious issues and questions.  After all, paganism was so varied that insisting that one set of gods and practices supersedes all others was a completely pointless exercise.  Those eminently sensible Romans simply said, “Believe in whatever gods you choose, or none at all.  Just observe the public ceremonies and acknowledge the ‘divinity’ of the Emperor for appearance’s sake.”

            Thus, we turn once more to the Greeks and Romans, as did many Enlightenment thinkers.  How should we pursue truth?  Well, let’s see how those admirable ancient sages did so.  Let’s discuss their thoughts and proposals.  Let’s study their literary output in depth.  Let’s really understand how language can be used and developed as a tool to express nuance—no better exemplars than Ciceronian Latin and Attic Greek.

            Let us do as Aristotle did, or Euclid, or Pythagoras, or many others, analysing nature and all sorts of subjects with insatiable curiosity and relentless application of observation and classification. 

Another subject needing elucidation in the light of science: what kind of government is most admirable and effective?  Two principal models stood out: Athens and Rome.  By far the most effective in all history was Rome.  But by far the most elegant and admirable in principle was Athens.   Regrettably, tumultuous Athens also proved the fragility (folly?) of democracy, whereas Rome had demonstrated five hundred years of continuity and two hundred years of rock-solid stability and relative tolerance, Christians aside, during the Pax Romana, (27 BCE -180 CE).  This was the doing of a series of “Enlightened Despots” (especially those beginning in 98 CE with Trajan and ending with the death of Marcus Aurelius, the remarkable ‘Philosopher-King’, in 181 CE), so that seemed to be a tenable option.

            Edward Gibbon’s monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a remarkable best-seller by late 18th C standards, was translated into every major European language.  It was the Enlightenment’s paean to the glory of ancient Roma.  It was a manifesto against the debilitating and nefarious effects of Christianity on the greatest civilization of all time (at least as Gibbon portrayed it).  By inference, it was the negative eulogy of a dying faith, at least as the Enlightenment philosophes conceived the upcoming eclipse of Christianity in favour of rational Deism, the updated version of that most venerable ancient philosophy, Stoicism. 

Gibbon’s verdict was that, like moles and termites eating the foundations of a magnificent edifice, Christianity had sapped the Empire’s moral and martial spirit and its general morale, destroyed the central vision and unity of a truly transnational, tolerant state, and betrayed all that was noble in the ancient world.  In its place, it gave Europe a millennium of Dark Ages (rather than Paradise on earth), religious bigotry, and factionalism.  It was time for the West to free itself from these chains of suppression, ignorance, superstition, and fanaticism.

            Other Enlightenment rationalist writers and thinkers (e.g. Diderot, D’Alembert, Voltaire) offered many other commentaries based on similar ideas.  They were great communicators and savvy manipulators of the mass media of the age, particularly print in an age of rapidly increasing literacy.  They invented newspapers and popular magazines, pamphlets and broadsheets, and that massive compendium of new learning, the Encyclopedia.  They founded coffee houses, salons, and new clubs to carry their torch and spread their gospel.  The overall tone of these learned works and places was (often not-so) subtly anti-Church and anti-Christian, although rarely overtly anti-Christ.  Once more, all this is far beyond what we can discuss at length here.

            One general effect was to resurrect the legacy of Rome and its Empire, to brush it off and reburnish it, once more making  its “Golden Age” (minus the infection of Christianity) a symbol and ideal which could be admired and even, perhaps, in the right circumstances, partially restored.[ii]

            Let us therefore see some of what we retain from the Romans in our history, besides a lot of interesting scenarios for nifty books, TV series, and spectacular films (The Robe, Ben-Hur, Gladiator, etc.).  Well, we have Latin, to begin with!  One of the Latin synonyms for ‘Emperor’ is Caesar (simply the retention of Julius Caesar’s name as a title).  The Germans and Austrians adapted it as ‘Kaiser’, while the Russians turned it to ‘Czar/Tsar’.  Via Napoleonic France, most of Europe’s legal codes are based on Rome’s massive law traditions as systematized under Justinian (Emperor of the East, 527-565 CE).  Via the Church, administrative and civil service models were to be found in the later empire’s methods, particularly as developed from the time of Diocletian (Emperor 284-305 CE) to Theodosius I (the Great, 379-395 CE).  For more than a millennium the Roman model of education (Trivium and Quadrivium) formed the pattern of western education right to the university level (once more via the Church).

            Imitation and emulation are the greatest forms of flattery and honour.  For 1500+ years Western governments, governors, and magistrates have continually resorted to the Roman model in practice and symbolism.  National, institutional, heraldic, and educational mottos have rarely used any language but Latin.  After the fall of the West (476 CE), for centuries the successor barbarian kings pretended allegiance to the Emperor in Constantinople in order to legitimize their rule in the eyes of the former Imperial subjects who formed the mass of the conquered population. 

The barbarian kings relied heavily on the resident Roman educated class to carry on a semblance of orderly rule, then on the Roman Catholic clergy.[iii]  They rather crudely tried to emulate Roman military organization, which had so long defeated them.  The Holy Roman Emperors used the eagle as their power symbol.  Remnants of Roman engineering prowess aided in construction and siege warfare.  These antiquities remained subjects of study then as they remain now.

            Imitators and claimants to the title and prestige of “Imperator” (Latin for Emperor) have remained part of European history, culture, and society since Charlemagne earned the title of “Emperor of the West and Holy Roman Emperor” in 800 CE.  Perhaps the most ardent and successful modern admirer and aspirant to this distinction was Napoleon Bonaparte, self-styled “Emperor of the French” (1804-1814, 1815). He deliberately avoided the phrases “Emperor of France” or “Emperor of the West” to show that his rule was based on the will of the people and his own efforts. 

Like Charlemagne, he was invested by the Pope (1804 CE), although he took the crown from the Pope and placed it on his own head.  Napoleon’s imperial legions used eagles as their martial emblems, like the Roman legions.  His Marshals carried batons with eagle-heads as their authority symbols.  Before being Emperor, Napoleon used the titles “Consul, First Consul, Consul for Life.”  Like Constantine, he made a strategic alliance (the 1802 Concordat) with the (Roman) Catholic Church to unify his people and cement his rule.  As mentioned above, his legal code, the “Code Napoléon”, which is still the foundation of French law and that of much of Europe via the expansion of French domination during Napoleon’s meteoric career, was inspired by and modeled on Justinian’s great code.

The United States has its share of Greco-Roman emulation and symbology, from its sloganry to its eagle, and much else.  Tsarist Russia used the two-headed eagle (facing east and west), an adaptation of Byzantium’s (East Rome’s) imperial symbol.  And the Kaiser’s Germany sported an imperial eagle on its very flag, while Nazi Germany stylized this for itself and had it emblazoned on military uniforms and symbols of power all over Europe.

The legend and mystique of Rome is still much with us, both “late and soon”.  As the West sleepwalks its way into abandoning and losing its heritage, the ghosts of the Caesars and the Eagles haunt us still.

Where does all this leave us in our spiritual meandering and searching for some sense of meaning and contact with the true, the just, and the beautiful? Perhaps there is another echo whispering, one of a resurrected Lord meeting Peter on the Via Appia as he headed into a Rome the Apostle had just fled, and Peter asking, “Quo vadis, Domine?”

Of that, more next time.


[i]  The capitalization of Science and Religion here is deliberate, as, for the “new thinkers” of what became known to us as “the Enlightenment”, they rapidly assumed the status of dogma.  Faith and belief are part of human nature and even our genetic makeup, so simply removing ‘Religion’ from one’s primary worldview does not obviate the need to believe and serve some kind of ultimate truth and reality.

[ii]  It is interesting to see how long this effect has lasted.  As recently as 2003, when the EU was adopting a constitution, its preamble pointedly ignored and virtually outright denied any debt to Christianity in the making of Europe as a society and transnational culture while extolling the great debt owed to the ancient glories of the Greco-Romans.  Revisionist History à outrance!

[iii]  In the year 212 CE, all free residents of the Empire were granted Roman citizenship, thus eliminating all local allegiances and national distinctions.  So a resident of Gaul became a Roman, as did an Egyptian, a Greek, a Syrian, a Macedonian, a Briton, a German, or a Spaniard.

The Third Way, 33: The Allure of Rome, Part 12 – Christendom’s Civil War

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“This doctrine of the Kingdom of Heaven, which was the main teaching of Jesus, and which plays so small a part in the Christian creeds, is certainly one of the most revolutionary doctrines that ever stirred and changed human thought…. the doctrine of the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus seems to have preached it, was no less than a bold and uncompromising demand for a complete change and cleansing of our struggling race, an utter cleansing without and within.”

H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, Volume 1.  Revised and brought up to date by Raymond Postgate and G.P. Wells.  (Doubleday and Company, 1971), p. 445.

Peter Waldo, 12th Century; Francis and Clare of Assisi, 13th Century; John Wycliffe, 14th Century; John Hus, 15th Century; humanist reformers like Erasmus and Thomas More, 15th and 16th Centuries; Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther, 16th Century.  This is a very short list of radical idealists seeking serious reform of the Roman Church and European civil society over the last 300 years of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.  But before we consider how the explosion of the early 16th Century, which historians now call the “Protestant Reformation”, blew apart the long-standing Medieval consensus, we must give credit where credit is due. 

First, let us recall that a church is primarily the people who are its members. For a thousand years the Roman Church had often been an agency of great good, restraining the civil powers from behaving without conscience and scruple towards the humble folk under their rule.  Often, when no one else stood up for the suffering peasants, serfs, and labourers, the Church did.  The Church provided for the poorest of the poor, for widows and orphans, What medical help and relief for the starving and destitute there was came almost entirely from the Church via its monasteries, hospital foundations, dioceses, and parishes.  The Church brought solace to the afflicted, comfort to the grieving, relief to the suffering, and hope to the downtrodden—even if only that they could eventually be with God after they purged their faults in purgatory.  The Church forced secular rulers to behave with more restraint and to follow law rather than thier own arbitrary whims of justice.  It compelled rulers to control exorbitant financial exploitation of those who were forced into debt.  It made it clear that even kings and lords must answer to a yet higher authority and be subject to laws they themselves did not make.  When plague and disease swept through, those who most often stayed to help at the probable cost of their own lives were the monks, nuns, and parish clergy, assisted by some selfless physicians and lay persons.

We must not confuse the 16th Century’s widespread disgust with the largely corrupt and self-indulgent hierarchy, and frustration with their stone-walling mindset, with a desire for revolution or a wish to tear apart the fabric of a continent-wide society the unity of Christendom.  This society had functioned rather effectively to create a kind of general consensus and awareness of being one under God, despite the numerous rival national and ethnic rivalries.  The ethos and foundation for this had largely been the legacy of Charlemagne, all things considered one of the truly great monarchs of world history. 

Like Charlemagne, the monarchs and princes of the Middle Ages all named Christ as the supreme King of kings, although many of them with far less conviction than their archetype.  Following his lead, scholars, ecclesiastics, and many of the rulers agreed on most of the principles they adhered to, having been educated to think of their world as one under God through the Church, with the Latin language as a symbol of their essential unity.  What divided them was human sinfulness manifested as greed, pride, arrogance, lust, and ambition.  But all sought absolution from God’s servants in the Roman Church.  A priest from Germany, France, Italy, England, or Poland was just as competent to absolve as any other.  A well-qualified, conscientious, and intelligent scholar or lawyer trained in Padua, Paris, Oxford, Salamanca, or Cologne was as competent to educate and advise a leader as any other and, speaking Latin, could rapidly integrate in a new setting.

When, on October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther posted a Latin document railing against the abuse and injurious effects of indulgences exploiting the gullible to finance Church debt and build the new St. Peter’s in Rome, he was not trying to be obscure.  He was conventionally offering to engage any who cared to debate the issue, which was a well-recognized long-standing grievance, especially among the myriad principalities of Germany who had no strong central monarch to advocate their cause.  By this point, the Holy Roman Emperor was more like the CEO of a loose Confederation who depended largely on the voluntary cooperation of the local princes.  Because of this central vulnerability, Church financial exigencies oppressed the German states more than the united kingdoms of France or England, for example.  

Making a public post such as Luther did was not a radical move in itself.  What was radical was the challenging nature of several of his “95 Theses”, as this document has become known.  Why it had the effect of a tocsin call to action that reverberated across Germany was not due to Luther’s simple action, but to that of his enthusiastic students and the readiness of educated Germans to heed what it said as echoing much of what they felt themselves. It also fueled political fires and the ambitions for more autonomy of certain princes over and against the new Emperor, Charles 5th.

As we would say of a social media “post” today, it “went viral”.  The students of Wittenberg University took it to the local printer and copied it so it could be physically carried to other towns and cities then reprinted, reposted, and individually distributed.  This action was the explosive catalyst, along with the students’ enthusiastic “preaching” of its contents among their peers in the taverns and universities they visited.  Luther at first had no control and little to do with this spontaneous outpouring.  He unwittingly found himself the center of attention, but realized he could not now avoid it unless he retracted his most controversial criticisms.

We cannot here retell the story of the Reformation in detail.  As Luther galvanized Germany, so did Ulrich Zwingli shake Switzerland from his home church in Zurich.  Both of these rebel clerics would eventually be excommunicated, both would be declared heretics, and both would preach most of the same things, dividing their countries and societies.  Their followers would derisively be called “Protestants” (today we would say “Protestors”) by loyal Roman Catholics leaders and rulers, who sought and failed to eliminate them, their followers, and their teaching.  Germany and Switzerland would soon be engulfed in religious civil war which would spread to much of northern and central Europe and not finally end until 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia.

No matter how “righteous” the cause may be or appear to, strong leaders must be strong-willed and, when driven into a corner, will often even display a ruthless streak.  The major leaders of the Reformation period (among whom we find Luther, Zwingli, Jean (John) Calvin, Guillaume (William) Farel, Philip Melancthon, John Knox, and many more perhaps less well-known figures) were far from faultless.  They said things and committed or authorized actions that were much less than charitable, merciful, or gracious. The Gospel and Saviour they professed to restore and serve could only be used to justify these excesses with greatly strained elasticity.  As theologians trained in the Medieval scholastic method, they were accustomed to elastic analogy and allegory. They rightly denounced the Catholics for persecutions and massacres, but those whom they inspired often did the same things, and sometimes with approval directly from their very mouths (as when, in 1525, Luther told the German nobles to crush the Munster peasant radicals “like wild dogs”).

How was the Roman legacy mixed up in all this?  First, through the continued claims of the imperialist Roman Catholic Church to represent and enforce the Creators’ intention that all those who took Christ’s name should acknowledge the Pope as his rightful Regent on earth.  The Pope called on the Emperor and the Kings of Europe to bring the Protestants to heel and to inflict the due penalties for apostasy and heresy.  Secondly, through the education that all had received in the universities and schools of the time, where the curriculum and subject matter so heavily reflected the Greco-Roman heritage.  Thirdly, through the well-entrenched and proven administrative apparatus of both Church and State bequeathed from Imperial Rome via the Church and the scholars and advisors trained by the Church to work with the secular rulers.  Fourthly, via the still accepted notion that all subjects must publicly practice and adhere to the same religion with the same rituals and official formulae in order for a society to remain stable.  Private belief might be otherwise, but universal public adherence to the approved religion was essential for order and stability in a society.

In the West, we have become so accustomed to the notion of “the separation of Church and State” (although ‘Church’ in our time means personal religious opinion more than anything else according to progressive court and tribunal reinterpretations) that we cannot imagine religious belief being imposed and enforced by an approved religious authority via the government legal system.  However, there are many countries where the religion, or approved, official ideology and government are bound together and act as one power to enforce conformity.  Most Muslim countries are like this, as are communist and fascist regimes.

In truth, all ideologically founded impositions of standards of public speech and behaviour, or prohibitions on some types of public and even private behaviour, are theologically rooted. Thus there never has been nor can be a complete separation of theological (religious) opinion from society and law-enforcement. Even an atheist is expressing a religious opinion and, when it is publicly imposed via education or restrictions on freedom of expression in some kinds of discussion, such as certain kinds of ‘human rights’ claims, a religious or a-religious perspective of what is at present a rather small minority is being imposed on the rest of society via the legal machinery of the state. Language is not theologically or religiously neutral, unless we interpret ‘religion’ to be an institutional affair. But over the last fifty years in the West it has been inserted into certain approved and disapproved opinions being publicly asserted, even to the point that those who hold the current ‘disapproved’ perspective are prohibited from speaking publicly on pain of penalty or sanction.

In Europe in the 1500s, the result of the polarization of Roman Catholic rulers facing off against the minority of those who had become supporters of Protestant views was to be what we have come to call a series of “religious wars” lasting into the mid-1600s.  Imperial Rome had had many civil wars, and now its successor civilization in the West would be engulfed by a massive one centred on whether the spiritual descendant of ancient Rome, the Roman Catholic (Imperial) Church should still hold sway.

TO BE CONTINUED   

The Third Way, 32: The Allure of Rome, Part 11 – Dam Burst

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“… the rise and break-up of the Roman system … the obstinate survival of the idea of theEmpire in Europe, and of the various projects for the unification of Christendom … at different times.” 

H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, Volume 1.  Revised and brought up to date by RaymondPostgate and G.P. Wells.  (Doubleday and Company, 1971), p. 3.

There have been two “Roman systems” in the History of the West.  The first was that of antiquity and the Roman Empire created by Julius Caesar and his adopted son, Octavian, better known as Augustus, the first Emperor with the title.  It lasted 503 years (27 BCE-476 CE[i]), and its Eastern Mediterranean successor, the Byzantine (East Roman) Empire, lasted almost another thousand years until the Fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The second was the spiritual empire of the Popes, the Christian Patriarchs of the West within the Catholic Church as it emerged after the collapse of Rome’s political hegemony.  Apart from the Avignon hiatus during most of a century in the Middle Ages, the Popes remained in Rome and, for much of the time from about 800 CE until 1870, were the temporal sovereigns of the center of Italy.  But the Papal claim to imperial status was spiritual.  As the “Vicars of Christ on earth”, the successors of the “Prince of the Apostles”, St. Peter, and “Pontifex Maximus”, the Supreme Priest designated by God on earth to stand before and officiate at His altar on behalf of sinners seeking His mercy, the Popes of the “High Middle Ages” declared their authority to be above that of any earthly sovereign.

The New Testament calls the Church “the Body of Christ” and the “Family of God”.  The Catholic Church emerged from the ancient world as a united institution declaring itself the sole legitimate presence of Christ on earth.  In 1054 CE, it fractured into two branches, East and West, or “Orthodox” and “Roman Catholic”. 

Inevitably, the Church was also very much imprinted with the human character of the society and culture into which it was born in time and space.  Today’s church(es) are as much imprinted by their culture and history as those of yore.  Without denying the hand of the Creator through Christ in the Church’s origin and continued existence, we must recognize its very human nature.  This cannot be a surprise, for, in Christian theology, Jesus is both fully and equally God and human in one person.  If the Church is the chief agency of Jesus’ continued presence in the world, we cannot be much astonished to find that it is “fully human”, as Christian theology says the same of Jesus.

But, unlike the Founder, the Church is not also “fully God.”  Christians believe that it is imbued with God’s Spiritual presence and nature, but it is as much defined by the character of the humans who make it up as by the presence of God’s Spirit at its heart.  Christians have done and do amazingly good things but, as ‘sinners’, they must still “work out their salvation with fear and trembling”, as the Apostle Paul once put it.  Therefore they also mess up pretty badly and pretty regularly.  So too, and repeatedly, have the Church’s human leaders.

Being a sinner is not so much the problem, but rather being too proud, arrogant, and stubborn to admit when we get it wrong, and sometimes horribly wrong.  That is a manifestation of the common humanity of both every human individual and every historically recorded human institution and society.  It is the same old pattern that has plagued humanity since its beginning, whether male or female, or any other gender we may care to define into existence according to certain postmodern lights who insist on redefining reality on their own terms.  In any sense we care to look at it, humanity is broken and out of sync with the Creator’s original intention, or His/Her “will” as the Christian Bible terms it.

All this to say that the Church, or ekklesia as the Greek in the New Testament calls it (it means the assembly, congregation, or gathering of the Body of Christ on earth), first began in a First Century Jewish culture, itself already much influenced by the syncretistic Hellenic culture of the Eastern Mediterranean.  It then rapidly expanded into the Hellenistic-Roman milieu, reaching as far west as Rome itself within the first generation.  The ekklesia was both like and unlike other social groups of its time, but it quickly ran into serious difficulty because of its challenging differences with the host culture. 

It did not fit any models; it was not confined to a particular class or ethnicity.  It recognized the full humanity of slaves and women and took no notice of race or language.  It challenged accepted standards of public and private morality.  But, most serious of all, it called its adherents to a higher ultimate allegiance than that to the Emperor or the “genius of Rome”.  It proclaimed another King above even the divinity sitting on Rome’s throne, a King who could and would call to account even “Divine Caesar”, as Emperors had began to be called even in Augustus’ day (although he and his first successor, Tiberius, never officially adopted that title).

As we read the Book of Acts, the various Apostolic letters, and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, we cannot but be struck by the almost immediate adaptation of the Christian message to the society and culture that enveloped it.  Since then, this is the ongoing story of the presence of Christianity and the Church in our world.  It can only be thus, for Christianity is not a fixed “system” meant to be cemented into an immutable set of rules and practices issuing from the mouth and mind of an unchangeable philosophy.  It is a message about reconciling the parties in a very broken primary relationship (God with humanity), and then the relationships of human-to-human and humanity with the Creator’s creation.  It is a message that every broken human and every struggling generation must hear and respond to for itself.

If we understand this dynamic from the start, there is always room for discussion about how this needs to be communicated and acted upon in the midst of the ebbs and flows of life and the ongoing saga of every society’s and culture’s evolution through time.  However, it does not mean there are no firm principles or that there is no basic perspective or fixed points of reference.  It is the ballet of finding the balance as the rocking vessel moves with the waves.

What emerged from the chaos of the thunderous crash of what had seemed like “Eternal Rome’s” collapse  was an institution which had imbibed a great deal of the ethos and structure of the secular society and system of the Late Empire.  It was this that gave an immediate anchor to help stabilize much of the West for a few centuries, helping it survive and emerge as “the West” as differentiated from “the Orient”.  But even success has its drawbacks when we identify a fixed system as the primary reason for the eventual triumph of those that latch onto it, and make its forms, rules, and laws immutable because, for a time, they helped to achieve survival and bestow eventual supremacy over all rivals. 

Within the emerging civilization of “the West”, the Roman Church had been the anchor, and the Patriarch of the West in Rome had been the Father-figure who offered connection to the revealed truth and traditions and assured their pure transmission.  To a large degree, the Pope (the title is an adaptation of “Papa”, the familiar Latin word for father, a word still used in Italian and Spanish) was truly seen as the universal, earthly “father” of the family of God to which all the baptized belonged.  Such a well-rooted emotional and cultural attachment cannot be very easily broken, even if it is eventually revealed as a construct which has passed its expiry date.

As we have seen, the sense of the Pope’s failure to be a faithful father and true “Vicar”, or stand-in, for God’s Son, had become more and more acute by the early 16th century.  The hierarchy’s failure to restrain both Papal and its own exploitation of the “sheep of the flock” reinforced the conscious and unconscious (for many) sense that the ordained clergy had forfeited the right to the title “Father”, as the priests were to be addressed, and hardly even qualified for the humbler and simpler appellation of “brother” or “sister”.  Some noted the verse where Jesus had cautioned his disciples to call no one “father” except God (Matthew 23:9).

All that was lacking for the storm to break out was a catalyst.  In 1517 in Germany, a Dominican monk named Theodor Tetzel provided that catalyst. It would provoke a locally popular but obscure University of Wittenberg professor named Martin Luther to challenge Papal authority on a specific question.  This challenge would prove the chink that fell out of the dam and let loose the flood of all the pent-up resentment, frustration, disillusionment and doubt.  The rapid acceleration of what at first looked like a “tempest in a tea-pot” into a raging hurricane would take everyone by surprise.  Within a generation it would have permanently shattered the illusion of the unity of Christendom and shaken the spiritual Imperium of Rome to its very foundations.


[i]  27 BCE is the year Augustus was officially granted the title, or rather the Senate ratified the fact of Octavian being, “Imperator”.  Octavian was also named “Augustus”, or “highly honoured and esteemed.  He was given life-long command of all Rome’s armed forces, as well as reconfirmed for life in many other honours, such as Pontifex Maximus and Princeps (First Man of Rome, hence the title “Prince”).  This made the Emperor the supreme military, religious, and civil official of the State.

The Third Way, 31: The Allure of Rome, Part 10 – Reform Longings

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“As the Middle Ages drew to a close, many advocates of reform were convinced that the greatest ill of the church was the obscurantism of what soon would be called the “dark ages.”  The printing press, the influx of Byzantine scholars, and the rediscovery of the artistic and literary legacy of antiquity gave credence to the hope that the furtherance of scholarship and education would produce the much-needed reform of the church.  If at some point in the past centuries practices had been introduced that were contrary to original Christian teaching, it seemed reasonable to surmise that a return to the sources of Christianity—both biblical and patristic—would do away with such practices. 

This was the program of the humanist reformers.”

Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 2, The Reformation to the Present Day.  (HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), p. 10.

This hope, that “a return to the sources of Christianity—both biblical and patristic—would do away with such practices,” inspired Erasmus, Thomas More, and others like them as thed into the 16th Century.  But the signals from the top were not very promising.  The series of “wicked Popes” that afflicted the Roman Catholic Church as the 15th C ended and the 16th began seemed to point to ‘more of the same’ and perhaps even worse, with open depravity and debauchery fouling the Holy See.  The Conciliar Movement had been swept aside by the brazen highhandedness of the nepotistic Curia under these Pontiffs.  There was open flaunting of the law of celibacy even at the Papal level and no evidence of observance of chastity or self-control.

A radical named Girolamo Savonarola had briefly brought a sort of revival and purging of the most flagrant abuses and moral outrages in Florence in the mid 1490s, but when he began denouncing the outright ‘paganism’  and ‘anti-Christ spirit’ of the current Pope, said Pope had manipulated his overthrown and subsequent condemnation and burning as a heretic in 1498.  A little later the massive fund-raising campaign to rebuild St. Peter’s and the Vatican as state of the art manifestations of the new cultural glories began.  All over Europe there were outcries from the humanists and the religious reformers alike at the grandiose scale of the undertaking to be financed on the backs of the whole continent, but the instructions from Rome were to forge ahead and ignore all the carping.  Prelates were directed to send contributions from their dioceses. Eventually, a supplementary campaign would be directed to the gullible unwashed who would buy into the indulgence promises for their dead loved ones and themselves when they would pass on. The “unwashed” did.  Local needs must be met by local tithes and offerings on top of everything else.

For the 99% of the at least nominally Roman Catholic population of Europe west of Muscovy and north of the Balkans in the early 1500s, Rome was the ‘Holy City’, the awesome place where dwelt the exalted personage of Christ’s earthly representative.  They held all kinds of fantastic notions about the place and the person who sat on the lofty gold-leafed throne that shone like heaven’s seat itself.  To make pilgrimage to Rome was an ambition only next to the now all-but-impossible idea of pilgrimage to the Holy Land, once more locked firmly in the mail-fisted Islamic grip.

Pilgrims traveling to Rome in the last 100 years before Western Christianity blew itself apart, disillusionement often proved tbiggest outcome.  The tawdriness of Rome in those days quickly disabused many visitors.  The ardent pilgrims were viewed as sheep to be fleeced by the wily Roman populace.  Everything in Rome came at a price—access to pilgrimage sites, masses and novenas for the peace and remission of one’s own or one’s loved ones’ sins, a brief instant of audience time in the Papal presence, outrageous prices for food and accommodation, and the prospect of being waylaid and robbed on the roads and byways around or in the city itself. 

Visitors to the city often left minus the aura of holiness they may well have arrived with thanks to the army of priests and mountebanks peddling relics, medals, rosaries, and making outrageous claims for the spiritual blessings and benefits they came with.  It took a heavy dose of credulity to accept that the red-robed “Princes of the Church” parading in jewels and expensive robes and carried to and fro in fancy sedan chairs or carriages by legions of liveried servants and escorted by Papal guards were the living vessels of Christ’s grace and mercy who dispensed His favour to a yearning people.  If the Pope was even glimpsed, he seemed far removed from the pictures of the poor, simple Jesus one saw in the stained glass of the churches or heard about in the Gospel stories.

Such a visit, in company with other monks of his Augustinian Monastery, illuminated and disillusioned the mind and spirit of a young German monk named Martin Luther in 1510.  Luther never forgot that visit or its impact on him.  He remained an obedient servant of his Order as he departed, but his awe for Rome and its Papal monarch had evaporated.  The full fruition of this would explode a little over a decade later.

The humanists were not the only ones hoping for some miracle of awakening to turn the hearts of the people and the drift of the church and society away from some sort of cosmic upheaval.  Surely the renewed advance of Islam into Europe after the dismal failure of all the Crusades to stem the tide, and most recently the Fall of Constantinople, the bastion protecting Europe’s Eastern door, were signs of God’s judgment and displeasure?  And yet the secular Princes did not seem to care as they set out to enrich themselves by seeking to “do and end-run” around the Turks to the fabled riches of the Orient.  True, they had found some distant new lands far across the great ocean, and there were barbarian pagans there to exploit and perhaps convert— if they weren’t first massacred by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors posing as agents of Christ the King via his stand-ins, their earthly sovereigns.  But the tales of Spain’s newly found riches and some thousands of forced baptisms hardly boded a massive spiritual renewal.

More quietly and far less conspicuously, the Brethren of the Common Life worked at the grass roots level, seeking to build community in the towns and cities where the regular institutional church agencies mostly failed to touch the hearts and souls of simple people.  The Brethren did not seek Papal benediction.  Nor did they always approach the Pope’s hierarchical deputies, the Bishops, or the Bishop’s deputies, the parish priests, for approval to establish houses, schools, and centres. 

They focused on providing education to the less advantaged.  They encouraged daily prayer and meditation and study of Scripture and the lives of the saints.  The principle of voluntarism allowed adherents to choose their own level of involvement.  Some took personal vows, but there was no obligation to remain single and take a lifelong vow of chastity or obedience to religious superiors.  They all contributed to a common purse, but having some of one’s own money was allowed as well.

It is unfortunate that the culture of the time gave few options to young women.  Girls’ education, including literacy and numeracy, was entirely at the discretion of the parents, and especially the father.  If not done at home with a tutor or perhaps through the mother or, very rarely, the father, the girl might be entrusted to a convent.  But it is still possible to see the hunger for relationship with the Creator among women very much in evidence, and there were indeed very notable exemplars of some who even gained high reputations and influence.  Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich are two such, and there are many others.

There seemed a sort of ‘quiet before the storm’ as the 1510s moved along.  Perhaps it was more the numbness of hopelessness, what with the holders of temporal and spiritual power so firmly anchored in the status quo when the need for drastic spiritual and social reform was so evident to all—even the peasants and labourers in the countryside and cities.  National rivalries continued to fester and block meaningful steps forward, lest somebody lose some real or perceived position of advantage or influence.  Radicals such as the remnants of the Waldensees and Lollards were still hunted and executed, despite a growing grass-roots sympathy for them.

Perhaps the most salient critique of the absurdity of the situation came from Erasmus of Rotterdam, the most reputable Christian humanist of the day.  His The Praise of Folly (1509) was a scathing exposé of all the clichés of superficial Medieval spirituality—pilgrimages, relics, physical self-punishment (such as auto-flagellation), fasts, the corruption of so many monasteries and convents, and the flagrant wealth and exploitation of the laity by the church hierarchy.  He wrote the book as a satire in order to avoid censure and condemnation as a heretic for his exposition, and he got away with it.  Even the most obtuse reader could identify everything he “praised” as sadly all too true.  The book was an immense success in terms of the literate public of the day.  But, if everyone with a conscience knew how true it all was why was it so impossible for anything to be done to address all these abuses?

The time for action was past-due, and the patience to wait was fast evaporating.  Kings and Emperor laughed in their sleeves at the Papacy while continuing to pay it lip-service and depend on its role to maintain a spiritually flaccid populace.  The successive Popes were happy to receive tithes and due honours while enjoying the immense benefits of a seemingly unassailable ultimate authority over people’s allegiance.  The Renaissance humanists applied their newly gained philosophical and cultural perspective rooted in the ancient masters of Greece and Rome to find solace from the moral and intellectual wasteland they saw in the decaying body of Christendom.  They advised other discomfited thinkers and sympathizers to do likewise.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Third Way, 30: The Allure of Rome, Part 9 – Renaissance

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“… the Romans serve all gods.  That is why the power and the authority of the Romans has embraced the whole world…. they respected the divinities of the conquered, seeking everywhere for strange gods and adopting them as Rome’s own, even setting up altars to unknown powers and the shades of the dead.  Thus, by adopting the rites of all nations they of Rome became entitled to rule over them.”  Minucius Felix, third century Christian apologist, from his work Octavius. 

Cited in Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid.  (W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), p. 14.

As we arrive at the dawn of the Modern Age, the European Renaissance humanists vastly admired the cultural achievements and syncretism of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  In their disillusionment with what they found around them, they extolled the virtues of the Classical Age and found what had taken its place following 500 CE squalid.  With so much of the “Classical Age’s” art, philosophy, and literature renewed as the 15th Century turned to the 16th, the shadow of God’s wrath seemed to be lifting.  Unsettling questions had begun to percolate deeper as the new ideas found their voices; new poetry, music, prose, art, sculpture, and architecture burst forth. “What is man?” queried the humanists, deducing that humanity was glorious in and as itself, not as a mere sinful thing deserving the Creator’s most severe judgment. 

Italy was the cradle and the nursery of this ferment, and the Italian Renaissance rapidly found its way into the European hinterland to the north and west, along with new ways of financing speculative endeavours and new curiosity about the world and nature.  It was the cultural and social equivalent of Rome’s conquering legions setting forth once more to make Italy and ‘Rome’ (the old imperial, cultural mystique, not the spiritual harlot that had insinuated itself into its place) mistress and saviour of (Western) civilisation. 

To retain an image of relevance among the new cultural (g)literati, the Popes of those decades adopted the trappings and aspirations of being Renaissance connoisseurs while lip-serving the role of spiritual guides.  They hired the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael to embellish their monumental edifices. Some of the Renaissance Popes were so little concerned with spiritual matters that they allowed a corrupt Curia to run affairs like a Mafia while they used the huge Papal wealth to satisfy their appetites for art and less savoury things.  They showed up for official functions and gave audiences to the select of the upper crust, but did little else as ‘Holy Fathers’.

All this ‘rebirth and renewal’ required vast outlays of capital to stage and maintain the show.  “Let us have only the best of all this new art and sculpture and architecture to honour God.  Let us rebuild dilapidated old St. Peter’s (and the sprawling Vatican enclave) as a fitting monument to the Prince of the Apostles and his successors as Vicars of Christ, for the seat of Christ on earth is falling into ruin from neglect.  Let us use the [still contested] power of infallibility to assert Christ’s delegated spiritual authority to release the unworthy souls of the departed from almost everlasting torment in purgatory in return for a proper contribution to the erection of this stupendous monument to the glory of the Roman See as the spiritual seat of God’s Kingdom on earth.”

The strictly humanist perspective on the Renaissance, as the humanists themselves named this cultural resurrection, was one of breaking the fetters of what they were already calling the “Dark Ages”, those wretched in between centuries when fear, superstition, Divine wrath and barbarism crushed the human spirit.  Knowledge had been at a premium in those days and the world had seemed a harsh and hard-scrabble place.  Humanity had seemed powerless in the war between God and the Devil, circumscribed and doomed to a fate it had no ability to alter.  The climax of the Black Death and the prolonged wars and depredations of the late “Middle Ages”, as the in-between time also began to be called, had only seemed to confirm this.

But the new humanism had now broken this thrall.  Humankind was glorious and worthy in its own right.  Even Scripture was now found to confirm this, as in Psalms 8 and 82.  (The creation of chapter and verse referencing of the Bible was a Renaissance innovation to facilitate scholarly analysis of the sacred text.)  The invention of the movable-print Printing Press (the mid 1450s was the momentous time when Johan Gutenberg printed the first type-set multiple copies of the Bible[i]) had opened the floodgates to mass education and literacy.  Vehement Papal injunctions against the ignorant laity gaining possession of the Bible for themselves (ignoring that most of the parish priests and monks in monasteries were just as ignorant and illiterate), including, God forbid, women!, could no longer be sustained.

The 16th Century thus opened with a social and cultural clash between rival claimants to the Roman heritage in Rome’s successor civilisation in the West.  Fading from view in this spiritual and cultural Cold War was the hope of the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven.  In this gathering confrontation there were a few increasingly isolated voices watching with great concern, men such as Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More of England.  It would become more and more difficult to find tenable middle ground.  Listening to spiritually reasoned argument based on humility and simplicity in seeking and hearing the Creator’s call to loving-kindness, patience, mercy, and reconciliation in and through Jesus alone would be shouted down in passionate denunciation and condemnation of the errors of one’s opponents.

Power and the acclaim of position is an addiction in whatever form one hears its seductive siren call.  Each ‘hit’ of this spiritual-psychological ‘drug’ one gets is like a little confirmation of one’s petty godhood.  Jesus knew this and admonished his first followers about it repeatedly.  He practiced what he told them constantly so that they would really understand, not just hear an intellectual-moral principle:

“The one who lives by the sword will die by the sword.”  (The ‘sword’ is any weapon you select as a brutal, exciting, fast-tracking means of taking power.  Your chosen ‘sword’ will be the weapon you find you are most effective and proficient in.  Perhaps it is a form of emotional manipulation and psychological coercion.  Or perhaps it is a straightforward tool of actual physical violence and intimidation.)

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”  (God’s Kingdom does not value prowess in the means and methods of gaining and exercising power as per the usual techniques of the present ‘age’.)

“You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”  (To actually do this you have to physically bow down in front of the person whose feet you are washing.  Pretty hard to take a haughty, lordly posture with them after that!)

“The Kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves ‘Benefactors.’  But you are not to be like that.  Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves…. I am among you as one who serves.”  Except, perhaps, vote-hunting politicians, and pretense to the contrary, our culture largely despises the elderly and relegates them to the sidelines.  Not so in Jesus’ day, or with almost every generation up to the last few, in the West at least.  The youngest had to apprentice and prove themselves worthy of honour and respect.  They had to serve those who had won the right to lead.)  We could add many other remarks of Jesus to the same effect.

“It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice.  It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.” (Italics are the author’s.)

“Marks of the New Monasticism: Peacemaking”, Common Prayer, a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  (Zondervan, 2010), p. 382.

The imperial way is the way of long-established pattern humankind’s way of directing its societies and deciding what is to be valued. It is based on humanity’s presumption that we can bootstrap our own way into a utopian society, whatever version of that we aspire to.  For a thousand years, the hybrid called Christendom had seemed to offer a way out of that trap.  But as the ‘Middle Ages’ gradually morphed into something new and as yet unpredictable, the hope that the hybrid called ‘Christendom’ could lead to the Kingdom of the Creator on earth seemed like a mirage always moving farther into the horizon.  Were we to cease hoping?  Or was it only the failures of those who had preceded the dawning light of the Renaissance that had driven hope almost out of sight?

TO BE CONTINUED
[i]  1453 – The Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks sent hundreds of Byzantine scholars, nobles, and merchants with great wealth fleeing to the West, particularly Italy.  Along with the material wealth usually entrusted to the Italian banking families, they brought hundreds of manuscripts of the classics of Greco-Roman literature and a huge influx of new teachers and craftsmen to give a massive, accelerated boost to the Renaissance.  This exodus had already been well under way since the Council of Florence in 1439 had futilely attempted another reunion of the Greek and Roman Branches of Christianity.  By that point, the writing on the wall for the final demise of the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire was quite visible to almost everyone, but the Byzantine Emperor’s appeals to their Christian brethren of the West fell on deaf ears among the fractious, quarrelsome rivals of the emerging national kingdoms.  France and England were locked in the climactic stage of the Hundred Years’ War (Joan of Arc and all that); the ‘Empire’ was rocked by civil war (the rebellious Bohemian Hussites were rampaging into Germany itself) and Italy’s most prominent powers (Tuscany, Milan, Venice, Genoa, The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Papacy) were obsessed with seeking advantages over one another.  Castile and Aragon in Spain had their own crusade to rid Iberia of the remnants of the Muslim Caliphate still anchored at Grenada and Seville.  Italy’s dozen or so principalities were perpetually fighting among themselves for one reason or another.  Thus, the Pope’s appeal for a new Crusade to drive back the Turks was still-born.

The Third Way, 29: The Soul of the West

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(Note to readers: The series on “The Allure of Rome” will be continued at a later time.  Periodically, it will be interrupted by other topics.)

“The totalitarian revolutions, with their practice of inhumanity, lawlessness and depersonalising collectivism, were nothing but the executors of … so-called positivist philosophy, which, as a matter of fact, was a latent nihilism, and which, towards the end of the last [19th] and the beginning of this [20th] century, had become the ruling philosophy of our universities and the dominating factor within the world-view of the educated and the leading strata of society.  The postulatory atheism of Karl Marx and the passionate antitheism of Friedrich Nietzsche can be considered as an immediate spiritual presupposition of the totalitarian revolution of Bolshevism on the one hand and National-Socialism [Nazism] or Fascism on the other.  That is to say, the prevalent philosophy of the Occident had become more or less nihilistic.  No wonder that from this seed that harvest sprang up which our [the WW2] generation reaped with blood and tears …”

Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation, First Part: Foundations, (London: Nisbet and Co., Ltd., 1948), p. 3.

Little has changed in the mindset of “the educated and leading strata” of Western society since Emil Brunner spoke these words in 1947 as he began the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University in Edinburgh, Scotland.  We may add the newer variation of nihilism called postmodernism, but Nietzsche and nihilism still command a huge following, supplemented with Foucault, Marcuse and other more recent, trendy figures, including some hard-left feminist voices.  Existential desperation and despair still rule academia, and no hope of more than a very transient and contingent reprieve is even hinted at.  Meaning in the cosmic sense has faded from view.  We now find only stop-gap contingencies to prolong our tenuous hold on hope—causes to fight for (climate change or gender mutability, anyone?), methods of “self-actualizing oneself to the fullest” during the brief candle of our swiftly-passed sojourn on our freakishly incredible little speck of cosmic dust we call Planet Earth.

Literally, “nihilism” means belief in nothing (nihil = nothing in Latin, + ismus = belief in).  On its own, it is a strange and self-contradictory term.  No one can really believe in nothing, for one must at least believe that one exists in order to actually ‘believe’ a thing, even if we declare that belief as ‘nothing’ or non-existence.  The belief itself, however abstract and ethereal, is a thing we believe and believe in.  One can believe that it all means nothing, but not that nothing exists, at least not with real conviction.

In truth, a nihilist cannot really be a nihilist.  She may be like Descartes, who began his Meditations on the nature of reality with his famous declaration of universal, radical doubt that anything at all actually exists, even himself.  But she can only at last arrive at the same place as Descartes—admitting that she is actually ‘there’ (wherever ‘there’ is) because she is thinking.  As Descartes concluded, it will not answer to posit that perhaps, after all, I am merely an idea in another, greater being’s mind.  In that case, even if that were a possibility (which it can be shown not to be since one has the actual power of independent thought), at least the other, greater being exists to have the ‘thought’ which self-identifies as “I think, therefore I am.”

Brunner’s lectures were given in the immediate wake of World War 2, and he was seeking to understand how the West had “come to this pass.”  His diagnosis is completely brilliant and as relevant, and perhaps even moreso, today as when he composed it and shared it.  We may have seen most of the totalitarian dictatorships crumble into the dustbin of history since 1945, but nihilism and Nietzschean despair live on.  Mockery of the Creator and even the idea of His/Her existence also lives on, declaring, like Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, in the face of the ever-increasing, quietly accumulating scientific (yes, scientific!) evidence to the contrary, “I see nothing; I hear nothing; I know nothing.”  Schultz was choosing to see, hear, and know nothing, and so do our ultra-modern-postmodern nihilists.  As an old friend used to say, “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts!”

After all, a real, existing Creator, leaving His/Her stamp, image, and signature everywhere for “those who have eyes to see and ears to hear” to perceive, will actually require me to admit I am not my own creator and god, and neither am Ithe actual creator of my own reality.  If I am to be the least bit really honest about that reality, I must admit that I don’t control it.  Then I will have to admit that I am truly accountable and responsible to Someone/Something much greater than myself for the of life I have been given.  As the New Testament puts it, “You are not your own; you have been bought with a price.”  I would need to seek the Creator’s purposes and my place within them in order to achieve harmony with what really is, including within my own being.

It is all very well to say, as the ‘progressive’ nihilists who may confess a sort of transient, temporary (and, yes, even fifty billion contingent years is temporary) existence of something destined to implode and return to nothing that, as the only (as far as we know) self-aware extrusions of the Cosmos, we are responsible to care for the fragility of life in all its forms until we and it inevitably pass into oblivion.  The greatest of nihilist gurus, Nietzsche, has already given the simple, callous, and brutal but completely realistic answer, in the form of a question, to this apparent altruism towards an ultimately meaningless and aberrant ‘something-out-of-nothing-destined-to-return-to-nothing’: “Why?”

Nietzsche is rarely read straight-up by those who claim to proclaim his gospel.  Rather, he is read and admired in dribs and drabs by the “‘wise of this age”, as Paul of Tarsus described the similar folk of his day two thousand years ago.  But Nietzsche is not really taken at his word even by those who claim to be his evangelists.  He said that the meaning of everything, in so far as any meaning is to be found, is only in seizing “the will to power”.  “God is dead and we have killed him,” he said.  (A Theist wag’s reply to this from God’s perspective: “Nietzsche is dead and I’m still here!”). 

The angst-driven, postmodern existentialist turns the “will to power” into, “The will to make yourself whatever you choose, to make meaning whatever you choose.”  Although Nietzsche would not contradict this, he would chide, “But this is not enough.”  I-myself as “God” is so small as to be ridiculous.  But most humans do not have the courage to admit that underneath this revolt against the Creator there really IS nothing to support the claim that we can define reality as we see fit.  The void left by the Creator can only be finally and fully filled when I, the creature, accept who I really am in relationship to Him/Her, the Creator.   Most of us cannot live with true nihilism, for the only position really left to the true nihilist is despair.  Even Nietzsche finally killed himself because he couldn’t find real hope even in his own myth of the Superman and Super Race.  We all desperately want our own existence to mean something real,and we cannot live without some substantial meaning to which we can anchor our lives and identities.

Brunner observes that worldviews inevitably shape the civilisations where they take root.  He then looks at the West and its relationship to Christianity, and the consequences of the West’s rejection of its strongest foundation.  This suicidal rejection is an exceedingly perplexing phenomenon, just as the emergence of anything called a “Christian civilisation” was a mystery in the first place, given that The New Testament says nothing whatsoever about creating such a thing.  It talks much of “the Kingdom of God” and how it contrasts to “this age” or the system of “the world”.  It is radically countercultural in the truest sense, and yet, when it took hold, it spawned the richest and most open culture and society the world has ever seen.  And now we find that the children of this culture have decided, like children so often do, that the parents know nothing and never did, and they can do infinitely better without all that old-style discipline and talk of morality and moderation and accountability to a greater Being and greater good.

Our journey in this blog has been to explore elements of this story and, like a blind person with a walking stick, to tap our way forward towards a “Third Way” of truly knowing the Creator and understanding our relationship with Him/Her.  As we move forward, we also need to look backward, for our fore-parents were not stupid and probably not as blind as we have chosen to make ourselves or make them out to have been.  People across all cultures and ages have been seeking harmony within themselves and with the creation and whatever or whomever brought it into being.  Therefore, wisdom and insight can be found in various traditions and quests, as well as insight in how not to travel this road.  In every age people have blundered into ditches or, even worse, a terrible morass by adopting insane, reality-denying and destructive notions of what is and what it means.  Now, in the 21st Century, the West has lost its way and must once more go seeking its soul.

Summer 2020

During the remainder of this summer, I will be posting in this blog on an irregular basis as, like my dear and faithful readers, I take some time to enjoy the creation and be with family.  I thank all of those who have been regular readers, and wish you all a time of rest and renewal over the next 6-8 weeks.  I look forward to keeping things alive from time to time with occasional reflections which readers may find of interest.

Comments and communication are always welcome.

Below I offer something a little different from the usual subjects this blog has focused on over the last two years or so.

Hair

There’s no accounting for taste.  One of the odd things I can’t account for in that department is how so many guys of my generation sport long, gray hair, usually tied back in a pony-tail. 

Once upon a time I had very long hair that obligingly went seriously Afro the longer it got.  Now that was cool!  Some girls liked it too!  In the late sixties and early seventies hair was ‘a thing’.  It was a sign of coolness, with-it-ness, grooviness.  It was a pledge that we could “stand up against the Establishment”.  Lots of bosses didn’t like it.  Lots of teachers didn’t like it (until some of them began getting cool too).  The Rock-Opera Hair was our anthem.

Finally, a few progressive college and university profs started growing their hair long and not trimming their beards in the proper Van Dyke, professorial way.  Then the Queen received the icons of hair, the Beatles, and knighted them!  So it had to be OK.

For my part I lived in two semi-communes, became a serious (but never famous) rock musician for a while, wrote poetry and anti-the-Man rants, and thought I was extra-cool for being ‘more real’—at least more than most people I knew, or so I thought.

But other than the hair (not too long, eh?) blue-jeans, tie-dyed T-shirts, maybe smoking a joint to try it out, and vaunting sexual liberation—usually claiming a lot more than you did—underneath the pseudo-hippy front most of us were pretty conventional.  When it came down to it, we didn’t or even want to live in a commune, go vegan, march in peace and protest rallies (although maybe that was another dabble-point), go to Woodstock (I almost did) or Monterey, move to Height-Ashbury, or give up working for a living.

For most of us, the hair and some typically ‘unconventional’ clothing choices were the real extent of our rebellion against ‘the Man’.

Almost all of us faded out of ‘the scene’ by the mid-seventies.  There’s only so long you can live on peanuts and beer, claim you’re cool while being pretty much normal, seek ‘free love’ with a dwindling field of willing partners, and pretend you don’t have to work because it’s so ‘bourgeois’.  Eventually one person becomes extra-special and you realize you need a real relationship not based on libido alone.  You get a ‘real job’, settle down, start a family, and-presto!-before you know it, you become ‘the Establishment’.  Except you still like your rock, folk, or other music, maybe you still have a joint now and then, and once in a while do a few quirky things that remind you of ‘the old days’.

Then, sort of suddenly, you arrive at (horrible cliché and atrocious euphemism) ‘the Golden Years’!  Congratulations!  You can retire and enjoy the wonderful freedom to …?

Hmm.  It all went by so fast, didn’t it!  Am I really that old?  Did I really vault from those heady years of showing how cool and free I was to this?  Wow! 

We sixty-and-seventy-somethings once thought we would really change the world—even, maybe, inaugurate a new era of peace and universal good will.  (John Lennon: “All we are saying is give peace a chance!”  The Beatles: “All you need is love!”  Cat Stevens: “Everyone hop on the peace train!”)  Can I still show that the old dream is not all gone, that I was once one of those ‘screw-the-Establishment’ chanters, and was once a ‘for-real’ free spirit peacenik? 

Hence the hair.  It’s one thing I can still control, eh?  Let it grow and screw what people think—like when I was the young rebel.  So what if it doesn’t look like it used to!  I can still do it!  And so, here we are, with long, grey, stringy, straggly mops pulled back in the signature pony-tail.  Oh, and the old beard back too, if I can still grow a real one.  I don’t have to trim it to look right for the boss anymore!  And no more need to impress the chicks (most of whom never really liked the long mops and straggly moustaches and beards even back then, even if they didn’t want to tell you). 

Yes, I know that there is a newish beard-thing with some of the Millennials and Gen-Z guys.  But, hello!  We’re not them!  It’s their thing.

Remember how you had to trim it all back when you decided she was the one and you had to get to know her family?  Ha!  If you’re still fortunate enough to be with the same great girl after all this time (yeah for me!), I would guess you are not one of the guys with the new-old straggly look.  If you are and are still with that great babe, I guess there’s no accounting for taste.  (Or maybe it’s just resignation or tolerating the old fart’s boyish delusions!)  But, if your great romance is a closed chapter, I guess you can revert and get away with it.  Probably not too much happening with the ladies, eh?

Of course, you’re perfectly entitled to wear your hair however you like.  And some can pull it off and still look good, even as a ‘Senior’.  I even know one or two guys like that, and good on them!  But if you’re not one of that elite group because your hair is gone thin and stringy and your beard is a mass of grey fuzz that gets into your food and leaves strands on your clothes, well, maybe it’s time to move on.

Just sayin’.