Featured

Faith and Hope:  Assurance and Conviction, 3

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

Johann Wofgang von Goethe

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

William James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED


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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED 

Featured

Faith and Hope, Assurance and Conviction, 1

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

Hebrews 11:1 – The New Testament

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

(Original Greek transliterated to Latin alphabet)

Variously translated:

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

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

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

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

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

(The Complete Jewish Bible)

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

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

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

(The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

Featured

Optics, 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Optics, 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

Optics, 1

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

The Canadian Compact Oxford Dictionary, 2002. 

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

(Photo: Author’s original)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

The Third Way, 60 – Walking the Walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalom!

Featured

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

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

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

(Photo Credit – Unsplash)

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

            – Who am I?

            – Where am I?

            – What’s wrong?

            – What’s the remedy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace be with you in your seeking and finding.

Featured

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

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

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

(Photo credit Pinterest)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

Last time we finished with this:

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

VJM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

Featured

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

“All truth is God’s truth.”

John Calvin, ca 1560

(Photo credit – Quotefancy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

Featured

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

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

Frederick Douglass

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

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

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

(Photo credit: Quotefancy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

The Money-Game

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

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

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

(Photo credit – Pinterest)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choose your god wisely.

Featured

Certainty, Doubt, and Faith

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

– Charles Caleb Cotton

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

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

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

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Theist,

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

Dear Atheist,

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

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

Featured

Transitions

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

Anatole France, French author and philosopher.

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

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

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

Alvin Toffler, American futurologist and author.

(Photo credit: emindful.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

Water

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

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

The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalom!

Featured

Breath

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

is merely a puff of wind.

Humans go about like shadows:

their turmoil is all for nothing.

They accumulate wealth, not knowing

who will enjoy its benefits.”

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

Photo credit: ledgerinsights.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 12:1,13,14

Scary!  Time to get ready!

Featured

Cat’s Eyes

© Vince Marquis

(Photo credit, Nature Canada)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

What Trees Say

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

Robert G. Ingersoll, American Free Thinker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

2020-2021 and Hope

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

André Gide (French novelist and playwright).

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

Aeschylus (ancient Greek playwright)

(Image credit – Dani Pettrey)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

Reason for the Season, 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

Reason for the Season, 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

BECAUSE TO HIGH AND VARIOUS TALENTS,

TO WARM BENEVOLENCE, AND TO UNIVERSAL CANDOUR,

HE ADDED THE ABIDING ELOQUENCE OF A CHRISTIAN LIFE.

EMINENT AS HE WAS IN EVERY DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC LABOUR,

AND A LEADER IN EVERY WORK OF CHARITY,

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

HIS NAME WILL BE SPECIALLY IDENTIFIED

WITH THOSE EXERTIONS

WHICH, BY THE BLESSING OF GOD, REMOVED FROM ENGLAND

THE GUILT OF THE AFRICAN SLAVE TRADE,

AND PREPARED THE WAY FOR THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY

IN EVERY COLONY OF THE EMPIRE…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time, Canada in the Dock.

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, until the American nation as a substantial whole repents and renounces these sins and their continuing deep racist and elitist class roots and their blatant current manifestations from the heart , forgiveness cannot be asked and given, and true healing cannot begin.  The Southern myth of the noble “Lost Cause” must die.  it remains a deep poison. Northern complicity in that myth must be repented.  We could say the same about the terrible and repeated genocides of American First Nations. 

Without such deep and wrenching measures, which cannot be done in any short time and once truly begun will have to be ongoing and continuous, as Germany as done in its national repentance, the US will not lose its violent, divided heart.  That can only be a work that begins by a massively turning towards the One Being who has the power to move on human hearts and spirits to break the chains of slavery and the festering wounds of unresolved internal conflicts.  It involves surrendering the blame-game and the right to make the other side pay “the last full measure”. 

The example for doing that was given on a small hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem two thousand years ago when the Creator chose to take it all upon Himself in the Person of His incarnate Son, Yeshua/Jesus of Natzeret, rightful heir to the throne of Israel.  Instead, He accepted a crown of thorns and took the full wrath of His own people’s leaders and sins as well as that of the quintessential world empire, Rome, representing all the rest of humanity. 

Instead of saying how He would make them all pay “the last full measure” once His Father vindicated Him and raised Him incorruptible and immortal from the grave, He prayed for His executioners, and for the whole human race, so blind and enslaved by the depth of their “failing to measure up” (hamartia –missing the mark, sin), saying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  Would He have prayed a different prayer even if they had known what they were doing?

If you know Him at all, you know the answer to that question.  Because, let’s admit it, since then, millions and even billions of us have known very well what we’ve been doing, and how wrong it has been and is, and how these things so deeply wound Him, His Father, and those humans we sin against, and the rest of the Creation we sin against by our destruction of it.  But he still offers His full forgiveness “to the last full measure, for the last full measure”, thus robbing us of any right we have to claim it of those who have wronged us.  He has claimed it and paid for all of it, from Eve and Adam to you and me.

To paraphrase a young Swedish maiden, “How dare we!” keep claiming we have a right to extract the last measure of vengeance, of profit regardless of how its getting has made others suffer?  On the other hand, if we will not turn from our wicked ways to the Healer Who can really bring us to the healing we all so desperately need, the Creator will leave us to do our own will to persist in our sin and thus to also experience the terrible consequences thereof.

“Domine, in Tua gratia, misericordiam Tuam nobis da.”  (Old Latin Liturgy – “Lord, in Your grace, give us Your mercy.”

Featured

Inconvenient Conscience, 8 – Turning Around, 4 – Germany

If we review the various ages of history, we will see that in every generation the Lord [the Creator God] has offered the opportunity of repentance to any who are willing to turn to him.”

– Clement of Rome at the end of the First Century CE

In 1929, Germany was considered by many Europeans to be the most progressive, civilized, highly educated, and scientifically sophisticated nation in Europe.  Its historical cultural attainments were also highly admired.  Theologically, it was considered the leading Christian nation.

It had been over ten years since the end of the Great War of 1914-18.  Germany had greatly struggled to find itself following the catastrophe of crushing defeat and the ensuing social and political revolution.   The Versailles Peace Treaty had been so vindictive that many Germans were unable to accept all the territorial and financial penalties and limitations on their status as a Great Power which it had imposed.  But as 1929 dawned, it seemed that Germany had adapted and was finding a new future as a peaceful, once-more prospering nation in the international community.

Many Germans were still angry about how the Allies had treated the Fatherland and imposed a diktat which made Germany the scapegoat for all the terrible things that had happened since 1914.  But reasonable, liberal people were leading the country and seemed to have found a road back to respectability and reintegration in the international community.  Even the onerous reparation payments had been renegotiated with the Allies and made more tolerable.  The economy was once more humming, workers were once more getting a living wage for their families, and German culture was once more regaining its leading edge among the enlightened nations of the world.

Then came the Great Crash of October 1929.  Within a year, Germany faced economic Armageddon – six million unemployed in an adult male workforce of about 22 million, millions of pauperized families destitute, thousands of businesses gone, banks going bankrupt, and on and on went the tale of woe. 

The lurking forces of extremism rapidly thrust themselves front and centre after having spent the previous five years in the political wilderness.  A quirky, brooding, charismatic fringe-party leader with a Charlie Chaplin moustache catapulted into national prominence with electrifying oratory and promises of German redemption and the restoration of all Germany’s old, lost greatness. 

His more outlandish views about Jews and other undesirables could be ignored as demagoguery if you didn’t know any better, which 95% of Germans didn’t.  A few restrictions on “those people” wouldn’t hurt anyway, eh?  And if you really thought about it, history and culture really did show that Germany was a superior nation and Germans were superior people – compared to the half-barbarians of the East and the mongrel nations to the south, or even southern France.  The Nordic nations and England were the only countries that could racially compare.

Hitler thundered that Germany had been cheated and betrayed from within by those wretched connivers and manipulators – the Jews and Communists.  Germany had not really lost the Great War because of military defeat; internal enemies had undermined the nation’s effort, sapped morale, and engineered a socialist revolution which still threatened to destroy the German people and rob it of its true destiny.

So went the tale, and, over the next two years, it sounded better and better to millions.  The fiery, hypnotic orator with the funny moustache and mesmerizing eyes looked more and more like the man who could lead them out of their wretched national condition and give regular folks a new chance to have secure jobs and a country able to protect and provide for them.

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler, who had become the most powerful politician in Germany, was constitutionally sworn in as Germany’s Chancellor (Prime Minister) by octogenarian President Field-Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the icon of the old leadership establishment.  The Old Guard thought they could control and use the ex-corporal; within two months they learned that they could not.  He used and completely outwitted them, and, with Hindenburg dead in August 1934, his hold on power became absolute.  Der Fuhrer had arrived!

Twelve years later in May 1945, Germany lay in utter ruin, along with most of Europe.  The German people had lost at least six million war dead, not counting the “subhumans” previously removed from the population.  The country was completely occupied by the victorious Allies, who quickly fell out among themselves while dividing Germany into two – West and East.  The two halves were fashioned in the image of the occupiers – the democratic, capitalist West, and the Communist, totalitarian East. 

The division ended in 1989 when the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe collapsed, the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain were torn apart, and Germany proclaimed its own reunification.  Some trembled at the thought of a reunited Germany in the heart of a Europe where the old Occupiers had faded away.  The new Germany (Fourth Reich?) was born with a pledge to be democratic, peaceful, and dedicated to cooperating with its neighbours to build a European Community where all were equal and could prosper.  The government swore that the new Germany would never allow the old ultra-nationalism and racism to once more raise its head.  It seemed reassuring that the leading party in Germany was (and still is) the Christian Democratic Union Party.

In contrast to East Germany before reunification, West Germany emerged into prosperity and repentance and reconciliation with its former enemies in the period 1949-89.  Its first Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was a deeply committed Christian.  Although the general population of West Germany was still too numb and absorbed with recovery to follow in his spirit for the first twenty years, he led West Germany to full recognition and relationship with the new Israel.  He negotiated generous annual reparation payments to the Jewish state as early as 1951, and reached out to other nations to seek reconciliation. 

From 1965-68, there was a series of West German trials of SS war criminals and Nazi officials who had operated the most notorious death-camp of Auschwitz between 1941 and 1944, and later of other death camps.  This marked the full acceptance in West Germany of what had happened, and taking full responsibility for it within the populace.  From that point on, the people and country embarked on a road to make amends.  After 1989, that effort moved into the former East Germany, however reluctantly, and it continues in all Germany to this day, both by deliberate government policy and at the grass roots level, where it had really begun even before the Frankfurt Trials in the 1960s.

Jesus once said, “By their fruits you will know them.”  We also say, “Actions speak [much] louder than words.”  Germany has produced fruit pointing to the nation’s true repentance.  The Nazi past has been accepted and repudiated; Nazi criminals have been brought to justice; Israel has had firm support and received (and continues to receive) generous reparations to Holocaust survivors and other aid from Germany; Germany has endeavoured to reach out to its neighbours for reconciliation and with practical help; Germany is the backbone of the European Union and has been more than generous in helping the other members when they have been in crisis.

While not every German owns what happened in 1933-45, there is a large majority that do and abhor it.  What can we learn from the German example?  Many things, but we can only mention a few here.

First, pious apologies at an official level for historic wrongs mean little or nothing.  In the last two decades, it has become a bit of “a thing” for Western governments to issue official apologies to ethnically oppressed and victimized minorities, throwing conscience money along.  Here in Canada successive federal governments have apologized to all kinds of groups and minorities for racism and neglect and victimization by the majority European stock population over the last four centuries.  But does this signal repentance and a real acceptance of and desire for it?  The lack of meaningful action that leaves so much as it has been suggests otherwise.

Some other states have done better at this than Canada.  Some have done less.  None have approached Germany’s effort.  What is the missing ingredient?

Repentance!  And how does one truly repent?  That comes from within, in and of the spirit, the full acceptance of what an awakened conscience shouts at our hearts.  It cannot be contrived by an intellectual process or a superficial emotional response of regret and remorse.  Political posturing does not constitute repentance, as necessary as political action is at the national level.  In Germany, there was, from the beginning of the movement, an underlying spiritual movement.  It came out of the country’s long-neglected Christian roots. 

Repentance is not a “one and done” deal.  It is an inner disposition which initiates and sustains action over the long haul.  After all, “sin” (missing the mark, falling short, committing moral offence) is a problem that has to be dealt with all the time since we all continue to miss the mark.  When we are speaking of the sins of a nation, the terrible damage runs very deep and very wide.  The repentance must be commensurate with the offence.

There remain at least two major aspects of this subject to discuss before we conclude.

Next time, we will look at some other national situations in the light of what we have noted so far in this exploration.

Finally, we will apply whatever we have gleaned to the individual, personal level.

Featured

Inconvenient Conscience, 7 – Turning Around, 3 – Repentance

 “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand/nearby/right here/among you/in your midst/within.” –

an expanded translation of the meaning of what Yeshua/Jesus said about beginning to change one’s life and seek the Creator.

We now come to a very hard word for our ears to hear and our Post-modern minds to accept: Repentance.  This word is encrusted with religious connotations which our culture has generally rejected.  There is no substitute or synonym which conveys its basically simple meaning without all the baggage rife with religious judgmentalist connotations.  It is not the same as sorrow or regret or remorse, which are basically passive responses.  To “get it” we have to revert to etymology and the New Testament (koine) Greek word it translates so poorly.

The English word is imported from French – (se) repentir, la repentance – which in turn is derived from Latin poenitere.  The prefix “re-“ refers to a repeated action, not a single one.  The French pentir(e) refers to a leaning posture.  Thus repent(ir) is to turn or change a direction to its opposite, to turn back, to turn around.  The Latin is very close in meaning to the Greek verb – metaneō – to turn (right) around, to go in the opposite direction.  The French originally retained the sense of the Latin, having been directly derived from it.  The English is thus third-hand and, as we noted, has morphed into a caricature of the original.

Repentance is therefore an action, an active, ongoing posture. It is not a one-and-done deal, although it must begin sometime, somewhere with a positive decision, followed by the act of turning away from the destructive way to the positive, life-giving way.

The English word “sin” comes from Old English and its Saxon roots.  Its meaning is the same as that of words in other languages designating a religious and/or moral violation which offends God or the gods.  The Greek word is hamartia, and, while it means “sin” it denotes and connotes “missing the mark/target”, falling short of the desired goal.  Thus, it is not exclusively about religious or moral fault.

Why belabour the semantics of words which are out of vogue and are among the new “four-letter words” in our brave new progressive West?  (Meanwhile, the old “four-letter words” have become cultural mainstream.)  Simply, our relegation of such things to the dim fringe of our language and conceptual framework is one more symptom of our deliberate cultural and moral impoverishment. 

Do we really have to talk about “sin” and “repentance”?  Who today believes people are “sinners” other than religious fanatics?  As for moral standards, we all know they are quite malleable and can be legislated to suit the newest and latest research from psychology, anthropology, sociology, and moral philosophy – or even bio-genetics, physics, and chemistry.  Moral guilt?  I suppose we still need some semblance of that to assign blame for anti-social acts.  But an anti-social act is itself conceptually a changeable thing according to evolving popular standards.  Heck!  Professors professing the wrong set of ideas in university, or even playing devil’s advocate in a discussion, may be guilty of anti-social acts these days!  (So much for the great commission of the universities to explore truth with some sort of objectivity!)

Meanwhile, in the back reaches of our souls, the little inner voice still whispers, “But you know you are a sinner, that you have been and are immoral.  You know there really are right and wrong things, things in your mind and that you actually do which really should change, however much they can be rationalized and temporized by your own inclinations and the wink-winking of society.”

The debate within goes on, poked alive from time to time – maybe by one of those religious-types or some passing reference in a show or a book or a magazine.  Old terms like “(in)equity” and “(in)justice” still evoke moral outrage, whatever they may now be directed at. 

And then the “celestial spark” flares up at you and irritates you:  “When you took that little thing at work, you know it was stealing, eh?  When you lied that little black lie to your partner or your boss to cover up, it was a lie.  When you tell yourself your drinking, recreational drug-use, gambling, and porn “dabbling” are not really hurting anyone else, you know damn well that’s so untrue.  When you go out on another shopping binge and spend way beyond your discretionary spending budget, you know it just ain’t right or fair and everyone else in the family will suffer for it.  When you habitually gorge on junk-food as some sort of emotional therapy, underneath you know how bad it is for your health, and that you will pay for it, and so will those who have to care for you.  And, in all this stuff, everyone else pays for your guilty conscience’s desperate gymnastics and your manipulative antics to justify and bury your – um, er, gulp – sins!”

This litany is not my way of saying I am more righteous than anyone else.  The reason I can make the list is that I am well-acquainted with sin myself, and with some of the things on that list.  But denying that they make me feel guilty (just another way of saying they spur my conscience into appropriate reaction) will never give me peace or help me change.  For that, well, there’s only one road out – get ready for it! – Repentance!

I suspect that a great many of us here in the West will not even be able to accept that this primal need is more than a sort of vague cultural memory that can be dismissed out of hand, or at least by procrastination and neglect and rereading/rehearing all the rant and cant against subservience to religious claptrap.  But if we accept that this old concept still lives in our hearts and souls because it is a reality, however hard we have worked to bury it, we then have to come to terms with how we actually go about it – this “turning right around to go in another, radically different direction” so that we can really begin to change and experience a new way of living at peace with ourselves, our loved ones, and the world.

Perhaps a recent and very powerful historical illustration will help.  I speak of Germany.

Absurd Holocaust denial aside (yet millions still buy the Big Lie that it never happened, or that it didn’t happen on anything like the scale all the historical records declare), the whole word is aware of the unspeakable crimes of the Nazi regime in Germany between 1933-45, aided and abetted by a great many accomplices in other states of Europe, whether directly ruled by the Germans or coerced.  Six million Jews and as many more other “subhumans” (Romani, gays, disabled, etc.) died in extermination camps or by massacre or execution.  Tens of millions more were killed by deliberate policy of reprisal, starvation, deportation, intimidation, etc.

We now know that the fable that the ordinary German populace did not know, or knew little, about what was going on is mostly bunk.  It is easy to judge from the outside that they should have stood up to oppose this horrendous and monstrous action, that the Army should have taken action to stop it and punish the SS and perpetrators.  However, we don’t have to look far afield to find numerous examples of bystanders looking the other way while terrible things are done right under our noses.  Fear and the desire for personal peace (“just stay out of it!”) keep mouths shut.  It is costly to step in to confront injustice and just plain old evil.  You may very well end up the next victim.

World War 2 ended and some of the worst war criminals were tried and executed by the Allied victors.  Others vanished, while still others were quietly slipped into the shadows to serve the new masters who wanted their expertise to use against new enemies.  A great many minor players just blended back into the general population, hoping to remain more or less invisible.

But in Germany, after a decade or so, a remarkable thing began to happen, and it lives in that nation still.  There was a real, genuine, national repentance!

TO BE CONTINUED

Featured

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

“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities—brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”

John W. Gardner

“We need not only a purpose in life to give meaning to our existence but also something to give meaning to our suffering.”

Eric Hoffer

 “paradigm n. 1. a typical example or pattern; a model. 2. a mode of viewing the world which underlies the theories and methodology of science etc. in a particular period of history.”

The Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002

Paradigms do not die easily for any of us.  Every people and culture in history has had and has its ruling paradigms.  We are acculturated to believe that the world and cosmos work according to this common understanding of reality.  Families and communities operate within the shared paradigm of a clan, a nation and a civilization.  Some local expressions may deviate to a degree, but on the whole are rooted in the bigger picture.

 In the 21st Century, the overarching Western (and, to a large degree, global) paradigm is scientific, technological, and evolutionary.  This tells us that all things can be learned and understood, formed, reformed, fixed, and improved by Science and its applied side, Technology.  The downside is that those two demi-gods can just as easily be turned to evil and destructive ends as used for good.

Western humans entertain a sort of self-hypnosis that we can and will master nature, compel it to do our bidding, because, tiny on the cosmic scale as we are, we are smart, really smart!  We can learn everything we need to because we are so smart.  We apparently are in the process of uncovering the very secrets of the Universe Itself – its when, what, and how at least.  Our current paradigm mostly sloughs off the why and who and makes the where irrelevant.

A near synonym for paradigm is worldview.  We all have one.  Worldview is a broader concept than paradigm because it takes in everything we believe, whether we are conscious of those beliefs or just operate from them without ever formulating them in so many words.  Much of our worldview is simply absorbed from our infancy on, and perhaps even in the womb, but the human infant rapidly moves beyond mere instinctual responses to learn how things fit into its little world and how to begin manipulating aspects of that little world to satisfy its basic needs and begin using things.  As we grow, huge new parts of our worldview are added by imitation, absorption, formal instruction, and experience.

Worldviews are not static structures within our psyche.  Events and experiences constantly impact them and make us modify them on an ongoing basis.  Big events, whether positive or negative, bring acute crises in our worldviews and challenges to our paradigms.  An accumulation of small factors may also do this over time.  This is true for everyone individually, and just as true for societies.  Our responses to these crises reveal our fundamental character and direct our future course.

Our opening citations tell us that there are two basic responses to every major challenge – rise up to meet it as an opportunity to grow, or run and try to hide from things we can’t or won’t face up to.  There are two variations available.  First, a tactical withdrawal, as the military would put it.  Draw back temporarily to regroup, to gain some time to reform the lines so that we can move forward later with a plan to meet the crisis and find and perhaps even exploit the hidden opportunity within it.  The second is to bravely (or abjectly) surrender to fate and let disaster triumph.

We of the West in the early 21st Century are at a major crossroads.  The crisis in our culture and souls has been growing for many decades until it is now screaming at us.  Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water being very gradually heated up, we have been ignoring its growth until it has become the elephant in the room.  Every now and then it startles us with a resounding “BOOM!”  We are briefly forced to come out of our stupor and self-absorbed quest to accumulate and satiate ourselves, but then hasten to “get back to normal”.

Think World War 1, the Great Depression, World War 2, the 60s Counterculture ferment, Civil Rights and race riots, 9/11, and even the economic meltdown of 2008.  All everyone wanted after these times of turmoil was to somehow bury it all and get back to “personal peace and affluence” as Francis A. Schaeffer put it.  We operate with an illusion that we deserve and can achieve something like Utopia via luxury, ease, and convenience.  Discovering the world does not promise this, we seek to approximate it in our personal lives.  Here in the West, we believe we deserve it, we are owed it. 

Other civilizations seem to have kept a more balanced perspective.  Buddha’s wisdom that “All life is suffering” guides hundreds of millions to understand that the kind of Utopia the West propagandizes is an illusion that just begets more suffering.  Hinduism says “Amen” and offers eventual perfect unity with the One after multiple lifetimes of vain striving.

We of the West have taken the opposite tack and succumbed to a materialist worldview that tells us that the only version of Paradise is one to be found here in the one lifetime we know we have.  Such a Paradise must perforce consist of maximum pleasure and comfort, for what else is there?  You cannot offer people a vision of the future perfection of the human race as a substitute and expect them to sacrifice their own chance at some joy and contentment here and now in the name of evolution.

Ideology fills no heart’s void.  It divides.  Science in itself answers no ultimate questions.  How does it help you even if it’s true that the Cosmos is 14 billion years old?  Humanly, it’s meaningless to tell us that it will go on for another fifty billion years before it either implodes to start all over again, or just dissipates into a cold, dead, never-ending expanse.

We cannot avoid wanting “something to give meaning to our suffering”, as Hoffer says.  Truly, existence without meaning is suffering at its worst – viz. Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist classic, La Nausée.  The need to know “Why?” ever haunts us, and the “Just because” of Evolution falls dead in our hearts.  Even the hardest atheist hopes his/her life has meant something to someone.  Humans are cursed with the terrible, tremendous, burning need for hope.  We are bred to the bone with the aspiration to know the truth – about ourselves, about our earthly home, about this enormous reality called Cosmos.

Every child learning to discover knows in the gut that all this cannot be just a freak, a huge cosmic joke, a meaningless illusion that tricks us into believing it is here for a purpose, into which we fit somehow.

Despite more than a century of intellectualized propaganda that there’s really no meaning and that there is no Creator-Being behind it all, even most Westerners still stubbornly cling to the belief that there is such a Being, that it does mean something, and that we do have some unique place and role in it all, both as individuals and as a species.  The very fabric of our being is formed to believe.

Hence the gnawing doubt that eats at our subconscious and keeps blowing on the smouldering wick/ “celestial spark” of conscience to annoy us and prick us and remind us that we have a moral obligation to seek justice and act humbly and do mercy to one another in the name of and in honour of that Creator who, it has long been said, made us in Their own image.

Hence the mostly sublimated but always-there suspicion that we really do need to repent!  For something!  Even when we find some good reason to, it’s never quite enough.  The heart, mind, soul, and spirit still hunger for something deeper that the partial points to.  For without turning to the Creator, there is no ultimate reconciliation possible, no final resting place to find.  The still small voice thunders inside our deep of deeps, “Turn around!  Turn back!  The Kingdom of God is within, in that place of the broken Divine image waiting to be made whole again.”

TO BE CONTINUED

Featured

Inconvenient Conscience, 5 – Turning Around, 1

“You reap what you sow; if you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind.” The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible)

“Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana

“Turn right around, for the Rule (Kingdom) of God is at hand/right here/right now/among you at this very moment.” – Jesus

I have been a student of history for most of my life.  I grew up in a home surrounded by books and steeped in a love for music.  My father had a large library of serious books about all kinds of things – history, philosophy, theology, psychology, and science among them.  He had never finished High School because, when the Depression hit in 1929, as the oldest of five, and a sixteen-year-old boy, he had to drop out of school to help feed the family.  Despite this, he always hungered to learn and accumulated and read books, encouraging his children to do what he had not been able to do.

My parents not only made sure we had the basics, but strongly encouraged us to go farther than they had been able to.  (My mother had completed High School.)  Mom made sure we had an impressive array of good children’s books and Encyclopedia – the Britannica Junior, Britannica (Adult) and Americana, and a complete set of The Book of Knowledge.

I was a strange kid.  I rarely read the Hardy Boys, but loved adventure stories, especially those based on History, like Enid Blyton or G.A. Henty books.  But I loved “real history” most of all and began devouring all the Encyclopedia articles about history – in all three sets of Encyclopedia by the age of Ten.  I began to rummage in my father’s library too to find interesting stuff I could at least partly understand.  I read Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of the Second World War  the first time at ages thirteen and fourteen.

It was my strange taste in books which opened up a door to a friendship with my paternal grandfather, a man with a reputation in the family for being hard and at times mean to kids, a veteran of WW1 who never spoke about it except with a few old army friends he still had – and me, under an oath of silence until he was dead!  (I have written and published an account of my unique friendship with “Grandpa” in Grandpa’s Hands, available on Amazon.)  This is one big reason true war stories have always drawn me.

What fascinated me about history was that it reveals what people are really like – the good, the bad, the ugly, the sublime, the stupid, and the downright wicked.  I discovered that historians don’t always agree about exactly what happened and why, and sometimes not even when, but through all of that muddle the truth about who and what we humans are really like as we show by deeds rather than words keeps breaking through.  Psychology has its place, but history, I found, is the context for everything and teaches the best and worst about human nature set in the nitty-gritty of both the big story and all the little stories as they fit into the big story.

I also found that all the great leaders displayed some degree of deep perception of human nature.  Great thinkers might have this too, but many of the great ideologues seemed to lose sight of it in their flights of imagination and fascination with the stratosphere of best-case scenarios if only humans would stop being so damn contrary.  This led me to read extensively about the two extremes – the amazingly good people and the downright evil ones.  So I read a lot about heroes and discovered that they all have clay feet, like Churchill and Lincoln, both of whom remain among the “greats” despite their flaws.  And I read a lot about horrendously wicked people such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, mad (as in insane) genii who functioned at a high enough level to do very terrible things while somehow convincing and coercing myriads to acquiesce in their infamy.  (The psychology of why people follow such monsters is quite another issue.)

The three brief references at the top of this episode point to the most important but most neglected truths about humanity that paying attention to history teaches us:  (1) the Law of Karma is almost completely borne out over time, to the degree that it invites belief in the old-fashioned idea of fate; (2) everyone knows that we should learn from the past, but almost no one ever does – both as individuals and as societies from the smallest level (family) to the widest (nations, civilizations); (3) nevertheless, there is a way out of the trap of being the pawn of history and the mere victim of fate, – both personal and collective.

First, about Karma.  I am not a Hindu or a Buddhist, but the idea of karma is quite simple: sooner or later your past, or our past, will out and catch up with us.  There is always a price to pay, whether now or later.  Biblically, it is “You reap what you sow,” and “Be aware; sooner or later your sins will find you out,” and, as Jesus said, “What was said in secret will be shouted from the housetops,” and “You will be accountable for every idle word that you say.”  Physics tells us that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” and also now tells us that even chaos theory and the uncertainty principle seem to sort themselves out to take every obscure event into the equation.  We best see this illustrated by the “butterfly effect”, that the beat of a butterfly’s wings in China may be the final factor in unleashing a typhoon on Hawaii.

History is full of “might-have-beens”, “what-ifs”.  What if the assassin in Munich at the beer hall in 1939 had succeeded in killing Hitler?  What if the British Tommy in 1917 who had him dead to rights in the Battle of Arras had not just let him walk away?  What if John Wilkes Booth had been stopped and shot by Lincoln’s AWOL bodyguard at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865?  What if Julius Caesar had heeded the seer and his own wife Calpurnia on March 15, 44 BCE?  Etc.

And, perhaps the greatest of all, at least in the West, what if Yeshua ben-Yosef had never been born in Bethlehem, probably in the year 4 BCE?  We could then have just been gradually transformed into Stoics or Epicureans, or, perhaps by the gradual progress westward from India of monks and adherents, we would have evolved into an Asokan-style Buddhist culture.  Or perhaps we would have all become Jews, or just remained pagans of various varieties.

But the West’s history turned down a very different road following the coming of this single person and the life and death (and reputed resurrection) of this extraordinary comet of a human being named Yeshua ben-Yosef.  He came from “Nowhereville”, from a very obscure village called Natzeret in the north of an insignificant province of the Roman Empire on the eastern fringe of the Roman (and then Western) world.

The absurdity of the West’s identity-crisis and the extent of its conscience troubles are no better illustrated than by its attempts to divest itself of direct association with the Person of Jesus.  Failing that, we exert might and main to transform him into something far less potent and challenging than he was or can be made to be by even the most extreme efforts. 

Since he was born and lived and died, despite the completely asinine but still persisting attempts to say that he never really existed (!!!???), we then proceed to a bunch of other “if-onlys”.  If only he hadn’t made it so damn hard to reduce him to another nice philosopher and moral teacher.  If only all those wretched miracles didn’t keep popping up to confuse the record, and to confuse the gullible masses who keep insisting they can and do still happen!  And worst of all, if only the absolutely absurd tale of his resurrection from the dead could just be disposed of, once and for all!  Then we could ignore all the really challenging bits of his life and teaching, and the kinds of extreme behaviours to repeat those challenges and make us rethink our own lives and society that some of his most dedicated (fanatical?) followers have kept confronting us with over the last two thousand years.

That word of his they keep repeating just plain sticks in the craw of the modern psyche.  Metanoia in the ancient Greek – Repent in English!  Sounds too freaking religious, eh?  It just means, “Turn around!  You’re going the wrong way, straight to destruction!  There’s another way, a better way, but you have to turn around!”

TO BE CONTINUED

Featured

Inconvenient Conscience, 4 – Conscience vs. Tyranny

“For now we see [ourselves] in a mirror, dimly, but then [we will see] face to face.  Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”

from The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians Chapter 13, verse 12, in The New Testament

As we once more pick up the question of conscience in the West, we ask, “Why are we so afraid to face ourselves and admit the truth?”  – the truth about why the West has run from the “celestial spark” (see Part 3) of conscience. 

The process of running from ourselves began long ago.  It has gathered tremendous momentum since the ferment of the 1960s Counterculture Revolution.  Since then, there has been a continual impetus to shed the Judaeo-Christian elements of the West’s character and foundation.  It would be unthinkable now for any leading statesman to speak as Winston Churchill did in 1940 when inspiring the people of the British Empire during World War 2 as he declared that it was a war to save “Christian civilization”.

Today we live a culture where people are often shamed for holding strong morals and principles based on the conviction that God holds us accountable.  However, if you hold such notions because of a philosophy or ideology other than the Judaeo-Christian, there is a shade more tolerance.  The public face of the West is now that all principles are mutable in the face of new notions of truth about what constitutes progressive tolerance and an open social order.

Churchill never claimed to be a model of devout Christianity.  However, he recognized that the foundation of the West stood on its Judaeo-Christian heritage as much as upon the Greco-Roman tradition of reason and rational thought.  He was not denying or excusing excesses committed in the name of Christ, or of any religious leader or institution.  But neither was he under any illusion that human nature is basically good and our powers of reason and scientific discovery of truth and wisdom will take us into paradise on earth.  He was no fan of utopian schemes and well knew that the real meaning of “utopia” is “nowhere”.  The results of utopian thinking were rampant before his eyes in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and the Fascist countries of Europe.

Churchill preferred democracy.  He famously quipped, “Democracy is the worst possible system of government – except for all the others.”  He was not deluded that the popular masses would somehow find and decide what is best because, after all, people are all basically good when you scratch beneath the shallow exterior.  It was because he believed the opposite that he fought tooth and nail to save democracy throughout his whole political life and in his prolific literary output.

His iron faith in democracy was based on the understanding that the ruthless and brutal will naturally rise to the top if not checked.  After several thousand years of trying various schemes of oligarchic, monarchic, and tyrannical rule, the verdict was in that the great and powerful individual or oligarchy will inevitably degenerate into selfish, abusive, corrupt, dissolute, brutal, and oppressive government, regardless of the best of early intentions.  As Lord Action (an eminent British historian of the 19th Century) put it, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Churchill was himself a scion of the privileged English aristocracy.  Paradoxically, he firmly believed that for the inevitable abuses of power by the powerful to be held in check, ordinary people have to be empowered through constitutional arrangements and a relatively impartial system of justice.  None of this was “natural” to any civilization that had yet existed until it gradually emerged where Christianity had taken root, buttressed by certain ideals of the Greeks and Romans at their best.

 For Churchill, this sort of government found its best and most effective expression in Great Britain and was extended to its Empire thereafter.  This happy marriage emerged only in the culture and civilization of “the West” – in Europe and its appendices in North America and a few other places.  (Please note, I am not advocating the innate superiority of the West.  We are discussing an historical phenomenon.)

The essential difference between Western leaders like Churchill and those since is their fundamental view of human nature.  Churchill’s view, shared by most educated people and leaders of his generation, was that humans are not basically good, but flawed, marred, and ever ready to take advantage of others, circumstances, and nature for personal gain and benefit.  People are not born as blank slates imbued with benign complaisance and readiness to treat others with equity and justice, all things being equal. 

Where did Churchill’s pessimism about human nature spring from?  Three main sources: (1) a deep reading of the Bible and understanding of its core message[1] of fallen human nature in need of Divine salvation, (2) a profound interest in and study of history which continually illustrated #1, and (3) personal experience and astute observation of human behaviour, his own and everyone else’s he ever met.

The second and third of Churchill’s sources are still wide-open to anyone who cares to consult them and draw appropriate conclusions.  For the most part, the first has now become a closed book.  Oh, it is still available to be read, but it has been discarded as a religious relic or an irrelevant mythological curiosity by our educational authorities and intelligentsia.  What reputable person aspiring to be taken seriously and become influential today would now publicly refer to it as a source of wisdom?

Why did Churchill (and so many other leaders and thinkers back then) use quotes from and allusions to “The Good Book” regularly in his speeches and writings and still keep his credibility?  Is it just a question of different times and less enlightened generations of the past?  Did Churchill and other leaders and serious academics of his time actually think they could use the ideas based on such a source to inspire people to reach beyond their own limitations and to effect meaningful, progressive change in society?

This is not an article about Churchill, as interesting a person as he is.  It is about our feeble grasp on truth and our society’s vaporous idea of conscience.  Part of the cause of our social and ethical disintegration is that we have pushed the old “sources of truth” which people formerly considered crucial to the side.  Even completely secular thinkers and admirers of the Enlightenment tradition such as John Ralston Saul (Voltaire’s Bastards) have deplored this phenomenon.

The truth about us as a collective, and probably for many of us as individuals, is that we are adrift, “at sea” with no landfall or reference points in sight.  Oh yeah!  There is an old map still around somewhere, but everybody says it’s like those medieval charts with pictures of sea serpents and is completely fanciful.

The pursuit of fame, fortune, the perfect body, the perfect career, the perfect partner, all turns to sand after a while.  When we wake up to that, we begin to search for an identity beyond our technological prowess and our mania for “self-actualizing” ourselves as anything we care to imagine.  For most of us, the refrain of “you can be and do anything you like or can imagine, even totally reinvent yourself and your gender” turns out to be the pursuit of a phantom which keeps disappearing around the next corner or curve in the road.  Or maybe the Phantom sneaks up from behind and laughs snidely that it’s a chimera.  The Phantom smirks that we should have known all along what we are really supposed to become, but now we’ve burned so many bridges it’s too late, or seems to be, to go back.

The West now suffers from a two-fold collective guilt-complex.  The first element of it stems from the residual effect of the old paradigm of the missionary impulse to “civilize the world” – i.e., to Christianize it, which also meant to Europeanize it.  This bred imperialism and exploitation while covering it in a veneer of a holy mission.  Not that every missionary or even every imperial administrator was a conscious agent of oppression and exploitation – although some of the administrators were crassly so.  We rightly rejoice that this arrogant hubris has now been shed (or so we think) as wickedness.  And we feel rightful guilt for it.  In this, our conscience has been true.

The second part of our collective guilty conscience is that in having thrown out the very sources of the West’s well-developed sense of social justice, we have lost the very values that have always kept us on track towards that goal.  It used to be called the promise of the coming Kingdom of God taking root in this age, however imperfectly it was done.  Now, without a compass, and having undermined our very foundations, we have only the very thinnest notion of what real justice and mercy look like.  In making ourselves free to pursue whatever vision of ourselves we choose, we have made ourselves slaves to the baser parts of our nature.

[1] Churchill was raised with the Bible by his Nanny.  He had sections of it memorized and continued to read it from time to time as an adult.


Featured

Inconvenient Conscience, 3: Whatever happened to our conscience?

“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.”

George Washington’s “Rule of Civility”, adopted from a now unknown Jesuit priest of the 16th Century.

We finished last time with three questions, the first of which was “Why have we become so morally, ethically, and spiritually bankrupt as communities and nations?”  Today we will attempt an answer.

The West has lost its bearings when it comes to foundational principles and values.  It is fractured and fractious, with its public face deeply cratered between “Right” and “Left”, “Progressives” and “Reactionaries”.  We could find many other labels to attempt to describe our riven soul.

Despite our collective moral, ethical, and spiritual bankruptcy everyone retains some sense of morality, ethics, and spirituality, however jumbled.  The bankruptcy consists of our society, our culture, our civilization, having no deep reserves, no central “bank” of long-held traditions and unifying vision from which to draw any more.  Our communities are fragmented and confused as to what is true, what is worth saving and fighting for, what is the core of who and what we are and aspire to be.

While I do not see George Washington as a model of public virtue and probity as our American neighbors’ national mythology so often portrays him, he certainly had virtues and principles, however inconsistently he may have lived by them (his views on slavery, for example).  On the whole, he attempted to live as a man of integrity and honor.  He lived in a time when the general consensus was that to not live by one’s conscience was reprehensible, if not unthinkable.

By contrast, we make heroes of people who have too often parked, seared, and even erased their consciences in order to claw their way to the pinnacle of whatever heap represents the ultimate in achievement.  CEOs, super-rich entrepreneurs, aspiring academics, elite athletes, unscrupulously ambitious politicos, actors, rock stars, etc. all leave behind them a bleeding trail of broken promises to and lives of ex-spouses, children, parents, siblings, best friends, business partners, associates, and team-members.  What was done to “arrive” disappears in the mists of fame, acclaim, ultra-wealth, and even notoriety fanned into a blaze of glory by mawkish media and the cyber-universe.

What Mr. Washington’s Rule called “that little spark of celestial fire” has gone out.  In truth, we no longer have a connection to the Great Celestial Flame that lights and keeps the fire burning.  All I have is my own little fire and no other source to keep it going but my own feeble strength.  This is quickly depleted without a connection to a core of power from which I can draw.  It’s not very surprising if I find my spark overwhelmed by the side-drafts and downdrafts of all the contrary currents wafting into my little corner with every passing fancy of the latest trends of “revolutionary new thinking” and (manufactured) popular fashion, opinion, and pseudo-folk wisdom.  All the more in an age when every wild idea runs rampant across the cyber-sphere with little restraint.

But the saga of taming the West’s conscience so that it no longer presents an obstacle to doing what I want, when I want, with or to whom I want and not having to face any consequences is a long tale.  For the sake of brevity, and not putting you, my readers, to sleep, I will reduce it to a rather crude simplification with which you can then concur or take exception.  If it merely succeeds in provoking you to turn around and check on your own little “celestial spark”, even if you reject my version of the story, it’s all good!  Argue with me, but, as a once-popular Christian chorus put it, “fan [it] into flame”.

Here is my crude tale:

“Once upon a time, the ancient world was a hodgepodge of warring polytheistic tribes and nations.  All these tribes and nations lived as seemed right in their own eyes and had different ways of holding themselves together and accountable.  Generally, it was recognized that there were divine entities who were somewhat marginally interested in human behaviour, even if only for their own benefit of receiving their worship, which validated their existence.

“Sages, seers, and prophets began to suspect that the stories of their divinities were often less than admirable with regard to promoting general good behaviour among their human adherents.  It was proposed by some of these that beyond these rather low-level sets of deities there must be a Higher, Ultimate Divinity who had created the world to operate on established laws and principles that were valid for everyone, everywhere, and always.  Lawgivers and great spiritual leaders proposed ways of living according to the ways of the Great God, who was increasingly seen as the One God behind all the others, and who may even have created them.

“At this point, paths began to diverge as some peoples followed the Way given them by one of these inspired Lawgivers or Enlightened Ones.  But that there is a Higher Power, a Supreme Deity who esteems moral righteousness and has created a basically good creation became a general principle in much of Asia and then moved into the West.  Two strands of this belief penetrated into the heart of what became the West – the first via the Greeks and their philosophical disciples, the Romans, and the second via the Jews and their theological and spiritual near-cousins, the Christians. 

“Skipping forward a bit, we find an uneasy unification of the two strands forming the core of what became the soul of the West.  Like Jacob and Esau in the Bible Book of Genesis, the two struggled in the womb of their mother [Rebekkah in the Bible story] and the younger [Christianity historically] came into the world grasping the heel of the elder [both Greco-Roman philosophy and Judaism are in this place historically] and ever seeking to surpass him and take his place.”

The Story of the West cannot be in the least understood or kept in any proper perspective unless we keep the reality of its birth in sight.  The civilization that came into being from the unification of these competing twins became known as “Christendom” for about 1500 years.  Only since World War 2 has the West turned its back on that long and tortured but immensely real and powerful saga and sought to substitute another tale for it.

The chief element of the new story is the determination of a new set of self-appointed Lawgivers and Prophets to deny and excise, or perhaps exorcise would be the most accurate term to describe this ferocious campaign, the Judaeo-Christian twin from the family. 

What such an exorcism is producing is becoming more and more appallingly evident.  It is a mutilated, traumatized facsimile of a soul with no depth or substance, incapable of sustaining the body once inspired and invigorated by the uneasy partnership of the twins.  Even the remaining twin (the Greco-Roman) has become so marred that it scarcely resembles what was once so vital and admirable and extolled – its heart of reason and gracious estimation of human dignity as the reflection of the Supreme Divinity.  It seems that by killing one twin, we have killed, or are in the process of killing, both.

Ideology blinds its fanatical promoters and advocates at least as much as any theology.  What we have now seen all too terribly in modern history is that it ultimately kills many more people, much more beauty, creativity, and even creation than any set of Inquisitors, Zealots, Mujehadin (?), Puritans, or whatever other set of religious fanatics ever did.

And one of the most terrible and tragic casualties left in the devastation along the roadside is “that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience”.

TO BE CONTINUED

Featured

Inconvenient Conscience, 2: Seared Conscience Anyone?

“Conscience is extremely well-bred and soon leaves off talking to those who do not wish to hear it.”

Samuel Butler

“The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake.” 

Germaine de Staël

All of us have scars on our bodies.  What is not so obvious are the scars on our souls, and especially on that part of the soul called conscience.  And, just as each of us as individuals have these indelible marks etched into our flesh, our minds, and our spirits, so do our families, our communities, our nations, and our civilization.

Butler and de Staël point towards the universal human condition which the ancient Christian leader known as the Apostle Paul called “the seared conscience”.  Almost everyone who lives long enough and develops normally will eventually develop this condition, at least to some degree.  If you think you are an exception, I will simply ask you to think of two little things you now regularly do without any hesitation and which, if you think about them anymore, you know are not really (1) good for you and (2) good for someone else.  Do “little white lies” always effortlessly slide by?  What harmful little habit do you ingeniously excuse every time, or just about every time, you indulge it?  What destructive pattern of behaviour in a relationship do you maintain despite knowing how much it irks, and perhaps even offends, the other party – not because you intend to be cruel, but just because it’s comfortable for you, or it allows you a small sense of control at their expense, even though it would not cost you much to give it up?  (Of course, breaking a long-established pattern can be quite troublesome.)

You get the point.  But why do you not even have a qualm any more about those little cheats and micro-thefts, those tiny little lies to yourself and others?  And how did they come to be justified in the first place?

Before we go any farther, I will ‘fess up that I am as guilty as the next person, so this is not about me or anyone being better than you or anyone else.  The religious “saints” of any faith you choose to name had and have to deal with this.  We need to give up the tendency to wrap such hallowed characters in haloes and picture them as floating across the ground rather than actually having to walk up and down and stub their toes like all the rest of us.  James, the brother of Jesus, wrote in a letter to the early Jewish (Messianic) Christian community, “All of us make many mistakes, after all.” (James 3, verse 2)  But now we call him “Saint James”, warts and all – and the accounts we have of him do not make him sound very gracious, although very righteous!

Physical weakness and illness are familiar to all of us, some much more than others.  So too are the consequences of accidents or foolish actions that result in injury and even infirmity.  Even the individual who otherwise exhibits no moral compunction about almost everything else will admit they were stupid and wish they had not been that one time that crippled them, or maybe did that to one person who was/is really special to them, at least as far as they are capable of feeling special attachment to or need of one particular person.

As Butler elegantly puts it, the seared conscience results from a habit of “leaving off” listening to the inner voice which used to say, “What you’re doing is not right and you know it.”  When we cease hearing the inner voice, we also become experts at outwardly rationalizing our harmful behaviour as “not really so bad”.  Another favourite line you hear and maybe have used yourself is, “If I’m harming anyone, it’s really just me.”  Addicts love that one!  As if their drinking, gambling, and drug-use costs nothing to their family, friends, and finances!

What are our little bad habits, even if only minor in comparison to the really bad ones (drugs, alcohol, gambling, porn, etc.) except petty addictions?  Bad habits are the little (?) addictions that kill pieces of us slowly rather than swiftly like “real” addictions – you know, those big ones like booze, alcohol, porn, etc.  Porn is now so widespread that it has virtually been removed from the general cultural conscience as an addiction and is even suggested by marriage/relationship counsellors as a therapy for spicing up the flagging sex-life!  Huh?  As if the guilt over porn-use isn’t there and hasn’t sapped the desire for and attraction to real-life sex in the first place.  It’s like saying to the wretched heroin addict in withdrawal, “Say, take this!  It’ll make you feel better!” and handing them their next hit.  (Hmm.  I seem to recall certain “safe-injection” sites in certain cities that do pretty much that very thing.)

Voilà the collective seared conscience in living Technicolor!  Another example is abortion, which, at least here in Canada, has been eliminated from any possibility of discussion in the public forum.  Our Prime Minister’s party will not even allow anyone who questions any part of our lawless approval of it (there has been no law in Canada restricting abortion for any reason since 1988) to stand as a candidate or open a discussion about it at any level.  The Opposition parties are hardly any better, and most of them are at least the same.

The seared conscience eventually leaves us selectively blind and deaf to our own sins – both individually and collectively.  Think Nazi Germany and its incremental persecutions of all those classified as social misfits and parasites (Jews, the physically and mentally infirm who had no one caring about them, Slavs, Gypsies, Communists, gays and lesbians, etc).  The myth that ordinary Germans did not really know what was going on has long since been abandoned and completely disproved, despite the arrant hatred of Jews and other victims by Holocaust deniers who continue to use the Nazi Big-Lie propaganda technique.  You can’t just “disappear” a few million of your own people and pretend you didn’t know, no matter how much Nacht und Nebel you createto cover it up!

Both individually and societally, part of the justification process of developing a seared conscience is excusing the same things in others so that we don’t have to be reminded about our own violations of that dormant “delicate voice of conscience” as Mme de Staël put it.  If I can be tolerant and forgiving of someone else’s substance abuse or petty cheating, or occasional lapses into abusive relational behaviour, well then it can’t be so bad if I fall into it either, can it?

My purpose here is not to stir up a load of guilt in anyone reading this.  Neither is it to advocate a return to old-time religious judgmentalism like the Puritans practiced in New England or in the days of Oliver Cromwell in England, or Calvin in Geneva, or Knox in Scotland, or the Inquisition.  That is no solution either.  That too is a manifestation of seared conscience.  We do not want anything like Iran under the Ayatollahs or Saudi Arabia under the mullahs.  We want a society and culture where we don’t silence and censor and persecute one faction while overlooking the addictions to power and control (and whatever else) of the others, but we face the issues honestly and openly.

I leave it to you and God, or whatever other spiritual sense of greater being you deal with, to keep you headed towards a destination that takes others as much into consideration as yourself.  Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Buddha said, “Do not do to someone else what you would not have them do to you.”  Moses said, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” 

Regaining contact with our personal inner moral compass in our now largely morally bankrupt culture is very urgent and important.  In the long run, it is even more important than taming COVID-19.  At least if we believe that human beings are more than creatures who have only a finite existence defined by birth and death.  And perhaps even then.  The bigger issues are (1) to understand why we have become so morally, ethically, and spiritually bankrupt as communities and nations, (2) why we are so afraid to face ourselves and admit the truth, and (3) what, if anything, we can do about it.

TO BE CONTINUED

Featured

Inconvenient Conscience, 1

consciencea moral sense of right and wrong especially as felt by a person and affecting behaviour; an inner feeling as to the goodness or otherwise of one’s behaviour.

Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002

Conscience is one of those human peculiarities which we have traditionally identified as setting us apart from the animals.  With all the ultra-progressive ferment to abolish traditions and moral categories as sexist gender-oppression, Western racism, and capitalist exploitation, the existence of this quirk of homo sapiens has become rather inconvenient for those pushing hard to change (and even abolish) how society deals with questions of right and wrong and justice and injustice.

The simple truth is that conscience has always been bloody inconvenient.  From the Book of Job (perhaps the oldest literary work in the Hebrew language and one of the oldest philosophical and theological treatises in the world) to the ruminations of Plato and Cicero, it has flayed the dealings of every generation and plagued the footsteps of humans from Emperors to beggars.

 Everyone who reaches the age of reason and accountability has experienced the discomfort of a guilty conscience.  Whatever else might be argued from psychology, philosophy, and ideology, no one can deny that they have, at some point, offended their own sense of fairness and rightness in some way they have treated others, even if only for a fleeting moment.

Occasionally, you meet people who appear to have no operative conscience to speak of.  (It seems as though there are more of them than ever these days.)  A few such whom I have met have been downright scary! I suspect that most callous people have developed the art of successfully ignoring and denying any sense of guilt about (ab)using and manipulating others for their own ends.  Strangely, they are very quick to decry offences committed against them and usually cry for vengeance upon the offender. 

The desire for vengeance is the flip side of conscience. It comes from a sense of moral right and wrong in which the avenger is seeking to redress the balance of wrong committed against them or someone or something they care deeply for.  The irony of successful revenge is that it does not absolve the avenger of guilt for now having reversed the balance of right and wrong by in turn wronging the first wrong-doer to an equal or greater degree.

People of my age and older sometimes marvel at the lack of integrity and sense of shame that appears to be so pervasive in our current version of Western society.  (In all conscience, we must admit that we helped create this sorry state with all our “countercultural” zeal of youth fifty years ago.)  But it is not as if the situation has never existed before, either in the West or every other civilization that has ever existed.  (Of this more later in this series.) The real question is why we humans fight so hard to rid ourselves of the burden of guilt-sense, regardless of the era.

No amount of psychologising about how we’re all victims of social conditioning has yet made conscience go away.  No amount of mental gymnastics guided by Freudian psychoanalysis about repressed sexual desire has rid anyone of having a bad conscience about how they have done and do wrong to others and themselves.  No amount of anthropological research has traced this inconvenient aberration back to some ultra-remote ancestral hominid who somehow evolved this the faculty of feeling badly about inflicting pain and suffering on other humans and even on other creatures.

Is conscience an instinct bred into us by our evolutionary heritage?  If so, it is a strange one.  As far as we know (but of course we cannot know for sure), it is not an instinct shared by any other higher order creature.  Some other “higher” animals seem to share elements of understanding about death and caring and even love.  Some can learn to flee when they have done something they know displeases humans and get caught.  Some even punish members of their pack, pod, or flock for neglecting their role or crossing boundaries. While such behaviours demonstrate remarkable animal intelligence, they are not bred from conscience, but self-preservation.

If conscience were an instinct, it would seem to be related to the general good of protecting and preserving the species rather than the narrower purpose of self-preservation, although that may coincide from time to time.  If nothing else, conscience is closely allied to our superior intellectual and abstract reasoning faculty.  Animals cannot lie and feel bad about it.  They readily steal without compunction.  Predators kill their prey without remorse.  In reproductive rut competitors will fight an opponent to the death without hesitation if necessary.  Many other natural examples of the absence of this weird human behaviour in animals could be cited.

A once well-understood and very descriptive phrase has dropped out of public discourse in the last generation or two. It is “the seared conscience”.  Think of cooking a steak or chop or a stir-fry with meat.  One of the first things to do is to sear the meat in oil on both sides under high heat in order to seal in the flavour.  The New Testament writer known as the Apostle Paul originated the phrase “having a seared conscience” to describe individuals who, by repeated violations, have burned away the tender, delicate exterior layer of their conscience in order to avoid feeling guilty about doing the things they (used to know) are just wrong, regardless of how the general culture and society may view them.  In that sense, they have inoculated themselves against guilt-sense and that nagging inner voice of conscience.

Globally, there is much talk these days of developing “herd immunity” to the COVID-19 virus.  Vaccination seems to be one of the keys to achieving this.  Historical examples of this abound – polio, smallpox, diphtheria, whooping cough, etc.  While it is true that our immune systems can learn to resist infection, without inoculation there really is no such thing as “herd immunity” for a great many diseases once seen as “plagues”.  Even now, for some of the worst diseases and plagues which can and do generate far worse pandemics than the present one, there never has been a vaccine and there remains none on the horizon.  Cancer, diabetes, Bubonic Plague, leprosy, and cholera come to mind as examples.  The only remedy for these is prevention by concerted discipline in hygiene and strict quarantine and treatment should they break out anywhere.  Where COVID will fit in this spectrum we do not yet know.

But the point of this reflection is not our current fight to control the COVID pandemic, as critical as that is.  It is an even larger and, in a general humanitarian sense, more important issue.  It is about a malignant spiritual plague that has set itself deeply in the very core of our personal and collective souls.  It is the searing of our consciences to the point that we have culturally, as a society, reached a condition described by the Hebrew Prophet Yeshayahu (Isaiah to English readers of the Hebrew Bible) 700 years BCE.  There is no “herd immunity” to a bad conscience.  However, we may well be facing the development of the appalling phenomenon of a collective seared conscience.  Here is how Yeshayahu refers to it:

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,

Who change darkness into light and light into darkness,

Who change bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter.”

Chapter 5

It is not so much that this sort of social degradation has never been seen before.  Indeed it has, many times.  But when it appears on a mass scale, it is a sure symptom of a truly sick society.  Perhaps even a terminally ill civilization.

As the great British Meta-historian, Arnold Toynbee, exhaustively demonstrated in his monumental magnum opus, A Study of History, civilizations and cultures (the two are inextricable) have a life-cycle, much like individuals, as indeed do particular nations within civilizations.  When a civilization is approaching its end it shows advanced signs of decay, just as a human body nearing life’s end will. 

We cannot do justice to Toynbee’s twelve volume analysis here.  It must be said that his work has largely been discounted by many of the professional historians of note since he first published it.  The main thrust of those critiques is that all attempts at what is called Meta-History (the academic mortal sin Toynbee committed as he ended a previously brilliant career) are really only an imposition of the author’s already formed worldview on the material.  In this case, Toynbee has been disavowed by his peers as a scion of the Old Western elite imperialist academic establishment and a white male besides. So categorized, his whole approach can be discarded a priori and the man himself dismissed into academic oblivion while others like Herbert Marcuse are elevated into demigod status and their blatant ideological bias declared anointed.

In truth, nobody in any discipline can avoid imposing their already formed worldview on the material studied and what they produce. Thus the charge against Toynbee is spurious, for his critics commit the same sin, even in criticizing him.  That sort of criticism is a ploy to avoid having to actually seriously engage with the astonishing profundity of what Toynbee produced.  (Even supposedly objective disciples as the “pure sciences” (physics, chemistry, mathematics) are practised within a preformed worldview.)

The worst part of Toynbee’s offence is that his whole worldview smacks of the moral categories of the West derived from the now discredited perspective of Judaeo-Christianity.  Judaeo-Christian social philosophy holds that there is a definite gradation of values based on moral scruples and elements of advancement even in a sort of secularized version of “the Kingdom of God”.  In our much more enlightened phase of Post-modern, Post-Christian, decolonialized (etc., etc.) Western society (which is supposedly morphing into [viz. imposing – shades of the old imperialism!] a global, progressive society that will liberate everyone from all conceivable forms of oppression and repression), moral categories must be eschewed, especially any left over from that old paradigm.

Which brings us back to the old notion of a moral conscience.  For there cannot be any other form of conscience.  Bloody hell!  That is so inconvenient!

TO BE CONTINUED

Featured

A Different Kind of Fishing, Part 3

by Vincent Marquis

Copyright ©Vincent Marquis, 2020

(This is the third and concluding part of a re-imagining of the calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John as disciples by Jesus.)

“It was a terrible night,” answered Andreas.

Shim’on cut him off, “We fished all night and caught absolutely nothing.”

Yeshua looked at him soberly, “So why don’t you put back out a little ways and throw a net back in?”

Shim’on looked at him as if he couldn’t be serious.

“Humor me,” said Yeshua with a warm smile.

Shim’on really didn’t want to put in the better part of another hour’s work just to humor someone he hardly knew, but those eyes and that voice were irresistible.  After hesitating, he answered, “Master, since you wish it, we’ll go out again.”  Andreas looked back hard at him in disbelief.  Shim’on motioned to untie the lines and push the boat off the wharf.  They both went to the oars and in a minute the boat was on its way back out onto the lake.

Yeshua stood between them with a hand on the mast and said, “I appreciate a bit of a boat ride.”

Ya’akov and Yochanan, now standing on the wharf, were incredulous. The Shim’on they knew would never agree to put back out right after coming in from a fruitless night.  Shim’on seeking to become friends with a rabbi was a revelation.  Shim’on was not what you would call a serious religious person.

The two junior partners watched wordlessly to see what would happen.  If nothing else, it would make a good story.  They could tease big Shim’on unmercifully and watch him squirm about how easily he was talked into something so obviously pointless by a smooth-talking rabbi.

Andreas and Shim’on rowed the boat out about a stadium.  Shim’on dropped an anchor to keep from drifting.  The likelihood of finding fish in broad daylight, even at this, the closest good spot, was about zero at this hour.  Shim’on nodded his head to Andreas to help prepare a net.  They made sure the tether-line was not tangled. They shook the net loose and moved to the port side.  Shim’on took it himself, readying to cast it so that it opened full and fell into the water at maximum expansion.  Might as well do it right as do it at all!

As he was beginning his move to the cast, Yeshua suddenly interrupted, “Try the other side of the boat.”

Andreas looked at Shim’on.  Would he take this new suggestion?  He knew his brother too well to think he wasn’t already irritated.  What difference would it make?  There were no fish on either side!

He expectedly a sharp retort about wasting their time.  What could a carpenter turned rabbi know about fishing?  A fisherman would not dare to presume to tell him how to build a good house or make a proper table.  For a moment he saw the color rise in Shim’on’s cheeks, then quickly recede.  He shrugged and moved to the starboard quarter.  Then, with a “One, two, three,” and an expert fluid motion he threw it over the side.  It opened perfectly in its parachute shape and landed on the surface of the lake.  The weights carried the bottom down while the cork floats held the top up.

The brothers felt their fatigue.  They sat down wearily on the center seat to wait.  It had been a long, disappointing night, and now they were playing tourist guide to a quirky new celebrity rabbi with strange ideas about fishing.  Shim’on once more thought wistfully of home, a quick wash-up, a nice breakfast with Shoshanah, a cuddle of little Hannah, maybe a nicer cuddle with his wife when the toddler was napping and Grandma was watching her…

Suddenly, the tether line was running out with great speed!  What the??  It yanked to an abrupt halt, even causing their sturdy boat to list heavily to starboard with a sudden jerk.  They were on their feet fully alert and without pause began hauling on the thick tether-line.  Even with their combined strength they could barely move it an inch.  Slowly, agonizingly, they pulled it up one little bit at a time.  Then, without asking, a third pair of strong arms and hands had grabbed on behind Andreas and the line began to move slowly but steadily back into the boat.  Even so, it was back-breaking work.  Yeshua had also stripped down to his tunic.

After what seemed like an eternity in an instant, with burning arms and shoulders, the three men in the boat got the net to the surface.  Getting it up over the side out of the water with all the dead weight of the enormous catch would be another issue.

What Shim’on saw as the net appeared coming out of the depths staggered him.  It was so crammed full of fish that it could not possibly hold more.  And they were all deliciously large and plump!  Every single fish looked like the most perfect the lake had to offer.  It was a catch beyond any fisherman’s wildest dreams!  It was, literally, an impossible catch!  His net should never have been able to hold it; it should have torn from the sheer weight and bulk of it!

They would never be able to haul this over the side, even with all three strong men pulling with all their might.  He told Andreas to yell to Ya’akov and Yochanan to come back out at once.  They had to help get this record catch in now or they would lose it.  It would take both boats and all five of them to get it to shore.

He told Andreas and Yeshua to secure the line till the others came out as he held it braced against the thwart, ensuring that the net would not sink back into the water.  Waiting, he sat down, utterly confounded, looking with awe and wonder at this rabbi-carpenter, full of questions and no possible answers that made any sense.

How had Yeshua known?  Was it just dumb beginner’s luck?  Just a total, freak coincidence?  Or was there something much bigger going on here?  One or two or even a few fish caught in full daylight you could ascribe to luck, coincidence, some sort of freak of water current and temperature.  But this??  Never, ever, not even in a really good night’s fishing!  It had never happened before to anyone in living memory.  And it just happens when this man shows up and tells him to go back out when he’s had the worst night’s fishing that he could remember in years?

He sat in shock, and felt the warm, deep eyes of Yeshua on him again.  He dared a look at him.  Yeshua stood there calmly, returning his gaze.  Shim’on couldn’t look away, although he felt as if the other was seeing right down into his soul, reading the very depths of him even to the most hidden things.  Shim’on trembled, still unable to avert his eyes.

He heard his own voice asking, “Who are you?”

Yeshua’s eyebrows lifted.  The answer left Shim’on no farther ahead.  “Yeshua ben-Yosef, carpenter of Natzeret.”

Ya’akov and Yochanan pulled their boat alongside on the opposite side to the net.  They tied the bow and stern lines to Shim’on’s boat and came over.  As the Bar-Yona boat was listing, they moved gingerly, with Yochanan enthusing, “What’s going on?  What do you need us for?”

Andreas motioned with his head, “Come and see, but don’t lean too far over the side.  One at a time.”

Yochanan moved before Ya’akov, ignoring the precedence of age.  As he leaned carefully and saw the incredible haul suspended in the net, he whistled softly and exclaimed, “By all that is sacred, that’s incredible!  Ya’akov, you have to see this!  You won’t believe it!”  He moved back to let his brother look.

Ya’akov approached cautiously.  When he saw the almost bursting net he simply froze, mouth half-open, eyes wide.  He looked around at Shim’on, still sitting in his own shock.  Ya’akov’s face registered the same emotion as Shim’on’s.  He looked at Yeshua, wondering, questioning, “You made this happen?!”

Andreas had no doubt.  “There’s no other explanation.  We all know what kind of night we had and how foolish it seemed to go back out.  Then, when we got out here, he told Shim’on to throw the net on the starboard side instead of the port side.  Within a minute, the tether line ran out so fast it jerked the boat over like it is now.  We couldn’t even haul it in so we had to call you.”

Yochanan’s awe was all over his face as he looked from the net to Yeshua and back again.  His legs felt weak, and he sat down.

Yeshua’s gaze swept over the four of them with amused affection.  Then he took a couple of steps toward Shim’on, still sitting where he had been.  He said, “C’mon, Shim’on.  Let’s get those fish into the boat.”

As if coming out of a dream, the big man rose and, without any need of direction, the five of them formed a line and systematically hauled the bulging net aboard.  As it hit the deck boards, it opened and the heap of beautiful fish slid out all over around their feet, forming a pile thigh-high.  With five in the boat and all these fish, the gunnels were low in the water. 

Yeshua suggested, “Let’s get some of these in the other boat and head to shore.”

Using baskets, they shoveled half the catch into Ya’akov’s and Yochanan’s boat.  The two sons of Zavdai hopped over and untied their lines.  The two boats were heading to the wharf in a few minutes.

When they docked the boats, there would still be a good bit of work to do sorting and cleaning the fish.  But there was already a group of people waiting to buy and the customers did not want to wait.  Fish were a staple in the Galil and this was the biggest catch of the day.  Other boats had had little better luck than they, and nothing was for sale.

Within half an hour, there were no fish left but what they had set aside for themselves.  Yeshua stayed for it all, even serving some of the customers himself.  Their collective purse was very full.

Home beckoned, but the four fishermen were reluctant to leave their new friend.  Words were inadequate and none of them were sentimental.  Shim’on knew that he should invite Yeshua home to feed him as a small gesture of gratitude, but he was still confused about what was going on in his heart.  Why did this man affect him so deeply?

Yeshua seemed to sense all this, and he said to him, “Follow me, Shim’on.”  He turned to the others and repeated, “Follow me.”

Suddenly, Shim’on understood.  He had been waiting for this for his whole life!  His confusion was that he knew he was totally unfit for this call.  His sense of uncleanness, unworthiness, and inadequacy overpowered his yearning.  He hardly realized that he had dropped to his knees as he said, “Leave me, Master, for I am a sinful, unworthy man.”

Yeshua leaned over and lifted him up by the elbow.  At the rabbi’s touch Shim’on felt the weight of his shame and guilt lift and slide off.  He felt freer and cleaner than he had ever imagined he could.  Trembling, he rose to his feet like a new man.

“He sees it all,” Shim’on’s inner voice told him.  “He knows it all, and he forgives it all.  None of it matters to him.  He accepts me for what I am and he wants me to be his friend.”  Tears filled his eyes as he looked with wonder and gratitude at his new friend.  He understood right then that he would follow him to the ends of the earth.

Yeshua looked at him with great affection.  Once more he said, for all to hear, “Follow me!”  Then, to let the others know that they too were being called, he added, turning to them as well, “and I will make you fishers of men.” 

He took Shim’on by the shoulder and, facing around, said to the four of them, “Now let’s go have some breakfast.” 

Featured

A Different Kind of Fishing, Part 2

copyright ©Vincent Marquis, 2020

(This is the second part of a story about Jesus calling Peter, Andrew, James, and John as disciples. It is based on the relevant New Testament passages in the Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with some literary licence).

Shim’on paused his rowing to look.  After a few seconds he responded, “Hey, I think you’re right!  It’s a bit far to tell for sure, but I believe you.  I wonder what he’s doing there right after sunrise.  I hope he wasn’t coming to buy fish.”

“Yeah.  That would be embarrassing,” chuckled Andreas.  He called across to Ya’akov and Yochanan in the other boat, half joking, “Hey, Ya’akov, Yochanan!  Look who’s on the beach waiting just for us!”

The other two partners paused their rowing too.  After a few seconds, young Yochanan, who also had acute vision, declared without any hesitation, “Hey!  It’s Yeshua, the new rabbi in town.  Cool!  I’ve been hoping to hear him teach and meet him.  There are some pretty strange stories going around about him.”

Ya’akov cautioned him, “We’ve work to finish before you go off listening to a preacher.  Most of those stories are made up anyway.”

Andreas responded, “I don’t know about that, Ya’akov.  I was at the Jordan ford when he came for mikvah with the Immerser.  Something pretty amazing happened.  I saw and heard it all myself.”

“Yes, yes, we know what you say you saw, about a dove coming down on him and the Immerser saying he should be immersed by Yeshua instead of the other way around.  And a thunderclap out of clear blue sky!  We all know what a good imagination you have, Andreas,” finished the sceptical Ya’akov.

“It was not my imagination!” snapped Andreas.  “There were hundreds of people who saw and heard the same thing as I did.  Ask any of them.”

“Yes,” said Yochanan.  “I spoke to my friend Talmai yesterday, and he was there too.  He said that that is just what happened.  But that Yeshua told Yochanan to immerse him anyway because it was what was needed to satisfy righteousness.”

Andreas pondered.  “What a strange thing to say.  I wonder what he meant.  Now that I think about it, after he immersed Yeshua and as Yeshua was leaving Yochanan said something even more puzzling.  He called Yeshua the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.  He said he would immerse people in fire.”

“Yes!” added Yochanan.  “He did say that.  Now I really want to meet this Yeshua.  He was gone for a while, but now here he is again.  I’m super curious.  And now here he is on our beach.  Oh wow!”

Andreas the joker laughed, “Yep!  And he’s there to ask you for the best fish in your boat, Yochan,” he jibed, using his younger friend’s short name.

Shim’on was lost in deep thought and ever so slightly trembing as he listened to this banter.  The chill?  Yeshua, the new mystery man, was standing on the beach, and, he could see, plainly looking out over the lake at the four of them in their two fish-empty boats.  He had only ever seen him very briefly in the last few days that he had been in K’far-Nachum since his return from Y’hudah.  It was rumored he had not even gone to Yerushalayim, but out into the wilderness south-east of the city, down Yericho way. 

If he was an up and coming new rabbi, one even recognized by the Immerser as someone special, why would he come back here to the backside of Israel?  Why didn’t he go to the city and set up in the Temple Porticos like the other rabbis seeking to gather disciples and make a name for themselves?  He would never get anywhere by spending his time up in the Galil among its uncultured peasants and yokels.

Yet here he was.  Shim’on felt uncomfortable.  Yeshua was still staring out at them as they drew near to shore.  What did he want?  They were just about in ear-shot now, and the rabbi’s voice drifted out to them across the water.

“Good morning, friends.  Could you come into shore and let me get into your boat?”  Shim’on knew he was talking to him.  He looked at Andreas, who looked as startled as he was, but quickly responded, “C’mon, Shim’on!  Let’s do it!”

Shim’on shrugged as if he was indifferent, but mumbled, “Alright.”

Yeshua watched them come in as the boat’s prow bumped against the wharf.  He had a huge smile as he said, “I really appreciate this, friends.  I’m Yeshua.”

Andreas reached out to help him up over the gunnels, saying, “I’m Andreas and this is my brother Shim’on.  What did you have in mind, rabbi?”

“If you don’t mind I just want to spend a few minutes talking to the people who have followed me to the shore.  If I’m in a boat they’ll see me better and my voice will carry.”

“Sure, no problem,” Shim’on answered.  He felt as if he were almost standing outside himself listening.  The man’s eyes were uncanny, but not creepy.  He read real compassion in them, a sort of genuine caring.  His voice also intoned the same sense.  It was melodious, somehow soothing and authoritative at the same time.

Yeshua asked, “So this is your boat, Shim’on?”

“Yes, rabbi.  Andreas and I own it together.  Those two in the other boat are Ya’akov and Yochanan, our partners.  You might know of their father, Zavdai.  He owns a number of boats around Kinnaret.”

Yeshua grinned.  “As a matter of fact, I’ve done business with Zavdai.  My father Yosef and I helped him build a dock a while back and we made some furniture for their house a few years ago.  I don’t know if Ya’akov and Yochanan would remember me, but I remember seeing them around and chatting with them back then.”

“Small world!” said Andreas.  “Hey, Ya’akov and Yochan.  Do you remember Yeshua the carpenter working at your house and your father’s dock a while back?”

The other two looked sharply at the rabbi.  “Well I’ll be!.  Of course.  Yeshua the carpenter from Natzeret!  But, you’re now a rabbi?  That’s quite a shift!” said Ya’akov the sceptic.

Yeshua ignored Ya’akov’s tone and answered graciously, “It’s really nice to see you both again.”

He then moved to the sturdy forward shelf in Shim’on’s boat and stepped up where the crowd, now numbering several hundred, could see him.  His voice was resonant and conveyed real authority as he first told them a story about a pearl followed by another one about a treasure buried in a field.  He finished with a blessing on them as he dismissed them to go about their daily concerns.  He reassured them that he would be available later outside the synagogue for them to come with their sick and unwell.  Right now he needed to spend time with his new friends.

He stepped back down into the boat as the crowd began to disperse calmly and peacefully.  As simple as this had all been, lasting no more than ten minutes, Shim’on, Andreas, Ya’akov and Yochanan had been spell-bound.  They had just met him but somehow it seemed as if they had already known him for years.

Something buried deep inside was welling up in Shim’on, something linked to this unusual person, so unlike anyone else he was likely ever to meet again.  In shock, Shim’on the strong, the bluff go-getter realized that this Yeshua scared him.

It made no sense.  There was no threat of any kind.  The young rabbi was of an age with him.  He was a man who exuded peace and compassion, but Yeshua genuinely scared the wits out of him!  It was said that there was no one taller or stronger than Shim’on in K’far-Nachum or the whole region roundabout.  Yeshua was tall too, and his build said that he was also strong, a craftsman used to hard work.  But he exuded shalom.  His stories about Adonai and the Heavenly Kingdom seemed to be about a Person he knew. “So how was the fishing last night?” said the rabbi.  “I don’t see many fish in the boats,” he smiled.

Featured

A Different Kind of Fishing, Part 1

Copyright ©Vincent Marquis, 2020

by Vincent Marquis

(Note: This post and the next two will be different from the usual fare in worldvyoublog.com. I am sharing a short-story based on the first meeting of Yeshua/Jesus with several of his first disciples. The story is a re-imagining of those encounters based on the New Testament. Literary licence accounts for a my not totally strict adherence to the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)

Shim’on was dog-tired and discouraged.  The dawn was breaking and the night’s fishing had been pathetic.  Nothing to show for twelve hours work except sweat, a chill in his bones, sore muscles, and bad humour.  His stomach growled with hunger.  He had long since eaten his midnight lunch of bread, dried fish, and figs.  Their water jar was almost empty, although there was Kinneret to dip into.  As he carefully coiled his net, he was looking forward to a cup of wine at home along with his morning meal. 

He barked at little brother Andreas to get a move on in pulling in the other linen-weave net.  The sooner that got done, the sooner they could dock the boat, get ashore, clean the nets, and go home to eat and rest.

Ya’akov and Yochanan had had no better luck.  In their boat about fifty cubits to starboard, they too were hauling in their empty nets.  Time to call it a night. 

The last few weeks of late spring had been pretty slim, and that would make for a hard summer if it kept up.  With the nets finally in the boat and placed in their spot behind the mast, he and Andreas put their cloaks on over their tunics and sat at the oars to head for shore.  Their destination was the fisherman’s wharf in the center of their home town, K’far-Nachum. 

K’far-Nachum boasted a large market district where most anything could be bargained for, even pigs from the Decapolis for the Gentile residents.  Right next to the market was the fine new synagogue with its boundary wall, its colonnaded courtyard, and well-tended garden.  The congregational assembly hall was large enough to accommodate hundreds at prayer.  The interior decor included a finely tiled mosaic floor laid out with colorful natural scenes to glorify Adonai as Creator.  It was complemented by the fine craftsmanship of the ark where the sacred scrolls were kept.  Unlike poor villages and towns whose synagogues could afford only the most essential scrolls of Torah and a great prophet like Yeshayahu, K’far-Nachum’s had many.

Although the town fell under Antipas’ Tetrarchy rather than the Roman Governor of Syria or his subordinate, the Procurator of Y’hudah, the great shadow of Rome was never far should trouble arise.  While the majority of the locals were Jews, there were Greeks, Syrians, Nabatæans, Bedouins, and a few Phoenicians.  Most Romans only passed through, but there was a small contingent of Roman auxiliary troops camped on the outskirts.  Antipas was glad to have them there.  They ensured the roads remained free of bandits.  Troops marching south to Y’hudah from Syria were not an unusual sight either.

Most residents of K’far-Nachum, as throughout the Galil, spoke at least two languages.  Shim’on and his partners spoke Aramaic among themselves and were conversant in Greek.  They could all read the Hebrew scrolls in synagogue as well, although Hebrew was not a daily language.

Shim’on and his partners had prospered since settling here.  Fish were always in demand and the lake was usually generous.  The P’rushim and Scribes disdained the Jewish Galileans as unclean and ignorant, but Shim’on was a good man who followed the Law as best he could.  His irritating younger brother had lately been going off for days at a time to go listen to that rabble-rouser, Yochanan the Immerser.  The man was considered a prophet by many, the first in over four hundred years.  His message was mainly about repentance, telling people to undergo mikvah and prepare for the coming of someone greater who, he said, would baptize with fire!  Presumably he meant the long-expected Mashiach.

What in the name of the Blessed One did “baptizing with fire” mean?  He could understand undergoing a ceremonial mikvah to symbolize a desire to live a pure life for Adonai.  He hadn’t done mikvah yet, but he sometimes felt a tug in that direction.  He was well aware of his faults and that, as an example of Adonai’s chosen people, he fell far short.  About this baptism by fire he had no clue.  It sounded downright unpleasant!  But prophets were always rather cryptic.

He was a man with responsibilities, with some property, with a place in society in this part of the Galil.  He was the respected heir to a family business that his grandfather and his father, Yona, had worked hard to establish in neighboring Betsaida.  After Yona had retired, Shim’on had moved to K’far-Nachum, a more strategic location, and the move had proved a good one.  Andreas had followed him.  Shim’on had a decent house, a good wife, and a charming little girl.  His wife Shoshana’s mother had recently come to live with them because she was now a widow and her health had been deteriorating.

Brooding, he pulled on his oar.  “Life is basically good,” he told himself, “so why do I feel unsettled, as if I’m missing something?  What is this?  I’m not like this!  I’m a joyful fellow.  I love what I do.  A few weeks of bad catches are part of the game.  It will all balance out in the end.  Besides, this is what Adonai has given me, so it is wrong for me to grumble and be unhappy.”

But still he brooded.  He made no pretention about trying to live a perfect life like the P’rushim who paraded around all day in prayer-shawls with long t’alit, making sure everyone heard them and saw them as they went to synagogue or scolded someone for violating some minute rule.  Who made all those rules anyway?  He could remember few such minutiae from the hearing of Torah in synagogue, or even in the rabbi’s teaching for his now long-past Bar-Mitzvah.

The nature of his work and the people he dealt with exposed him to “uncleanness” every day.  He did his best not to build up resentment or hold grudges, to let his eye wander after pretty young maidens or, worse, the sensuous women of the night that lived in a certain part of town.  They could be seen walking around the market to advertise their availability.  There were occasional days or nights when he had been tempted to sneak off.  He shook his head to clear it.  Shoshana was a good woman and mother and all he could desire.  Little Hannah was the delight of his eyes.

“Stop it, idiot!” he mumbled aloud to himself.

Andreas, sitting on the seat at the other oar on the opposite side of the mast with its folded sail and tied down spar, looked over at him quizzically.  The morning breeze was up now, making the rowing a little stiffer.  “What are you mumbling about, Shim’on?”

“Nothing important,” he answered.  Then, to change the subject, he asked, “So do you think the Immerser is the Mashiach?”

Andreas was emphatic.  “He’s a real Prophet, and when I listen to him, I feel like I’m hearing the words of Adonai!  I like to listen to him, and you should come sometime.  We could do mikvah together with him.  It would do you good.  I’m planning to do it soon – next time we have a few days without fishing to do.

“And he says very clearly that he is not the Mashiach.  He says that Mashiach is already among us, and bringing an axe to cut down the trees that don’t bear fruit.  Really, Shim’on, you should come to hear him.  He knows how to put those arrogant P’rushim in their place.  Sometimes he really gets them mad, tearing a strip off them about their hypocrisy.  And he lays into Prince Herod too about his sleazy behaviour with his sister-in-law.”

Shim’on laughed, his humor improving.  Andreas had a knack for lifting his spirits.  He was blessed to have such a brother who was also his best friend.  He had always wondered why his father had given Andreas a Greek name.  Yona had only said that it was to honor a close friend who had died in the time of his youth.  There was a story there which he longed to know.  His father had had some sort of adventure with a Goy friend as a young man, but no one ever talked about it. 

Family and neighbors had gossiped about Yona naming a son after a Gentile ever since.  It made Shim’on self-conscious.  He and Andreas had to be extra careful so as not to bring more shame on the family by being accused of compromising.

He glanced behind him.  They were still at least eight hundred cubits from shore and the morning breeze was getting stiffer by the minute.  The sun was over the horizon and now giving some warmth.  His quick glance to shore had shown him a bit of a crowd gathering.  What could make that happen at this hour? Andreas had seen it too.  He had especially good eyesight and piped up, “Say, I think that new rabbi from Natzeret is on the beach.  He has quite a group there with him.”

Featured

Autumn Beards

“Rise up in the presence of the hoary head…”

(a Biblical proverb)

During the pandemic, several of my male friends decided to grow beards, while others have let their beards grow without trimming.  (Super Movember??)  While I have not had a beard for over twenty years, the results remind me of what I now look like were I to decide to let my facial hair proliferate.  Combine this grey facial frazzle with thinning gray hair, and this is what Solomon’s proverb refers to as the male version of “the hoary head”, as per the old King James Version Bible rendering.

Centuries ago, rising up when an old geezer (male or female) or two entered the room where the younger set sat or reclined was an expected sign of respect.  There were cultural assumptions behind such a practice, which in our time would just seem weird and very much unnecessary. 

First, there simply weren’t large numbers of elders around, given the much shorter life-expectancy prevailing up to the twentieth century.  Someone who made it into their sixties or beyond must therefore be specially favoured by God or the gods.  That alone was reason enough to respect them, if only to avoid incurring divine disfavour for failing to recognize that these people probably had God’s protection and maybe even a special connection to the Lord.  Hence, you would do well not to slight God by treating them with disdain or lack of courtesy.

Second, the elders who had survived were usually the community’s rulers and advisors and had earned their place and the respect of the younger, less life-experienced people aspiring to the prestige of recognized leadership.  In those days, the world had a lot more constancy about it. Contrast this with our usual present-day practice of relegating our elderly to the sidelines because, supposedly, they can no longer keep up with all the new ideas and progressive advances in technical and social development.  Since these are almost always supposed to be improvements over the “old-fashioned” methods and traditions of even one or two generations ago, where the seniors are assumed to be stalled, why would we want the old-timers in charge?

Thirdly, centuries ago, parents and grandparents were simply owed respect and esteem because they were your parents and grandparents and had raised you and cared for you.  If they had done it moderately well, your respect for and honour of them was just their due.

We all know how much this whole cultural paradigm has shifted.  “Seniors”(what a wretched word instead of elders!) get out of the way!  Yet we are seeing two seniors face off for the Presidency of the USA.  “Naturally”, in the 21st Century psyche, numerous questions abound as to their fitness to take on that most powerful of all political gigs in the world, even though one of the contestants has been in the job for four years.  However one may assess his performance, on cannot say that he has not been as politically cunning and wily as many an aspiring younger fellow.  But still, the assumption is that the two contestants can’t or won’t be able to keep up – in just about any aspect one cares to mention.  Are Mr. Trump’s peregrinations the result of senile instability?  (Hardly!)  The old guys will need younger, stronger, smarter, more adaptable people to guide them, rather than their guiding their team of supporters – constitutional niceties aside.

Absent from our current society’s way of considering such profundities is the true end, the real context, in which all this plays out.  But, as our old friend Qohelet might have said, “This too is not a new thing under the sun.”  To the ultra-rich and powerful down through the ages of recorded history, the greater context has almost always been, in application, invisible or just plain ignored.  Bloody inconvenient too, admitting there is Someone or something greater than you to give account to.  Alternatively, official homage to the Greater Power has been observed as a means to manipulate the rest of the human herd and keep or make them subservient.

No one ever born has ultimately been able to avoid facing the “greater context”, however much they may deny it or how hard they may work at staving it off.  A Buddhist meditation preparation (paraphrased) puts it thus:

“I am of a nature to die; I am of a nature to become sick; I am of a nature to become weak; I am of a nature to be forgotten soon after I depart this world.”

Yet most of us in this society of “First-World” dominants, perhaps more than in any other age, seem to live as if none of this is true – until suddenly we are forced to face our own mortality, transiency, and ultimate insignificance.  As the whole world has been forced to do in this pandemic pause to ponder.

The Queen of England (and Canada, and Australia, and New Zealand, who is also the reputed most famous and wealthy woman in the world) and Jeff Bezos (the reputed wealthiest person in the world) must eat, drink, and use the toilet same as the rest of us.  Their wealth and power and influence will not exclude them from the common fate of all referred to by Buddha.

Perhaps in centuries past the elderly really did merit the roll of “elders” – those qualified to lead by wisdom and life experience.  Even now, it may well be true that the elderly who have not become demented and not given in to despair and cynicism still have a great deal of practical wisdom to share about how to live a “good life” (a long and complex subject in itself), regardless of their supposed lack of technical prowess and inability to or simple disinterest in keeping up with all the foolish trends and spurious causes of dissent and outrage that so plague our increasingly uncivil society.

The art of dying well is never out of date, but the wisdom to prepare for it is more and more rare.  Instead, we have created a culture which obsesses about prolonging the illusions of youth.  Our culture denies that those raging hormones need to be given proper channeling or they will curse both the individuals who abuse them and their victims.  The strong and aggressive may use their raging energy (which is largely sexual repression and misappropriation) to subdue and destroy others.  A subtler method of destroying the repressor and oppressor of one’s urges, or anyone who dares challenge the actions, causes, and words of the new class of revolutionaries, is to engage in outrage at every voice which suggests your preferred cause may be hollow.  We now have whole masses substituting rage for the love they are seeking in all the wrong places.

Life’s journey towards death may be long or short.  Rage and constant outrage tend to make it short and brutal, bereft of almost all the most rewarding experiences and elements we have been offered by our Creator if we seek to do it His/Her way.  It may be rich and full at almost any length if it is cherished and wielded well.  For those who unrepentantly destroy others’ lives by using them for their own pleasure, benefit, and selfish purposes, there is a special place in hell.  In my own humble experience of watching historical examples and those of some people I have known in the course of seven decades, few succeed in escaping the trap seeking revenge or even some notion “justice” via anger and violence which they make for themselves.  “You reap what you sow.”  “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”  Karma is a real thing, whatever religion, philosophy, or ideology you hold to.

As to the COVID whisker proliferations?  They may just be a whim.  Or the onset of laziness about personal appearance.  Or an admission of defeat in fending off old-age and its inevitable conclusion.  Or perhaps an attempt to recapture in even a teensy way some of the magic of that mythological stage of virile youth.  Or, finally, just a way of coping with the lack of new scenery to gaze at from the confines of COVID isolation.  Or, most improbable, maybe someone sweet and irresistible asked you to grow the thing back.

The one thing we can all do as we continue along this globally shared journey in 2020 into 2021 is to remember what Buddha said.  And here is another piece of ancient wisdom along those lines from The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews: “It is given to humans to die once, and then comes judgment.”  We have one go, one kick at the can, one journey to make.  COVID reminds us that our age (personal and societal) doesn’t guarantee how short or long our personal trip will be.  The one guarantee is that we will all arrive at the same destination. 

In meeting our Creator at least that one time, the most important question will be what account we will give for how we made our journey, which was His/Her great gift to us, given out of sheer love and under no obligation on His/Her part.  Rationalizations and justifications will be irrelevant, for, as Hebrews also said (my rough paraphrase) “All is visible and open to view to the Lord. . . . It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”.  Especially if you face Him/Her alone and have to stand on your own merits. 

Personally, I’m trusting my Advocate to be there with me, as He has pledged He would be two thousand years ago to anyone who asks.  In my own case it was not quite so long ago that we had that talk.  I’m sure He would be willing to stand with you too, but you’ll have to ask Him ahead of time.  Don’t wait too long!

Featured

Summer 2020, 2: Talking Points

Like many I know, I have been paying less attention to the swirling morass of the news these days.  Most of it is glum and discouraging anyway, and, here in the “Great White North”, summer is all too brief to waste on keeping up with the latest blasts in the present mockery of “discussion and dialogue” in uber-confused Western culture.  Besides, between true news (??) and the boundless volume of the less reliable variety, it is often hard to draw a firm line in the midst of all the spin and vehement opinion masquerading as considered point of view. 

Everyone has a point of view, of course.  But the problem is that it is now uncommon to find any serious attempt to talk about an issue.  Most of what passes for commentary consists of dismissing the writer-commentator’s submission as mere strong bias or even some sort of incipient “Communism” or “Fascism”.  Lamentably, those accusing “those other people” of being the bogeyman have little real understanding of the ideologies involved, and probably don’t care that they are ignorant thereof.  In place of dialogue we are stuck with polemics, histrionics, and ad hominem denunciations of “those Nazis/Commies”.

Canada is very similar to many other First World nations in much of its public life’s dominant trends and concerns.  I find the near impossibility of having real discourse about important things in my home country, let alone the Great Republic to our south, increasingly disturbing.  What are the repercussions of this stark polarization for our social and political life?  Its impact can be seen in virtually everything, as can the disdain and scorn for any opinion and perspective other than one’s own.  This disease proliferates in social media and even some of the supposedly professional media. 

What is of even greater concern for me than most of the general “Right vs. Left” screaming sessions that populate the public and private commentosphere is the penetration of this malignant ethos into the Christian sector, especially in North America.  There too listening and a desire to achieve real insight have taken a serious hit.

Cynics and critics of the Church (no specific branch or denomination in mind) will say that this has always been true of Christians and Christianity.  Unfortunately, this has too often been valid.  The history of the persecution of “heretics” and the infamous wars of religion after the Reformation and Counterreformation illustrate this, plus crusades, slavery justification, pogroms, colonial invasions and genocides, and witch-hunts perpetrated in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace and the great Reconciler of humanity with the Creator.

So many of the scenarios and diatribes coming from too many voices declaring that God has shown them the truth behind the politics, economics, and social programs of this age, whether they are for or against any specific Party, candidates, or ideology, sound so familiar to so much that has happened since late antiquity.  It would be a very long story and series to go back over all that.  As Qohelet said, “There [really and truly as regards human nature and behaviour] is nothing new under the sun.”

It may prove true that we are quite close to or even in the last, Last Days and on the verge of the Great Tribulation.  I am aware that quite a few believe that we are now seeing such signs, and they may be right.  My generation thought this back in 1973. People thought it in World War 1, and in WW2 called Hitler the Antichrist.

But Jesus told us that it is not for us to know the times or the seasons.  Rather, above all other things, we should be busy building the Kingdom.  While we shouldn’t be ignorant of the enemy’s nature and schemes (stealing, killing, lying, destroying), neither should we be glorifying them, even inadvertently, by obsessing and spending great swaths of our time searching for them in every subtle nook and cranny.  That stuff has always been there and will continue to be for however much longer Yeshua ha-Mashiach tarries.  I too long for His coming, but all my worrying about how dark things are getting won’t hasten it one micro-second.

The mistake is to obsess about such signs and prophetic pronouncements and apparent sort-of-look-like-fulfillments to the point of forgetting what the true and perpetual calling of Jesus’ earthly Body always has been and remains today.  It is to love God, love our neighbour, look after the helpless, defenceless, least esteemed and able to care for themselves, the oppressed, etc., and tell people the good news that the Lord-God Creator has given us a way back to Him through Yeshua.  It is not rocket science depending on abstruse calculations of what constitutes the fulfillment of all the signs given in Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21, the apocalyptic passages in the Epistles, and, especially, the Book of Revelation.  It is certainly not that peculiar North American obsession about being raptured out of this vale of tears in a sort of Great Escape before the Devil gets control for a few years.

A sure measure of our life in Jesus is to what extent the peace which is His great gift to His people, even in the midst of trouble and turmoil, continues to bring forth His light in our own lives and in the Church.  Another is the presence of the Spirit’s fruit: “For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Against such things there is no law,” says the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5.

That fruit should come forth in both words and actions, including, as hard as it may be, graciousness towards those who mock us and belittle us.  Especially moreso when strong differences emerge among sisters and brothers of God’s family.  As James tells us regarding our propensity to pass judgment on the purity of one another’s faith, “Who are you to judge another person’s (God’s) servant?”  And as Paul admonishes us, it is often when we think we are strong enough to lay the truth (as we see it) on others like a scolding parent that we are most likely to fall.  “Pride goes before a fall.”

Obsessing about and continually lamenting the toxic political and social realm of today is a form of deadly, creeping deception.  The enemy of our souls is quite pleased to see us mired in it.  For when we sink into that pit, it is quicksand with its fascination upon our minds and what seems like the estimable desire to “be aware of the enemy’s schemes lest we be deceived”.  We become so weighed down and fatigued and drained that we lose sight of and motivation to be engaged in the straightforward life of Christ’s Kingdom being made manifest on earth.

It is clear from all of the New Testament that the “spirit of this age and this world” (aion and kosmos in Greek) are opposite and opposed to those of the Kingdom of Jesus.  He told us, “By their fruits shall you know them.”  What fruit do we want to both produce and consume?

Yes, He also told as to be “as wise as serpents”, but in the same breath He added “and as innocents as doves”.  At times, we need to “expose the evil deeds of darkness”, as in naming them for what they are, but the best exposition is by being the light.  I have become more aware, or been reminded, that a lot of the darkness is plain enough to everybody, even non-Christians. 

So I must be about the Father’s business, which is essentially not very complicated as we said above: caring for the downtrodden, the poor, the wretched, the homeless and forsaken, the despairing, the forgotten, the sick, the abandoned and friendless, etc.  And that begins in God’s family, but certainly does not end there.

The enemy of our souls and of humanity itself is very happy to see Christians mesmerized by the kaleidoscope of the sorcerer’s brew our culture has become, or fixed upon how sadly backslidden and fallen into error and somnolence so much of the worldwide Church (no particular denomination intended) has become.  Truth be told, most of us (mea culpa) in the West have been affected by those two afflictions to some extent. 

We all need to reread the seven letters to the Seven Churches of Revelation and take Jesus’ admonishments to them to heart.  As to unravelling the seals within seals and wheels within wheels, well, if the best minds in Christendom haven’t been able to do it in two thousand years, (“and they too have the Holy Spirit” as Paul might have said) I doubt that we will either.  But I suspect that a lot of it is already past and whatever’s left to come will take us all by surprise in the when, where, what, who, and how. We already know the “why”.

Above all, trust Yeshua and Adonai and love your neighbour and you can’t go far wrong.

Shalom!

Featured

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”)

Featured

When Evil Comes, 12 – Rebirth, 3

“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

Featured

When Evil Comes, 11 – Rebirth, 2

“…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

Featured

When Evil Comes, 10 – Rebirth, 1

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

Featured

When Evil Comes, 9 – Exit Strategies

“… 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

Featured

When Evil Comes, 8 – The Root

“… 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

Featured

When Evil Comes, 7 – The Moral Compass

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

Featured

When Evil Comes, 6 – The Two “Wisdoms”

“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

Featured

When Evil Comes, 5 – Know Thyself

“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

Featured

When Evil Comes, 4 – Conspiracies

“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

Featured

When Evil Comes, 3 -Star Wars

“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

Featured

When Evil Comes, 2

“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

Featured

When Evil Comes, 1

“… 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

Featured

Resurrection

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.

Myth, Conspiracies, Shame, and the Quest for Truth, 4 – The Third Way, Reprise 1

The Christian conception of man [humanity] stands above the false alternative of individualistic liberalism or capitalism and collectivistic State Socialism or Communism.  Christianity is absolutely unique in its conception of man [humanity] in which true personality and true community are not only firmly connected with one another but, at bottom, identical.  Wherever a community is firmly grounded in Christian thinking, neither individualistic nor collectivist Communism or State-Socialism are possible.  The “third way” is inherent in the Christian conception of [humanity] itself.  That is why Christianity is called upon to lead the way wherever the third way is seen as necessary and wherever, out of economic life itself, new schemes of social order emerge which are neither individualist nor collectivist.”

Emil Brunner.  Christianity and Civilisation, Second Part: Specific Problems.  London: Nisbet & Co., Ltd., 1949.  p. 97

(Photo original to the author – The Roman Colosseum – remains of the basement where the “performers” were kept. Jesus has been the true “Third Way” since his coming, and thousands of Christians died in this place to testify to him and that.)               

“… wherever the third way is necessary…”  Where is the third way not necessary in the 21st Century?  Where is there any society left in the world where “individualistic liberalism or capitalism and collectivistic State Socialism or Communism” are not now the ruling ideologies?  Where is there any society not drowning and floundering in the excesses of predatory individualistic capitalism combined with the assertion of personal rights run wild, or, alternatively, crushing State Socialism?  We have even seen the return of hybrid-Fascism without the name but with all the attributes in some countries (e.g. Russia and even China, which retains the Communist label but operates like a Fascist dictatorship more than anything else). 

What Brunner calls the “third way” is a far different path than the one we now find ourselves on in the West, and indeed in all the world now overwhelmed by the Western paradigm of progress. 

           Like the old Roman strategy of “bread and circuses” to dull the masses’ anger and exclusion, we are given mass-entertainment and fed mind-numbing pulp and distractions while the figureheads in office utter platitudes about equalizing opportunities for everyone.  Like denarii and sestercii thrown to the Roman mob, money is periodically poured into that mix to appease the populace with fancy-sounding new programs in particularly tense moments, such as the present.

            The two uneasily yoked ideologies Brunner names agree on one key element: the inadmissibility of the (Christian) Third Way to any part in the discussion of how to make things work better.  Brunner tells us that there is really only one way into the Third Way – Christianity.  Instead, we are treated to a yo-yo exhibition of more individual choices and rights to satisfy our discontent while offering no real way up or forward over the chasm-divide in living standards and other basic things and opportunities for the general population.

            The inadmissibility of the readmission of Christianity as a way forward is understandable from the dominant secular progressive perspective.  Christianity has worn so many cloaks and guises and brings so much negative baggage to the table that it is almost impossible to conceive how it has anything to offer.  Better to keep hoping in science and reason and the inherent basic goodness in the human heart [sic] to break through.  Either that or wait for the next violent revolutionary outbreak to see where that may take us.

            For that is the other shoe – the “Dark Side of the Force” that always lurks beneath the surface and keeps breaking out into the daylight with all its destructive ugliness.  When the people get too fed up with the inequality and suppression and parasitic egotism of the ruling classes, they rise.  Or, as Toynbee points out (see previous instalment), the outside barbarians arrive, kick down the rotten gates of the moribund civilization, and bring down the whole decrepit edifice with a great crash.  Then the cycle starts over again.

            For any real progress to occur, for any real change, we desperately need a “Third Way” to navigate through the dual predations of egocentric individualism married to predatory capitalism (which loves to play on the liberal ultra-individualism we so love) and crushing State Socialism seeking to level everything for everyone and thus sap the will to excel out of life.  The old Communism has gone, but it lingers in so much of our consciousness because so much of what its theory suggests seems morally right and looks like the antidote to predatory individualistic capitalism.

            Is Christianity really the only true way forward, the only way into the Third Way that is neither of the two dominant systems? 

            So what is the Myth?  What is the Conspiracy?  What is the Shame?  As to the Quest for Truth – it goes ever on.  It is everyone’s great quest – even if only to find a truth we can live by for the moment, in the here and now.  For how can we ever find “the Truth” in a universe so limitless, so vast in all its complexity, so full of contradictions, so deep in its unsolvable mysteries?  The “Truth” we seek is the Big Answer to the Big Question: “WHY?”

            Not that we spend our days continually seeking such answers.  We can’t live that way.  Life must go on.  We must “muddle through”.  Rather, willy-nilly as we live life we develop answers of some sort to fill the void, to deal with the myths and stories of origins, to understand the conspiracy (however we understand it) to suppress and cover up the hidden truth, to escape the shame (individual and collective, for we all have it) of being and doing wrong and “missing the mark”.

            But there is still that Aurelian “whisper” flitting in the twilight fringe.  There is that nagging thing about Christianity and its connection to the way out, the way forward, the way ahead to Marcus Aurelius’ “dream that was Rome”.  There is that “mythical” Jesus-guy always out there on the fringe, beckoning to something in us that longs for release from the shame, from the conspiracy of silence and repression, from the myth of progress.

            For three centuries the progressive story has put it out that the Jesus we knew in the West was not the real Jesus, but a later mythical concoction.  Paradoxically, all we have been learning as we have “demythologized” him over the last two centuries now says he was very real, an actual historical person so revolutionary that he upset the greatest civilization and empire of the ancient (and perhaps any) era.  He keeps coming back, like one who “rises from the dead”!

The distant “Classical” age killed him to silence him. But when he just wouldn’t stay dead, it tried to crush the movement that sprang from his life and example.  Instead, the (Roman) Empire’s leaders found that they had to co-opt the emerging Third Way to serve the old ways. 

 “Christendom” was the hybrid child of that union.  Instead of rehashing that tortured tale, let us identify the real “conspiracy” – the conspiracy to turn the original Jesus revolution to serve the old gods of greed, power, lust, pride, etc., etc.  Given the human heart’s still broken condition and divided soul, the servants of Jesus, whether sincere or those of convenience, too often fell into the trap. 

Despite all of that, out of this hybrid civilization grew something definitely better and more humane than what had been before.  There was more room for compassion, for healing of the body, soul, and mind, for forgiveness, for charity, for reconciliation, for recognition of the equality of all persons before God, for genuine opportunities to education and to rise above one’s birth-class.  Out of this struggle to bring fruit even from this troubled marriage came institutions to foster all the best ideals still living in its bosom: schools even for the poor, hospitals and hospices, orphanages, homes for the homeless, refuges for widows, governments that began to let the people’s voice be heard, however feebly at first, a justice system that gradually offered something closer to a “fair trial”, and even the first universities for the pursuit of the quest for truth!  If all are God’s children by virtue of being created in His image, then all have dignity and value.

At the best of times for more than a millennium even the powerful and the elite made room for such things and paid at least lip-service to them.  There was, in fact, real overall progress.  There was in fact growing understanding that matters of race, language, birth, and even religion do not obviate the made-in-God’s-image humanity of all humans everywhere.  It was not universal or constant, but the seeds grew and bore fruit.

The Enlightenment myth of Christianity’s suppression of truth and human dignity was a caricature born of the many sins of leaders following more in the footsteps of the old gods rather than in those of the Creator-Redeemer they paid lip-service to.  The great stumbling block for the secularist philosophes was this Jesus-fellow as an historical person.  It became necessary to mythologize him, strip him of his real humanity and historical presence and certainly of any hint of miraculous properties.

There is indeed great shame on many of the misguided leaders of the old Christendom and even today on some of Christianity’s present representatives.  But there is at least an equal share on those conspiring to strip Jesus and the best of his followers and disciples – whether well-known or anonymous, as most of them have always been and remain – of the just recognition due to the fact that so much that is most noble and worthy of preserving in the West has come from the root of the coming into this world of Yeshua of Natzeret two millennia ago.

There is shame enough to go round for all of us, just as there is truth enough to be found and shared by all of us.  It is time for an end to conspiracies to cover up the truth and deny our universal share in the blame-and-shame game.

NEXT TIME: THE CONCLUSION