When Evil Comes, 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

Lent 2, Sowing and Reaping

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

Dwight L. Moody

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Way, 44: Kohelet 8 – Judgment

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

Kohelet 12: 13 – Complete Jewish Bible

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

Tom Robbins , 20th Century American novelist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Kohelet 7: 13, 14 (Complete Jewish Bible)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of this, more next time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having observed these things, he puts them in perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

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