Inconvenient Conscience, 4 – Conscience vs. Tyranny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Inconvenient Conscience, 3: Whatever happened to our conscience?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is my crude tale:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

Inconvenient Conscience, 2: Seared Conscience Anyone?

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

Samuel Butler

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

Germaine de Staël

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

Autumn Beards

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

(a Biblical proverb)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer 2020, 3: People with Clay Feet

The expression “(s)he has clay feet”, although perhaps not so well recognized as it used to be, is still understood to refer to someone who, under the appearance of glamour, glitz, control, wealth, power, etc., has some serious flaws, usually kept as hidden as possible. 

Every normal person knows they are flawed.  Looking in the mirror in the morning can show that easily enough at one level.  But the delusion is much more problematic when it comes to the more serious matters of character and psyche.  We can shield our physical shortcomings when we doctor our faces, perfume our bodies, get plastic surgery, and hide ourselves inside some clothing.  The other flaws will sooner or later jump out of our mouths and flash into view in our behaviour, despite our best attempts to repress them.

Having clay feet is actually one of those sayings based on Biblical imagery that has somehow lingered in the language and culture despite the alienation of our society and culture from its long-time Biblical underpinnings.  Kudos to anyone who actually knows what Biblical story it stems from!  (I’ll add that tidbit at the end of this article in case you don’t know or remember.)

Incidentally, even if you don’t hold the Bible in any great esteem as a holy book, it’s still an amazing source of imagery and insight into fundamental human nature, not to mention history and some incredibly good stories which have provided fodder and inspiration for millennia to writers and thinkers across the world.  To the objection that the less well-informed often make that it is not a reliable source for history and is full of super-inflated legends and myths that have been used to deceive and oppress people, they simply don’t know the book at all.  My suggestion to anyone in that boat is, “Try reading it for a while, just as literature, setting aside your ideological bias, and then criticize it with a modicum of civility and balance.”

Now back to the clay feet idea.

The truth about the “legendary” and “mythological” heroes and heroines in the Bible is that they just don’t measure up to the standard notions of hagiography.  Biblical saints are very human, and sometimes not very likable.  They certainly did not walk around in a cloud of radiance and haloed goodness.  A few examples will suffice to demonstrate this.

Abraham is held up in both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures as the great model of unshakeable faith and upright character to be emulated by true disciples.  He is the founder of the “Chosen People” of Israel, and the great example of faith-based salvation in the New Testament Apostolic writings.  But Abraham had “clay feet”.  He lied about his (first) wife – twice!! – and let two monarchs add her to their harems because of fear that the King would kill him to have her.  Perhaps ashamed of his previous treatment of Sarah, he gave in to her and disowned his first son by her maid and his concubine when Sarah became jealous of he own maid and the status of her surrogate son, Ishmael, above her own son, Isaac, miraculously born long after menopause.

Jacob, Abraham’s grandson through Isaac and father of the twelve “Patriarchs”, was a liar, deceiver, and conniver who cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright and a good part of his inheritance.  (Seems as if the internal family rivalries were passed from generation to generation.)

King David, slayer of the nasty giant Goliath, the great model of “a man after God’s own heart”, writer of half the Book of Psalms, was an adulterer, murderer, absentee and rather poor father, and a multiple polygamist who disregarded the admonitions about Israel’s King not amassing wives and wealth or relying on massive military power.

King Solomon, David’s heir, builder of the First (magnificent) Temple to Yahweh, and the reputed “wisest and richest man in the world” in his time, exponentially exceeded his father in amassing excess wives, horses, chariots, and splendid displays of his prowess as a ruler.  He taxed his people into poverty, and reintroduced idolatry and various other forbidden occult practices into Israel.  He compounded all this by murdering most of his half-brothers to consolidate his throne and doing away with another batch of David’s former foes, sometimes in obedience to David’s (so much for David`s vaunted clemency in his lifetime!) death-bed wishes.

In the New Testament, we find some pretty glaring weaknesses among the disciples of Jesus. Two examples of the most prominent will suffice.  Peter suffered from “foot-in-mouth” disease and a tendency to try to play both sides of the road in his leadership, thus creating ambivalence in settling some pretty important questions among early believers.  Paul, the greatest evangelist among the Apostles and certainly the first and greatest theologian among them, had a fiery temper and quarrelsome disposition mixed with a fanatical streak which held on from his days as an uber-Pharisee.  He was also an accessory to murder in his pre-Christian days. 

This is a very short list of such examples.  Of course, I am only citing negative examples of things these people did.  Obviously, they also did enormously important positive things or they would not be part of the story of God reaching out to the human race to bring restoration, reconciliation, and ultimate redemption.

The point is that the Bible is unlike any other sacred literature.  The forty or so human writers who contributed to it did not edit out all the nasty bits about our ancestors in faith so we would have only a rarefied, superhuman portrait of them.  We are intended to see them “warts and all” so that we can realize that, if they are “saints” despite all that stuff, so can we be and, if we are in relationship with God through Jesus, the ultimate answer to our human brokenness, we already are saints.  “Saint” just means set apart to God, for God, for the Creator to mold into a true image-bearer and to participate in the bringing and building of the Kingdom of God here and now, in preparation for what it finally will be, without all the warts and failures.

It is really a message and picture of great hope we are seeing, not a depressing tale of inevitable human sin and failure.  Destiny and Fate are not what we face, as per the hopeless picture given in ancient paganism and even some modern religious and philosophical ideologies.

As the Apostle Paul, a certainly “clay-footed” man Jesus chose anyway do more church-planting and Kingdom-building than anyone else of that time, put it, “Oh, Death, where is you victory?  Oh, Death, where is your sting?  Death has been swallowed up in victory,” because of and through the resurrection of Yeshua/Jesus!

Oh, yes!  That allusion to clay feet is in the Book of Daniel Chapter 2, verses 31-45.  The story refers to a dream of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in which an enormous statue with a head of gold, shoulders and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet a mixture of iron and clay, appeared to the King.  Daniel explains the meaning of this vision to Nebuchadnezzar.  Over time, the statue could not stand on feet of this weak and flawed admixture.  I will leave it to the reader to look up the complete story and its interpretation by Daniel.

In conclusion, we do well to be aware of our own clay feet before we go declaiming about all the things which bring others down.  Jesus put it another way, “Before you go taking the splinter out of someone else’s eye, remove the speck from your own.”

We all walk on clay feet.  We all need to seek and trust in God’s grace and mercy – for ourselves and for those others we see so many faults in.

When Evil Comes, 12 – Rebirth, 3

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

Adonai is in His holy temple.

Adonai, His throne is in heaven.

His eyes see and test humankind.

Adonai tests the righteous…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 11 – Rebirth, 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 10 – Rebirth, 1

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 9 – Exit Strategies

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

Henry David Thoreau, On Walden Pond, 1854 CE

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

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

(Photo credit – The Walden Woods Project)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 8 – The Root

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED