Inconvenient Conscience, 5 – Turning Around, 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

Inconvenient Conscience, 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

Summer 2020, 2: Talking Points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sure measure of our life in Jesus is to what extent the peace which is His great gift to His people, even in the midst of trouble and turmoil, continues to bring forth His light in our own lives and in the Church.  Another is the presence of the Spirit’s fruit: “For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Against such things there is no law,” says the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5.

That fruit should come forth in both words and actions, including, as hard as it may be, graciousness towards those who mock us and belittle us.  Especially moreso when strong differences emerge among sisters and brothers of God’s family.  As James tells us regarding our propensity to pass judgment on the purity of one another’s faith, “Who are you to judge another person’s (God’s) servant?”  And as Paul admonishes us, it is often when we think we are strong enough to lay the truth (as we see it) on others like a scolding parent that we are most likely to fall.  “Pride goes before a fall.”

Obsessing about and continually lamenting the toxic political and social realm of today is a form of deadly, creeping deception.  The enemy of our souls is quite pleased to see us mired in it.  For when we sink into that pit, it is quicksand with its fascination upon our minds and what seems like the estimable desire to “be aware of the enemy’s schemes lest we be deceived”.  We become so weighed down and fatigued and drained that we lose sight of and motivation to be engaged in the straightforward life of Christ’s Kingdom being made manifest on earth.

It is clear from all of the New Testament that the “spirit of this age and this world” (aion and kosmos in Greek) are opposite and opposed to those of the Kingdom of Jesus.  He told us, “By their fruits shall you know them.”  What fruit do we want to both produce and consume?

Yes, He also told as to be “as wise as serpents”, but in the same breath He added “and as innocents as doves”.  At times, we need to “expose the evil deeds of darkness”, as in naming them for what they are, but the best exposition is by being the light.  I have become more aware, or been reminded, that a lot of the darkness is plain enough to everybody, even non-Christians. 

So I must be about the Father’s business, which is essentially not very complicated as we said above: caring for the downtrodden, the poor, the wretched, the homeless and forsaken, the despairing, the forgotten, the sick, the abandoned and friendless, etc.  And that begins in God’s family, but certainly does not end there.

The enemy of our souls and of humanity itself is very happy to see Christians mesmerized by the kaleidoscope of the sorcerer’s brew our culture has become, or fixed upon how sadly backslidden and fallen into error and somnolence so much of the worldwide Church (no particular denomination intended) has become.  Truth be told, most of us (mea culpa) in the West have been affected by those two afflictions to some extent. 

We all need to reread the seven letters to the Seven Churches of Revelation and take Jesus’ admonishments to them to heart.  As to unravelling the seals within seals and wheels within wheels, well, if the best minds in Christendom haven’t been able to do it in two thousand years, (“and they too have the Holy Spirit” as Paul might have said) I doubt that we will either.  But I suspect that a lot of it is already past and whatever’s left to come will take us all by surprise in the when, where, what, who, and how. We already know the “why”.

Above all, trust Yeshua and Adonai and love your neighbour and you can’t go far wrong.

Shalom!

When Evil Comes, 12 – Rebirth, 3

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

Adonai is in His holy temple.

Adonai, His throne is in heaven.

His eyes see and test humankind.

Adonai tests the righteous…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 11 – Rebirth, 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 10 – Rebirth, 1

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 9 – Exit Strategies

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

Henry David Thoreau, On Walden Pond, 1854 CE

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

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

(Photo credit – The Walden Woods Project)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 8 – The Root

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 7 – The Moral Compass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 6 – The Two “Wisdoms”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED