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

Inconvenient Conscience, 1

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

Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who change darkness into light and light into darkness,

Who change bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter.”

Chapter 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED

A Different Kind of Fishing, Part 3

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by Vincent Marquis

Copyright ©Vincent Marquis, 2020

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

“It was a terrible night,” answered Andreas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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!

Summer 2020

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

Comments and communication are always welcome.

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

Hair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just sayin’.

Featured

When Evil Comes, 13 – Rebirth, 4 – The New Human

Agapeo – to love as God loves

“A new commandment I give to you [a plural “you” in Greek], that you [plural] love [agapate] one another even as I have loved you, that you also love [agapate] one another.

(John 13:34)

We have had many millennia to illustrate what the “old” human does.  Human creativity can be stunningly beautiful and incredibly ingenious.  Humans are astounding creatures – inventive, perceptive, and immensely creative.  It is very hard to account for all this from an evolutionary perspective.  Clearly, humans hold a special position within the Cosmos which is hardly relevant to the generally accepted laws governing the rise and survival of species. 

Certainly, survival of the fittest seems to apply to the rise of humans to the apex of the natural world.  In that wider sense, so does natural selection.  But on that crude scale, what survival value does the ethereal, aesthetic creation of a Michelangelo or an Aristotle or a Siddhartha Gautama have?  These sublime expressions of the best of the human spirit set us as a species apart from Gorillas, Orangutans, Dolphins, and Crows (probably the most intelligent species of bird-kind).  But what is their intrinsic “survival value” or natural selective power? 

They point to another dimension above and beyond the merely “natural and material”.  They are no mere expression of vitality for survival and domination.  They are sign-posts to a realm of infinite potential and a yearning for the sublime.  They are the echoes of longing for some other, greater, culminating fulfillment transcending the merely physical like a wistful ghost of a lost memory – of “Paradise Lost” as John Milton put it.

Two millennia ago a unique individual human who epitomized all of this lived in Palestine.  He had a common enough name – Yeshua.  He came from a tiny place called Natzeret in Galilee.  He was not born a prince or a noble into a wealthy, prestigious clan.  He did not become a learned sage of the intelligentsia and establish an Academy or University to inculcate and spread his ideas like a great Greek intellectual.  He did not compose treatises and set down esoteric propositions about the ideal society or life-style.  He did not author any great works of literature or execute any artistic masterpiece.  He did not engender a great political movement or gather a crushing military force to impose his vision for a new world under his own sovereignty.  [This last notion was what many of his Jewish contemporaries were awaiting from a great new leader.]

Instead, he was born among the humblest of the humble in the most obscure circumstances imaginable.  Yet he would become the most controversial and truly radical person to have ever lived. 

Even his birth bordered on the scandalous with his mother pregnant before marriage.  He grew up in a village of no consequence either historically (till then) or in the register of first-Century localities.  His country was occupied by the most fearsome military machine of all time, with no earthly prospect of breaking free.  He became a carpenter like his adoptive father.  His education was what any Jewish lad then had – the rudiments of literacy in Hebrew in order to read the scrolls in synagogue.  By all reckoning, he should have been an historical nobody, like 99.9% of everyone who has ever lived.

Instead, he became the most remarkable human in history.  Yet this was not by conquering great dominions and building huge monuments to his own fame, as so many have done hoping to achieve a sort of pseudo-immortality.  Nor was it by precipitating a revolution to overthrow the oppressors and institute a regime which, like so many others, would in time become oppressive in its own right.  Since then, others have used his name to do just that sort of thing, although it is completely contrary to his own principles.  (“Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” he told his followers at the moment of supreme crisis in his own life.) 

Neither did he go about winning a name in philosophy and erudition to inspire others to study and ponder on his legacy of ideas and concepts – although certainly the by-products of his work include an enormous amount of that kind of material.  Nor did he give us a body of stunning architectural and artistic marvels to be admired and emulated for ages to come – although others have given us that as they have striven to honor him. 

Finally, and perhaps most baffling of all in the light of what received wisdom has so often attributed to him, he did not set up a religious system and establishment to replace previous ones in manipulating and cajoling people to bow and scrape in fear of the wrath of God, and, in his name, the humans who run the system.  This last point is an immense subject on its own, one to which we cannot do any justice here.

We could carry on this litany for a very long time.

Instead of all this, Yeshua, the First-Century Jewish carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee, went completely “countercultural”.  He challenged the most cherished aspects of the tradition and interpretation of “the Elders” and “Fathers” of his nation and the religious system.  He made an end-run around the political powers and principalities, Jewish and Roman, by refusing to engage them on the grounds of nationalism, patriotism, manifest destiny and imperial ideology.  His very message nevertheless challenged them at their very roots.

He spoke to “ordinary folks” about their ordinary lives and dilemmas and afflictions.  He went straight to the heart of the human condition in all its pain and brokenness, its simple joys and sorrows.  He directly addressed the alienation of every individual who is born from their Creator, from one another, from themselves, and from the creation.  He showed them, by example before ever telling them, that the only exit from all of this complex of interwoven brokenness and fragmentation of reality, both physical and spiritual, personal and collective, whicht is found everywhere and in everything, was by “rebirth” into the Kingdom of God. 

He embodied and enacted what he said – reconciliation with the Creator by being willing to put to death all the old “solutions”, which are all really manifestations of the delusion of the godhead of self.  He showed and taught that keeping rules, subjecting oneself to personal discipline, and performing rites cannot bridge the great gap between us and the Creator.  (However, he did say such things were never of value.  He himself demonstrated them in proper order and place.) 

Neither can chasing and even attaining all the perks of wealth, power, fame, and prestige “justify us”.  The person who chases all these things remains just as broken in soul, mind, and spirit at the end as they were at the beginning of their quest.  As he said repeatedly to those who came to hear him, “Let those who have eyes to see, see; let those who have ears to hear, hear.”

But he had no illusions that the majority would give up their “lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life”, as one of his best friends later expressed it.  The allure of the mirage is very great.

Only rebirth from above can break the cycle of bondage and open the heart to the spirit of Adonai, the Creator.  Only the Creator’s Spirit, the Spirit of agape, entering the broken human spirit can break it.  And how that happens is a mystery which, ultimately, we cannot penetrate.  He said, “Many are called but few are chosen,” but he also promised, “Seek and you will find; ask and you will receive, knock and it shall be opened to you.”  For Adonai, the Father, will “in no way cast out those that come to him” with “a broken spirit and a humble heart.”

As the supreme statement of rebirth, Yeshua died on a Roman cross, betrayed to the oppressors by his own people. But he did not stay dead. He was resurrected in his body, rendered incorruptible and immortal, by Adonai as the Creator’s final word of reconciliation and rebirth to a desperate world entrapped in its own hubris. He lives now to offer and give rebirth to everyone who comes to Adonai through him.

Rebirth is open to anyone.  It is not exclusive, but it is not won by personal application as in some sort of self-flagellation, or by diligent study and cogitation of texts.  It is there for the asking.  “Any who come to me I will certainly not reject,” he says.

Rebirth is much more than an once-in-a-lifetime transaction.  It is far more than a “slam-dunk” and move on sort of thing, as it has sometimes been very poorly portrayed in popular presentation and theological misconstruction.  It is not a formula to be recited and dated like some sort of spiritual contract with God.  It is God’s doing in response to a human cry of the heart and soul to have the “old human” die and the “new human” be brought forth.

Finally, it is the transition from spiritual death and slavery to spiritual life and freedom – freedom to become all that we were originally intended to be by the Creator.  It is something that is to be grown into.  Just as we grow up in the flesh, we grow up as a child of God.  It’s a “rest of our lives” journey here on earth as those who have received it learn to live it now.  It is the final resurrection in the New Heaven and New Earth which Adonai has promised and his Son Yeshua will bring into being in its fullness “when the times are fulfilled.”

“… the creation itself will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groans in the pains of childbirth together until now…. we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for our adoption as sons [and daughters], the redemption of our body.”  (Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:21-23)

(THIS CONCLUDES THE SERIES ON “WHEN EVIL COMES” AND THE SUBSERIES “REBIRTH”)