The downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in light of Stephen Hawking’s “natural selection assumes natural rejection.”

 

 

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking

 

For most of the world, the downing of MH17 was a very sad day. For many it is an occasion for much reflection on human selfishness and agression, and, hopefully, including our own. But surely not for materialists – logically speaking.

At one of his lectures at the University of Cambridge, where he is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, a Chair once held by Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, who suffers from acute motor neuron disease, said the folowing regarding the long-term survival of humanity:

My only fear is this. The terror that stalks my mind is that we have arrived on the scene because of evolution. Because of naturalistic selection, and natural selection assumes natural rejection, which means we have arrived here because of our aggression – chemicals exploding in our reptilian brain. And my hope is that somehow we can keep from eating each other up for another 100 years. At that point science would have devised a scheme to take all of us into different planets of the universe and no one atrocity would destroy all of us at the same time.”

On the “after-life” he said. “The belief that heaven and an afterlife awaits us is a “fairy story for people afraid of death.” There is, for Hawking, nothing beyond the last flicker of the brain waves. What counts he said is making good use of our lives by “seeking the greatest value of our action.”

On the one hand, Hawking says “natural selection assumes natural rejection, and natural selection assumes we have arrived here by our aggression,” and on the other hand, he says “we should seek the greatest value of our action.” Now, if we arrived on this planet by aggression – “we” implies every individual human birth – then it would be logical that we not only arrived here by aggression but survive by aggression: the survival of the fittest; in value terms the survival of the shittest.

Hawking also said “Science predicts that many different kinds of universes will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in.”

(Stephen Hawking: ‘There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story.’ The Guardian, 15 May 2011).

To summarise Hawking: By chance, nothing created the human species out of nothing, where the distinctive attribute of the genetic blueprint is aggression. All is aggression – “nature red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson). In such a materialistic world, human free will is an illusion. Indeed, terms like “will” and “freedom” refer to nothing in reality. In Hawking’s materialistic view of “natural selection assumes natural rejection,” to seek the greatest value in our action means that each person or group has evolved to reject any values that clash with their own – and to do so aggressively. If Hawking puts his money where his mouth is, which I have no reason to question, then in his world – and so it must be in the world of every practical atheist – not only do the terms “free” and “will” refer to nothing in reality, the same applies to “good” and “evil.” I could go on and on: “love,” “guilt,” “forgiveness,” “judgement.”

Many of those who think or say that the downing of Flight MH17 was an evil act are materialists. In the language of Hawking, evolution has rejected – and no surprise, aggressively so – MH17 by blowing it up and cutting short the lives of all aboard and automatically causing untold suffering to thousands of friends and relatives. Morals, and morale, for that matter, cannot exist in a a world solely of matter.

The moral of my story is: when someone opens their gob about the morality of MH17, or anything else, ask them if they are materialists. If they are, tell them to shut up; unless you’re a confounded one yourself.

 

Apologetics: What’s the use!

In his article on the use of apologetics, “What’s it all for?”, the author holds the view – confusing to many – that “I am definitely an apologist and in the same breath say that there can be no objective proof for the existence of God.” Some hold the view that apologetics is useful, others the view that there is no objective proof of God’s existence, but very few would hold to both views. The author writes:

Apologetics was never really or initially about proving God to someone who did not believe in God to begin with. It simply wasn’t. It has evolved into that kind of thing, and along with it, it has become an cyclical exercise nearing futility. Rather, apologetics is about the process of critical thinking about the way we already make sense of reality and the universe. It is the process of checking ourselves (as theists) to make sure that we are thinking about our understanding of God correctly and accurately. And it works most of the time. It actually does provide a logical framework based on our existing worldview that demonstrates our beliefs about God and religious truth are accurate.”

So, the author maintains, you are not going to convince an atheist that God exists, definitely not that a personal God exists, and certainly not that the being of this personal God is a trinity of persons. Apologetics is of most use in a theist-to-theist discussion. As Greg Koukl puts it, all he is doing in his “Stand to Reason” ministry is putting a stone in someone’s shoe. Make that a burning cinder, and I’ll agree.

However, continues the author, that does not mean “I think apologetic conversations between a theist and an atheist is entirely useless. But the point cannot be to show that the atheist ought to believe the theist is right. That simply will not work. Rather, the point ultimately is to apply a critical analysis of the argument itself. The atheist will point out logical errors in the arguments because they cannot have any kind of confirmation bias to disregard them. However, the theist has to keep in mind that the atheist will also point out perceived errors based on the assumptions the theist does not share. That’s where the theist has to be able to recognize where the atheist are coming from so he/she can discern which objections are valid and which ones are not, because from the atheist’s perspective, they are simply not going to be able to tell the difference.”

What can be very useful for theists in discussion with atheists is to get atheists to think about their thinking, which, in a nutshell, is what philosophy is all about. At the end of the the Backpack Radio episode “Thinking about thinking,” the presenter slips in the most significant remark of the whole episode: Christianity is foolishness to the natural man (1 Corinthians 1 and 2), and that without regeneration (being born again – John 3) – no matter how clear your presentation – no one can come to believe in Christ.

Having said that, logical argumentation, as the writer of “What’s it all for?” said above, can be very useful in showing atheists the inconsistencies they hold. For example, in Backpack Radio’s subsequent episode, James Anderson discusses “worldview.” He relates an anecdote about someone who used his book What’s Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions, in his apologetics class. The book is written in the form of a flow chart. The first question Anderson asks is “Do you believe in absolute truth?” If you say yes, you are directed to a specific section of the book; if you answer no, you are sent to another section. Anderson tells of someone who went through the book with non theology students In answer to the question “Do you believe in absolute truth?” about 90% said no. This answer led to a related track of the book. At the end of their journey, most wanted to change their minds.

Conclusion: thinking about thinking, that is, philosophy, will definitely not save you, but it can certainly get your unbelieving knickers in a knot. And if you’re riding furiously towards Damascus, that knot might be the (unguaranteed) means that God uses to pluck you off your high horse. As Anderson said, world views seldom change, but this change may occur under a crisis (death-beds generally excluded). Ultimately it is a work of the Holy Spirit – who, of course, never fails in what He wants to do. The fact that God never fails in what he wants to do is something the Calvinists on this page, if not most Christians, believe?

God uses different means for different people. One of these may be apologetics. What it ultimately comes down to is that No one can know God without His voluntary condescension (Westminister Confession of faith), in a word his grace, which by itself is sufficient to save – through faith, both divinely generated that turns a sow into a cat:

“Try and teach a sow to wash itself, and see how little success you would gain. It would be a great sanitary improvement if swine would be clean. Teach them to wash and clean themselves as the cat has been doing! Useless task. You may by force wash that sow, but it hastens to the mire, and is soon as foul as ever. The only way in which you can get a sow to wash itself is to transform it into a cat; then it will wash and be clean, but not till then! Suppose that transformation to be accomplished, and then what was difficult or impossible is easy enough; the swine will henceforth be fit for your parlor and your hearth-rug. So it is with an ungodly man; you cannot force him to do what a renewed man does most willingly; you may teach him, and set him a good example, but he cannot learn the art of holiness, for he has no mind to it; his nature leads him another way. When the Lord makes a new man of him, then all things wear a different aspect. So great is this change, that I once heard a convert say, “Either all the world is changed, or else I am.”(Charles Spurgeon, “All of grace”)

C.S. Lewis, the God who takes risks and Open Theism

C.S. Lewis wrote that God takes risks, therefore he is what is known as an “open theist.” Here is Lewis:

“The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free. Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. … If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will – that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings, then we may take it it is worth paying.”(C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity).

(See “The plan of salvation: Is it worth the risk, my Son? What, risk! Ask Jacques Derrida, CS Lewis and Thomas Oord.”).

Lewis says above: “Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk.” What does Lewis mean by “what” in “he knew what would happen? In this passage it seems that Lewis is not referring to God’s micro ignorance of every future event but rather of his macro uncertainty of whether humans will use their free will for evil. If God was certain that humans were going to do evil, we could not describe God as taking risks.

As for God taking a risk (by creating humans), such a statement implies that when Adam and Eve sinned, God went something like this: “Ouch, what I dreaded could happen did. Oh well, it was still worth the risk.”

This “God of the risks” does not exist in any Christian movement except the modern movement – before Lewis – of “Open Theism.” It’s basic idea is that if God foreknows what a person is going to do, it’s no different from God decreeing what a person is going to do, because if a person wants to change his mind, he cannot change what God foreknew. In open theism, genuine human freedom implies that God cannot know future human thoughts or acts because divine foreknowledge implies foreordination, that is, predestination. (See “The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence” by John Sanders ).

Does anyone know how God would react in a risky universe? When it comes to humans doing bad, what Andy Stanley does know is that God is embarrassed and much more; he has knee-jerk reactions. That is why, says Stanley, the Carmen Christi (Philippians 2:6-11) is in Bible.

Philippians 2:6-11
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: 8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. 9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: 10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; 11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Say you’re in a church where the pastor/minister teaches vital doctrines, namely, that he stands on revelation alone, and preaches the biblical doctrine of sin and condemnation and hell, and also that the only way of salvation is in the Son by His blood, His death and glorious resurrection, and the power of the Holy Ghost upon it all, and then in one of his sermons reads Philippians 2:6-10 and says – not once but twice – that what is described in that passsage is God’s “knee-jerk reaction.” That is what drives God in Philippians 2:5-12, says Andy Stanley, in the second video of the Louie Giglio’s four-part video series “How great is our God.”

(See “The violation of Philippians 2:6-10: Knee-Jerk theism).

My question is this: If God could not be sure whether humans would choose to be bad, then doesn’t it follow that God cannot tell what the content of this bad – or any human good – will be. This is pure open theism: God knows the past, knows the presence, but not the future. Man’s pristine freedom remains intact. Goodbye you Calvinist robots and hello CS and Andy.

Objectivity of good and evil: Go yang yourself

There’s a follower of Lao Tse who is a poet , who might also be lazy, but there’s no way to tell, for, although one is spellbound by one’s name, one shouldn’t find more in a name than meets the eye; well in modern times, that is. His name is One Laozi Poet. He came across my Yin Yang dualism, CS Lewis and Christianity where he suggested:

 “You might try to consider yin/yang as active/passive. It doesn’t seem appropriate to apply a good or bad label to either part of yin/yang. Good things have yin/yang elements, and bad things have yin/yang elements, as I understand things. Perhaps good/evil are opposite sides of a coin, one man’s good is another man’s evil. I don’t know, I only have one perspective, my own, from which to view things, but I’ve never met a sane person who believed themselves to be evil. I do tend to believe my enemies are evil, and those who kill my enemies are good. (This, despite every teaching that has taught me that killing is wrong).”

 Yin-Yang philosophy has a different perspective from the Bible, which teaches that both good and evil are active inclinations in the descendants of fallen Adam.

 As for “I’ve never met a sane person who believed themselves to be evil. I do tend to believe my enemies are evil, and those who kill my enemies are good,” the Bible says that all of the human faculties – mind, will, emotions – are radically corrupt, that is, shot through with evil.

 Our Laozi poet says that perhaps good/evil are opposite sides of a coin, one man’s good is another man’s evil. In other words one man’s meat is another man’s poisson (fish). Here are some thoughts from Greg Koukl on the relativity of good and evil (Greg Koukl, ““Tactics: A game plan for defending your Christian faith”).

Is Gandhi in Heaven?

When I was in India, Christian apologist Prakesh Yesudian

told me of a conversation he had with a Hindu about Gandhi,

who is much revered there….

Is Gandhi in Heaven?” the Hindu asked. “Heaven would

be a very poor place without Gandhi in it.”

Well, sir,” Prakesh answered, “you must at least believe

in Heaven then. And apparently you have done some

thinking about what would qualify someone for Heaven. Tell

me, what kind of people go to Heaven?”

Good people go to Heaven,” he responded.

But this idea of what is a good person is very unclear to

me.

What is good?”

In typical Hindu fashion he replied, “Good and bad are

relative.

There is no clear definition.”

If that is true, sir, that goodness is relative and can’t be

defined, how is it you assume Gandhi is good and should be

in Heaven?”

Either Gandhi fulfills some external standard of goodness,

thus qualifying for Heaven, or goodness is relative and

therefore a meaningless term when applied to anyone,

including Gandhi. Both cannot be true at the same time.

Kavita

 During that same trip, I had a discussion with a Hindu

college student named Kavita. As I talked about Christianity,

she raised the standard objection. “If God is as you say, how

could he allow such suffering, especially for the children?”

She gestured with a sweep of her hand as if to take in the

collective anguish of Madras, which was great.

The first thing I pointed out was that God hadn’t done this

to India. Hinduism had. Ideas have consequences, and the

suffering in Madras was a direct result of things Hindus

believe.

I then explained that it wouldn’t always be this way. A day

would come when all evil would be destroyed, and Jesus

himself would wipe away every bitter tear.

How could that be?” she objected. “Evil and good exist as

dual poles. If you have no evil, it is impossible to have good.

Each must balance the other out.”

I noticed immediately that Kavita’s response was at odds

with her first question. “Let me repeat this reasoning back to

you,” I said, “and you tell me what you think of it.” She

nodded.

You ask ‘Why are innocent children starving in the

streets?’ I answer, ‘Good and evil exist as dual poles.

Children starve in Madras so kids in other parts of the World

may be happy and Well. The one balances the other out.’

What do you think?”

When the point sunk in, she was forced to smile.

Touchél” she replied.

Before Koukl’s next example, as a prelim let me quote what a “Messianic Jew” said: “[Much] damage [was] done to the interpretation of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and New Covenant writings by non-Jewish Christian theologians from the late first century, on. The road to Auschwitz was paved from such anti-Jewish polemics and their corresponding supersessionistic theological principles.” Here is another view by a Jew of the cause of the Jewish Holocaust, which Koukl relates:

After an airing of The Quarrel, a film that explored the problem of

God and the Holocaust. Director David Brandes had asked

me to help moderate a discussion with an audience about the

moral issues raised by the film.

 From one side of the auditorium a Jewish woman offered

that maybe God allowed the Holocaust as a punishment for

Israel’s wayward drift into secularism. Some Jewish thinkers

have raised this possibility in light of the promised curses of

Deuteronomy 28. The reflection prompted a sarcastic, “Well,

that’s a real loving God,” from the other side of the theater.

I called attention to the conflict suggested by the second

comment. Those who are quick to object that God isn’t doing

enough about evil in the world (“A good God wouldn’t let

that happen”) are often equally quick to complain when God

puts his foot down (“A loving God would never send anyone

to Hell”).

If God appears indifferent to wickedness, his goodness is

challenged. Yet if he acts to punish sin, his love is in

question. These objections compete with each other in most

cases. They are siblings in rivalry. One or the other needs to

be surrendered. Both can’t be held simultaneously!

 One man’s hot is another man’s cold, true; one mans clever is another man’s stupid, true. But when it comes to morality, objective standards do exist. If you contradict me, I respectfully suggest: Go yang yourself.

Common self-refuting statements of truth-cheaters

From Greg Koukl’s “Tactics: A game plan for defending your Christian faith,” p. 118.

. “There is no truth.” (Is this statement true?)
. “There are no absolutes.” (Is this an absolute?)
. “No one can know any truth about religion.” (And how,
precisely, did you come to know that truth about
religion?)
. “You can’t know anything for sure.” (Are you sure about
that?)
. “Talking about God is meaningless.” (What does this
statement about God mean?)
. “You can only know truth through experience.” (What
experience taught you that truth?)
. “Never take anyone’s advice on that issue.” (Should I take
your advice on that?)

I like this one (p. 118), which reminds me of Richard Dawkins:

“I don’t believe in religion.”
“Why not?”
“There is no scientific evidence for it.”
“Then you shouldn’t believe in science either.”
“Why not?”
“Because there is no scientific evidence for it.”

Koukl comments “Since there is no scientific evidence proving that science is the only Way to know truth, the view self-destructs.”

The idol of Humanism, the betrayal of the ages

Humanism is the betrayal of the ages (Paris Reidhead, “Ten Shekels and a shirt”)

Christians are dumb (Dr. George Yancey lectures on anti-Christian bias in academia, and beyond)

Introduction

On 2 April, Adrian Leftwich of the Department of Politics at the University of York died at the age of 73 of lung cancer. He was a South African student leader at the University of Cape Town, and very committed to the anti-Apartheid struggle. I was at the University of Cape Town at the same time doing my degree in philosophy (1960-1963). Although, I did not know him personally, he was very visible. Here is an excerpt from his obituary, which describes him having the finest qualities of “humanism.”

“[He had an] extraordinary and genuine interest in and support for others. Adrian was above all a humanist (my italics), wanting to know and understand the people he met and worked with – important leaders and charismatic taxi-drivers alike. Adrian wanted to understand the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ weft and weave of the person, and in doing so invariably left an enduring impression on people. As a mentor Adrian was deeply valued and respected by DLP [Development Leadership Program] researchers and the whole team. He educated and enthused us, had the unique ability to shine a search-light and illuminate complex issues, but also the skill to encourage and bring out the ideas and thoughts of others. There were so many times where I witnessed Adrian’s endless generosity in intellect and time, but what stands out is that, on the day he was diagnosed with cancer, he somehow took time to provide detailed feedback on the draft manuscript of an AusAID [Australian Agency for International Development] colleague. In a word, selfless. To a person DLP friends and former colleagues have said that it was an honour and privilege to have worked with Adrian and that they truly valued his shared wisdom.”

What is Humanism

There exist various definitions of humanism, Here is one:

“…a commitment to the perspective, interests and centrality of human persons; a belief in reason and autonomy as foundational aspects of human existence; a belief that reason, scepticism and the scientific method are the only appropriate instruments for discovering truth and structuring the human community; a belief that the foundations for ethics and society are to be found in autonomy and moral equality (Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy).”

Paganism and humanism

In ancient Judaism other religions are described as goyim (the nations). In modern Judaism a non-Jew is a goy. Early and Middle-Ages Christianity referred to religions other than itself and Judaism as paganism (from “rural,” “peasant”). In early Christianity, “paganism” comprised the Greco-Roman religions, neoplatonism and gnosticism, and the mystery cults, while in the Middle-Ages there was Germanic and Slavic paganism.

Seventy-five years ago, writes J Gresham Machen, Western civilization, despite inconsistencies, was still predominantly Christian; today it is predominantly pagan. In speaking of ‘paganism,’ we are not using a term of reproach. Ancient Greece was pagan, but it was glorious, and the modern world has not even begun to equal its achievements. What, then, is paganism? The answer is not really difficult. Paganism is that view of life which finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties” (my italics). And that exactly describes humanism.

The nobler qualities of humanism also have the above qualities as the highest human goal. “Very different , continues Machen, is the Christian ideal. Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart [by which is not meant] continual beating on the breast or a continual crying of ‘Woe is me.’ Christianity begins with the broken heart and the consciousness of sin and ends with its final reality, God in Christ.”

The measure of all things, the pleasure of all things

In humanism “man is the measure of all things.” Plato attributes this saying to Protagoras. Briefly, it means that truth – moral and intellectual – is not something out there, but is the product of individual human minds. Human minds differ, therefore, my truth may not be your truth. A problem: when it comes to water boiling at sea-level, surely all beach-lovers would have to agree that the 100 degrees centigrade they see on their individual pocket thermometers is not a product of their minds. In the philosophy of humanism, many other areas of human life such as the “humanities” – politics, economics, art and ethics – the rigid belief “your truth, my truth” is regarded as the natural order of things.

In humanism, says Francis Schaeffer, “the material or energy shaped by pure chance is the final reality.” In 1982, the United States of America legislated that the only view of reality that can be taught is that matter and energy are the product of chance. This philosophy says Schaeffer, “gives no meaning to life. It gives no value system. It gives no basis for law, and therefore, in this case, man must be the measure of all things. So, Humanism properly defined, in contrast, let us say, to the humanities or humanitarianism, (which is something entirely different and which Christians should be in favor of) being the measure of all things, comes naturally, mathematically, inevitably, certainly. If indeed the final reality is silent about these values, then man must generate them from himself.” So, those in power get together and decide what is good for society in a given place and at a given time, and that becomes law. “TYRANNY! Exclaims Schaeffer (his emphasis); that’s what we face! We face a world view which never would have given us our freedoms. It has been forced upon us by the courts and the government — the men holding this other world view, whether we want it or not, even though it’s destroying the very freedoms which give the freedoms for the excesses and for the things which are wrong.”

Man is not only the measure of all things, but all things are measured for his pleasure, his enjoyment. For the natural man, joy means enjoyment, lots of it – enjoyment of freedom, enjoyment of job, of family, of friends, of sex, of sport, of holidays, of gadgets – and enjoyment of church! “Enjoyment” here does not merely mean amusements, thrills and diversions (French divertissement “entertainment”) but has to do with such things as the relationship between lifestyles and happiness. (See “Enjoyment of life lengthens life: Findings and consequences'” by R. Veenhoven).

All is permitted unless it interferes with someone else’s enjoyment. If there is no God, all is permissible (Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov – free ebook). Here are two excerpts (the pagination is of the ebook) :

Only five days ago, in a gathering here, principally of ladies, he solemnly declared in argument that there was nothing in the whole world to make men love their neighbours. That there was no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that, if there had been any love on earth hitherto, it was not owing to a natural law, but simply because men have believed in immortality. Ivan Fyodorovitch added in parenthesis that the whole natural law lies in that faith, and that if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism.” (p. 134). Immortality implies belief in God. Also from “The Brothers Karamazov:

But God will save Russia, for though the peasants are corrupted and cannot renounce their filthy sin, yet they know it is cursed by God and that they do wrong in sinning. So that our people still believe in righteousness, have faith in God and weep tears of devotion. It is different with the upper classes. They, following science, want to base justice on reason alone, but not with Christ, as before, and they have already proclaimed that there is no crime, that there is no sin. And that’s consistent, for if you have no God what is the meaning of crime? (pp. 649-50).

The idols of the tribe

In his “The principles of psychology, Chapter 21, “The perception of reality” William James, distinguishes seven “sub-universes” of reality:

1. The world of sense, of physical things, as we apprehend them.

2. The world of science, of physical things, as the learned conceive them.

3. The world of ideal relations and abstract truths believable by all – logical mathematical, ethical, metaphysical propositions.

4. The world of “idols of the tribe”, illusions or prejudices common to all.

5. The various supernatural worlds.

6. The various worlds of individual opinion.

7. The various (and numerous) worlds of “sheer madness”.

James distinguishes between the “idols” of illusions and prejudices and the ” various supernatural worlds.” The three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – also distinguish between idols and the supernatural world. Idols in these religions, in contrast to William James, do not refer to illusions and prejudices but to anything that one loves above God. John Calvin, in his preface to the Olivat translation of the New Testament writes:

It is true enough that the Gentiles, astonished and convinced by so many goods and benefits which they saw with their own eyes, have been forced to recognize the hidden Benefactor from whom came so much goodness. But instead of giving the true God the glory which they owed him, they forged a god to their own liking, one dreamt up by their foolish fantasy in its vanity and deceit; and not one god only, but as many as their temerity and conceit enabled them to forge and cast (feindre et fondre); so that there was not a people or place which did not make new gods as seemed good to them. Thus it is that idolatry, that perfidious panderer, was able to exercise dominion, to turn men away from God, and to amuse them with a whole crowd of phantoms to which they themselves had given shape, name, and being itself.

Idols are not only images and statues as described in Romans 1:

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Anything you love more than Jesus the Christ is idolatry. In one culture, the family is an idol; in another culture – Western culture – the individual is an idol. In Western culture it is not polite to hurt someone’s feelings, for example, telling them that they are wrong. When it comes to religion, no one, says the humanist, is wrong.

Your idol may be money or art or your moral rectitude, even your good works, if not done mainly for God. Idols, then, are anything that takes precedence over your Creator; in Christianity, anything that you covet more than Christ is idolatry. John Piper defines covetousness as “desiring something so much that you lose your contentment in God” (“Future Grace,” 221). Thus the opposite of covetousness is resting satisfied with God. Covetousness is idolatry “because the contentment that the heart should be getting from God, it starts to get from something else” (221). Covetousness, simply put, “is a heart divided between two gods” (221).”

There is also the idolatry of human reason. The “Enlightenment” made reason an ultimate thing. When it came to the Bible, it threw out anything it could not explain. Our brains, it says, can’t operate without patterns and order. We have to make some order out of what we see and hear. It says, patterns create music, language and thought. We need stories, it says, because they are part of our make-up. Some people, it says, are content with fiction, while others have a need for their stories to be true. It says, some people believe that absolute truth will always elude us, others believe that they know the Truth.

For example, here is a comment someone wrote to me about the Suffering Servant” passage in Isaiah 53; the book of Isaiah was written 700 years before Christ was born. “The Old Testament tells of the coming of the Messiah. The Book of Isaiah is not a prophecy. Of course a Messiah, whether Jesus or not, would be spurned, persecuted and martyred. To predict this, all you need is to witness human behaviour. It is the humanist opinion that the bible stems from our longing for order and understanding. We need a beginning, a middle and an end. In the humanist view, the bible story of Adam and Eve is a dramatic, fictional explanation for human nature, suffering and death.”

“Critics of biblical Christianity, writes Michael Kruger have roundly argued that Christians have no rational basis for holding such a belief about the canon. Christians can believe such a thing if they want to, it is argued, but it is irrational and intellectually unjustifiable. It must be taken on blind faith,”(Michael Kruger, Introduction to Canon revisited Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books). This, of course, is silly. This is not the place to say why.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing ( 1729- 1781) is famous for his metaphor of the “ugly broad ditch” (der garstige breite Graben) between the “accidental truths of history” and “the proof for necessary truths of reason.” For Lessing, religion belongs to the “accidental truths of history.” Christians, Jews and Muslims should not consider one another’s “accidental” beliefs as wrong. Why is this silly? Because, (most) Jews believe that Jesus is not the Messiah and was crucified, Christians also believe jesus was crucified but is indeed the Messiah, while Muslims also believe that Jesus is the Messiah but that he did not die on the cross, indeed, he did not die at all but was taken up into heaven while still alive. Lessing wished that they could look past the “accidents” of religion to the “necessary truths of reason.”

Our modern cultural elite think that science and education, not the Bible, will improve the world. This view has had devastating results. In 1920, H.G. Wells, in his “Outline of history,” praised human progress, which he maintained was due to advances in science and education. Human reason was going from strength to strength, to the end of all war. In his “Shape of things to come” (1933), Wells described how appalled he was by the selfishness of nations. In his last book, at the end of World War II, “Mind at the end of its tether (1945), he wrote ‘Homo sapiens is spent, this is the end.” Homo Sapiens lost all its sap; result you end up a sap.

Here is the problem, which Wells, the great humanist, either ignored or was ignorant of: He had put his great hope in humanity to solve all its problems. Alas, he was forced to face the reality of the inherent depravity of man. He knew nothing of the grace and power of God to change lives.

The inevitable outcome of humanism

What does this individualist autonomy of humanism lead to? Often not to the fine humanistic qualities described in Adrian Leftwich’s obituary but, says Francis Schaeffer, to “things such as over-permissiveness, pornography, the problem of the public schools, the breakdown of the family, abortion, infanticide (the killing of newborn babies), increased emphasis upon the euthanasia of the old and many, many other things…whatever compassion there has ever been, it is rooted in the fact that our culture knows that man is unique, is made in the image of God. Take it away, and I just say gently, the stopper is out of the bathtub for all human life.” (See the recent case of the killing of botched aborted babies). (F. Schaeffer, “A Christian Manifesto”).

It indeed possible for the generosity and empathy of a humanist to exist side by side with some or all of the evils mentioned by Schaeffer. The above evils (that is what they are) mentioned by Schaeffer are symptoms of the deeper problem of a change in the Western world from a Judeo-Christian standard to a humanistic one. Not only a departure from the Judeo-Christian world view but, says Bavinck, from the “religious supra-naturalistic worldview [which] has universally prevailed among all peoples and in all ages down to our own day, and only in the last hundred and fifty years has given way in some circles to the empirico-scientific” (Herman Bavinck, “The philosophy of Revelation,” 1908). So, for most of human history, East and West, there existed a close connection between religion and civilization, between the world and the other-wordly. Indeed religion was the very foundation of the family and social life.

The Christian should destroy his idols. How to do it? The Bible is ambivalent about the power of idols. In one sense they are nothing, they are not real, because there is, the Bible says, only one God. In another sense, through these idols, the powers and principalities insinuate your soul. How does a Christian disarm these evil powers – the devil and his demons? The only sure way is to be prepared to lose one’s life. The Apostle Paul was prepared to do it, and Jesus actually did it. This is what happened at the cross:

When you [ believers] were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:13-15). When Jesus bowed his head and died, he totally triumphed over the idols. Your career, your wife, your children, your CV cannot die for your sins, only Christ can.

How can God punish those who hate him – a just punishment – and yet bring them back to him. How does Jesus’ objective triumph over idols (at the cross) help one to leave one’s idols? If the reality of who Jesus is and what he has done breaks through to you, it will free you. The only way to understand why Jesus is more important is through the guidance of the Holy Spirit in prayer and meditation (not of the “transcendental” kind”). When you look into the coffin of a loved one, the real question, says Tim Keller, is: “Is Jesus there in that coffin with you?” (Tim Keller, “The Gospel and Idolatry”).

The Church, of course, has also been infected with the idolatry of humanism. Here is Paris Reidhead:

“Now religion [in the 19th century] then had to exist because there were so many people that made their living at it, so they had to find some way to justify their existence. So back about the time, in 1850, the church divided into two groups. The one group was the liberals, who accepted the philosophy of the humanism and tried to find some relevance by saying something like this to their generation, “Ha, ha, we don’t know there’s a heaven. We don’t know there’s a hell. But we do know this, that you’ve got to live for 70 years! We know there’s a great deal of benefit from poetry, from high thoughts and noble aspirations. Therefore it’s important for you to come to church on Sunday, so that we can read some poetry, that we can give you some little adages and axioms and rules to live by. We can’t say anything about what’s going to happen when you die, but we’ll tell you this, if you’ll come every week and pay and help and stay with us, we’ll put springs on your wagon and your trip will be more comfortable. We can’t guarantee anything about what’s going to happen when you die, but we say that if you come along with us, we’ll make you happier while you’re alive.” And so this became the essence of liberalism. It has simply nothing more than to try and put a little sugar in the bitter coffee of their journey and sweeten it up for a time. This is all that it could say.”

“Well now the philosophy of the atmosphere is humanism; the chief end of being is the happiness of man. There’s another group of people that have taken umbrage with the liberals, this group are my people, the fundamentalists. They say, “We believe in the inspiration of the Bible! We believe in the deity of Jesus Christ! We believe in hell! We believe in heaven! We believe in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ!” But remember the atmosphere is that of humanism. And humanism says the chief end of being is the happiness of man. Humanism is like a miasma out of a pit, it just permeates everyplace. Humanism is like an infection, an epidemic, it just goes everywhere.” (Paris Reidhead, “Ten shekels and a shirt.”

Be careful; it all depends what one means by “happiness.” Here is John Brown: “‘Life,’ in the language of our Lord, implies happiness. When he calls himself, then, the “life-giving bread,” he intimates that he is the author of true happiness; that he, that he alone, can make men truly and permanently happy” (John Brown, “True happiness and the way to secure it: Conversational discourse to the Jews – John 6:26-65″).

Betrayal, forgiveness and redemption

Sin and forgiveness are central motifs in all religions. One of the worst sins is betrayal, especially by those who say they love you. Judas’ betrayal of and Peter’s denial of Jesus are well known. “Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me” (Psalm 41:9). I return to Adrian Leftwich. The “Daily Maverick” (11 May, 2013) carries an article entitled, “Adrian Leftwich, the Unforgiven” with the following rubric:

Adrian Leftwich, who died earlier this month, ended his life as a respected politics professor at the University of York, in England. But as a young man in his native South Africa, Leftwich was an anti-Apartheid activist who sold out some of his closest friends and comrades in exchange for his own freedom. Even after almost 50 years, some would never forgive him. Rebecca Davis looks back on a haunting South African story.” The article quotes an excerpt from Leftwich “I gave the names”: “In July 1964, when I was 24, my life in South Africa came to a sudden end. The events which brought this about were of my own making. No one else was to blame.” Davis continues:

“In this slightly abrupt fashion, Adrian Leftwich begins his 2002 essay “I Gave the Names”. It was the first time in 40 years that Leftwich, by that time a successful UK academic, would break his silence in public on the events that had condemned him to a life lived in exile from his home country. It was said later that he had been writing the essay for 15 years. Leftwich, looking back at events which occurred more than 40 years earlier, still revealed traces of bemusement: ‘For reasons which I still do not fully understand, I tried to do things which were far beyond me, and I failed. I tried to help change the world around me but in the process I destroyed my own, I betrayed my friends and colleagues and I damaged the cause which I believed in and had worked for,’ he wrote.”

From the “humanistic” standpoint (as defined in this article), Leftwich, in his student days, did a heinous crime, which resulted in torture and long prison sentences for his associates and close friends. Some eventually forgave him, some half-forgave him, and others could never forgive him. I mentioned earlier, how his later life took an “extraordinary and genuine interest in and support for others. Adrian was above all a humanist (my italics), wanting to know and understand the people he met and worked with – important leaders and charismatic taxi-drivers alike. Adrian wanted to understand the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ weft and weave of the person, and in doing so invariably left an enduring impression on people.” (His obituary at the beginning of this article).

Oh the contrast! The traitor seeking redemption (for surely there must be truth in this inference) in humanistic virtue. Christ, in contrast, teaches that redemption can never be found in turning over a new leaf, or even in turning your body over to be burned for any reason, even for Christ’s sake, if not done without faith in Him, without faith in His sacrifice on the cross. It was on the cross that he was made sin for those who were to believe in Him. Humanists can’t understand how faith can save you. They, like Pontius Pilate, ask, “What is truth? They are asking, if there is no Truth – which they believe is true!- in what truth can they believe? (All knowledge and action is based on belief).

Both the humanist and the Christian agree with the Apostle James:

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2).

Adrian Leftwich, in human eyes, did far more good than evil; yet, the Bible says without faith in (trust in) Christ there is no redemption – in this world and the world to come. I say this with great sadness.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:20-21)

Related posts: Pantheism, the Enlightenment and Materialism

Finding God in a world full of so many gods

Pantheism, the Enlightenment and Materialism

 

Introduction: What is Pantheism

 Pantheism is the belief that what religions call “God” is the universe itself, in all its splendour and horror. In Pantheism the universe and God are synonymous. Pantheism is as old as the marrow of Indian philosophy; the Upanishads (etymology – “sitting close to” a guru) , and as new as “New Age.” The Jewish Kabbalah, Pantheist to the core, states: 

The essence of divinity is found in every single thing — nothing but it exists. Since it causes every thing to be, no thing can live by anything else. It enlivens them; its existence exists in each existent. Do not attribute duality to God. Let God be solely God. If you suppose that Ein Sof (the Eternal, literally “without end”) emanates until a certain point, and that from that point on is outside of it, you have dualized. God forbid! Realize, rather, that Ein Sof exists in each existent. Do not say, “This is a stone and not God.” God forbid! Rather, all existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity” (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Shiur Qomah to Zohar 3:14b; Idra Rabba). 

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero's grave in Safed, Israel

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s grave in Safed, Israel

Adorning the pantheist pantheon in the late 18th to early 19th centuries were the greats Goethe and Hegel in Germany, Shelley and Keats in England, and Emerson and Thoreau in America. Later in the 19th century pantheism was close to becoming the dominant philosophy.

If pantheism is as old as the Upanishads (the bulk of it probably written circa 600 BCE), how old is materialism? At least as old as the pre-Socratic Greek philosophy of 600-500 BCE, reaching its peak in the 4th Century BCE with the atomists Democritus and Epicurus. “Atomism” was the philosophy that ultimate reality consists of invisible, indivisible bits of randomly colliding matter. Not very different from the materialism of modern times, spearheaded by the Enlightenment. It believed that human beings and nature could be controlled by reason and empirical methods. The reasoning was the laws of society emerge from the laws of nature. Once these social laws were understood, it would be possible to create a better world. 

The Enlightenment 

In his What is Enlightenment? Emmanuel Kant describes the Enlightenment as “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage”, where “tutelage” is (Kant continues) “man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another”. The “Enlightenment” has profound relevance not only for understanding modern man. God saw that the light was good, but man saw that enlightenment was better – much better. “Enlightenment” puts man at the centre. Whereas theology, previous to the “Enlightenment,” was the handmaiden of science, after the “Enlightenment,” the movement of “positivism” (August Comte) reduced it to the “charwoman” of science (Frederick Copleston in one of his volumes on the history of philosophy. (Deconstruction and the Inworming of Postmodern theology). 

Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Force and Chemical Stuff 

Scientists such as Lavoisier (1743-94) in France and John Dalton (1766-1844) in England promoted a materialistic philosophy where all entities including human beings were entirely the product of physical and chemical forces. One of the most popular books of the 19th century was Ludwig Büchner’s, “Kraft und Stoff (Force and Matter, 1855). The argument of the book is that there is no need for a transcendent (immaterial) force to explain the universe: the laws of physics and chemistry are sufficient to do the job. Here is Büchner strutting his Stoff in his concluding observations (English translation (1870) by J. Frederick Collingwood, p, 251-52): 

Exact science inculcates modesty ; and it is perhaps for this reason, that our modern naturalists have hitherto neglected to apply the standard of exact science to philosophy, and from the treasury of facts to forge arms for the overthrow of transcendental speculations. Now and then there issued from the workshops of these industrious labourers a ray of light which, reaching the noisy philosophers, did not fail to heighten the existing confusion. These single rays were, however, sufficient to cause in the camp of speculative philosophy a feverish excitement, and gave rise to sallies in anticipation of a threatened attack. There was something ludicrous in it to see these philosophers so desperately defend themselves before they were seriously attacked. It certainly will not be long before the battle becomes general. Is the victory doubtful ? The struggle is unequal ; the opponents cannot stand against the trenchant arm of physical and physiological materialism, which fights with facts that every one can comprehend, while the opponents fight with suppositions and presumptions.” 

Büchner’s  Force and Matter was followed four years later by the sensational materialisation of Charles Darwin’s “On the origin of Species,” 1859). Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection dumped the notion that there was design or purpose in the universe. All phenomena could be explained by chemistry and physics, even history; to wit, the “historical materialism” of Marx and Engels and the evolutionary psychology of Herbert Spencer. 

Historical materialism 

Here is Marx and Engels’ broad overview of historical materialism: 

“The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature….Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.”

Pantheism takes a sandwich break 

I contrast the views of Francis Schaeffer and Herman Bavinck on the relationship between materialism and the “infinite creator God (Schaeffer) in 20th century humanism. Here is Schaeffer in 1982: 

[I]nstead of the final reality that exists being the infinite creator God; instead of that which is the basis of all reality being such a creator God, now largely, all else is seen as only material or energy which has existed forever in some form, shaped into its present complex form only by pure chance.(F. Schaeffer, “A Christian Manifesto”). 

The above position describes the Darwinian position as it exists today in 2013.Now, here is Herman Bavinck in 1908. Note how the second paragraph contrasts with Schaeffer:

(My italics) 

The term evolution embodies in itself a harmless conception, and the principle expressed by it is certainly operative within well-defined limits throughout the imiverse. But the trend of thought by which it has been monopolized, and the system built on it, in many cases at least, avail themselves of the word in order to explain the entire world, including man and religion and morality, without the aid of any supranatural factor, purely from immanent forces, and according to unvarying laws of nature.” 

Nevertheless, the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century has witnessed an important change in this respect. The foremost investigators in the field of science have abandoned the. attempt to explain all phenomena and events by.mechanico-chemical causes. Everywhere there is manifesting itself an effort to take up and incorporate Darwin’s scheme of a nature subject to law into an idealistic world-view. In fact Darwin himself, through his agnosticism, left room for different conceptions of the Absolute, nay repeatedly and em- phatically gave voice to a conviction that the world is not the product of accident, brute force, or blind necessity, but in its entirety has been intended for progressive improvement. By way of Darwin, and enriched by a mass of valuable scientific material, the doctrine of evolution has returned to the fundamental idea of Hegel’s philosophy. The mechanical conception of nature has been once more replaced by the dynamical ; materialism has reverted to pantheism; evolution has become again the unfolding, the revealing of absolute spirit. And the concept of revelation has held anew its triumphant entry into the realm of philosophy and even of natural science.” 

Bavinck’s “The mechanical conception of nature has been once more replaced by the dynamical ; materialism has reverted to pantheism.” 

This implies that in the 19th century (recall Bavinck wrote this in 1908) the purely mechanical conception of nature was in vogue, just as it is in vogue again in the late 20th and 21st century. This is not to say that “creationism” is insignficant in the 21st centrury. The interesting observation in Bavinck is that between the mechanical conceptions of the late 19th century and our time, there existed a pantheistic hiatus.

Herman Bavinck (1854 - 1921)

Herman Bavinck (1854 – 1921)

Here is Carl Sagan: 

We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology.” And: Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” One thing Sagan, while alive, was sure of; it wasn’t God.

 Conclusion: I am Gaaaaad, I am Gaaaad 

The world with all its stuff is more pantheistic than ever. No one sums it up more than the delightful Shirley Maclaine. Here is an excerpt of an ABC-TV interview featuring Shirley Mclaine:

During an oceanside conversation, David presses her to stand up and assert the presence of the ‘God-truth’ within.  After suggesting several affirmations, he selects a powerful one for Shirley:  ‘I am God.’ Timidly, she stands at the Pacific.  Stretching out her arms, she mouths the words half-heartedly. ‘Say it louder.’ Shirley blusters about this statement being a little too pompous. For him to make her chant those words is – well, it sounds so insufferably arrogant. David’s answer cuts to the quick: ‘See how little you think of yourself?’ This deep insight embarrasses MacLaine into holy boldness. Intuitively, she comes to feel he’s right.  Lifting both arms to the sky, she pumps it out — ‘I am God!  I am God!’ — as the ocean laps at her feet.”

Shirley Maclaine (1934 - )

Shirley Maclaine (1934 – )

 

“Humans need something more than themselves” – John Gray: Dog

Why does the human animal need contact with something other than itself?, asks political philosopher, John N Gray.

john gray

He writes in the BBC News Magazine:

Montaigne didn’t want his animal companions to be mirrors of himself, he wanted them to be a window from which he could look out from himself and from the human world..,He understood that the good life means different things for animals with different natures. What he questioned was the idea that one kind of life, the kind humans alone can live, is always best.”

Dogs seem to be capable of showing human-like emotions of shame, but though they are more domesticated they still remain different from us. And I think it’s their differences from us, as much as their similarities, that makes them such good companions…Whatever you feel about cats and dogs, it seems clear that the human animal needs contact with something other than itself. For religious people this need may be satisfied by God, even if the God with whom they commune seems too often all-too-human..It’s also obvious thatsearching for a way of looking at the world that’s not simply human expresses a powerful human impulse.”

What birds and animals offer us is not confirmation of our sense of having an exalted place in some sort of cosmic hierarchy, it’s admission into a larger scheme of things, where our minds are no longer turned in on themselves. Unless it has contact with something other than itself, the human animal soon becomes stale and mad. By giving us the freedom to see the world afresh, birds and animals renew our humanity.”

There’s the joke of the dyslexic atheist who woke up one morning and realised that there was a dog. However, as John Gray tells it above, it may not be necessary to be dyslexic – or even a philosopher to realise that there IS a dog; but it (the dyslexic and the philosopher) does yelp. As Paul Newman said in 1956: Somedoggy up there likes me.

dog

Jean Paul Sartre’s “existence precedes essence” and Al Mohler’s Sex education in kindergarten

In the philosophy of Socrates and Plato we find the distinction between the “form” of the thing and its material composition. Another term for “form” is “essence,” which generally defines the “function” of an entity. In Plato, “forms” are realities that pre-exist entities. The term “entity” comes from the Latin ens “being.” Entities, or beings, consist of two “macrobutes” (two overarching attributes): essence and existence. For example, the essence of chair is “sitting on-ness.” The essence of the chair precedes (logically and chronologically) the chair itself.

Look, there’s Plato sittting in his chair thinking about his thinking. In most traditional philosophy, including Christian philosophy, the essence of Plato precedes his existence. This essence is his human “nature.” He comes into existence with his pre-formed human nature, his essence.

Jean Paul Sartre says, “non,” it doesn’t work this way; it mustn’t work this way, because in such a scheme human freedom is lost owing to the fact that human “nature” implies a fixety, a determinism in which man is reduced to a robot. Rationality, for Sartre, can only operate when man is totally free to think and feel what he wants, independent of any pre-existent restraints such as rules of morality, which many philosophies claim are part of the essence (nature) of man.

Here is a good description of Sartre’s “existence precedes essence.”

Jean Paul Sartre

Jean Paul Sartre

“In Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism and Human Emotions,” the author discusses the philosophical concept that existence precedes essence, a theory which involves elements of responsibility and freedom in regards to human choice. The idea that existence precedes essence means that a human being, as well as human reality, exists prior to any concepts of values or morals. A person is born a blank slate; humanity has no universal, predetermined principles or ethics common to all of mankind. Since no preformed essence or definition exists of what is means to “be human,” a person must form his/her own conception of existence by asserting control of and responsibility for his/her actions and choices. Consequently, a human being gains his/her essence through individual choices and actions. It is solely through the process of living that one defines one’s self.”

Which brings me to Al Mohler‘s “Sex education in kindergarten” (The Briefing, 28 Feb 2013).

Al Mohler

Al Mohler

Mohler discusses new US laws that cater for transgender children. In brief(s), if a boy feels that his essence is a girl, then he should be allowed to frequent the girls’ bathroom, and if a girl feels her essence is a boy, then she may use the boys’ bathroom. And if that arrangement becomes impractical (unmanageable? – peek-a-boo), then perhaps there should be transgender bathrooms.

What, though, if they change their minds later and choose to revert to their former state (essence?). And backwards and forwards: today, Arthur; tomorrow, Martha; next week, Arthur; next month Martha; in Sartrian terms, creating and recreating their essence, limited, alas, to only four options: girl, boy, birl, goy.

Setting – Kindergarten

Teacher – Martha, you said you wanted to be a boy, so why are you back in the girls’ bathroom?

Martha – Don’t call me Martha; my name – you promised! – is Arthur.

Intelligence counts. Humanist and Christian practice

This is a follow-on from  Talkies and walkies: John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Regress.

“Intellect by itself, says Aristotle, the humanist, moves nothing, but only the intellect which aims at an end and is practical.” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics). C. S. Lewis agrees:

“It is intelligence that counts,” said Humanist.

“It moves nothing,” said John. “You see that Savage is scalding hot and you are cold. You must get heat to rival his heat.” (“The Pilgrim’s Regress,” Book 6, Chapter 7, p. 139. Collins, Fount Paperbacks, 1990 [1993]).

The Greek humanist, Aristotle, and the English Christian, Lewis, both agree that Humanist is wrong to think that brains is what it’s all about. What is important to humanists as well as Christians is “use your loaf, yes, but don’t loaf around – do.” C.S. Lewis’s Humanist does not seem to be a typical humanist. As far as I know all humanists, John Dewey, for example, are do-gmatic pragmatists.

We find an echo of Aristotle in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Knowing is not enough; we must apply.
 Willing is not enough; we must do,” which is the motto of the counsellor Ra Lovingsworth.

Aristotle and Goethe cover three aspects of personality, namely, intellect (logic [how we think] and knowledge [what we think]), the will and behaviour. When we add the emotions/feelings/heart to the pot, we have the basic ingredients of the Psychology of Personality (or Personality Psychology). Christian theology adds another ingredient, faith, which it maintains is the very reason for the existence of the intellect, the will, the emotions and behaviour (works).

The Reformers of the 16th Century divided true saving faith into three parts: notitia, assensus and fiducia. Notitia comprises knowledge, such as belief in one God, in the humanity (1 John 4:3) and deity of Christ (John 8:24), His crucifixion for sinners (1 Cor. 15:3), His bodily resurrection from the dead, and some understanding of God’s grace in salvation. Assensus is belief. This belief hasn’t yet penetrated the heart; it is still on the mental level – a mental assent. “I believe it, that settles it.” Of course, when you say such a thing, your mental assent is more of a mental descent. To understand why it is a mental descent, you need to ascend to the the third level of faith: fiducia.

Fiducia is full trust and commitment, it’s the heart knowledge of Jesus’ prayer to His Father. It is Fiducia that ultimately counts, which, itself is the (irresistible) gift of God (Two conversions: the mind (NOTITIA) and the heart (FIDUCIA) of faith in Blaise Pascal).

Here is the practical part:

“As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: 7 Rooted and built up in him, and established in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:6-7).

What is more practical than a regenerated heart, that is, a dead heart that has been “transfused” by (faith in) the blood of Christ and brought near to the Father: “Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13).

Fulminations over the burning down of the library of Alexandria

I am doing some research for an article entitled “Dualism and Jewalism.” The connection between Greek and Jewish thought comes, naturally, into the picture. My thoughts are now on that most tragic of all cultural calamities: the burning down of the library of Alexandria. Here is William Turner of the Maritain Centre:

“The Alexandrian Movement. The scientific movement in Alexandria, of which mention has already been made, was but a phase of the general intellectual revival which was centered in the capital of Egypt during the last centuries of the old era and the first century of the new. This revival may be said to date from the foundation of the city (332 B.C.) by Alexander the Great, who, owing probably to the influence of Aristotle, always held philosophy in the highest esteem and took a lively interest in the spread of philosophical knowledge. After the division of the Macedonian empire, consequent on the death of Alexander, the Seleucidae in Syria, the Attali in Pergamus, and the Ptolemies in Egypt continued to protect and encourage philosophy. The Ptolemies were especially zealous in the cause of learning, and under their rule Alexandria soon became the Athens of the East, — the center of the intellectual as well as of the commercial life of the Orient, — and the point where the Eastern and the Western civilizations met. The famous museum, founded about the beginning of the third century before Christ by Ptolemy Soter, was literally a home of learning, and the no less famous library contained all that was best in Grecian, Roman, Jewish, Persian, Babylonian, Phoenician, and Hindu literature. The protection and encouragement extended to learning by the Ptolemies were continued by the Roman emperors after Egypt became a Roman province.”

Who burned down the library? There are three accounts: the pagan Julius Ceasar (48 BC), Christians (circa 400 AD) and Muslims (640 AD). No matter who torched the over half million precious docs, I’m fuming. I want to cry. How now AM I going to be able to write anything of substance on the most vital aspect of dualism-monism, which is the who or the what of creation.

The cult of options and the paradox of choice: Monkey business

In his “Fools Rush In where Monkeys Fear to Tread,” Carl Trueman refers to Mark Dever’s (pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church) fulminations “against what he sees as the ”cult of options’ that is so important for young people today. In essence, the cult of options is the desire to keep all life options open, of not making commitments that close down possibilities in the future. Arguably, this is a function of a consumer society where choice is exalted as a virtue; it is perhaps particularly ingrained in America where even the education system allows for options to be kept open even to university level, ln Britain, at least in my day, you limited your academic subjects to three at the age of sixteen, and thus the fundamental choice – arts or sciences – was made very early on, Against this cult of options, Mark argues strongly for committing oneself early to particular things and thus cutting off the temptation to choose and to drift and to drift and to choose throughout life.”

Trueman asks whether it is possible in such a willy-nilly dilly-dally society to produce responsible leaders, for a leader has to be able to make decisions. Mark Dever’s diatribe reminds me of Barry Schwartz’s TED talk on “The paradox of choice” where he argues with panache that the more options we have in life, the more miserable we are.

Don’t be a monkey; Barry Schwartz is not a Calvinist; he’s Jewish. Oops, I’m both! Or is it all three?

Jacob Neusner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 3): Torah, Philosophy and Theology – Basic concepts

 

In Part I and Part 2 I introduced Jacob Neusner‘s understanding of “grammar” and related it to the larger linguistic domain of “discourse.” Here, I focus on the three other foundational concepts in Neusner’s “grammar of rabbinic theology,” namely, “Torah,” “philosophy” and “theology.”

Torah

Rabbinic Judaism, says Neusner, is the Judaic religious system of the social order set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures called ‘the Written Torah,’ as mediated by the Mishnah,Talmuds, Midrash-compilations, and related compilations, called “the Oral Torah.” As to the historical and temporal setting, that one whole Torah, written and oral, took shape in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia in the first six centuries of the common Era; it is with that canon and formative period that we deal in this book” (“Handbook of Rabbinical Theology: Language, system, structure,” p. 1).

In contrast, Rabbi Yisroel Blumenthal, in his “Deuteronomy 33:4 – Oral Law,” argues that the Written Law is a product of the Oral Law:

Those who dispute the validity of the Oral Law assume that the Five Books are the basis and the foundation for the Law. They understand that the written text comes first. When these critics approach Israel’s claim for an authoritative Oral Law, they see this as a claim for a supplementary code, one that is authorized to define and to interpret the written word. These critics contend that if there is a valid code of Law that supplements the text, we would expect that it should have been mentioned in the text.”

English: Mishne Torah in 1 volume עברית: משנה ...

English: Mishne Torah in 1 volume עברית: משנה תורה בכרך אחד, מנוקד ומדויק על פי כתבי יד, בהוצאת מפעל משנה תורה (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rabbi Blumenthal then provides examples from the Written Torah to uncover its skeletal nature, and then does not only argue that it requires an authority outside the text, the Oral Torah, to pack flesh onto the dry bones, but that the Written Torah is merely one product, a central one, of the Oral Torah. Ibn Ezra, one of the most celebrated Jewish writers of the Middle Ages sums up Rabbi Blumenthal’s view (italics added): “...the Law of Moses is founded upon the Oral Law which is the joy of our heart.” The implication is that there is no joy and no heart (skeletons don’t have hearts) in the dry bones of the Written Torah, which is only to be expected if the Written Torah is seen as nothing more than a bone yard. (See The Written and Oral Torah: Which is Primary?).

Theology and Philosophy

Theology, broadly construed, says Neusner, is the science of the reasoned knowledge of God. Theology presents the system that results from philosophical (italics added) analysis of the facts set forth by a religion. To specify what in the setting of a religion I conceive theology to do(continues Neusner), I find a suitable definition for the work of theology in the definition of Ingolf Dalferth:

‘Theology rationally reflects on questions arising in pre-theological religious experience and the discourse of faith; and it is the rationality of its reflective labor in the process of faith seeking understanding which inseparably links it with philosophy. For philosophy is essentially concerned with argument and the attempt to solve conceptual problems, and conceptual problems face theology in all areas of its reflective labors.’ (Ingolf U. Dalferth, Theology and Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell, 1988, vii.”

If philosophy is “essentially concerned with argument and the attempt to solve conceptual problems,” (Dalferth above) then I see no difference between philosophy and academic (scientific) discourse. I explain.

Jim Cummins (1984)i divides language proficiency into the two categories of Basic Interpersonal and Communicative Skills (BICS) and Cognitive and Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). Although it is true that BICS is the foundation of CALP and that all healthy humans beings automatically “acquire” BICS in their mother tongue, it does not follow that all human beings are capable of “learning” the level of CALP that is required for academic study. The terms Cummins uses are somewhat confusing for two reasons:

  1. skills” in Basic Interpersonal and Communicative Skills (BICS) is relegated to a lower intellectual level than “proficiency.” Some people may say “academic skills,” others, “academic proficiency.” Good luck to both.
  2. cognition” is present in Cognitive and Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) but absent in BICS, creating the impression that BICS does not require much thinking. So, let’s settle for “Basic language” and “academic language.”
  3. Dalferth says that philosophy is “essentially concerned with argument.” “Argument” in academic discourse means the presentation of ideas in a logical clear manner. Don’t argue with me!

Some theorists equate cognition with non-linguistic thought, whereas others subsume both language and thought under cognition. There is also “intelligence.” In both philosophy and academic thinking, a relatively higher level of intelligence is required than in BICS.

Consider the following distinction between thought and intelligence proposed by Bohm. First, thought (Bohm, 1983:50):

Thought, considered in its movement of becoming (and not merely in its content of relatively well-defined images and ideas) is indeed the process in which knowledge has its actual concrete existence…What is the process of thought? Thought, is, in essence, the active response of memory in every phase of life. We include in thought the intellectual, emotional, sensuous, muscular and physical responses of memory. These are all aspects of one indissoluble process. To treat them separately makes for fragmentation an confusion. All these are one process of response of memory to each actual situation, which response in turn leads to a further contribution to memory, thus conditioning the next memory.

And intelligence (Bohm, 1983:51):

The perception of whether or not any particular thoughts are relevant or fitting requires the operation of an energy that is not mechanical, an energy that we shall call intelligence. This latter is able to perceive a new order or a new structure, that is not just a modification of what is already known or present in memory…What is involved [in intelligence] is perception through the mind of abstract orders and relationships such as such as identity and difference, cause and effect, etc. (Bohm, David. 1983. Wholeness and the implicate order. London: Ark Paperbacks).

These new orders and relationships do not have to be new to the world, but only new to the person’s mind. (For further discussion of Cummins and Bohm see my Cognition and Language Proficiency).

In sum, Dalferth’s and Neusner’s “philosophy” has to do with the solution of conceptual problems; but then, so does “academic thinking” have to do with using your noggin big time. Granted, you can’t get far unless you have what Arthur Jensen calls level II intelligence. Level I intelligence accounts for memory functions and simple associative learning, while Level II comprises abstract reasoning and conceptual thought. That is not to say that people with lower intelligence are devoid of any abstract reasoning or conceptual thought. All it means is that if you want to do philosophy or academic study such as found in Neusner’s work – which I am diligently, I think, if not gently, ploughing and coughing through, you’d better don your thinking cap.

Now, that I, and hopefully you, have a clearer idea of what Neusner means by 1. the relationship between the Written and Oral Torah, 2. theology and 3. philosophy, I should get on with the job of unpicking his “grammar of rabbinical theology,” where, hopefully, there’ll not be too much nitpicking, on my part, under Neusner’s thinking cap; ok then, Yamulka.

 

Time for a nice cuppa – and a Bics.

i Cummins, J. 1984. Wanted: A theoretical framework for relating language proficiency to academic achievement among bilingual students. In: Rivera, C. (ed.). Language proficiency and academic achievement. Multilingual Matters 10. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s Madman, the death of God and the Jew

The Gay Science

The Gay Science (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a follow-on from The Death of God: Two Jews

There’s a third “witness” to the Death of God, Friedrich Nietzsche‘s Madman in Nietzsche’s Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (1882), written just before his Also sprach ZarathustraThus Spoke Zarathustra.: A Book for All and None.” One of the English translations of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft is called “The Joyful Wisdom.” Here is part of the introduction by the translator: “Here the essentially grave and masculine face of the poet-philosopher is seen to light up and suddenly break into a delightful smile. The warmth and kindness that beam from his features will astonish those hasty psychologists who have never divined that behind the destroyer is the creator, and behind the blasphemer the lover of life.”

But then we read this from the “lover of life.”

The Madman, — Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lighted a lantern and ran to the market-place calling out unceasingly ‘I seek God ! I seek God !’—As there were many people standing about who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. Why ! is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or does he keep himself hidden ? Is he afraid of us ? Has he taken a sea- voyage? Has he emigrated? — the people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub. The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. ” Where is God gone ? ” he called out. ‘I mean to tell you ! We have killed him,—you and I! We are all his murderers ! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea ? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon ? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions Is there still an above and below ? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness ? Does not empty space breathe upon us ? Has it not become colder ? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God ? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? — for even Gods putrefy ! God is dead ! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers ? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife, —who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves.’” The Joyful Wisdom, translated by Francis Common, 1924 (first published 1910), p. 167-168.

Very joyful – for all and none.

(“The Joyful Wisdom” is not a good translation of “Die fröhliche Wissenschaft.” Wissenschaft means “science,” and Weisheit means “wisdom.” Since Walter Kaufmann‘s translation in the 1960s, “The Gay Science” has become the common English title. They should swop “gay” – it is now commonly used to mean something else – for “joyful,” the opposite of “dismal,” to get “The Joyful Science,” the best translation, I suggest, of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft).

The madman asks (above), “With what water could we cleanse ourselves!” It will have to be ourselves, our über selves, Nietzsche’s übermadmensch, breaking free of repressive religious systems.

In the 1960s, a new theology came on the scene: the “Death of God theology.” The common meaning of theology is  the study/science of God, not the study of No-God, for which the atheistic counterpart should be called more appropriately “atheology.”  Theology “broadly construed is the science of the reasoned knowedge of God, Theology presents the system that results from philosophical analysis of the facts set forth by a religion” (“Handbook of Rabbinical Theology: Language, system, structure,” Brill Academic Publishers, 2002, p.1).

One of the pivotal English works in the vein of “The Death of God theology” was Bishop John Robinson’s (1963) “Honest to God,” in which he relegates God as a personal being to the ground of all being, that is, an omnipresent force that starts the ball of creation rolling. Now where have I come across that before? Well, in all the “there must be something out there” people. Robinson was a Bishop. Any Bishop who can say such things about the God of the Bible should close shop. If God is not personal, then it follows that the Bible is not the word of God but myth.

Reconstructionist Judaism (and Reform Judaism, by and large) would say that it doesn’t matter whether the Torah is myth, or, to use a reconstructionist term, “folklore;” what’s important is that it is a shared myth, and it is the sharing of a common heritage that binds a community together. What matters is the binding, not the “Book.” In Reconstructionist Judaism, therefore, God is not the supernatural personal being of the Torah, with a mind, a will, who loves, who judges, and so forth, but is a transcendent power, a force, which evolves. (The Torah: shared myths and other stories in Reconstructionist Judaism). Viktor Frankl goes deeper; not “the Force be above you,” not “the Force be with you,” but the “Force be in you.” This Force is the Will. Frankl drags down – as Nietzsche did – the transcendent power into the will of man.

In “The Light shineth in the darkness, but did Viktor Frankl comprehend it?,” I described Frankl’s Logotherapy as, in essence, the “will to mean.” In Logotherapy, there is no outside Force (personal or impersonal) pulling us up when we fall. In Logotherapy, we pull our own strings and pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps. For Frankl, a typical Jew, there is no meaning – ethical, epistemological or ontological, or religious – outside man. I say “typical,” because most Jews are either agnostic about the existence of a divine Creator or about the God of Torah, the “Holy One of Israel.”

Modern Jews, like Frankl, have greatly influenced the shaping not only of the modern Jewish “soul,” but the modern Western “soul” (others are Sigmund Freud, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Mordecai Kaplan, Elie Wiesel). Many “Westerners” don’t regard their rejection of God (as revealed in religions such a Judaism and Christianity) as the root cause of their unhappiness. If it only stopped there. For example, Eli Wiesel’s narrative of suffering in his bestseller “Night” has had a tremendous influence on his fellow Jews and on the rest of the world. Wiesel said, “God may still live but if he does, He has much to answer for.” (Heinze, A. R. 2004. “Jews and the American Soul,” p. 328). (See What (nasty) piece of work is man: The typical Jewish view of salvation). Recall Nietzsche’s “Madman” above:

Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God ? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? — for even Gods putrefy! God is dead ! God remains dead!” Nietzsche ended his days not only mad at God but mad; it is reported that syphilis drove him insane. He was a great writer whose works formed a large part of my philosophy courses and delight at university. He seemed honest. The main thing, though, is whether, he was honest to God.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hegel, Love and Truth

Chalybäus, Heinrich Moritz, 1796-1862

Many Christians – and churches – are more concerned with endoctrines than doctrines. (As we know, the endoctrine glands regulate emotions).

Whatever we think or do – they say – we must make sure that we are loving, unifying, non-confrontational, non-divisive; in a word, relational. As my Anglican priest friend told me, it’s not about doctrine as much as about relationships (I think that is a reasonable summary of the book “The Shack“).

We should – they say – deal with concrete feelings and emotions and less with abstract thoughts and words; make people feel better about themselves. Don’t tell them they are sinners and under condemnation. Make people feel fulfilled and satisfied in their life. Make them feel comfortable. And if you’re going to use words from the Bible, emphasize the loving parts, the non-threatening parts. Emphasize happiness and self-fulfilment. Then point them to the nearest user-friendly church near you – a church that won’t bite, that is, a troothless church.

What is important to most people today is not what is true, but what is regarded as true. Many professing Christians, like most people, live in a Hegelian universe, always aspiring towards truth, the truth of love.

Hegel

Hegel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is Hegel’s Dialectic (Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis) theory.

Thesis – my point of view. Antithesis – Your point of view. Synthesis: We find a common meeting ground.

Here is the great German philosopher (whom hardly anyone, including most philosophy graduates, like me, never heard about), Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus (1796-1862; translated by Edersheim, Alfred, 1825-1889. Historical development of speculative philosophy, from Kant to Hegel (1854). (Thanks to all the marvelous resources on the Web).

From a painting of Immanuel Kant

From a painting of Immanuel Kant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“We observe that every object in the economy of nature presupposes what we would term its antagonist; the leaf on the branch seems to call forth another on the opposite side, as if to preserve the equilibrium. The same law manifests itself also in the growth of mind and in the organic development of consciousness. While progress in the formation of the whole is the aim, the alteration in the individual parts is due to the appearance of contraries ; for it is noticeable, that, whenever any philosophical fundamental view was pronounced in a decided form, it also stood forth, ipso facto and necessarily, as one-sided. But immediately an opposite statement, roused up by contradiction, made its appearance, and criticism entered the lists on both sides of the question. But both these extremes only served to call forth a third view, to add a new sprout on the branch, which in turn was destined to pass through the same process of development.”

“Whether and when this development shall result in that blossom, which would at the same time be its termination, we feel to be an enquiry to which, as yet, we cannot return a reply. Such an actual perfection of consciousness, were it attained, would also mark the end of the development within the reach of our species ; and our globe, in its present form at least, would then have also served its purpose for the general economy of intelligences. Its ulterior fate would be long to a period yet future in the history of the world; nor shall we hazard any speculation thereon.” (Italics and underlining added).

I focus on “Such an actual perfection of consciousness, were it attained, would also mark the end of the development within the reach of our species.” The upshot: once we think we’ve found THE truth, which in its most radiant manifestation is LOVE, we would have reached our ultimate destiny. Christians agree. The difference between the Christian and the philosopher is that the latter does not believe that we can ever know THE truth (which Jesus says we can, and which is the only thing that can make us free). But there is more to the philosopher’s scepticism-cynicism; more perverse. “If the Messiah, as the embodiment of truth, were to be found, says the philosopher, Jacques Derrida, for example, there would be no point to life, because WE would no longer have any more intellectual clout; we would lose our role as the measure of all things. There would be no more secrets to uncover.” See The Deconstruction of Messiah: Always Arriving Always Departing).

But what did Hegel, in the last flickering moments of his pantheistic life, think? He “would have no book read to him but the Bible ; and said that if God were to prolong his life he would make this book his study, for in it he found what mere reason could not discover. His favourite hymn during those dying days was a German hymn of which the bearing is, ‘Jesus, draw me entirely unto thyself'” (Adolf Saphir, “The divine unity of scripture”). I wonder whether Hegel found his ultimate synthesis.I’m thinking of the face of God.

Something from nothing: a beautiful idea.

Richard Dawkins and those like him, for example, Lawrence Krauss, find “extraordinary beautiful” the idea that something (the universe) came out of nothing, an extraordinary, and, granted, highly imaginative idea of what we all thought was once the bedrock of science: every effect must have a cause. There is indeed something mystically beautiful about such a way out though. Whether it is a way out for atheists is another matter.

Scientists, like poets, believe that there is harmony between beauty and truth; so, if a theory is beautiful, it could, they say, very well be true. In Greek philosophy we see the same idea in the “music of the spheres.”

John Keat’s poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn” is familiar to many, especially the last lines: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

Keats’ point is that the only beauty is true. That idea was the leitmotif of the “Art for art sake” (L’art pour l’art) movement of romantics and symbolists (all atheists/agnostics) of 18-19th century Europe, which is now becoming more popular with atheists like Dawkins and Kraus.

Keats’ idea that the only beauty is truth is not only popular with atheists, but also with theologians. Here is a poetic plaudit for the Catholic priesthood:

“The clergy eminently carries the inscriptions of the authority of God, the holiness of God, the light of God: three beautiful jewels in the priestly crown, joined together by the counsel of God and placed on His anointed, His priests and his Church, as were the first priests, saints and doctors of the Church; God preserving the same order, authority, holiness and teaching, and uniting these three perfections in the priestly orders, in honour of the imitation of the Holy Trinity wherein we adore the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, divinely united in one essence. You shouldn’t only say this is beautiful, but also that it is true; and it is true because it is beautiful.” (Il ne faut pas dire seulement que cela est beau, mais aussi que cela est vrai et vrai parce qu’il est beau). (Ode to a Grecian priesthood:Beauty is truth and truth is beauty).

The Bible teaches that beauty is not synonymous with truth. Indeed, it may lead one away from it, and indeed did – in the Garden. The truth was to obey God: “Don’t eat the beautiful fruit of the tree.” Ultimately, according to Voltaire, life boils down to each tending their garden.”Il faut cultiver son jardin.”

Must go pick some veggies from my beautiful garden. I love getting something for nothing, well almost nothing.

Related:  Politicking: Bill Maher throws his marbles away

 

Deconstruction and the Inworming of Postmodern theology

Cover of Basic Theology

We all have a story, part of which we’d like to tell (and part we’d like to keep to ourselves). I think theology may be able to help you tell your story. “Theology you say!” But wait; the theology I’m about describe is not the old fundamentalist variety but something that you might indeed find attractive. I’m talking about postmodern theology, which homes in not on what the Bible says about God, not on the written lifeless text, but what it says about you, the living you, the reader, and the stories in you trying to worm their way out.

In old-time theology – let’s take the canon (accepted books) of the Bible as an example – words had specific meanings, where the term “narrative” signified an account of what really happened, what described reality, truth. Michael Kruger explains:

The postmodern objection to the Christian canon (and all religion for that matter) is not what we might think.  We assume that postmodernists object to the canon on the grounds that the canon is false (what we might call a a de facto objection).  But, that is actually more of a modernist objection. In contrast, the postmodernist objects to the belief in canon on the grounds that there is no basis for knowing, regardless of whether it is true or false (what we might call the de jure objection). In other words, when it comes to the Christian belief in the canon, the big complaint of the postmodernist is, ‘How could you ever really know such a thing?  Given all the disagreements and chaos in early Christianity, it would be arrogant to claim your books are the right ones.’  Thus, the postmodern concern has to do with the grounds for our belief in the canon.” 

(Can the New Testament Canon be Defended? Derek Thomas Interviews Michael Kruger)

Book of Genesis, Ningpo Bible.

Book of Genesis, Ningpo Bible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The postmodernist’s de jure objection, as “de jure” indicates, is that no one has the right to tell someone else what is true or not; except maybe in situations such as “your fly is open” or “your home or your home-made sausages are burning.” As the French symbolist poets loved to say, un poème est un prolongement, “a poem is an extension.” Extension of what? Why, the longings of the reader, naturally. Prolongement means “extension.” I am relating prolongement to “longing” whose only connection are their “historical sedimentations” (etymology) as Jacques Derrida, the father of “Deconstruction” would have said. In postmodern literary theory ( where “deconstruction” is a pivotal concept) there is no difference between critical historical facts and a game of shuttlecock (Jewish scholars and the play dough of interpretation). Have you ever tried to think critically while playing shuttlecock? Or is “tacticallly,” for you, the same as “critically?”

Theology for the postmodernist – indeed anything that suffixes in “logy” (Greek logos “meaning”) – is not about certitude but about attitude, your attitude to fidelity; the fidelity to human and verbal relationships expressed most poignantly through the stories we tell or would like to tell – about ourselves. Here is Walter Brueggemann, the postmodern biblical theologian in no uncertain manner warning against the desire for certitude:

We all have a hunger for certitude. The problem is the Gospel is not about certitude, it’s about fidelity. So, what we all want to do, if we can, is immediately transpose fidelity into certitude, because fidelity is a relational category, and certitude is a flat mechanical category.. So, we have to acknowledge our thirst for certitude, and then to recognise that if you had all the certitudes in the world, it would not make the quality if your life any better because what we must have is fidelity. …It all went haywire in the 17th century with Lutheranism and Calvinism when we tried to outscience science and switch into categories of certitude …Fidelity is like having a teenager in the house and you never get it settled for more than three minutes, and you’ve got to keep doing it again or you don’t have a relationship.” (Certainty and Fidelity in Biblical Interpretation: The Deconstruction of Walter Brueggemann).

In contrast to postmodern “Christianity,” there is “premodern” Christianity that stands on the “biblically based epistemological presupposition that ‘the one living and true God has self-attestingly revealed Himself in the Christian Scriptures’ (Robert L Reymond).” (Larry D. Pettegrew).

(Robert L. Reymond, The Justification of Knowledge (Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979) 72).

 Postmodernism presupposes that there is no truth ”out there,” and proposes that a communal, and sociable, attempt be made to make life as enjoyable and humane as possible. “It (postmodernism) does not see religion as a set of beliefs about what is real and what is not. Rather, religion is a choice—something to be incorporated into one’s worldview if he chooses. Thus, postmodernism leads a person to believe in what he likes rather than what the Bible presents as universal truth.” (Larry D. Pettegrew).

To use two popular postmodern terms, everyone should be free, says the postmodernist, to “construct” their own “narrative.” Hence the postmodern term “constructivism.” I propose another post modern neologism: “narrativism” – telling stories about how the world – if not the Bible – fits or should fit into my world. But not in a selfish way; rather in a way that is faithful to the needs of others.

So, the postmodern clarion call is ”fidelity, not clarity.” Clarity, for the postmodernist, is clearly an illusion. And now we arrive at the jump-on point of postmodernism, where premodernists jump off, namely, the reader. Meaning logos, says postmodernism, has its locus in the reader, not in the text. What counts is not the context of the text but the pretext of the reader. The reader has faith in himself and it is credited to him as rightfulness. In postmodernism, the independent text is a tissue of yarns.

Premodernists (Calvins andLuthers) , as well as modernists (Richard Dawkins, for example), however, will insist that authors have something specific they want to say. “Precisely because they have authors, texts don’t mean just anything. The author’s will acts as a control on interpretation. Thanks to an author’s willing this rather than that, we can say that there is a definite meaning in texts prior to reading and interpretation. As God’s will structures the universe, so the author’s will structures the universe of discourse” (Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998). (In Pettegrew).

Earlier, I spoke about the postmodernist’s pet gripe: the “logy” logos ([objective] meaning) in the old school’s eye. This is where “logocentrism”’ comes into my story. Logocentrism is “a philosophy holding that all forms of thought are based on an external point of reference which is held to exist and given a certain degree of authority” (Merriam Webster dictionary).

A fundamental mental operation is classification (categorisation), which we use to sort out the manifold “external points of reference;” in other words, the way we perceive objective reality. The postmodernist denies the existence of this external reality, except perhaps for the books he writes denying external reality, the food he eats and other life enjoyments and conveniences. One kind of categorisation that the postmodernist rejects is binary oppositions; for example, brainy – stupid, good – bad, intelligent – stupid, homosexual – heterosexual, true – false. There is one binary opposition, though, that the postmodern will – indeed must – accept; namely, premodernism – postmodernism. But I suppose private – public is another binary opposition that postmodernists would find apposite. The postmodernist, be he or she a theologian or a hooligan, arrives only to depart for the next departure lounge.

Derrida writes that there is no centre, no arriving, no presence, no God. A student of postmodernism describes the absence of presence this way:

“…if we were to bring Derrida into the discussion, then it becomes pretty clear that religion is the carrier of a metaphysics of presence par excellence. Religion banks on nothing less than the presence of ‘God,’ or the divine, or whatever. And then when you think about the importance of the ‘Word’ in religion–you know, the whole ‘revelation’ thing—Derrida’s deconstruction of logocentrism (logos “meaning”) is pretty devastating.”

But what is so postmodern about rejecting the “whole ‘revelation’ thing?” Wasn’t that the “Enlightenment’s” claim to fame two centuries or so ago? Another name for the “Enlightenment” is “Modernism,” which put man at the centre. Whereas theology, previous to the “Enlightenment,” was the handmaiden of science, after the “Enlightenment,” theology was reduced to its “charwoman.” (Frederick Copleston in one of his volumes on the history of philosophy, I read in my student days). Modernism reached its high point (I suggest its low point point) in “Positivism” (Auguste Comte), the acme – and acne – of man-centredness. The Christian view is that the universe has a central focal point, which is God. Brian Walsh says:

The problem, Brian Walsh says: is that ‘the end of religion’ and ‘the death of God’ are modernist, Enlightenment dogmas. They are the ultimate conclusion of the modernist blind faith in human autonomy. In the hubris of a modernist world-view, the voice of God and the experience of spirituality gets drowned out by the self-assured, arrogant voice of ‘rational men.”

Derrida, writes Ronaldo Munck “ questions the accepted notions of truth and believes that no interpretation can be the final one. So, deconstruction… does not set out to unmask ‘error’ because that assumes we know what ‘truth’ ls. Deconstruction directs us to the margins of a text, it bids us look for the excluded, the concealed, the unnamed. Deconstruction, then, followlng Gavatrl Sp|vak’s introduction to Derrida, seeks ‘to locate the promising marginal text, to disclose the undecidable moment, to pry it loose with the posltlve lever of the slgnlfler, to reverse the resident hlerarchy. onlv to dlsplace lt; to dlsmantle ln order to reconstitute what ls always already lnscrlbed.” (Marxism @ 2000: Late Marxist Perspectives by Ronaldo Munck).

(In linguistics, the “signifier” is the word, while the “signified” is is meaning. They both comprise the lingustic “sign” – See Ferdinand de Saussure’s “Course in General Linguistics).

So, indeed, it is true that “deconstruction does not set out to unmask ‘error.’” Well, that is exactly what I set out to do with Jacques Derrida’s “Tower of Babel” error when he said that “Babel” means “Father God,” (which it doesn’t). But then I went and spoiled it (not totally) with my own error about Derrida’s error. But all’s well that begins badly, for what does it matter if you’re wrong or right; as long as you’re relating.

Finally, what does “inworming” in my title mean? It’s the deconstructing of narratives (Wood, D.C. 1979 An Introduction to Derrida. Radical Philosophy, 21) resulting in a “tactical subversion of the text.”

This approach or philosophy – Derrida will not call it a method – advocates an inwormlng or tactical subversion of the text, to reveal its contradictions and assumptions. It does not do so, however, from the perspective of an external validation, nor does it seek to offer a better text. Thought systems are assumed to rest on binary oppositions (good/bad, true-false, nature/culture. man/woman, and so on), with an assumed privilege of one over the other. One side ls primary the other derivative. So, Derrida’s approach, somewhat too briefly is as follows: ‘One of the two terms governs the other…To deconstruct the opposition   is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment’ (Marxism @ 2000: Late Marxist Perspectives by Ronaldo Munck).

Why only explain “inworming” at this late stage of the narrative? Call it a strategic reversal, a tactical subversion. A deconstructive overturning – in the end is my beginning.

In deconstruction and its sister postmodern theology, the inworming never stops – for the worm never dies. Nor does the worm ever die in Christian “old paradigm” theology. There is, though, a difference between the two worms: the postmodern worm is kinder and gentler. The fundamental question, says the “old time” theologian  remains: “What is true?” But then, a (Jewish) postmodern theologian will reply with another question: “Your truth or my truth.” 

Jacob’s (Jacques) Gate: Rhetoric, grammar and pragmatics in Derrida’s Deconstruction

In several previous posts, I pondered on the literary theory of “deconstruction.” (See here and here). It was Jacques Derrida, the Jewish French philosopher (1930-2004, who coined the term “deconstruction.” The question is, “Is deconstruction merely a fancy term for “destruction” where, after digging beneath its archaeological sedimentations, all I find are etymological bones.

The discussion is divided into two parts: 1. What is deconstruction, and 2. Rules of language, which show up the weaknesses in deconstruction.

Part 1 – Deconstruction

Here or there, says Derrida, the French Jewish philosopher I have used the word deconstruction which has nothing to do with destruction. That is to say, it is simply a question of…being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentations of the language which we use – and that is not destruction.

(Derrida, J. 1972 Structure, Sign and Play. In: Macksey, R. & Donato, E. (eds.) The Structuralist Controversy. Baltimore, P. 271).

In Derrida’s deconstruction, language is the sediment of the desire to mean, to communicate, and has no locatable centre nor retrievable origin; its existence is a network of differences between signifiers (sounds or written symbols signifying meaning), each tracing, tracking, leaping over the other, where the story of reality consists in nothing more more than pseudo-stable signs (signifiers and signifieds) chasing after one another’s enigmatic tales.

In deconstruction there is no necessary connection between the desire to signify (to mean) and the signifiers that evoke that desire.

[I]f language is not inherently determined by a set of univocal (single) meanings, then language use, given an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time, becomes an unrestricted interaction of signifiers, the Nietzschean affirmation of free play without nostalgia for a “center” or for ‘origins’” (J. Derrida 1981, Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson. London: Athlone, 278-93).

But surely, if you give a specific chunk of discourse an unlimited number of contexts, no communication is possible. For example, if it is true that language has no locatable centre, and all is free play, I would be free to allocate any meaning I desire to Derrida’s paragraph above, and in so doing bury myself in nostalgia for the time when language was not an “unrestricted interaction of signifiers,” but I should, advises Derrida, not pull my syntactic sinews and semantic flesh together, for to do so will only result in the return (nostos) of suffering (algos).

This kind of linguistic free play is linguistic foul play. I say this because, all deconstructionists are at bottom constructivists. A constructivist believes that knowledge is not discovered but constructed. In other words, reality is not  “given” (existing out there), but  “taken” (from your constructive imaginations). 

Part 2 Rules of language and the weakness of deconstruction

Derrida, however, insisted that you could only understand deconstruction if you obeyed the rules of grammar, rhetoric and pragmatics.

“What I, on the other hand, must recall to your attention – and I will remind you of it more than once – is that the text of an appeal obeys certain rules; it has its grammar, its rhetoric, its pragmatics. I’ll come back to this point in a moment, to wit: as you did not take these rules into account, you quite simply did not read my text, in the most elementary and quasi-grammatical sense of what is called reading.

(J. Derrida. 1986. But beyond…(Open letter to Anne McClintock and Rob Nixon). Translated by Peggy Kamuf. Critical Enquiry, Autumn, pp.155-170, p.157)

The context of the above quotation is Derrida’s response to McClintock and Nixon [1986] whom he rebukes for misunderstanding the context in which he was using the term “apartheid” and for gross distortions, according to Derrida, of his theory of deconstruction. (McClintock, A. & Nixon, R. 1986. No Names Apart: The Separation of Word and History in Derrida’s ‘Le Dernier Mot du Racisme.’  [The lawst word in racism], Critical Enquiry, Autumn, pp.140-154).

Therefore, it is Derrida himself who insists that his writing obeys certain rules, the abuse of which leads to misreading his intentions. Accordingly, Derrida does believe in communication, i.e. codes that mean (Lawlor 1983; Scholes 1988). But for codes to mean, they must mean something particular, that is, they must be connected to a particular (specific) context – or contexts. Contexts can be plural but should, surely, never be unrestricted. Recall (above) Derrida’s description of “deconstruction” as an unrestricted interaction of signifiers, the Nietzschean affirmation of free play without nostalgia for a “center” or for ‘origins.’” Typology is an example of plural contexts; for example, from the Christian perspective, the exodus is an historical event in itself, and so it unfolds within a historical context, but the exodus also points to the believer in Jesus passing through the “waters” of regeneration (Catholics would say the literal waters of baptism).

Derrida cannot have his cake and eat it; he can’t have a communication, a message, a specific interpretation, and his free play at the same time. It goes without saying (it too much) that although interpretations are imperfect vessels of meaning, they nevertheless mean. (See my Tower Derrida’s Tower of Babel).

What are these rules of “grammar, rhetoric and pragmatics” to which Derrida refers? “Grammar” refers to how words are used in sentences, “rhetoric” refers to the art of discourse, which aims to improve language facility in speaking and writing in the the different functions of language such as transacting (providing) information and persuasion.

Now, when we say language means something, we mean at least two kinds of meaning: sentence meaning (what Geoffrey Leech calls “semantic meaning”) and meaning beyond the sentence (in linguistic terms, suprasentential, intersentential meaning). This intersentential meaning is called “pragmatic meaning” (Leech), that is, the way sentences are used in larger chunks of discourse (Language use). So, there is a difference between sentence meaning (semantic meaning) and the meaning of a discourse as a whole (pragmatic meaning).

(Leech, L.G. 1983. Principles of pragmatics.London. Longman.1983].

The sentence in isolation from a functional (sociolinguistic) context only has potential meaning. It is this potential meaning which has to become actualised in language use. What is meant by the potential meaning of sentences?

It is obvious that every sentence in isolation from its functional context must contain meaningful units. For example, each of the three words in the sentence I am reading is a meaningful unit. These three units are combined into a larger meaningful unit, namely, the sentence.

The sentence, in turn combines, with other sentences to form an even larger unit called discourse. And it is only at the discourse level that parts of sentences and sentences come alive. Meaning at the sentence level and below is referred to in linguistics as semantic meaning, while meaning at the discourse level is referred to as pragmatic, or sociolinguistic meaning. So, from the point of view of discourse ( language use), the sentence has potential meaning only.

The distinction between semantic and pragmatic meaning can also be explained in the following way (Leech 1983):

- the meaning of X, which is the semantic or sentence meaning,

and

what you mean by X, which is the pragmatic or sociolinguistic meaning.

The sentence “I am reading” means that there is somebody, namely me who is reading. This meaning is the semantic or sentence meaning.

We use “I am reading” in a life situation:

Student A is sharing a room with Student B. Student A is reading in the room while Student B is out. Student B returns, sees Student A bowed over a book, and shouts: What are you doing? It is obvious to Student A that Student B is not requesting information as to whether Student A is reading a book – it is obvious that this is so.

Suppose Student A’s answer is I’m reading. The semantic meaning of this utterance is clear, namely, Student A is not eating, or sleeping, but reading. But what does Student A mean by I’m reading and what does Student B mean by What are you doing?

Here are a few possibilities of the pragmatic meaning of these two sentences, one a question, the other the answer to the question:

Question: “What are you doing?”

1. Hey, what are you doing in my bed?”

2. What a miracle, you’re reading a book!

3. We’ve been looking all over for you, and here you are all the time, rotting at your desk.

Answer: “I’m reading.”

1. I vant to be alone.

2. It’s no good, I’ll never speak to you again.

3. I’m so bored, the TV is not working; what else is there to do but read – yawn.

4. Who the blazes do you think you are to speak to me like that?

5. You illiterate idiot, go back to your comics.

So the pragmatic context of language does not merely go beyond the sentence meaning, it actually makes the sentence meaningful, and actual meaning (enacted in language use) is the only kind of meaning that we can live by. (See my Structure in Grammar and in Function: A Marginal Note).

Let us now return to the sentence we started with, namely, Derrida’s definition of deconstruction (keeping in mind that this definition is far from exhaustive).

Here or there I have used the word deconstruction which has nothing to do with destruction. That is to say, it is simply a question of…being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentations of the language which we use – and that is not destruction.”

Deconstruction, therefore, deals with the dregs of what language used to mean, while grammar, rhetoric and pragmatics deals with language use, what it means on this page. 

And, unsurprisingly, there are no mistakes in deconstruction, because, reality is a taken, not a given; in other words, you construct your reality, and if you do so using the historical sedimentations of language as your foundation, you would be doing deconstruction. Here is an example, which, again unsurprisingly, originates in the confusion of tongues at Babel. The example is Derrida’s “mistaken” view of the origin of the very term “Babel.”

We read Derrida writing about reading Voltaire. Voltaire makes the following assumption about the etymology of “Babel”:

BA = father BEL = god

We follow Derrida following Voltaire. Derrida refers to Voltaire’s observation that Babel besides being a proper noun has, as a common noun, two further meanings, namely (1) disorder, and (2) perplexity, i.e. the perplexity which confronted the architects before the interrupted work. All these senses, he claims, became confused. This is so. But watch what happens.

We observe Derrida in his “Des Tours de Babel” imitating Voltaire’s interpretation of Babel as “father-God”. But Voltaire is wrong, for BEL has nothing to do with God; Babel derives from BAB-ILU and does not mean “father-God”, but “gate-God”.

(J. Derrida. 1985. The Tower of Babel. In: Graham, J.F. (ed. and Trans.). Difference in Translation . Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Here is another edition. The English translation“The Tower of Babel,” of the French “Des Tours de Babel” loses the play on words of “detour” and “des tours”).

What does Derrida’s “Des Tours de Babel” lose in taking the wrong detour? Not much is lost on the BA(B) because what Derrida considers to be the father seme does not disseminate into the remains of his tortured text. But it is the unbeautiful gate ILU, mistaken for BEL (God) which ties the rest of “Des Tours…” into an unsacred knot (p.203-4 of “Des Tours…”).

Towards the end of his detour in “Des tours…”, Derrida is upset in the saddle of his own interventions: an unstrategic spillage, displacing the displacement of his own pluralities. I’m reminded of Walter Brueggemann’s “pluriform” versions of the “big story”.  He gives the example of Mark’s Gospel. “Luke came along and said that’s (Brueggeman’s emphasis) not the way the story is put together and so from what I understand from New Testament scholars, he put it together very differently…there is a big story but it is profoundly pluriform.”

 He gives the example of the “pluralism of our faith”: you’re a new pastor whose moved to town and you don’t know any of the families. A mother dies and and you ask the five daughters what their mother was like. You’ll get five contradictory stories where they’ll say “she wasn’t like that at all.” And you’re the pastor and have to weave that altogether. (My transcript of part of the Q&A session of the 2004 Emergent Theological Conversation with Walter Brueggemann. (The audio and the Brueggemann’s theses can be found here).

To return to Derrida. The law/lore of deconstruction imposed on the text sanctions (which can mean either “commands” or “forbids,” but in deconstruction means both! depending on which detour you want to take) Derrida to pass the gate off for God; ILU for (B)EL. The question is whether this disclosure of the sediments of repetition and reversal of gate and God weaken the foundations of deconstruction? On the contrary, it is these very fortuitous (strategic?) repetitions and reversals – every loss is always aGAIN – which make more explicit the hidden sedimentations of language.. I try and show why this is so:The gate re-opens (is it the same gate?), revealing a path (the same path?), a track, a trace, departing from the tower of Babylon and arriving at a stairway in Bethel. The stairway rests on the earth and reaches up to heaven. On the stairway, angels coruscate up and down. At the top of the ladder stands the God of Genesis; at the bottom, Jacob, the heEler of God; asleep:

I am the Lord the God of your Ab[FATHER]raham and the God of Isaac [LAUGHTER]. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the West and to the East, to the North and to the South. All people on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.

Jacob awakes; filled with awe he bursts into worship and praise:

Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it…How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of God.

Jacob’s gate is the gate of El, while Jacques’ gate; well, that’s his BEL.

(For a fuller explanation of Derrida’s error see Babel: Can Derrida’s Tour (Surprisingly) Translate Us Anywhere?

Certainty and Fidelity in Biblical Interpretation: The Deconstruction of Walter Brueggemann

Part of my title is ambiguous: “The deconstruction of Walter Brueggemann.” Do I mean that I am going to deconstruct Brueggemann or that I am going to examine Brueggemann’s deconstruction of hermeneutics? I leave the reader to decide on the (re-)interpretation. After all, it’s Brueggemann’s thesis that every text must be continually reinterpreted. Besides, I think I’m (relatively) better at talking about deconstruction than deconstructing.

 I offer a few thoughts on Walter Brueggemann, the biblical theologian, for whom theology and Bible interpretation is not a matter of certainty but of fidelity; fidelity to the divine office of creative imagination. One of his books is entitled, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination

 Here is a transcript of part of the Q&A session of the 2004 Emergent Theological Conversation with Walter Brueggemann. (The audio and the Brueggemann’s theses can be found here). There are four Q&A sessions. In this discussion, I deal with Session 1.

QandA Session 1 (Parts in brackets have been added)

Question:

 How do you live with the ambivalence of biblical narrative.

Brueggemann

 “We all have a hunger for certitude. The problem is the Gospel is not about certitude, it’s about fidelity. So, what we all want to do, if we can, is immediately transpose fidelity into certitude, because fidelity is a relational category, and certitude is a flat mechanical category (such as systematic theology, says Brueggemann in his theses ). So, we have to acknowledge our thirst for certitude, and then to recognise that if you had all the certitudes in the world, it would not make the quality if your life any better because what we must have is fidelity. …It all went haywire in the 17th century with Lutheranism and Calvinism when we tried to outscience science and switch into categories of certitude …Fidelity is like having a teenager in the house and you never get it settled for more than three minutes, and you’ve got to keep doing it again or you don’t have a relationship.

Questioner 

“Part of the job of the pastor is help people see the difference between the two (certitude and fidelity), or to deconstruct their certitude.”

Brueggemann 

“Yes, that’s right; to realise that the promise for certitude that is given by any voice is a phoney promise that cannot be kept. There’s not enough certitude to make us happy and make us safe.”

If Brueggemann believes that the Bible has no certitude, then, deconstruction is definitely up his street. We need to know, though, that “deconstruct” is not at all the same concept as “take apart,” or any of the many other wrong understandings of it. It’s far more complicated (and confusing) than man could ever dream. It’s a specialist term invented by the Jew, Jacob (Jacques) Derrida.

In Derrida’s deconstruction (there is no other kind of deconstruction), language – the sediment of the desire to mean, to communicate – has no locatable centre nor retrievable origin; its existence is a network of differences between signifiers (sounds or written symbols signifying meaning), each tracing and tracking the other. In deconstruction there is no necessary connection between the desire to signify (to mean) and the signifiers that evoke that desire. Desire for such a connection results in nostalgia; the return (nostos) of suffering (algos):

[I]f language is not inherently determined by a set of univocal meanings, then language use, given an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time, becomes an unrestricted interaction of signifiers, the Nietzschean affirmation of free play without nostalgia for a “center” or for ‘origins’” (J. Derrida 1981, Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson. London: Athlone, 278-93).

Now, if signifiers, namely, what words appear to mean, are continuously jumping, bumping toppling over one another, this does not mean, according to deconstruction, that they are doing so in order to arrive at some specific meaning, or essence. Indeed, deconstruction attempts to reverse the Platonic (no, nothing to do with no-sex, this time) notion that “essence is more valuable than appearance. In deconstruction however, we reverse this, making appearance more valuable than essence,” where “essence” connotes a specific meaning, which deconstruction eschews.

Neuralgia, nostalgia. Non-deconstructionists are painfully aware that the dictionary meaning of “nostalgia” has nothing to do with its etymological meaning of a “return (nostos) of suffering (algos)” (Derrida above). So, we must be careful of getting bogged down in the historical sedimentations of language, as is the wont of deconstruction. And where did – I suspect – Derrida find his deconstructive inspiration? Surely, from the letters of Hebrew fire – the depth and death of meaning and the different levels of meaning PaRDes:

Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — “plain” (“simple”) or the direct meaning.

Remez (רֶמֶז) — “hints” or the deep (allegoric: hidden or symbolic) meaning beyond just the literal sense.

Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — from Hebrew darash: “inquire” (“seek”) — the comparative (midrashic) meaning, as given through similar occurrences.

Sod (סוֹד) (pronounced with a long O as in ‘bone’) — “secret” (“mystery”) or the mystical meaning, as given through inspiration or revelation.

I elaborate on Brueggemann’s distinction between “certitude” and “fidelity.”

For Brueggemann, any interaction between 1. certitude, which he considers limited because it is restricted to a single meaning (univocity) and 2. fidelity, should be frowned upon. We should, therefore, be open, as Derrida says (above), to “an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time,” and thus unrestricted interaction – if I understand Brueggemann – between suffering persons desiring to tell their personal stories. For Brueggemann and Derrida, and all poststructuralists (who believe there is no metaphysical centre, no fixed structures), there exists no such entity as Being, no such entity as essence, no such thing as a True story, but only (human) beings telling their true-ish stories, which are the only stories that ultimately matter. And if the Bible stories are able to buck – and back – them up, thank you Holy Spirit.

Jesus: The Truth will make you certain and free.

Brueggemann: The Truth will make you uncertain and flee.

The Truth necessarily brings suffering and makes you feel very unsafe. Unsafe in the world, yes; for the supernatural reason that the biblical story clashes with the world’s story/stories (the world system). 

En passant, much of rabbinical Judaism, but certainly not all, resonates with the idea that life is mainly about what makes us happy and safe. We still, though, don’t know what Brueggemann means by “fidelity.” He explains: “The symbol of that (fidelity) is the way of the cross. The way of the cross is always to be departing certitudes so that we may be in the company of Jesus.”

According to Brueggemann, therefore, fidelity means being in the company of the crucified Jesus, but this can only become a reality if we “depart” from our “certitudes;” If language has consensual meanings, I presume Brueggemann means by “certitudes,” all certitudes. Surely, though, if we are to be faithful (fidel) to the way of the cross, as Brueggemann suggests, we need to be certain that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).

What Brueggemann is advocating, in different words, is that we shouldn’t be cocksure about anything, even about, “Verily (surely, certainly, truly) I say unto thee, that this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice” (Matthew 26:34).

Derrida, Jean Paul Sartre, Andre Gide, Albert Camus, as well as every postmodernist, poststructuralist, deconstructionist, in fact, anyone who doesn’t believe in Certitude, would ask the question: “What fun’s left once you find the Messiah, once you’ve found the “Cross?” After all, the ideal, says Renan, is fundamentally a utopia. What is more ideal than Truth? 

Brueggemann is on a journey; never arriving, always departing; a sitting on suitcases, all packed and ready to leave for the next departure lounge. That, as I said elsewhere, is deconstruction. But doesn’t Jesus himself make his disciples uncertain? Here is Brueggemann:

And Jesus doesn’t make any of his disciples certain. I think that’s why essentially teaches in figures and parables and enigmatic statements that always have to be reinterpreted… When you’ve emptied everything out to make it plain and clear and unambiguous, you’ve emptied it out of what’s happening in the transaction.”

Jesus did, in contrast to Brueggemann’s assertion, make his disciples certain (much of the time). The Bible certainly states:

And with many such parables He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it. 34 But without a parable He did not speak to them. And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples” (Mark 4:33-34).

I’m emptied out. And it’s also time to pack my suitcase for the next departure lounge.

(To be continued – at the next departure lounge).

Thomas Aquinas: Philosophy and Education in the Middle ages

In Catholic seminaries, three of the first four years of study is devoted to Greek philosophy, mainly Aristotle. Aristotle is central to Catholic theology because the bulk of it derives from the dazzling intellect of Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) who built his theology on Aristotle.

Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico

Aristotle ostensibly demonstrated that the universe could be understood without recourse to religion and its associated divine revelation. This understanding, however, was not concerned with ultimate questions about existence and about God, which other religions such Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism are concerned with.

For example, the Greek gods had a modest influence over mankind compared to the God of the Hebrews. For one, when the Greek gods arrived in the universe, the universe was already all there. In contrast, the God of the Hebrews not only pre-existed the universe, He created it. Also, the Greek gods had no control over human (random) fate , whereas the central teaching of the Bible (Old Testament and New) is that God is a sovereign ruler and sustainer of all things. Greek religion had its ceremonies and rituals and its – believed, if not perceived – benefits. But it didn’t matter one iota whether you attended the ceremonies or practised the rituals. Greek religion couldn’t conceive – and if it did, probably wouldn’t have cared – that religion could give you a purpose in life, or that it could “renew your mind” (Romans1:2). Such an idea was totally foreign to the Greek mind. You don’t renew your mind, you expand it, you unfold it. The creation account in Genesis, for example, or the theological disputes in Christian theology would be regarded with amusement, even disdain. In this regard, the modern mind is very similar to the classical mind. When a Greek citizen took time off from his busy banqueting schedule to meditate on deep issues, he’d take a dip into philosophy for answers; Greek philosophy, naturally. Anything else was trivial. The modern secular mind is very similar to the classical mind in their disdain of theology and faith, which they consider to be not only delusional piffle but “lethally dangerous” (Dawkins, Richard, November 11, 2001, “Has the world changed?“. The Guardian).

Aristotle, like all Greeks, hadn’t read, nor would he have cared to read, the Hebrew Scriptures. It would’ve been beneath his Hellenic hubris and Attic dignity to do so. Attic Greek is the prestige dialect of Ancient Greek that was spoken in Attica, which includes Athens. Of the ancient dialects, it is the most similar to later Greek, and is the standard form of the language studied in courses of “Ancient Greek” (Wikipedia).

Aristotle, like all the Greek philosophers before and after him, were preoccupied with the idea God. Theology, the study (logos) of God (theos) could be undertaken purely through the natural means of reason and ordinary experience. Revealed theology wasn’t necessary to know God, because natural theology could do the job. The Christian view is that God is there, but he is not silent. (He Is There and He Is Not Silent” is the title of a book by Francis Schaeffer. This book deals with the philosophic necessity of God being there and not being silent). The classical view is that although God is – supernaturally – there, he is indeed silent, and would – naturally – remain so.

After the final demise of the Roman Empire in 476 (there are 210 theories on why Rome fell, and more keep cropping up), interest in classical literature waned until it was largely forgotten. But in later centuries, classical literature and philosophy began to see a resurgence. Its pagan worldview, however, was a threat to Christianity. The idea that God could be discovered without the aid of scripture was seen as a threat to Christian tradition. In several instances there was fierce opposition, which sometimes triggered riots, and even heresy trials.

It was only in the 9th century, under Charlemagne’s (King of the Franks. 747 – 814) educational reforms that opposition to the classics melted away.

In the Middle Ages, theology was well established as the queen of the sciences, and philosophy was its handmaiden. “Science” in the Middle Ages up to the Enlightenment of the 18th century signified any systematic recorded “knowledge” (Latin scientia). “Science” had the same broad meaning as “Philosophy” (Greek philo “love” and sophos “knowledge, wisdom”.

The Enlightenment is a period in Western culture and philosophy that divested itself of religious beliefs and resuscitated the the classical faith in reason. The Enlightenment resuscitated the Aristotelian idea of the primacy of reason. The difference between the Reformation and the Enlightenment is that on the Reformation view, justification is by faith alone; whereas on the Enlightenment view, justification is by faith in reason alone. Though “faith in reason” is an oxymoron” (Greek oxy “pointed”, moron “silly”), it is not for practical purposes a contradiction. I explain:

How do we know, how do we prove that our noggins are rational? That’s easy; use your noggin. This, however, is no solution, because you can’t use your noggin to prove you have a noggin, that is, you can’t use your reason to prove that your reason is rational. If we cannot prove our reason is rational, this does not stop us living out our practical lives. So, although the foundation principle of our knowledge may remain out of reach, this does affect the practical uses of knowledge. It’s a bit like God; we may ignore or be ignorant of Him, yet this does not affect the comfortable life of being a professor of theology or Greek philosophy.

When Rome fell, Greek literature and philosophy had been largely forgotten in Medieval Europe. The Medieval Church in Europe did not only encourage the study of Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, but also encouraged Muslim philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroes. It was Muslim scholarship, mainly Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd), that introduced Greek philosophy to the West. There was also the great Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides. Aquinas had a great respect for Maimonides. There is written on Moses Maimonides’ tombstone: “From Moshe (Moses) to Moshe (Moses Maimonides) there was none like Moshe.” A Catholic might want to add “until Thomas.

Thomas Aquinas was called “the dumb ox” at school. He was very fat, and suffered from dropsy, and one eye was much bigger than the other. (This feature is not clear in the Fra Angelico picture above). In his youth, he was lethargic, introspective, spoke little, and most of the time was lost to the world.

When he was 18, he had set his mind on becoming a friar in the Dominican order. A monk. A vow of poverty. On his way to Rome, he was nabbed by his brothers, who brought him home. He was kept prisoner for more than a year.

No threats, no entreaties, no prayers, no enticements could deter him. What about an Abbot? Or a Bishoprick? Ok, then, an Archbishoprick; there’s one going in Naples. Even a prostitute secreted into his chambers could not dampen his resolve.

His family finally relented, and Thomas was sent to Cologne to study under Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great)’ “Magnus” because he was the greatest scholastic philosopher in Europe. Thomas went to Paris where he studied and obtained his Master’s degree. He also wrote some of his works there. In about 1261, Pope Urban invited him to come and teach in Rome. About 10 years later he returned to Paris. Soon after, he founded a new studium generale in Naples. A studium generale is the medieval name for an education institution of international excellence. The universities of Paris, Oxford and Cambridge, which were established in the early 13th century were three other studia generalia.

Thomas is called Doctor Angelicus, which the Roman Catholic Church translates as “Angelic Doctor”. This does not mean that he was angelic but that he was an expert on angels, a “doctor of angels.”

Aquinas was the greatest of the “Scholastics” (Schoolmen). Scholasticism is a medieval Catholic school of philosophy and theology. The roots of Scholasticism go back to the 8th century educational reforms of Charlemagne (Charles the Great; 747 – 814), King of the Franks. Education was called the “liberal arts”; “liberal” because education was open only to freemen (Latin: liber, “free”), and not to slaves.

The modern term ‘liberal arts’ is a curriculum aimed at developing intellectual abilities, in contrast to a vocational, professional, or technical curriculum. In ancient Greece and Rome (the classical period), the term designated the education appropriate to a freeman as opposed to a slave. In the feudal system of the Middle Ages, education was open only to the privileged few – the equivalent of the classical freeman of Greece and Rome. Education was limited to those who didn’t need to make a living.

The education curriculum consisted of two main divisions. The trivium (“three”) and the quadrivium (“four”). The trivium consisted of three language subjects: “grammar”, “rhetoric” and “dialectic”. The quadrivium consists of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Let me say more about the trivium of “grammar”, “rhetoric” and “dialectic”.

The classical and medieval meaning of “grammar” was not restricted to the rules of language. “Grammar” consisted of rules as well as literature, for example, poetry and drama.

Rhetoric” is the art of persuading an listeners or readers to feel, think or act a certain way. “Rhetoric” also has the ordinary (non-academic) meaning of “empty words”, “hot air”, as in “He’s all rhetoric and no substance.” “Rhetoric” in this sense is the most trivial of the trivium.

The third component of the trivium was “dialectic”. “Dialectic was another name for logical reasoning, or simply, “logic”. The classical philosophers as well as the Medieval theologians based their intellectual practice on the assumption that all mentally healthy humans are endowed with the same rules of logic: the rules of my mind are the same as the rules of everyone else’s mind. The dialectical method is also called the Socratic method, because it came down to us through Socrates via Plato. (Plato, a pupil of Socrates, preserved and expanded his teacher’s thought in the “Platonic dialogues”).

The Socratic method takes the form of a debate. Participants in the debate explore one another’s positions in a stimulating, rational and illuminating way. The Socratic debate, however, doesn’t merely involve a sharing of ideas. The crux – and the fun -of a dialectic debate involves cutting and thrusting through contrary points of view. Each participant tries to lead the other to contradict himself. You don’t try and prove how clever you are; that only strengthens your opponent’s resolve. Instead, you let your opponent kick the ball into his own scrotum.

Plato, in his “Socratic dialogues”, portrays Socrates asking questions that elicit other questions. Socrates may know the answer, but pretends he doesn’t. In this way, the teacher does not lord himself over his pupil. The art is to cross-examine without making the other person peeved; to weed out without making the other person feel a weed, to uncover contradictions without making the other feel naked.

The Socratic method is not only applicable in the formal teaching situation; it is also applicable – and admirably so – in the home. I may talk till I’m blue in the face to my children about all these wise how-to’s, but what ultimate good does it do if I don’t do it myself. My daughter Beccy has often berated me for rubbishing her views.

The aim of both dialectic and rhetoric is to persuade. But dialectic restricts itself to rational persuasion, whereas “rhetoric” covers all kinds of persuasion such as how to feel and act. “Rhetoric” is often a one-sided matter. Somebody talks and somebody listens. Dialectic, in contrast, aims to persuade through rational discussion, through dialogue, the (objective) truth of a matter.

Although scholasticism developed a poor reputation during and after the Renaissance, scholastic writers had produced useful philosophical ways of explaining Catholic doctrine. Aquinas used the Aristotelian terms of “accidents” and “substance” to explain the most important of Catholic doctrines, the “real presence”, which is called transubstantation. In transubstantiation, the substance of bread and the wine changes into the substance of the body and Spirit of Christ. Although the senses can only detect the “accidents” (taste, texture, smell, sight), the communicant – claims the dogma – is eating the actual flesh and blood of the living Christ sitting at the right hand of the Father.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent expands this belief by stating: “In this sacrament are contained not only the true body of Christ, and all the constituents of a true body, such as bones and sinews, but also Christ whole and entire”. Christ whole and entire is contained not only in the body but also in the blood.

Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae covers almost the whole of Catholic theology. He stopped working on it the year before he died in 1274.

Now, fellow Protestants, don’t give Protestantism a bad name by saying that Aquinas believed that all he had written was straw. He didn’t say that. This is what he said: “I cannot go on…. All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”

Enlightenment, modern style: Bums on suitcases, all packed and ready to leave for the next departure lounge

“The need to get away? The desire to arrive?”

 (Herman Hertzberger, “Space and the Architect” in “Silent Wounds of the family,” a proposal for the conversion of the Great Synagogue of Pretoria building to a family court.)

In 1961, I was a student of philosophy at the University of Cape Town and in love with Aristotle, especially his “Golden mean”; if it is possible, that is, to go weak at the knees over equanimity:

“The concept of Aristotle’s theory of golden mean is represented in his work called Nicomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle explains the origin, nature and development of virtues which are essential for achieving the ultimate goal, happiness (Greek: eudaimonia), which must be desired for itself. It must not be confused with carnal or material pleasures, although there are many people who consider this to be real happiness, since they are the most basic form of pleasures. It is a way of life that enables us to live in accordance with our nature, to improve our character, to better deal with the inevitable hardships of life and to strive for the good of the whole, not just of the individual.”

(The person who wrote this has got Aristotle right on the button in spite of the fact that his lewd URL seems to suggest otherwise; http://www.anus.com/zine/articles/draugdur/golden_mean/)

Aristotle believed that virtue was the means to life’s goal, which – plus ça change… – is happiness. Virtue strives for happiness and the good, the good of all. Indeed, Aristotle’s happiness (and Plato’s for that matter) IS the good. In Aristotle, every human life has a departure and a destination; the reason why you travel is – surely – to arrive at a specific place. That place, for Aristotle, is here, in this world. Since the 19th century, the place to find happiness hasn’t changed, but what has changed since the “Enlightenment” is that its all about departing and no more about arriving unless arriving at another departure lounge.

Always departing never arriving. Never standing still, always moving. Bums on suitcases, all packed and ready to leave for the next departure lounge.

In the same year that I was basking in the academic glow of the Golden Mean, Martyn Lloyd Jones was giving one of his wonderful sermons in Westminster Chapel, London. Here is part of that sermon:

“The Victorians said,’To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.’ Stuff and nonsense. If that were true no one would get married, they’d say courtship is better than marriage. But you see this is the sort of phrase that fascinates people and it sounds so wonderful. Ah, they say, we don’t want any of your Christian evangelical dogmatic certainty. We are seekers after truth,we like the great quest after reality. There was no such thing as the knowledge of truth; that was the nonsense they talked, based on nothing but sheer ignorance.” (“By faith, Abraham”).

God called Abraham out of Ur, promised him an inheritance, but told him nothing between the departing and the arriving. Does this mean that the world in between doesn’t count for much? Yes, but in the way that school counts as preparation for life. We are pilgrims in this world. Pilgrims are not children of the “Enlightenment” who are always arriving at the next departure lounge; they (pilgrims) are, in contrast, children of the promise of a glorious inheritance looking for a better country:

“Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised. Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable. These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. 16 But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:11-16)

“Christ, the Messiah, the Lord delivered them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” ( Hebrews 2:15).

Don’t run aimlessly. Don’t box as one beating the air (1 Corinthians 9:26).

“Let our path, then, be upward; let us gather around us the trailing garment, casting away whatever impedes our progress; and leaning upon our Beloved and our Friend, hasten from all below, until we find ourselves actually reposing in the bosom upon which, in faith and love, in weakness and sorrow, we had rested amid the trials and perils of the ascent. There is ever this great encouragement, this light upon the way, that it is a heaven-pointing, a heaven-conducting, a Heaven-terminating path; and before long the weary pilgrim will reach its sunlit summit” (Octavius Winslow).

In the living light the silent wound of the soul is healed.

Jewish mysticism and Absorption into the Universal Soul

Christianity teaches that God created the world out of nothing. It bases this doctrine on the first words of the Hebrew Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In Genesis 1:26, “God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Hebrew root dama, from which we get ADAM).

What does the Bible mean by man being created in the image, in the likeness  of God? What is certain – if we accept that God is Spirit (in Christianity, when the Word was made flesh, the picture changes, of course) –  is that man is a composite of spirit and flesh, while God is pure Spirit. Genesis 1:26 does not specify what it means by man as the “image of God.” When a Christian examines the rest of scripture, the following human attributes emerge, which man shares with God: creativity, power to reason, power to make decisions, moral conscience and personal relationships. These are called the communicable attributes of God. The attributes that God does not share with man are God’s incommunicable attributes, for example, his omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful) and eternality (no beginning), immutability (unchanging).

Traditional Judaism of which a large part is mystical Judaism (Kabbalah, Chassidim) teaches that man’s soul (neshamah) is a piece of God. Some parts of the Talmud say that only the Jewish soul is a piece of God. Most Jews maintain that the Talmud says no such thing. But see here. Reconstructionist Judaism, in stark contrast to traditional Judaism, says that traditional Judaism has got it all back to front. So, to put the record straight, a little reconstruction is needed: Man is not a piece of God; God is a piece of man (God is a human construction). (See Logotherapy, Torah Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism: God, man and God-man).

I’d like to focus on two prominent rabbinical scholars of Kabbalah: Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet and Rabbi Akiva Tatz. In his “Mystical Judaism,” Rabbi Schochet sets his sights on donkey scholarship:

“The sterile type of life and ‘scholarship’ of the “donkey loaded with books,” unfortunately, is quite symptomatic of the modern age and its method of alleged rational inquiry, of ‘logical positivism’ and its atomizing games of linguistic analysis. The mystical dimension forcefully counters this and bears a pervasive message of special relevance to modern man. With this message we are able to extricate ourselves from the contemporary mind- and soul-polluting forces that threaten to stifle us, and to find ourselves. For it is the tzinor, the conduit connecting us to ultimate reality. It is the stimulant causing “deep to call unto deep” – the profound depth of man’s soul calling unto the profound depth of the Universal Soul to find and absorb itself therein. Thus it brings forth and establishes the ultimate ideal of unity, of oneness, on all levels” (p. 36).

 For Rabbi Akiva Tatz, the tzinor does not only connect human beings to ultimate reality, but every else in the universe as well. In his Thirteen principles, part 5, 45th minute:

“The worlds above are like water, sometimes described as light…but if you take the world of water in the upper spheres. Water is undifferentiated, all the parts look the same. Imagine water in a bath. Underneath the bath there are small holes. What happens is inside the bath the water is all one, but outside it is flowing in specific channels, which are called tzinorot (צינורות) … a pipeline. You have the undifferentiated oneness in the higher world, but it comes into this world as specific differentiated channels that bring it down. Each channel is bringing an object into existence, or an event or a phenomenon. And of course you don’t need to look at the object, you can look at the channel and you will know more or less how the object will be or what will happen.”

All religious systems, by definition, assume a close connection between “ultimate reality” (Schochet) and the universe, which consists of human beings, objects and other (invisible) beings. Schochet and Tatz derive their views from the Kabbalah/Zohar, of course. While Schochet’s tzinor (pipeline, conduit) connects the human soul to the “Universal Soul to find and absorb itself therein,” Tatz’s tzinor connects ALL created beings to “the world of water in the upper spheres,” which is a different description of Schochet’s “Universal Soul.” The two descriptions – ”Universal Soul” and “the world of water in the upper spheres,”are metaphors for the “Endless One” (En Sof).

Schochet’s “Universal Soul to find and absorb itself therein,” is Buddhism – or Pythagoreanism – without idols. Kabbalah and Pythagoras have much in common. This does not necessarily mean that Pythagoras, or a similar system, influenced Jewish mysticism, for what is more expected than human beings wanting to become absorbed in the ”Universal,” or “Upper Waters.” Jews often insist that Greek and Jewish thought are poles apart. On the contrary, Jewish mysticism, Greek mysticism, Eastern mysticism, or any other kind of mysticism all sing the same absorbing universal tune.

How can a Perfect God create the potential for imperfection?

I received the following comment on my Yin Yang, God and the devil: A cosmic chess game? He writes:

My issue is this: If “God” created and allows all things… then “God” also created Satan and the potential to become Evil. The potential must have existed within “God” at least as a thought/possibility or it never would have come into existence. Another way to word it is: How could something “imperfect” come from something “perfect”?

My basic assumption, which seems to be the same as the respondent, is that the only perfect being that exists – that could possibly exist – is God. Based on this assumption, I think it is also reasonable to assume that nothing perfect can arise from something imperfect. The  respondent’s problem is: how can imperfection arise from a perfect God? He provided the example of God creating another perfect being – an angelic being – with the potential for evil; a potential that monotheists such as Christians, Jews and Muslims claim does not exist in God Himself.

I would like to change the example from Satan to man, which does not change the basic issue, which is, if God creates beings with the potential to become evil, why does this potential for evil not exist in God, in his nature, or his essence.

I focus on the term “nature.” There is the nature, or essence, of an entity, which distinguishes the identity of one entity (being) from another. Every created being, living and non-living, has its own nature; Humans, lions, roses, trees, diamonds, and so on. The uncreated God, of course, also has a nature (uncreated in the Bible implies that He must be the creator of all entities, which by defnition, must be different to His nature.

God’s creation, however, is not part of his nature. Here is an analogy: the potter is not part of his pot (unless he’s potty). The analogy goes only so far, because both the (human) potter and what he makes (the pot), are imperfect, for they are both God’s creation. They both do not, therefore, share in God’s nature. The Talmud and Jewish Kabbalistic writings teach that man is a piece (spark) of God, but that is certainly not in the Bible, nor is it good exegesis to find it there.  (See Rabbi Tani Burton).

I shall not discuss man as the image of God because that would take us too far from our main focus, which is how a perfect God can create the potential for imperfection, specifically, evil.(I discuss man as the image of God  elsewhere).

After God had created everything – before Adam (hmmm) – He “saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good (TOV M’OD) (Genesis 1:31).  ”Very good” implies complete, whole, harmonious. And those are the connotations of Hebrew word, which is translated into English as ”perfect.” For example,

Gen 17:1 And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.

Deut 18:13 Thou shalt be perfect with the LORD thy God.

Mat 5:48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Perfect” (Hebrew: tam/tamiym) here does not mean “flawless,” ”impeccable” (incapable of sin – Latin peccatum) but “whole,” “complete;” as far as it is possible for a human being to be complete. When Jesus says, Mat 5:48 “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” He is not saying that his disciples must aspire to share in God’s perfect nature, but rather that they must try to remain faithful to their new status as children of God, which is done by keeping His commandments. If they do not remain faithful, they (their wholeness) will fall apart. More accurately, if they do not remain faithful, this shows that ”they went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (1 John 2:19).

I mentioned that after God had created the pinnacle of his creation, Adam, He “saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good TOV M’OD (Genesis 1:31). At the beginning of Chapter 2, we read:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:1-3).

Something’s missing, or rather somebody – Eve. She’s not included as part of the original ”very good” creation, because she was formed after and from Adam. Which I think was also very good, even if it doesn’t say TOV M’OD.

Now, to the issue of how imperfection can result from God’s perfection. The Christian answer is that God created the first human beings (Adam and Eve) with the ability to disobey Him. They were created complete (“perfect”). They, however, decided to disobey God. This sin resulted in their “Fall,” which sowed the seeds of radical corruption ( Latin radix ”root” ) and death. (The rabbinical view rejects radical corruption, and describes sin as more akin to a soiled face than a corrupt heart.

Why God would create a world where He knew man would become radically corrupt is not something we can ever know. If you think about it, who are we tell God how to run his creation? “Let God be true, and every man a liar” says Paul, on behalf of the Jew, and addressed to both Jew and Gentile:

1 What advantage then hath the Jew? or what is the profit of circumcision? 2 Much every way: first of all, that they were intrusted with the oracles of God. 3 For what if some were without faith? shall their want of faith make of none effect the faithfulness of God? 4 God forbid: yea, let God be found true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy words, And mightest prevail when thou comest into judgment (Romans 3:1-4).

The majority of Jews rejected their Messiah. This lack of faith did not only smudge their face, it polluted their soul. The million shekel question, which my respondent could have asked, is: Why did God choose the Jews (or anyone else) if He knew that he would only save a remnant (the ancient prophets make it abundantly clear that only a remnant will be saved)? The answer is because the Bible teaches that if you love God’s word, you love everything He does. Outside of God’s word, unbelievers end up where they started; on the rickety bridge of philosophy – or whatever grabs their imperfect fancy.

My title is  ”How can a Perfect God create the potential for imperfection?” ”Can” in the title has the meaning of ability. So we can rephrase the question so: ”Is it within God’s power to create something imperfect?” I argued that this is possible. There is another question my respondent did not ask, to which I only gave a partial answer. It’s a question that relates more to the moral side of God’s character than to His omnipotence: ”Why would/did God create the potential for imperfection, for sin, for evil, for damnation? The scriptures do not explain all we want to know, but they do explain much.

The Bible tells us:

First, God was not taken by surprise when Satan and his angelic cohort sinned and when Adam sinned. Everything that happens is “according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, (Ephesians 1:11, ESV). God designed the universe to display his perfection. This perfection takes three forms: creation, providence/sovereignty and redemption. So God created the world to manifest his sovereignty in redemption: “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men” (1Corinthains 4:9). “I have become a sign to many; you are my strong refuge” (Psalm 71:7).

God has designed everything to manifest (show off) the radiance of His perfection and holiness; in a word, his glory:

[1] In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. [2] Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. [3] And one called to another and said:

Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory!”

[4] And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. [5] And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:1-5 ESV).

Second, and here is where human indignation, among many Christians as well, boils over: God foreordains all events: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36 ESV). “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11 ESV). We read in Joshua Liebman’s “Peace of mind” that religion is “at its best” merely “the announcer of the supreme ideals by which men must live and through which our finite species finds it’s ultimate significance.” If people were honest, says Liebman, “they would admit that the implementation of these ideals should be left to psychology.” Whereas the Scripture (Hebrew and New testament) says “Man proposes, God disposes,” Liebman says, “God proposes, psychology disposes.” “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps (Proverbs 16:1); “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21).

Here’s the rub: the Lord’s purpose is fulfilled not in spite of Satan and man but because of Satan and man:

[15] When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” [16] So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: [17] ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. [18] His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” [19] But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? [20] As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. [21] So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50:15-21 ESV).

[22] “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know [23] this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:22-23 ESV).

When we say God is all-knowing, we mean He knows everything past, present and future. That’s fine say most; omniscience is one of the incommunicable attributes of God, which He doesn’t share with man. God is also eternal, that is no beginning, no end. It follows that an eternal all-knowing God learns nothing. The Bible says that everything that happens is because God pre-ordains it, even in the number of hairs on your head. So, the reason why God knows everything and learns nothing is because He pre-ordains everything. The scriptures above are clear that this is so. 

Related post: God, the infinitely good, creates evil

 

 

 

Faith, Trust and Understanding: the Biblical view

 

What comes first, faith or understanding (reason). God created both. So, which is the cart, and which the horse, which comes first? Is it true that credo ut intelligam – I believe that I may understand? and  fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”). (Anselm of Canterbury). Would it be more correct to say that I don’t believe IN Jesus but simply BELIEVE him? No, because it is both. Similarly, a believing Jew, I suggest, believes in God as well as believes God. What is important is that believing logically precedes believing in (trust). There is no need to prove his Emunah (belief and trust). “In the beginning” (Genesis 1:1) should be enough, and if not, then the man doesn’t have, according to Martin Buber, a genuine biblical bone in his body. “Biblical man, says Martin Buber, is never in doubt to the existence of God. In professing his faith, his EMUNAH*, he merely expresses his trust that the living God is near to him as he was to Abraham and that he entrusts himself to Him” (“Two types of faith” 1962).

Scripture comes alive because God gives it life, and thus it is God who opens the eyes that we may understand. This opening of the eyes is faith. One spends the rest of one’s life adjusting the eyes to the light, keeping in mind that in His light we see the light (Psalm 36:9). What a contrast to Dylan Thomas’ “Rage against the dying of the light” do we find in “Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts.. who hath given understanding to the heart? (Job 38:36). *EMUNAH comprises both Assensus (belief in the sense of mental assent) and Fiducia (trust, personal commitment).

Here is an example of a Jewish misunderstanding of Christian “belief.” In Rabbi Moshe Shulman’s anti-Christian commentary on Isaiah 53, which he considers “the fullest explanation and discussion of the subject that now exists anywhere,” he says: “To receive this atonement one must believe that this death was for that purpose. You may be familiar with the doctrine, and know that people believe it, but if you don’t believe in it, then you are not saved.” A Christian apologist comments: “This statement comes somewhat closer to the truth. Yet, it needs correction and completion. For if one merely believes that Jesus’ death was for the purpose of atonement, he will not receive that atonement. Only the rebirth, which has faith as a result, is sufficient. One has not merely to believe the doctrine of atonement in general, but also has to appropriate it, that is, trust in it. Not merely ‘Christ has died for sinners,’ but also ‘Christ has died for me, and has atoned for me’.” (See also Assensus and Fiducia).

Atheism, evil and purpose

A favourite atheistic argument is that God cannot exist because of the evil in the world. Yet, An atheist cannot use this argument that evil proves that God does not exist, for the following reason: the atheist believes that the universe has no purpose, and if no purpose then evil cannot exist, because evil is a “purpose-driven” concept.

Humanism spends much energy on trying to prove that the universe has no purpose while also advocating that the greatest purpose for man is to do good. What kind of meaningful life is this – meaningful because the desire to do good is surely meaningful? I answer an absurdly meaningful life, or perhaps it is better to say a meaningless absurd life.

Theological Aphasia and Language as Communion

There is language as communication and there is language as communion. The difference between the two is that the second is always personal. For those who believe in a personal God, language as communion is possible between both man and God. I describe some of the issues of human language in the secular and theological context.

The three paramount concerns of language, or aims of discourse, are the creation, expression and communication of meaning, which could be summarised as “learning how to mean” ( Halliday, M.A.K. Learning how to mean. London, Arnold, 1975). ”Functions” of language is the major dimension of language study ” (Kinneavy, 1983:131) because the functions of language tell us about the why (content), the where (context) and the how (well) of language use.

Roman Jacobsen defines the different functions of language:

The Referential function (transactional, informational) corresponds to the factor of context and describes a situation, object or mental state.

The Expressive (“emotive” or “affective”) function relates to the addressor (speaker) and refers to utterances that do not change the denotative (informational) meaning of an utterance but adds information about how the addressor feels about something.

The Conative function involves influencing or trying to change the Addressee’s (listener) behaviour.

The Poetic Function focuses on “the message for its own sake” (Jacobsen) as in literature and slogans. The Phatic function (the term was coined by Bronislav Malinowski) involves language in interpersonal/social interaction; for example, greetings and casual chat. (”Phatic” from Greek phatos ”spoken.” Aphasia is a speech defect). The Phatic function is the “getting to know you (better)” function; small talk, where the emphasis on the communication of information is small, while the emphasis on the communication of feelings is big.

The Metalingual (“metalinguistic” or “reflexive”) function – what Jakobson calls “Code” – is language used to think about, discuss, describe itself. (See my “Cognition and Language Proficiency”).

Chomsky suggests that expression, not communication, is the central function of language (Chomsky, Language and Responsibility, 1979:88). Ryle (1959), in a similar vein (at the end of his introduction to “The concept of mind”), states: “Primarily I am trying to get some disorders out of my own system. Only secondarily do I hope to help other theorists to recognise our malady and to benefit from my medicine.”The “purgative” (“suppository”) function of language is one function that did not occur to Jacobsen; and neither to Chomsky – I suppose.

Consider Devitt and Derelny’s view on the origin and functions of language. (Devitt, M., and Sterelny, K. 1987. Language & reality: An introduction to the philosophy of language. Basil Blackwell). Devitt and Derelny (1987) are committed to “physicalism”, that is, people are nothing but complex parts of the physical world. Devitt and Derelny (1987:127) maintain that language originated out of a need to understand the environment and ourselves in order to use and control the environment. Primitive man conveyed meaning through body language such as grunts and gestures. Grunts and gestures caught on out of which linguistic conventions were born. The capacity to think – according to Devitt and Derelny – is borrowed from those who created these conventions and thus primitive thought was made easy. The drive to understand leads to more complicated thoughts, to more complicated speaker meanings to more complicated conventions.

“If this sketch is right, we have, as individuals as a species, engaged in a prodigious feat of lifting ourselves up by our own semantic bootstraps…The picture is of a language of thought expanding with the introduction into it of a public language.” (Devitt & Derelny, 1987:127).

Devett and Derelny’s description echoes the modern atheistic-Darwinian view of the origins and function of language. Contrast this view where the main emphasis of language is theological:

“God speaks humans, like the rest of creation, into being. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’…” (Genesis 1:26). In the creation stories in Genesis God’s speaking is God’s doing. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light'; and there was light” (Genesis 1: 3). The relationship between God and creation and the relationship in particular between God and human beings is mediated by the Word. God creates by speaking and humans are to listen and then in light of what they bear address God and one another. Human speech, therefore, is neither exclusively nor even primarily a social phenomenon between neighbors, but first and foremost a theological reality. Speech has something to do with who God is and what it means for humans to live, first, before God, and second, in communion with one another” (“Before God:” A Crisis in Sin and Redemption” by George Stroup).

(The excerpts above are from one of Stroup’s lectures. This lecture has been fleshed out in his book “Before God”).

The language of theological reality in Christianity  is the biblical narrative, which is at enmity with the worldly narrative. Here is the biblical communicative relationship between addressor and addressee:

“In biblical narrative humans are called to listen because it is God who speaks first. Human speech, therefore, is true when it responds obediently to the prior reality of God’s Word and God’s address. False speech—the lie—is not simply the distortion of the truth, although it is that, but, more significantly, it is speech that is not obedient to the Word by which it has been addressed, but an attempt to find some ground, some basis, other than the reality of God’s Word and God’s address…To live before God and to be truly and faithfully human is, first, to allow oneself to be addressed by God, and, second, to speak truthfully to God. It is listening to and speaking obediently to God that is also the basis for allowing oneself to be addressed by and to speak truthfully to one’s neighbor.”

In sum, those who reject the theological priority of language suffer from theological aphasia. The Apostle John provides a scriptural basis for Stroup (above):

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1-3 ESV).

In the phatic function of language, says Malinowski, ”The breaking of silence, the communion of words is the first act to establish links of fellowship, which is consummated only by the breaking of bread and the communion of food.” For the Christian, communion – which is the gathering of believers to break bread before the Lord’s Table – is the consumate theological emphasis on the Word made flesh.

Life, life, eternal life: The word made Fish

Towards the end of Albert Mohler’s “Thinking in Public” podcast, “Why we can’t all just get along: A conversation with Stanley Fish” (Jan 11 2011), Fish, a legal scholar and literary critic, and Mohler are discussing Fish’s latest book “How to read a sentence and write one,” in which Fish describes the marks of a good sentence. He ends his book with some of his favourite sentences. Fish tells Mohler that his favourite sentence is from Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Here is his description:

I end the main body of the book with my favorite sentences from the book which is a sentence from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and that sentence describes the moment when Bunyan’s hero Christian having discovered that he is burdened with original sin and mourning to rid himself of it starts to run from his village toward a light that he barely sees and now here is the sentence, “now he had not run far away from his own door.  But his wife and children perceiving it began crying after him to return.  But the man put his fingers in his ears and ran on crying ‘life, life, eternal life.’” That is both a great sentence absolutely amazing sentence, the way in which it is structured and a lesson in what it is that sentences can and cannot do.  Sentences can send us in the direction of something greater than they and therefore greater than us so sentences in a way perform their best office when they turn us in the direction of life, life, eternal life.

[Fish calls Bunyan's delectable chunk of discourse, a "sentence." As we all know, a sentence ends  with a full stop (period)].

Mohler:   I have to end by asking you the question that came to my mind at the end of your latest book. In a secular age is it perhaps true that for most sentences are all that remain?

Fish:  Yes.  And that is what I call in the book at a certain point the religion of art.  And when the liberal ethos doesn’t so much as give up religion but puts it in a corner it has to worship something. And what it usually worships is art, and one form of that art are sentences.  But I believe that the sentences that really matter don’t, neither invite nor allow that worship but in fact encourage you and invite you to search for something greater. (Podcast transcript can be found here).

Fish reminds me of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which studied in my French course at university. Brian Simpson writes on Flaubert’s novels in the John Hopkins magazine:

The novel on your bedside table did not spring fully formed from the head of its maker. It was mulled over, massaged, fleshed out, scratched through, revised, set aside, and revised some more.”

Simpson quotes Flaubert: “When I’m finished with my novel . . . I’ll bring you my complete manuscript. . . . You will see through what complex mechanics I manage to make a sentence.”
(Gustave Flaubert in an April 15, 1852, letter to his lover Louise Colet).

As in Flaubert, so in Fish; language, not the plot, counts; because all that matters is what natters.

Flaubert, Simpson continues, rewrote each page of Madame Bovary at least four or five times, and many a dozen times. In an 1855 letter to Louise Colet, he confided, “Last week I spent five days writing one page.” At the end of such weeks, he had finished only 500 words. But they were 500 perfect words.”

And for Jacques Neefs, an authority on Flaubert, “the vision is in the revisions.”

That’s Fish all over: vision is revision. Never standing still, always moving; never arriving always departing. Art for art sake, L’art pour l’art, in it’s many forms: language for language sake, painting for painting sake, sculpture for sculpture sake, where language, the supreme art form, cuts, not through, but into the Word – made, not flesh, but Art. The reason why there is no attempt to cut through language is because for Flaubert and Fish, there is nothing outside Art, outside the Art of language. Only sentences remain (Fish above), only sentences live, only sentences are eternal, only sentences live eternally. Sentences, says Fish, must be religiously nurtured (“the religion of art”- Fish), for they are the springboard to newness of life, to a newness of more sentences. There’s no centre, no arriving, no presence, no God; always departing never arriving. All these men remind me of Jacques Derrida and my friend, Bill, who asks: “So what’s the deal with having a messiah who’s arrived?  There’s a question for you. Where is the mystery once he’s exposed and had his say?”

The Word was made flesh (the Messiah), and the flesh was made fish (the word). There’s the Fisher of men and the fisher of words. For the fisher of words, there will be – unless something changes – no resurrection from the boggy sediments of language, but only a sentencing to an eternity of sentences – “one has to worship something” (Fish above). Or perhaps there will only be a sentencing to a single phrase, drumming over and over and over in those finely tuned literary ears: Bunyan’s “life, life, eternal life.”

Towards the end of Albert Mohler’s “Thinking in Public” podcast, “Why we can’t all just get along: A conversation with Stanley Fish” (Jan 11 2011), Fish, a legal scholar and literary critic, and Mohler are discussing Fish’s latest book “How to read a sentence and write one,” in which Fish describes the marks of a good sentence. He ends his book with some of his favourite sentences. Fish tells Mohler that his favourite sentence is from Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Here is his description (my italics and underlining):

I end the main body of the book with my favorite sentences from the book which is a sentence from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and that sentence describes the moment when Bunyan’s hero Christian having discovered that he is burdened with original sin and mourning to rid himself of it starts to run from his village toward a light that he barely sees and now here is the sentence, “now he had not run far away from his own door.  But his wife and children perceiving it began crying after him to return.  But the man put his fingers in his ears and ran on crying ‘life, life, eternal life.’” That is both a great sentence absolutely amazing sentence, the way in which it is structured and a lesson in what it is that sentences can and cannot do.  Sentences can send us in the direction of something greater than they and therefore greater than us so sentences in a way perform their best office when they turn us in the direction of life, life, eternal life.

Mohler:   I have to end by asking you the question that came to my mind at the end of your latest book. In a secular age is it perhaps true that for most sentences are all that remain?

Fish:  Yes.  And that is what I call in the book at a certain point the religion of art.  And when the liberal ethos doesn’t so much as give up religion but puts it in a corner it has to worship something. And what it usually worships is art, and one form of that art are sentences.  But I believe that the sentences that really matter don’t, neither invite nor allow that worship but in fact encourage you and invite you to search for something greater. (Podcast transcript can be found here).

Fish reminds me of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which I read in my French studies at university. Brian Simpson writes on Flaubert’s novels in the John Hopkins magazine:

The novel on your bedside table did not spring fully formed from the head of its maker. It was mulled over, massaged, fleshed out, scratched through, revised, set aside, and revised some more.”

Simpson quotes Flaubert: When I’m finished with my novel . . . I’ll bring you my complete manuscript. . . . You will see through what complex mechanics I manage to make a sentence.”
— Gustave Flaubert in an April 15, 1852, letter to his lover Louise Colet

As in Flaubert, so in Fish; language, not the plot, counts; because all that matters is what natters.

Flaubert, Simpson continues, rewrote each page of Madame Bovary at least four or five times, and many a dozen times. In an 1855 letter to Louise Colet, he confided, “Last week I spent five days writing one page.” At the end of such weeks, he had finished only 500 words. But they were 500 perfect words.”

And for Jacques Neefs, an authority on Flaubert, “the vision is in the revisions.”

That’s Fish all over: vision is revision. Never standing still, always moving; never arriving always departing. Art for art sake, L’art pour l’art, in it’s many forms: language for language sake, painting for painting sake, sculpture for sculpture sake, where language, the supreme art form, cuts, not through, but into the Word – made, not flesh, but Art. The reason why there is no attempt to cut through language is because for Flaubert and Fish, there is nothing outside Art, outside the Art of language. Only sentences remain (Fish above), only sentences live, only sentences are eternal, only sentences live eternally. Sentences, says Fish, must be religiously nurtured (“the religion of art”- Fish), for they are the springboard to newness of life, to a newness of more sentences. There’s no centre, no arriving, no presence, no God; always departing never arriving. All these men remind me of my Jacques Derrida and my friend, Bill, who asks: “So what’s the deal with having a messiah who’s arrived?  There’s a question for you. Where is the mystery once he’s exposed and had his say?”

The Word was made flesh (the Messiah), and the flesh was made Fish (the word). There’s the Fisher of men and the fisher of words. For the fisher of words, there will be no resurrection from the boggy sediments of language, but only a sentencing to an eternity of sentences – “one has to worship something” (Fish above). Or perhaps there will only be a sentencing to a single phrase, drumming over and over and over in those finely tuned ears: “life, life, eternal life.”

Analysis of the Modern Evangelical Mind and the Lost Art of Boxing

Before I begin my mind-walk, let me say something briefly about the knotty term “evangelical.”

David Bebbington in his “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s” mentions four key marks of “evangelicalism”: conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism (the cross) and activism (activity).” (See review of Bebbington and Al Mohler’s “Thinking in Public: in conversation with David Bebbington). Bebbington lumps the Puritans together with Arminians (e.g. Methodists) where he gives more weight to Wesleyan Methodism than to the Puritans (Calvinists). When I refer to the “modern evangelical” mind, I am referring to the Arminian evangelical who thinks that thinking about Jesus can get in the way of believing in Jesus. I now examine one of these “modern evangelical” minds.

Walking with Jesus, all Christians would agree, often involves talking to others about Jesus. Talking, naturally, involves thinking. The main operation of thought is categorising. Many modern evangelicals rebel against “boxing in” Jesus into categories. My aim in this post is to argue that “boxing in” and “boxing,” (categorising) are not the same process.

To describe one’s beliefs, or anything, you have to use words, which is the usual human way of expressing thoughts. Some words are more important than others. These are called “key” words. Problems arise in communication because of contradictory definitions of these key words.

When Calvinism is contrasted with Arminianism, what first comes to mind is God’s role and man’s role in coming to faith. The Calvinist says that man plays no cooperative or contributive role in coming to faith, while the Arminian says that man cooperates with God in that man turns his heart to God, that is, exercises his will to come to faith. In Calvinism, God first regenerates the sinner and then gives the sinner the gift of faith, while in Arminianism, regeneration follows the sinner’s acceptance of God’s offer of salvation. Faith, for the Arminian is something the believer does, not something God gives, as Calvinism understands it.

Here is a typical comment I received from and evangelical Christian on one of my posts about Calvinism and Arminianism:

“Can I make a suggestion, because these terms – Calvinian, Arminian.. etc.. – have never occurred to me in my walk with our Lord, Jesus Christ – I don’t even know who Spurgeon is (and I’m sure many others can say the same) this kind of thing can just spread confusion with different followings. I’d suggest we continue to Humbly study the Word, and do what is commanded of us. That is to spread and teach the gospel; to continue to seek the Kingdom of God first; to ask Forgiveness and to repent of our sins… but all the time to remember that God sees and weighs up the heart – so whatever we do or say, may it be with an examined heart, or we could fall into a trap ourselves. Using terms like Arminian and Calvinism is putting people in boxes – this is the thing the world does. We don’t do this – because its putting man-made limits and assumptions up. I believe that God, in his sovereignty, does as He pleases. Has mercy on whom He pleases, gives understanding to whomever he wants at whatever time suits Him and his ultimate plan.”

“I think that some understanding and having our eyes opened brings us to the point where we can do nothing but be humbled, quietened, moved by our God. A seeing person can only be effected and touched by what he sees. Maybe its like a person who is slowly gaining strength back in his/her legs… he can do more and more each day that his strength is renewed. But, that person with the weak legs has to go to the doctor first to get worked on. Jesus Christ didn’t just go to people and spontaneously heal them. The people came to and called on Him. These man-made terms and translations mean nothing to me personally – I wont be put into a box. Its like the rest of the world.. if you’re like this, you’re Aries or a Dragon.. Fill in these questions that our Well Learned Psychologists have put together and we will tell you Who you are and What Category you fit into….. harumph! No thanx.”

The problem with this view is summed up in the writer’s last paragraph, specifically the misunderstanding of the term “category”:

“These man-made terms and translations mean nothing…I wont be put into a box… Fill in these questions that our Well Learned Psychologists have put together and we will tell you Who you are and What Category you fit into…” (My italics).

Categorizing is the mother of all mental processes. What do we do when we categorize? Here is a thesaurusful:

Words related to (that is, the semantic field of) Categorise

analyze, ascertain, distinguish, characterize, classify, collate, decide, demarcate, determine, diagnose, differentiate, discriminate, estimate, figure out, identify, judge, know, label, mark off, pinpoint, place, qualify, recognize, select, separate, set apart, set off, sift, single out, singularize, sort out, specify, spot, tag, tell apart.”

Now, obviously, the writer does not advocate that when we study the Bible or talk to others about it we should not differentiate, select, diagnose (something psychiatrists do very well), sift, and so on.

The writer says:
“I’d suggest we continue to Humbly study the Word, and do what is commanded of us. That is to spread and teach the gospel; to continue to seek the Kingdom of God first; to ask Forgiveness and to repent of our sins… but all the time to remember that God sees and weighs up the heart – so whatever we do or say, may it be with an examined heart, or we could fall into a trap ourselves.”

This is good advice. My question is: How is one going to teach the Gospel to enemies of the Gospel, which all human beings are in their natural state? The writer asks: “Why try to analyze it all? God is not subject to any laws or rules.”

I answer: the fact of the matter is that the writer and I understand a key doctrine of scripture in opposite ways, namely, I hold the Calvinist view that sinners play no cooperative or contributive role in coming to faith, while she says that sinners cooperate with God by turning their hearts to God, that is, by striving (exerting their will, with help from God – “prevenient grace”) to come to faith. Her view is Arminianism. In Calvinism, God first regenerates the sinner and then gives the sinner the gift of faith, while in Arminianism, regeneration follows the sinner’s acceptance of God’s offer of salvation. Faith, for the Arminian is something the believer does, not something that God gives, as Calvinism understands it.

Obviously there is much sifting, demarcating, differentiating, categorising, analysing going on. In “Analysis,” we break things down, where we move down the ladder of abstraction from the general to the particular. Here is Hayakawa’s graphic explaining the ladder of abstraction. (S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, George Allen & Unwin, 2e edition (1973, London).

(See here for further clarification).

Here is an example from scripture. A large section of the New Testament deals with explaining what is meant by Jesus is the Son of God; for example, in John’s Gospel and Paul’s epistles. Paul spends much effort – mental, analytical effort – explaining what “Jesus the Son of God” means. Three thousand years ago, the psalmist asks:

[1] Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?

[2] The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together,

against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,

[3] “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”

[7] I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.”

Why do the unbelievers rage when they hear: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” The reason, the Bible explains, is that their “hearts” are darkened. “Heart” in the Bible refers to man’s internal(ised) determination to disobey God, and what better way to do it, says the modern man, than to deny that God has a Son, or worse, God does not exist.

Now, a follower of Christ like the Apostle Paul or like many modern Christians will want to – indeed are commanded to – defend the truth that Jesus is the Son of God. To do that you’ll have to use your noggin and not your bottom – unless you’re sitting down. And that is where “analysis” is pretty useful.

Definition of analysis
1580s, “resolution of anything complex into simple elements” (opposite of synthesis), from M.L. analysis, from Gk. analysis “a breaking up, a loosening, releasing,” from analyein “unloose, release, set free; to loose a ship from its moorings,” in Aristotle, “to analyze,” from ana “up, throughout” (see ana-) + lysis “a loosening,” from lyein “to unfasten” (see lose). Psychological sense is from 1890.
(Synthesis, the opposite of Analysis, is putting things together).

Walking with Jesus will have to also involve thinking about Jesus and how to explain to non-believers how to think about Jesus and Jesus as the Son of God. To do so does not mean that you have to talk about ladders of abstraction and other such theoretical concepts. Nonetheless, when you do explain a biblical doctrine such as the divinity of Jesus, you are trawling – in your noggin – with Jesus up and down the mental ladder of abstraction. Theology, the science of God, is based on the same principles as Hayakawa’s ladder of abstraction above. To return to “Jesus is the Son of God. In 1, Moving from the bottom up, we move from Jesus through Son to God. But it is not a simple as that, for in 2, we see that “Son” only applies to Jesus, and not to other sons; the Son is God and the Father is God.

My explanation is “analytical.” So walking with Jesus should also involve analysing Jesus (the concept) for ourselves and (unless we do it ourselves we can’t do it) to others. “Analyse” means use your reason to give reasons for the faith that you have received, and defend the body of teachings (doctrines) that pertain to this faith. The Bible is clear: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” ( 1 Peter 3:15). There are many examples of Jesus and Paul reasoning (analysing, and synthesising) with their listeners. One important topic in this regard was the authenticity of the historical events in the scriptures. Paul was a master “apologist” (defender) of the Gospel. “Apologetics” is a very important part of learning and teaching the faith.

Having established that we need categories to know how to “apologise” (defend) for our faith, that is, walk the walk with Jesus, I can safely say that we also need categories to establish how a person comes to Christ – the Arminian or the Calvinist way (or, what is very bothersome, the Calvinist-Arminian and the Arminian-Calvinist way) which is closely bound up with what is meant by the “Sovereignty of God.”

They (people who don’t read – books) say that books aren’t everything. But that does not mean that books are nothing. Similarly with the mind; “the mind isn’t everything” does not mean that the mind is nothing. Actually when it comes to living the Christian life, reading (and thinking that is required to read) are important. As is very clear from the scriptures, minds can be darkened by more than lack of information. For example, the Gospels are very clear that most, if not all, the disciples, were “slow of heart” to understand Jesus. Peter got it most in the neck from Jesus. Jesus kept on telling the disciples that he was to suffer, die and rise again, but they couldn’t take it in because they didn’t want to; they were not expecting a suffering Messiah but a victorious one.

Happy analysing, in other words, bottoms up.

(See A Jewish view of a French Bottom)

1S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, George Allen & Unwin, 2e edition (1973, London)

Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s

If anything exists, says Gorgias, it cannot be communicated. Struth!

The “Gorgias” is one of Plato’s Socratic Dialogues. Plato pits the rhetorician, Gorgias, whose area of expertise is persuasion, in opposition to the philosopher, whose speciality is dissuasion and refutation. Gorgias (487-376 BC) was a presocratic rhetorician and a nihilist. His nihilism is articulated in three propositions: 1. Nothing exists. 2. But, if anything does exist, it cannot be known. 3. However, if anything does exist and can be known, it cannot be communicated.

I, Bography, am on the Academy intercom with Gorgias

Bography: What’s that, Gorgias! Run that by me one more time.

Gorgias: Ok. Let me try again.  If anything does exist and can be known, it cannot be communicated.

Bography: What do you mean?

Gorgias: What’s wrong with you; are you a post-structuralist post modernist? Have you been reading Jacques Derrida! Raphy Bog, “I must recall to your attention – and I will remind you of it more than once – that language obeys certain rules; it has its grammar, its rhetoric, its pragmatics. As you did not take these rules into account, you quite simply did not understand or want to understand, in the most elementary and quasi-grammatical sense, what I am saying.[1]


[1] “What I, on the other hand, must recall to your attention – and I will remind you of it more than once – is that the text of an appeal obeys certain rules; it has its grammar, its rhetoric, its pragmatics. I’ll come back to this point in a moment, to wit: as you did not take these rules into account, you quite simply did not read my text, in the most elementary and quasi-grammatical sense of what is called reading” (Jacques Derrida 1986, p. 157, But beyond…(Open letter to Anne McClintock and Rob Nixon). Translated by Peggy Kamuf. Critical Enquiry, Autumn, pp.155-170. (See Can Derrida’s Tour (Surprisingly) Translate Us Anywhere?).

The Deconstruction of Messiah: Never Arriving Always Departing

The great mistake of Jesus for Renan was to forget that the ideal is fundamentally a utopia (Philip Schaff).

Jacques Derrida Reading

I was in conversation with someone who said this about Derrida’s view of truth and a Messiah:

“The question of the messiah seems eternally interesting.  Derrida opined that the point about having a messiah is the promise, the hope, the aspiration, NOT that (he) comes. So what’s the deal with having a messiah who’s arrived?  There’s a question for you. Where is the mystery once he’s exposed and had his say?”

Derrida writes that there is no centre, no arriving, no presence, no God. A student of postmodernism describes the absence of presence this way:

“…if we were to bring Derrida into the discussion, then it becomes pretty clear that religion is the carrier of a metaphysics of presence par excellence. Religion banks on nothing less than the presence of ‘God,’ or the divine, or whatever. And then when you think about the importance of the ‘Word’ in religion–you know, the whole ‘revelation’ thing—Derrida’s deconstruction of logocentrism (logos “meaning”) is pretty devastating.”

But what is so postmodern about rejecting the “whole ‘revelation’ thing?” Wasn’t that the “Enlightenment’s” claim to fame two centuries or so ago? Derrida is the epitome of man-centredness, which, in essence, is no different from Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way.” The Christian view is that the Bible has a centre, an “arriving” (salvation). Brian Walsh says:

The problem is that ‘the end of religion’ and ‘the death of God’ are modernist, Enlightenment dogmas. They are the ultimate conclusion of the modernist blind faith in human autonomy. In the hubris of a modernist world-view, the voice of God and the experience of spirituality gets drowned out by the self-assured, arrogant voice of ‘rational men.”

The modernist– a product of the European Enlightenment – replaces revelation as a source of truth with induction. By induction, I mean observation of the material data (phenomena) from which we derive a principle, or “law.” For a materialist (the majority of scientists), this rational approach, which is not necessarily a reasonable approach, is not only the best method, but also the only method that can yield universal truth. Here is Diderot, one of the great luminaries of the Englightement,  on “la raison” (reason):

First, I notice something that both the good and the wicked agree upon; it is that one should reason about everything, because man is not merely an animal, but a rational animal; which means that there are ways of discovering the truth; and the one who refuses to look for it forfeits to be called human, and should, therefore be treated by the rest of his species as a wild animal. Once the truth is found, whosoever refuses to conform to it is deranged or morally wicked.” (Diderot, “Natural law,” Encyclopédie, Volume V pp. 115—116, paragraph iv. My translation. The original appears in brackets below).

(vi. J’aperçois d’abord une chose qui me semble avoué par le bon et par le méchant; c’est qu’il faut raisonner en tout, parce que l’homme n’est pas seulement un animal, mais un animal qui raisonne; qu’il y a par conséquent, dans la question dont il s’agit, des moyens de découvrir la vérité; que celui qui refuse de la chercher renonce à la qualité d’homme, et doit être traité par le reste de son espèce comme une bête farouche; et que, la vérité une fois découverte, quiconque refuse de s’y conformer est insensé ou méchant d’une méchanceté morale.” Droit Naturel, Encyclopédie, Tome V, pp. 115—116.

Contrary to the modernist, the postmodernist rejects both the Christian and modernist approaches to truth and reason. According to the postmodernist, truth is not universal, is not objective, is not absolute. Instead, truth is socially constructed, manifold, and relative. “Your truth, my truth” means that truth is not found; it’s manufactured. Facts, on this view, are not givens but purely and solely “takens;” that is, the mind decides what is real. Reality for a postmodernist is a mental (de)construction (See my Schizologia: Internal Testimony versus Inspiration of Scripture)

Deconstruction is a literary movement invented by the Jew, Jacques Derrida. What is deconstruction? No one really knows, but everybody thinks they know – “to take apart,” “to unpack” (an idea). It doesn’t mean that at all. Deconstruction – as I understand it – is a journey; never arriving, always departing; a sitting on suitcases, all packed and ready to leave for the next departure lounge. How does my description of deconstruction compare with Brian Walsh’s?

To understand deconstruction, we need to know what deconstruction is not. Derrida is no nihilist. Deconstruction is not a theoretical cover for a simplistic nihilism out to destroy and tear down just for the hell of it! Derrida says that what gives deconstruction its movement is “constantly to suspect, to criticize the given determinations of culture, of institutions, of legal systems, not in order to destroy them or simply to cancel them, but to be just with justice, to respect this relation to the other as justice.” Justice has always been the ethical drive behind deconstruction. It is what deconstruction affirms.”

Derrida’s favourite is apouring over flaws (aporias “without passage,” “no thoroughfare”). The flaw in the search for justice, Derrida argues, is that as soon as you think you understand justice, you’ve lost it. What comes to mind is the logocentric (meaning-centred) Plato, for whom justice was also of primary concern. But for Plato, whose most famous dialogue, “The Republic,” is all about justice – justice ultimately boiled down to: “do your job and cork up.”

Did Derrida really want to find justice or the Messiah? And if he didn’t want to, was it because, once found, justice and the Messiah would no longer be of any value. Is it true – as my friend (above) says – that Derrida believed that “the point about having justice or a messiah is the promise, the hope, the aspiration, NOT that justice or the Messiah comes;” because “what’s the deal with having a messiah who’s arrived?  There’s a question for you. Where is the mystery once he’s exposed and had his say?” As the “Discovery Channel” puts it: “If we had all the answers, there’d be nothing left to discover. Ignorance is bliss.” Now go and renew your TV licence. But seriously, modern man (I’m generalising) thinks, “if God exists, all man can do is think God’s thoughts after Him. Perish the thought!”

Most people believe that objective truth exists but, they say, no one can be sure what it is. André Gide  advised:  “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it?”Gide’s words suggest that he doesn’t believe in “truth.”What Gide meant by “doubt,”I suggest, is scepticism about objective truth.

The question is, how does one do science without a coherent, stable reality? Indeed, how can one have an intelligent conversation if words and thoughts keep toppling into one another?  Scientists seek to know what’s going on, not only in their heads, but also outside their heads; mostly outside their heads – theologians too. Everybody – including Derrida – hopes, if not believes that Truth exists. And a messiah? Is Derrida waiting for a messiah? If so, what kind of messiah? A Theodor Herzl. Jacqueline Rose relates the following story:

“In 1896, at a mass meeting in Sofia, when Weizmann saw him for the first time, the chief rabbi proclaimed him (Herzl) the Messiah. “Perhaps,’ suggested Moritz Güdemann , chief rabbi of Vienna, who would later turn against Zionism, “you are the called of God.”…By the end of his life, Herzl, himself, was more cautious: “Our people believe that I am the Messiah. I myself do not know this, for I am no theologian.” (J. Rose. 2005. The Question of Zion. Princeton University Press, p. 31).

Herzl needs to be a theologian to know for sure. The Messiah needs to be a theologian to know for sure. He needs to be told by those waiting for him to come who he is. Voltaire, or any good restaurant, fits the Messianic bill much more than Herzl. At least (we know that) Voltaire was a deist. One would think that the Messiah would at least believe in a deity of sorts, if not in the God of the Torah. Derrida’s Messiah is not only far removed from the God of Genesis but also from a deistic power that created the universe that set it in motion, turned its back on it and went on to greener pastures. Derrida’s Messiah is an “opening of experience” and a cry for justice. Here is Brian Walsh again:

We are waiting for someone to come, for the opening of experience, says Derrida. Indeed, the constant word, the sentiment that pervades deconstruction, says Caputo (Derrida’s disciple), is “come, viens.” This fearful invitation, this call, this impassioned cry to the Messiah to come is at the spiritual heart of postmodernity. Even though such a coming scares Derrida, the Messiah must come, because the terror cannot go on. There must be a justice rooted in hospitality–a real, embodied justice, a healing river of justice. Biblical faith has a response for such an honest longing, even when that longing is made tentative by fear. For Scripture responds to the human heart crying out for justice to come, for healing to come, indeed for the Messiah to come, with its own invitation (Rev. 22:17, 20):

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.”

And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

The one who testifies to these things says,

“Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen, come soon, Lord Jesus.

Derrida is dead, and eternally cut off from the Messiah, but not from presence, from His Presence. When I gaze on his strong Jewish face, I feel very sad; sad for all my Jewish brethren who, having passed into eternity, fell over the stumbling stone of Yeshua haMashiach.

We return to the question that occasioned me to write this piece: “What’s the deal with having a messiah who’s arrived?  Where is the mystery once he’s exposed and had his say?”

It is unremarkable, unsurprising that sinful man would ask such a question? Undergirding this question is not the fear that a Messiah, a Judge, exists, neither is it the conviction that Truth can never be found. What such a question implies is rather the chutzpa (hubris) that nothing higher than man has the right to exist, for man is the measure of all things. Satan asks Adam “Did God really say?” (Genesis 3:1). And therein lies the genesis of the question “What’s the deal with having a messiah who has arrived -unless he’s arrived at another departure lounge?”

In conclusion, I’d like to bring together what I said about André Gide’s doubt of ever finding the truth  with my earlier definition of Deconstruction. Gide  advised:  “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it?”Gide’s words suggest that he doesn’t believe in “truth.” I said (earlier) that what Gide meant by “doubt,” was scepticism of ever finding objective truth. I think there was something deeper than his doubt ; it was his perhaps his desire that he himself be Ultimate Truth. In what does this ultimacy consist? In, as I said earlier,  the Deconstructive journey of never arriving, always departing, a sitting on suitcases, all packed and ready to leave for the next departure lounge. This restlessness is not only the grist of Deconstruction but the gristle of the postmodern mind, ever thinking its own thinking after itself, ever running, ever asking: “What’s the deal with having a Messiah who has arrived.” Let’s, at all costs, not have a boring messiah; boring exactly because he arrives. Let’s rather have one who is ever arriving, ever departing, “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7 ESV). Never able to arrive because they will not to.

Güdemann

Translation, transflation and betrayal: Plato’s Gorg(i)as

“Translation” is the process of decoding the ideas of one language (the source language, say, French) and encoding them into another (the target language, say English). In A Jewish view of a French bottom, I discussed the French expression de fond en comble, which the Head of Modern Languages at the University of South Africa translated as “from top to bottom.” I alerted him to the fact that it didn’t mean “from top to bottom” but “from top to toe.” As anyone who is on nodding terms with human anatomy should know, your bottom is nowhere near you toes, unless you’re a midget.

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Had the Professor been betrayed. Betrayed? By what, by whom? Was I to blame for being de fond en comble (from top to bottom; to toe?) impossible? Or is the impossibility of translation to blame? Is it true that traduttore, traditore :“to translate is to betray?”  Is Robert Payne, Chairman of the Translation Committee of the American PEN Organization, correct when he says:

“The world’s languages resemble infinitely complicated grids, and the basic patterns of these grids scarcely ever coincide. [Except] on some rare occasions translation does succeed – beyond all possibility.” [1]

And:

“Whenever we translate exactly and accurately it is a coincidence–in the sense of the purest accident. And the task of the translator is to move sure-footedly among these accidents, he cannot do it by logic.”[2]

If Robert Payne is right, this would mean that the structure of a language defines the structure of thought. In his study of the differences between Hopi and English, Edward Sapir was ostensibly the first to propose this idea.  His associate, Benjamin Lee Whorf picked up the idea and developed it into his system of “linguistic determinism,” where a language determines what we think, which implies that differences in language reflect differences in world view. In such a “linguistic relativity” view, human beings are like Orwellian zombies (Orwell’s “1984”) who are conditioned to think only what the language of  “Newspeak” dictates.

There is much research to show that traduttore, traditore “to translate is to betray” is not as radical as the above writers claim. I think there is a bigger problem than the translation between languages; the main problem lies with translation within languages. What I mean is the miscommunications and misunderstandings (often wilful) between people speaking the same language. Betrayal, therefore, does not only occur between languages, but also within languages, which often means between personalities.

As I said earlier, the usual meaning of the term “translation” is decoding the ideas of one language and encoding them into another. But there is another meaning of “translation” that only involves one language.  “Translation” has the literal meaning of  trans “across” and latus “carry”. “I can’t get across (transfer my thoughts) to you”,  is a familiar complaint.Here is an example from the university of Fort Hare where I taught English language and Applied Linguistics:

I now want to consider cultural differences (i.e. differences in the way one symbolises and constructs one’s world) in the educational domain. I present one example of how academics who share the same mother tongue (in this case English) can disagree. The example is of lecturers’ judgements in the evaluation of a student’s writing.

When I asked some of my Practical English students at Fort Hare to write a definition of culture, they invariably came up with rote textbook descriptions culled from their other subjects: “Culture refers to the norms and values…” etc. Now, norms and values are the kind of “objective” things that do indeed belong to specific groups, which an individual has to conform to. But let us for a while suspend this traditional definition of culture and consider it anew.

Here is an (uncorrected) extract from an essay of one of my more imaginative Practical English students. The title was “Home is where the hope is”. I have substituted “culture” for “home” in the student’s text:

“In a universal perspective home [culture] may be defined as an individual continent or world, where its inner circumstances is perfumed and gorgeoused by the sounding existence of happiness created by freedom of religion, personal custom, uncramped dignity, norms and values. The happiness which permits its development, a compounded feeling which proves itself to be only love which is strong as death, that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually by called by the name is evanescent as a dream.”

I asked (separately) two Practical English lecturers and one philosophy lecturer for their judgements. I quote:

First Practical English lecturer: “What a lot of nonsense. It does not make sense.”
Philosophy lecturer: “I like it. I would give it a good mark. A bit flowery.
Second Practical English lecturer: “He has imagination. Creative. A good effort.”

One other lecturer’s comment on the text was “celebration” – it seems that from these lecturers’ comments above that there are two broad ways of looking at text (and life): celebral or cerebral.

I discussed the above student’s passage with the first Practical English lecturer and the philosophy lecturer together. Here are two quotes, one from each of them:

First Practical English lecturer (addressing the philosopher and me): Both of you are philosophers. You are used to extending boundaries. I like to impose them. My training is in the legal field. It is different to yours. I look for the limits of things. You look beyond the limits of things.

Philosophy lecturer: If you think this passage is meaningless you should try Derrida for size.

(See more in my Culture, Conceptual Frameworks and Academic Ability: A Biocultural Perspective).

So, betrayal (traditore) does not only occur in translation (traduttore) between languages, but also within languages. We saw that “translation” has the literal meaning of  trans “across” and latus “carry”. Plato’s dialogues illustrate this miscommunication problem. One Greek (Socrates, for example) tries to get another Greek (Gorgias, for example) to see his (Socrates) point of view, all the time convincing Gorgias that his (Socrates’ point of view) was Gorgias’s real thoughts screaming to get out. Finally, they do see I to I – but not without some clever engineering  on the part of the master of dialectic, himself, Socrates. What  happens, though, when Gorgias hasards to direct the dialogue? It goes to potty; Gorgias transflates into Gorgas: Trans-latus ends up as trans-flatus.

Earlier, I mentioned the “linguistic relativism” of Whorf and Sapir (the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or “Warp and the Woof” hypothesis), which, by definition, is “cognitive relativism,” where speakers of different languages think different thoughts. “Postmodernism” goes beyond – goes below the belt of linguistic/cognitive relativism.  If you think “inarticulate, meaningless, fragmentation, incoherence, let’s have fun with nonsense”, you’ll get an articulate, meaningful, unified, coherent, sensible picture of postmodernism. Here is one of Cornelius van Til’s favourite illustrations of modern philosophy (from 17th century onwards): Imagine an infinite number of beads with no holes in them, and an infinite length of string.[3] Now, let me take Van Til’s necklace and try and make a postmodern necklace for your Mother – and then translate her tongue into French.


[1] 3. Payne, Robert. “On the Impossibility of Translation”, The World of Translation. New York: PEN, 1971, pp 361-4.

[2] Ibid, p.363.

[3] This is one of Cornelius van Til’s favourite illustrations of modern philosophy (from 17th century onwards). Van Til is a Christian philosopher and theologian in the Reformed tradition. His critique of Karl Barth’s idea of history is incomparable.

Purgatory: The Greatest Doctors Go There

The Concept of Mind

The Concept of Mind (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: A portrait of Noam Chomsky that I too...

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Naom Chomsky

(This is a follow-on from Deconstruction: Onederringjew’s glorious route to nowhere).

The problem for interpretation, translation and communication that Derrida poses is whether it is possible to ever know what one’s mother tongue is made of through all the pulling and tearing at her syntactic joints and semantic flesh (Johnson 1985). Can the mother tongue (the source language) ever communicate her meaning through translation into another language (the target language). The problem lies deeper than the differences between languages; it lies in the mother tongue itself. How many times have you not confronted someone who speaks the same mother tongue as you –  your mother? – with “what do you mean!” The blogosphere may justifiably be described as the bogosphere : your bog and my bog; which is one of the reasons – very minor – why my blog user name is “bography.” (See my B(i)ography of truth).

What do you think is the primary function of language? Unless you’re smoking something or are the greatest linguistic scientist of all time, you will probably reply “communication” or something to that effect. But what does the greatest linguist1 and one of the ten most quoted people of all time say? The central function of language is not communication but expression (Chomsky. 1979. Language and Responsibility. Sussex: Harvester Press). “Expression,” of course, means self-expression. And Chomsky (like Derrida), of course, is Jewish. As my mother would have said of Derrida and Chomsky: they are greste dokteirim “great doctors,” but lacking one thing, the main thing; they’re not medical doctors.

Self-expression usually entails a purging. For Gilbert Ryle, this purging reaches into the very bowels of his mind – into the “ghost in his machine.” At the end of his introduction to “The concept of mind” (1959), Ryle says: “Primarily I am trying to get some disorders out of my own system. Only secondarily do I hope to help other theorists to recognise our malady and to benefit from my medicine.” Ryle’s main reason for writing is to purge his system. I suggest that this urge to expurge is also true of Chomsky and Derrida.

“Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name: and deliver us, and purge (כפר kaphar) away our sins, for thy name’s sake (Psalm 79:9).”

“How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge ( katharizō “catharsis”) your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:14).

1“Linguist” has two meanings: the non-academic meaning of “someone who knows (how to speak) several languages, and the academic meaning of someone who is a specialist in the linguistics (linguistic science).

Deconstruction: Onederringjew’s glorious route to nowhere

Deconstruction is a literary movement invented by Jacques Derrida, a Jew, naturally. What is deconstruction? No one really knows, but think they know. They think it means “to take apart,” “to unpack” (an idea). It doesn’t mean that. This is what I “think” it means. Deconstruction is a journey; never arriving and always departing; a sitting on suitcases, all packed and ready to leave for the next departure lounge.

In contrast to deconstruction, I’m reminded of the Christian theologian and philosopher, Jonathan Edwards (quoted in R.C. Sproul’s “Sitting on suitcases): “No person who seeks to go on a pilgrimage to a glorious and exotic place will take up permanent residence at an inn along the way.” The person Edwards describes is like a sojourner who gets stuck along the way because he loses sight of his glorious destiny. The deconstructionist, however, doesn’t believe he is stuck in a rut, not only because there is, for him, no such thing as destiny or glory, but also because there is nothing to stick to. Here is Derrida’s definition of deconsruction:

Here or there I have used the word deconstruction which has nothing to do with destruction. That is to say, it is simply a question of…being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentations of the language which we use – and that is not destruction” (Derrida 1972: 271′ my italics).

What does Derrida mean by “historical sedimentations.” The meaning of a word can be studied in two ways:

1. What the word means now (called “synchrony” in linguistics; Greek syn “together” + chronos “time”),

and

2. What the word meant in the past – the history, the etymology (called “diachrony” in linguistics; Greek dia “through” + chronos “time”). “Nice” is a nice example. Here are its layers of “historical sedimentations” from an etymological dictionary.

late 13c., “foolish, stupid, senseless,” from Old French nice “silly, foolish,” from Latin nescius “ignorant,” lit. “not-knowing,” from ne- “not” (see un-) + stem of scire “to know.” “The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj.” [Weekley] — from “timid” (pre-1300); to “fussy, fastidious” (late 14c.); to “dainty, delicate” (c.1400); to “precise, careful” (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to “agreeable, delightful” (1769); to “kind, thoughtful” (1830). In 16c.-17c. it is often difficult to determine exactly what is meant when a writer uses this word. By 1926, it was pronounced “too great a favorite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness.” [Fowler].

“Deconstruction appeals to history, to the historical sedimentations of language. In language use, speakers/writers try and find common (univocal) meanings to the words they use. OnedeRRingjews like DeRRida think otherwise. He says:

if language is not inherently determined by a set of univocal meanings, then language use, given an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time, becomes an unrestricted interaction of signifiers, the Nietzschean affirmation of free play without nostalgia for a “center” or for “origins”. (Derrida 1981a: 278-93. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul).

According to deconstruction, language has no locatable centre nor retrievable origin, where there is no necessary connection between meaning (the signified) and words (signifiers). Well that’s at best silly, at worst, words fail me. Deconstruction plays with language only to prey on language. So then “where can deconstruction lead us, if anywhere?” asks Merrill 1984:126. (Merrill, F. 1984 Deconstruction Meets a Mathematician: a-semiotic Enquiry. American Journal of Semiotics 2(4): 125-152).

Deconstruction leads us to the via rupta? Via rupta means a way cut through the forest, or broken by a plow, wheel, travel or other means. “Route” and “rut” are derivations of via rupta. And that’s deconstruction: a ripping apart of “syntractic joints and semantic flesh” (Barbara Johnson) en route to the glorious mystery of nowhere. Nice.

P.S. I had a paper published on deconstruction (1997). The full paper can be read here).

A b(i)ography of Truth

Truth interests me more than feelings. Perhaps that is why someone said my writing needs to be “more rich and human”. By “truth” I mean something that doesn’t depend on how I feel about it; something that really exists.  But aren’t feelings also real, and therefore true? Aren’t my feelings part of who I really am? Yes they are, but the question is whether what I am is what I ought to be. And is what I feel what I ought to feel? For many, “ought” is at best a figment, at worst, pointing a finger. I once had a phone conversation with one of my nieces. She was having a bad time where everything seemed to be going wrong. I broached the topic of the Christian faith.  She responded, “It’s not MY truth”. She was using “truth” to mean the way she feels. I didn’t pursue the matter because it’s very hard to convince someone – especially over the phone – that there is meaning outside the “I”, that, indeed, it is the meaning outside the “I” that gives the “I” meaning.

Doesn’t there exist, though, in every person a bundle of different feelings that clash, that  brood, that quiver, that prickle, that harass, that swarm? Without feelings, there would be no poetry, no art, no music, and no love. But more important, who’d want to be near someone who felt nothing? Who would want to read a biography that was no more than a catalogue of colourful events? The event itself may be of interest, but if the writer does not describe feelings, the biography won’t be about bio “life” but merely a history textbook. Historical novels are more popular than history books because they attempt to describe feelings and thoughts where the event itself serves as the scaffold on which these thoughts and feelings hang – and be hanged if you don’t get it right; no one will read you.

In an autobiography, feelings have “I” as the centre; not only the “I” of the writer, but also the “I” of the reader. There’s good reason, therefore, for retaining the “I” in (auto)biography. Why then do I call my story a “bography”; why did I cut out  “I” from my (auto)biography? In “Onedaringjew: a bography” – the very beginning of this autobiography – I wrote: “When i becomes the self-obsessed I, the biog turns to bog.” This is correct, but obsession with “I” in an autobiography is the exception rather than the rule. “So, if what I say is true – and not merely “my” truth – I should explain why I call my (auto)biography a “bography”? Is it just a language game?

I do enjoy playing with language. Play is crucial to learning and discovery, for when we play, we enjoy; and the more we enjoy, the more we learn. What is learning mainly about? It’s the creative act of discovery, of discovering the hidden connections between things.

For those who appreciate language – writers, poets, theologians, philosophers – language play is enmeshed in creativity. Playing with words may be foolery, at worst, wit, at best. But playing with language can also mean serious digging into the hidden sediments of language and thought. Language and thought are two sides of the same coin.

I have given several reasons why I changed “biography” to “bography”. There may be a deeper reason –  related to feelings. I said that truth interests me more than feelings do. There’s the rub. Perhaps that is the main reason why I’m  anxious – even obsessed – to rub out the “I”. The opposition between “truth” and “feelings” only holds if you reject objective Truth and accept only the subjective “my truth”. In such a view (of rejecting objective truth in favouR of subjective truth), Truth appears cold and remote, whereas “my truth” feels close and personal. If Truth, however, does exist, and the “I” is opened to receive it, it becomes a consuming fire.

“My truth”, in contrast to Truth, is a muddy thing. I suppose, though, if you believe you emerged out of the slime, then “my truth” would be the only way to go. If, however, Truth did not spontaneously generate from the mud, but rather generated the mud in the first place, then the Truth can indeed be found, unless you believe that though there may be such an entity as the Truth, no one can be sure when they have found it. Is this what André Gide  meant by:  “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it?”   I don’t think so, because those who doubt that Truth can be found are also the ones that don’t believe it exists. So, I am saying that Gide’s words tell me that he doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as Truth. What Gide meant by “doubt”, therefore,  is that he didn’t believe that objective truth exists at all. But this is really silly, for without any coherent reality, there can be no science,  no discourse;  Scientists seek to know what’s going on not only in their heads, but outside, and mostly outside, their heads – theologians too. But what if  “inside” and “outside” do not really exist, as the pantheists say. According to J.C. Ryle it is not atheism but pantheism that is the great enemy of truth. He says:

I feel it a duty to bear my solemn testimony against the spirit of the day we live in, to warn men against its infection. It is not Atheism I fear so much, in the present times, as Pantheism. It is not the system which says nothing is true, so much as the system which says everything is true. It is not the system which says there is no Savior, so much as the system which says there are many saviors, and many ways to peace! It is the system which is so liberal, that it dares not say anything is false. It is the system which is so charitable, that it will allow everything to be true. It is the system which seems ready to honor others as well as our Lord Jesus Christ, to class them all together, and to think well of all.

It is the system which is so careful about the feelings of others, that we are never to say they are wrong. It is the system which is so liberal that it calls a man a bigot, if he dares to say, “I know my views are right.” This is the system, this is the tone of feeling which I fear in this day, and this is the system which I desire emphatically to testify against and denounce. From the liberality which says everybody is right, from the charity which forbids us to say anybody is wrong, from the peace which is bought at the expense of truth – may the good Lord deliver us!

~ J.C. Ryle

Knots Untied, “Only One Way of Salvation” [Cambridge, England: James Clarke & Co., 1977], pp. 30 -31.

Ryle wrote the above more than 100 years ago. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

The Bible says the Truth does exist. It also says that Truth is not an “it” but a Person – Jesus, the Person, called the Christ. Twenty or so years ago Alvin Plantinga, the philosopher spoke of “self-referential incoherence.” I like very much C. Baxter Kruger’s explanation of this concept:

“…‘self-referential incoherence’ is a profound insight into the problem of ‘the fall.’ For the most part we have been taught to think of sin as primarily a moral problem. I think sin is fundamentally a reference problem, followed, of course, by all manner of other rippling relational, social and moral issues. In the fall, Adam’s reference point moved from God to himself. He became self-referential, and thus developed a perception of himself, God and the world from a center in himself and his terrible fear. From that point the human race was trapped in its own way of seeing. If it does not ‘make sense to us’ it cannot be true. Our way of perceiving a person or a situation is the way it is. And that is the problem fraught with utter impossibility. Even the Lord’s presence and self-revelation, and indeed his way of thinking and saving, has to pass through Adam—and our—way of thinking, and thus the Lord himself and all his ways are subject to our judgment. He must make sense to us, or He is not correct, and thus dismissed. So we invent a god in the image of our own self-reference—which, of course, from the Lord’s perspective is utterly incoherent—and judge God’s presence and action by it.”

I mentioned that Alvin Plantinga used the term “self-referential incoherence.” The term, however,  comes from Sextus Empiricus (circa 160-210 AD). The irony is clear. The empirical (experimental) method of modern science relies on observation, yet is largely ignorant of  the epistemological underpinnings of “I,” the one who observes. And who do we have to thank for this original insight? Empiricus. He could, naturally, only go so far. The Christian looks further –  to the revelation of Jesus the Christ, who said,  “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Raphy’s “I” is baptised into the eternal, invisible, infinite, unfathomable, rich Bog of Truth. (“Bog” in Russian is “God”).

(My user name is “bography”. How did this name come to be? Rapha-el in Hebrew means “doctor/healer of God.” But I am not literally a rapha (a medical doctor) not even a linguistic doctor of el; so I have opted for a more modest user name “bography” (Dr bog). What is the Russian for God? Bog. What is the Russian for doctor of God? Raphabog. In changing from Rapha-el to Rapha-bog, all I’ve done is change the Hebrew “El” to the Russian “Bog”. 

 

 

 

 

Reason, Experience, and God’s Truth: Where do I start?

In his “Messianic Jewish Musings,” Derek has an interesting article on Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “God in search of man.”  Heschel believes that the God of the Prophets is the source of reason. Reason, however, according to Heschel, is not able to find God, let alone experience Him. The Prophets taught that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was also the source of everything, including experience of Him, and that the only right way to experience Him is through the Hebrew scriptures. Christianity is an extension of this belief.

Here are a few excerpts from Derek’s article followed by my comments.

“But if we approach God by experiencing him, why start with the Judeo-Christian scriptures? Why not start with some other metaphysical or religious ideas? Doesn’t experience open the door to any experiential belief? You could, actually. I’m not saying I recommend it. But you could seek to experience the Hindu notions of deity and meaning or approach meaning through paganism.”

This raises the relativism of all roads lead to “home,”  which would contradict the notion that the Creator of human reason (the God of the Tanakh), who is also regarded in the Tanakh as the creator of the heavens and the earth, is the creator of the Truth. He is not the creator of “my truth, your truth.” Truth connotes who God is as well as how we know/experience Him. As I said elsewhere,  by “truth” I mean something that doesn’t depend on how I feel, that is, something that really exists; that originates outside of me.  But aren’t feelings – which are, by nature personal to me –  also real, and therefore true? Yes they are true, but the question is whether what I am is what I ought to be. For many, “ought” is at best a figment, at worst, an insult.

Derek then asks: “Does your experience through these other revelations cohere with your knowledge of who you are? Do the claims of these other systems fit with your own sense of being? You could test it.” This method is not in harmony with the God of the Prophets. It also relies on too many subjective criteria. For example, many Jews, as well as non-Jews, feel that Eastern thought fits in with their own “sense of being” (Derek).

The NT teaches that unless God opens your dead eyes, you will never see the Truth (Ephesians 2:1-10. That truth, the NT teaches, is Jesus/Yeshua, in whom “the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).

Derek advises:

“But meanwhile, there is no fault in starting with the tradition that has come down to those of us who are Jews and Christians. And it just may be that you will find a sense of his Presence as you do this.”

The NT teaches that if you don’t find a sense of His (the God of the Bible) presence, it’s because He has not (yet) opened your dead eyes.

Ephesians 2:

1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

But, of course, Derek is correct; why not start with what you have? After all, it’s God – the God of the Bible that gave you that start. For the Christian, it is Christ working in you from start to finish: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

My title says “Where do I start.” Deeper still is why do I start, why would I start? Here is the answer:

37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day (John 6).

The Father does not give you to the Son because you came. No, no, that is a terrible misunderstanding. The scripture says that the reason why you come is because you have been given. The giving to the Son causes the coming; the coming doesn’t cause the giving.

Derek Leman at “Messianic Jewish Musings” responded:

“To be clear: I’m not saying all paths lead to God. I do believe the Bible is the self-disclosure of God. But, I’m less apt than you to disdain the “subjective.” We are whole people, not walking brains. Heschel emphasizes the subjective (so it’s not as if I simply made that part up). I don’t believe that pantheism will satisfy the searcher like Judeo-Christian theism. Pantheism is not true to who we are. I simply don’t believe that one has to begin from Judaism or Christianity, as if God limits his search for men and women to those who begin in this sphere.”

I replied:

“Derek, I agree with you entirely that one doesn’t have to start from Judaism or Christianity, or any other religion, or any thought system, or an experience of any kind. What I mean is that you can only (begin to) come to THE truth – which I believe is only to be found in Jesus/Yeshua – when He draws you to Himself. Salvation is entirely a work of God. So when you say: “Do the claims of these other systems fit with your own sense of being? You could test it,” I don’t think you can test it without the measuring rod of the Word of God (the Bible). That measuring rod is a gift from God.”

In a nutshell, the biblical position is this: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” So, all our own efforts to find the way the truth and the life are worthless. So, philosophy, for one, is out; and mysticism/meditation, for two, is also out – as ways to find God – the God described in the Bible.

“And you, who were once alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath He reconciled, in the body of His flesh, through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreprovable in His sight” (Colossians 1:21-22).

 

Related:  The Quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason and experience

On a Theme of Mendelsohn: Relativism, Truth and the Need for Love

Unless you’re a cynic or a relativist, or my niece, truth counts. Not, though, all the time; for example, if I asked you, a stranger, “How are you?” Would you have the chuzpa to reply with the question, “Have you got an hour?” or with something deep: “Don’t you mean, ‘Why are you?’” Unless someone has just bought you a new car or you’ve won the lottery, or had a great meal and/or drunk yourself under the table, you’ll probably trot out something trite like “fine.” But, in most situations, the “How are you? Fine” inanity has nothing to do with getting close, and everything to do with staying closed.

Ok; we all lie. But I don’t want to talk about lies but about truth. In my first line I lumped together the cynic, the relativist and my niece as those who believe – deep down in their tripes – that “truth” is not on their radar.

By “truth” I mean something that doesn’t depend on how I feel about it; something that really exists; that originates outside of me.  But aren’t feelings – which are, by nature personal to me –  also real, and therefore true? Yes they are true, but the question is whether what I am is what I ought to be. For many, “ought” is at best a figment, at worst, an insult. I once had a phone conversation with one of my nieces. She was having a bad time where everything seemed to be going wrong. I broached the topic of the Christian faith.  She responded, “It’s not MY truth”. She was using “truth” to mean the way she feels. (See my “Biography of truth”). She’s a relativist.

I began by saying that relativists don’t believe in “truth.” I should have said that relativists don’t believe in objective truth. Of course, practically, they can’t live without it. (Supermarket: “What should I eat tonight, sushi or beans?) But when it comes to things such as values, the relativist speaks of “My truth, your truth”. Truth is what “I” feel it to be. Contrary to the relativist, I believe that meaning does exist outside my “I” (From the practical point of view, everybody, including the relativist, must agree that meaning must exist outside his eye). Indeed, it is the meaning that exists outside my “I” that gives my “I” meaning. “My eye!,” responds the cynic/relativist. Here’s  the paradox: I have a point of view. “Point of view,” by definition, is self-centred, in the sense that, among millions of other self centres, it radiates out from the centre of an individual self. This description of self-centredness is about how we know things, and not about how selfish or selfless we are.

There’s inside and there’s outside. How do we distinguish what comes from inside ourselves and what comes from outside? To ask the question another way: how much of the smell is in the nose, and how much in the rose? How much comes from inside, how much from outside. I’d like to consider this question in terms of the following short discussion, which followed the posting of a video by Bob Mendelsohn on his conversion to Yeshua/Jesus. All the participants are ethnic Jews.

Lwetter  (A Messianic Jew): “The man (Bob Mendelsohn) seems earnest to a point. I myself flipped over for need of love I never had. If you came from the family that I had you might consider that as my reason. His, well I haven’t heard the whole story. It was his choice. It was also my choice to finally love, respect and observe my Jewish roots by forgiving my long since dead family. Finally seeing that resentment of my family was a huge part of my reason for switching faiths. It’s a balancing act but for me accepting both is my only way to feel at peace and love with my God.”

Bubby (an ex-Messianic Jew): “Lwetter, you flipped to jesus because you had a need for love? I am sorry to tell you that you flipped for something that is not relevent to jews. Lwetter, I suppose you think that christians don’t have any dysfunctional family lives? Plenty of people have horrible family lives; not a good reason to choose a false deity.”

Me  (Bography – my user name): “Good point Bubby. Lwetter, peace and love are universal desires, across all religious and philosophical systems.”

Gev (to Bubby): “In any case he found something that was true & worked for him in the worst of times & continues to be true & work for him in the best of times.”

Gev sounds like my niece (above): “your truth,” “my truth.” And if it works for you, (I left Gev long ago) I’m very happy for you; as long as you don’t try and worm your way into my  innards (inner space).

As I said in my discussion of the psychiatrist Gerald Jampolsky’s “Love is letting go of fear,” the source of love, for Jampolsky, resides within the eternal inner man, and when you discover that source – through transforming your consciousness, through switching on your inner light – your fear will cease to hold you hostage. For Jampolsky, the “common Self” (we all share) is the light, which, for those with an untransformed mind, lies obscured under the dysfunctional covers of resentment and fear.

What is the source of light in the Christian world view?

“The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. “But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matthew 6:21-23).

In Christianity, the source of true light comes from outside, from the Saviour, the Son of God. And so, if your eyes are clear (alive to light), the Saviour will fill your  inner man with that light. If, however, you have the chuzpa to think you, yourself –  your inner man – is the source of that true light, you are deceived, because this “inner light” is nothing but darkness, a darkness that your  fallen consciousness transforms into deep darkness. But there is more, which is not spelled out in the above passage: all men are born blind.  It is the Saviour, Jesus the Christ, who opens the dead eye that it may see – and believe. Jampolsky’s Yogic “transformation of consciousness” is called the “renewing of your mind” in Christianity, which occurs only after the regeneration of the deadened soul (dead to God):

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,  in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:1-5).

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).

The Torah Jew and the Christian are both enemies of relativism. They differ in this: The Torah Jew says he doesn’t need to believe, because he knows. How does he claim to know? He says that the whole Hebrew nation witnessed God at Sinai. He, of course, wasn’t at Sinai, and so has to believe that the national revelation at Sinai really happened.  Although, there was,  of course, no national Christian revelation, there were many witnesses to the words and deeds of Jesus.  But now I am straying into the  topic of the nature of faith, which I dealt with elsewhere.

Love, Fear and the Foundation of Inner peace: Gerald Jampolsky’s “Love is letting go of fear.”

Is it possible to have peace without letting go of fear? Is it possible to love without letting go of fear? This question is from the title of Gerald Jampolsky’s, “Love is letting go of fear,” which is based on “A course in miracles” (published by the Foundation for Inner Peace). Jampolsky’s thesis is that once we learn to love without fear, we will find inner peace. But first we have to find our inner selves; we have to look within. Before, I comment on Jampolsky’s solution to spiritual illness, let us get more acquainted with him. Here are a few excerpts from his “Love is letting go of fear,” (1981 Edition, Bantam books):

“We have been given everything we need to be happy now. To look directly at this instant is to be at peace now (p. 7).”

“Today there is a rapidly expanding search for a better way of going through life that is producing a new awareness and a change of consciousness. It is like a spiritual flood that is about to cleanse the earth. This transformation of consciousness is prompting us to look inward, and as we explore our inner spaces, we recognize the harmony and at-one-ment that has ALWAYS (Jampolsky’s emphasis) been there. As we look inward we also become aware of an inner intuitive voice which provides a reliable source of guidance…listen to the inner voice and surrender to it…In this silence…we can experience the joy of peace in our lives” (p. 11. my underlining).

Deep below the dark regions of discord and strife lies the treasure without price longing to find you, the real you. Transform your consciousness and you will find your true self. This “transformation of consciousness” is the “foundation for inner peace” (which is also the name of the publisher of “A course on miracles” on which Jampolsky’s book is based). The “transformation of consciousness” is, of course, also the foundation of Eastern thought systems such as Buddhism and Yoga, which has become a key ingredient in Western psychotherapy. “Hatha Yoga brings about the Unity of the mind, body and spirit. Through this practice, the body is toned, strengthened and healed so that a transformation in consciousness can occur.”

Jampolsky’s “Love is letting go of fear” has the same aim as the physical practices of Hatha Yoga and of the Buddha (“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without”) of Mahatma Ghandi (“Each one has to find his peace from within. And peace to be real must be unaffected by outside circumstances”).

Jampolsky’s “transformation of consciousness” is not about, meditation, navels and third eyes. It’s about the singular goal of achieving peace of mind through giving:

“In brief, this is a book about self-fulfilment through giving (p. 13).” “To give is to receive is the law of love (p. 51).“Peace of mind as our single goal is the most potent motivating force we can have. To have inner peace we need to be consistent in having peace of mind as our single goal” (p. 23). These sentiments echo one of the biggest American best-sellers, “Peace of Mind” by another Jewish psychiatrist, Joshua Loth Liebman.

I am reminded of Philip Yancey’s remark about “peace through giving” on the radio programme “Unbelievable,” where he was discussing his book “What good is God”:“You don’t find your life by accumulating more and more; you find it by giving it away in service to others.”

Here is Jampolsky again: “To give is to receive is the law of love” (Jampolsky, p. 54). And what is the most important part of giving? Forgiving: “With peace of mind as our single goal, forgiveness becomes our single function ( Jampolsky, p. 24).

So far, I have described Jampolsky’s (moral) values. Next, I examine the philosophy on which Jampolsky bases those values. All values are based on a world view, on a philosophy. Whether the term refers to a world view, or an academic discipline, “philosophy” deals with three main questions:

    A. How should we treat one another? (moral values, ethics)

B. What are we and the world made of? And is there any “force” (or “God”) beyond the material world (Existence, or “being”).

B.What can we know and how do we arrive at what we know (principles of knowing).

How we treat one other depends on what we know about one another and about “God.” And what we know depends on the how we learn about it.

Jampolsky’s moral values of giving and forgiving are shared by all religious and psychological systems. What about his view of “God” on which he bases these values? For Jampolsky, love is another name for “God.” But “God” for him is not a personal God, which is the God of the Bible.

The source of love, for Jampolsky, is within the eternal inner man. When you discover that source – through transforming your consciousness – you will discover that your fear was a mere figment. Here is Jampolsky:

“…wouldn’t our lives be more meaningful if we looked at what has no beginning and no ending as our reality. Only love fits this definition of the eternal. Everything else is transitory and therefore meaningless…..fear can offer us nothing because it is nothing (p. 17)…all minds are joined…we share a common Self, and that inner peace and Love are in fact all that are real…Love is letting go of fear (.p.18)…we can choose our own reality. Because our will is free, we can choose to see and experience the truth (p. 21).”

Jampolsky’s God is the “Eternal common Self,” which is, of course, an Eastern metaphysic. “We can learn to receive direction from our inner intuitive voice, which is our guide to knowing (p. 28). The “inner intuitive voice” is the voice of the eternal common Self. And the essence of that self is love: “Let us awaken to the knowledge that the essence of our being is Love and as such are the light of the world (p. 131).The essence of God is also love. So, for Jampolsky God is the “Eternal common Self,” which resides in every human heart.

The nub of Jampolsky’s philosophy is this: Once we learn to love without fear, we will find inner peace. But first we have to find our inner selves; we have to look within. And here’s the rub – summarised by the Hindu guru, Swami Muktananda: “Kneel to yourself. Honour and worship your own being. God dwells within you as You.” As you transform your consciousness, you will begin to realise that you are God, and others are God, that “I” am “you”, which are sparks of the same eternal “I.” In this way you hone your giving, your forgiving, your love, and find peace.

Many of Jampolsky’s values are also Christian values. But the source of his values are not Christian at all. For one, ‘I know that in me, that is in my flesh, dwells no good thing” (Romans 7:18). Jampolsky says that “I” am the light of the world. But Jesus said that He is the light of the world. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). The New Testament describes human beings as dead in sin, in need of a Saviour, a Saviour who is outside the inner man. (See Tony Pierce on “Yoga and new trends in Christianity”).

In the Christian world view, how does the light and the treasure without price relate to each other?

“But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. ” The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. “But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matthew 6:21-23).

I understand this to mean that the source of true light comes from outside, from the Saviour, the Son of God. And so, if your eyes are clear, the Saviour will fill your  inner man with that light. If, however, you think that your inner man is the source of that true light, you are deceived, because this “inner light” is nothing but darkness, a darkness that your  fallen consciousness transforms into deeper darkness. But there is more, which is not spelled out in the above passage: all men are born blind.  It is the Saviour, Jesus the Christ, who opens the dead eye that it may see.

That Saviour is also the Creator, who creates out of nothing:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? “Now gird up your loins like a man, and I will ask you, and you instruct Me! “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, Who set its measurements? Since you know (Job 38:1-5).

Finally, what about Jampolsky’s main thesis that the foundation of inner peace is love without fear? The Christian response is twofold, where the one response is balanced – by the grace of God – in constant tension with the Other.

The one response is: “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b).

And the Other (Psalm 111:10):

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; (with regard to fear)
A good understanding have all those who do His commandments;” (with regard to love)

and so I conclude with the end of verse 10:

His praise endures forever.

Boris Sidis, Stuart Chase and Friedrich Hegel on the language of love

Ever since Darwinism gained a hoof-hold onto many organs of academia, the gap between science and philosophy has been growing wider. And to such an extent that many modern scientists “drivialize” philosophy. In the last two decades, the most famous spokesman of this view is the swashbuckling biologist, Richard Dawkins. In the 1930-40s, it was the economist-sociologist, Stuart Chase who, arguably, wore the same mantle that Dawkins wears today. Here is Stuart Chase on the 18th century German philosopher, Friedrich Hegel. Hegel claimed that his philosophical system surpassed all previous systems of philosophical thought. Stuart Chase in his personal philosophy, “I believe”, writes:

“A correspondent has sent me a quotation; Hegel’s definition of love. “Love is the ideality of the relativity of reality of an infinitesimal proton of the absolute totality of the Infinite Being.” (in “I believe. The Personal Philosophies of twenty-three eminent men and women of out time,” 1952 (first published 1940), London, George Allen and Unwin, p. 56).

“This, said Chase, sounds alarmingly like nonsense, but the influence of Hegel is profound…Whatever he meant, he was unable to communicate it to me. I doubt if it has ever been communicated to anyone. The verbal structure itself forbids communication. I could spend my life contemplating this string of symbols and receive no more reward than in contemplating “X is the A of the B of the C of an infinitesimal portion of the D of the E.”

“So, Chase continues, I cease to contemplate it. I pass it up, I pass up all such talk, from Aristotle to Spengler. It saves a lot of time. But the talk of Einstein and Planck I do not pass up. I do not understand all of it , but I know by diligence I could come to understand it. The symbols connect with real things. The talk checks with observable phenomena. Nobody can do anything but obfuscate himself with Hegel’s symbols about love…In reading, in listening, I try to separate talk which goes round and round from talk which refers to something outside my head.”

In sum, science is useful, philosophy is useless.

Stuart Chase and many others heckle at Hegel’s “tyranny of words.” Boris Sidis, a contemporary of Stuart Chase, and one of America’s most celebrated psychologists of the 20th century (and Jewish, of course) thinks that Hegel warrants a good laugh and so includes Hegel’s definition of love in his “The Psychology of laughter,”

We saw that Chase quoted Hegel’s definition of love:

“Love is the ideality of the relativity of reality of an infinitesimal part of the absolute totality of the Infinite Being.”

Sidis also quotes this definition, but with not exactly the same wording:

“Love is the ideality of the relativity of reality of an infinitesimal part of the infinite totality of the Absolute Being.” ( Sidis or Chase have switched “infinite” and “absolute” in the definition).

Whatever the correct “Hegelian” definition, Chase and Sidis would regard either as nonsense. Actually, the first definition contains more nonsense than the second, because “absolute totality” (first definition) makes no sense in either philosophy or science, whereas “infinite totality” (the second definition) makes good scientific and philosophic sense.

But wait. There is a difference between Chase’s and Sidis’ criticism. Chase believes that he is bashing Hegel’s definition of love. Sidis, in contrast, is knocking merely a “semi-Platonic, semi-Hegelian definition of love”, in other words, something that Sidis thinks could have come from the right half of Hegel’s brain, but is, however, not in fact from Hegel. Here is an important point: before making judgments, we need to ensure that we have the required background knowledge. With regard to higher learning such as science, linguistics, history and philosophy, each discipline has its own technical language (“jargon” if you hate the “tyranny”of words – recall Stuart Chase), which you need to master. With regard to Hegel’s philosophy, the demands are even greater, because he coined many neologisms (new terms), and with it came a swathe of difficult concepts.

Hegel’s “Idea-lism tried to synthesise the relative and the absolute in such a way as to explain the totality of being. As love is part of that totality, one could say the “Hegelian” definition of love (of this discussion) might apply. For Hegel, the love that carries greatest weight is the love that is “outside of myself and in the other.” (Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion). The question whether love is merely an infinitesimal part of the totality of being as in the definition, to wit:

“Love is the ideality of the relativity of reality of an infinitesimal part of the infinite totality of the Absolute Being.”

If we accept Hegel’s definition of (the purest kind of) love, namely, the love that is outside of myself and in the other, then perhaps “infinitesimal” does apply, because (total) selfless love is a rare.

Boris Sidis was a behaviourist in the mould of John Watson (1878 – September 25, 1958). Watson is famous for this dictum:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years” (Behaviorism (1930), p. 82).

Sidis believed that with the right upbringing, you could make a genius of any child. Sidis’ son William turned out to be the greatest child prodigy of his time. He ended up a misfit and a wreck, and died at the age of 46; a prodigiously wasted – seemingly loveless – life. And Hegel? Was he better off devoting his genius to the Absolute Idea, to pure Ethical freedom? Let Augustine of Hippo have the last word:

“My weight is my love. Wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me. By your gift we are set on fire and carried upwards: we grow red hot and ascend. We climb “The ascents in our heart” (Ps. 83:6), and sing “the song of steps” (Ps. 119:1). Lit by your fire, your good fire, we grow red-hot and ascend, as we move upwards “to the peace of Jerusalem” (Ps. 121:6). “For I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord” (Ps. 121:1). There we will be brought to our place by a good will, so that we want nothing but to stay there for ever” (Book 13 of the Confessions).

Nothing Exists, Peter Atkins Insists?

 

English: Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard. Based on...

Kiergegaard

Wintery Knight has a video of Peter Atkins insisting that nothing exists. Søren Kierkegaard, like

Atkins, was no fan of objectivity. Kierkegaard unlike Atkins was no fan of abstract thinking. Kierkegaard rejected rational proofs for God’s existence. With regard to his own existence, Kierkegaard didn’t need any proof of that. Kierkegaard was concerned with how subjective experience revealed in emotion and feelings relate to the will. His philosophy was called “existentialism.” He is credited with being the father of that movement.

Permit me to amplify “existentialist” to refer not only to human existence but to all of existence. Now, what can we call Peter Atkins, who insists that the “universe is an  engagingly re-organised form of nothing?” An Insistentialist. “I insist, therefore I’m not.”

Yin Yang, God and the devil: A cosmic chess game?

Yin Yang Socks!

Yin Yang Socks! (Photo credit: M@R©K)

In “Yin Yang dualism, CS Lewis and Christianity,” I examined the question whether Christianity has an equivalent philosophy to Yin Yang? I examined this question in terms of CS Lewis’ discussion of dualism.

Within the Mandala (circle) of Yin Yang, here are two opposite forces of equal power in the universe, a kind of bitheism (two supreme gods), a  kind of cosmic indeterminism, where even the two greatest of all gods don’t know how things are going to PAN out. In certain movements in Christianity (Arminians, but not necessarily all Arminians), there’s a great battle going on between God and the Devil, where God loses some of the battles but ultimately wins the war. The worst for this kind of Christian is to be caught up in one of these battles on the losing side, which does not necessarily involve the ultimate loss – the loss of eternal life, but possibly loss of a job, house, loved one, health, or of one’s earthly life “before one’s time.”

Is it true, though that God and the devil are battling it out for the souls of men – or for whatever? Not at all. The devil is God’s devil. God rules the heavenly as well as the earthly roost. With regard to salvation, we also hear stuff like “God is for you, the devil is against you – you decide.”  This is plain silly. Satan can do nothing without God’s permission; as we read in the Book of Job:

7 And the LORD said unto Satan: ‘Whence comest thou?’ Then Satan answered the LORD, and said: ‘From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.’ 8 And the LORD said unto Satan: ‘Hast thou considered My servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a whole-hearted and an upright man, one that feareth God, and shunneth evil?’ 9 Then Satan answered the LORD, and said: ‘Doth Job fear God for nought? 10 Hast not Thou made a hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions are increased in the land.

11 But put forth Thy hand now, and touch all that he hath, surely he will blaspheme Thee to Thy face.’12 And the LORD said unto Satan: ‘Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thy hand.’ So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD (Job, 1:7-12).

A very popular book on the God versus the devil theory is “God’s Strategy in Human History” (1976) by Roger Forster and Paul Marston. In his review of the book, John Piper refers to the theme that I am dealing with:

“A great spiritual battle is raging in history now but we may be assured that “the Lord Omnipotent reigns” (109.9) and that evil will be destroyed and the church will be brought to glory (103.5). “So God’s plan is finally achieved; his great project is accomplished.”

For Forster and Marston, there’s certainly no game of cosmic chess going on; no game at all over human souls – it’s all out war. But God is bound to ultimately win because the devil is not as wise or powerful as God. Human beings are no pawns but participants in this battle. Those who choose God find their strength in Him; those who choose the devil, find their strength in the devil.

The central theme of Forster and Marsden is a critique and rejection of the view that “God orders and ordains all things” (41.1), or that “God’s will is always done and is never impeded by the will of any creature” (40.3). See Piper’s full review. Also listen to Curt Daniel’s “Objections to Predestination.”

Yin Yang may play cosmic chess with each other, but the God of the Bible does not play cosmic chess or fight any battles with the devil.

By the way if – at the moment – you’re into Yin and Yang and want to increase your concentration, you can get a free Mandala here. Not to be confused with “Free MandEla.”

Yin Yang dualism, CS Lewis and Christianity

(See follow on post  “Yin Yang, God and the devil: a cosmic chess game”).

Does Christianity have an equivalent philosophy to Yin Yang? I examine this question in terms of C.S. Lewis’s discussion of dualism.

Yin Yang is a “dualistic” philosophy that teaches that there are two equal principles in the universe. Yin Yang is not itself a power or a substance. It’s merely a description of the universal principle of opposites that exists in both the material and spiritual realm.

In my poverty (Yin)  is my wealth (Yang); in my wealth (Yang) is my poverty (Yin). The Yin of death generates the Yang of life; the Yang of life generates the Yang of death. If life disappears, so does death; if death disappears so does life. Yin and Yang are locked in an eternal cyclic dance (battle?).

I remember one of my Greek philosophy courses where I was very interested in one of these early dualistic systems; that of Empedocles‘ “Love and Strife.” This is equivalent to the “light and dark” opposition in gnosticism, which is also found in the Yin Yang philosophy.

In Christianity, there is much about “light” and “darkness” but  darkness  is not equivalent in power too light; it is an absence of light. Now who would have thought that “absence” could create so much strife!

Here is C. S. Lewis on dualism (Mere Christianity, Chapter 7):

A universe that contains much that is obviously bad and apparently meaningless, but containing creatures like ourselves who know that it is bad and meaningless. There are only two views that face all the facts. One is the Christian view that this is a good world that has gone wrong, but still retains the memory of what it ought to have been. The other is the view called Dualism. Dualism means the belief that there are two equal and independent powers at the back of every thing, one of them good and the other bad, and that this universe is the battlefield in which they fight out an endless war. I personally think that next to Christianity Dualism is the manliest and most sensible creed on the market. But it has a catch in it.

The two powers, or spirits, or gods–the good one and the bad one–are supposed to be quite independent. They both existed from all eternity. Neither of them made the other, neither of them has any more right than the other to call itself God. Each presumably thinks it is good and thinks the other bad. One of them likes hatred and cruelty, the other likes love and mercy, and each backs its own view. Now what do we mean when we call one of them the Good Power and the other the Bad Power? Either we are merely saying that we happen to prefer the one to the other–like preferring beer to cider–or else we are saying that, whatever the two powers think about it, and whichever we humans, at the moment, happen to like, one of them is actually wrong, actually mistaken, in regarding itself as good. Now if we mean merely that we happen to prefer the first, then we must give up talking about good and evil at all. For good means what you ought to prefer quite regardless of what you happen to like at any given moment. If ‘being good’ meant simply joining the side you happened to fancy, for no real reason, then good would not deserve to be called good. So we must mean that one of the two powers is actually wrong and the other actually right.

But the moment you say that, you are putting into the universe a third thing in addition to the two Powers: some law or standard or rule of good which one of the powers conforms to and the other fails to conform to. But since the two powers are judged by this standard, then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and He will be the real God. In fact, what we meant by calling them good and bad turns out to be that one of them is in a right relation to the real ultimate God and the other in a wrong relation to Him.

The same point can be made in a different way. If Dualism is true, then the bad Power must be a being who likes badness for its own sake. But in reality we have no experience of anyone liking badness just because it is bad. The nearest we can get to it is in cruelty. But in real life people are cruel for one of two reasons–either because they are sadists, that is, because they have a sexual perversion which makes cruelty a cause of sensual pleasure to them, or else for the sake of something they are going to get out of it–money, or power, or safety. But pleasure, money, power, and safety are all, as far as they go, good things. The badness consists in pursuing them by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much. I do not mean, of course, that the people who do this are not desperately wicked. I do mean that wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong, way. You can be good for the mere sake of goodness: you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness. You can do a kind action when you are not feeling kind and when it gives you no pleasure, simply because kindness is right; but no one ever did a cruel action simply because cruelty is wrong–only because cruelty was pleasant or useful to him. In other words badness cannot succeed even in being bad in the same way in which goodness is good. Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled. We called sadism a sexual perversion; but you must first have the idea of a normal sexuality before you can talk of its being perverted; and you can see which is the perversion, because you can explain the perverted from the normal, and cannot explain the normal from the perverted. It follows that this Bad Power, who is supposed to be on an equal footing with the Good Power, and to love badness in the same way as the Good Power loves goodness, is a mere bogy. In order to be bad he must have good things to want and then to pursue in the wrong way: he must have impulses which were originally good in order to be able to pervert them. But if he is bad he cannot supply himself either with good things to desire or with good impulses to pervert. He must be getting both from the Good Power. And if so, then he is not independent. He is part of the Good Power’s world. he was made either by the Good Power or by some power above them both.

Put it more simply still. To be bad, he must exist and have intelligence and will. But existence, intelligence and will are in themselves good. Therefore he must be getting them from the Good Power: even to be bad he must borrow or steal from his opponent. And do you now beg to see why Christianity has always said that the devil is a fallen angel? That is not a mere story for the children. It is a real recognition of the fact that evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers which enable evil to carry on are powers given it by goodness. All the things which enable a bad man to be effectively bad are in themselves good things-resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself. That is why Dualism, in a strict sense, will not work.

But I freely admit that real Christianity (as distinct from Christianity-and-water) goes much nearer to Dualism than people think. One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe–a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. The difference is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel. End of Lewis.

It would be interesting to compare Lewis’ “third thing in addition to the two Powers” (his 3rd paragraph) with the TAO (Ultimate) from which the twins of Yin and Yang arise. Yin Yang originate together. Thus, Yin and Yang spring arm in arm out of the TAO – out of the ULTIMATE – into existence. If Yin disappears, Yang disappears. Yang is the masculine principle and Yin is the feminine principle. They can’t live without each other. Even monks need a woman to get born – if not to get born again.

Judaism finds in ADAM (man) a masculine-feminine principle:  “Our sages, says Jacob Neusner, lay stress on the utter uniqueness of  Adam (man/woman, born androgynous [ andros - man; gyne - woman]). Sin was the result of the “mixed character” of Adam.  (Jacob Neusner, Christian Faith and the Bible of Judaism: The Judaic Encounter With Scripture, 1987, William B, Eerdmans,  p. 32). No prizes for guessing who – Andy or Gyne – was responsible for sin’s entry into the Garden of Eden.

Yin and Yang originate out of the overarching principle of the TAO, which is ULTIMATE Being. If this is the theory, then it follows that there is a Third (Lewis’s “third thing”) overarching principle that creates the other two, namely, Yin and Yang.

Yin produces (what we call) the “bad”, the negative, and Yang the “good”, the positive.” The problem is that “bad” cannot be conceived as anything other than “not good”. The question now is: “What rule did the TAO use to produce the opposites of Yin (“bad”) and Yang (“good”). It couldn’t be a “good” or “bad” rule because the TAO is supposed to transcend the good and the bad. If the TAO is either “good” or “bad” then the TAO could not have produced Yin (“bad”) or Yang (good) because this would mean that the TAO itself is either Yin or Yang. It would then follow that Yin or Yang created Yin and Yang – which is daft.

Wait! I’ve got it. Yang is the good, Yin is the bad – and the TAO is the UGLY.

CIAO for NIAO.

(See follow on post “Yin Yang, God and the devil: a cosmic chess game”).

Omnipotent Impotence: Bertrand Russell’s Free Man’s Worship

After spending a long life flitting between the clamourings of boisterous philosophers  – Hegel, Moore, Bradley, Plato, Wittgenstein – Bertrand Russell went to his “rest”.  At one period he was into mind-matter dualism, then into neutral monism (no, not “neural” monism – he had more than one brain cell). He ended his life a materialist. The distressing thing about materialism is that it cannot offer any consistent account of  experience. It’s all talk. Matter ends up as natter.

In his “Why I am not a Christian”, Russell rejects the Christian belief in an ultimate reality. That is not to say that he didn’t spend much of his life in the quest for ultimates. The two ultimate philosophical questions are, first, how do we know what we know?, and, second, “how should we live?” Russell was  only interested in the first. As for the second, he lived as he pleased.

He was never sure about how we know anything. Why then was he so certain that Christianity was wrong? Whatever his reason, it couldn’t have had anything to do with Christ’s claim that “I am the way the truth and the life,” because if Russell didn’t know what was true, or what truth was (except “my truth, your truth”) how could he be so sure that Christianity was not true? The reason is that he loathed all religion, and Christianity in particular. In the preface to his “critical essays”, he says, “I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as they are untrue.” Why, reasoned Russell, throw reason to the dogmas?” Religion, Russell said, neither advances civilization nor can it cure any of the world’s troubles. Besides, he says, there’s no life beyond the grave. Is there!

In his article “A Free man’s worship” (1903), he concludes: “Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way.”  Russell didn’t reject worship per se, for he worshipped the “empire of chance”. Out with the shrine not built with human hands[1] and in with the “shrine I have built,” says Russell. Here is Russell on the “free man’s worship”: “to worship at the shrine his own hands have built, undismayed by the empire of chance.” Imperious matter will have its chance. As Lady Catherine de Burgh imperiously chirped: “I will have my share.”[2]

“Brief and powerless is Man’s life (laments Russell); on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way.”  (Bertrand Russell’s, “A Free Man’s Worship”).

The free man caught up in the chance intrigues of “omnipotent matter” – omnipotently impotent. R.I.P?


[1]  So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.  For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,  nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything (Acts 17:22-25)

[2] Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

Of goads and nails

Alvin Plantinga, the Christian philosopher, did his graduate work at the University of Michigan. At Michigan he considered the most important philosophical question to be “what is the truth about this matter?”. His question was often greeted with disdain and as extremely naïve. The specific matter was not what mattered to the scoffers; what mattered was that one would think that truth about any matter mattered.

We use the mind in our socialising, working, playing and many other activities. But, what is the human mind ultimately meant for if not searching for truth – THE truth?

God holds people accountable not only for what they believe but also for how deeply they think about what they believe. My posts are considered by some to be too “intellectual”. Isn’t it possible that deep discussion is confused with “intellectual” (that is, “high”, “scholarly”, “academic”)? The Bible teaches – it commands – in many places to know and understand truth. Commands? Yes. How can Christians obey the command to understand when such a thing is not expected of the “world”? Because when Christ comes to in live them, the Spirit of truth comes to dwell within. If “within” then deep within.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you (John 14:15-17).”

The Spirit of truth is not like a magic potion, which, once ingested, automatically garnishes the gut with divine wisdom. In Christianity, eurekas are rare. The psalmist says “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope (Psalm 130:5). Why does he wait for the Lord? Because he knows that the Lord’s word is true, that his hope in the Lord will never be futile. How does he know that? Because he knows God’s word. How did he get to know God’s word? He obeyed it. And you can’t obey something you haven’t studied.

“Study (be diligent) to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Where is the word of truth (the word of God) to be found? In the One True Shepherd. Christians need to be like nails firmly fixed onto the words of the One True Shepherd – Jesus Christ.  if you are a Christian, how much of your time is devoted to studying the God’s word  – the Scriptures? How much time do you spend on books of which “there is no end?” (King Solomon).

“The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My [child], beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Ecclesiastes 12:11-12.